Suits (TV series)

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If Suits had been made ten or twenty years ago, it would be one of those must-watch American imports on British TV, shown at prime time on ITV.  Now, with multi-channel broadcasting, it is tucked away on the awfully-named Dave channel and most of the population of the UK have never heard of it.  The multi-channel era is very good at hiding wonderful shows away so that no-one ever starts to watch then unless they are channel-surfing and suddenly take an interest in the few seconds they get to see.

Suits, for those of you unfortunate enough not to have seen it, tells of the life, loves and cases within a high-flying law firm.  The first season begins with lawyer Harvey Specter (played by Gabriel Macht) hiring Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), a new associate, despite the fact that Mike has never been to law school.  We then move through various cases (some of which I don’t actually understand, but that doesn’t seem to matter) and the constant threat of Mike’s secret being exposed,  as well as following the personal lives of those at the law film.  It’s the emphasis on the latter that makes Suits particularly special, with the other members of the firm growing in importance and screen time as the series progresses.

There are some wonderful performances here.  Rick Hoffman manages to make Louis Litt believable, despite the fact that the character could easily fall into caricature and series clown in lesser hands.  Sarah Rafferty as Donna, Harvey’s secretary, puts in a brilliant performance week after week, instilling her character with a mix of humour and heart.  Gina Torres is Jessica Pearson, one of the characters that has been developed with each successive season and has gone from simply a boss-like figure to a warm, determined human being.  Rachel, Mike’s girlfriend and fellow associate, is played by Meghan Markle and, again, the character has grown as the series has moved on.  But it is the chemistry and the occasional sparring between Macht and Adams as Harvey and Mike that is at the heart of the show – and it was only during a short period when Mike left the law firm and the two shared hardly any screen time that the show fell in quality.  The other real stars here are the writers, who manage to produce interesting, human, moving and funny material for its characters week after week in a way that many better-known shows could only dream of.

Many would call Suits the L. A. Law of the 2010s and, I guess, that is a fair comparison, but the issue here is that Suits is a far better written, acted, directed and consistent show than L. A. Law ever was.  The earlier show, essential viewing in its day, was very inconsistent, moving from brilliance one week to sheer stupidity the following episode.  Each successive season got more and more inconsistent until the whole thing just unravelled and ended with season eight in 1994.  Suits, on the other hand, moves from strength to strength, with season five probably being the best so far, especially now the “Mike is going to be exposed” storyline has finally been seen to have run its course and, seemingly, put to bed (although, as I write this, I see in the synopsis for future episodes that it might appear again).   What’s more, it has that consistency in quality that L. A. Law never had.

If you haven’t caught Suits you have missed a treat.  But don’t join it now, go and get yourself the DVDs of the earlier seasons and catch-up first.  With more than sixty episodes to watch, it will also give you many opportunities to hear the theme song and try to work out what the hell they are singing about!

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

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*contains spoilers*

For anyone who is a big film or music fan, there is always that chasing around for the things we can’t have.  We want the old films that aren’t available for whatever reason, or the unreleased recordings by our favourite artists that are languishing in a vault.  Sometimes we have good reason to salivate at the thought of these films and recordings being released, whereas other times there is good reason for a film or album being more obscure than the rest.

For many years, the Hammer production of Phantom of the Opera, starring Herbert Lom and Michael Gough, was unavailable on home video, particularly in Europe – slightly odd given the famous title.  Eventually it appeared again in 2014 not just on DVD but also on blu-ray. The point of the blu-ray release is a little bit of a mystery as, to be honest, it looks no better than the average DVD of a 1960s movie.  Anyone expecting a startlingly clear, crisp transfer is going to be disappointed.  Sure, it’s perfectly watchable, but that’s not what blu-ray releases are meant to be about.

That aside, the Hammer Phantom proves to have been rather elusive for a very sensible reason – it’s not very good.  Perhaps a hint towards the tameness of the film is  on the packaging itself – it is, surprisingly, a PG certificate.  Rather odd for a Hammer Horror.  But there is a good reason for that – there’s virtually no horror in the film.  Even the unmasking of the Phantom’s face is not actually shown to the viewer – in fact we don’t see that face until the very last shot of the film – and then, to be fair, we’ve seen some celebrity faces look worse than that thanks to botched plastic surgery and face lifts.   Perhaps the only real moment of horror comes when someone is stabbed in the eye, but that is also seen from a distance.

Now, I’m not saying that a horror film needs to be filled with horrific moments, because it doesn’t, but it does need to be tense and sinister, and Phantom is neither.   It is, instead a mystery-come-tragedy about a supposedly deceased composer – let’s face it, you all know the story already.  The film is interminably slow, especially in the opening half an hour or so, and when we actually get the Phantom he turns out to be a slightly eccentric fellow who wants to teach a girl to sing so that his opera can be heard in all its glory.  At one point, the film looks like its going to get a happily-ever-after ending, but presumably someone realised that wasn’t fitting for a horror film and so tagged a three-minute disaster movie on to the end just to give a final thrill.

Viewers that are really paying attention will know that the composer of the opera that is the centre of the film, about “Saint” Joan of Arc, must also have been a psychic.  The film is set in Victorian London and yet Joan didn’t become a saint until 1920.  The supposed opera in question is a turgid effort, which I suppose is at least true to form given British efforts at the form during the Victorian era – but this makes Sullivan’s Ivanhoe sound like Aida (although I will admit that Ivanhoe, to quote Rossini on Wagner, does have “some wonderful moments but dull quarter hours – but I digress).

The script is a lame effort and, surprisingly, Terence Fisher’s direction is decidedly lacklustre and workmanlike.  Herbert Lom makes for a very unscary Phantom (even during the section of the film when he’s meant to be frightening), although he does well during the flashback sequence.  Michael Gough chews up the scenery as always and, as always, wanders through the film looking like a bulldog chewing on a wasp.  Heather Sears looks suitably bored for the most part, and even when kidnapped and brought to the Phantom has a kind of “oh, come on then, teach me to sing and get it over and done with” look on her face.  Oddly, the usually bland Edward de Souza comes out best, making for a surprisingly charming leading man.

All in all, however, this is a very unexciting effort, both from the point of view of the film and of the blu-ray release.  If you haven’t seen it and wonder why you’ve missed the film all these years, well the above information might give you a good idea why it seems to be one of Hammer’s lesser-known titles.  Either that, or you were just lucky to miss out.

Bobby Darin: The Milk Shows

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The last in the series of blog posts reviewing Bobby Darin recordings.

March 1963 saw the announcement that Bobby would “be featured in a Monday through Friday program series on Radio Station WIBA.  The program titled Bobby Darin will be heard at 3.33 p.m. and will feature a talk (sic) and music by this young star, designed to appeal to both adults and teenagers – not rock and roll music.  The Bobby Darin show will be sponsored by the American Dairy Association.”[1]

These five-minute radio programmes became known as The Milk Shows.  Darin would record the shows at Capitol studios, and they would then be overdubbed with fake (very fake) applause, thus giving the impression that the songs were being performed live – although how many listeners were fooled is debatable.   The tapes of these shows were found back in 2002, with a trio of songs being released on the Aces Back to Back release in 2004.  After this, there was an inexplicable delay of another ten years before the release of a double CD set containing more than ninety tracks.

If you’re wondering how ninety tracks fit on a mere double CD set, then it’s worth stating that no songs featured in the series was recorded in full (with one exception).  Each song was a bite-size version lasting, in most cases, sixty to ninety seconds.  This in itself makes the release a unique listening experience, but it is also worth remembering that Darin was accompanied by just a jazz quartet featuring Richard Behrke, Ronnie Zito, Milt Norman and Billy Krist – no matter what the song.

The material that Darin chose to record for The Milk Shows cover the whole gamut of his repertoire, from renditions of rock ‘n’ roll hits Splish Splash and Multiplication to a wide variety of standards and show tunes.  Some of the songs had been recorded by Bobby previously for record release, and those numbers often get given a different feel here thanks to the stripped back instrumentation.  Other tracks are ones that Bobby never did record in a studio, and so these versions are the only ones we have.

The recording dates for these shows are unclear.  The news article quoted earlier is from the beginning of March 1963, suggesting that the recordings probably began around the same time.  Whether all tracks were recorded at once or over a longer period is not known, although it’s worth noting that, when Darin draws upon songs he had already recorded, all of them date from studio sessions before March 1963, thus suggesting that The Milk Shows were recorded over a short space of time during that spring and/or summer.  For example, while You’re the Reason I’m Living (and songs from that album) are included here, Eighteen Yellow Roses and songs from that album are not.  There are a couple of exceptions.  Days of Wine and Roses would be recorded in 1964 for the Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie album (in a very different arrangement), and The Sheik of Araby was recorded in late 1965, but remains unissued.  However, Darin dates The Milk Show version of Days of Wine and Roses by referring to it as “this year’s” Academy Award-winning song, thus dating the performance to 1963, but sometime after the ceremony that took place on April 8.

While these recordings are to be welcomed, it should be mentioned that Darin is not always in the best of voice, and certainly doesn’t always give a song the care and attention he would for a commercial recording.  The very first song on the double CD is a case in point.  Too Close for Comfort, from the musical Mr Wonderful, hardly gets the album off to an auspicious start, with Bobby’s voice sounding croaky and he hits a number of bum notes along the way.  Things improve somewhat for Pennies from Heaven, which gets a nice run-through, but the big finish doesn’t quite come off in the way it normally would on a Darin recording.  Part of this is due to the low-key performances, but there is also a sense here that some of the songs simply weren’t rehearsed enough.  Around the World is an example of this.  It gets an upbeat, jazzy rendition but there are points when Bobby lags behind the beat and others where he seemingly makes the melody up as he goes along.

Elsewhere, it seems to be simply a worn-out voice that is the problem.  Climb Every Mountain starts off well, and has a better arrangement than the outing it would receive ten years later on The Bobby Darin Show TV series, but the climax of the song shows that Darin’s voice is shot to pieces.  Perhaps this was one number that should have remained in the vault.  Climb Every Mountain isn’t the only song here that wouldn’t be given a studio recording but would appear years later.  Sixteen Tons was given a brilliant (and lengthy) reworking during an appearance on The Jerry Lewis Show in 1968 and would emerge again on The Bobby Darin Show (although not included on the DVD of that series).

Unsurprisingly, some of the most interesting songs here are the ones that Bobby didn’t record or perform elsewhere.  The choice of material is also intriguing.  A number of tracks are songs associated with Bing Crosby, for example, including I’m an Old Cowhand (during which Bobby can’t resist throwing in some impressions), Sweet and Lovely and Too-Ra-Loo-Ra Loo-Ral which gets crooned nicely in Darin’s softest voice.  Less surprising perhaps are the series of tracks associated with Al Jolson, including April Showers, Rock-a-Bye Your Baby, and Let Me Sing and I’m HappyApril Showers is particularly good, and reminds us just how good a ballad singer he was during this period, particularly when not bogged down by the choir that appears to pop up at every opportunity when the tempo falls below a certain number of beats per minute on the Oh! Look at Me Now and You’re the Reason I’m Living albums.

Some of Bobby’s biggest hits get quite a makeover in this new setting.  Lazy River, for example, is taken at an ultra-slow pace and is given a bluesy vocal that has little of the show-stopping nature of the studio recording. Splish Splash, on the other hand, seems a little bizarre when backed by a jazz quartet, although Dream Lover doesn’t suffer in the same way – in fact it works better here than with the big band on the Darin at the Copa album.  You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby is also heard in a very different arrangement to the hit twist version.  This swing version is just as credible, and makes one wish that Darin had recorded it again in this style at a later date.   Interestingly, Mack the Knife isn’t sung here, but is just used as an instrumental theme tune for the radio show.

It is often the ballads that get given most care and attention by Darin in this set of performances.  For example, Autumn Leaves is given a Latin rhythm and is beautifully sung, and a full studio recording of this lovely song would have been very nice indeed.  Also given a Latin feel and a similar vocal is the song which is, arguably, the greatest written by Irving Berlin, How Deep is the Ocean, as well as Fools Rush In.  The use of these Latin rhythms is interesting as Darin rarely employed them elsewhere, although, going by these brief outings, an album in the bossa nova style would not have been a bad move.  Elsewhere, I’ll Be Seeing You is given a gentle swing rhythm, but Darin sings it as a ballad, mostly singing it in his subdued voice which is most effective.    Also of note is a sincere rendition of La Vie en Rose.  Perhaps the most bizarre ballad performance finds Bobby reciting the lyrics of Days of Wine and Roses while the tune is played in the background.

A number of songs from the mammoth January 1963 sessions appear here.  Hello Young Lovers and This Nearly Was Mine are given renditions similar to their studio counterparts, whereas the arrangements of I Ain’t Got Nobody, Please Help Me I’m Falling and Be Honest With Me are simplified somewhat and benefit from the lack of backing vocals – although Be Honest With Me still sees Darin adding the same mannerisms to his voice as he does on the You’re the Reason I’m Living LP version.  What Kind of Fool am I is given a lightly swinging version here that arguably is more effective than the more traditional performance recorded a few months earlier.  What is particularly interesting is how Bobby approaches the end of the song in a completely different way.  There is no big finish here – instead, he sings the final lines is his softest voice, almost a falsetto, and it is just as effective as the traditional ending.  During the Broadway album sessions, Darin had recorded Tall Hope from the musical Wildcat.  Here he turns his attention to the most famous song from that show, Hey Look Me Over.  The normal march rhythm of the song is cast to one side in favour of a straight-ahead jazz approach, but it all seems a little half-hearted, and isn’t helped by a rather inept and unenthusiastic attempt at scat singing.

Alongside the well-established standards are some of the novelty songs that Darin appears to have had a genuine affection for given that the album of duets with Johnny Mercer is filled with such material.  Here we have Manana, co-written by, and a hit for, Peggy Lee, for whom Bobby often expressed his admiration.  Darin puts in a great performance here, with his voice sounding stronger that on many of the other tracks.  While Manana is fun, a number like Mairzy Dotes and Dozy Doats is an example of a novelty song that is simply tedious.  ‘A’ You’re Adorable gets a nice run-through, as does Row, Row, Row, which includes the verse which is not featured on the recording with Johnny Mercer on the Two of a Kind album.

Ironically, the best song from The Milk Show recordings is All the Way, released on Aces Back to Back but, oddly, not included on The Milk Shows set.  Quite why this lovely performance wasn’t included the second time around is a mystery, not least because it’s the only  full-length performance in the ninety or so songs.  Here, Darin takes a Sinatra signature song, gives it a gentle jazz combo backing and a subdued, beautiful performance that certainly deserved to be the climax of the double CD set.  Strangely, the other two songs from the shows released on the Aces Back to Back CD were reissued on The Milk Shows release.

The double CD release is, of course, wonderful to have, but it can also be rather frustrating.  Much of this is to do with technical issues such as the fake applause and, even worse, Bobby trying to interact with the fake applause.  It all becomes rather distracting, especially when each song only runs for a minute or so.  That said, presumably the applause was already on the tapes when they were found and so couldn’t be removed.  Less forgivable is where songs are joined together in such a way that Bobby is talking over his own singing,  perhaps saying “thank you” to the audience that isn’t there when he’s already started on the next number.  The same happens in reverse, where he’s introducing the next song while still finishing the previous one.  While one can understand why there was a desire to present each CD as one uninterrupted piece, there also seems little reason why songs couldn’t have been re-ordered so that these overlaps didn’t take place.  If that wasn’t possible, then a simple fade out and fade in would have worked better than the jarring mix of two songs together that occasionally happens.  Despite this, it should be reiterated that the sound quality of these tapes that were lost for more than thirty years is very good indeed.

Technical issues aside, the run of more than fifty songs in a space of just over an hour is almost exhausting, and with each song having the same instrumentation in its backing, they tend to run in together as if they were one long medley and thus suffer from becoming aural wallpaper.  Likewise, while Bobby is on very good form in places and gives some fine, nuanced performance, there are also moments where Darin the perfectionist is, seemingly, on holiday.  Back in 1960 in an article in Downbeat magazine, Gene Lees had commented on problems with Darin’s intonation in his early albums of standards.[2]  During The Milk Shows recordings this issue rises again, whether due to a tired voice or the sheer speed required to get everything down on tape.  However, we also need to remember that these were, in all likelihood, intended for a one-off broadcast not to be repeated – and certainly not to be listened to over and over again some forty years later.

What The Milk Shows undoubtedly show us is that Darin should have recorded with a jazz combo more than he did.  The one album that resulted from such a set-up, Winners, is Bobby at his very best, and one can imagine that, with a sensible amount of studio time, a number of the songs performed here could have been recorded in full performances for a follow-up album that would have been just as good.  That, sadly, didn’t happen, and so The Milk Shows CD release is the nearest we have, and for that we should be thankful.

[1] “Bobby Darin Show,” Capital Times, March 2, 1963, 3.

[2] Lees, “Bobby Darin and the Turn from Junk Music,” 16.

Bobby Darin: Bill Bailey and the February 1960 Jazz Recordings

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Just a few days after finishing the It’s You or No One LP, Bobby was back in the studio to record a very different album.  In just two days, Bobby recorded fifteen songs, this time backed by a small jazz combo headed by Bobby Scott.  Once again, this may well have been an instance of Darin trying to distance himself from Sinatra.  In 1959 and 1962, Sinatra performed concerts using just a jazz sextet as backing, but he never recorded an album with that kind of setting (which is a great loss, it should be added).  Here, Bobby records what is, pure and simply, a jazz vocal album.  The results are much looser than on any of his other albums of standards and, while Bobby Scott is credited as arranger, it sounds much more as if he put together some basic ideas and the musicians simply took it from there.  This group of songs (released on an album and three singles) shows Darin in fine form and demonstrating his versatility in a way that It’s You or No One ultimately failed to do.

Before discussing the recordings themselves, it is worth talking about how they were released.  Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey was released as a single backed with I’ll Be There in June 1960, reaching #19 in the U.S. charts.  In November 1962, I Found a New Baby was released as a single side.  Then, in June 1964, nine more songs (plus I Found a New Baby) appeared on an album called Winners, which was released with relatively little notice.  The remainder of the album was filled by both sides of the Milord/Golden Earrings single which had been unearthed from the vaults two months earlier and reached #45 in the charts.  The problem here is that the sound and orchestration of the single sides (recorded in June 1960 and March 1961) had nothing to do with the distinctive jazz sound of the rest of the album. Two months after the release of Winners, ATCO released yet another track from these February 1960 sessions, this time pairing Swing Low Sweet Chariot with Similau, an odd little number recorded in December 1960.  Finally, one more track from the sessions, Minnie the Moocher, was paired up with Hard Hearted Hannah (already released on the Winners  album) as a single in February 1965, more than five years after they were recorded.  And that’s not all! A Game of Poker and I Got a Woman have never been released at all.  The reason for the latter may have been because the song had been released in different arrangements on two other albums by 1964, but why A Game of Poker never appeared is unknown.

Such a release strategy is mystifying.  When Bill Bailey became a hit in 1960, one would think that the obvious thing to have done would have been to place it as the lead track on an album containing the other songs from the same session.  For some reason, that didn’t happen and, to date, these wonderful tracks have never appeared all together in one place – and yet they are a collection of songs just waiting to be rediscovered.

With its stripped down arrangement, Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey was an unlikely single release.  While Darin had taken old songs and had hits with them in the past, they had always been in big, swinging arrangements, but this was something different.  Still, the song manages to draw in the listener from the very beginning, with Bobby’s spoken lines before the song starts proper, and that seemed to be enough for it to catch on.  As with some of the other songs from the sessions, Darin interacts with the group, spurring them on as he yells “yeah, I like it like that” during the instrumental.  Not only is Bobby showing off his vocal abilities here, but also is showmanship.  It’s a stunning record, and while it wasn’t the biggest hit that Darin ever had, the fact that a pure jazz number broke into the top twenty shows just how good it is.  Billboard magazine referred to the song as “another winning side for Bobby Darin, featuring a great vocal by the lad over smart backing by the Bobby Scott Trio.”[1]

The first day of recording had begun with the aforementioned, unreleased A Game of Poker, and then continued with a straightforward rendition of the Gershwin’s They All Laughed.  Despite the relatively mundane arrangement, there is some great interplay between Bobby and the musicians, with each giving the other room to breathe.  There’s no instrumental section, but enough space at the end of each vocal line for an instrumental lick, normally on xylophone.  The “laughs” on the record are provided by Darin’s friend George Burns.[2]

Hard Hearted Hannah, a song dating back to 1924, is even better and, as with some of the other songs here, Bobby sings the verse as well as the more familiar chorus.  Once again, we can hear just how much Darin is enjoying himself here.  Listen closely and you’ll hear him singing off-mic during the instrumental.  He revived the song a few years later with a full big-band arrangement, performing it on TV on one of his appearances on The Andy Williams Show.  Hard Hearted Hannah was a song also included in the 1955 film Pete Kelly’s Blues (Jack Webb), bringing the number of songs from the film that Darin covered up to three, with She Needs Me appearing on That’s All, and the title song recorded for This is Darin.

There are few disappointing numbers here, but Anything Goes certainly fits into that category, despite some tasty piano licks during the first half.  The song, written by Cole Porter for his 1934 musical of the same name, is just too slow, and never gets going.  It’s clearly an attempt at doing something different with the number, but it just doesn’t work.

What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry finds things moving along at a much better tempo, and Bobby gives a gently swinging performance that adds nothing new to the song, but is pleasant enough.  The same can be said about Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which is given a kind of Latin American rhythm before switching to a standard swing feel during the bridge section.

Perhaps the best upbeat track of the whole session is the masterful I Found a New Baby, which begins with Darin’s finger-snapping before the various instruments slowly join in.  There is wonderful late-night jazz feel to the whole number, and Bobby Short’s piano solo is stunning and Darin tells him to “growl on it.”  There’s more variations to Bobby’s vocal here too.  He never sings at full volume and yet still manages to switch between a silky smooth tone and one that has the rawer sound heard on the That’s All LP.

Bobby’s take on Duke Ellington’s Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me is at a slower tempo than usual, and also contains a mistake in the vocal – something very rare for a Darin track.  On the line “If you should take the word of others you’ve heard,” you hear that he starts to sing “anyone’s dream” instead of “others you’ve heard,” but tries to correct himself, but it’s just a little too late.  It’s surprising he didn’t decide to do another take – unless the wrong take was actually issued by ATCO.  Like Anything Goes, the song doesn’t entirely work at this speed (Ella Fitzgerald also tried it at this speed with similar results), and it would have been better to hear Bobby belting this out in a full big band arrangement.

Minnie the Moocher gets given a wonderful treatment, with Bobby in full show-stopping form.  He makes the lyrics a little more palatable for early 1960s conservative audiences by removing the references to drugs, but it takes nothing away from the authenticity of the performance which comes complete with a rare example of Darin scat-singing, which he does much better here than on the later Two of a Kind album.  By recording it with just a jazz combo to back him, he removes the opportunity for anyone to compare it with the well-known Cab Calloway rendition, and Darin’s take is a classic in its own right.

Two of the ballads here are among the best vocals that Bobby ever recorded.  What a Difference a Day Made and Easy Living are wonderful examples of just how much his ballad singing had progressed in the year or so that he had been recording standards in the studio.  Written for a 1937 screwball comedy, Easy Living in particular is truly marvellous and the smoky jazz-club-style playing behind him is perfect framing for a perfect vocal.  What a Difference a Day Made finds Bobby taking on a song that, the year before, had won a Grammy award for Dinah Washington.  Ironically, Bobby’s version of the song is more jazz-oriented than Washington’s. When Day is Done is another ballad in the same style and with a similar vocal, but it’s simply not quite up the standard of the aforementioned titles, with the vocal just a little too subdued.  The song itself is more obscure, being of German origin with lyricist Buddy DeSylva writing English words for it during the 1920s.

The final song of the session is also the hardest to find.  Bobby had been singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot on stage for a while in medley with Lonesome Road in a big band arrangement.  However, here it gets a jazz workout by itself in an arrangement that is a cross between Bill Bailey and some of the songs he recorded for the folk album Earthy.  Here, he growls and rasps his way through the spiritual, and the performance is both a bizarre and masterful mixture of styles and genres.  The fact that this song has seemingly not re-appeared on CD or LP since its original single release back in 1964 is a great shame, for this is a fine, intriguing recording that deserves to be much better known than it is.

Unlike It’s You or No One, Winners did at least get some recognition when released, helped along by the inclusion of Milord, which had been recent single release.  Billboard, however, were rather non-committal in their review, referring to the album simply as “romantic and sentimental ballads and up-tempo swingers aimed at the sophisticated set.”[4]  They clearly missed the fact that this was one of the best jazz-oriented sets ever recorded by a pop singer.

[1] “Spotlight Winners of the Week,” Billboard, May 16, 1960, 41.

[2] Bleiel, That’s All, 55.

[4] “Album Reviews,” Billboard, July 25, 1964, 50.

Bobby Darin Born Walden Robert Cassotto (review)

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It’s probably true to say that nothing could have prepared Bobby Darin fans in 1968 for the music he recorded on his Direction label and released over a couple of albums and a handful of singles. While he’d had dalliances with folk-rock with the albums If I Were a Carpenter and Inside Out, and folk itself with the Earthy and Golden Folk Hits releases, there were really no clues that the singer would move into protest music other than his song We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here and the message behind the story of Dr Dolittle, the music of which he built an album around directly prior to starting his own Direction label. His music for the label remains the least known of his career (with the possible exception of the first Motown album) and yet stands out as some of his best work.

Recorded over a number of sessions in 1968, the nine songs that make up Darin’s first Direction album, Bobby Darin Born Walden Robert Cassotto, are a mixed bunch, both in message and quality. One of the most surprising things when looking at the sheet music (yes a book of sheet music from the album was released at the time – I doubt it was a big seller!) is the simplicity, even naivety, of the musical elements of these songs. Darin was a sophisticated musician and an intellectual to boot, and yet here everything is taken back to basics. Virtually none of the songs have what might be called a “chorus,” and most don’t have a bridge section either – just a series of verses, in some cases nearly a dozen.

Questions opens the album, and is a song about environmental damage. These songs were written during Darin’s sojourn in Big Sur, and that may well have inspired him on this song. There is also inspiration here from groups such as The Beatles and The Loving Spoonful in the production of these songs, which ranges from the basic to the complex including the use of sounds which appear to be tapes played backwards. Darin certainly isn’t shy about what he has to say, with some of the lyrics almost visceral :

How do you kill the ocean?
How do you make it dry?
Well, you first dilute,
Then pollute,
Cut the fruit,
At the root.
And the ocean’s floor
Will be like a whore
Who will lie no more
‘Cause she’s dead;
Use your head.

Jingle Jangle Jungle follows, with Darin this time turning his attention to money and finances, and the power that goes with them. This is one of the more Beatlesque sounding numbers, and the sound is harsher and more rock-oriented than some of the other tracks. Anyone used to hearing the showman-like sound of Darin’s swing material wouldn’t recognise the singer here. There is no razzamatazz, often not even as much as a vibrato.

The album is cleverly sequenced. The final verse of Jingle Jangle Jungle refers to the Vietnam war, which is the subject of The Proper Gander, an allegorical tale about a group of mice encouraged by their leaders to go to war to fight a Siamese Cat that doesn’t actually exist, with the leader being found out as the song comes to the end of its seven verses. Once again, everything here is tied up in the lyrics. Out of each verse’s 28 bars, 22 of them are simply just the chord of G. The lyrics more than make up for it, however, with Darin writing them in such a way that they can not only relate to the Vietnam war but any bulls*it spoken by a government in order to win votes and confidence.

Bullfrog is an 11-verse opus in which Darin doesn’t sing a note. The whole thing is spoken with a rhythm background, and finds Bobby telling a frog about how the history of money. It’s all rather strange, something which is reflected in the lyrics themselves: “Now, I thought I was stoned, so I started walkin’/I mean, whoever heard of a bullfrog talkin’?”

Long Line Rider became the single taken from the album, but made no impression in the charts. It’s certainly the most commercial number of the nine songs here, not least because it does actually have a chorus. It tells the true story of some killings (by those in charge) on an Arkansas prison farm. Darin went on TV and promoted the single, dressed in denim and without his toupee. On one occasion he was told he would have to censor the line “this kind of thing can’t happen here, especially not in an election year,” and Darin refused to perform. Once again, it is musically simplistic, built around the basic I, IV, V chord progressions (with the exception of one bar), but the lyrics are so well-written, the production so good, and Darin’s performance so committed that no-one notices.

The second side of the album is decidedly more relaxed and laid-back. Change sounds like it could have been written by Dylan for Nashville Skyline. This time the musical element is somewhat more sophisticated (the song even has a bridge!), but the lyrics are less biting than on the first side of the LP. This is simply a call to people not to resist change. Nothing more, nothing less.

I Can See the Wind is something of a mystery, and ultimately the low point of the album, although not unpleasant. Presumably this is a song about the benefits of smoking hash (although there’s no suggestion that Darin did), but your guess is as good as mine.

Sunday, on the other hand, is a dark, cutting, attack on organised religion, the death and misery it has caused through the years, and the hypocrisy that Darin saw in the church itself. “Sunday,” Darin sings, “bow down to the blood you’ve shed/Sunday, Bodies piled so steep/You say keep the faith, but there’s no faith to keep.” This is one of the tracks that utilises recordings played backwards (in the organ introduction to the song), and the song is well-constructed. It lures you in with relatively bland verses, with each one getting more and more hard-hitting in its lyrical content, until a world-weary Darin sighs in the final verse “Sunday, let the people sleep.” This is a brilliantly executed little song.

The final song on the album strips everything back to just Darin and an acoustic guitar. Darin was a big supporter of Robert Kennedy, and he fell apart when he was assassinated. This final, subdued, song, entitled simply In Memoriam, never sung above a whisper, sees Darin confronting his pain at the events, and the funeral that followed. Each verse ends simply with the words “they never understood him, so they put him in the ground.”

This nine-track album was Darin’s opening statement in his new role as protest singer and, while the album is uneven, it’s still mightily impressive. And yet, despite good reviews, very few people bought it. Some have said that it would have sold much better without Darin’s name on it, and that might be true. The idea of one of the best entertainers in the business singing protest songs sounded phoney, and he was once again accused of simply jumping on a bandwagon. That wasn’t the case though, for this LP made no effort whatsoever in being commercial. Despite it being a financial flop, Bobby Darin wasn’t deterred, and he returned in 1969 under the name “Bob Darin” with a new album that was a mix of protest album and a reflection on the counter-culture, with its discussion of everything from Ronald Reagan’s move into politics, the Vietnam war, drugs and sexuality.

Show Boat (San Francisco Opera) Review

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The problem with the San Francisco Opera Show Boat is that it is performed by an opera company.  Currently being screened in cinemas in the UK, this stage production is a harmless way of spending two and a half hours, but is otherwise something of a mess – especially to those of us who know the show well.

The score of Show Boat was restored a few decades ago to that which was presented on Broadway in 1927, with the songs that had been cut since then restored to their rightful place.  But not in this production.  Gone were numbers such as I Might Fall Back on You, In Dahomey, and I Would Like to Play a Lover’s Part.   Why?  No idea.  It’s not like the San Francisco production was of Wagnerian length – and, even if it was, why would that matter?

It gets even odder in the second half where not only are songs missing, but those that remain are sung by different characters and the narrative changed!  Dance the Night Away was sung by Kim on the Cotton Blossom in the 1928 version of the show (it was a replacement for a different song sung by the same character in the same scene in the 1927 original), but was sung by her mother, Magnolia, in the current production – and she sings it on Broadway in a completely new scene (pictured above).

One has to wonder why a respected opera company would tackle a classic piece of American theatre that has been around for nearly ninety years and think it new better than Kern, Hammerstein and Ziegfeld and begin to rewrite it.  Would they do the same with La Traviata?  I don’t think so.   And the changes didn’t stop there.  Dialogue was also altered for no apparent reason, as were lyrics.

The opening chorus originally opened with the line “niggers all work on the Mississippi,” but here it was changed to “coloured folks work on the Mississippi.”  This is political correctness gone mad.  The show is partly about racism for God’s sake – cutting out the racist language that the show is criticising is just completely insane.   It’s like making a film about homophobia and cutting out all the derogatory language that is part of that.   What’s even more mad is that the word “nigger” was retained during the dialogue – so why edit it out of the opening chorus?  The whole point of that opening line of the show is that it is hard-hitting – it told Broadway audiences in 1927 that this was no ordinary, light-hearted show.

But, all these changes aside, the whole thing completely fails as decent entertainment because it is performed by an opera company.  It’s like hearing Pavarotti sing Frank Sinatra.  It doesn’t work.  Yes, it’s fine for some characters – Magnolia and Ravenal can be sung with an opera voice and the show loses nothing.  But Julie ends up as a drunk in a bar singing torch songs – and sounds like Kiri te Kanawa when she should be sounding more like Billie Holiday.  It means the whole thing doesn’t make sense for the story and the characters become unbelievable.  Talking of unbelievable, Magnolia is meant to be 16 when the show starts, and yet is played by Heidi Stober who, according to my calculations, is nearer forty.   Yes, in opera we’re used to this kind of casting – but this isn’t opera, it’s theatre.  Sadly those behind the production failed to realise this.

Messing with the order of songs, cutting numbers and changing the narrative would be fine for viewers who don’t know the show well as they wouldn’t realise what had changed or been excised. However, when you couple this with a production that fatally casts the wrong kind of singers it’s a step too far.  And all of this (complete with appalling over-acting at times) is magnified when you then watch it on a big screen in a cinema.    There were some very good episodes, most notably a powerful rendition of the miscegenation scene which still moves an audience ninety years after it was written, but for the most part this was a fatally flawed production of a show that doesn’t get revived nearly often enough to start with.

Bobby Darin: the Musical Chameleon? I Don’t Buy It!

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I’ve been a fan of Bobby Darin for all my adult life, “discovering” him when I was around eighteen or nineteen, twenty-odd years ago.  Last year when I did some work on Elvis Presley (whose music I got into in a big way at around the same time as Darin), I was reminded of just how many musical styles he covered during his career:  rock n roll, country, folk, gospel, show tunes, blues, and big ballads.  However, Elvis was not as versatile as Bobby Darin who did all of the above and threw jazz and swing into the mix too, as well as delving into folk and show tunes in a way that Elvis never did – nor did Elvis tackle more than a couple of protest songs, whereas Darin recorded more than two albums worth.

Despite this versatility, I’ve never been happy with people calling Bobby Darin a “musical chameleon.”  For me, this has a negative connotation – albeit perhaps an unintended one.  I’m no expert on chameleons but, while they can change their colour for any number of reasons, we generally associate it with a kind of camouflage, an attempt to fit in to its surroundings so as not to be noticed or found out.  When we transfer this idea on Darin, it then makes him out to be someone who was just changing his style and genre in order to fit in to (or cash in on) the current music scene – the whole idea of jumping on a bandwagon.

I don’t buy that idea when it comes to Bobby Darin.  I’m not saying he never went bandwagon-jumping in search of a hit – he clearly did when he recorded the Ray Charles-like You’re the Reason I’m Living and even when he recorded If I Were a Carpenter.  But, elsewhere, I don’t think that is what he was doing.

We first come across this idea when he recorded the That’s All album back in late 1958, with the suggestion that he was somehow trying to be Frank Sinatra.  And yet, anyone who knows the music of both men will know that there are actually huge stylistic differences between their arrangements and vocal styles within the big band genre.  I don’t know of a single Sinatra arrangement that has the same sound and feel as Mack the Knife and Clementine.  Sinatra’s orchestrations swung in a very different way entirely.  In fact, perhaps the nearest Sinatra got to that sound was his version of Old MacDonald – recorded after the aforementioned tracks were released, not before – and even then, it’s not the exactly the same, despite the slow build-up in sound and the repeated modulations with each verse.   And it wasn’t often that Sinatra was as downright brash as the arrangements used for Softly as in a Morning Sunrise or Some of These Days.  Maybe on I’m Gonna Live Till I Die – but this was the exception, not the rule.  Darin’s vocal approach was far different too – he didn’t sing from a jazz background as Sinatra did, but he brought rock ‘n’ roll vocal stylings to the big band sound.  I’m not saying this to knock Sinatra in any way – I adore his music as readers of this blog will know – but my point is just that Darin wasn’t somehow imitating Sinatra, he was doing it his way.

If anything, Darin’s swing sound was more like Sammy Davis Jr’s than Sinatra’s.  Check out Davis’s version of There Is a Tavern in a Town, for example, and you will see what I mean.  He also got much of his material from the same place as Davis too:  the current Broadway scene.  Whereas Sinatra was normally reaching back to shows of the 1930s and 1940s, Darin and Davis were culling material from Broadway in the 1960s and, with Darin, the current Hollywood scene too.  Hence the albums Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie, In a Broadway Bag, The Shadow of Your Smile and individual tracks such as What Kind of Fool am I and If I Ruled the World.  Despite these connections with Davis, Darin wasn’t imitating him either, although both crossed over into rock ‘n’ roll material and rhythm ‘n’ blues.

Darin’s last album to be recorded for Atco was his tribute to Ray Charles, and it’s true to say it retains much of the Ray Charles sound.  However, even this wasn’t a straightforward album.  Darin was taking risks here.  What other pop singer of the time would spend over six minutes on I Got a Woman (and, in a late-60s TV appearance, over seven minutes on Drown in my Own Tears)?  Elvis was rarely recording songs over two and a half minutes.  Darin’s I Got a Woman doesn’t actually work – it goes on for far too long – but at least he was willing to take risks or, to be less kind in this instance, be self-indulgent.  Darin was always his own man and recorded what he wanted.  Colonel Parker would have run a mile from such an artist.

Bobby is again accused of jumping onto bandwagons when he released his folk album, Earthy.  And yet, once again, an actual examination of the LP finds that this wasn’t any normal folk album but an ambitious, daring (from a commercial point of view) collection of folk songs from around the world.  What’s more, it’s also one of his best albums.  In this case, the risk and the ambition and the vision paid off.  While Peter, Paul and Mary (who he is often accused of copying) were recording songs by Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, Darin was adapting folk music from across the globe along with a handful of new(ish) compositions in the same style.  And the musicianship here is incredible.  Listen to the final track, The Ee-I-Ee was Rising again – this time through headphones.  Sit and wonder at the remarkably complex rhythms that occur as the song progresses and gets quicker and quicker.  Check out Bobby Darin’s timing – so accurate, and a fraction of a second either way would have thrown the whole thing out.  It’s an incredible performance which can sound like a flippant joke until heard in this way.  And yet the album did very little business commercially.  Darin’s next folk album, Golden Folk Hits, was a simple attempt to hone in on the Peter, Paul and Mary sound, but he’d gone down the artistic route before turning to the commercial one.

Then there have been the comparisons with Bob Dylan when we come to the late 1960s and Bobby’s creation of his own label to record his own protest songs.  And yet, once again, there is no foundation in these comparisons, as what Bobby was writing and recording had very little to do with what other protest singers were doing at the time.  They may have been ignored at the time but, like Earthy, these albums have now gained cult status, particularly in the UK and Europe.  The first Direction album may have contained songs that were musically simplistic, but the lyrics are what matters here.  There is some wonderful word play in The Proper Gander, while Sunday lures the listener in before issuing a damning indictment on organised religion.  Commitment, the second album, is more musically interesting, and is clearly a more varied selection of songs, and Bobby manages to tie together a beautiful melody with a powerful political comment as in Sausalito.  Elsewhere he doesn’t seem to be protesting at all, but there is great wordplay and musicality in Water Color Canvas, and a dry self-deprecating humour in Distractions.

His Motown years were largely disappointing, and yet the 1971 live album (released in 1987) is probably the best live album he recorded.  Yes, he’s relying largely on contemporary covers, but look at what he does with them!  While Elvis’s idea of a Beatles medley was a bland re-tread of Yesterday with the end of Hey Jude tagged on the end, Darin had come up with a multi-song, almost rhapsodic masterpiece.  And, once again, ambition shone through, as in the extended version of James Taylor’s Fire and Rain.

There wasn’t much musical ambition in the Motown studio recordings, as he turned into a bland balladeer with orchestrations that should have been torn up and thrown out long before they reached the studio.  And there wasn’t much ambition on his disappointing TV series either – and yet Darin was still doing what HE wanted when he could.  What other variety show gave over a few minutes each week to a chess game?  Again, this was Darin being self-indulgent and ambitious and this time it didn’t work – but he hadn’t given up despite seemingly losing his way musically in his final years (although appearances on The David Frost Show and Midnight Special showed exactly what he was capable of when he put his mind to it – as did the concert-style final show of his TV series).

No artist leaves a perfect musical legacy.  As I discussed last year, Elvis certainly didn’t, and neither did Bobby Darin.  He took risks, and sometimes they didn’t work or he over-estimated his audience.  And yet the quality of his recordings is far more consistent than Elvis, Sammy Davis Jr, or even (arguably) Sinatra, who went through nearly a decade of artistic doldrums.  But one thing I am sure of is that Bobby Darin had no interest in being a chameleon, and changing his genre and style just to fit in or, worse, cash-in.  If he changed his style, it was always because he thought he could bring something different to it, that he could add something, that he could move it forward, that he could push the boundaries.  So let’s throw away this whole “Darin the chameleon” idea once and for all, and celebrate “Darin the Diverse” instead.