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.

Elvis Presley: His Hand in Mine (review)

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As it’s Easter, here are my comment on Elvis’s first gospel album, His Hand in Mine, recorded in 1960.  The following is taken from my book Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, available in paperback and in Kindle format from Amazon.

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Some three and a half years after recording the Peace in the Valley EP of sacred music, Elvis finally found himself in a position to record his first full-length album of gospel music.  His Hand in Mine would have a very different feel to the sombre EP.  Here, traditional up-beat gospel songs would sit next to more serious sacred ballads, but the album would still have a consistency with Elvis essentially acting as the leader of the gospel quartet sound he had loved since his boyhood.

Milky White Way had been originally recorded by the Coleman Brothers in 1944, but Elvis based his arrangement on that by another group, The Trumpeteers.  However, he manages to incorporate a blues element into the material, sliding between notes in some places, and even bending notes in others.  Check out how he does this within the line “I’m gonna sit up and tell him my troubles/About the world I just came from” in the last verse.  This is brilliant singing, and shows Elvis thoroughly in his element, merging gospel, blues and doo-wop sounds to make a two minute masterpiece.

Elvis’s influence for the title song of the LP, His Hand in Mine clearly comes from the original recording by The Statesmen.  However, once again, Elvis makes subtle changes.  Doy Ott’s lead vocal on the recording by The Statesman is square in comparison to Presley’s.  Ott moves from note to note with clarity – there are no slides here – and sings with relatively wide, but controlled, vibrato.  Elvis does neither.  There are a number of changes in dynamics within the recording (not present in the original) and, at times, Elvis is almost whispering into the microphone.  There are also some startling switches from the sections in which Elvis sings in his bass voice to the sections where he sings in his higher register in duet with Charlie Hodge.  While his range had no doubt grown over the previous couple of years, it’s clear that Elvis hadn’t quite got the control at the very bottom of his range that he has at the top – he would be much more confident in this area six years later on the How Great Thou Art album.

Elvis gives The Jordanaires a moment in the spotlight at the beginning of I Believe in the Man in the Sky, with the group singing the verse with the barest of accompaniments before Elvis enters to sing the chorus.  His voice sounds glorious, and he uses all his range to navigate the tricky melody.  This is quite unlike anything on the 1957 gospel EP.  The sound is much lighter, the tempo quicker, and the song almost has a swing feel to it.

He Knows Just What I Need is more sombre and sedate and, in many ways, has a sound much more akin to that being used at the time by Johnny Cash on his albums of sacred music.  It’s possibly the least successful song on the album, but that makes it sound worse than it is.  It simply hasn’t got any of the magical moments that make the other songs so wonderful. In a similar vein is Mansion over the Hilltop, but this is distinguished by Elvis’s beautifully-controlled vocal.

In My Father’s House begins with Elvis singing a full chorus not just with The Jordanaires, but as part of them.  Elvis then sings a verse himself before handing over to The Jordanaires bass singer, Ray Walker, for a section before re-joining the group himself for the end of the number.  It’s brilliantly arranged, adding variety to the ballads on the album, and showing that Elvis was more invested in the music itself than hogging all of the spotlight for himself.

Three up-tempo spirituals were recorded next.  Joshua Fit the Battle was a song Elvis had talked about recording back in 1956.[1]  Here he sings the number with a natural swing, aided and abetted by more sterling work from The Jordanaires, against whose voices Elvis’s own nestles comfortably.  Swing Down Sweet Chariot was in the same vein, although there is the smallest hint of rock ‘n’ roll intonation here, not least in the repeated use of the word “well” in between each section.  Elvis would re-record the number in 1968 for the film The Trouble with Girls I’m Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs again finds Elvis as part of The Jordanaires rather than as a soloist, especially during the choruses.  Even in the verses, when Elvis is singing the melody while the group add a rhythmic vocal backing, the mix allows for him to totally blend in – and in the final chorus Elvis can hardly be heard as a soloist at all.

If We Never Meet Again and Known Only to Him see Elvis returning to ballad material, with both songs in waltz time.  Both contain more of the same wonderful selfless musicianship that had dominated the session thus far.

Crying in the Chapel was slightly different.  This was more of a pop song with an inspirational theme – in the same way that I Believe was.  The number wasn’t released until five years later, and became one of Elvis’s few hits during the fallow period of the mid-1960s.  Jorgensen writes that, remarkably “the recording log … says that no satisfactory master was completed.”[2]  In other words, the song wasn’t even deemed as fit for release at the time, something which only goes to demonstrate Elvis’s search for perfection with regards to the project.  There is, of course, another option – that Elvis didn’t feel that the song fitted with the sound of the rest of the album.  That is certainly the case; it has a slightly different feel.  However, it has a fine, restrained vocal that deservedly has become one of the singer’s best-loved songs.

To finish the album, Elvis and the musicians turned to Working on the Building.  Of the upbeat material on His Hand in Mine, this is certainly the weakest.  Unlike the other numbers, there appears to be relatively little thought within the arrangement, which becomes repetitive.  The song was sequenced at the end of the album, thus meaning that an otherwise near-perfect record ended on one of the least effective songs.

His Hand in Mine was an artistic triumph for Elvis.  There wasn’t a single mediocre cut on the whole album, and it had all been recorded in a single night.  Billboard raved.  They called it a “fascinating set of performances,” and stated that “the gospel message has never been put forth with any more greater effect and impact than here.”[3]

[1] Aules Archer, “Stop Hounding teenagers,” True Story, Dec 1956, 22,” 24.

[2] Jorgensen, Elvis Presley: A Life in Music, 142.

[3] “Spotlight Winners of the Week,” Billboard, December 5, 1960, 5.

Sammy Davis Jr

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Over the years, Sammy Davis Jr has been referred to a number of times as the “world’s greatest entertainer,” and this may well be true.  He was a gifted singer, dancer, impressionist, comedian, actor, multi-instrumentalist and even an expert at fast-draw (guns, not pencils).  And yet, the title he has been given often masks how brilliant a singer he actually was.  History books have left us with the impression that, for all his vocal talent, Davis was forever trying to emulate or copy his idol, Frank Sinatra, but a closer look at his musical legacy reveals a very different picture.  Contrary to popular opinion, Davis was very much his own man.

Davis began his recording career in the late 1940s for Capitol – an association that can be viewed now simply as a prelude to his work with Decca and Reprise from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s.  I can’t say I’m a huge fan of his early Decca albums, made in the mid-1950s, despite the fact that they helped catapult him to super-stardom.  For example, Lonesome Road, the opening track on the Starring Sammy Davis Jr LP, finds him beginning the song in Sinatra-esque style before moving into a section which sounds like him impersonating Johnnie Ray.  Davis had yet to find his voice.  And yet, even on this album, he had started doing things that Sinatra rarely did, with My Funny Valentine utilising a small group rather than a big band or full orchestra.   What’s more, Davis’s arrangements were often more extravagant and flippant than those often used by Sinatra, with the possible exceptions of certain tracks on Come Fly with Me and Sinatra Swings.

By the time of Sammy Swings, in 1957, and due to be released on CD along with Sammy Awards in a few weeks, Davis had found his own voice.  A look at the track listing for Sammy Swings sees him seemingly avoiding standards that Sinatra was associated with, and he certainly puts his stamp on Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Comes Love, and By Myself.  The arrangements are big and brassy, and Davis himself uses his voice in a way that Sinatra would not have done.  Davis uses his remarkable power, singing in a swing style but with a Broadway voice.   This album, and the even better Sammy Awards, are all showbiz.  What they lack in subtlety, they make up for in exuberance.   For a comparison of how Davis and Sinatra approached songs differently, one could compare their two very different 1950s readings of The Gal That Got Away, with Sinatra’s being more straight-award swing, and Davis’s being a mini Broadway play, starting off in a low-key jazzy style and using an almost rhapsodic arrangement that switches from lyrical sections to bombastic swing and back again.  When he takes on a Sinatra song, as in I Fall in Love Too Easily, he does so in a quiet, subdued manner, using just a guitar accompaniment – something Sinatra didn’t do in the studio until the early 1980s.

By the late 1950s, Davis was putting together albums that were collaborative efforts, including ones with jazz singer Carmen McCrae, the Count Basie Orchestra and, most notably, a whole album of just Davis and guitarist Mundell Lowe.   He was also already venturing far away from standard repertoire, most notably incorporating the influence of Ray Charles with recordings of Mess Around and I Got a Woman (and even incorporating Hound Dog into his live act).   But if there was an ongoing problem with Davis’s Decca recordings it was that he, for some reason, didn’t seem able to take himself totally seriously, often larking around in the middle of serious songs for no apparent reason – almost as if he is embarrassed of his own talent.

When he signed a contract with Sinatra’s Reprise label, he did three important things.  Firstly there was a series of sessions with Marty Paich, who provided Davis with arrangements that incorporated his “showbiz” style of performance, but also added some subtlety.  At the same time, Davis started digging more into Broadway for his repertoire, being among the first to record songs from shows written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, and Lionel Bart.   And then, Davis also stopped the joking.  He was at the peak of his vocal ability, and his first album for the new label, The Wham of Sam, proved that.  Sammy was now his own man, taking songs associated with others and making them wholly his own – not by clowning but by being versatile.  Sinatra’s I’m a Fool to Want You became an unexpected tango, and Blame It on My Youth eclipses virtually every other recording of the song.

The album As Long As She Needs Me encapsulates Davis completely, from the beautiful rendition of showtunes such as the title song and an earnest Climb Every Mountain through to a wonderful, light-hearted reworking of There Is a Tavern in a Town that seems somewhat influenced by Sinatra’s rendition of Old MacDonald.  But just listen to what Davis does with the vocal line – it’s Broadway, swing, jazz and comedy all at the same time.

Davis was also ambitious, with him recording the entirety of the California Suite by Mel Torme for one album made up entirely of Torme compositions.  There were yet more collaborations with Count Basie, Sam Butera, Laurindo Almeida and the great Buddy Rich, with the latter resulting in a wonderful live album that swings from start to finish.  Not only does Davis sing two of his signature songs on this occasion, but he also completely reworks them, turning What Kind of Fool am I into a mid-tempo swing number.   Davis was doing things that Sinatra never did, such as the vocal/guitar duet albums, the recording of the Torme album, and an album dedicated to the songs from Dr Dolittle – not the cheesefest one might imagine, but one of Davis’s very best albums.   He was also appearing in his second Broadway show, Golden Boy.

Then it all fell apart.  Davis started working new sounds into his music such as Motown, soul and funk, and while he didn’t do this badly, his efforts to become hip and cool sometimes backfired and he ended up sounding silly (as in the awful In the Ghetto) and appearing on TV in more and more bizarre costumes.  The best days were gone, but he still had hits with I Gotta Be Me, The Candy Man and Mr Bojangles, and recorded a fine TV special entitled simply “Sammy.”  Davis made a move to Motown and recorded some generally poor albums, although they have nice moments.  And, then it was basically over.  His tour of Australia in 1977 was recorded by RCA and released on two albums released in 1977 and 1979.  And there was just one more studio album, of country material, in the early 1980s.  Davis, helped along by fast-living, drink, sex and drugs, had become an imitation of himself.

But there would be one last hurrah.  The Ultimate Event saw him touring with Sinatra and Dean Martin (replaced by Liza Minnelli) in the late 1980s and video footage from the tour finds him in brilliant form.  His rendition of Music of the Night showed that he was still in touch with what Broadway musicals had to offer, and his comic rendition of Michael Jackson’s Bad showed that he could still poke fun at himself.  Sadly there was no final album.  Davis was diagnosed with throat cancer and died in 1990.

Davis was, despite what we might be told, very much his own man vocally, with his own unique phrasing and styling, and his work for Reprise in particular is a real marvel.  Collector’s Choice released the Reprise albums on CD some time back, and then started on the Decca years, but never finished that part of the reissue programme.  PD company Sepia have remastered Sammy Awards and Sammy Swings and this will be released April 2015, making available for the first time in decent quality two key Decca albums on CD.  Great news – my vinyl copies have long been worn out.

Glee: What Might Have Been

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*Contains season six spoilers*

Quite how Glee managed to limp through its mostly-awful fourth and fifth seasons is anybody’s guess.  There were times when it seemed that the whole thing would just grind to a halt and no-one would be bothered to even turn up to write, direct and act in it, let alone watch it.  And yet, since the death knell has been sounded, and the sixth and final season has started, this most erratic and frustrating of series has finally found its feet once again.  At its very best, Glee does not just entertain but it can also move its audience and send out a message like virtually no other programme.

I actually came to Glee in the first place about four years ago because a couple of my students were writing an essay on it, and I needed to see a few episodes.  Even back then, in its first and second seasons, the writing was erratic – brilliant one week, bloody awful the following week.  And yet one thing shone through despite the bland writing, forgotten narrative threads, bizarre characterisations, and awful song choices:  Glee had heart.  There were times when it became a little preachy to say the least, but at least it was preaching acceptance.  But the erratic quality of the programme saw viewing figures fall (understandably), and the third season could easily have been the last.

But still it carried on, trying to dig itself out of the hole it had dug for itself, trying every trick in the book to win back viewers or, at the very least, keep the ones it still had.  The idea to have what were essentially two parallel narratives running through the fourth and fifth seasons was interesting, but doomed to fail.  Glee got more and more silly and irrelevant.  It had been forgotten that the show was at its best when it was also at its simplest, but still there were moments when Glee’s best qualities shone through despite everything.

Now the show is at the midway point of its sixth and final series of just thirteen episodes and, somehow, it has returned to very near its best.  Surreal humour that makes sense to no-one is mixed up with genuinely moving storylines and songs that are actually there for a reason.  There are no fireworks as Glee comes to an end – no big attempt to win back viewers, but just an eagerness to let this once-loved show close out with some dignity.  But this simple aim has resulted in some wonderful moments – and as a forty-one year old man, I really shouldn’t be saying that given that the target audience is probably about fifteen.

Dot-Marie Jones has been nominated three times for a Prime-time Emmy for her performances in the show and, given her performance in recent episodes that have centred around Coach Beiste’s decision to live life as a man, it’s highly likely that a further nomination will be forthcoming.  Excusing the fact that his decision was made and surgery taken place all in a matter of four weeks, this storyline has resulted in one of Glee’s best episodes in years, entitled Transitioning. It’s a simple episode, in which a number of storylines get moved forward, but Jones’s performance as her character returns to work for the first time as a man is remarkable.  It’s been mentioned in various places over the last few weeks that the transgender community gets forgotten or ignored when it comes to LGBT representation and politics, thus making this current narrative arc particularly welcome.

OK, I admit it, just like a Hallmark afternoon movie starring Lindsey Wagner, the climax in which transgender former student Unique sings a message of acceptance to the rather lost Coach Beiste, backed with a 300-strong transgender choir, is obviously intended to pull at the heartstrings and get the audience either crying like a baby or puking as a result of saccharine overload.  And yet it’s done so well (and is so out of the blue) that even the most-hardened watchers would struggle not to be moved by the whole thing.  Yes, it’s manipulating the viewer without apology, and, yes, it’s unadulterated feel-good TV – but that’s not always a bad thing.  And yes, I cried like a baby.

Glee has tackled numerous issues over its six-season run – some were done remarkably well and in depth, while others were handled so appallingly that the writers should be ashamed (most notably when Ryder admitted that he was molested as a child).  And, yes, there are “issues” that have, for some reason, been avoided.  In a series aimed at teenagers, why did the producers seemingly go out of their way to avoid storylines relating to drugs or mental health?  But the one thing it has consistently done, and done well, is ask for acceptance of the LGBT community, and this sixth season is no exception to that – quite the opposite in fact.  And, as a gay man myself, I understand the importance of that message going out to a core audience of the age that is just starting to understand who they are and  their purpose in life.

This final season of Glee has felt more like a beginning than an ending, and no doubt the show’s constant viewers will be watching it thinking of what could have been had the programme had been of this standard over the previous three seasons.  But there is a time and a place for everything, and the series has run its course.  In 2009, when it started, it was fresh, vibrant, funny and different.  Now it’s viewed by most as tired and cliched.  But I for one, even as a grumpy middle-aged man, am pleased that Glee has been allowed these thirteen episodes to get its arse in gear and finish with its head held high and to demonstrate just what it achieved over the last six years rather than where it failed.