Saturday, March 22, 2014

Rhythm-'n'-Ink 1: All or Nothing at All. A Life of Frank Sinatra, by Donald Clarke

Very often, the reading of a book on a particular jazz vocalist or musician leads me to rediscover some of that artist's work, which I had sometimes forgotten or overlooked. This happens exclusively with books that are truly enlightening, engaging, and well written, and when it does, the pleasure is twofold: not only do I get to read an interesting book that sheds light on aspects of the artist's life or work that I did not know about, but that book also spurs me on to seek out recordings of whose existence I was not aware or to dust off some old records that I had not heard in a long time. This is the purpose behind Rhythm-'n'-Ink, a new section of the blog where I will discuss some very recommendable books that I have been reading lately, and then I will spotlight the albums that, for one reason or another, those books led me to (re)discover. This first installment will concentrate on Donald Clarke's All or Nothing at All: A Life of Frank Sinatra (Pan Books / Macmillan), one of the most interesting books about the Chairman currently available.

Over the years, thousands of pages have been devoted, in many languages, to discussing the life of Frank Sinatra, with varying degrees of success. Too many books have been published that concentrate solely on Sinatra's private life, the scandals that seemed to follow him everywhere he went, and his alleged connections with the Mob, among other sensational topics. As a result, many volumes overlook his recordings and film work, the real reason why we should be interested in Sinatra to begin with. There are, of course, notable exceptions, such as Will Friedwald's Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art, Charles Granata's Sessions with Sinatra, and Pete Hamill's Why Sinatra Matters, to give three examples of titles that are well worth reading. Yet not many books on Sinatra seem to succeed in offering a satisfactory appraisal of the connections between the man's work and the man's life. In my opinion, Donald Clarke's All or Nothing at All: A Life of Frank Sinatra is one such title.

In his study, Clarke situates Sinatra in his time and in his place, discussing not only his life and work, but also the historical, social, political, and artistic context that directly or indirectly influenced his life and his work. Clarke's writing style is swift and dynamic, and he is never afraid to express his opinions about Sinatra's artistic legacy, whether it be a masterpiece such as Songs for Swingin' Lovers or a very low lowlight such as Watertown, but he always does so with elegance and wit. Ever since I bought it in the late 1990s, I have been coming back periodically to All or Nothing at All, and every time I read it, I find in it some passages that make me rethink some of my assumptions about a particular Sinatra album or even a song that I had tucked away in a corner of my mind. Clark is a compelling biographer because he is not interested in all the gossip surrounding Sinatra's life (although that is an inescapable element when writing about Sinatra), but he mostly concentrates on explaining how American history shaped Sinatra, how Sinatra shaped American history, and in turn, how Sinatra's life experiences determined his artistic legacy. And in this respect, this is a unique book on its subject, as Clarke explores the seeming paradox of the tough guy who became successful mostly through his ability to touch the hearts of audiences by means of uncovering the emotions contained in the lyrics of the songs he performed.

Author Donald Clarke
Clarke discusses the many ups and downs of Sinatra's career, painting a vivid picture of a man full of contradictions, an iconic figure who achieved that stature, as would be expected, by making both good and bad decisions regarding his professional and personal lives, but always managing to come out on top no matter how difficult the situation in which he found himself. To Clarke, Sinatra is an icon not only by virtue of his work, which is what ultimately remains and should count, but also because of the personal relationships that his listeners have with that work, because of the feelings that his audience projects onto his figure and his recordings. As Clark reminds us, in a highly lyrical fashion, at the very end of the last chapter,

Gene Lees has written that Sinatra could hire people to do everything for him except sing. He did that for us. His career is over, but what we have left of Frank Sinatra, the recordings, is the best part. The rest is the echo of our times. (298)

And one of these recordings, which the re-reading of Clarke's very recommendable book led me to rediscover, is one of Sinatra's lesser-known Reprise albums, All Alone, from 1962. With its slow, melancholy string arrangements by Gordon Jenkins, the LP may well have been titled something like Come Waltz with Me, since 3/4 is the time signature used throughout, and in fact, it seems that Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen wrote a tune by that name that did not make it onto the finished project. As Clarke notes, "nostalgia . . . seems to drench the album" (207) and Jenkins's slow arrangements perfectly suit that mood, as Sinatra revisits "The Girl Next Door" (which he had included in his early Capitol album Songs for Young Lovers) and five excellent songs by Irving Berlinthe title track, "The Song Is Ended" (these two bookend the record) "When I Lost You," "Remember," and "What'll I Do." For this project, Sinatra also turns to some old chestnuts, such as "Oh, How I Miss You Tonight," "Together," and "Are You Lonesome Tonight," the latter owing nothing to Elvis Presley's then fairly recent hit recording. This is perhaps Sinatra's less commercially successful collaboration with Gordon Jenkins: "The album was a success on its own terms," concludes Clarke, "but did less well than any of his others in this period" (207). Yet overall, All Alone is a very enjoyable concept album that is well worth rediscovering.


I recently got in touch with Mr. Clarke via e-mail, and he graciously agreed to an interview for the blog. That interview is forthcoming and will come out of our correspondence over the past few months. Other interesting books by Mr. Clarke include The Rise and Fall of Popular Music and Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, among others.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 3: Al Bernard

Before proceeding any further with this new entry in the Unsung Vocalists series, I feel that this article requires a brief personal introduction. Part of my wife's family hails from the southern Missouri town of Charleston (yes, that area of the country where people say "Missourah") and upon my first visit with her grandmother's sister, Mrs. Sally Winchester, I could not help but notice that in the den of her house she had a framed original copy of the sheet music for a song entitled "Blue-Eyed Sally," doubtless because the protagonist of that song is Mrs. Winchester's namesake. Due to the fact that a family reunion is held every other year in Charleston, I have set foot in her house many times and have always enjoyed inspecting the cover of that sheet music. Now that Mrs. Winchester has moved into a nursing home not too far from where her old house stands, my wife, Erin, and our baby daughter, Libby, recently had the chance to visit with her, and one of the first things that I observed when I entered her room at the nursing home was that, among the many pictures of several close and distant relatives that hang on the walls, there was still that frame with the sheet music for "Blue-Eyed Sally."

The song was penned by the songwriting team of Al Bernard and J. Russel Robinson and published in 1924 by Henry Waterson, Inc., of New York. Robinson composed the music and Bernard came up with the lyrics, and according to Brian Rust's Complete Entertainment Discography, the two of them recorded it as the Dixie Stars in New York City on December 30, 1924, a vocal duet with piano accompaniment by Robinson. There apparently is also a version by the Dixie Stars released on Brunswick (2689) as a "vocal duet with orchestra," and the popularity of the song ensured that it was covered by several dance bands, including a delightful reading by Ted Weems in 1924, way before Perry Como became the band's male vocalist, and one by Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, among many others. In my opinion, one of the best instrumental recordings came courtesy of the legendary California Ramblers, who cut at least two different versions of the song, one in 1924 and another in 1925, with a lineup featuring jazz greats such as Jimmy Dorsey, Adrian Rollini, and Irving Brodsky.

Al Bernard, whose complete name was Alfred A. Bernard, had been born in New Orleans in 1887 or 1888, and even though he was a fairly popular vaudeville performer often billed as "the boy from Dixie," his recording career would not begin until 1919. Bernard seemed to specialize in songs that included the word blues in their title, even though those songs usually had very few, if any, blues elements. It is true, however, that he was one of the first singers to record compositions by W.C. Handy, such as "Memphis Blues" and a 1919 version of "St. Louis Blues," and he often sang vocal refrains on records by popular jazz bands of the day, like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the Bennie Krueger Orchestra.

In his highly recommended book Popular American Recording Pioneers 1895-1925, Tim Gracyk devotes several pages to Bernard, noting that "he was the first to cut 'Frankie and Johnny' successfully for an American record company." This song, inspired by a real murder committed in St. Louis around the turn of the century, was extremely influential, would enter the repertoire of several blues and country artists, and would in time be recorded by virtually everyone from Jimmie Rodgers to Mississippi John Hurt to Bob Dylan, and even Elvis Presley would star in a forgettable 1966 movie based on its story. Throughout his rather long career, Bernard proved to be extremely versatile both as a singer and as a songwriter, recording with duet partners such as Ernest Hare and pioneering country artist Vernon Dalhart and even writing tunes occasionally with Jimmy Durante. The excellent "Sam Jones Blues," one of the songs that, like "Blue-Eyed Sally," he penned with J. Russel Robinson, was cut by Bessie Smith in 1923, and his 1919 recording of "Hesitation Blues" is one of the first commercial waxings of this oft-recorded song that would have a profound influence on western swing bands such as that led by Milton Brown in the 1930s. (Incidentally, the Light Crust Doughboys, a popular western swing outfit, also included a version of "Blue-Eyed Sally" in one of their sessions for Vocalion in 1938.)

A newspaper ad for a personal appearance by Bernard and Robinson that mentions "Blue-Eyed Sally"

Bernard's versatility is amply demonstrated on the several recordings that he made for Grey Gull beginning in the mid-1920s, a series of releases on which he dabbles in many different styles, including even some spoken comedy skits, Toward the end of his life, Bernard gave up his recording activities and moved to New York City, where he passed away in March of 1949, aged sixty. Gracyk aptly sums up his most important contribution to American popular music thus: "In popularizing songs with 'blues' in the title, especially W.C. Handy numbers that would eventually be recognized as classics, he was a pioneering artist." Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, not a single compilation of his music has been released on CD at the time of this writing, which is really a pity if we bear in mind the consistently high quality of most of his recorded legacy. As for me, besides his undeniable importance as a recording pioneer, Bernard and his music—and particularly his self-penned hit "Blue-Eyed Sally"—will always be linked, whether she knows it or not, to Mrs. Sally Winchester of Charleston, Mo.

Here is Ted Weems's dance-band version of Al Bernard's "Blue-Eyed Sally," recorded in 1924:

Thursday, March 6, 2014

New Information Surfaces on Charlie Palloy

Following my article on singer-guitarist Charlie Palloy, published back in November, one of our readers, identified simply as "Crown Records," wrote me a message to let me know that further information on Palloy had surfaced right around the time when I was doing the research for my article. Apparently, Palloy, whose real name was Carmino Molluzzo and was the son of Italian immigrants who settled down in New York City, enjoyed a longer career in music than was previously thought, although he recorded as Charlie Palloy only for Crown and Columbia, which perhaps accounts for the scarcity of information previously available on him. Afterwards he changed his name to Charlie Costello and moved to Detroit, where he ran a nightclub for several years. According to the message from our friend "Crown Records," a full-length article is currently under preparation and will soon appear in the magazine VJM's Jazz & Blues Mart. For more information, you can visit this very interesting Facebook page devoted to artists who recorded for the old Crown label. And, of course, I am grateful to our reader "Crown Records" for this message, which somehow fulfills the wish for more information about Palloy that I made toward the end of my article!

And here is Charlie Palloy's version of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," cut for Crown in January of 1932.