A collection of reviews about my favorite recordings of vintage jazz, classic pop, and the crooners, including the biggest stars and some obscure names, published by Anton Garcia-Fernandez in Martin, Tennessee, U.S.A.
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Recommended Listening This Month
Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap - The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Columbia)
Recommended Reading This Month
'Jazz Anecdotes: Second Time Around,' by Bill Crow (Oxford UP)
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.