Thursday, September 28, 2006


Billie Holiday (with Lester Young, et al), Fine and Mellow.
Billie Holiday, Comes Love.
Count Basie Orchestra (with Lester Young), Polka Dots and Moonbeams.

Every lost friendship is tragic in its way, but that of Billie Holiday and Lester Young was especially so, although marked with one last moment of grace.

Billie and Lester were the young giants of the 1930s--Young with the Count Basie Orchestra, where his light, numinous tenor saxophone playing was a contrast to the deep, robust sound crafted by Coleman Hawkins; Holiday with Teddy Wilson's group, where she could clad the most mediocre pop song in genius. Holiday and Young often worked together then--she allegedly gave him the nickname "Prez" (short for "President of the tenor saxophone") and he called her Lady Day.

Distance and hard time intervened. By the mid-'50s, both were in battered shape: years of addiction and rough living (both spent time in prison in the '40s) had taken a vicious toll on them. They had become estranged, years before, for obscure reasons. Prez, an alcoholic, was said to have been upset over Holiday's drug use, but they simply might have grown used to not seeing each other, in the way that many friendships die.

But on December 8, 1957, Young and Holiday were in the same studio together, to film a TV special called "The Sound of Jazz."

Their reunion came on "Fine and Mellow," Holiday's own composition. The take recorded for the accompanying LP (on Dec. 5) was a bit restrained, but when the cameras rolled for the live broadcast three days later, it was the sort of performance that justifies life. After Billie sings, Ben Webster, all class, comes in for a solo chorus. Then Young, who had been the only player sitting, jolts up, startling the cameraman, who loses him for a moment. Young looks, to be honest, quite weary, but he starts his solo with confidence, and he offers a gemstone of melody, thirty-seven seconds in length, a solo "so solidly constructed that, after you've heard it a couple of times, it becomes part of your nervous system, like the motor skills required to ride a bicycle" (Gary Giddins).

Billie returns, escorted by Doc Cheatham on trumpet; Vic Dickenson follows on trombone and Gerry Mulligan, the sole representative of the postwar generation, delivers a chorus on baritone sax. After another Holiday verse, Coleman Hawkins (who was everywhere in '57, apparently) comes in, low and dignified. Cheatham gets the longest solo, then Billie rounds it out.

But listening to the track gives you only half the story. Much of the joy of the performance lies in watching Holiday's interaction with the players, who surround her in a semi-circle, like courtiers. She considers each solo as if it were a proposal, shaking her head, smiling, grooving. And when the camera cuts to Billie while Young plays, as we watch her smile, nod, and see her features dance with remembrance--well, it's hard to remain dry-eyed sometimes. The whole performance is a valedictory for swing, for the life and gifts of Holiday and Young. Enough words: watch.

The Sound of Jazz soundtrack unfortunately features the rehearsal version of "Fine and Mellow," which is shorter, inferior and has different players than the aired version. The real McCoy--the superior TV take from Dec. 8--is on Billie Holiday's Ken Burns Jazz compilation.

Holiday also recorded some fine tracks on her own that year, my favorite being "Comes Love." Ever since its introduction by a hillbilly comedienne in the 1939 musical Yokel Boy, "Comes Love" had been treated as a novelty, performed generally as an uptempo rhumba (Al Young). Holiday and her band, however, slowed it down, tamed the rhythm to 4/4 and made it sultry, with a biting wit. Holiday's late Verve years are controversial--sometimes her singing is harsh, sometimes the arrangements drown her--but this track is a marvel.

"Comes Love" was recorded in Hollywood on January 4, 1957. With Harry "Sweets" Edison (t), Ben Webster (tenor sax), Barney Kessel (g), Red Mitchell (b) and Alvin Stoller (d). On Body and Soul.

And one of Young's last great moments is found on Count Basie's "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," which was recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1957. The Basie band at this time included Frank Foster, Frank Weiss (tenor sax), Benny Powell (tb), Eddie Jones (b), and Jo Jones (drums). The introduction is by John Hammond, who had the sort of classic New York accent that seems to be a lost art.

After the full band announces him, Young begins his solo, which goes for the remainder of the performance. It's a dreamsong, a performance almost gossamer in its delicacy and grace, yet surging with power and incisive character. On Count Basie at Newport.

On March 15, 1959, Lester Young died alone in New York, after a European tour in which he essentially drank himself to death. On the way to Young's funeral, Holiday told Leonard Feather "I'll be the next one to go." Four months later, she left.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Ronnie Self, Ain't I'm a Dog.
Carl Perkins, Put Your Cat Clothes On.

Here's some rockabilly at full tilt, pure rock & roll performed with joy, ridiculousness and menace. As Ronnie Self says, "forget about the danger and think of the fun."

Of the dozens of aspiring rockabilly musicians in the 1955-58 period who never quite made it, Ronnie Self might have been the greatest. He had the looks (he seemed a genetic hybrid of Eddie Cochran and Jerry Lee Lewis), strong songwriting ability, a nice gritty guitar style, and a voice that could howl and bite with the best of them. But a bad roll of the dice--personal demons, bad luck, poor management--finished his chances.

Self, born in Tin Town, Missouri, in 1938, began dropping off demos to his local radio station, KWTO in Springfield, and caught the attention of producer Si Siman. Self got a songwriting contract and cut a few tracks at ABC Records, producing nothing earth-shattering.

It was a 1957 tour with the Phillip Morris Caravan (back in the days when the cigarette companies ruled the earth) where Self first made his name.

"He'd start at the far back of the stage," recalled his sister Vicki, "throw his guitar over his back and run out to the mike, grab the mike stand and go right down on the floor with it and sing the first song. That was how he'd start. He'd never stop moving on stage ... He'd turn around with his back to the audience and face the band - but he never stood still." More here.

Columbia, hearing of the mania Self was inspiring on tour, signed him. After a weak initial session, Self taped one of his best tracks--the lurid, goofy "Ain't I'm a Dog," a proud celebration of being a cad capped off with a fine guitar break--in June 1957. It was a solid regional hit and with "Bop a Lena," recorded in December, Self slammed into the national charts.

But that was it. A stint with Decca in the late '50s proved fruitless, and Self's greatest efforts began to be for other artists--he wrote and produced Brenda Lee's "Sweet Nothin's" and "I'm Sorry". His personal life began to fracture--wild stories began circulating of, for example, Self obliterating a stack of demo recordings with a shotgun.

Si Siman: "I think he was probably clinically insane then, doing real unusual things. It wasn't safe to be around him although I still thought he was a terrific writer. When he was straight, he was great to do business with. He was a gentleman. But when he got some juice inside him he'd shoot holes in the wall, fire off a bow and arrow, chase people and try to run 'em down with a car. He was in and out of jail God knows how many times. His talent was a curse. When success was real close, he'd have only had to do what people were telling him, but he couldn't handle that - and he blew it." Self died, unfortunately a footnote, at age 43 in 1981.

"Ain't I'm a Dog" was released in September 1957 as Columbia 40989, c/w "Rocky Road Blues." Find on 25 More Rockabilly Rave-Ups.

"Put Your Cat Clothes On" might be the ultimate Carl Perkins record, even more than "Blue Suede Shoes," "Dixie Fried" or "Boppin' the Blues." Brutal, ass-kicking, deranged, with a manic piano solo that is one of Jerry Lee Lewis' finest moments, and a lyric that is pure slurred swagger (for a long time, I thought Carl was singing "I run downtown/and get my females ready," which I thought was the most outrageous rock & roll lyric ever, but alas, I think he's singing "my female hillbilly").

It was recorded in January 1957 but for some reason, Sam Phillips thought this track was too wild to release, and so Sun kept it in the vaults for decades. On Original Sun Greatest Hits.

Friday, September 22, 2006


Johnnie and Joe, Over the Mountain, Across the Sea.

Zell Sanders was among the handful of women in the 1950s who ran a record label, and to my knowledge was the only black woman to do so. She began as a songwriter and a manager, but learned quickly enough how much of a rip-off the pop music business could be; she decided the only way she could get a buck was to start her own label--J&S Records, which she ran out of her South Bronx home.

Sanders released singles ranging from pure gospel (The Pilgrim Pioneers, The Gospel Wonders) to pure confectionary pop (the Pre-Teens, a group of singing kids under the age of 10). But her best shot came when her neighbor, songwriter Rex Garvin, introduced her to singer Joe Rivers, a handsome 20-year old from Charleston. Garvin and Sanders hit upon the idea of forming a 'sweethearts' group, in the mold of Shirley and Lee, but were stumped as to where to find a singing partner for Rivers...

"My mom said 'I think it needs a little something'," recalled Sanders' daughter, Johnnie Louise Richardson, in an interview with Aaron Fuchs. "It was right in the middle of a rehearsal too. She looked around the room and said, 'I tell you what--Johnnie, you get over here and sing with Joe.' I said, 'Oh no, do I have to do that?' So she gave me the look that distinguishes between mother and record manufacturer."

Sanders' instincts hadn't failed her: the new duo began having regional hits, starting with their first single "I Was So Lonely", but it was their fourth release, Warner's "Over the Mountain", that made them nationally. Chess ultimately purchased the rights to it, and the single hit #8 on the charts.

Find on Golden Age of American Rock & Roll Vol. 5.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Martin Denny, Quiet Village.
Martin Denny, The Queen Chant (Li Liu E).

To everything there is a season, and today at Locust St. it's time for kitsch.

Ever since Americans began mucking about in the Pacific, from the annexation of Hawaii to the Filipino Insurrection, they have had a taste for the "exotic" sounds from the region, whether it is the Hawaiian guitars that turn up on a host of '20s recordings, or the novelty "island girl" songs of the war years.

But it was after WWII, and around the time of Hawaii's eventual promotion to statehood, that the vogue for "South Pacific" sounds really took hold. It is odd to think that returning GIs would enjoy having some of the grisliest battlefields of the war--Guadalcanal, the Philippines, Midway--reinvented as a sort of schlock Polynesian paradise, but perhaps they just enjoyed revisiting happy memories of the Hawaiian steel bands they had heard on leave. (Most likely, if my late grandfather could serve as a representative of his generation, they simply didn't care.)

Martin Denny called it "the feeling of the South Pacific, the languor, a relaxed sound." Denny had been an intinerant musician, playing in South America before the war. In 1954, he was brought over to Hawaii to work at the Honolulu club Don the Beachcomber, and in the next few years, he became one of the island's most popular musicians, favored by airline staff and tourists. The trick was that Denny's music wasn't "traditional" in any sense--it was a pseudo-Hawaiian gumbo, as authentic as the Tahitian Village in Downey, California. (Fittingly, the "exotic" model on most of Denny's LPs from the '50s was the all-American Sandy Warner.)

Denny also realized the emphasis on steel guitar in Hawaiian music often had a soporific effect on listeners. So he brought in the works: vibes, bongos, gamelans, conch shells, gongs, corrugated gourds, boobams, "and man-sized Burmese temple bells" (Stuart Swezey and Brian King).

One night, playing at the Shell Bar, Denny and his band were quietly starting a typical beachcomber groove, when they became aware of bullfrogs croaking in a nearby pond. As if on cue, the frogs stopped when the tune ended, and resumed whenever the band kicked up again. Inspired, or perhaps a bit sauced, some of Denny's band began shrieking out bird calls as well. Laughing, they called it a night. The next day, people who were at the gig came up to Denny and asked him to "do the arrangement with the birds and the frogs." And so Denny's "Quiet Village" was born.

"Quiet Village" was written by lounge maestro Les Baxter, and when it was released in April 1957 on the Liberty LP Exotica, it would become Denny's signature hit. Much of its charm is due to percussionist Augie Colon, who provides the birdcalls and the "croaks" (via gourd). Denny plays piano, Arthur Lyman vibes and John Kramer is on string bass.

"The Queen Chant", which is on Exotica II, an LP rushed out in October 1957, is a nice, moody track, showing that despite its association with tiki torches and fire god statues, Denny's band wasn't a joke. Again, Colon dazzles, serving as a one-man army of percussion.

Both Exotica and Exotica II can be found on one CD.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


arrivederci, Oriana

Mose Allison, Lost Mind.
Red Garland, Please Send Me Someone to Love.

Two testaments to Percy Mayfield, songwriter.

Mayfield wrote and recorded "Lost Mind" in 1951. Though Mose Allison, in his 1957 take, follows Mayfield's arrangement fairly closely, there are some differences. Mayfield sings the original fairly flat-out, with heft (he's battling the horns for a good part of it), and he seems almost loopy, overwhelmed by his wild, good fortune. While Allison's phrasing is similar to Mayfield's, Allison sings with more cool to his tone-- there's a lazy suppleness to his vocal, a sense of bemusement. Allison may have lost his mind, briefly, but that's all over now--his is the perspective of someone recalling a happily discarded bit of the past. And Allison's quiet, dazzling solo on piano makes Thomas Davis' honking, standard tenor sax break on Mayfield's version seem antediluvian.

Allison recorded "Lost Mind" in Hackensack, NJ, on November 8, 1957, with Addison Farmer (b) and Nick Stabulas (d). On Local Color.

And the jazz pianist Red Garland's take on "Please Send Me Someone to Love," Mayfield's massive R&B hit from 1950, treats the song like an edifice. (Ira Gitler's liner notes from the original Garland LP assume that "Please Send Me" was a blues standard that Mayfield had adapted, rather than being an original composition, which I suppose is a back-handed compliment to Mayfield.) While jazz musicians routinely covered pop songs and Broadway tunes, they generally didn't take on contemporary R&B songs that much in the '50s--this is a happy exception.

The original "Please Send Me" starts with a surge of horns and then Mayfield's tender, brilliant vocal takes center stage, carrying the verses, with only some piano for company. In Garland's take, the melody of the verse begins immediately, with Garland's piano taking on the role of Mayfield, and then after a time Garland quietly moves beyond Mayfield's framework, progressing along in solitude, with Paul Chambers' bass lingering behind and Arthur Taylor's drums mapping the way ahead. Chambers' solo is a deep brown study, and then Garland returns to offer Mayfield's verse one more time before the trio drifts to a close.

Recorded in Hackensack, NJ, on March 22, 1957. On the exquisite Red Garland's Piano.

Friday, September 15, 2006


Roy Hamilton, Don't Let Go.

A bit of bliss for Friday.

At the time, some people thought Roy Hamilton was slumming on this track. Hamilton had started out in gospel, with a quartet called the Searchlight Singers, and in 1954 he had a monster pop hit with his version of "You'll Never Walk Alone." More pop standards followed: "Unchained Melody," "Ebb Tide," "If I Loved You," to the point where, by 1956, Hamilton looked to be the new Nat King Cole.

And then he got sick and quit, for a time. Hamilton was suffering from pneumonia and tuberculosis, and said he was retiring to be a painter. By 1957, he was back on stage, in revues with LaVern Baker, Little Willie John and the Clovers, and the music he was recording now had a bit more bounce to it.

"Don't Let Go," recorded and released in the last months of '57 as Epic 9257 (allegedly the first rock & roll disc to be recorded in stereophonic sound), is the sound of Hamilton breaking out of his shell, and is one of those records which seems to be creating soul music as it spins. A few months later, Hamilton would appear in a cheapie rock & roll movie, Let's Rock, and seemed happy to be there. On Golden Classics.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Little Richard, Keep a-Knockin'.
Johnny Cash, Big River.
Rick Nelson, Stood Up.
The Diamonds, Little Darlin'.
The Gladiolas, Little Darlin'.

A winter afternoon in Hibbing, Minnesota, in the late 1950s. A pair of teenage boys are messing around with a tape recorder.

Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, age approx. 17: This is Little Richard (1)...(fakes wild crowd noises into microphone)...Little Richard's got a lot of expression.

John Bucklen, his best friend: You think singing is just jumping around and screaming?

Dylan: You gotta have some kind of expression.

Bucklen: Johnny Cash (2) has got expression.

Dylan: There's no expression. (Sings in boring, slow and monotone voice) "I met her at a dance in St. Paul, Minnesota... I walk the line, because you're mine, because you're mine..."

(time passes; tape resumes)

Bucklen: What's the best kind of music?

Dylan: Rhythm and Blues.

Bucklen: State your reason in no less than twenty-five minutes.

Dylan: Ah, Rhythm and Blues, you see, is something that you really can't quite explain, see. When you hear a Rhythm and Blues song - when you hear it's a good Rhythm and Blues song, chills go up your spine...

Bucklen: Whoa-o-o!

Dylan: When you hear a song like that. But when you hear a song like Johnny Cash, whadaya wanna do? You wanna leave, you wanna, you - when you hear a song like some good Rhythm and Blues song, you wanna cry when you hear one of those songs.

(another caesura; tape resumes)

Dylan: Yeah, ah, Ricky Nelson (3). Now Ricky Nelson's another one of these guys. See Ricky Nelson, Ricky Nelson -

Bucklen, prototype rock snob: Ricky Nelson is out of the question.

Dylan: Well he copies Elvis Presley! Yeaah, it's perfectly...

Bucklen: He can't do like Elvis Presley.

Dylan: Well he can't sing at all, Ricky Nelson. So we may as well forget him. See I mean - I mean, ya know, when you hear music like The Diamonds (4). For instance The Diamonds are really cool, they're out on the street, really popular, you know. So they're popular big stars but where, where do they get all the songs? You know they get all their songs, they get all their songs from little groups. They copy all the little groups (5). Same thing with Elvis Presley. Elvis Presley, who did he copy? He copied Clyde McPhatter, he copied Little Richard...

Bucklen: Wait a minute, wait a minute!

Dylan:..he copied the Drifters...

Bucklen: Wait a minute, name, name, name four songs that Elvis Presley's copied from those, from those little groups.

Dylan: He copied all the Richard songs -

Bucklen: Like what?

Dylan: "Rip It Up", "Long Tall Sally", "Ready Teddy", err ... what's the other one...

Bucklen: "Money Honey"?

Dylan: No, "Money Honey" he copied from Clyde McPhatter. He copied "I Was The One " - he copied that from the Coasters. He copied, ahhh, "I Got A Woman" from Ray Charles.

Bucklen: Er, listen that song was written for him.


(1) Little Richard's "Keep a Knockin'," in which rock & roll goes to its outer limits, was released in August 1957 as Specialty 611. Led Zeppelin nicked the drum intro for their "Rock and Roll"; every other rock band in history has wished they could make something this wild. Lee Allen, Alvin Tyler (saxes) and Earl Palmer (drums) are among the geniuses on this track. A few months after recording it, Richard quit show business and enrolled in a Bible college in Alabama. On The Georgia Peach.

(2) Johnny Cash's "Big River" was one of his last Sun recordings, taped on November 12, 1957, and released a month later as Sun 283, c/w "Ballad of a Teenage Queen." Teenage Dylan may not have thought much of Cash, but a decade later, he was recording covers of "Big River" with the Band and appearing as a guest on a Cash TV special. And the line from "Big River" that Dylan is mocking--"St Pawwl, Minnesota"--sounds like, as David Cantwell noted, the template for Dylan's later phrasing. On The Sun Years.

(3) "Stood Up," which transformed Ricky Nelson from a teen idol to a credible rocker, was recorded on November 18, 1957, and released a month later as Imperial 5483. This session was the first time Nelson worked with the guitarist James Burton, who Nelson had heard rehearsing at Imperial's offices. Nelson desperately wanted Burton, and so he had his father Ozzie "make Burton an offer he couldn't refuse: a retainer, permananent membership in Rick Nelson's house band and national exposure on the Ozzie & Harriet Show" (James Ritz). On Greatest Hits.

(4) The Diamonds' "Little Darlin'" was major pop hit in early '57, sitting at #2 on the charts for almost two months. The Diamonds were a Canadian/Californian quartet that, like a number of white vocal groups, got hits by covering contemporary R&B songs, almost immediately after the original was released. Their version of "Little Darlin'," for example, was rushed out weeks after the Gladiolas' original. It's a doo-wop classic that is also a doo-wop parody, in which the lead singer seems to be using a cod-Italian accent at times, the backup singers shriek and whine, there's some Will Ferrell-esque cowbell playing and, the coup de grace, an utterly ridiculous spoken verse, intoned like an announcer introducing "As the World Turns". That said, it remains a junk masterpiece "as unmistakably exciting as it is insincere" (Dave Marsh). Released as Mercury 71060. On Best Of.

(5) And here is the original 'little group" version: "Little Darlin'" was released in January 1957 by The Gladiolas as Excello 2101. The original is about as ridiculous as the Diamonds' cover version; it was an attempt by Excello head Ernie Young to cash in on a waning calypso fad. Written and lead vocals by Maurice Williams. Young told him not to mind that the Diamonds had made a bigger hit out of "Little Darlin'", as the real money was in the publishing. Of course, Young owned the publishing. On Excello Story Vol. 3.

The Dylan/Bucklen conversation was transcribed by Olof Björner; it's available, along with a few songs, on bootlegs like I Was So Much Younger Then.

24 Hours of Short Films

For those of you blessed with Turner Classic Movies, don't miss, this Friday (9/15), this awesome marathon:

Chaplin. Keaton (represented by some truly left-field choices). Hitchcock. Negulesco. Kubrick (some crazily rare shorts from the early '50s). George Stevens. Truffaut. Tourneur. "La Jetee"!! Lynch. Scorsese. Don Siegel. Polanski. Ridley and Tony Scott. Basically, the history of 20th Century film, in short doses.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


The Lilly Brothers, John Henry.
Bill Clifton and His Dixie Mountain Boys, Mary Dear.

By the late 1950s, bluegrass, once country music's conservative wing, had begun to slowly evolve into a brand of international folk music. Continuing a process that had begun in country music, ancient blues or folk tunes were cleaned up and often deracinated, becoming folkie standards in places far from the music's origins.

Take the Lilly Brothers. Everett and Mitchell (known generally as "B" or "Bea") were born in Clear Creek, West Virginia, and began playing the regional circuit in the 1930s, inspired by the Carter Family and the Monroe Brothers. B played guitar, Everett sang and played mandolin (and worked for Flatt & Scruggs for a time). But in 1952, the brothers and other players like banjoist Don Stover and fiddler Tex Logan moved northward, where they became the house band at the Hillbilly Ranch, located in Boston, "where they attained a following from the intellectual crowd" (Ivan Tribe). Throughout the '50s and '60s, the Lillys would record for labels like Folkways and Prestige, and introduce a generation of college students to bluegrass.

Their version of "John Henry" was recorded in Westbrook, Maine, sometime in 1957. By the time the Lillys recorded it, "John Henry" already had undergone a long, strange journey from its beginnings. Apparently, sometime in 1872, during the building of the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, a black laborer named John Henry was killed. The legend is that a salesman with a new steam-powered drill came to the railroad, boasting that his machine could outdrill any man. Henry, the strongest worker on the railroad, took up the challenge, and drove fourteen feet to the machine's nine, an effort that killed him. Yet fate chose Henry, along with the likes of Stagger Lee and Frankie Baker, to become immortalized through song.

As "John Henry" drove on through the years, it was interpreted in various ways, as a symbol of the System crushing the Worker, of man taking a stand against rampant technology, of a celebration of sexual and physical prowess. The Lillys' version is simply a hard-driving good-time breakdown. Released as Event 4272 c/w "Bring Back My Blue Eyed Boy to Me"; find on Early Recordings.

Bill Clifton was another architect of postwar "traditional" music. Born in 1931 to a wealthy family in a Baltimore suburb, Clifton grew fascinated by country music after hearing it on the radio, and around the time of the rise of rock & roll and "Nashville Sound" country music, Clifton began successfully resurrecting ancient songs. He became a performing curator: in 1955, Clifton published a paperback songbook, which became a primer for folkies, and in 1961, he helped assemble the first bluegrass festival, in Luray, Virginia.

A good example of Clifton's work is in his take on "Mary Dear," a ballad that hails from the 1880s or 1890s. It was first recorded by Byron Harlan in 1902, and subsequently by the likes of Charlie Poole, Roy Harvey and Gene Autry. Clifton recorded it in April, 1957, in Nashville, and the track features Johnny Clark (v, banjo), Gordon Terry (fiddle), Tommy Jackson (fiddle), Johnny Johnson (g) and Roy Huskey (b). Released as Mercury 71200 c/w "Lonely Heart Blues". Find on The Early Years.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


Coleman Hawkins, Chant.
Coleman Hawkins and Thelonious Monk, Ruby, My Dear.
Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, La Rosita.

Cannonball Adderley liked to tell of a young saxophonist who complained to him that Coleman Hawkins made him nervous. 'I told him Hawkins was supposed to make him nervous! Hawkins has been making other sax players nervous for forty years!'

Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz.

Coleman Hawkins, the man who taught the tenor saxophone how to sing, played his first paid gig during World War I (and his last would be a few months before the first moon landing); he had, over the course of some 40 years, become a walking embodiment of jazz, never tiring, forever altering course. A series of great sessions Hawkins recorded during 1957 can give you a sense of the master's abilities.

"Chant" is the leadoff track of The Hawk Flies High, an LP he recorded for Riverside in March, in which Hawkins was able to choose his supporters--he wound up with a pretty fantastic lot, including trombonist J.J. Johnson, Idrees Sulieman (t), pianist Hank Jones, guitarist Barry Galbraith, Oscar Pettiford (b) and Jo Jones (d). For the solos, Hawkins clears the trail, leaving Sulieman, Johnson, Hank Jones and Pettiford to follow along, each in an exemplary way.

Three months later, Hawkins went into the studio with Thelonious Monk. Unlike some musicians of his generation, Hawkins enjoyed the beboppers, who in turn embraced Hawkins as a sort of grand master of modern jazz. This version of Monk's "Ruby, My Dear," recorded on June 26, also features Wilbur Ware on bass and Art Blakey on drums. Monk is content, for most of the piece, to simply provide accompaniment for Hawkins' beautiful playing (Monk's solo, a 16-bar dose of serenity, finally comes around four minutes into the recording). After one last glorious burst from Hawkins, he and Monk converse for a bit before calling it a night. On Monk's Music.

And the sublime "La Rosita" finds Hawk teamed with more of a contemporary, the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, who had long emulated Hawkins' style. Hawkins states the melody in slow, luxurious phrases, over a sprightly, rim-rapping beat by Alvin Stoller, then Webster joins him for a stretch of what Giddins called "understated rapture." Webster lights out on the solo. ("La Rosita" was a resurrected oldie, first hailing from a 1923 Ernst Lubitsch film of the same name.) Recorded on October 16, with Oscar Peterson (p), Herb Ellis (g), Ray Brown (b). Find here.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Charlie Feathers, Nobody's Woman.
Charlie Feathers, Too Much Alike.
Charlie Feathers, When You Come Around.

In which Charlie Feathers attempts to beat Elvis at his own game.

The Feathers saga to date: Charlie was one of the many ambitious Southern kids who came to Memphis in search of musical fortune, and he recorded, like many others, for Sam Phillips. Yet Phillips never really took to Feathers, considering him more of a pure country singer than a rockabilly one, and he found Feathers' "Tongue Tied Jill," one of his best tracks, to be silly and possibly offensive.

Feathers put "Tongue Tied Jill" out on Meteor, and in mid-1956, signed with King Records. The first King session produced some hot tracks, most notably a rockabilly classic, "One Hand Loose," and evidently the highers-up at King figured they might have a Elvis challenger on their hands.

So six days into 1957, Feathers went into RCA Studio, in Nashville, and recorded four tracks, which were all released as singles in the next few months. The songs were poppier, cleaner, with prominent backup vocals by Johnny Bragg and the Prisonaires (a black vocal group, whose members were allegedly convicts). "Nobody's Woman," the best of the bunch, is in the vein of uptempo, early RCA-era Elvis, complete with a sneer in Feathers' voice, a spare guitar solo and a great, finger-snapping rhythm.

"Too Much Alike" and "When You Come Around" could be Presley outtakes, with Feathers slightly overwhelmed by the Prisonaires--"When You Come Around," in particular, sounds like a rough draft of "Don't Be Cruel." What saves these tracks from being pure imitations is Feathers' singing, which is laced with attitude and humor, and Jerry Huffman's nice and raw guitar playing (the gritty riff that opens "Too Much Alike"; the eight bars of tightrope walking in the middle of "Come Around").

"Nobody's Woman" was released as King 5022 in March 1957, c/w "When You Decide," and "Too Much Alike"/"When You Come Around" was released as King 5043 the next month. Both singles stiffed on the national charts. Feathers didn't record again until the end of 1958, and then for Kay, a much smaller label. His days of trying to cater to popular tastes were over: he was off into the wilderness. All tracks can be found on Get With It.

The Quarrymen, Puttin' on the Style (fragment).

It's miraculous even this tiny shard of music, with abysmal recording quality, exists. This is a recording of John Lennon's first band, the Quarrymen, playing on July 6, 1957, at the Woolton Fete in Liverpool, the day Lennon met Paul McCartney. "Puttin' On the Style" was a popular skiffle hit of the period, and it sounds like the band is whomping the hell out of it. It's unnerving to already hear the sound of the classic Lennon voice, buried in the murk.

A tape of the complete recording of "Style" and "Baby Let's Play House" apparently does exist, owned by EMI or Yoko Ono, depending on who you read. (Extensive write-up here.) It was considered for the Beatles Anthology, but the sound quality was apparently too rough. (This excerpt comes from a '90s TV news feature about the tape's sale, for £78,500.) The complete 1957 recordings likely will turn up one day, to lure people to buy yet another multi-disc compilation of Beatles/Lennon outtakes.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

6 Cardinal Colors: Monochrome Coda

Elvis Costello, Black and White World.
Three Dog Night, Black and White.
Richard Thompson, Grey Walls.
2-Star Tabernacle and Andre Williams, Lily White Mama and Jet Black Daddy.
Elvis Costello, Black and White World (demo).

So, we're done with the colors. At last! Assembling this woolly, ridiculous series nearly broke me--in particular, the entry on "red", which was all over the place and just went on too damned long. But I kept going and I think I hit a groove around "yellow." Still, at the end of it, I wonder yet again why I embark on these projects.

Here are a few last songs to put you back in a '50s mood--back to black and white, back to grey and monochrome.

"Black and White World," in which Elvis Costello looks at an old photograph and deludes himself that the world was simpler then, is on Get Happy!, from 1980. The demo version is included on the re-release.

"Black and White" is a happy celebration of Brown v. Board of Education. Cheesy, dippy, irresistable. And sometimes it really gets to me--call me a nostalgist for the Warren Court. On 20th Century Masters (Three Dog Night? Does Eddie Money qualify as a "20th Century Master" too?).

"Grey Walls," in which Richard Thompson recounts the time his girlfriend got committed to what sounds like a 19th Century madhouse, is on 1991's Rumour and Sigh.

"Lily White Mama and Jet Black Daddy," from 1998, is by 2-Star Tabernacle, one of Jack White's early projects, with Dan Miller (who did much of the guitar work and vocals), Tracee Miller and Damian Lange. The band had a mayfly life--it only released one single via Chicago's Bloodshot Records, a cover of Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man" and "Lily White Mama," which is sung by the legendary Andre Williams. (White's "The Big Three Killed My Baby" was originally meant for Williams, and "Hotel Yorba" came out of this period as well--much more info here.) The Millers went on to form Blanche.

Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black, 1871.

End credits

Thanks to everyone who wrote words of encouragement--to David Cantwell, in particular, who linked to nearly every entry on Living in Stereo.

Also, I'm greatly indebted to the following, from which I pillaged mercilessly:

Alexander Theroux, The Primary Colors. Out of print, but easy to find. The whale to my essays' minnow: a source of countless quotes, suggestions for appropriate pictures, arcana, etc. Indispensable.

Alexander Theroux, The Secondary Colors. See above. Theroux was supposed to be working on a 'black and white' essay, but that was over ten years ago.

Victoria Finlay, Color. Charming, fearless British woman, in search of the origins of various dyes and colors, travels to the ends of the earth, including Taliban-run Afghanistan and a backwater town in India where the desk clerks keep ringing up her hotel room, saying "It is Saturday night, and Patna is alive with disco."

John McPhee, Oranges. Journalism practiced at such a level it can scarcely be believed.

John Gage, Colour and Culture.

William Gass, On Being Blue.

Simon Garfield, Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World.

Herman Pleij, Colors Demonic and Divine.

Philip Ball, Bright Earth. Whatever feeble attempts I made at explaining the science of perceiving and producing color are owed to this book.


A few random things:

Naguib Mahfouz
and Dewey Redman, RIP.

The Village Voice fired Robert Christgau, which is the equivalent of a decaying baseball team sacking the only all-star left on the payroll. Absolutely appalling. Christgau's final Consumer Guide.

I've finally updated the blogroll, with some fine new additions. Warning, if you haven't updated your site in the last eight or nine months, your site likely got the axe--send me a note if you want a reprieve.

Cover star: Julie Delpy, in Kieslowski's Trzy kolory: Bialy (Three Colors: White).