Tuesday, October 14, 2014

All What Blues 1: Earl Hines & Jimmy Rushing, Count Basie & Joe Williams

Author and critic Philip Larkin
In the articles that he wrote about jazz for the Daily Telegraph in the 1960s and that were gathered in the book All What Jazz: A Record Diary, British poet and writer Philip Larkin always made sure he devoted some space to reviewing blues records, thus acknowledging both the historical and musical relationship between both genres. Like any critic, Larkin had his fixations, his likes and dislikes, and while he was partial to traditional jazz from the 1920s and 1930s, more modern jazz did not sit well with him. Therefore, he remains a controversial figure in jazz criticism, despised by many who regard his jazz articles as musically conservative and excessively opinionated. Yet I have always had a soft spot for Larkin's jazz reviews, which I find highly original and often very poetic. I admit that his writing on jazz was informed by his rejection of bebop and free jazz, and I mostly disagree with him on those points, but I still find his contribution to jazz criticism valuable. I also admit that he was strongly opinionated, but then who wants to read critics who are not opinionated? I find myself going back periodically to All What Jazz and rediscovering there many records that I had long forgotten, and many of them are blues records. So today, and in Larkin's memory, we begin a new section where we will review blues and blues-influenced records. This first installment of All What Blues spotlights a rather unknown album by Earl Hines and Jimmy Rushing, as well as the first collaboration between Count Basie and Joe Williams.


In memoriam Philip Larkin 

We begin this new blues section of The Vintage Bandstand with a CD that features what, to my knowledge, is the only session that Earl Hines and Jimmy Rushing recorded together. Titled Blues & Things (New World Records, 1996), the album captures the Fatha and Mr. Five-by-Five in the studio in 1967 in the company of a Hines-led quartet comprising Budd Johnson on tenor and soprano saxophones, Bill Pemberton on bass, and Oliver Jackson on drums. This may well be one of the most obscure records of Jimmy Rushing's career, and that is perhaps because he is not actually the leader on this date, appearing mostly as a guest vocalist, and then not even on all tracks. But no matter, because this is a delightful album that finds all the participants in a very bluesy mood from start to finish. As Rushing takes his first "vocal chorus" (as the CD refers to his vocal contributions) on McHugh and Fields's "Exactly Like You," it becomes apparent that by the late 1960s his voice had not lost any of its energy, as he also demonstrates on "Am I Blue" and the closing track, a soulful rendition of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." One of the highlights of the album, though, is "Save It Pretty Mama," a good example of Rushing at his best on a slower number, aided by Hines's piano and some very beautiful sax playing from Johnson. The instrumental tracks showcase the tight sound of the best of the latter-day Hines quartets, a group of musicians that gigged together regularly and understood each other to perfection, as we can hear on standards such as "Summertime" and "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," and particularly on "Changing of the Blues," a very bluesy Hines original. This is definitely a record that is well worth rediscovering.



Though Jimmy Rushing was perhaps the most popular blues shouter to ever work with the Count Basie orchestra (after brief stints singing with bands led by Bennie Moten and Walter Page in the late 1920s), the Count also employed other blues-influenced vocalists, notably the great Joe Williams. His style possibly lacked the sheer power of Rushing (though at times he did come close) but it was certainly more polished, as evidenced on the twelve sides that make up Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings (Verve / Polygram, 1993), one of the best-selling albums in the careers of both men. When Basie and Williams first met, in Chicago in the early 1950s, the pianist/bandleader had recently hit one of the periodic low points that plagued his remarkable career. For economic reasons, he had been forced to downsize his big band and was leading a septet at the Brass Rail in the Windy City. Of course, this was not necessarily a low point in artistic terms, although it seems clear that the small-group setting was not as satisfactory to Basie as his classic swing band had been. Williams, who had sung with the likes of Jimmie Noone and Lionel Hampton, was sitting in with various combos in Chicago clubs and honing his own kind of blues singing, which definitely impressed Basie because he insisted in offering the singer a spot with his band.

Joe Williams in the 1970s
For this excellent album, Basie directed arrangers Ernie Wilkins and Frank Foster to put the accent on bluesy tunes, which is obvious in classics such as "Every Day I Have the Blues," "In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)," and "All Right, OK, You Win," perhaps the most memorable tracks on the LP. But Williams also shows his gift for singing to a boogie woogie beat on Pete Johnson and Joe Turner's "Roll 'Em Pete," and his mastery of slow ballads on Gene DePaul and Sammy Cahn's "Teach Me Tonight" and Percy Mayfield's marvelous "Please Send Me Someone to Love." The 1993 CD reissue, with new liner notes written by John Litweiler, includes three bonus tracks, featuring a swinging rendition of "Too Close for Comfort" that proves that Williams could swing with the best of them. In many ways, this landmark album revived Basie's career and single-handedly launched Williams's, and it should definitely be on the shelf of any serious jazz aficionado.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Hugh Shannon, the Epitome of the Saloon Singer

In his live shows, Frank Sinatra always liked to present himself as a saloon singer, a performer of what is known as saloon songs—that is, tunes about love found and then lost or perhaps never found at all in the first place. These are sad, melancholy songs of self-pity to be sung to the accompaniment of a lone piano, usually set in a bar or a tavern, in those wee small hours of the morning, and often presented in the form of monologue, with the vocalist bending the ear of an imaginary bartender. Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" and Matt Dennis and Earl Brent's "Angel Eyes" were Sinatra's saloon songs of choice, and he counted Tony Bennett and Dean Martin ("drunky Dean," as the Chairman would have it) as fellow saloon singers, and even though he never recorded a full album of classic saloon songs—Reprise's She Shot Me Down, from 1981, was the closest he ever got—this remained one of his favorite types of songs to sing throughout his career. Yet Sinatra's tally of saloon singers is grossly incomplete because he failed to mention Bobby Short and the man whose career we are discussing today—Hugh Shannon.

Billie Holiday encouraged Shannon to become a singer
Listening to Shannon, born in DeSoto, Missouri, into an Irish American family in 1921, one wonders just how much Tony Bennett was influenced by the smoky tone of his voice. Raised by his grandparents, Shannon became interested in the piano at an early age but did not become a professional singer until after World War II, when he supposedly decided to follow Billie Holiday's advice and began singing in clubs and bars around New York City, catering to the smart set and befriending the rich and famous. In a piece about him published in The New York Times in 1981, just a few months before his death, Shannon described the type of audiences for whom he played throughout his long career: 


We [he and Bobby Short] both deal with ladies and gentlemen. They're established. They have manners. They're attractive. And, for the most part, they're rich. They have good impulses for living and like living well. And the songs we sing are about people who like living well, not about the depraved or the deprived.


These words may go a long way to explain Shannon's reputation for being a snob (which, according to many friends and fans, he most definitely was not), yet they do accurately describe the crowds that flocked to his shows at New York nightspots such as Le Perroquet, the Cafe Carlyle, and the 22 Club, and bearing in mind his fondness for the songbooks of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Noël Coward, and Jerome Kern, among many others, they offer a truthful description of his repertoire as well. In that same New York Times article, Shannon also discusses his approach to performing: "I treat the room as a drawing room where I'm giving a party. It never occurs to me that I'm not the host. I watch the tables. I watch the drinks. I have to restrain myself not to seat people." And this intimacy was definitely an important part of Shannon's appeal, together with his penchant for witty humor, his sense of devil-may-care detachment when singing these songs, and the fact that he proved to be a walking encyclopedia of the Great American Songbook every time he sat at the piano. In this regard, he was to the Songbook what Leadbelly was to American folk music, and his art was appreciated by audiences both at home and overseas, where he occasionally performed at exclusive venues in places like France and Italy.

Regrettably, Shannon left us a rather meager recorded legacy, perhaps because he was best experienced live, and his art, like that of Noël Coward, did not translate so well to the medium of recordings. However, there are two Audiophile Records releases that anyone interested in Shannon's saloon singing should own. The most complete is a two-CD set entitled simply Saloon Singer that features Bobby Hackett on cornet on some of the tracks and that includes classics like "Everything Happens to Me," "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," "Down in the Depths of the 90th Floor," and the Jeri Southern-associated "You Better Go Now." Alongside this, the single CD True Blue Hugh offers sixteen tracks recorded in Lexington, South Carolina, in December of 1977, with Shannon alone at the piano, except for two tracks on which he is accompanied by Terry Lassiter on bass and Jim Lackey on drums. This album contains two songs closely associated with Shannon, "True Blue Lou" and "It's a Big, Wide, Wonderful World" (a minor hit for crooner Buddy Clark in the late '40s), along with other gems such as "A Hundred Years from Today," "Baltimore Oriole," "It Never Entered My Mind," "As Time Goes By," and a medley of "Just a Gigolo" and Cole Porter's "I'm a Gigolo." Shannon's passing in New York City in 1982, at age 61, deprived the world of one of the best saloon singers who ever lived, a man who not only defined that difficult art, but who lived and breathed it as well.

Sketch of Hugh Shannon that appears on the cover of the CD Saloon Singer

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Harry James's Direct-to-Disc Recordings for Sheffield Lab, 1976 & 1979

About a year ago, Sheffield Lab Recordings reissued on CD a series of direct-to-disc sessions that Harry James and his band cut in 1976 and 1979, thus making available some recordings that had been difficult to find in digital form for a while. The 2-CD set, entitled The Harry James Sessions 1976 & 1979, provides an excellent excuse to discuss James's often-overlooked work of the 1970s. Not that we really needed one, though!

By the 1970s, the number of Swing Era big bands that were still touring and recording on a regular basis was comparatively small. The orchestra led by trumpeter Harry James was one of them. An excellent musician with a keen ear for quality music with commercial potential, Harry was there at the very inception of swing, playing trumpet with Benny Goodman at the landmark Carnegie Hall concert of 1938, and when he struck out on his own and began leading his own band, he successfully mixed hard-rocking flagwavers with the sweet ballad sounds of vocalists Frank Sinatra and Dick Haymes, both of whom had their start singing with James, and Helen Forrest, who had a huge hit with the band in 1942 with "I Don't Want to Walk Without You." Three decades later, James had not changed much. In an undated piece that draws at length from interviews with James probably carried out in the '70s and included in his book The Big Bands, George T. Simon quotes the bandleader as counting himself among the earliest enthusiasts of the rock group Blood, Sweat and Tears: "I got them into Las Vegas. I loved the fact that they were all such good musicians" (537). In that same interview, James also states that public interest in the sound of the big bands had increased by the seventies:

You can see it in the bigger bands the kids are using and listening to. But there's more to it than that. There are the adults, too. They're coming out more again. It seems like they're saying, 'To hell with the kids having all the fun. Let's us have some too!' And they are—thank goodness! (537)

Harry James in the 1970s
With such an optimistic outlook on the popularity of big bands so late in his career, it is no wonder that James took every opportunity to get up on the bandstand and sought to keep his orchestra working throughout the decade. But what about recordings? Of course, James's recording output was rather meager in the 1970s, and some of his albums (1972's Mr. Trumpet, for instance) were mere attempts to recreate the sound of swing and dixieland jazz. However, in 1976 and 1979, James and the band cut three LPs for Sheffield Lab, all of them using the company's direct-to-disc recording technique, thereby producing a slew of superb-sounding tracks that give us a clear idea of the sound of the James orchestra in this late period. All the sessions were recorded at the Wylie Chapel of the First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, and the band featured fine musicians such as Chuck Anderson on trombone, Bob Lawson on saxophone, and Les DeMerle on drums. Critics have often claimed that the sidemen sound rather anonymous on these recordings, and that might well be because the emphasis is here on James's trumpet, which dominates on all three albums, with James proving that he was still in great form less than a decade before his death.

Thad Jones provided some arrangements for these sessions
Rather than the sound of the band, the main objection of many listeners to these LPs has been some of the song choices, as well as some of the arrangements, which were provided by names as diverse as Thad Jones, Ernie Wilkins, and Ray Conniff. While perhaps we do not really need to hear James's versions of tunes such as "Sanford and Son" or "Dance," his big-band readings of country ballads like Hank Cochran's "Make the World Go Away" and Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" are among the highlights of the Sheffield Lab sessions, which also include an appealing approach to "Lara's Theme," from Doctor Zhivago. By reworking music by younger songwriters like Kristofferson, who have nothing to do with jazz, James shows that he indeed has an unbiased ear for music and is willing to keep up with the times and try something new, even if his experiments in this sense sometimes work better than others. Of course, James also revisits classics from the Swing Era and before: "Cherokee," "Don't Be That Way," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Moten Swing," "Caravan," "Satin Doll," and "Take the A Train," among others, get an updated treatment, and so does "You'll Never Know," offered as an instrumental ballad here. "Blues Stay Away from Me" is a bluesy jazz version of an old country hit by the Delmore Brothers, and Thad Jones provides the band with a very appropriate easy-swinging vehicle in "More Splutie, Please," which features an extended solo by bassist Dave Stone.

Harry James performing in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1970

The Sheffield Lab sessions have been hard to find on CD for a very long time, but fortunately, the company has made them available again on the 2-CD digipack set The Harry James Sessions 1976 & 1979 (Sheffield Lab Recordings, 2013). The set includes the three original albums (The King James Version, Comin' from a Good Place, and Still Harry After All These Years) in their entirety, with informative liner notes, some photos, and the excellent sound that one has come to expect from Sheffield Lab. While not necessarily essential, this is highly recommendable for listeners wishing to complete their Harry James collection or simply for those interested in hearing the trumpeter at the twilight of his career. And many of these tracks clearly show that in the mid-to-late 1970s James was far from his twilight in artistic terms.

'The King James Version' (1976), one of the original albums James cut for Sheffield Lab

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mitchum Goes Calypso: Robert Mitchum's Curious 1957 Album Calypso—Is Like So...

My sister-in-law, Laura Spinka, of Durham, NC, recently reminded me of the existence of an album that I had long forgotten. Entitled Calypso—Is Like So..., and released in 1957 on Capitol, it is actor Robert Mitchum's at once homage to and perhaps spoof of the calypso sound that became briefly popular in the U.S. in the late 1950s. Like me, Laura is an admirer of Mitchum as an actor (and who isn't, really?), and I am very grateful to her for bringing this LP to my attention. Upon hearing it for the first time—or again, as in my case—one is left with more questions than answers about the possible reasons why this project came to be. The fact remains that it is not totally clear why Mitchum decided to record a whole album of calypso music. Although some critics have insinuated that perhaps Mitchum's taste for drinking rum may have had something to do with it, the truth is that at the time he was spending some weeks in Trinidad and Tobago filming Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, and while on the islands, he must have come into contact with the local music scene, which must have made quite an impression on him. That does not, however, explain what possessed Mitchum to affect the West Indian accent and slang of some of the original calypso performers throughout the album. It is a practice that, while perhaps authentic to the genre, certainly sounds inappropriate and disrespectful to the listener of today, and which may well be the main reason why the twelve songs contained herein have had a hard time standing the test of time despite their status as cult classics. Mitchum biographer Lee Server, in his detailed book Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001), offers some background information regarding the inception of the album:

Not long after he returned from the Caribbean, Mitchum ran into Johnny Mercer in Beverly Hills and told him about the great music he had heard in Trinidad and Tobago and perhaps even sang him a tune or two. Mercer sent him over to Capitol Records in Hollywood. Capitol had been talking to Robert about an album for some time, but no one had ever come up with a game plan. The calypso thing appealed to everybody. . . . Now Robert Mitchum was going to be calypso's great white hope. He went into the studio for a couple of weeks in March 1957 with a crew of cocktail jazz and rock 'n' roll pros and some backup singers. . . . The resulting album . . . was an enticing romp, equal parts Belafonte, Martin Denny, and karaoke bar. . . . As Caucasian calypso albums went, it was a masterpiece. (317-18)

Johnny Mercer urged Mitchum to go calypso
Though calling it a masterpiece may be a little bit of a stretch, if we make the effort to go beyond its decidedly kitschy atmosphere—and Mitchum's often annoying accent, which is sometimes hard to understand—Calypso is actually a fun album that can also be enjoyed for musical reasons. The band sounds tight, and both Mitchum and the musicians seem to be having plenty of fun as they go through humorous, though sometimes predictable, tunes such as "Coconut Water," "Take Me Down to Lover's Row," "Matilda, Matilda," and "From a Logical Point of View," which was later reworked and popularized by Jimmy Soul as "If You Wanna Be Happy." Some of the songs, like "What Is This Generation Coming to?" include the inevitable then-topical references to rock and roll and celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Liberace, and Harry Belafonte, yet it seems clear that Mitchum is doing all of this in good fun and not with an eye to criticism of the new musical trends or of the younger generations. The 2003 reissue on the appropriately named Scamp Records is currently out of print and also includes two extra tracks: Mitchum's self-penned "Ballad of Thunder Road" (his biggest pop hit) and a pseudo-rockabilly version of Bing Crosby's classic "My Honey's Lovin' Arms." All in all, Calypso stands not only as a fine aural example of camp (which it definitely is) but also as a good reminder that Mitchum was a man of many talents who often sang in his own movies and who would even record some worthwhile country music in the 1960s. Thanks, Laura!

Further Listening

Dr. Slinger Francisco, The Mighty Sparrow
The album Calypso—Is Like So... is also included in its entirety in the compilation That Man (Bear Family, 1995), which also features a few other more pop and country-oriented tracks. Less interesting than this is another import, Tall Dark Stranger (Bear Family, 1997), which offers some of Mitchum's movie songs, along with a series of demos of pop standards.

If listening to Mitchum's calypso LP whets your appetite for real calypso music, then the next step would be to delve into the catalog of the original calypso performers who must have inspired Mitchum,  such as Lord Invader and Mighty Sparrow. Calypso in New York (Smithsonian Folkways, 2000) is a fine introduction to the recorded legacy of Lord Invader, while Soca Anthology (VP Records, 2011) is an indispensable compilation of Mighty Sparrow's best work, and First Flight (Smithsonian Folkways, 2005) includes his always interesting early recordings.

Mitchum first heard real calypso music while shooting Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 4: Skinnay Ennis

The story of vocalist and bandleader Skinnay Ennis is that of an artist who attained nationwide popularity during a large part of a career that spanned more than three decades but who is nowadays sadly forgotten, to such an extent that most of the recordings that he made as a leader have not been reissued on CD at the time of this writing. Ennis, who also had quite a flair for comedy, developed his own unique singing style and played an important role in the success of the Hal Kemp Orchestra, one of the most celebrated sweet bands of the 1930s, before striking out on his own as a bandleader and being featured prominently on radio, both before and after World War II. His radio appearances would in time lead to some sporadic movie roles, but for the most part, in the 1940s and 1950s Ennis was content to tour the Western states with his band, which was based out of Los Angeles.

Ennis was born in Salisbury, North Carolina, and some sources list his name as Robert, while others claim that it was Edgar Clyde. This indeterminacy about his given name, by the way, was apparently encouraged by Ennis himself and was often cause for comedy on many of his radio shows. What is definitely sure is that he came into contact with Hal Kemp as a student at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, where he began to play drums and sing with Kemp's band. In his book, The Big Bands, jazz writer and big band expert George T. Simon describes Ennis as sounding "as if he never had enough breath in him to sustain his alarmingly slim body, let alone more than two successive notes" (488). Of course, aural evidence from Kemp's thirties recordings supports such a description, but Ennis was able to turn what might otherwise seem like a weakness into a stylistic trademark, and he was featured on many of Kemp's classic sides, such as "Ah! But I've Learned," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "Forty-Second Street," "Moonlight Saving Time," and the tune that would forever be associated with Ennis—"Got a Date with an Angel." In hindsight, it seems that Ennis's approach to the vocal art may have, at least initially, influenced by the style of Whispering Jack Smith, a 1920s crooner who was very popular around the time that Ennis began to step up to the microphone.

Bandleader Hal Kemp
Known for its staccato rhythm and highly accomplished musicianship, the Kemp band benefited from arrangements by a young John Scott Trotter, who was soon to begin a long-lasting relationship with Bing Crosby as musical director. The orchestra was very much in demand throughout the 1930s, touring the high-class dance spots all over the country and even getting to take occasional trips overseas. Skinnay Ennis was one of its main attractions and remained so until 1938, when he decided to take up the baton and form his own band, which would soon join the Bob Hope radio show, where Ennis got yet another chance to develop his talent for comedy. Listening to the recordings that he made in these years, it becomes quite obvious that Ennis is trying to emphasize his breathless singing style even more than he had with Kemp, and his breathlessness is now more prominent than ever before. Inevitably, the sound of his orchestra is heavily influenced by Kemp's staccato lines, which is made more obvious by the fact that he even chose his big hit tune with his old boss, "Got a Date with an Angel," as his theme song. These are among the most glorious years of Ennis's career, with the band scoring some minor hits ("Garden of the Moon," "Deep in a Dream") and a young Gil Evans writing some of the charts. Ennis also appeared in the 1943 movie Follow the Band, along with other stars of the day, such as Frances Langford, Ray Eberle, and Alvino Rey, and appeared with his orchestra in at least one Warner Brothers short directed by Jean Negulesco.

During World War II, Ennis briefly led his own military orchestra, and in 1946, upon re-entering civilian life, he put his band back together and rejoined Bob Hope on the radio, appearing also on the Abbott & Costello show. In his Big Band Almanac, Leo Walker notes that the postwar years were considerably less hectic for Ennis: "During the next several years [following WWII] he toured the nation, playing the leading hotels but maintaining his home in the Hollywood area, where he had substantial real estate holdings" (122). It was precisely at a Hollywood restaurant that Ennis ended his days, in a way that was as tragic as it was absurd, when he choked to death on his food. The only compilation of his work as a singing bandleader that is currently available on CD is 1956-57 Live in Stereo (Jazz Hour, 1992). Subtitled Hal Kemp Remembered, it includes an appearance by Ennis on a broadcast from the NBC Bandstand show on October 26, 1956, as well as eleven studio tracks from the album Skinnay Ennis Salutes Hal Kemp, which Ennis cut for the Phillips label, according to Walker's Almanac, "using some of the musicians who had been in the original Kemp band" (123). Other than on this album, we can hear Ennis's vocals on several Hal Kemp compilations, such as Hot Sides 1926-1931 (Retrieval Records), Remember Me? (Jasmine Records), Best of Big Bands (Sony / Columbia; this one is currently out of print), and Hal Kemp and His Orchestra 1934 & 1936 (Circle Records). Though the music on the Jazz Hour release is pleasant enough, and the NBC broadcast shows that Ennis was a consummate entertainer, that album does not take the place of his late-'30s and early '40s recordings, which are unfortunately unreleased on CD as of yet.