Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Conversations with Donald Clarke (I) - Clarke's Biography of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby's Influence on Sinatra

Author Donald Clarke
As I already mentioned in a previous article, Donald Clarke's All or Nothing at All: A Life of Frank Sinatra has always been one of my favorite biographies ever written on Ol' Blue Eyes, not only because of its very direct, dynamic style, but also because Mr. Clarke attempts to reconcile Sinatra the man and Sinatra the musician. Although I have read other Sinatra biographies and studies (some excellent, some good, and some plainly trashy) I often come back to Mr. Clarke's book (and to Will Friedwald's Sinatra! The Song Is You as well) and reread passages or whole chapters that invariably offer new perspectives on Sinatra's life and work. Some months ago I contacted Mr. Clarke asking him for an interview for The Vintage Bandstand, and he kindly agreed. But each question that I asked him promptly elicited many more, and so we have been corresponding via e-mail intermittently for the past several months, and I have so much interesting material that I have decided to begin a series of articles culled from our e-mail exchanges. As long as Mr. Clarke finds our correspondence stimulating enough, these Conversations with Donald Clarke will be an ongoing series, and I hope the readers consider his perspectives on Sinatra and jazz in general as enlightening as I do. In this first installment of the series, Mr. Clarke and I discuss his book on Frank Sinatra, as well as the influence that Bing Crosby exerted on The Voice in the formative period when he was still Young Blue Eyes.

Donald Clarke, who has also published a biography of Billie Holiday and the study The Rise and Fall of Popular Music, has edited the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and runs the very recommendable website Donald Clarke's Music Box (where you can find the Encyclopedia in its entirety for free), was born in 1940 and grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a place "where there is no there," as he himself puts it. After working in a car factory for ten years and then attending college, he decided to travel to Great Britain to teach in a primary school. At first it was going to be just ten weeks, but he wound up staying in Britain for twenty-five years! He returned to the United States in 1998 and now lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with his wife of 34 years, "a very successful magazine editor-in-chief" who works for Organic Garden magazine. He has three children, four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren and considers himself now "the luckiest man in the world." Music has always been his great passion, which is something that we both share, and so without further ado, let us turn now to the beginning of our first conversation, made out of excerpts of our recent electronic correspondence.

Anton Garcia-Fernandez (for The Vintage Bandstand): When I first saw your book on Sinatra, All or Nothing at All, on the shelves of the bookstore Shakespeare & Co., in Paris, France, I was struck by its subtitle, "A Life of Frank Sinatra." This seemed to imply that this was a fresh, personal take on Sinatra's life, about which so much had been written over the years. It was, so to speak, your life of Frank Sinatra. Was that your intention as you sat down to write the book? In other words, with so much in print about Sinatra, what new perspective on his life were you hoping to bring to the fore with your book?

Mr. Clarke: Yes, the title was chosen carefully. Somebody once wrote that "There is no such thing as an autobiography, not even an autobiography," meaning, I take it, that in order to tell you my life story, I would also have to tell you the life stories of all of my ancestors, everybody I have ever known, etc. Similarly, there will be as many biographies of Sinatra as people willing to write them. The last one I looked at had the author pretending to be a fly inside the limousine quoting Frank and Barbara having a squabble, as though he had been there with a notebook. I didn't have a new perspective, but I've read enough lousy biographies so that what I wanted to write was the book that I would want to read if I were looking for a book about Sinatra, covering both the life and the music. I think I have a knack for telling the reader what he or she wants to know without patronizing anybody. So, yes, it is my life of Sinatra, and I wasn't afraid to put myself in it.

Another aspect is that if Sinatra hadn't been a singer, as I wrote in the book, he might have been a New Jersey plumbing contractor, and we never would have heard of him unless he got arrested. In other words, at some level he must have been an ordinary guy. This was after I had written the Billie Holiday book and I realized that what I was really writing about was the problem of being an American in the twentieth century.

Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby
TVB: At some point in the book, you mention that Sinatra became an incredibly popular, if often controversial, public figure, when all he had originally set out to do was to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Bing Crosby. Bing was certainly an innovator in many ways, not only as a vocalist but also as a businessman. In what ways do you think Sinatra was an innovator as well, both in music and in business? Or, in other words, in what ways did he improve upon Crosby's foundation?

Mr. Clarke: I enjoyed Crosby's work, but I was never that big a fan. I heard him in the late 1940s and onward, and was surprised many years later to hear some of his earlier records, when he wasn't so relaxed, or maybe the white pop music style was different in the 1930s. I believe that whites were learning from blacks in the jazz era, but that they didn't really master the idiom until after WWII. There are more of Crosby's recordings I would like to hear -- there's a big compilation of radio broadcasts on Mosaic that he made in the 1950s with a small jazz group. But for me his innovation was not so much interpreting songs as the fact that he was influenced by jazz, and also knew how to use a microphone, so that he became the first modern recording vocalist, with Louis Armstrong. So Crosby was good for Sinatra to learn from, but there was an immediate difference: Crosby wanted to be your boyfriend; Sinatra wanted to be your lover.

Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald
TVB: What was it exactly about Sinatra's sound that attracted you upon first hearing? I have been trying to define what it was for me for years now, and every time I try, for some reason, I can't quite put my finger on it... As a matter of fact, his biggest hits as Young Blue Eyes on Columbia were ballads, weren't they? What do you think about that? To what extent can we say that Sinatra was a jazz singer?

Mr. Clarke: A combination of things. First of all, the sound of his voice was attractive. Then there was the honesty he bragged about. When he was singing, there was no artifice. Also, he sang ballads or uptempo, and it doesn't matter if he was a jazz singer. I think I said in the book that he was not, but I would say now that we can call him a jazz singer, "if the essence of jazz singing is to make the familiar sound fresh, and to make a lyric come alive with personal meaning," which is something I wrote about Billie Holiday. The other day I happened to hear Ella Fitzgerald singing "This Year's Kisses," and it wasn't a patch on Holiday's version. Then I recalled that Ella had said that singing a song was like telling a beautiful story that happened to somebody else. Much as I admire Ella, when you heard Holiday or Sinatra singing a song, you knew they were telling you something about themselves. And that's what a great jazz musician does.

TVB: And to finish with Crosby's influence on Sinatra, there is a passage of your book where you say that at some point Crosby allegedly advised Sinatra not to rely too heavily on just one arranger, a piece of advice that, from your point of view, was a mistake. However, couldn't we say that if Sinatra were to rely on one arranger alone, that would inevitably lend an air of sameness to his recordings? For example, I feel that George Siravo's arrangements for Sinatra toward the end of his tenure with Columbia are a breath of fresh air after several years of Axel Stordahl's string arrangements, as beautifully lyrical as Stordahl's work is. What do you think about that?

Mr. Clarke: If I disagreed with Crosby, I was wrong. I was probably wishing that Sinatra had made all his records after 1953 with Nelson Riddle. The Siravo records were a welcome change from Stordahl, but I find them studio-bound. This question has partly to do with the playing of white bands as opposed to the black masters of jazz. The white studio arrangers and musicians had improved immeasurably by the mid-1950s, in my opinion. Also, bands which were on the road, like Tommy Dorsey's around 1940, learned how to breathe and think together, as opposed to ad hoc studio groups, which also improved post WWII.

And that is it for the first installment. I would like to thank Mr. Clarke for his kindness in addressing all these questions, as well as for his giving freely of his time. More installments in this series of Conversations with Donald Clarke will be forthcoming!

'Swing and Dance with Frank Sinatra,' a Columbia LP arranged by George Siravo

Friday, June 20, 2014

Mr. Teardrop Takes the Stage: Johnnie Ray Live in 1954 & 1958

Johnnie Ray's all-too-brief hit-making days provided, as many critics have already pointed out, a link between classic pop and rock'n'roll. Born in Oregon in 1927, Ray soon became fascinated with black music, and in fact, in his own, instantly recognizable style we can easily hear echoes of jazz, rhythm & blues, and gospel. Although he will forever be associated with his 1951 blockbuster "Cry," which inaugurated the genre of the so-called "sob ballad," Ray successfully recorded quite a bit of rhythm & blues and always included one or two religious songs in his supper-club act, something that was rather unusual in such a context. All of these influences, together with his stage histrionics, combined to produce a very exciting style that was unmistakably Ray's own: as exaggerated, dramatic, and frenzied as it all often was, there is no doubt that Ray was doing something that no white popular singer had done before, and that earned him adulation and criticism in almost equal parts. Among his admirers was a very young Bob Dylan, who in his autobiography singles him out as one of the very first performers to whom he was drawn. Even early rock critic Nik Cohn, who usually does not lavish praise on any pop singers prior to Elvis Presley and who claims that Ray could not sing, states in his pioneering study Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock (1970) that "he generated more intensity than any other performer I ever saw in my life, Judy Garland excepted, and it was impossible not to feel involved with him" (13). In that same book, Cohn vividly describes a Johnnie Ray stage show:

He'd hunch up tight into himself, choke on his words, gasp, stagger, beat his fist against his breast, squirm, fall forward on to his knees and, finally, burst into tears. He'd gag, tremble, half strangle himself. He'd pull out every last outrageous ham trick in the book and he would be comic, embarrassing, painful, but still he worked because, under the crap, he was in real agony, he was burning, and it was traumatic to watch him. He'd spew himself up in front of you and you'd freeze, you'd sweat, you'd be hurt yourself. You'd want to look away and you couldn't. (13-14)

Of course, many black entertainers had been putting on this kind of act for years before Ray, but he was one of the first to bring this type of antics into the mainstream of pop. And as good as many of his studio records are (his catalog has been reissued by the German label Bear Family on two five-CD box sets entitled Cry and Yes, Tonight, Josephine), the art of Johnnie Ray is best appreciated live on stage, when he is working in front of an audience. Perhaps he or his label, Columbia Records, sensed this, because two excellent live albums by Ray were released in the 1950s, his period of major stardom—Live at the London Palladium came out in 1954, and Johnnie Ray in Las Vegas appeared in 1958.

The former, reissued by Bear Family in 1999, captures Ray in his heyday, performing at the prestigious London Palladium on April 5, 1954, before a very appreciative audience of screaming fans. Though very short, at only 11 songs and a mere 32 minutes, this is a fantastic document of the singer at the peak of his career, singing some of his recent hits, such as "Cry," the self-penned "The Little White Cloud that Cried," and "Walkin' My Baby Back Home." He also reaches back for older tunes with which he always did very well (the rousing opener, "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," "Glad Rag Doll," "Somebody Stole My Gal") and handles intimate ballads like "As Time Goes By" and "A Hundred Years from Today" very adroitly. By the time he attempts the Drifters' "Such a Night" (covered by Elvis on his 1960 album Elvis Is Back), I cannot help but wonder whether Belgian chanteur Jacques Brel knew of Ray and was influenced by his powerful stage persona. As he often did, Ray closes his Palladium set with a gospel song, "I'm Gonna Walk and Talk with My Lord," and has everyone in the house on their feet and clapping along. Though the inclusion of a newly written essay on the concert would have been desirable, the CD reissue is up to Bear Family's usual high standards, with a 20-page booklet featuring photos, newspaper clippings, and even an article written by Ray himself and published in the New Musical Express at the time of his Palladium appearance.

Four years later, Columbia released Johnnie Ray in Las Vegas, a 12-song live set recorded at the Desert Inn. By this time his career had fizzled somewhat due in part to the advent of rock'n'roll, although he had scored a couple more hits, "Yes Tonight, Josephine" and the Prisonaires' "Just Walking in the Rain," which he performs during this Vegas engagement. Inevitably, some of the tracks on this album overlap with those he had done on the Palladium set, including "Cry" and "Little White Cloud" (done here as a medley) and also "As Time Goes By" and "Talk with My Lord," which he again uses as the closer. The set list includes yet another spiritual, Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Up Above My Head," which he had cut as a duet with Frankie Laine and which he sings here with the usual abandon in which he indulged when handling this sort of material. A combination of evergreens ("Ain't Misbehavin'," "Coquette") and ballads ("Yesterdays") rounds out the show, and his most intimate side comes to the fore in his beautiful rendition of Ted Koehler and Rube Bloom's "Don't Worry 'Bout Me." Like the recording from the Palladium, this LP catches Ray during a very inspired live appearance, but here he somehow sounds like a more seasoned performer. As the anonymous liner notes claim, "he catches the mood and temper of the assembled crowd and plays with it and to it, building from his opening number to a tingling pitch of excitement." The album was reissued on CD by Collectables Records in 2002 together with 1959's 'Til Morning, a jazzy collection of standards on which he is accompanied by the Billy Taylor Trio, which was apparently a quartet.

As a kid I heard Johnnie Ray singing "Cry" on the radio and was immediately mesmerized. By that time it was too late for me to get to see him perform live, since he had long quit touring. There is no doubt that Ray's natural habitat was the stage, though, where he could sing and shout and wail and fall down on his knees, where he could single-handedly electrify any audience. Unfortunately, these days not too many people seem to even remember Johnnie Ray at all, but these two live albums are ample proof of the uniqueness of the man's artistry in the perfect context for any listener to enjoy it.

Here is Johnnie Ray himself on television in 1957 singing his signature tune, Churchill Kohlman's "Cry," followed by one of his then-recent recordings, "Soliloquy of a Fool":

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Swing and Jazz from Germany: Hans Rehmstedt, Horst Winter, Kurt Edelhagen, Jutta Hipp & Zoot Sims

This time we are looking at recordings that spotlight German jazz and jazz-influenced artists from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s whose work is not particularly well known in the United States. We begin with a compilation of dance-band sides by the popular Tanzorchester led by Hans Rehmstedt, followed by an album showcasing the exciting singing and playing of one of its most notable graduates, vocalist/clarinetist Horst Winter. Then, we discuss a recent release of 1954 live recordings by the orchestra led by the German pianist and arranger Kurt Edelhagen, and finally we take a look at a unique collaboration between German pianist Jutta Hipp and American tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, recorded for Blue Note in 1956.

In Germany, the years right before, during, and immediately following World War II marked the golden age of the Tanzorchester, the German dance bands who played for dancers and enthusiasts alike during the dark years of the Nazi regime. Like many of their British and American counterparts, these orchestras were characterized by both sweet and swinging sounds, and many of them featured musicians who were fascinated by hot jazz. This inevitably garnered some of these bands the opposition of the Nazi authorities, who saw jazz as unerwünschte Musik (that is, "undesirable music") in every way contrary to their ideology and political agenda, and actively sought to ban its performance both on German soil and in any Nazi-occupied territories. Often defying a ban that was rather difficult to put into practice anyway, some of these Tanzorchester kept on including jazzy solos and arrangements in their live performances and occasionally on their recordings.

One of the most musically satisfying combinations of the period was led by Hans Rehmstedt, a violinist who was very active in the Berlin dance-band scene in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. His orchestras included some of the best German musicians of the time, many of whom, like Willy Berking, Michael Jary, and Benny DeWeille, would eventually graduate to leading their own successful dance bands. As we can hear on the volume devoted to Rehmstedt in the series Die Grössen Deutschen Tanzorchester (Membran Music, 2005), featuring recordings made mostly in the late '30s and early '40s, Rehmstedt had a keen ear for jazz-inflected playing, and virtually all the sides he cut were graced by very enjoyable, tightly knit arrangements. Though Rehmstedt occasionally wrote some of his material ("Zigeunerfox," for instance), many of the songs presented here are original compositions by trombonist Willy Berking ("Atlantis," "Klavierträume," "Zum Tanzen geboren"), and the orchestra even attempts a German adaptation of the onomatopoeic Charles Trenet hit "Boum," given the German title "Bum Bum." After the war, Rehmstedt's Tanzorchester disbanded, and he found work as the director of the Radio Bremen studio orchestra. He passed away in 1956, following a car accident, and leaving behind some very interesting recordings, many of which are available on this CD release from Membran.

Besides being a fine musician and bandleader, Rehmstedt seems to have had a natural ability to recognize a good vocalist, and thus his orchestra featured some of the best singers of the day. Perhaps the most exciting of them all was Prussian-born Horst Winter, who was also an accomplished clarinetist and began his career singing vocal refrains with the Rehmstedt organization before forming his own orchestra in the early 1940s. The band's exciting, swinging arrangements and Winter's undeniably appealing vocal style are spotlighted on Ich mache alles mit Musik (Universal Music, 2003), the only compilation of Winter's work currently available in the United States, which includes sides made between 1941 and 1943. This is arguably the most interesting period of his career, characterized by a series of classic recordings that, like the one that lends its title to this CD, never fail to swing. These sessions find Winter at ease in a variety of settings, mostly leading a larger dance band, but at times also fronting a trio, a quartet, and a quintet. In addition to playing clarinet and sax, Winter also provides the vocal refrains, always charming and enjoyable, as in "Komm doch in meine Arme," "Ich nenne alle Frauen Baby," "Fräulein Madeleine," and "Frauen sind keine Engel," among others. One of the most popular artists to come out of the Tanzorchester era, he would represent Austria in the 1960 Eurovision Song Contest using the stage name Harry Winter and would devote his entire life to music, both classical and popular, even becoming a choir director in his later years. This 24-track collection is definitely the most appropriate starting point for anyone interested in getting acquainted with Winter's vintage swinging sound.

Here is a video of a 1960s television appearance by Horst Winter, who performs "Exactly Like You."

Though never a household name in the United States, pianist-conductor-arranger Kurt Edelhagen was one of the most popular jazz-influenced musicians in Germany, forming his first big band in the mid-1940s and performing and recording extensively through the 1970s. His orchestras usually featured talented sidemen such as Francy Boland, Wilton Gaynair, Jimmy Deuchar, Tubby Hayes, and Dusko Goykovich, and his inventive arrangements were modeled on the work of Stan Kenton. The music contained in Bigbands Live: Orchester Kurt Edelhagen (Jazzhaus, 2013) is a prime example of Edelhagen's sound in a live big band setting. Recorded at three different locations between July and December of 1954 in front of highly appreciative audiences, the eighteen tracks on this CD present Edelhagen at his most Kentonian, leaving ample space for hot solos by Hans Gottfried Wilfert on trumpet and Helmut Reinhardt on both baritone and alto sax. The set list is comprised mostly of standards ("Tuxedo Junction," "St. Louis Blues," "The Man I Love," "You Go to My Head") and pianist Mary Lou Williams joins the band on two of her excellent originals, "Blues on the Bongo Beat" and "Nancy and the Colonel." Singer Caterina Valente, a protégée of Edelhagen's, contributes two syncopated boppish vocals on "They Can't Take That Away from Me" and "Pennies from Heaven," even daring to scat a little on the latter. Overall, this is an outstanding collection of live recordings that should whet the listener's appetite for Edelhagen's prolific studio work.

Here is the Kurt Edelhagen Orchestra in Berlin in 1966, playing "Alice in Wonderland," with Jiggs Whigham on trombone and Bora Rokovic on piano.

And, finally, we spotlight a rather obscure yet extremely satisfying collaboration. German pianist Jutta Hipp met versatile saxophonist Zoot Sims sometime in the 1950s in Germany, precisely during a European tour of the Stan Kenton band, of which Sims was a member at the time. Upon Hipp's move to New York City in 1955, at the behest of critic Leonard Feather, she encountered harsh criticism from those who believed that her style was too close to that of Lennie Tristano and, particularly, that of Horace Silver. But by 1956, when she appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and cut this impressive session with Sims at Rudy Van Gelder's New Jersey studio, she seems to have set out to prove her critics wrong. Indeed, on Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims (Blue Note, 1956) she stays away from the influence of Tristano and Silver, and her sound is full of swing on uptempo numbers ("Wee Dot," "Almost Like Being in Love," "Too Close for Comfort") and of restrained melancholy on the only ballad of the session ("Violets for Your Furs"). The group is rounded out by Jerry Lloyd on trumpet, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, and Ed Thigpen on drums, and this quintet setting is perfect to showcase Hipp's delicate playing. Lloyd provides an original composition ("Down Home") and Sims another one ("Just Blues"), and even though Sims's tenor saxophone is accorded more space than Hipp's piano, it is Hipp that creates the wistful, easy-going atmosphere that makes this album a winner. The 2008 CD reissue adds two tracks from the session that never made it onto the original LP ("These Foolish Things" and "'S Wonderful"), thus offering everything that Hipp and Sims recorded together. Hipp, who was also a talented painter, would inexplicably retire from the New York jazz scene shortly after leading this session, and this very recommendable quintet album is definitely the highlight of her meager, though very interesting, discography.

Zoot Sims and Jutta Hipp

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Rhythm-'n'-Ink 1: All or Nothing at All. A Life of Frank Sinatra, by Donald Clarke

Very often, the reading of a book on a particular jazz vocalist or musician leads me to rediscover some of that artist's work, which I had sometimes forgotten or overlooked. This happens exclusively with books that are truly enlightening, engaging, and well written, and when it does, the pleasure is twofold: not only do I get to read an interesting book that sheds light on aspects of the artist's life or work that I did not know about, but that book also spurs me on to seek out recordings of whose existence I was not aware or to dust off some old records that I had not heard in a long time. This is the purpose behind Rhythm-'n'-Ink, a new section of the blog where I will discuss some very recommendable books that I have been reading lately, and then I will spotlight the albums that, for one reason or another, those books led me to (re)discover. This first installment will concentrate on Donald Clarke's All or Nothing at All: A Life of Frank Sinatra (Pan Books / Macmillan), one of the most interesting books about the Chairman currently available.

Over the years, thousands of pages have been devoted, in many languages, to discussing the life of Frank Sinatra, with varying degrees of success. Too many books have been published that concentrate solely on Sinatra's private life, the scandals that seemed to follow him everywhere he went, and his alleged connections with the Mob, among other sensational topics. As a result, many volumes overlook his recordings and film work, the real reason why we should be interested in Sinatra to begin with. There are, of course, notable exceptions, such as Will Friedwald's Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art, Charles Granata's Sessions with Sinatra, and Pete Hamill's Why Sinatra Matters, to give three examples of titles that are well worth reading. Yet not many books on Sinatra seem to succeed in offering a satisfactory appraisal of the connections between the man's work and the man's life. In my opinion, Donald Clarke's All or Nothing at All: A Life of Frank Sinatra is one such title.

In his study, Clarke situates Sinatra in his time and in his place, discussing not only his life and work, but also the historical, social, political, and artistic context that directly or indirectly influenced his life and his work. Clarke's writing style is swift and dynamic, and he is never afraid to express his opinions about Sinatra's artistic legacy, whether it be a masterpiece such as Songs for Swingin' Lovers or a very low lowlight such as Watertown, but he always does so with elegance and wit. Ever since I bought it in the late 1990s, I have been coming back periodically to All or Nothing at All, and every time I read it, I find in it some passages that make me rethink some of my assumptions about a particular Sinatra album or even a song that I had tucked away in a corner of my mind. Clark is a compelling biographer because he is not interested in all the gossip surrounding Sinatra's life (although that is an inescapable element when writing about Sinatra), but he mostly concentrates on explaining how American history shaped Sinatra, how Sinatra shaped American history, and in turn, how Sinatra's life experiences determined his artistic legacy. And in this respect, this is a unique book on its subject, as Clarke explores the seeming paradox of the tough guy who became successful mostly through his ability to touch the hearts of audiences by means of uncovering the emotions contained in the lyrics of the songs he performed.

Author Donald Clarke
Clarke discusses the many ups and downs of Sinatra's career, painting a vivid picture of a man full of contradictions, an iconic figure who achieved that stature, as would be expected, by making both good and bad decisions regarding his professional and personal lives, but always managing to come out on top no matter how difficult the situation in which he found himself. To Clarke, Sinatra is an icon not only by virtue of his work, which is what ultimately remains and should count, but also because of the personal relationships that his listeners have with that work, because of the feelings that his audience projects onto his figure and his recordings. As Clark reminds us, in a highly lyrical fashion, at the very end of the last chapter,

Gene Lees has written that Sinatra could hire people to do everything for him except sing. He did that for us. His career is over, but what we have left of Frank Sinatra, the recordings, is the best part. The rest is the echo of our times. (298)

And one of these recordings, which the re-reading of Clarke's very recommendable book led me to rediscover, is one of Sinatra's lesser-known Reprise albums, All Alone, from 1962. With its slow, melancholy string arrangements by Gordon Jenkins, the LP may well have been titled something like Come Waltz with Me, since 3/4 is the time signature used throughout, and in fact, it seems that Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen wrote a tune by that name that did not make it onto the finished project. As Clarke notes, "nostalgia . . . seems to drench the album" (207) and Jenkins's slow arrangements perfectly suit that mood, as Sinatra revisits "The Girl Next Door" (which he had included in his early Capitol album Songs for Young Lovers) and five excellent songs by Irving Berlinthe title track, "The Song Is Ended" (these two bookend the record) "When I Lost You," "Remember," and "What'll I Do." For this project, Sinatra also turns to some old chestnuts, such as "Oh, How I Miss You Tonight," "Together," and "Are You Lonesome Tonight," the latter owing nothing to Elvis Presley's then fairly recent hit recording. This is perhaps Sinatra's less commercially successful collaboration with Gordon Jenkins: "The album was a success on its own terms," concludes Clarke, "but did less well than any of his others in this period" (207). Yet overall, All Alone is a very enjoyable concept album that is well worth rediscovering.


I recently got in touch with Mr. Clarke via e-mail, and he graciously agreed to an interview for the blog. That interview is forthcoming and will come out of our correspondence over the past few months. Other interesting books by Mr. Clarke include The Rise and Fall of Popular Music and Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, among others.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 3: Al Bernard

Before proceeding any further with this new entry in the Unsung Vocalists series, I feel that this article requires a brief personal introduction. Part of my wife's family hails from the southern Missouri town of Charleston (yes, that area of the country where people say "Missourah") and upon my first visit with her grandmother's sister, Mrs. Sally Winchester, I could not help but notice that in the den of her house she had a framed original copy of the sheet music for a song entitled "Blue-Eyed Sally," doubtless because the protagonist of that song is Mrs. Winchester's namesake. Due to the fact that a family reunion is held every other year in Charleston, I have set foot in her house many times and have always enjoyed inspecting the cover of that sheet music. Now that Mrs. Winchester has moved into a nursing home not too far from where her old house stands, my wife, Erin, and our baby daughter, Libby, recently had the chance to visit with her, and one of the first things that I observed when I entered her room at the nursing home was that, among the many pictures of several close and distant relatives that hang on the walls, there was still that frame with the sheet music for "Blue-Eyed Sally."

The song was penned by the songwriting team of Al Bernard and J. Russel Robinson and published in 1924 by Henry Waterson, Inc., of New York. Robinson composed the music and Bernard came up with the lyrics, and according to Brian Rust's Complete Entertainment Discography, the two of them recorded it as the Dixie Stars in New York City on December 30, 1924, a vocal duet with piano accompaniment by Robinson. There apparently is also a version by the Dixie Stars released on Brunswick (2689) as a "vocal duet with orchestra," and the popularity of the song ensured that it was covered by several dance bands, including a delightful reading by Ted Weems in 1924, way before Perry Como became the band's male vocalist, and one by Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, among many others. In my opinion, one of the best instrumental recordings came courtesy of the legendary California Ramblers, who cut at least two different versions of the song, one in 1924 and another in 1925, with a lineup featuring jazz greats such as Jimmy Dorsey, Adrian Rollini, and Irving Brodsky.

Al Bernard, whose complete name was Alfred A. Bernard, had been born in New Orleans in 1887 or 1888, and even though he was a fairly popular vaudeville performer often billed as "the boy from Dixie," his recording career would not begin until 1919. Bernard seemed to specialize in songs that included the word blues in their title, even though those songs usually had very few, if any, blues elements. It is true, however, that he was one of the first singers to record compositions by W.C. Handy, such as "Memphis Blues" and a 1919 version of "St. Louis Blues," and he often sang vocal refrains on records by popular jazz bands of the day, like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the Bennie Krueger Orchestra.

In his highly recommended book Popular American Recording Pioneers 1895-1925, Tim Gracyk devotes several pages to Bernard, noting that "he was the first to cut 'Frankie and Johnny' successfully for an American record company." This song, inspired by a real murder committed in St. Louis around the turn of the century, was extremely influential, would enter the repertoire of several blues and country artists, and would in time be recorded by virtually everyone from Jimmie Rodgers to Mississippi John Hurt to Bob Dylan, and even Elvis Presley would star in a forgettable 1966 movie based on its story. Throughout his rather long career, Bernard proved to be extremely versatile both as a singer and as a songwriter, recording with duet partners such as Ernest Hare and pioneering country artist Vernon Dalhart and even writing tunes occasionally with Jimmy Durante. The excellent "Sam Jones Blues," one of the songs that, like "Blue-Eyed Sally," he penned with J. Russel Robinson, was cut by Bessie Smith in 1923, and his 1919 recording of "Hesitation Blues" is one of the first commercial waxings of this oft-recorded song that would have a profound influence on western swing bands such as that led by Milton Brown in the 1930s. (Incidentally, the Light Crust Doughboys, a popular western swing outfit, also included a version of "Blue-Eyed Sally" in one of their sessions for Vocalion in 1938.)

A newspaper ad for a personal appearance by Bernard and Robinson that mentions "Blue-Eyed Sally"

Bernard's versatility is amply demonstrated on the several recordings that he made for Grey Gull beginning in the mid-1920s, a series of releases on which he dabbles in many different styles, including even some spoken comedy skits, Toward the end of his life, Bernard gave up his recording activities and moved to New York City, where he passed away in March of 1949, aged sixty. Gracyk aptly sums up his most important contribution to American popular music thus: "In popularizing songs with 'blues' in the title, especially W.C. Handy numbers that would eventually be recognized as classics, he was a pioneering artist." Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, not a single compilation of his music has been released on CD at the time of this writing, which is really a pity if we bear in mind the consistently high quality of most of his recorded legacy. As for me, besides his undeniable importance as a recording pioneer, Bernard and his music—and particularly his self-penned hit "Blue-Eyed Sally"—will always be linked, whether she knows it or not, to Mrs. Sally Winchester of Charleston, Mo.

Here is Ted Weems's dance-band version of Al Bernard's "Blue-Eyed Sally," recorded in 1924: