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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…

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like holiday madness, and so it’s time for “The Twelve Recordings of Christmas,” my twelve favorite versions of holiday songs.

“Christmas Time Is Here” This centerpiece song from the A Charlie Brown Christmas, which has aired annually for fifty years, is one I truly never tire of. As much as I love the version sung by the children, I love even more the instrumental version by the song’s composer, Vince Guaraldi, and his trio. “Linus and Lucy,” introduced in the Christmas special but in many Charlie Brown programs over the years, is also a pretty great Guaraldi number.

beachies

“Little Saint Nick” There are two Christmas albums that I consider essential to my holiday season. One is The Beach Boys Christmas album. It’s got the great Beach Boys harmony end to end, but Brian Wilson also composed a couple of gems for the album. “Little Saint Nick,” with non-holiday words, could’ve been among their biggest singles.

mills bros

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” The Mills Brothers’ Merry Christmas album is my other standby, a sentimental favorite, chock full o’ holiday harmonies. It’s all good, but this leadoff number is the one that lingers into the new year.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” For a few years, the identity of the performer on this recording I howled at annually was unknown to me. The cassette tape a friend had given me was just labeled “Drunk Lady Christmas.” I later found out, through my daughter’s search efforts, that the “drunk lady” was Vegas entertainer Fay McKay. In her outrageous routine, the presents she’s being given, after the partridge in the pear tree, are booze: Cutty Sarks, dry martinis, bloody Marys. By the time she gets to twelve, she’s totally sloshed. Her words are so slurred you can barely make them out; she’s giggling, crying, belching, cheering, and breaking into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

It's beginning to look a lot like Sufjan.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Sufjan.

“Angels We Have Heard on High” It’s a version with words and music by Sufjan Stevens—but “based on the original hymn.” It begins like the hymn: “Angels we have heard on high.” But the next line is “Singing for the Earth’s attention,” and right away it’s something completely different, replete with flying saucers, and completely Sufjan Stevens. This twee overachiever has produced two five-CD boxed sets of Christmas songs, both familiar-but-rearranged and original. The set Silver & Gold, from 2012, features his “Angels We Have Heard on High,” plus an ominous, minor-key “Let It Snow,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Stevens’ own “Mr. Frosty Man,” and an exhausting array of others.

“White Christmas” The Drifters’ jacked-up, outlandish doo-wop/R&B treatment of this smooth Irving Berlin ballad was considered blasphemous by many when it came out in ‘54, but now can be heard on shopping center Muzak everywhere. It’s still an annual treat to hear bassman Bill Pinkney sing through it, followed by Clyde McPhatter wailing it home. It’s the most-recorded Christmas song, and most versions respect the subdued Bing Crosby delivery, but it’s The Drifters I always come back to.

“Winter Wonderland” My favorite Christmas song to sing is this one, in three-part harmony. For years, I was in a trio that sang carols in malls, at parties, and at events. I recall one occasion, happily harmonizing “Winter Wonderland” for a few families in a mall department store’s Kitchenware area, and noticing a scowling sales clerk approaching us, brandishing a meat cleaver. We moved away quickly, as did the horrified families, and promptly notified management. Peace on Earth! Good will to men! The Phil Spector wall-of-sound recording of Darlene Love is my favorite, with Dino’s version a close second.

"Hurry down the chimney tonight."

“Hurry down the chimney tonight.”

“Santa Baby” So many people know the great Eartha Kitt for only one song, this naughty-but-nice holiday favorite. Many others have recorded it, but Ms. Kitt’s original 1953 version was so perfect that every other one is an imitation.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote this one for Judy Garland to sing in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis. She does a superb job of it in the movie that the many fine subsequent versions can’t top.

“Remember (Christmas)” I never think of Harry Nilsson’s beautiful song from Son of Schmilsson as a holiday number, but it is one of my favorite recordings by one of my favorite singer-songwriters. And it is a Christmas song—so it goes on the list.

“River” Ditto for Joni Mitchell’s beautiful ballad from Blue. It ain’t the kind of song you bring out at a cozy holiday sing-along, but it is a great recording that happens to take place at Christmastime. “It’s comin’ on Christmas, they’re cuttin’ down trees.”

“O Holy Night” Most commercial recordings are straight and solemn—often delivered with passion, I’m sure, but coming out cold. The Mills Brothers got it right, but my favorite recording of this song is actually a home recording of my trio, featuring Debbie on the lead vocal and Johnny and me on harmonies. On one occasion, our trio was singing at a country club, when an elderly man turned blue and fell out of his chair with a heart attack, right in front of us. I always remember it as being during this song, right when we sing “Fall on your knees.” But that’s too morbidly coincidental. It probably actually happened during something like “Rudolph” or “Deck the Halls.”

Honorable Mention: Thelonious Monk wrote a holiday song, “A Merrier Christmas,” but his only recording of it, which I’ve never heard, was evidently privately done at the home of his friend and patron Pannonica de Koenigswarter. And he sings it! I need to hear that recording.

natella

Quota Songs: I’ve reached my quota with Nat, Frank, Ella, although they made notably fine recordings of holiday music, and I’ve loved ‘em all. I don’t mind listening to them around the holidays, but I no longer seek them out.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was butchered, along with a passel of other holiday songs, by Bob Dylan on his Christmas in the Heart album. The songs are so awful and the album cover so trite that I have no doubt this was a put-on. (But now he’s releasing an album of covers of standards that appears to be serious. Hmmm.)

 

Holiday favorites, anyone?

Sleepy Head

Sleepy Head

John Lennon was responsible for two of the finest songs of sleepiness in pop music. And, coincidentally, they are in succession, alphabetically, in the Beatles canon. “I’m Only Sleeping” is a trippy number, drenched in fatigue, complete with a guitar ride played backward for optimum sleepwalk effect. It sustains the atmosphere from beginning to end.

The verse sections of the White Album Beatle song “I’m So Tired” are equally apt, and are among the best creations in all of The Beatles’ music. Lennon’s voice sets the mood of exasperated exhaustion, and the instruments seem as though they’re being dragged through the chord changes, barely making it to the last bar of each phrase. Although it’s definitely not a lullaby (like “Good Night” on the other side of The Beatles, disc 2), up until the last half of the second verse it is languorous, the sound of a frustrated insomniac. But then comes the bridge, and the mood changes. It becomes a pleading love song, with trite lyrics and easy rhymes, and loses its subtlety and its languor. It’s nice to have dynamics and tension between the A part and the B part of a song, a release, but “I’m So Tired” would be more perfect if it had no B part at all. Or maybe a trippy backward guitar ride.

(And, speaking of the Beatles’ White Album, I found a 45 recently that was a cover of one of its songs, “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da.” It had some promise to be pretty weird, or even pretty wonderful, because the singer was Arthur Conley, whose claim to fame is the classic “Sweet Soul Music.” But, alas, it’s tepid. Arthur does not sound like Mr. Sweet Soul Music, nor does the song really sound much like “Ob-la-di.” Another candidate for a Beatles’ Butchered Covers collection.)

obladi

But let’s reach back for an earlier sleep number, one from The Mills Brothers, a venerable act I had the opportunity to see when I was a mere lad.

The Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel was in Downtown Dallas. “Downtown Dallas” was a magical place to me when I was a kid. My mom told me that when our family was traveling I’d get homesick and say, “I wanna go to Downtown Dallas.” No matter that we didn’t live downtown, or even in Dallas; we lived in a suburb. But I wanted to go home to Downtown Dallas.

In 1969, when the Venetian Room opened, I was a teenager too young to appreciate their brand of entertainer. I was listening to a lot of Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane and Mungo Jerry while Tony Bennett and Lou Rawls and Miss Peggy Lee were gracing that local stage. Within twenty years, as times changed, the Venetian discontinued its big-name line-ups. The Dallas history journal Legacies quotes Tina Turner, who performed there in the ‘80s, as saying the place had become “a graveyard for burnt-out entertainers.”

I did see two classic shows there in the late ‘70s, though, thanks to the fact that my friend and duo partner Wildcat had parents who were big on seeing lounge shows. They had become fast friends with my parents while coming to see Wildcat and me play. Our first excursion to The Venetian was to see Ella Fitzgerald, aging and frail but still warbling like a schoolgirl. The second was, yes, The Mills Brothers, also toward the end of their many-decade performing careers.

I had passed on seeing The Police live in order to see the Brothers Mills. I was torn about it at the time, but I know now that I made the right choice. After all, 35 years later I still see Sting everywhere I look. Some people, I realize, do not think The Mills Brothers were cool. Others concede that they were at least somewhat cool in their early days, the thirties. They were jazz then, and hadn’t yet migrated into the easy listening category.

Yes, I love their ‘30s songs—“Sweet and Slow,” “I’ve Found a New Baby,” “Rockin’ Chair.” But I also love their big hits like “Glow Worm” and “Up the Lazy River,” and I even love their leisure-suit era: “Cab Driver,” “I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.” I know they probably were forced by some A&R guy to do that last one, and that they probably emphatically did not dig rock ‘n’ roll music, but I still thought it was pretty dang groovy.

across the alley

The Mills Brothers

But it’s one of the songs from The Mills Brothers’ more acceptably cool early days that is a classic sleep song. “Sleepy Head” is a masterpiece of entropy, even as it scolds the slacker. You can hear in their harmonizing voices that they really empathize with the sleepy head, and one of them even is the sleepy head, shouting “I hear you” just before the final phrase “Good for nothin’ sleepy head.” While Louis Armstrong, in “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along,” was stridently exhorting the late sleeper to “get up, get up, you sleepy head,” The Mills Brothers were gently chiding him, keeping the pace nice and steady and not too jarring. Yeah, he does need to get his ass out of bed, but nagging him about it too aggressively is just gonna piss him off. My wife, who is decidedly not a morning person, would hate being awakened at dawn by anyone’s music, even her Beloved Bach, but she might cut a little more slack in the early-morning hours to nice-and-steady John, Herbert, Harry and Don Mills than to the overly peppy Satchmo.

One more song of note in the category is rockabilly-boy Jody Reynolds’ one hit, “Endless Sleep.” The 1958 classic is not actually about getting a little shut-eye. It’s about permanent sleep. Seems Jody did something to upset his lady friend, causing her to throw herself into the sea, and he learns, to his chagrin, that she would like him to join her there. Everything works out in the end: He wrests her away from the greedy sea, and himself, too. But what a fight they’re gonna have over that one! Nice, creepy ‘50s melodrama, with lots of reverb to add a little chill. The flip side of the single features a little lighter fare: “Tight Capris.” Maybe if he’d paid less attention to some other girl’s tight capris, he wouldn’t have become all wound up in rescuing his own girl from the whole endless sleep thing.

capris

Honorable Mentions: I fear I will someday reach my limit with Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk.” It really is a great song, but it’s a staple for every slide and steel guitar player. Maybe if someone could do it on a xylophone. Tuba?

Quirky pop misfit Andy Pratt did a very eighties version of “I’m Only Sleeping,” with an up-tempo approach more suited to a theme of edgy wakefulness than woozy dream-state. It also has very eighties synth throughout. Sounds pretty awful, huh? I love it. It’s a perennial on my playlist for running.

The old Sominex theme song (“Take Sominex tonight and sleep / Safe and restful—sleep, sleep, sleep”) was a dreamy jingle I still occasionally doze off to.

yawn

The Cat in the Hat Songbook (1967) features a ditty called “Yawn Song” that actually incorporates yawns into the lyrics: “I feel so yaw-yaw-yaw today / It’s sad (yaw) but true (yaw).”

Dream Jukebox Candidate: “Endless Sleep”—and I’d occasionally play the flip side, “Tight Capris”

What are your favorite songs of sleep? What songs just make you tired?

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