Sunday, December 12, 2010

Jim Godbolt and Thirty Years of Jazz in Britain, 1919-1950

The Book: A History of Jazz in Britain

In 2005, Northway Publications brought out the second edition of Jim Godbolt’s A History of Jazz in Britain, one of the most informative and most thoroughly researched books on the jazz activity that took place in Great Britain from the early 1920s to the early 1950s. Originally published by Quartet Books in 1984, the volume is not exactly a history of jazz in Britain but rather a chronicle of the different ways in which jazz was received in the British Isles. In an effort to explore how the English public reacted to the coming of jazz, Godbolt draws heavily on contemporary newspaper articles and record reviews and features that appeared in specialized jazz periodicals such as the Melody Maker, Rhythm, Swing Music, and Hot News, noting that journalism and research on jazz were noticeably more prolific in Britain and the rest of Europe than in the United States in these early years.

Godbolt opens his book around 1919, coinciding with the pioneering visit to England of the Original Dixieland Jazz band, the first jazz orchestra to appear and record in the Old World, and brings it to a close in the early 1950s, when the British jazz scene was in the midst of a stylistic battle between the supporters of traditional, New Orleans-style jazz and the followers of modern bebop. Godbolt eloquently justifies the scope chosen for his work in the introduction:

I had two main reasons for not taking this summary beyond 1950. An attempt to embrace events from 1919 to the present day . . . was so daunting a notion that I gave it no more than a cursory thought . . . The second reason is that from 1950 the scene was so different from that of the preceding years. The big bands were to collapse; there were to be the coincident phenomena of ‘trad’ and ‘bop’ and then ‘mainstream,’ where many of the stylistic opposites came to join hands. (xii)

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the first jazz band to play in Great Britain

The closing chapter does deal with the years after 1950, but the author consciously chooses not to delve into those events, well aware that the subject matter would deserve another full-length volume.

From the previous quotation, it becomes apparent that the history of jazz in Britain was one of opposites and stark contrasts: first of all, there was the opposition between those critics who embraced and celebrated jazz and those who openly criticized it; then there was the important distinction between the dance bands that performed sweet, commercial dance music and that only seldom featured jazz and the exclusively jazz-oriented hot combinations in the twenties and thirties; finally, when jazz had completely taken hold in Britain, there arose the heated debate between the followers of traditional jazz and those of modern bebop. Amid the excitement created by the new sound and the visits of great American stars by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in the 1930s, critics attempted to establish some criteria for the evaluation and criticism of jazz performances and records. Godbolt notes that in its early years, since its inception in January 1926, the Melody Maker was “as confused and convoluted in its critical judgments about jazz as the variety journals and national newspapers” (18).

Nevertheless, criteria and some kind of critical consistency were gradually attained as more and more records by both American and British bands were released in England, in many cases with a delay of several years. Slowly, jazz began to penetrate British life, and a solid base of avid fans and record collectors was established, many of them gathering in local Rhythm Clubs to enjoy live performances and record recitals and often sharing their views on the music via newsletters and similar publications. Godbolt also devotes a whole chapter to the pioneering jazz discographers, that is, the meticulous researchers who sought to set in writing the personnels of every jazz session ever committed to wax. The author notes that the figure of the discographer is, at least in these early years, essentially European, and he praises the dedication of researchers such as Brian Rust, Ralph Venables, Albert McCarthy, and Dave Carey for their invaluable contributions to early jazz scholarship.

Of course, Godbolt devotes numerous pages to assessing the artistry of the many native British jazz combinations that sprang up inspired by the new sound coming from America: as the records by Spike Hughes, Nat Gonella, Harry Parry, and Humphrey Lyttelton clearly show, British musicians were prompt to ably assimilate the new idiom, and a series of respected sidemen emerged, including Johnny Dankworth, Buddy Featherstonhaugh, Hugo Rignold, and Vic Lewis, many of whom were at one time employed by commercial dance bands with little or no interest in jazz. Many of these British combos often employed the services of American musicians visiting the country. One of these was arranger and multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter, who was hired by Henry Hall to write the arrangements for the BBC Dance Orchestra but who was not allowed much room to indulge in jazz during his tenure with the orchestra. This flow of American musicians working in Britain would soon come to an end, though, as ongoing disputes between the British and American musicians’ unions resulted in an infamous ban preventing American jazzmen from appearing in public or recording on British soil that lasted for well over two decades. As a matter of fact, one of the most interesting–and outrageous–chapters in Godbolt’s book relates the ridiculous lengths to which some promoters had to go in post-WWII England to bend the law just enough to have jazz giants Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins perform in Britain, sometimes even facing legal prosecution.

British jazzman and pioneering critic Spike Hughes

Written by someone who lived through these exciting years and who was a part of the history of British jazz as manager, promoter, and music critic, Jim Godbolt’s A History of Jazz in Britain is highly readable, extremely enlightening, and definitely an essential work for anyone interested in the reception of jazz in Europe in general, and in Great Britain in particular.

The Box Set: Jazz in Britain 1919-1950

Coinciding with the reissue of Godbolt’s book, and meant as a companion volume, in 2005 Proper Records released a four-CD box set entitled Jazz in Britain 1919-1950. Featuring a very interesting booklet illustrated with a good number of photographs, the set is annotated by Godbolt himself and is therefore intended as a sort of soundtrack to the book, although understandably not all the records mentioned in Godbolt’s work are included in the box set. For his liner notes, Godbolt draws largely on material from the book, offering a great deal of information that undeniably enriches the listener’s appreciation of each track. The title of the box set may be somewhat misleading at first sight: though it reads “Jazz in Britain,” not all the cuts showcase British bands and not all of them were made on British soil. Whenever possible, sides by American musicians waxed in the British Isles have been included, yet if a specific band or artist never got around to making any records in Great Britain, Godbolt’s policy has been to present recordings made around the time of that act’s tour of the country in order to give the listener an idea of the kind of material that British audiences would have heard. Moreover, because of the breadth of the subject matter, there are omissions in the compilation–which Godbolt acknowledges in his notes–but overall the collection is a very satisfying musical introduction to jazz in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century.

Godbolt chooses to present the tracks in chronological order, which proves to be the correct choice as it “[gives] the listener every indication of the changes in fashion, style, and execution that took place over thirty years” (6). Thus, the compilation starts off with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s landmark recording of “At the Jazz Band Ball,” made in London in 1919 during the band’s first visit to the United Kingdom, and it goes on to offer a host of fine cuts from British and American sweet and hot combinations made between the twenties and the forties, leading up to the years in which bop took hold in the British Isles and divided jazz fans and practitioners alike into two fiercely opposed factions. In between, there are excellent offerings from homegrown bands including legendary musicians such as Nat Gonella, Buddy Featherstonhaugh, Johnny Dankworth, Humphrey Lyttelton, Danny Polo, Spike Hughes, and Freddy Gardner, to name but a few. In addition, the tracks by American jazzmen who visited the Old World, like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Benny Carter, and others, give us an idea of the kind of material that influenced their British counterparts. The compilation also pays tribute to the extremely popular British dance bands of the 1920s and 1930s, some of which housed among their ranks some of the most gifted musicians of the era, who often graced the records of orchestras led by legendary bandleaders such as Jack Hylton, Ambrose, Ray Noble, and Fred Elizalde with their hot solos. In Godbolt’s insightful words,

It was one of the ironies of this saga. Those dance bands were despised and derided by purist jazz enthusiasts, but it was in this milieu of cloying and corny arrangements and some ghastly period vocals that certain musicians prevailed upon their frock-coated, baton-waving, forever-beaming bandleaders to be allowed the occasional chorus and special arrangement of a jazz standard. (7)

Autographed publicity photo of British bandleader Jack Hylton

All in all, this is a highly recommendable collection: indeed, it is not often that we find so well rounded a compilation serving as the perfect soundtrack to illustrate a finely written book. Proper Records’ Jazz in Britain 1919-1950 is a magnificent survey of the different strains of jazz that were being performed and heard in the British Isles over the thirty-year period that it covers. Full of lesser-known musical gems, the box set never fails to surprise and is absolutely priceless as a companion to Jim Godbolt’s indispensable study A History of Jazz in Britain.

Works Cited

Jim Godbolt. A History of Jazz in Britain 1919-50. London: Quartet Books, 1984.

Jim Godbolt. “Liner Notes to Jazz in Britain 1919-1950." Proper Records, 2005.








Thursday, September 30, 2010

The World’s Greatest Entertainer in His Prime: Al Jolson on Columbia 1913-1932

When in 1927 Al Jolson stood in front of the camera and proclaimed, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” he was using the phrase to refer to the much-publicized novelty of the movie in which he was starring, The Jazz Singer, now widely considered the first talking picture of all time even though it was actually just a part-talkie, that is, a silent film interspersed with a few sound scenes. Jolson’s utterance may have applied to the movie, yet it most certainly did not apply to Jolson himself: the public had heard quite a bit from Jolson by 1927, which was the reason why he had been selected to play the leading role in a film whose script, by Samson Raphaelson, strangely echoed Jolson’s own life story. In fact, it was virtually impossible to be interested in pop music in the 1910s and 20s and not have heard of Jolson, the bombastic vocalist who billed himself as “the world’s greatest entertainer” and had become the most popular singing sensation in the country.

Despite the title of that groundbreaking film, though, Jolson never was strictly a jazz singer: he could be more accurately described as a pop singer whose work was occasionally tinged by the jazz idiom and who knew how to use jazz syncopation to his advantage, thereby creating a very appealing dramatic effect. Of course, drama featured prominently in Jolson’s approach to the vocal art: in the days prior to the invention of the microphone, his impressive, energetic voice could effortlessly fill any theater, and it sounded equally exciting on his signature sentimental mammy songs as it did on the most jazz-influenced of his rhythm numbers. His stage show brimmed with emotion and unrestrained energy, and both his antics and his exuberant vocal style influenced just about everyone in show business, at least until Bing Crosby came along in the early 1930s and showed the world that there was an alternative, more intimate approach to popular singing. But by then, the microphone had already entered the picture, changing the face of popular music forever. The new style heralded by Crosby sent some of the earlier singers, who now sounded desperately old-fashioned, out of business, yet Jolson still enjoyed quite a following on radio and movies throughout the 1930s, making no efforts to modify his style to suit the new technical advancements. The release of the excellent biopic The Jolson Story in 1946, starring Larry Parks and William Demarest (as well as the inferior but equally charming sequel Jolson Sings Again, from three years later) revived interest in Jolson’s music, as a whole new generation of listeners were exposed to his sound via the re-recordings of his old hits that he made for Decca.

These newer, updated versions of Jolson’s songs, often with markedly different arrangements and instrumentation, are nowadays the best-known and more widely available of his recordings. However, this volume of Columbia’s Art Deco Series, originally published in 1994 and currently out of print, digs deep into Jolson’s vast recorded legacy and presents some of his best sides cut for the label between 1913 and 1932, when Jolson was truly at the top of his game, complete with very detailed liner notes by Herbert G. Goldman and Will Friedwald. Made acoustically before the microphone allowed electricity to be used for recording sound, these cuts lack the higher fidelity of the later Deccas, yet they are clear evidence as to why Jolson reigned over the pop music world of the period. It is true that the arrangements are often dull and are performed by studio orchestras that cannot match the excitement always present in Jolson’s voice, but these sides chronicle his development as a recording artist and make for an extraordinarily enjoyable listening experience even almost a century after some of them were made.

The collection opens with Jolson’s 1913 rendition of “That Little German Band,” going back to the earliest days of his tenure with Columbia, and includes songs that he introduced and with which he became closely associated, such as “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula,” “Swanee,” “Avalon,” “April Showers,” and “Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Goo’Bye).” Jolson would re-record many of them later on in his career, but these are the earliest versions, and in many cases, the definitive ones. On some of the tracks, Jolson proves that he can also put across more sentimental ballads quite convincingly: as “Back to the Carolina You Love,” “Down Where the Swanee River Flows,” and “In Sweet September” demonstrate, Jolson was much more than simply a belter of lively rhythm numbers and maudlin mammy songs, a fact that is also evident in his excellent recording of “The Anniversary Song” for Decca in the 1940s. And of course, he is at his high-spirited best on novelty songs like “O-Hi-O (O-My!-Oh!) and “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night,” full of the witty double entendre lyrics that he always delivered so masterfully. (Incidentally, “Robinson Crusoe” spawned a very interesting western swing version by Texas Jim Lewis.)

In early 1924, Jolson ended his contract with Columbia and signed with Brunswick, which explains why the songs that he cut for the soundtrack of The Jazz Singer are not included here. However, the compilation closes very fittingly with three sides that Jolson made in 1932 for the American Recording Corporation backed by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians: “Hallelujah I’m a Bum,” the title track of his then-current (and very interesting) movie; “You Are Too Beautiful,” a superb ballad that has since become a standard but that Jolson does not deliver as convincingly as other slow numbers in this collection; and a remake of his classic “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” These are the only recordings included here made electrically, and they certainly capture Jolson’s voice much better, showing how much he had evolved as an entertainer since the 1913 records that kick off the set: he is now a singer in complete control of his art, and he knows exactly how to accentuate those elements and mannerisms that make his style unique.

After this date with Lombardo, Jolson would not set foot in a recording studio until the mid-1940s, although he would still be a regular fixture on radio. For those of us who were not fortunate enough to attend one of Jolson’s live performances, it is difficult to imagine just how exciting his stage show must have been: indeed, his records, movies, and radio appearances stand as faint documents of his idiosyncratic art, and contemporary journalistic accounts and reviews of his shows inevitably fail to convey the exuberance of his stage persona. Like Jacques Brel after him, Al Jolson was an artist that needed to be experienced in a live setting, yet we must be grateful that at least some of this excitement has been preserved for posterity on recordings like the ones that make up this excellent compilation.









Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Hot, Lovable, and Sweet: Annette Hanshaw and Early Female Vocal Jazz

Annette Hanshaw was one of the very first female jazz vocalists, as well as one of the most exciting singers of the 1920s and early 30s. Critic Will Friedwald, who has written extensively (and most insightfully) on jazz singing, ranks her alongside Al Bowlly as one of the few artists that “used the musical idiom of the twenties in a creative, modern way” (1). Although I believe that there were more singers other than these two that also experimented with more modern approaches to the vocal art in that era, Friedwald is certainly right concerning Hanshaw: she was well ahead of her time in that she understood the rhythmic qualities of jazz much better than most of her contemporaries and applied them to her singing in a very personal, highly inventive way. From today’s standpoint, there is no doubt that her records sound more modern and engaging than those of Helen Kane or Ruth Etting.

Born into a wealthy family in 1901 (although for many years the date was believed to be 1910), Hanshaw got her start performing at her father’s hotels. On a certain night in 1926, producer Herman “Wally” Rose (whom she would later marry) happened to be among the audience and was quick to realize her potential, subsequently signing her to a contract with Pathé. These were the years of the recording boom, when large amounts of records were produced and sold worldwide, and so Hanshaw recorded extensively, soon becoming one of the most popular artists on the label and gaining more public exposure through a series of radio spots. It did not take her long to graduate to one of the major labels, Columbia, who also put out the records of Ruth Etting, at the time one of the most popular singing stars in the country. Columbia issued Hanshaw’s efforts on subsidiary budget labels in order to prevent any kind of conflict between the two singers, but this did not affect her record sales, and even in the years following the 1929 stock market crash, Hanshaw still proved to be extremely popular with record buyers.

But despite the success of her records, Hanshaw apparently dreaded public appearances and did not exploit her image as the quintessential 1920s flapper in movies. After her marriage to Rose in 1934, she decided to put an end to her very popular radio show and stopped recording altogether around 1938. Hanshaw would live to see her records reissued in the 1970s, when she was certainly surprised to find out that there was a kind of renewed interest in her recorded output. Unfortunately, unlike other stars from the twenties such as Nick Lucas, she never really attempted to make a comeback. Her husband had passed away in 1954, and in 1975 she remarried; nobody seems to have advised her that it would have been a good idea to get back into the recording studio, and if anyone did, she did not listen. Hanshaw died in New York in 1985, leaving behind a very valuable legacy of recorded music that is highly interesting to both pop and jazz aficionados.

Her complete recordings are yet to be reissued in their entirety (a project that, like the release of Cliff Edwards’s Hot Combinations, should be undertaken by some label like Proper or JSP), but there are a couple of fine compilations on CD that serve as good introductions to her music. Lovable & Sweet (ASV / Living Era, 1997) is perhaps the best one around, and although the English reissue label seems to have gone out of business, the disc is still fairly easy to find. The material included in the collection proves, on the one hand, that Hanshaw very adeptly assimilated the jazz idiom very early on, and on the other, that her selection of material is very wide-ranging. She sings rather straight on two Hawaiian-flavored sides with Frank Ferera (“Pagan Love Song” and “Ua Like No a Like,” from 1929) but she applies her jazz inflections not only to jazz numbers like “Black Bottom” and “Six Feet of Papa,” but also to more conventional pop tunes such as “Little White Lies” and “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” When she runs through “Everything’s Made for Love” (1926), with Irving Brodsky on piano, she sounds way hipper than crooner Gene Austin in his version of the tune recorded that same year. Two of my personal favorites on this compilation, which features tracks waxed between 1926 and 1934, are her outstanding 1930 rendition of “Body and Soul” (which even includes an accordion) and her 1934 recording of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Let’s Fall in Love,” in which she is backed by an all-star band including Jack Teagarden and Joe Venuti.

As a matter of fact, many of her hot sides included such jazz luminaries as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Eddie Lang, Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Manny Klein, and Adrian Rollini. These are well represented in The Twenties Sweetheart (Jasmine, 1995), a compilation that concentrates on Hanshaw’s earlier recordings, cut between 1926 and 1928. Here, Hanshaw’s vocals are at their jazziest best, bouncing along effortlessly, her voice shining atop the hot backings: these are the records that built her reputation as a jazz singer, and many of them end with her idiosyncratic “That’s all!,” used to mark the end of the record right after the last note has been played. As her records clearly show, Annette Hanshaw is an essential figure of the early stages of recorded vocal jazz. It is too bad that she decided to cut short her remarkable career, that she chose not to make any more records. But the records that she made are certainly jazz classics and prove as enjoyable more than eighty years after they were cut as when they were first released. In my opinion, no assessment of Hanshaw’s stature as an artist is more accurate than that of John Hammond, who is reported to have said about her, “I don’t think she realizes how good she is” (2). Fortunately, any jazz fan easily does.


(1) Will Friedwald. Jazz Singing. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996: page 59.

(2) Jazz Singing, page 62.








Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dixieland and the Blues: Jack Teagarden's Jazz Great

The title of this album, Jazz Great, which features tracks cut at three different sessions in New York in November 1954, is a gross understatement. Jack Teagarden was not only a jazz great: he was one of the hottest, most innovative trombone players in the history of the genre. Born in Vernon, Texas, in 1905, Teagarden thrived in many different musical settings, from one of the earliest Ben Pollack orchestras to Louis Armstrong's All-Star combinations. As a matter of fact, he was one of Armstrong's most beloved sidemen, and both men's improvisational and comedic skills are brought to the fore in many an All-Star version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair." But Teagarden also led his own big band (whose success, unfortunately for him, could be described as more artistic than financial) and recorded with a variety of small groups throughout his career.

By 1954, he had left Armstrong's organization and was leading a series of small combos usually comprised of friends who happened to be among jazz's finest musicians. These recordings, originally released by the Bethlehem label, are good examples of this type of small combinations and feature excellent sidemen like trumpeter Jimmy McPartland, bassist Walter Page, drummers Jo Jones and Ray Bauduc, and clarinetist Edmond Hall, all of whom are in fine form here and take plenty of fresh-sounding solos. Even jazz critic Leonard Feather, who is listed as the producer, sits in on piano on three of the selections, which adds to the uniqueness of these sessions.

The material is split between dixieland standards ("King Porter Stomp," "Original Dixieland One Step," "Riverboat Shuffle") and blues tunes ("Davenport Blues," "Bad Acting Woman"). The latter provide a good opportunity to showcase Teagarden's very personal approach to the vocal art: as he had shown in classic recordings such as "A Hundred Years from Today" and "Stars Fell on Alabama," he was a very accomplished vocalist, with a unique, blues-tinged voice that sounded exciting precisely because of Teagarden's easy-going delivery. Mr. T sounds relaxed and very convincing on the bluesy selections heard here, one of which, "Meet Me Where They Play the Blues," was penned by TV personality Steve Allen.

After waxing these sessions, Jack Teagarden would go on to record for Capitol and Verve before his untimely death in 1964, even appearing with Louis Armstrong in a lengthy portion of the excellent documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day, filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Teagarden is among that rare class of musicians who never made a bad record, and in my opinion, these 1954 sessions rank as some of his best. They are undoubtedly a fine introduction to his music, a great place to get acquainted with his incomparable artistry. After you hear the tracks on this CD, I am sure that you will not only agree that Mr. T was truly a jazz great, but you will also feel the urge to start hunting for his earlier classic sides.







Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Intimate Dean Martin: Dream with Dean (1964)

Dean Martin is so well known for his comedic skills and his vocal and stage gimmicks that we sometimes tend to underestimate him as a vocalist. But fortunately, his extensive recorded legacy includes little gems like Dream with Dean that remind us what a great singer he really was. By 1964, when these sessions took place, Martin was under contract to Frank Sinatra's Reprise label, and he was just a few months away from enacting a definitive comeback as a recording and television star. And, although he did not know it as he entered the studio, this album would play no small part in his return to the top.

After several hit releases throughout the 1950s that saw him accompanied by everything from swinging orchestras to Latin-flavored combos, Martin decided to cut a concept album of slow ballads, sung as slow as they could be sung, with an intimate backing of just four pieces: jazz great Barney Kessel on guitar; Ken Lane, Dean's long-time accompanist, on piano and celeste; Red Mitchell on bass; and Irv Cottler, who appeared on countless Sinatra sessions, on drums. The resulting sound is, of course, sparse and mellow, but it actually works very well behind Martin's voice, which sounds deep and soothing, a little bit as though he were singing directly into the listener's ear, trying his best to contain the emotions expressed in the lyrics.

Together with the dreamy sound of the four-piece outfit, the superb song selection is another one of the reasons why this album is such an artistic success. The program kicks off with a lovely, understated reading of "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)" that aptly sets the scene for the rest of the romantic confessions that are to follow. Martin tackles standards like "Fools Rush In," "Blue Moon," and "I Don't Know Why (I Just Do)" very convincingly, his voice lulled by the soft strains provided by Kessel's self-contained guitar embellishments and Lane's beautiful piano work. He also chooses lesser-known tunes like "I'll Buy That Dream" and "If You Were the Only Girl" and proves that they can flourish in this musical setting. In "Gimme a Little Kiss Will Ya Huh," he does not exactly whisper like Whispering Jack Smith did in his classic version from the twenties, yet he sounds far more seductive and charming than anyone else I have ever heard croon that quasi-forgotten song. The quartet plays so low in "Smile" that for a second you even forget that Martin is not singing a cappella, and "Hands Across the Table" features what must be one of the most poetic lyrics that Dino ever sang: "Hands across the table / While the lights are low / Though you hush your lips / Your fingertips / Tell me all I want to know."

Halfway through the album, we find "Everybody Loves Somebody," an oldie that would become forever associated with Martin, though not in this evocative version, but in a full orchestral arrangement featuring a vocal choir and leaning clearly toward contemporary sixties pop. The new reading of the song, also recorded in 1964, quickly rose to the top of the charts at a time when the Beatles were usually monopolizing that spot. However, I have always thought that the more commercial hit version is somewhat overproduced and much prefer this earlier, more relaxed approach. The CD reissue of Dream with Dean (Collector's Choice, 2001) appropriately pairs the album with 1964's Everybody Loves Somebody, a number-two entry in the album charts for Dino, which conveniently allows us to have both versions of the song in one disc. But as good as the tracks in the second album are, Dream with Dean is the true jewel here. As Stan Cornyn wrote in the original liner notes, "Dean Martin's performance sounds deceptively simple. Don't be fooled. . . . Dean's finesse is built on a substantial substructure of hard-learned craft." Indeed, no matter what he was doing, Dino always had an uncanny ability for making the difficult come across as simple. It is only too bad that he did not choose to cut more albums like this one.








Monday, June 28, 2010

The Band Singer: Frank Sinatra's Recordings with Tommy Dorsey, 1940-42

Frank Sinatra's stature as an artist transcends his work to such an extent that he has become one of the most recognizable cultural icons of the twentieth century. But just as it happened with most vocalists from the 1920s onward, his career began as a band singer. By 1940, a very young Sinatra had been one of the featured vocalists with the Harry James orchestra for a few months. The James band was then still starting out, struggling to make ends meet and trying to pick up as many dates as possible. Sinatra had made a few fine records with the orchestra (all of them available on the budget-priced Columbia-Legacy CD Complete Recordings 1939) and appeared on enough radio broadcasts to attract the attention of Tommy Dorsey, the leader of one of the most popular swing bands of the day. As the story goes, when Sinatra was offered a spot with the Dorsey band, James recognized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for his young singer, and so he simply tore up the contract that bound Sinatra to his orchestra and let him go. James was quick to find a replacement for Sinatra in Dick Haymes, and a fine replacement it certainly was.

The outstanding five-CD boxset The Song Is You, one of the most priced entries in my record collection, includes every studio recording made by Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, from the earliest sides to the four tunes that Sinatra cut in 1942 under his own name prior to leaving the band. The hits, like the smash "I'll Never Smile Again," are all here, and in many of the songs, Sinatra appears with Jo Stafford, Connie Haines, and the Pied Pipers, all of whom were featured vocalists of the Dorsey outfit. Sinatra often praised the bandleader for being one of his best singing teachers: indeed, these are formative years for him, moments when he was experimenting with singing techniques and developing his own vocal style, and of course, Dorsey's trombone playing was a source of inspiration for him. If the records with Harry James can be seen as the prehistory of Sinatra's art (and I am not using the term in a pejorative way, because many of the discs he made with the James band, such as "All or Nothing at All," have stood the test of time), the ones with Tommy Dorsey chronicle the early stages of Sinatra beginning to make pop history.

When Sinatra joined the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, it was still common practice to have the vocalist simply sing a chorus, with most of the space on the disc allotted to the orchestra. The bandleader and some of the soloists (and the Dorsey band boasted some first-rate musicians like Buddy Rich, Babe Russin, Bunny Berigan, and Joe Bushkin) were the real stars, the people that crowds came to see, and the singer was simply an added attraction, which explains why most records featuring a vocal chorus began and ended with the band and the brief chorus was introduced in the middle. Only established stars like Bing Crosby made records where the crooner was the main focus; band singers like the young Sinatra were merely ornamental. But as the popularity of the singers within the bands started to increase, bandleaders gradually began to feature them more prominently on records. During his tenure with Tommy Dorsey, Sinatra became one of the main attractions in the band and greatly improved his vocal abilities: by his own admission, he watched Dorsey closely as he took his trombone solos, learning quite a bit about breathing in the process, but he also began to pay more attention to the lyrics that he was singing and developed a soft, soothing sound that was all his own. Sinatra's voice never sounded clearer than in the 1940s, and his perfect breathing and interesting note-bending made his performances sound sexy and very appealing to his increasing body of female fans.

Listening to the tracks contained in this magnificent boxset, we can appreciate Sinatra's development from a mere band singer to a budding singing star ready to strike out on his own. Soon the band-singer-band structure of the records shifts to singer-band-singer, although, of course, the soloists and Dorsey himself always play a prominent role, and it is a pure delight to listen to Sinatra sharing the billing with Stafford, Haines, and the Pied Pipers. The orchestra sounds like a perfectly greased swing machine, the kind of effortless sound achieved after nights of playing together on the bandstand. The fifth disc in the set collects several tracks culled from radio airchecks that present Sinatra performing songs that he never recorded commercially with the band, including his final broadcast with Dorsey, from September 1942, in which he salutes Dick Haymes, who was to replace him again, before singing a beautiful rendition of "The Song Is You," a fitting finale for the collection. The booklet, illustrated with countless pictures, includes extensive notes by William Ruhlmann and Will Friedwald, as well as a complete discography. If these recordings are still unknown to you, you are in for a treat: although these are not all masterpieces and sometimes the material is a little beneath Sinatra and the orchestra, they always make it sound believable and engaging, and there are also a great deal of undeniable gems here. This certainly does not sound like the Sinatra of later years, but these are the recordings that first introduced me to his music, and hey, after all it is where it all began!







Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Introspective Years: Dick Haymes on Capitol

Throughout his career, Dick Haymes crossed paths with Frank Sinatra several times. In 1940, when Young Blue Eyes left the Harry James Orchestra to join the more popular Tommy Dorsey, James replaced him with Haymes. In turn, when a couple of years later, Sinatra decided to strike out on his own, Dorsey was quick to find a replacement for his star singer in none other than Dick Haymes. Eventually, Haymes would also go solo, becoming one of the most successful pop singers of the 1940s and scoring more million sellers than Sinatra in that decade. Unfortunately, some of Haymes's choices both personally and professionally were not the best, and his many failed marriages and drinking problems hindered his career.

By the mid-1950s, the careers of both singers had hit rock bottom, and in an attempt to revive his, Haymes signed with Capitol, the label for which Sinatra was recording at the time. As we know, Sinatra returned to the top at Capitol thanks to a series of outstanding concept albums arranged by Nelson Riddle. As good as Haymes's two LPs for Capitol were, he never regained the popularity that he had enjoyed in the forties. This two-CD set presents Haymes's complete output for Capitol: the two LPs (Rain or Shine and Moondreams), the lesser-known singles, and some outtakes that give us a glimpse of Haymes working in the studio. The booklet, illustrated with a handful fo photographs, includes some very interesting liner notes by Ken Barnes that provide some background on the recordings.

When Haymes cut the tracks for Rain or Shine in December 1955, his marriage to Rita Hayworth was crumbling, but in spite of the trouble in his personal life (or perhaps because of it), he turns in one of the best performances of his career as he runs through a lovely selection of ballads, some of which (like "The More I See You" and "You'll Never Know") he had already recorded in the forties. However, the treatment here is rather different, with very subtle, lyrical string arrangements by Ian Bernard, and Haymes singing at his most introspective and intimate. He would return to the studio in April 1956 to lay down the tracks for his second album, Moondreams, which once again presents Haymes as what he really was: a superb ballad singer. This time he is backed by a full orchestra in some of the selections and by a jazz-influenced group (including great musicians such as Al Hendrickson, Joe Comfort, and Jimmy Rowles) in some others, but the emphasis is still on slower tempos that bring out the best in the vocalist.

The material intended for release as a single pales by comparison with these two full-blown LPs, although there is a rendition of "Love Walked In" that proves that Haymes could swing easily when called upon to do so. Even though these sessions did not produce any big hits for Haymes, in hindsight they remain important highlights in his career, and we are fortunate to have all these recordings put together in one outstanding collection. Will Friedwald rightly described the enduring appeal of Haymes's vocal artistry in his highly recommendable book Jazz Singing (Da Capo, 1996): "You can listen to Haymes records for hours and hear only medium-slow ballads, and still be interested enough to keep right on listening." I certainly agree, and I am sure that, once you listen to this collection, you will, too!




Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Doris Day Sings Ruth Etting: The Soundtrack of Love Me or Leave Me

It is no surprise that movie musicals have played such a central part in Doris Day’s career: in the 1940s, before she found fame and fortune on the silver screen, she was one of the featured vocalists with the Les Brown orchestra on a handful of outstanding songs, namely 1945’s “Sentimental Journey,” a tune that has since become not only a pop standard but also an important part of the soundtrack of the years immediately following World War II. In the late 40s and early 50s, Day starred in a series of musical pictures that cemented her image as the beautiful girl-next-door that attracted the attention of her male leads both because of her looks and her singing. Her Hollywood career, then, began in light musicals (that is, if we do not count Young Man with a Horn, from 1949, in which she co-starred with Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall), but in 1955, she changed gears and, after signing a new contract with MGM, she played the leading role in Love Me or Leave Me, the Ruth Etting biopic also starring James Cagney.

Etting was, of course, one of the most relevant pop singers of the 1920s, and both her meteoric rise to fame and her private life were the stuff that Hollywood dramas are made of. In real life, Etting fell in love with Merl Alderman, her pianist, whom she would wind up marrying. The only trouble was that her then-husband, Martin Snyder (superbly played on the screen by Cagney), was one of the most prominent gangsters in Chicago. Snyder did not take too well to his wife’s affair, so he attempted to shoot Alderman and gravely injured him. As we can see, the scriptwriters did not really have to exaggerate the story for the movie adaptation, and the film became a box-office hit upon its release. Doris Day portrays Etting very adeptly, showing that she also had a knack for dramatic roles, and the picture also turns into a magnificent vehicle for her clear, sexy, jazz-tinged voice.

This CD features the original movie soundtrack, reissued on CD by Columbia-Legacy in 1993: these are Day’s own versions of some of the best songs introduced by or associated with Etting, among them such classics as “It All Depends on You,” “Ten Cents a Dance,” “You Made Me Love You,” “Mean to Me,” and the title track. Percy Faith is in charge of the arrangements here, and he handles them with gusto: his charts for the movie are more complex than the usual piano or small orchestra backing on Etting’s original discs, yet they are subtle enough that they never get in the way of Day’s voice. The CD reissue also includes three previously unreleased tracks that serve as a perfect complement for a phenomenal soundtrack.

Not long after the release of Love Me or Leave Me, Doris Day would star in other movies that would be great showcases for the more dramatic side of her acting (I am thinking of Alfred Hitchcock’s remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, for example, where incidentally she also sings) but the Etting biopic remains one of her most engaging dramatic performances of her career. And indeed, the soundtrack proves that she was very capable of capturing the many nuances of Etting’s soft pop singing while still managing to make these classic songs her own.










Monday, June 7, 2010

Two of a Kind: Having Fun with Johnny Mercer and Bobby Darin

In 1960, one of the best songwriters of the twentieth century and an exciting newcomer who had recently become a crooner came together to record an album. The result of this very special rendez-vous between Johnny Mercer and Bobby Darin was Two of a Kind, a one-of-a-kind record that sounds as enjoyable now as when it was first made. This article is a reflection on that landmark record date, which produced an album that turned out to be a tribute to the bygone era of twenties and thirties pop music by two men who were, indeed, two of a kind.

A Little Background
According to the original liner notes of the album, written by Stanley Green, it was Bobby Darin's suggestion to undertake this project, and Johnny Mercer "was excited about the idea right from the start." Listening to the finished product, there is no doubt about that. The two are really enjoying themselves in the studio, which means that we, as listeners, are allowed to share in the fun. Mercer and Darin were at very different stages in their careers as they walked into the Atlantic Studios in New York City. Johnny was one of the best things that ever happened to the Great American Songbook, one of the most renowned, wittiest lyricists of his time. He had also enjoyed quite a bit of success with his recordings in the 1940s, great songs like "Candy" and "My Sugar Is So Refined," duets with Nat King Cole such as "Save the Bones for Henry Jones," and delightful get-togethers with Bing Crosby on radio. Bobby had started as a rock'n'roll singer with such ditties as "Splish Splash" and "Plain Jane," but following the success of his recording of "Mack the Knife" in 1959, he had changed gears and become a swinging, tongue-in-cheek crooner. Without any doubt, it was the perfect moment for a collaboration between these two men, and fortunately, Billy May was on deck to take care of the arrangements.

Back to the Jazz Age
If this is such a unique album, it is in no small part because of the song selection, which gives us a very good idea of how thoroughly Mercer and Darin knew the pop music of the twenties and thirties. As Green notes, there are hardly any standards in the album: "For this recital, both men decided that though the accent would be on the old-timers, the all-too-familiar warhorses would be kept carefully locked up in the stable." Thus, Darin and Mercer go through a great selection of old tunes, most of them harking back to the era when the ukulele was king. And from "Indiana" to "East of the Rockies" to "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jellyroll," all the songs are delivered with a casualness that makes them simply irresistible.

One of the assets of the LP lies in Johnny and Bobby's decision to unearth and rework a few obscure, forgotten gems. "My Cutie's Due at Two to Two," by Albert von Tilzer, Irving Bibo, and Leo Robin, is a cute novelty song à la turn-of-the-century Tin Pan Alley, whose lyrics are an astounding exercise on the art of the onomatopoeia. They also pay tribute to the artistry of the great Cliff Edwards, artistically known as Ukulele Ike, one of the most exciting uke players of all time. "Paddlin' Madelin' Home" and "Who Takes Care of the Caretaker's Daughter," both recorded originally by Edwards in the 1920s, are two outstanding numbers from the Ukulele Ike catalog, and even though there is no ukulele in these arrangements, Billy May is clearly attempting to travel back in time to the Jazz Age with this material. Another effective choice is "Mississippi Mud," a classic written by Harry Barris and originally performed by Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, and Barris himself as the Rhythm Boys, at the time when Der Bingle was starting to hone his craft as part of the extremely popular Paul Whiteman Orchestra in the latter part of the twenties.

Mercer and Darin as Songwriters
But the album is not simply made up of old tunes. Some of Johnny Mercer's own compositions are also highlighted in this project, proving once more that he is one of the most gifted lyricists of all time. To Mercer, a song lyric is a poem set to music, and his lyrics show his unique ability to make words and music intersect, as well as his mastery of the English language. For instance, "If I Had My 'Druthers" is given here an enjoyable, laid-back treatment, while the reading of the humorous "Bob White" must be counted among the best ever committed to wax.

Bobby Darin, described by Green in the liner notes as "a serious student of popular songs and their interpreters," felt the need to contribute some lyrical updates to a few of the tunes, and he even teamed up with Mercer in the writing of the title track. "Two of a Kind," a tale of friendship and camaraderie, is a splendid collaboration between Bobby and Johnny, complete with ad-libbed asides that remind us of the timeless tradition of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Just like any of Bing and Bob's Road to... movies, the rapport between Johnny and Bobby on this record oozes with mutual admiration, charm, and sheer fun. In fact, that very well may be the secret of the appeal of the album: it gives us the opportunity to be a fly on the wall of the Atlantic Studios while two great performers are having a wonderful time together.



Sunday, June 6, 2010

Two Obscure Bing Crosby Albums from the 1960s

It is only fitting to start this website that takes a look back at the greatest names in vintage pop and jazz with a post about Bing Crosby, the king of the crooners, and in my opinion, one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. A 2001 Collectors' Choice release (currently out of print, unfortunately) that pairs two lesser-known albums in Der Bingle's catalog gives me a good chance to review some delightful performances that have not garnered too much critical attention.

By the mid-1950s, Bing Crosby had ended his long-time association with Decca and had begun to record for several different labels. One of his first freelance efforts was a set of twelve swinging, brassy arrangements by Buddy Bregman cut for Verve in 1956 and issued as Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings. This was possibly a reaction to Frank Sinatra's success at producing excellent concept albums for Capitol using top arrangers such as Nelson Riddle and Billy May, but it also came from a man who had done just about all there was to do in popular music, who had been the model for popular singing for over two decades. Crosby was, as Will Friedwald puts it in his liner notes for the CD release of the album Bing with a Beat (1957), a Dixieland-styled LP in which he was accompanied by Bob Scobey's Frisco Jazz Band, "the ultimate everyman in American music." The set with Bregman was produced by the renowned Norman Granz, while the producer of the Dixieland session with Scobey was Matty Matlock. Both were superb albums, spotlighting Bing's ability to swing and jazz up a song, and they remain two of the most satisfying records of his career.

The quality of Bing's recordings was kept high as he entered the 1960s, and a very interesting duet album with Louis Armstrong for MGM, Bing & Satchmo, is ample proof of that. Both released in 1965, That Travelin' Two-Beat and Sings the Great Country Hits are two of Crosby's best issues of the decade. On That Travelin' Two-Beat, he is paired with his good friend Rosemary Clooney in a reenactment of Fancy Meeting You Here, a highly acclaimed work of a similar kind released in 1958 on RCA. This time, as the back cover of the record states, Bing and Rosie are found swinging through a set of "favorite songs from around the world in Dixieland!" The exclamation point is certainly not accidental here, because when you look at the song selection, the pairing of some of these tunes would seem unlikely at best. For example, "Adios Senorita" is a reworking of the Spanish song "Cielito Lindo," and the tango-sounding "I Get Ideas" is based on the Carlos Gardel classic "Adios Muchachos." All the songs have been adapted and put together by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who take "New Vienna Woods" from Richard Strauss's "Tales of the Vienna Woods" and turn the old English song "Mother Brown" into "Knees Up, Mother Brown." The concept may sound a little unlikely, but it works really well, mostly due to Billy May's deft arrangement and to Bing and Rosie's charm whenever they were caught in a studio together. Although it was not as commercially successful as Fancy Meeting You Here, this new traveling concept album is, indeed, the perfect companion to its predecessor.

Sings the Great Country Hits was recorded at a time when country music was enjoying a great deal of attention through the subgenre known as the Nashville Sound, a brand of country music that blended elements from country and pop. This was not a new concept, though, since country and pop had never been too far apart and had shared common links since the late 1920s, mainly in the music of singing cowboys such as Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and Roy Rogers. From the very beginning of his career, Crosby had been a very heterogeneous singer, always willing to attempt almost anything, and country had been no exception: pop versions of country songs had featured prominently during his tenure with Decca, one of the most successful being his 1943 reading of Al Dexter's "Pistol Packin' Mama," accompanied by the Andrews Sisters. While he was not strictly a country singer, he did influence country vocalists such as Tommy Duncan, the long-time singer with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Sings the Great Country Hits is just another instance of Bing's appreciation for and understanding of country music and marks one of the very first times in which he recorded a whole album entirely comprised of country tunes. His voice sounds lower and deeper as he delves into lyrics written by great country songwriters by the likes of Don Gibson ("Oh, Lonesome Me"), Harlan Howard ("Heartaches by the Number"), Willie Nelson ("Hello Walls"), Hank Cochran ("A Little Bitty Tear"), and Bill Anderson ("Still"). The arrangements are very typical of 1960s country fare, and while they may not be as engaging as May's, Bing handles the whole project with great ease and makes it work superbly. It ends up being a highly satisfying venture into Nashville by one of the icons of popular singing.

As these two oft-forgotten works from the later years of his career prove, Bing Crosby's recorded legacy is not only one of the foremost treasures of American music, but it is full of hidden jewels whose outstanding quality needs to be stressed. Although now out of print, this Collectors' Choice release is a good addition to Crosby's discography on CD: it will come as a nice surprise to the casual listener, and it will delight the long-time fan and connoiseur of popular singing.