Tuesday, May 3, 2016

This Love of Mine: Jack Jones's Tribute to Songwriting Singers

Despite the fact that he has enjoyed a long and productive career, Jack Jones is one of the 1960s crooners about whom we do not seem to hear too much these days. In his heyday, Jones scored big hits such as "Lollipops and Roses," "Wives and Lovers," and "My Best Girl," and many of his albums—especially the ones he cut during the sixties—are fantastic and, to my mind, constitute great examples of classic pop singing at its very best. In the 1970s, though, some of his records became rather erratic, as he attempted to sing contemporary songs that were ill-suited for his voice and style. Had he concentrated on singing standards with jazz-inflected backing, the way that, say, Rosemary Clooney did for Concord in the seventies and eighties, his output would have been perhaps more satisfying. Yet it is easy—and clearly unfair—to make this kind of judgment with the benefit of hindsight. As it stands, Jones's recorded legacy, its ups and downs notwithstanding, is impressive and includes some very enjoyable titles.

Noted jazz critic Will Friedwald has always had a soft spot for Jones's singing. In his excellent Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, he gives the vocalist a great deal of credit for the many LPs he cut for Kapp Records in the sixties, stating that "he was precisely right for that decade—and all of those that have come since—and the classic albums he made back then will probably be prized and listened to longer than nearly all of the so-called in-the-moment pop acts of the time" (255). In the face of titles such as Call Me Irresponsible, Where Love Has Gone, and There's Love & There's Love & There's Love (a superb collaboration with arranger Nelson Riddle), among several others, it is hard to disagree with Friedwald. But the album that usually slips through the cracks whenever Jones's career is discussed is a pre-Kapp effort that he made in 1959 for Capitol entitled This Love of Mine.

Jack's father, actor Allan Jones
The son of actor and singer Allan Jones and actress Irene Hervey, Jack Jones had been born in Los Angeles in 1938 and had enjoyed the benefits of belonging to a showbiz family. He had always been fascinated with pop music, particularly with singers like Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé, and by the 1950s he was appearing in nightclubs with his father, which led to a promising recording contract with Capitol. But the company, showing really poor judgment, had him record a slew of teenage pop singles that went nowhere mostly because Jones's heart was not in that kind of music. What he wanted to record was adult pop, the type of material that had made Bobby Darin a household name. Unfortunately, Jones only got one opportunity to do this at Capitol, when he recorded the Voyle Gilmore-produced This Love of Mine. This was an unusual concept album in that the underlying theme that held the eleven songs together was that they were tunes penned by songwriters who were better known as singers, or whom the public in general did not associate with the songwriting craft.

One might think that such a concept would make for a weak album, but it is not the case, as the repertoire is very well chosen. There are two songs co-written by Sinatra, the title track and "I'm a Fool to Want You." The former dates back to Sinatra's tenure with Tommy Dorsey, while the latter is supposed to chronicle the difficulties that he underwent during his tempestuous relationship with Ava Gardner. Jones decides to take both at a noticeably faster tempo than Sinatra, which is most surprising in the case of "I'm a Fool to Want You" given the highly dramatic nature of its theme. On "This Love of Mine" there is an unexpected guitar solo that fits the mood of the tune nicely. From the songbook of comedian Steve Allen come "Impossible," an agreeable ballad, and the classic "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," which shows Jones's confident approach whenever he is called upon to swing. The album also includes two songs by Nat King Cole ("With You on My Mind" and "To Whom It May Concern," both originally recorded by Cole for Capitol) and two by the outstanding pianist-singer-songwriter Matt Dennis—the lesser-known "Show Me the Way to Get Out of This World," sung in a laid-back swinging style and featuring an interesting trumpet solo, and "Angel Eyes," the famous saloon song that Sinatra had just included in his album Only the Lonely and undoubtedly one of the highlights of Jones's freshman LP.

Arranger Bobby Hammack
Jones approaches the witty "I Don't Know Enough About You," penned by Peggy Lee and her then-husband Dave Barbour, with gusto, in an easy-swinging sort of way, and perhaps to show that he can also join the ranks of those singers who also dabble in songwriting, he offers a composition of his own, "What Would I Do," which actually turns out to be quite a respectable effort. The album closes appropriately with the beautiful Frankie Laine ballad "We'll Be Together Again," another one that Sinatra also recorded for Capitol (on Songs for Swingin' Lovers). Released toward the end of 1959, This Love of Mine earned a rather positive review from Billboard (November 30, 1959):

After a few efforts, this is the initial LP by a lad whose work augurs a strong potential. Jack Jones is the son of former stars Allan Jones and Irene Hervey, and he has been playing nitery dates with his dad in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. He shows a feeling for a swinging rhythm, an ability to project his personality and a pleasing way of styling a ballad. Strong backing by Bobby Hammack's ork.

The reviewer is certainly right about Jones's way with both swingers and ballads, as well as about the assessment of Bobby Hammack's arrangements, which are strong without ever getting in the way and feature some interesting touches such as the brief organ solos on "Angel Eyes" and "We'll Be Together Again." The cover is a different matter altogether—it is anyone's guess why the powers that be at Capitol thought that it was appropriate to have Jones photographed in full caveman attire, wielding a big club, and stepping on a scantily clad woman lying in the foreground, while some kind of dinosaur observes the scene in the background. Looking at it almost sixty years later, one wonders how the cover can be in any way related to the theme of the album, what kind of audience the producers were trying to target, and simply what was going through the heads of whoever decided to approve such a horrifying cover. It is, indeed, one of the strangest, most mystifying pieces of LP artwork I have ever seen. Whatever the case, in spite of the favorable review from Billboard, the album was not much of a hit, and it was not until he signed with Kapp two years later that Jones's career would actually take off. Yet This Love of Mine—which may be easily found on CD these days as part of the European reissue Jack Jones: Six Classic Albums, from Real Gone Music—remains one of my favorite albums by Jones and a very enjoyable early effort that in many ways already indicates greater things to come.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 7: Johnny Marvin

Calling Johnny Marvin an unsung vocalist may seem like a little bit of a stretch. After all, he was one of the most popular singers in the country during his brief heyday of the late 1920s and early '30s, a couple of CD reissues of his work are currently available, and authors Michael Pitts and Frank Hoffman have devoted a whole chapter of their excellent book The Rise of the Crooners (Scarecrow Press, 2002) to discussing his life and career. And yet, Johnny Marvin is almost totally forgotten today, to such an extent that it is difficult not to agree with Pitts and Hoffman when they state that he "is a crooner waiting rediscovery" (184). Born in Butler, Oklahoma, in 1897, Marvin grew up around music because both his parents could play, though they never played professionally. His complete name was John Senator Marvin, and it was as Senator that he began playing informally with his father while still barely a teenager. A barber by trade, Marvin had a brief stint as a Navy barber during WWI, but at the end of the conflict, he decided that the life of an entertainer was for him, and so he started appearing on the vaudeville circuit, often as a solo act but also as part of Sargent, Marvin, and the Four Camerons, a group he formed with baritone Charles Sargent.

By this time, Marvin was already proficient on the mouth harp, the musical saw, and a number of string instruments, including the guitar, the fiddle, the steel guitar, and particularly the ukulele, which ranked high in the preferences of the public due to the enormous success of Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards. Though he had cut some records around 1924 with Sargent, Marvin began to make his mark on the record business with his solo records in the style of Edwards, some of which even featured Ukulele Ike's proto-scat routine known as "eefin'." Marvin's recording contract with Columbia, however, was not exclusive, so he was at liberty to make records for other companies, and his output was very prolific throughout the late 1920s, both on major and dimestore labels. Pitts and Hoffman report that, at the highest point in his career, "over ten million homes throughout the country owned Johnny Marvin records" (171), which, together with his successful vaudeville appearances, meant that he was a major force in two of the mainstream entertainment media of the day: records and vaudeville. And yet, despite the success of his performances of songs such as "Breezin' Along with the Breeze," "Half a Moon," and "All Alone Monday," Marvin has not remained associated with one particular tune, which may be one of the reasons for his current obscurity.

His popularity with the record-buying public opened the doors to Hollywood, and Marvin made several early short sound films for MGM and Vitaphone to promote some of his songs. While these shorts were praised by trade publications such Billboard and Variety, Marvin never got around to starring in a feature film like some of his contemporaries (Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, to name but three) and so his main claim to fame in the cinematic medium lies in having been one of the main stars of short-subject sound films. In 1926, Marvin appeared, as Honey Duke (one of several pseudonyms under which he cut records) in the hit Broadway show Honeymoon Lane, recording several of the songs he sang on stage for different labels with a great deal of success. Around this time, he was in high demand as a provider of vocal refrains for dance-band records, often working with studio orchestras led by Nat Shilkret, Roger Wolfe Kahn, and Johnny Hamp, among others. A measure of his popularity is the fact that the Harmony company began selling an ukulele known as the Johnny Marvin ukulele, and his records were successful enough in England that in 1928 he signed a contract to appear at London's Kit Kat Club, an establishment that was popular with the cream of English society. By all accounts, Marvin was a big hit in England, though his London engagement was unfortunately cut short due to some throat problems that he developed while in the British Isles.



Frankie and Johnny Marvin
Back home in the United States in the summer of 1928, and completely recovered from his health issues, Marvin maintained a heavy recording schedule, and both his discs and his theater gigs were met with great acclaim. By this time, he began appearing with his younger brother, Frankie Marvin, who was at least as gifted a musician as Johnny, and who would also enjoy a solo career. The Depression still lay ahead, however, and Marvin's career would be dramatically affected by it, particularly because the new economic climate would have a very negative impact on the record industry and would effectively wipe off vaudeville. Even though at first it seemed that Marvin would survive the onset of the Depression, he would soon start feeling its effects and, in fact, his career as a performer would never fully recover. By the early 1930s, Marvin began concentrating primarily on radio work and on songwriting. In the latter capacity, he specialized in Western songs, many of which were sung by his friend Gene Autry in the many movies he made for Republic Pictures. Marvin had been instrumental in getting Autry's career off the ground—both Johnny and Frankie Marvin had even played on the singing cowboy's early sessions—and the two men remained very close until Johnny's death.

An ad for the Johnny Marvin ukulele model

As a radio personality, Marvin appeared in several shows, starring in one of them as Dr. Cheer for the NBC network in 1931. The concept behind the program was that he would sing songs inspired by problems described by listeners in their letters. Fortunately, some recordings of the show survive, and they can be found on the CD compilation A Voice of the 20s (Take Two). He also made some radio transcriptions for MacGregor in the late 1930s, but by that time he had mostly abandoned his recording activities to concentrate on songwriting. According to Pitts and Hoffman, his last commercial recording session (for Decca) took place sometime towards the end of the 1930s, but judging by some of the songs he cut ("Me and My Shadow" being one) he was mostly seen by then as a relic of what seemed like a distant past. During WWII, Marvin became involved with the USO, entertaining troops as far afield as the South Pacific, where he contracted malaria, and the disease would lead to his passing in December 1944, when he was merely 47 years old.

Anyone interested in getting acquainted with Johnny Marvin's melodious, smooth singing style and dazzling ukulele playing may seek out two CD releases. The aforementioned A Voice of the 20s features three tracks from the Dr. Cheer radio series (including a spoken commercial for Columbia Cleaners, the show's sponsor) as well as fine sides made between 1927-1930, like "I Still Get a Thrill," "Crazy Rhythm," "I'm in Seventh Heaven," and even the outstanding instrumental "12th Street Rag." Though now out of print, Breezin' Along with the Breeze (ASV / Living Era) is a rather comprehensive compilation of both solo recordings and dance-band sides for which Marvin provides vocal refrains, all cut between 1926-1930. Highlights include "Just Another Day Wasted Away," "Blue Skies" (a duet with Ed Smalle), "Ain't That a Grand a Glorious Feeling?," "Happy Days and Lonely Nights," and Al Jolson's "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," among many others. Those who still remember Johnny Marvin today often tend to think of him as a composer of Western tunes performed by Autry and Roy Rogers, but that is only a small part of his legacy. If we go back to the late 1920s and early '30s, we will discover the appealing work of a smooth crooner and an excellent ukulele player. And, as Pitts and Hoffman remind us, it is a body of work that is awaiting rediscovery.


Saturday, March 5, 2016

New Releases: Bing Crosby's Good and Rare, Volume 3

Back in 2009, the British reissue label Sepia Records released the first volume in the Good & Rare series of Bing Crosby compilations, with a second volume following a year later. Now, almost a decade later, we have the third installment in the series, and as is the case with the other two, this new issue is highly recommended for any serious Crosby fan. Just like the rest of Sepia releases, this CD is up to the European company's high production and packaging quality standards, and the compilation is supervised by International Club Crosby members and Crosby specialists and collectors John Newton, David CurringtonMalcolm Macfarlane, and Wig Wiggins. Bearing in mind the age and sources of some of the material, the sound is good overall—in many instances it is excellent—and the occasional imperfections never get in the way of our listening pleasure. Even though the tracks are arranged in strict chronological order, the CD is well programmed, and each cut flows into the next with great ease.

Crosby (center) with the Rhythm Boys
As the title of the collection implies, the material included here is of undeniable rarity, most of the tracks being available on CD for the first time. The earliest cuts take us back to the late 1920s, when Crosby was a featured vocalist with the Paul Whiteman orchestra, as well as a member of Whiteman's Rhythm Boys, a trio made out of Crosby, Harry Barris, and Al Rinker. Two of the songs, "Everything's Agreed Upon" (a long-forgotten composition by Barris that does not seem to have been cut by anybody else since) and "A Bench in the Park," come from an NBC radio show starring the trio, and they clearly prove that Crosby's voice already stood out from the rest at a time when the crooner was on the verge of stardom. Other interesting recordings from this early period of Crosby's career are "Poor Little G-String," an alternate take of "Ol' Man River" with Whiteman, and "Song of the Dawn," which John Boles, and not Bing, sang in the Whiteman extravaganza, The King of Jazz. The CD is full of alternate takes of songs originally released by Decca ("After Sundown," "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," "Red Sails in the Sunset") which are often subtly different from the issued versions and show that discarded takes by Crosby are usually just as good as the versions chosen for release. The 1934 film recording of "It's Easy to Remember" included here differs greatly from the issued version, and a truncated 1944 attempt at Cole Porter's "Night and Day" is interesting because we actually get a chance to witness Crosby's reaction to his rather bouncy performance of the classic Porter ballad.

Arranger Buddy Bregman
But, in my opinion, there are two sets of tracks here that are absolutely worth the price of admission. First, there's a group of demos recorded by Bing in 1937-40 with minimal instrumental accompaniment (just John Scott Trotter on piano and Perry Botkin on guitar), including "The Moon Got in My Eyes," "Where Is Central Park?," "Beware (I'm Beginning to Care)," "East Side of Heaven," "Sing a Song of Sunbeams," "When the Moon Comes over Madison Square," and two versions of "Laugh and Call It Love." These are absolutely delightful stripped-down readings of these songs that will appeal to listeners who enjoy listening to Bing in a small-group setting. And then there are three alternate takes from Crosby's 1956 sessions with Buddy Bregman that yielded the album Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings, an entry in Bing's discography that has caused quite a division and heated debates among Crosby aficionados over the years. Although the liner notes say that these alternate takes previously "popped up on an Australian LP," they were not included in the Verve reissue of the Crosby-Bregman collaboration, so they make their first appearance on CD here. The songs are "The Blue Room," "Cheek to Cheek," and "Mountain Greenery," and again, they are only marginally different from the versions included in the original album, but they are extremely interesting for those of us who appreciate Crosby's recordings with Bregman.


John Scott Trotter and Bing Crosby

All in all, this CD will be of greater interest to the serious Crosby collector than to the casual fan, but most of the material offered here is notable not only for its rarity, but also for its consistently high musical quality. The liner notes by Mr. Macfarlane are, as always, informative, knowledgeable, and well written, and everyone involved in the production of this third volume in Sepia's Good and Rare series deserves the gratitude of all Crosby fans. Hopefully we will not have to wait another nine or ten years to see a further installment in this very appealing series.


Where to Find This Album

This CD is available from all major internet retailers and directly from the Sepia Records website here. Also, Crosby fans in the United States may obtain it by contacting Mr. Wig Wiggins via e-mail (wigbing2012 [at] gmail [dot] com) or via regular mail (5608 North 34th Street, Arlington, VA 22207).




Friday, January 15, 2016

Interview with Singer Bobby Rydell: "I grew up listening to the music of the big bands, and this music was in my blood from my childhood"

Our first post of 2016 is an interview we recently did with singer Bobby Rydell, in which he discusses his life and career, as well as two excellent early 1960s albums he made for the Cameo / Parkway label, mostly paying tribute to the music of the pre-rock era, which was more of an influence on his own style than one may think.

In the late 1950s and early '60s, between the first outburst of rock'n'roll and the arrival of the so-called British Invasion, the airwaves were suddenly filled with a gentler, sweeter kind of pop music, epitomized by teen idols such as Frankie Avalon, Ricky Nelson, and Fabian. One of the most popular among them was Philadelphia-born Bobby Rydell, whose memorable recordings of hits like "Kissin' Time," "Wild One," and "Swingin' School," among several others, turned him into a national sensation starting in 1959. After achieving great success on records and through appearances on top-rated television shows, Rydell made his movie debut in the now classic musical Bye Bye Birdie, alongside Ann-Margret and Dick Van Dyke, a role that did a great deal to further his career. Rydell has announced that in 2016 he will be publishing his autobiography and a pictorial of his career, and anyone interested in more information about this forthcoming book should check his website.



Rydell with Domenico Modugno
Despite the fact that, just like Bobby Darin, Rydell started out as a teen idol, he was steeped in big band music and pre-rock pop crooners (one of his hits was a cover of Italian crooner Domenico Modugno's "Volare," also cut by Dean Martin), and to this day his live act includes many tunes out of the Great American Songbook. In fact, in the 1960s he cut a few albums celebrating these influences, namely Bobby Salutes the Great Ones (1961), Rydell at the Copa (1961), and Bobby Rydell and the Bernie Lowe Orchestra Recreate the Big Band Days (1962). Back in October, these three LPs, along with a 1961 collaboration with label mate Chubby Checker, were reissued on a two-CD set by the British label Jasmine Records. As soon as we heard about this release, we got in touch with Mr. Rydell, through his assistant, Ms. Linda Hoffman, and he graciously agreed to an interview with The Vintage Bandstand to discuss his career in general and these albums in particular. We now present the full interview here.


Anton Garcia-Fernandez (for The Vintage Bandstand): You were born in Philadelphia. Please tell us a little bit about your childhood there. What kinds of music did you listen to? Who were your earliest musical influences?

Bobby Rydell: I grew up listening the music of the big bands.  My father used to take me to a theatre in Philadelphia that often showcased the legends of this era and I fell in love with the music at about age seven.  As a child I saw the incredible Gene Krupa live and it stayed with me until this day.  I remember telling my dad "That's what I want to be—a drummer."  Dad was responsible for everything I became.  He bought me my first set of drums and gave me drum lessons.  If the singing thing hadn't worked out, that's what I'd be doing today. 

TVB: Around 1950, you first appeared on the TV show Teen Club, which was hosted by legendary bandleader Paul Whiteman, and you stayed on that show for about three years. What do you remember about that show? Did you get to have much interaction with Mr. Whiteman?

Mr. Rydell: I was sort of the "mascot" on the Whiteman show. I was about eight years old when I won a talent contest and became a regular on the program.  I won a TV set (the first on our block!) in the contest for the show.  I don't remember a time that I wasn't performing.  Yes, Mr. Whiteman was very involved with the show—he was the person who first changed my name from Bobby Ridarelli to Bobby Rydell. He said no one would remember Ridarelli!

TVB: In the late 1950s, you signed a contract with the label Cameo / Parkway which led to big hits like "Kissin' Time," "Swingin' School," and "Wild One," among others, and which turned you into a very popular teen idol. How did that contract come about?

Mr. Rydell: I used to cut school to hang out at the studios (which were a two-by-four space, nothing major like you'd imagine).  I knew Bernie Lowe (one of the founders of the label) from the Whiteman show - he was a piano player on the show.  It wasn't until I met Frankie Day (my first manager) by chance at a show I was playing in one of my first bands - that I got an "audition" with the label - and the rest kind of just took off. 

TVB: On one of your albums for that label you were teamed up with another big star of the era, Chubby Checker. What do you remember about the sessions that produced that collaboration between the two of you?

Mr. Rydell: Being that we were both under contract with the same record label, they thought it would be a novel idea to have the both of us do a "duets" album to be released just before the holidays and toss in a couple of holiday songs.  One of those tunes, "Jingle Bell Rock," is really popular to this day on the radio stations during the holidays.  Chubby and I knew one another from the South Philadelphia area where we were both born and raised, and of course through the label and we had toured together in Australia a few times.  It was a natural type of recording session and a brilliant move by the label.  I think it became one of the top-selling albums for the label.  We still see one another on the road to this day.  We both still live in the same area of suburban Philadelphia. 

TVB: One of your most remarkable albums is Bobby Rydell Salutes the Great Ones, which includes rocking versions of standards such as "That Old Black Magic," "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," and "Nice Work If You Can Get It." What was the concept behind this LP and how did it come about? Did you select the songs? And if so, how did you select the songs?

Mr. Rydell: My manager and I selected the songs, submitted them to Cameo and they loved the idea.  This music was in my blood from my childhood and felt very natural that I record it - we did it with a touch of the contemporary and it worked.  When I started performing on shows like Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Perry Como  - this was the type of music they wanted me to perform on their shows - not the "Swingin' School," etc. 




TVB: In 1961 you first performed at the Copacabana, in New York, and the album Rydell at the Copa features a recording of your nightclub set there. How did the contract at the Copa come about? Your repertoire seems to be more adult-oriented. Did you get to choose your set lists for your engagement at the Copa?

Mr. Rydell: My manager, Frank Day, was the brains behind the Copa job.  He felt I was "ready" to graduate from the rock and roll shows onto the night club circuit.  He hired a stage coach for me, taught me dance steps, stage posture - even had a script written for the show with jokes, song medleys - it was a smash.  I got rave reviews by the tough New York critics calling the show a "powder keg of talent."  It was a thrill beyond belief for me. At age 19 I went down in history as the youngest performer ever to headline the famed Copa.

TVB: One can't help but notice that both Salutes the Great Ones and At the Copa feature several songs associated with Al Jolson ("My Mammy," "April Showers," "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder"). Was Jolson one of your musical influences? 

Mr. Rydell: No, Jolson wasn't really an influence.  

Rydell and Ann-Margret
TVB: One of your most memorable movie roles came in the 1963 film musical, Bye, Bye Birdie. How did you get involved in this movie? Are there any memories of co-stars Ann-Margret and Dick Van Dyke that you would like to share?

Mr. Rydell: Ann and I are friends to this day.  She calls and checks in often.  When she does she asks if "Hugo" is there.  We were 2 kids back then.  My original role of Hugo did not call for any singing (in the stage version) and only a few lines.  My audition with Ann was magnetic and the producers decided to expand Hugo's role. They thought we were magic together and wanted to play that up to the younger audience.  Every day we came to the set my role got bigger and bigger.

TVB: Finally, after all these years, you are still performing. For instance, you toured Australia last year. That shows that you must really enjoy music. Do you still listen to much music these days? And if so, what kinds of music and artists do you like listening to?

Mr. Rydell: My tour schedule today is full. [You can check it out here.]  I work frequently in a show called The Golden Boys, which is a production by Dick Fox, my present manager.  We have been performing this production  to sellout audiences for the past 30 years.  "The Golden Boys" are (officially) myself, Frankie Avalon, and Fabian.  When this first started we joked it would be good for about 6 months—never dreamt that people would still be buying tickets 30 years later.  The show features old film footage of our teen idol days, lots of production numbers with the three of us together, we individually do our separate shows, then come back together for a tribute to our fellow performers who have passed on.  There's even a dance contest.  I also do my solo show in Las Vegas and around the country, which is a mix of my oldies and lots of my favorite "standards" big band style.  Some of my shows (like one I'm doing at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City) are with eighteen-piece orchestras and are songs from the American Songbook.



In 2012 I really thought it was over, though. I spent most of that year in and out of hospitals with tubes down my throat.  Never thought I'd sing again.  I needed a double organ transplant (kidney & liver).  Through skilled surgeons at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and my organ donor and the family who lost her, I am here today.  I'm still singing and telling my audiences the importance of becoming an organ donor.  They are able to come to the show because of one unselfish person. My donor's name was Julia, and she was in her twenties.

Of the artists today I'm especially fond of Diana Krall and Tower of Power.



Monday, December 21, 2015

The Louis Armstrong / Mills Brothers Decca Sessions, 1937-40

By the time Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers first entered a studio to record a few sides together in 1937, they were both successful and popular artists in the jazz and pop fields, the brothers perhaps slightly more so than Satchmo. They had recorded with the likes of the Boswell Sisters and Bing Crosby, and the time seemed right to pair them with Armstrong, who at the time was being pushed by producer Jack Kapp to diversify his material and record in different settings, in an attempt to appeal to both black and white audiences and to score pop hits. Though Armstrong's gravelly voice seemingly stood in stark contrast with the smooth harmonies of the brothers, it actually blended extremely well on the finished recordings, most likely because both Armstrong and the Mills Brothers came out of the same musical tradition and understood each other's language perfectly well. While the Millses had become famous for their ability to mimic the sound of instruments (the guitar was the only instrument that they actually played) this was more than just a gimmick, and in fact, Satchmo's trumpet, which had exerted its influence on the music of the quartet, is superbly supported by the brothers' mimicry.

The Mills Brothers in the 1920s (Photo owned by Daniel R. Clemson)

All in all, Armstrong and the brothers recorded eleven songs together over a three-year period that goes from April 1937 to April 1940. The material chosen for these sessions is rather eclectic, from novelty numbers like "Boog It," "The Flat Foot Floogie," and Irving Berlin's "My Walking Stick" to updates of minstrel material like "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" to pop songs of the day such as "Marie" and "The Song Is Ended," both of them written by Berlin as well. The atmosphere of all the sessions—there were six in all—is extremely relaxed, with the brothers harmonizing and Armstrong offering hip vocals and some excellent trumpet solos to complement the Millses' signature sound effects. Most of the songs feature brief guitar introductions, and as in the case of Don Redman's "Cherry," one of the standouts from these sessions, the interactions between Armstrong and the brothers are seamless. All the songs are tightly arranged and clearly intended as both jazz and pop records that could be appealing to different audiences.

At least one of the singles that came out of these dates was extremely popular—the one that paired "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" and "Darling Nellie Gray," which ended a brief hit drought for the Millses. By the late 1930s it had become common practice in the recording industry to use nineteenth-century songs, mostly because they had fallen into the public domain, but this particular disc is unique in that Amstrong and the brothers not only swing and modernize these two songs about slavery and the old plantation but they also turn them into subtle calls for freedom. As Gary Giddins has written in Visions of Jazz, this record is "a politically astute response to the pastoralism that became rife in the recording industry of the '30s and continued into the early '60s" (24). In the hands of Armstrong and the brothers, "Old Virginny" no longer expresses a yearning to go back to working "day after day in the fields of yellow corn" but becomes a shout for political and social freedom, which is underscored by the choice of the abolitionist song, "Darling Nellie Gray," for the flip side. It seems appropriate to quote Giddins more at length on this subject:

Perhaps Armstrong's most able signifying comes at the end of the first eight bars of his thirty-two-bar solo, an unmistakable trumpet call—to freedom in life. If the flip side had been a similar piece or an ordinary ballad, the record would—despite Armstrong's saves—have limited meaning. But "Darling Nellie Gray" was one of the most powerful abolitionist songs of the 1850s; published only four years after Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is widely credited with changing people's minds on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. (26)

The Mills Brothers (Photo owned by D.R. Clemson)
The choice of material, then, could not have been accidental, particularly if we bear in mind that a similar change of meaning also operates on their version of Stephen Foster's "The Old Folks at Home," which, in the rendition by Armstrong and the Millses, is as far away from a song of longing for the old plantation as "Old Virginny." As Giddins has also rightly pointed out, Armstrong mocks the original meaning of this Foster ballad, taking it at a rather brisk pace and eschewing any kind of nostalgia for an idealized past on the plantation: when he ends his rendition by saying "we are far away from home," there is no trace of sentimentality in his voice. This is a record that shuns a painful past and prefers to look toward a brighter future ahead. Shortly after these sessions, the Mills Brothers would score a smash hit with "Paper Doll," and Louis Armstrong would go on to become one of the major icons of the twentieth century. Sadly, these recordings have long been neglected both by a vast majority of critics and by the record label that originally released them. As a matter of fact, CD reissues of these songs are scarce: European imports such as Jazz Archives # 47: Louis Armstrong and The Mills Brothers Greatest Hits and The Mills Brothers Featuring Louis Armstrong Vol. 4: 1937-1940 are, to our knowledge, the only reissues currently available, and they are not always easy to find. Yet the uniqueness, historical significance, and artistic value of the collaboration between Satchmo and the Millses calls for a serious reissue and a subsequent critical reappraisal.