Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Philip Furia's Top-Ten List of Johnny Mercer Songs

I spent part of this past weekend in Savannah, Georgia, attending a conference with two colleagues from the university. Among other things, that beautiful town is known for being the birthplace of Johnny Mercer, one of the wittiest, most idiosyncratic lyricists who ever contributed to the Great American Songbook, as well as a fine singer in his own right. So a few weeks ago I contacted Philip Furia, the author of the best biography of Mercer currently available, and asked him to send me a list of his top-ten favorite Johnny Mercer songs, along with some brief comments about each one. He graciously complied, and the result is the following article, for which I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to Mr. Furia.

Granted, I only spent two days in Savannah, mostly around the downtown area, but it was enough to realize what a lovely town it is, full of cultural activity and history, and the Johnny Mercer connection makes it even more attractive for someone who, like me, grew up fascinated by his very personal lyrics sung by legends such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, among a myriad others. I became acquainted with Mercer as a songwriter first and was instantly attracted to his witty rhymes, his Southern inflections, and his penchant for telling a complete story set to music in just a few stanzas. That is the case with the late-night conversation between a client and a bartender in "One for My Baby," which is really a monologue, as the main character talks to a bartender who listens silently and never utters a comment. It is also the case with "I Thought About You," a train ride that offers the speaker a chance to reflect on the loss of love. Mercer is also a master when it comes to treating the universal subjects of romantic love, as in the open declaration of affection contained in "I Remember You," and unrequited love, as in "P.S. I Love You," a lyric written in the form of an unassuming love letter with just the right touch of sentimentality:

Dear, I thought I'd drop a line
The weather's good, the folks are fine
I'm in bed each night at nine
P.S., I love you.

Commemorative bench at Bonaventure Cemetery
Mercer was also a very interesting singer, who could handle sentimental numbers like "Candy" (with Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers), topical WWII ditties such as "I'm Gonna See My Baby" and "G.I. Jive," and even charming little novelties such as "Personality" with equal ease. In "One for My Baby," the protagonist tells the bartender, "You'd never know it / But, buddy, I'm a kind of poet," which seems to accurately describe Mercer's art itself. But Mercer is not just "a kind of poet" or a "poet of Tin Pan Alley," to borrow the title of one of Philip Furia's best books; he is a poet, without any other adjectives, one of the foremost American poets of the twentieth century. The fact that his lyrics were set to music, or that he wrote verses to fit musical compositions, is irrelevant. I am not going to say that all his lyrics read like poems, but they do not really have to—in many cases, they are inextricable from the melodies that accompany and complement them, and that is the way it should be. As Bing Crosby reminds us in his Musical Autobiography set, Mercer "is almost always strictly lyrics," but then his lyrics are always cleverly constructed and characterized by their wit and an unmistakable air of timelessness.

The most recommendable biography of Johnny Mercer currently available is, undoubtedly, Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer (St. Martin's Press, 2003), written by Philip Furia, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who is the author of several studies of the Great American Songbook, as well as of many other biographies of some of the greatest American songwriters from the Golden Age. His book on Mercer is painstakingly researched and offers a thorough account of the complex life of its subject that is very entertaining to read. Mr. Furia began his research for the volume about twenty years ago, when he first moved to the South: "I was curious about Mercer," Mr. Furia says, "a southern songwriter among so many others who were New Yorkers." In many ways, despite his success, Mercer had a troubled personality that mixed the charm of a southern gentleman with occasional cruelty and aggressiveness, which made the subject at once attractive and difficult to understand for Mr. Furia. "When I started interviewing people in Savannah, and then in New York and California, I found there were so many awful stories about Johnny Mercer when he was drunk—including a pass at his own niece—that I had trouble writing about him," confesses the biographer. "A lucky meeting with William Goldman, the screenwriter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, among other films), helped me resolve the problem by inserting myself and my mixed feelings about Mercer into the biography." And, indeed, those mixed feelings are apparent in the books, which is not merely a hagiography of Mercer, but a very balanced account of the life of a creative genius who was saddled with a personality full of contradictions. His biography, of course, is a definite must read for anyone interested in the Great American Songbook, classic pop, jazz, and twentieth-century American poetry.

Philip Furia's Top-Ten Johnny Mercer Songs

I asked Mr. Furia to name ten of his favorite Mercer compositions in no particular order, knowing that it would be a difficult task and totally aware that, if I were to ask him to do the same thing again in a few months or a few years, the list would probably look slightly different. Here are Mr. Furia's choices, along with the brief commentary he sent me about each song.

"One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" (here, by Frank Sinatra) — It's unlike most other lyrics in that it creates a miniature drama with a setting, another character ("Set 'em up, Joe"), and a monologue by the main character. Next time I go to New York, I'm going to Pete's Bar and Grill, where Mercer supposedly wrote the lyric, apologizing to Pete as he left for not getting his name into the lyric because "Joe" worked better.

"That Old Black Magic" (here, by Sarah Vaughan) — It shows how Mercer took an idea from a songwriter he admired greatly (Cole Porter's "Do, do that voodoo that you do so well" in "You Do Something to Me") and built a whole new lyric around the idea of love as "black magic." I'll bet his lyric inspired Carolyn Leigh's for "Witchcraft."

"Too Marvelous for Words" (here, by Bing Crosby) — Mercer wrote this lyric under a lot of pressure when he was starting out in Hollywood. His collaborator, Richard Whiting, gave him a big dictionary for inspiration, and Mercer worked it into the lyric: "To ever be in Webster's dictionary."

"Skylark" (here, by Maxine Sullivan) — The lyric has those images of nature that Mercer, as one of the few non-New Yorker lyricists of his era, brought to songwriting from growing up in Savannah.

"Jeepers Creepers" (here, by Jack Teagarden & Johnny Mercer) — Mercer's love of slang comes out in all his lyrics but nowhere more than in this one: "peepers," "cheaters," meaning "sunglasses."

"Hooray for Hollywood" (here, by Doris Day) — A great send-up of a town he loved and hated: "where you're terrific if you're even good."

"Autumn Leaves" (here, by Nat King Cole) — A bone-simple English lyric to a gorgeous French melody with great "d" sounds: "Drift by my window / The autumn leaves / Of red and gold . . . The sunburned hands / I used to hold." What an ear he had!

"Days of Wine and Roses" (here, by Andy Williams) — Haunting images of loss: "Toward a closing door, a door marked nevermore, that wasn't there before." Up there with T.S. Eliot's "East Coker."

"Satin Doll" (here, by Ella Fitzgerald & Duke Ellington) — Elegant and slangy: "Cigarette holder / which wigs me / over her shoulder / she digs me . . . speaks Latin / my satin doll."

"Laura" (here, by Dick Haymes) — Great, mysterious imagery: "And you see Laura / on a train that is passing through / those eyes, how familiar they seem."

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Music St. Paddy Likes: John McCormack

It is St. Patrick's Day today, widely celebrated all over North America by the wearing of the green and the drinking of the ale. But it is also a day to be celebrated with some great Irish-themed music, and there is perhaps no better choice than one of the greatest and most versatile Irish tenors of all time—John McCormack, that is!

Seven decades after his passing, John McCormack is still remembered today as one of the best tenors who ever graced the stage and the recording studio, and his music still sounds as fresh and beautiful today as it did in the 1930s and '40s. McCormack was Irish by birth, although he would later become an American citizen. Born in 1884 in Athlone, Ireland, he earned a reputation as an opera singer in the early years of the 20th century, headlining many important operatic productions in Italy, England, and the United States. Aware that his talent as an actor was somewhat lacking and that his gifts lay elsewhere, McCormack concentrated on live appearances and recordings after World War I, finding great success with his Irish ballads, folk tunes, and airs that made him a star internationally. Although he also performed classical lieder and pop songs in his recitals, his audiences constantly demanded his Irish-themed material, and he was always delighted to oblige. At the beginning of the sound era, he also worked occasionally in movies, though the ones he made, such as Frank Borzage's Song O' My Heart (1929, with Maureen O'Hara) and Harold D. Schuster's Wings of the Morning (1937, with Henry Fonda), are rather obscure. In the late 1920s, McCormack returned permanently to his native country, and by 1938 he had quietly slipped into retirement, although he kept making records almost until his death in Dublin in 1945.

There are many CD compilations of John McCormack's work, both classical and popular, and they are all recommendable, because he was the kind of artist who hardly ever made a subpar record. However, for his Irish recordings, one of the best choices is Songs of My Heart: Popular Songs and Irish Ballads (EMI Records, 1992), which includes sides he made between 1930 and 1941. Here we find him mostly accompanied by a piano that is always elegant and sympathetic and that supports his marvelous voice perfectly. As the title suggests, the program features mostly Irish tunes, many of them from poet Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies, such as "The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls," "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms," and "The Meeting of the Waters." There are also a couple of selections from the Stephen Foster songbook ("Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" and "Sweetly She Sleeps My Alice Fair"), a musical setting of a W.B. Yeats text ("Down by the Sally Gardens"), and several traditional Irish melodies like "The Garden Where the Praties Grow" and "The Bard of Armagh."

McCormack's interpretation of "The Londonderry Air," better known as "Danny Boy" but presented here under the title of "O Mary Dear," is one of the most memorable ever recorded. But one of the most moving tracks on the compilation is the traditional ballad "She Moved Thro' the Fair," which is the perfect example of McCormack's ability to create and sustain and mood in song, in this case deeply sorrowful and haunting. Both the music and the lyrics of this song have a rather mysterious and mournful quality that seems to foreshadow death before the wedding of two lovers. We do not know that the bride is indeed dead until the final lines, but the sorrow and unrest are ably conveyed by McCormack and his piano accompanist from the opening stanza of the song:

My young love said to me:
"My mother won't mind
And me fath'r won't slight you
For your lack of kind."
Then she stepp'd away from me
And this did she say:
"It will not be long, love
Till our wedding day."

The music contained herein shows that McCormack was a master interpreter of song who could instantly create a connection with any live audience. Since we cannot experience him live at any of his extremely popular recitals anymore, his recordings are the only possible substitute, and listening to them makes us realize why they are worthy of being played and treasured all these decades after they were made. Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone!

McCormack sitting at the piano

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sarah Vaughan's Snowbound: Songs for a Snowy Day

The weather has been unusually cold in northwest Tennessee as of late, and in the city of Martin, the snowfall we had a few days ago has caused campus to close and classes to be canceled at the university, to the great joy, I suppose, of the whole student body. The landscape all around our house is uncharacteristically white, and the cold temperatures have made me want to dust off my copy of one of Sarah Vaughan's most underrated concept albums: Snowbound, cut for Roulette Records in 1963 and boasting some beautiful lush, moody string arrangements by Don Costa. Of course, the winter season has occasionally been the subject of some noteworthy albums, such as Dean Martin's A Winter Romance, which also includes some Christmas songs as part of its wintry theme. And then there are Yuletide albums that also include tunes about the winter, such as June Christy's This Time of Year. But the concept behind Snowbound is slightly different. Here we have a record that uses a snowy day as a setting to bring together a group of well-chosen songs about love lost and found, about longing and reminiscing, and about joy and despair, all of them enveloped in a warm, dreamy atmosphere that invites us to sit by the fire and gaze at the snow-covered world outside. In short. the perfect soundtrack for days like these.

As Will Friedwald rightly observes in his Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, the thirteen albums that Sarah Vaughan released on Roulette between 1960 and 1963 (yes, that is really about three LPs a year!) must be counted among the high points in her career:

Her output [for Roulette] . . . was massive both in quality and quantity. . . . If almost any other singer had done thirteen albums of this caliber in her entire career, we would have to assess her as a major artist. . . . Yet with Vaughan, it's just a drop in the bucket in the context of her total catalogue. (492)

This was a period in her career when Vaughan was paying as much attention to her jazz albums as to her adult pop projects, and needless to say, Snowbound belongs to the latter group. The title track, which opens the LP, is one of the coziest, dreamiest tunes in the whole disc, and it sets the scene and the tone for the intermingling of songs that deal with all different facets of love, from the excitement of its discovery ("I Hadn't Anyone Till You," "Stella by Starlight," "Oh, You Crazy Moon") to the grief caused by its loss ("What's Good About Goodbye?", "Glad to Be Unhappy"). Vaughan and Costa also select one of George and Ira Gershwin's lesser-known compositions, "Blah, Blah, Blah," as well as one of Johnny Mercer's most evocative lyrics, "I Remember You," with its clever internal rhymes set to a haunting melody by Victor Schertzinger. The album, which also features two songs by Sammy Cahn usually associated with Frank Sinatra, "Look to Your Heart" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily," closes on a high note with Vaughan's pensive, soothing treatment of the ballad "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," whose lyrics announce the coming of the spring while at the same time offering a word of warning about the dangers of a deceitful spring romance.

Arranger Don Costa
In spite of the undeniable quality of Vaughan's vocal performances and of Costa's tasteful arrangements, Snowbound is, as John Bush puts it in his review for the Allmusic website, "an overlooked gem from Sarah Vaughan's Roulette years." That is actually putting it mild, if we bear in mind that, other than on the essential—and rather expensive—eight-CD box set The Complete Sarah Vaughan Roulette Sessions (Mosaic Records), this album can only be found in CD format on an out-of-print British two-fer that couples it with 1964's The Lonely Hours. Owing to the sheer size of Vaughan's recorded output throughout her long career, it is perhaps not very surprising that this lovely album remains hard to find. Yet it is a notable void in her always impressive catalog that we wish some reissue company would see fit to fill—especially when snowy days like these come around!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

All What Blues 2: Bull Moose Jackson

In this second installment of the All What Blues series, we delve into the fascinating career of Bull Moose Jackson, a man who embraced a myriad of styles, from blues to jazz to pop to country. He could sing a sweet ballad and follow it up with a risque blues, all the while blowing some very worthy saxophone. Here is, briefly, the story and the legacy of one of the most exciting jump bluesmen of all time.

In memoriam Philip Larkin

In the All Music Guide to Blues, Bill Dahl writes that Bull Moose Jackson "had a split musical personality" (213), and if we listen to his records, we must agree that Jackson was, indeed, a Jekyll-and-Hyde sort of bluesman, the kind that Robert Louis Stevenson, had he ever heard of the blues, would have loved. On the one hand, when he was feeling like Dr. Jekyll, Jackson sang sweet love songs in a style that reminds us of Billy Eckstine, though his voice was not as deep and versatile as Mr. B.'s. But when he turned into Mr. Hyde, Jackson sang funny, mildly risque jump blues songs with titles such as "Big Ten-Inch Record," "I Want a Bowlegged Woman," "Nosey Joe," and "We Can Talk Some Trash." And there was yet another side to his musical output: because he spent a big chunk of his recording career at Syd Nathan's King Records, which was originally a country label, Jackson cut rhythm and blues versions of country and western tunes such as Wayne Raney's "Why Don't You Haul Off and Love Me" and Faron Young's "If You Ain't Lovin' You Ain't Livin'."

Bandleader Lucky Millinder
Of course, his given name was not Bull Moose but Benjamin Joseph Jackson, and he was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1919 into a musical family that encouraged his interest in music. It appears that as a kid he tried to learn the violin but he quickly became interested in the saxophone upon first hearing jazz, and throughout his career, both his singing and his playing would be featured on his records. In 1943 he joined the reed section of Lucky Millinder's popular orchestra, singing occasionally with the band. It was also around this time that he acquired the nickname of Bull Moose, allegedly from some fellow band members who thought he looked like that animal, and the moniker would stick with him for the rest of his life. Jackson was growing increasingly popular within the Millinder outfit, and so in 1946, apparently at the suggestion of Millinder himself, he struck out on his own, cutting his very first solo record, "Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well." This led to a long and fruitful association with King Records, a label that was dabbling in both the country and r&b markets and that, therefore, urged its blues artists to record country songs and vice versa.

It is at King that Jackson's so-called split musical personality developed in full. Some of his Eckstine-like slow numbers, such as "I Love You, Yes I Do" and "All My Love Belongs to You," with arrangements that also spotlighted his sax playing, became hits. But the buying public also received Jackson's more risque outings rather well, in particular "I Want a Bowlegged Woman," Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "Nosey Joe" ("he's ready to stick his long nose in their [women's] business"), and his classic "Big Ten-Inch Record," whose clever lyrics went like this:

Got me the strangest woman
Believe me, this chick's no cinch
But I really get her going
When I take out my big ten-inch
Record of the band that plays the blues
The band that plays the blues
She just loves my big ten-inch
Record of her favorite blues.

Vocalist Annisteen Allen
On this particular song, Jackson is backed by Tiny Bradshaw's orchestra, and he also gets to play some zesty saxophone. It is a hilarious jump blues whose beat—like most records of this kind—prefigures rock and roll and whose witty lyrics were considered racy at the time but are, of course, rather mild by today's standards. Ironically, although Jackson toured far and wide in the late forties and throughout the fifties, the arrival of rock and roll brought his career (as it did the careers of many other artists of his kind) to a halt. Although in 1961 he re-recorded his early hit, "I Love You, Yes I Do" for a small independent label, he would soon quit touring, and for the next two decades or so took a job with a catering company that worked for Howard University in Washington, DC. It seemed that this would be all we would ever hear from Bull Moose, but in the 1980s, he did enjoy a sort of a comeback, however brief, when the Pittsburgh band, The Flashcats, who had been singing some of his songs for years, conspired to bring him out of obscurity. Jackson recorded a fine album with them, Moosemania! (which was fortunately reissued on CD by Bogus Records in 1992 as The Final Recordings) and even did some live appearances, but this comeback was sadly cut short by Jackson's failing health. Bull Moose Jackson passed away shortly thereafter, in his hometown of Cleveland in 1989, at age 70.

Anyone who wishes to dig deep into Jackson's split musical personality should locate The Bull Moose Jackson Collection 1945-1955 (Acrobat, 2013), a fantastic two-CD set that contains all his best recordings, made over a ten-year period when he was in his absolute prime. Here you will find both Jekyll and Hyde, both the sweet and the lowdown, both the romantic crooner and the saucy jump bluesman. Many of his fine records with Millinder are included, as well as sides that feature female vocalist Annisteen Allen, and of course, all of his hits for King with his own band, the Buffalo Bearcats, and even his r&b covers of country and western hits. Though Bull Moose may not be as popular today as he was in his heyday, his recorded output that is wisely anthologized in this set definitely needs to be rediscovered and enjoyed because it is simply wonderful music.

Further reading

Those interested in finding out more about Bull Moose Jackson should check out this interesting tribute website put together by Bogus Records.

Bull Moose Jackson in his final years

Friday, January 30, 2015

John Jenkins: The Brief Recording Career of a Forgotten Alto Saxophonist

Saying that the recorded legacy of John Jenkins as a leader is meager seems like a vast understatement. As a matter of fact, besides two sessions cut about two weeks apart in the summer of 1957 and a third one co-led with trumpeter Donald Byrd that same year, Jenkins would never enter a studio as a leader again, quietly disappearing from the jazz scene in the mid 1960s. He did appear as a sideman on several dates by the likes of Jackie McLean, Paul Qunichette, Hank Mobley, Clifford Jordan, Wilbur Ware, and Teddy Charles, yet never again as a leader. This is undoubtedly regrettable in the light of the quality of the music produced during the two summer sessions that we are discussing today. Jenkins also played alongside jazz giants such as Charles Mingus and Art Pepper, but many of these collaborations went sadly unrecorded, which is another reason why his discography looks so slim. Born in Chicago in 1931, Jenkins began his musical education by playing the clarinet, yet he soon switched to alto saxophone, and in his formative years he was influenced by his friend Jackie McLean (with whom he recorded the album Alto Madness for Prestige also in 1957) as well as by Charlie Parker; hence his preference for bop and hard bop when it came time to lead his own sessions.

The first of these dates took place on July 26, 1957 at Rudy Van Gelder’s famed studio in New Jersey and was released on a Prestige album simply titled Jenkins, Jordan, and Timmons. As the title itself suggests, Jenkins, who plays alto saxophone, is joined by Clifford Jordan on tenor, Bobby Timmons on piano, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Dannie Richmond on drums. It is a wholeheartedly bop session, and a rather brief one at that, yielding five tracks that offer plenty of room for all involved to solo. Jenkins is in fine form, acting as leader from the very beginning of the first track, a Jordan original entitled “Cliff’s Edge,” and he brings in two of his own compositions, “Princess” and “Blue Jay.” These are two excellent mid-tempo vehicles for the kind of improvisation that Jenkins enjoyed, based on swift phrases with enough unexpected notes here and there to keep the listener’s attention. “Soft Talk,” the longest track on the album, is much more fast-paced, and though it is dominated primarily by Jenkins, it does contain a compelling solo by Timmons, and even Ware gets to solo briefly on bass. Jenkins is ably supported by Timmons on “Tenderly,” both the only standard and the only ballad in the set, which stands as a fine example of Jenkins’s gusto when it comes to slow numbers.

Jenkins’s second session as a leader was held just a couple of weeks later, on August 11, at the very same studio. Jenkins is again on alto, and Richmond is again sitting behind the drum kit, but this time Kenny Burrell is on guitar and shares credit in the title of the Blue Note album that was recorded on that day, originally issued as John Jenkins and Kenny Burrell. As we can see, whoever got to decide the titles of albums by Jenkins definitely did not spend too much time pondering over complex options. This is once again a quintet date, with Sonny Clark on piano and Paul Chambers on bass—quite the all-star group, in fact! The disc kicks off with a boppish reading of Cole Porter’s “From This Moment On,” built around the interplay between alto sax and guitar and one of the best examples of Jenkins’s knack for surprising the listener with unexpected notes. As in the previous session, the tune selection only affords a ballad here: in this case, it is Harold Adamson and Burton Lane’s “Everything I Have Is Yours,” usually associated with vocalist Billy Eckstine. As an interpreter of ballads, Jenkins shows that he has taken more than a tip from Charlie Parker: he exudes warmth and feeling, but like Bird, he is not afraid to show his bop leanings even at a slower tempo.

Kenny Burrell and John Jenkins
This time Jenkins contributes three of his own compositions (“Motif,” “Sharon," and "Chalumeau") all of them freshly minted melodies designed to showcase his improvisatory skills, as well as those of Burrell and Clark, who are afforded more space to shine than Chambers and Richmond throughout the set. The final track, “Blues for Two,” is credited to Burrell, and as its title implies, it is based on the blues and provides a more than satisfying way to bring the session to a close. Fortunately, both of these albums are currently available on CD format and should not be too hard to find (the Jenkins-Burrell reissue even includes two bonus tracks from the session, both of them alternate takes of cuts on the original record) and they capture Jenkins, albeit briefly, at the peak of his power, during a short time period when he was extremely active, and a few years before he drifted into obscurity and was never heard from again. In view of these two dates alone, his disappearance, whether self-imposed or not, was undoubtedly a great loss for jazz.

Bobby Timmons plays piano on Jenkins's first session as a leader