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Dancing in the Street

Dancing in the Street

There have been many lively, colorful streets lauded in popular song. I’ve walked a few of them, including Beale Street and Basin Street, mentioned below; New York’s Broadway; and San Francisco’s Haight & Ashbury.

“Kansas City” Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote “Kansas City” for Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, but it was in 1959 that Wilbert Harrison made it a huge hit. It’s his version that has lasted, although many have recorded it since (and every bar band in America has had it in their repertoire for more than fifty years).

Alas, Kansas City’s landmark 12th Street and Vine is only marked by a lonely street sign. It has been subsumed by a housing development. The music hub was actually 18th and Vine, a recognized jazz destination for years. It is now mostly museums.

beale

“Beale Street Blues” W.C. Handy was not so much a songwriter as a translator of black culture, a synthesizer of others’ music and words into hit songs like “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues” that resonated with Americans, black and white, in St. Louis and Memphis or in New York or Phoenix. His world was the black community entered around Memphis’s Beale Street, a place Preston Lauterbach, in his book Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, describes as “a nexus of black culture and power…unlike anyplace else in the world.”

Handy extracted the music for “Beale Street Blues” from the sounds he overheard, walking on Beale Street, of a saloon’s pianist playing away on his twelve-hour shift. He crafted the lyrics by pulling from the language he heard on Beale Street corners, and in its bars, boarding houses, and shops.

He extols this landmark Memphis street above all others: “I’ve seen the lights of gay Broadway / Old Market Street down by the Frisco Bay / I’ve strolled the Prado, gambled on the Bourse / But take my advice, friends, and see Beale Street first.”

handy satch

Louis Armstrong recorded a W.C. Handy tribute album shortly before Handy’s death, and it’s this album’s version of “Beale Street Blues,” played and sung with affection by a New Orleanian, that I love best.

“Basin Street Blues” Armstrong also covered, many times, this song of a notable street in his hometown. Written in 1926 by Spencer Williams, it was recorded two years later by Satch, and has been recorded thousands of times since, by Dixieland bands, pop vocalists, and mainstream jazzers.

jelly

Basin Street was the nexus of New Orleans’ red light district, Storyville. I look at the photographs of Storyville whores taken in the early 20th century by E.J. Bellocq and try to imagine what daily (or nightly) life was like there and then. Reading about Jelly Roll Morton in Mister Jelly Roll, I imagine myself leaning over the piano as he entertains the habitués of the brothel, the working girls and the rough and tough characters who provided them with a living.

On visits to New Orleans over the years, I’ve walked around the area that Storyville occupied. It is long gone, but nearly everywhere in the heart of that city there had still been some traces of the past in the brightly painted shotgun houses and the corner package stores. But I’m afraid that may not continue to be the case. In all of the ten-years-after-Katrina stories I’ve read, the prevailing observation is that the neighborhoods of New Orleans, from Treme to Bywater, are being gentrified. The “City that Care Forgot” is now a magnet for tech dot-com developers and hipster chic boutiquers. It’s giving me the Basin Street blues.

beat

“Dancing in the Street” A whole book about one pop song? It’s happened before, with the delightful book Louie, Louie. Mark Kurlansky devoted a volume called Ready for a Brand New Beat to the Martha Reeves and the Vandellas hit “Dancing in the Street.” It is as worthy of being the subject of a book as any pop song. It’s got a relentless “brand new beat,” it features Martha’s glistening vocals, and it signifies a time of change. It has a strong but unmenacing message that the younger generation is movin’ in.

My original, well-worn copy

My original, well-worn copy

“Street Fighting Man” The Stones take up the message where Martha and the Vandellas left off. No more dancing—it’s time for fighting in the streets. This is one song that blew my young mind when I first heard it. I was a Rolling Stones fan, but leaned toward The Beatles. And then I bought the Beggar’s Banquet album and my mind was opened up to the rough stuff. Keith Richards’ ringing guitar and Mick Jagger’s stinging vocals cut right through me. And it was a protest song I could belt along with, kidding myself that I was in some way a part of this big societal change taking place. I was just a kid in the suburbs. I wasn’t fighting or dancing in my street. I was playing tag and singing four-part harmony in my street. And in the house early on school nights.

bruce

Honorable Mentions: The Lonely Street of “Heartbreak Hotel”; the slinky harpsichorded mystery of Jim Morrison and The Doors’ “Love Street”; the many Bruce Springsteen song-stories of New Jersey streets, most notably “Born to Run”; the cowboy classic “Streets of Laredo,” with the parody verse: “You can see by my outfit that I am a cowboy / If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.”

Three Little Birds

Three Little Birds

It is certainly true that as one gets older, one tends to notice things like birds more; however, I’m still unable to identify more than a couple or three by sight or sound. I do plan to work on that. I’m much better at identifying the sounds of the many groups of the fifties that were named after birds: The Orioles, The Ravens, The Crows.

But this post is not about bird groups. It’s about songs of birds—birds of different colors.

“Bye-Bye, Blackbird” Dorothy Field and Jimmy McHugh wrote “Bye-Bye, Blackbird” in 1928, for Earl Carroll’s Vanities. It’s been recorded many times over the years, but the Mills Brothers’ version flies the highest.

The song’s a staple of my senior-center gigs. There’s a line those of us who perform at senior centers say about playing the Alzheimer’s facilities: “You only really have to know one song.” The Alzheimer’s residents often can’t remember what they’d done for a living day after day for years. But a few always know all of the song lyrics, and sing along, word for word. I’ve even had lyrics corrected by them a few times: “It’s ‘quiet place’ before ‘fireplace,’ not ‘fireplace’ then ‘quiet place.’” I had wondered whether one of them even belonged in the place, until I saw her with her son and his wife. She nodded and smiled as they introduced themselves.

The residents always like to hear “Bye-Bye, Blackbird,” and are lively, relatively speaking, when I play it. Once, I did it as my big finish: “Blackbird, blackbird, blackbird, bye-bye!” I hit a final chord, and was about to say bye-bye when a resident leaned back in his chair as I passed and asked, “Say, fella, do you know “Bye-Bye, Blackbird”?

mills bros

The Brothers Mills

“Yellow Bird” The Mills Brothers recorded another classic colorful-bird song, “Yellow Bird.” It is smooth and soothing–and sometimes smooth and soothing is just what one needs.

“Blackbird” Paul McCartney’s song is one of his greatest: a lyric dedicated to the Civil Rights movement accompanied by beautiful picked-guitar lines that young, budding guitarists like me all learned to play back in the day. (And, according to my guitar-teacher son-in-law, it’s still on his young students’ radar.)

Paul (and wife Linda) also had a pretty “Bluebird,” which ended up on Wings’ Band on the Run album.

Steve on the left; Neil, as usual looking the other way

Steve on the left; Neil, as usual looking the other way

“Bluebird” Buffalo Springfield packed a lot of fine work into their three albums. There was just too much creativity under one roof to keep it together. It’s hard to pick favorites, but two top candidates could both fall into the bird song category.

Stephen Stills’ “Bluebird” is, I think, his best contribution to Buffalo Springfield. It’s bright and accessible. There are several verses in a rock beat, peppered with Stills’ lead guitar, and then a super-compressed major seventh chord that rings. Then there’s a pause, after which a banjo enters, and the song is recommenced in a gentler, more rural setting. At the other end of the Springfield’s range was Neil Young’s gorgeous duet with strings, “Expecting to Fly.”

Also, on After the Goldrush, his third solo album, another lovely song, “Birds,” talks of flight and feathers. “Danger Bird,” from Neil’s Zuma, is more ominous, a Crazy Horse electrified ballad.

The Wolf in the henhouse

“The Red Rooster” The great Howlin’ Wolf bellowed this blues number in 1961. Wolf never had any trouble with authenticity—he was the rill thang, y’all. But I think he throws himself into this song because he’s not just singing about the red rooster—he is the red rooster, baby. One of many Howlin’ Wolf delights I have to hear every so often.

The Brothers Louvin

The Brothers Louvin

“Red Hen Hop” Charlie and Ira Louvin’s stock-in-trade were sweet ‘n’ sentimental waltzes, melodramatic (but still sweet) gospel songs, and “tragic songs of life” (those were sweet, too), which was the title of one of their albums. So how did this boogie-woogiein’ number make it onto a Louvin Brothers album? No telling, but it’s quite enjoyable to hear the Brothers rock out a little bit about the red hen that Wolf’s red rooster’s makin’ hop.

“When the Red, Red Robin Goes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along” Louis Armstrong did the definitive version of this cheerful song. When I was playing at a hospital, an aide asked if I’d sing a happy song for a cancer patient, a grizzled Vietnam vet. I chose this one, and we both ended up teary-eyed by the end of it. I hope he made it through.

Bob Marley

Bob Marley

Honorable Mentions: There are some great songs of birds, like “Expecting to Fly,” that do not mention the color of the bird. Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” is one. Often, when record nerds are playing “favorite albums of all time,” they forbid greatest hits anthologies. I can understand that—it’s a different type of album, since the artist didn’t conceive of its songs as part of a single work. But some collections, like the Legends anthology of Bob Marley masterpieces, are just too good to omit. One could say that a Bob Marley best-of isn’t necessary, because so many of his albums are listenable from beginning to end. That’s true of the great Exodus album, fully half of which, including “Three Little Birds,” is duplicated on Legends. Exodus was, in fact, named by Time magazine Best Album of the 20th Century. So, for the record nerds who make greatest hits albums ineligible for top-album lists, I’ll readily substitute Exodus for Legends.

Dennis Wilson’s song “Little Bird,” from the Beach Boys album Friends, doesn’t sound like a Dennis song—it sounds like a Brian song. I figure big bro Bri had a big hand in it, at least in the vocal harmony arrangement and key modulations. It’s short and sweet and remains a favorite from this favorite album.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: We have mentioned nice songs of black, blue, red, and yellow birds. But It’s a Beautiful Day’s “White Bird” seemed stuffy and drippy to me even back when I was a young and impressionable hippie wannabe. I can’t imagine I’d like it any better now that I’m an old and impressionable hippie wannabe. And that name is a precursor to later bad band names that are statements: Gene Loves Jezebel, Jimmy Hates Jazz, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah…

What’s Your Name? (part two)

What’s Your Name? (part two)

The song that gives this post and the previous post their name played a part in my musical life. “What’s Your Name?” was a hit recorded by Don and Juan. There was a brief period of time when, during my musician friends’ sing-along gatherings, we’d get on a kick and tag every song we sang with this song’s ending lines: “What’s your name? What’s your name? / Shooby-doo-wop-wa-ahhhhh.” From “My Girl” to “Helplessly Hoping,” every song ended that way. But I don’t drink like that anymore.

Now let’s continue our alphabetical look at songs with girls’ names in their titles.

el paso

Felina Felina is the “Mexican maiden” at the heart of Marty Robbins’ classic western ballad “El Paso.” The song was a family reunion staple, but only my cousin Steve could remember all of the many verses. I just played guitar and harmonized. But it’s a great story and an excellent song.

Georgia The song “Georgia On My Mind” was written with the state of Georgia on Hoagy Carmichael’s mind, and it became Georgia’s official state song in 1979. But it may also be interpreted as a longing love song about a woman. Ray Charles did the most well-known version, in 1960, giving it the patented Brother Ray treatment that eclipses all other versions. But it had been recorded by notables before that, including Louis Armstrong and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, who gave Carmichael the idea to write it back in 1930. And it has been recorded since 1960, by Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others.

mod sounds

It’s among the top fifty in Rolling Stone’s Best Songs of All Time list. It also made the grade to be included in Ted Gioia’s excellent book The Jazz Standards. Gioia notes that the songwriting co-credit went to Hoagy’s friend Stuart Gorrell, but that his role was only some minor tinkering with the lyrics. But Gorrell also suggested the title for Carmichael’s song “Star Dust.” That may make Gorrell “the most remarkable dabbler in pop song history,” writes Gioia. “He only contributed to two songs, but they became two of the biggest hits of the century.”

Hannah My H song has two connections to my G song: Ray Charles had a 1960 hit with it, and it’s about Georgia. Going way back to 1924, Jack Yellen, Bob Bigelow, and Charles Bates came up with a nice little number about “a gal who loves to see men suffer.” In addition to Ray, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald did memorable covers of “Hard-Hearted Hanna (The Vamp of Savannah).”

The version that is the most fun (and therefore, with this type of song, the best) was recorded back in the year the song came out by Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards. Ike is the guy to sing lyrics like: “An evening spent with Hannah sittin’ on your knees is like travelin’ through Alaska in your BVDs.”

weavers

Irene “Good Night, Irene” was one of the very first songs from the folk genre to go pop. Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter had written the song in 1933. That song and other compositions reportedly got Lead Belly early release from prison. In 1950, the folk act The Weavers, which included the late Pete Seeger, was spotted in a New York music venue by Decca arranger Gordon Jenkins. He brought them in to record “Good Night, Irene” and it became a surprise hit.

I just finished a fine book, The B-Side, about the American Songbook era and how it fizzled as music became more rhythm-based and diverse, with country-and-western, rhythm-and-blues, and folk songwriters and performers gaining exposure to wider audiences. A hero of the book is Frank Sinatra and the main villain is Sinatra’s nemesis, Columbia Records A&R man Mitch Miller. Miller, who was called The Beard because of his goatee, had Sinatra under contract during Frank’s low period in the early fifties. The Beard forced Old Blue Eyes to sing pop songs like “Good Night, Irene” that were not in his wheelhouse. Frank got fed up, bolted to Capitol, recorded a string of pop albums and singles that were groundbreaking, and never spoke to Mitch Miller again.

b side

Janie Two great rock songs are about girls named Janie. “Janie Jones” was the first song on The Clash’s debut album in 1977. It’s about the rut of a boring job and what is done to relieve the boredom. There are drugs a-plenty, but Janie Jones is a hooker who plays her own part in the singer’s escape from the workaday world. One of their best.

My favorite Aerosmith song is “Janie’s Got a Gun.” Janie is an abused girl who goes after the abuser—her father. Packs quite a message, but also the music is as interesting and dynamic as anything the band ever did.

Honorable Mentions: Fancy Does The Kinks’ trippy song “Fancy” refer to a particular girl? I really don’t know, but I find the song mesmerizing.

Grizelda When I was a young Monkees fan, I found the Peter Tork lark “Auntie Grizelda” delightful. It’s not a good song, and Grizelda is not such a good name. I’ve only met one person named Grizelda. She went by a nickname and threatened with harm anyone who knew her real name not to reveal it. Perfectly understandable.

louis handy

Hagar Louis Armstrong does a wonderful rendition of W.C. Handy’s classic song “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” on his Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy album. He’s having fun throughout this rollicking album, but he really gets down with Aunt Hagar.

Ida Red One of my favorites by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys is the steppy number about “Ida Red,” about whom the singer is “a plumb fool.” Of course he is. To steal from Smucker’s and SNL, “With a name like Ida Red, she’s got to be good.”

malicool

Jackie Thelonious Monk’s niece Jackie Smith gives this 1959 Monk tune its name. Monk’s official website notes that the song “became a regular part of the Monk quartet’s live repertoire.” Malicool, the 2006 meeting of Malian kora player Toumane Diabate and American trombonist Roswell Rudd, included a wonderful cross-cultural recording of “Jackie-ing”—the only Monk cover I know of that features the kora.

Dream Jukebox: Both of the Janie songs are among the songs on my iPod running playlists. So’s the Malicool “Jackie-ing.”

Get Happy

Get Happy

We got sad last time. Now, let’s get happy!

Louis Armstrong was the happiest performer in all of American pop music. (On stage and on record, anyway.) In 1929, his version of “When You’re Smiling” helped cheer the country through the Great Depression. If Satchmo couldn’t do it, then who could? In 1930, “Get Happy,” “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” were all big hits. Music was put to use to make life tolerable, to give people a little optimism. It’s hard to imagine living through the Great Depression. My parents both did, in Oklahoma, no less. They never talked about it.

louis 2

Music has always served the function of bringing a little happiness to all the poor saps trying to make it through each day, whether in the Great Depression, in a not-so-great-depression, or just in a yen to shake a tailfeather.

It’s unfortunate that Bobby McFerrin is always remembered as the guy who did “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It’s great that he had a big hit, and the song is a nice bit of fluff (and made Mr. McFerrin quite happy, monetarily). Bobby McFerrin, though, has written and performed some other works that are very impressive, very ambitious—magnum opuses compared to the “Don’t Worry” trifle. Vocabularies is probably his most ambitious work so far, but my personal favorite is the album CircleSongs, in which Mr. McF assembles eight great vocalists, male and female, for some hypnotic vocalized-but-wordless musical adventures. Each one is a different style of music but they all fit together as a package. It’s what Bobby McFerrin should be remembered for. And as works involving the community, cooperation, and dependence of a choral group, the songs are pure happiness.

bobbo

Nancy Wilson was at her most adventurous on the 1962 album Nancy Wilson/ Cannonball Adderley. Cannon and company propelled Ms. Wilson into some new, jazzier territory, bringing out (but never crowding out) her fine, flexible voice. An unlikely choice to cover was “Happy Talk,” the ditty from the 1949 musical South Pacific. Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day also covered the song, but played it pretty straight. Nancy Wilson, with the help of Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Joe Zawinul, and the band, transformed the trifle into something swingin’ and engaging. Happy music! For balance, they also include “Little Unhappy Boy” in the album’s line-up.

Cannonball Adderley

Cannonball Adderley

The last five of the twelve songs on the Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley CD (or side two of the LP) are instrumentals—no Nancy. I’m not sure why she took a rest. As much as I enjoy listening to the Adderley bands in all their instrumental incarnations, I could’ve used a little more of this pairing with Nancy Wilson.

Nancy Wilson

Nancy Wilson

Ms. Wilson recorded another great song of happiness, “How Glad I Am,” the following year and won a Grammy for it.

I will never stop pushing Paolo Conte on my friends, even though he sings in Italian 90% of the time (and most of the rest is in French). It doesn’t matter that we don’t understand what he’s saying; it’s the music, the feel of the rhythms and the musicians that’s the draw. Pretend it’s instrumental. Conte’s lyrics are pretty impressionistic anyway—he’s going for a feeling.

His song “Happy Feet” does have an English title and chorus: “Happy feet, ta-dah-tah / Happy feet, ta-dah-tah / Happy feet, oh, oh, I love it.” (See, you wouldn’t be missing much if it was in Italian.) The song’s sub-title is “musica per i vostri piedi, madame” (“Music for Your Feet, Madame”). It is a very happy song, as many of Paolo’s up-tempo numbers are. It first appeared on an album from 1990 called Parole d’amore scritte a machina. It means Words of love written by a machine.

parole

The Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over” got me in a bit of trouble in elementary school. A couple of friends and I, during an indoor recess period, got a little too happy. We began singing the then-current DC5 hit and mimicking the essential drum punctuation with our feet: “And I’m feelin’ (stomp-stomp) glad all over / Yes, I’m (stomp-stomp) glad all over…” We were so carried away—so happy—that we were completely surprised by our exasperated teacher, who’d been unsuccessfully trying to get our attention. She made the three of us stand in front of our lockers while our classmates paraded past us for lunch.

Honorable Mention: One could not discuss happy songs without including the ubiquitous Pharrell Williams song “Happy.” It’s a catchy song, but is quickly becoming a “quota song” (heard enough for a lifetime). Many other folks have already reached their quota with it. I saw a sign on a business’s employee bulletin board recently. It read, “No one has played ‘Happy’ in this building for: ____ days. Keep the dream alive!” They were up to 23 days.

An earlier song called “Happy” should also be mentioned. The Stones let Keith sing it, and it became a hit—at #22 pop in 1972.

I also should note two sixties pop-rock songs, The Who’s “Happy Jack” and its frolicking bass-and-guitar riffs (and another Keith having a ball on the tom-toms), and the feel-good “Happy Together” by The Turtles.

Songs I Like to Sing: Whenever I play gigs for seniors, “You Are My Sunshine,” the ‘30s standard credited to Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis (who apparently bought the song rights from true writer Paul Rice), residents always sing along, filled with joyful abandon. It is the oddest of popular songs. Its chorus is so bright and cheerful. And then come the verses, which also sound joyous, musically—but the lyrics are anything but. “The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamed I held you in my arms / When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken / So I hung my head and I cried.” They sound like they ought to be matched with mournful, minor-key chords, instead of bouncing along in a C-to-G-to-D frolic. “If you leave me for another, you will always regret that day,” we all sing, with bright expressions on our faces, and then right back into “Oh, you are my sunshine, my only sunshine!” C’mon, everybody!

Great Song Title: There was at least one occasion that a record’s title was the only reason I bought it: “Happy Being Fat.” I had to hear what that 45 sounded like—and it was in a three-for-a-dollar bin at Woolworth’s, so it wasn’t much of a gamble, even for a kid on an allowance. The 1963 record was by Big Dee Irwin. I hadn’t heard of him, but later found out he’d had a minor hit with a cover of “Swingin’ on a Star” with Little “Locomotion” Eva. I also learned that Big Dee had changed his name from DiFosco T. Ervin, which sounds to me like the name of a Li’l Abner character.

 

What happy songs brighten your day? Any happy songs that make you mad?

My True Story

My True Story

If I could pin down any doo-wop song as my favorite, it would be The Jive Five’s “My True Story.” Its verse is nothing special; it follows the usual “ice-cream changes” that 90+% of doo-wop songs do (you know: C down to A-minor, to F and then G, like “Heart and Soul”). But each chorus’s repeated falsetto up-swoop is rapturous, and I feel like I could listen to it forever. I find myself whistling it, long after listening to it.

The “true story” involves a love triangle that includes a guy named Earl, which not only conveniently rhymes with “girl” but also happens to be the first name of quite a few doo-wop singers (though not any of the Jive Five). The sad story that makes the singer “cry, cry, cry” is a sensitive one for him. Taking off on the Dragnet intro, he sings, “The names have been changed, dear, to protect you and I.” (As a grammar nerd, I can’t help but sing “me” to myself every time I hear the line. But as a doo-wop fan, I un-correct my correction, quickly enough not to screw up the meter.)

Another tragic autobiographical miniature is “The Story of Wild Man Fischer,” and it really is his true story. Larry “Wild Man” Fischer was a mentally unstable street performer discovered by (and maybe exploited by?) Frank Zappa in the late ‘60s. His sad tale, sung sans accompaniment, as all of his best little gems were, is a series of one-liners tracing a decline: “In the year of 1965, I was committed to a mental institution.” Each of these one-line intros is followed by a frantic spoken rant that is then quickly modulated back to the next year’s line. “In the year of 1966, I was committed to a mental institution again.” A little disturbing to listen to, but also hard to turn off.

The thing about Wild Man Fischer is that, although it is a guilty, at times uncomfortable pleasure to listen to this unhinged fellow laying it all out on tape, many of his songs are catchy as hell. They maybe could’ve been hits if they’d been developed and spruced up a bit and—no, what am I saying? Their charm is their nakedness, just the Wild Man letting go. A couple of them, “Monkeys Versus Donkeys” and “Which Way Did the Freaks Go?,” were on my kids’ most-requested-record list when they were young. They sang along, mimicking Wild Man’s phrasing and inventing appropriate dance moves. Fond memories, thanks to the late Larry Fischer.

odeon

Randy Newman often sings his twisted tales in first person, but we know that he’s at a reasonably sane remove, just playing characters—sometimes buffoons, sometimes jerks, sometimes lost souls. But in the song “My Life is Good,” (from Trouble in Paradise, 1983), the pompous ass at its center is addressed by name: “Rand.” Newman sings that “Mr. Bruce Springsteen” had a proposition for him. “I’ll tell you what he said to me. / He said, ‘Rand, I’m tired. Why don’t you be The Boss for a while?’” Rand(y), of course, is putting us on, but we wonder just how much. I first heard the song when it was new, on the excellent video Randy Newman at the Odeon. It is quite an entertaining performance, alarmingly convincing. Just play-acting. Right, Rand?

Avenging Andy

Avenging Andy

Andy Pratt came out with several nice albums in the seventies, but his only brush with the Billboard Top 100 came from his debut, Andy Pratt, in 1973. The first-person narrative “Avenging Annie” is an odd song, in which the companion of “Pretty Boy Floyd, the outlaw” boasts of being “the avenger of womanhood.” Andy-as-Annie uses a bright falsetto on the choruses, but the verses are in the baritone range, and on the line “So I joined up with my outlaw, and headed for California,” he (she?) gets down to a bass F#. I love the song, but I’m not surprised it only got to #78 on Billboard.

Favorite Music Memoirs: I love to read almost as much as I love to make and listen to music. Consequently, good books about lives in music are a real joy. The best of these tend to be books by writers about great musicians, since most musicians, unfortunately, aren’t great writers. But some artists have still managed to do more with their own stories than just lay out the facts. (However, several of those listed here got assists from “real writers.”)

Mezz Mezzrow's True Story

Mezz Mezzrow’s True Story

  • Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow—Mezz was not a great musician, but he has a great story. He was a white Jewish Chicagoan who loved black culture and immersed himself in it—basically becoming black. His entire book is written in hepcat language, and is a delight.
  • My Life in New Orleans by Louis Armstrong—Satchmo also has a great story to tell, and paints a fascinating picture of the New Orleans neighborhood where he came of age.
  • Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan—This book’s randomness can be a little bit frustrating. Bob, the song and dance man, picks and chooses bits from his kaleidoscopic life—with all of his idiosyncrasies on display. In his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column, Nick Hornby writes, “In fact, after reading the book, you realize that Dylan isn’t willfully obtuse or artful in any way—it’s just who he is and how his mind works.” Ready for Volume Two!
Woody's True Story

Woody’s True Story

  • Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie—You can hear Woody’s plain Okie voice on every page of this peripatetic memoir.
  • Life by Keith Richards—OK, not great lit, but Keef captures the flavor of life with Mick, the other Stones, and the ladies and rivals.
Ms. O'Day's True Story

Ms. O’Day’s True Story

  • High Times, Hard Times by Anita O’Day—This one’s a look at the ups (from great performance experiences and heroin highs) and downs (from not-s-great shows and heroin busts), as well as a look at the life of a woman in a male-dominated enterprise.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “I Write the Songs.” In a clunky way, the lyrics really seem to be more about the power of music, but they sound pretty self-aggrandizing. I hated it right out of the gate. On top of that, this song in first person about writing songs was introduced to the world by Barry Manilow—but he didn’t write it!

The writer who committed this assault was Bruce Johnston, Brian Wilson’s post-crackup stand-in in The Beach Boys, first on tour and later to augment the studio recordings. The Boys never recorded “I Write the Songs,” but they did put another Bruce Johnston drippy-fest, “Disney Girls,” on their Surf’s Up album. It was a hit for Art Garfunkel and for the dreaded Captain and Tennille. (By the way, why in the world does spell-check recognize and approve Tennille but not Thelonious? A damn shame.)

Dream Jukebox Candidate: The splendid “My True Story” by The Jive Five

What autobiographical songs resonate with you? Which music memoirs have you enjoyed?

Autumn Almanac

Autumn Almanac

I like to announce, over softly picked minor chords, that my group is about to sing a beautiful song for all the lovers out there called (and I over-exaggerate bad French) “‘Luh fweel mohrt,’ or, in English, ‘The Dead Leaves.’”

Yes, that’s the direct translation of the French name of the standard we know as “Autumn Leaves.” It is an international song. Hungarian Joseph Kosma composed “Les feuilles mortes” in 1946 for a French film. Frenchman Jacques Prevert wrote French lyrics for it. Then in 1951, along came American Johnny Mercer, who wrote English lyrics and got his most profitable song ever out of the deal. Our group does the Mercer lyrics, not the Prevert, and after the slow intro, we ramp up the tempo in a Latin-beat. Maybe we need Spanish lyrics.

The biggest hit version was sans lyrics: Roger Williams’ EZ-listening piano treatment, full of cascades representing all those falling leaves that drift by the window. It is the epitome of elevator music, and reached number 1 in 1955. Five other artists had a hit with “Autumn Leaves” in ’55. Rog had another stab at it ten years later, as “Autumn Leaves—1965.” That time he only got to #92 on the chart.

cannon

My favorite version is an instrumental featuring the saxophone of Cannonball Adderley. It’s on Cannon’s 1958 album Somethin’ Else, which like most Cannonball Adderley, is somethin’ else. Miles Davis joins Adderley on the album, which preceded their collaboration on Kind of Blue. Hank Jones contributes fine piano work.

There are not nearly as many autumn songs as there are winter, spring, or, especially, summer songs. But there is another great standard of autumn, Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York.” It continues, a year later, the theme Duke started with “April in Paris” in 1933. Frank Sinatra was the first singer I heard do the song. His 1949 hit lodged it in the American popular songbook, after it had languished for fifteen years, but the version I had was recorded by Frank ten years after that, for the album Come Fly with Me. It’s masterfully sung, of course. Billie Holiday is among the many fine vocalists who followed Sinatra’s lead and recorded the song. (Sinatra also recorded a nice “Autumn Leaves.”)

sinatra fly

Above all recordings of the song, I like the 1957 session in which Ella Fitzgerald meets up with Louis Armstrong. We get Ella first, singing through it with her pure voice. Louis is up next, and I am reminded of just how effective he could be singing sensitive ballads. (“That Lucky Old Sun,” anyone?) Louis follows his vocalized verses with some trumpet, and then we hear Ella again, this time backed by some subtle asides from Louis. It’s a real treat to hear these two together.

And, in honor of singer-actress Polly Bergen, who recently died, I should point out that she also recorded a nice, smooth version of “Autumn in New York.”

Sinatra did another great autumnal song, “Indian Summer,” fronting Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra. It’s nicely done, but an instrumental version featuring the wonderful clarinet of Sidney Bechet is my preferred version; in fact, Bechet’s “Indian Summer” is probably only topped by his take on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

Sidney Bechet Autobiography

Sidney Bechet Autobiography

Years ago, using The Jazz and Blues Lovers’ Guide to the U.S., my wife and I located the childhood home of Bechet in New Orleans’ 7th Ward. We pulled up in front and I got out to take a picture. I was instantly surrounded by a group of boys on bicycles demanding payment from me, saying they knew I was from some magazine. I got back in the car, drove around the neighborhood a few times and then swooped back by and got the shot from my car window. That historic house has since been demolished by the city as part of the post-Katrina clean-up.

The Kinks’ “Autumn Almanac” made it to #3 in the UK in 1967, but it didn’t even dent the charts here in the U.S. Silly Americans! It’s a whirlwind of a little pop number, maybe too much for American radio. It has a steady, up-tempo beat. It has sing-along parts—some “la-la-la” sections and a rousing “Yes, yes, yes, it’s my autumn almanac!” chorus. It’s got verses sung by Ray Davies in his sweet, old English gentleman voice. “Tea and toasted, buttered currants can’t compensate for lack of sun / Because the summer’s all gone.” And it’s got a fade-out in 6/4 that’s yet another sing-along section. Shoulda been a stateside hit, too!

"Autumn Almanac" is one of The Kink Kronikles

“Autumn Almanac” is one of The Kink Kronikles

Neil Young’s 1992 song “Harvest Moon” figures into one of my dearest performing memories. It was the favorite song of a good friend’s bride-to-be. As a proposal setting, my friend arranged with another friend to get the cavernous Union Station Ballroom for an hour or so one early evening. A wedding had taken place earlier in the day, and there were deflated balloons, empty plastic flute glasses, and confetti everywhere. In a little nook in a far corner of the room, my friend had placed a small table and two chairs, and an ice bucket containing a chilling bottle of wine.

He instructed me to wait, hidden behind a column, at the top of the grand marble stairway that led up to the ballroom. When I saw Friend and Lady-Friend enter, I started playing and singing “Harvest Moon,” as instructed. The pair ascended the stairs and walked arm-in-arm through the remains of the earlier celebration to the table set-up, with their troubadour following, strumming and singing. It was quite a magic moment.

She accepted, and they’re still married, fifteen years later.

An earlier song of the harvest moon was written by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth. “Shine On, Harvest Moon” has endured as a great sing-along for more than 100 years. When I do it at the senior centers, everyone always knows all of the words. I let the audience sing “since January, February, June, or July” without me. Since the last words of the song are “For me and my gal,” I slide right into the song of that name, another sing-along standard just under the century mark. It was written by Edgar Leslie, Ray Goetz, and George W. Meyer for the musical Here and There. Judy Garland and Gene Kelly sang it together on film in the movie For Me and My Gal, in 1942. It was Gene’s film debut and was directed by Busby Berkeley. “Everybody’s been knowing, to a wedding we’re going.”

smiley

Honorable Mention: “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” (also known as “The Woody Woodpecker Symphony”) is an oddity even among its off-the-wall companions on The Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile. It has a Volga-boatmen quality to it, or maybe of the entrance song of the Winged Monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.

Dream Jukebox: After listening again to The Kinks’ “Autumn Almanac,” I know it deserves a place on the Dream Box, aside “Sunny Afternoon,” “Waterloo Sunset,” and “Dead End Street.”

 

Any songs of autumn help you make the seasonal transition?

You Wear It Well

You Wear It Well

Dan Hicks sang in “My Old-Timey Baby” of being drawn to an old-fashioned gal who was “her own grandmother,” with a velvet dress that hung below her knees. Dan opens the song with a little repartee with his retro-looking pair of lady harmonizers, The Lickettes:

Dan: My, you girls are sure lookin’ nice tonight.

Lickettes: Thanks, Dan!

Dan: Yeah, you remind me of a girl who lives in my apartment complex.

Lickettes: Oh, really?

Dan: Yeah, I don’t know where she does her shoppin’, but, man, what style!

Hicks, with Lickettes

Hicks, with Lickettes

As music styles have changed, 0f course, so have styles of dress.

  • 1919–We had plain and simple “Alice Blue Gown,” from the musical Irene, by Joseph McCarthy (not that one) and Harry A. Tierney.
  • 1930–In the flapper era, there were the fancy duds being gawked at in “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (more on that below).
  • 1946–It was back to basics, with “A Gal in Calico” (Leo Robin and Arthur Schwartz).
  • 1955–There followed the racier “Blue Suede Shoes” (Carl Perkins). Calico gowns were traded in for “Short Shorts” (1957—sung by the proudly liberated Royal Teens).
  • 1964–More fancy footwear, with “Hi-Heel Sneakers” (written by Robert Higgenbotham and sung by Jerry Lee Lewis).  There was also an “Itsy-Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” (sung by an approving Brian Hyland in 1960).
  • 1971–James Brown honored “Hot Pants.” “Electric boots and a mohair suit” followed.

The new millennium brought us Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” No more gingham and taffeta, satin and silk, or disco macramé—or, really, clothes.

"A Gal in Calico" sheet music

  “A Gal in Calico” sheet music

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

disco macrame

I recently had to learn the Irving Berlin number “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” It is such a tightly constructed, syncopated song that a singer cannot miss or misplace one syllable or it’s all thrown off. It is a marvel. Alec Wilder referred to it in American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950 (1972) as “the most complex and provocative I’ve ever come upon.” And that from an untrained, self-taught immigrant song plugger!

The song was introduced by Harry Richman in the film Puttin’ on the Ritz in 1930. That year, the popular song was not only a hit for Richman, but for Earl Burtnett and Leo Reisman, as well. Fred Astaire sang and danced the number in the 1946 film Blue Skies. That’s the version most people remember. But who can forget the 1983 revival by Dutch singer Taco? It was his only American hit, but it made its composer, Irving Berlin, the oldest to ever make the Billboard top ten. A version that’s even funnier than Taco’s is the Frankenstein-as-vaudevillian bit performed by Peter Boyle in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. I’m not sure how to spell what Boyle sings, but it’s a fine approximation of the way a hulking, sub-literate monster would sing “Puttin’ on the Ritz!” Boyle gets a little fancy footwork in, too.

irving

“Ritz” addresses with a mixture of envy and disdain the high-class, fashionable Park Avenue New Yorkers who impress with their “high hats and Arrowed collars” and their “day coat, pants with stripes, and cutaway coat.” Fancy hobnobbers you love to hate. But, speaking of changing fashion, the original 1930 lyrics referred to Lenox Avenue, “where Harlem sits,” not Park Avenue, “where fashion sits.” For Astaire’s ’46 version, references to Harlem and its “bevy of browns” were written out. The bridge in 1930 made reference to “Lulubelle” and not to Gary Cooper, who at that time had appeared in several movies but was not a matinee idol.

If you want to listen to some music that evokes the style of Harlem in the ‘30s, Duke Ellington’s got it. His 1929 song “The Dicty Glide” is all class and style—dicty being the black Harlem Renaissance term for sophistication, with a bit of snobbery. I can just picture the high-class folks parading their bling, struttin’ their stuff. Clarinetist Don Byron recreated the song to perfection on his 1996 album Bug Music, along with other playful jazz numbers from Duke, Raymond Scott, and John Kirby.   It is a delight, as all the dicty folk know.

Ellington wrote the music for a song that falls at the other end of the fashion spectrum, “Brown-Skinned Gal in a Calico Gown.” This captivating young lady is “A camp-town tune at a barbecue, an old-fashioned curtsy and a how dee ya do / A tintype from somebody’s locket.” Another old-timey baby the singer can’t wait to doll up a little bit.

louis wc

A favorite fashion statement appeared even earlier, in the W.C. Handy standard “The Saint Louis Blues.” In the B part of the song, the lyrics describe the St. Louis woman, decked out with “all her diamond rings,” asserting that “if it wasn’t for powder and her store-bought hair,” she “wouldn’t go nowhere.” Now ain’t that just like a St. Louis woman?

First recorded in 1915, it has been covered by legions of male and female singers ever since, most notably by the great Bessie Smith, backed by Louis Armstrong on cornet, in 1925.   Satch himself recorded vocal versions of the song. Mr. Handy was still receiving $25,000 in royalties for the song at the time of his death, 43 years after that first record. Some of the other artists who’ve kept the royalties coming include Bob Wills, The Boswell Sisters, Chet Atkins, and Stevie Wonder. That’s a durable song!

In the sixties there was no better social commentator than Ray Davies. The Kinks’ 1966 song “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” is all about the efforts of his peers in the pop rock scene to impress their fans with their “Carnabetian” mod fashion sense. “One week he’s in polka-dots; the next week he’s in stripes.” Ray throws in a little ooh-la-la when he describes our Mod “pulling his frilly nylon panties right up tight.” Wonder who he was talking about there?

Honorable Mention: David Bowie recorded a nice little song called “Fashion” in 1980. It seemed to be an anti-fashion statement, but with a fashionably hip funky beat and Robert Fripp’s ultra-hip psycho guitar lines. It only reached #70 on Billboard. (Per its theme, Mr. Bowie may not have wanted more record sales for this one.)

Great Song Title: Frank Zappa’s “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance,” from the loopy Mothers masterpiece We’re Only in It for the Money, not only has a great, to-the-point title but has a lyric that makes a memorable fashion statement: “Who cares if you’re so poor you can’t afford to buy a pair of mod, au-go-go, stretch elastic pants?”

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