Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Big Joe Turner, Honey Hush.
LaVern Baker, Soul on Fire.
Dixie Doodlers, Best of Friends.
Johnny O'Neal, Ugly Woman.
Rosalind Russell and Edith Adams, Ohio.
Peggy Lee, My Heart Belongs to Daddy.
The Mills Brothers, The Jones Boy.
Duke Ellington, Passion Flower.

In John Cheever's story "The Enormous Radio", a Manhattan couple's new radio begins to pick up conversations of neighbours throughout their apartment building. (What follows? Voyeurism, despair, etc.) So to finish our survey of the year, imagine that your radio (say, the Motorola 53H, pictured above) is able, one night late in 1953, to pick up swathes of music, from across the city and around the country.

It's a chill November night in Sutton Place, so settle in with some martinis to listen in on the world.

First hear some of the year's R&B smashes, from Atlantic Records: Big Joe Turner's "Honey Hush" and LaVern Baker's "Soul on Fire." Turner's record, a wild dress rehearsal for the even mightier "Shake Rattle & Roll" of the following year, swings and stomps, while Baker's confession simply demands to be heard. "Honey", recorded in New Orleans on May 12 and issued as Atlantic 1001, can be found on Turner's Very Best, while "Soul", recorded in New York on June 19 and released as Atlantic 1004, is on Soul on Fire.

turn off the waterworks, honey

A twist of the dial and the sound of the South emerges. First, on Nashville's Excello Records, comes the Dixie Doodlers with an odd, clattering track that seems as if it could have been recorded during the Coolidge administration. Released as Excello 2023 and found on the out-of-print Excello Story Vol. 1.

And then, from the depths of Sam Phillips' Sun studios in Memphis, Johnny O'Neal's tasteless, hilarious "Ugly Woman", a song no one but the folks at Sun actually heard in 1953 (the first take was finally released in the 1970s on a Charly record called "Delta Rhythm Kings" ( I think this take is found here); this is the third take, which was issued as part of the now out-of-print Sun Blues box).

Another spin of the dial brings you to Broadway-- in particular, to "Wonderful Town," then playing at the Winter Garden Theatre. "Wonderful Town" remains the quintessential coming-to-New York story--songs like "What a Waste", a litany of failed aspiring artists, should be required listening to any ambitious kid thinking of moving to Brooklyn in search of fame. But "Ohio", while beginning as a lament about escaping New York's miseries, turns into a bitter roasting of provincial life. Edie Adams always cracks me up: "And dating those drips I've known since I'm FOUR!"

Original cast recording, taped on March 8 (a week or so after the show's Broadway premiere), can be found here. The music market was undergoing a changing of the guards in '53, so the soundtrack was available as a collection of 78-rpm discs, as a 45-rpm EP, and, most enduringly, as a 33-rpm LP.

Then for a bit of mainstream pop music, the type of song being played on stations like WOR. Peggy Lee's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy", a gleeful gold-digger's anthem written by Cole Porter in 1938, was one of her first hits on Decca, the label that revitalized her career. Recorded on May 1, and released a month later as Decca 28737. On Best of: 1952-1956.

Or the Mills Brothers' "The Jones Boy", a #5 pop hit in late '53. (Warning: the song's endless, jaunty chorus is likely going to get stuck in your head for days). Released as Decca 28945, and found on All Time Greatest Hits.

And at last, before heading off to bed, listen to Duke Ellington wend through Billy Strayhorn's "Passion Flower," accompanied only by Wendell Marshall on bass and the barely audible Butch Ballard on drums. Ellington rarely recorded solo (or close to it) piano works--this, a quiet, stately exploration of one of Strayhorn's loveliest compositions, is a happy exception. Recorded in Los Angeles on April 13; you can find it on Piano Reflections.

Films of '53

What a glorious year!! The fifties' high-water mark--one of the best years ever for movies.

(The Earrings of) Madame de...

Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story).

I Vitelloni.
Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear).
Ugetsu Monogatari.
Duck Amuck.

All of the above are top-shelf masterpieces. Madame de..., Max Ophuls' greatest film, is pretty much a perfect movie (and yes, no U.S. DVD release yet); Fellini's I Vitelloni created Martin Scorsese; the Ozu and Mizoguchi films are the two men at the peak of their powers; and if you've never seen Clouzot's Wages, well, do so. Duck Amuck, in which Daffy Duck is Job to Bugs Bunny's capricious God, needs no introduction.

Pickup on South Street. In which the Communists are shown to be no more than another brand of thug, a type more brutal and desperate than Richard Widmark's purse-snatcher. The knock-down fight between Jean Peters and Richard Kiley is unbelievably vicious.
The Naked Spur. There are two great cycles of Westerns in the '50s--the Budd Boetticher films, starring Randolph Scott, and the Anthony Mann movies with Jimmy Stewart. Of the latter, this is probably the best.
Le Carosse d'Or (The Golden Coach). The start of Renoir's late period--a weirdly artificial, beautiful gemstone.

The Hitch-Hiker.
The Band Wagon
The Big Heat.
The War of the Worlds.
Les Vacances de M. Hulot (M. Hulot's Holiday).
Eaux d'Artifice.

That's it for '53. For the rest of the year, "Locust St" will be taking another thematic break and will dedicate itself to drinking, with a little help from some friends. Fun starts either next Monday or Tuesday.

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