Dick Haymes and the art of the Ballad

When Sinatra recorded his album “Nice n Easy” in March 1960, it was something of a departure.  Firstly, it was the first Sinatra album to be built around a hit, even if the title song had little in common with the rest of the album (the same scenario occured in the mid-60s with the Strangers In The Night album).  But, more importantly, it was the first time since his first album (The Voice, released by Columbia in 1945) that Sinatra recorded an album of ballads not obviously linked by theme.  In The Wee Small Hours was about loneliness, whereas Only The Lonely was about despair.  Nice n Easy was simply an album of beautiful love songs, lushly orchestrated by Nelson Riddle.  Sinatra’s performance and the orchestration seems to me to be inspired by a wonderful album by another great singer:  “Rain Or Shine”, recorded by Dick Haymes.

Haymes was a singer that never quite got the same level of fame as Sinatra.  His baritone was deep and rich, with a wide vibrato that often got out of control in the singer’s later years.  His life was plagued by an addiction to alcohol and it was at one of his career and professional low-points that he signed with Capitol.  His two-year marriage to Rita Hayworth had been a disaster and he was without either a film or record contract at the time, and at an all-time low.

In 1955, Haymes (who also started his career with the big bands) signed to Capitol and teamed up with arranger Ian Bernard for his greatest work, “Rain or Shine”.  Ian Bernard came from the Cool Jazz school and his arrangements for the album, despite being string-based, have remarkable harmonic depth, sometimes even Ellingtonian in its harmonic structure (Ellington would himself record a similar-themed album, Ellington Indigos).  The deep, slightly dark arrangements are a perfect background for Haymes’s simple, yet jazz-tinged, vocal.

The album begins with a retread of Haymes’s signature song, “It Might As Well Be Spring” (from State Fair), but he had matured a great deal since his first recording and the recording is beautifully rich.  I remember my Mum having this album on vinyl when I was a kid, and we used to have an old radiogram at the time.  Haymes’s voice would literally pulsate through the floor due to its full, dark, rich baritone.   “Sping” isn’t the only remake on the album, “The More I See You” and “Where Or When” (both highlights) were also recorded by Haymes on the Decca label in the 1940s.   The songs on the album are all familiar standards, but Haymes manages to make them all fresh.  Check out his wonderful phrasing on “The Very Thought Of You”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxSoYEL1meI&list=UULg4VW2NBOaHmhzkxWyWbHQ&index=17&feature=plcp

This is music to cuddle up in front of the fire to on a winters evening.  The performances are uniformally superb, and the singer is totally in control from beginning to end – only in the little-known “Is There Something Lovelier Than You” does his vibrato spiral out of control.   His performance of the title song “Come Rain or Come Shine” is remarkable, and “Where Or When” was clearly the inspiration for Sinatra’s own rarely-heard ballad recording of the song from a year or so later (but unreleased until the 1970s).

Haymes only recorded two great albums for Capitol before ill-fortune and the self-destruct button took over once again.  His follow-up to “Rain Or Shine” was “Moonglow”, which was in effect “Rain or Shine Volume 2”, and was almost as good.  Haymes is one of the forgotten singers from the period, perhaps because his spell with a major label in the 1950s was so short, and yet his two Capitol albums are highly regarded by lovers of jazz vocals everywhere – even if they rarely get mentioned in general discourse.  “The Complete Capitol Collection” 2CD gathers together both of these albums plus a handful of outtakes, single sides and unreleased masters (although I prefer the earlier, single disc “Capitol Years which features both albums but not the singles which break the mood set by the albums).  For lovers of great music this is well worth the few pounds it costs.  Haymes made a number of “comebacks” but never again recorded anything near the standard of his two Capitol albums.  He died in 1980 after a long battle with cancer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgBWumm95gw&feature=plcp

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Remembering George Melly

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This post was originally posted in 2013.  It was revised and updated in June 2017.  

“Larger than life” are words that could apply to no-one more than George Melly. The jazz and blues singer, art critic, writer, journalist and raconteur passed away ten years ago,  on July 5, 2007) and is unlikely to be forgotten by those of us old enough to remember him gracing our TV screens while we were growing up. He didn’t have the greatest voice in the world, but nor did he have to. His stage presence and cheeky humour more than made up for that. He was a walking, talking encyclopedia of everything related to early jazz, early blues, surrealist art and beyond, and delighted audiences of his stage performances with his lengthy spoken introductions to the long forgotten songs that made up his repertoire, telling the stories behind the songs and the artists who sang them.

He was a singer in the 1950s, but gave it up to concentrate on writing, including newspaper columns, a book on popular culture (now thankfully available again due to the wonders of Kindle), and screenplays for two films – one of which was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best English-Language Foreign Film (both of those films are now available for streaming through Amazon).    His musical comeback took place in the early 1970s, with his first performance with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers in Norwich (if his on-stage recollections were correct), where I live, prompting him to return to the city many times over the next three decades (a little longer than his associations with the Feetwarmers).

I was lucky enough to see him perform three times. The first time I saw George Melly was actually at his very last full-length concert with the Feetwarmers. John Chilton no longer wanted to tour to the same extent that he did, he told the audience,  and so the two went their separate ways.  He was in fine form that night, singing as well as I ever heard him on records, and he delighted the audiences not only with songs but also lengthy anecdotes – some not for those easily offended, it has to be said, but that was his style. The show lasted nearly three hours including the interval – not bad for someone in their mid-70s.

I wasn’t quite so keen on his association with the Digby Fairweather band that followed. They didn’t appear to be the same perfect fit as George and John Chilton.   He now sat throughout his performance, with ill-heath setting in. His singing voice had lost any subtleties it had, the previous year but Melly knew how to work around such things, and how to work an audience with self-deprecating humour, slightly lewd jokes and fascinating info on each song.   By this point his three main volumes of autobiography had been reissued in one volume by Penguin, and he did a lengthy book-signing session during the interval, which was meant to be twenty minutes or so, but which was double that due to his lengthy chat with each person.  In fact, it was the slowest book-signing I have ever witnessed, and that appeared to have been due entirely to a love of talking – and that, especially in this day and age where we type everything, is no bad thing.

I saw him again the following year, but the signs of struggle were showing more now, and the repertoire was essentially the same as the year before. Hugely enjoyable, all the same.   When he visited the city for his shows he would often be seen wandering around the antique, bric-a-brac shops and used record stores.  I had seen him around Norwich years before I actually saw him on stage – my love of jazz not arriving until I was in my late 20s.  His trademark suits weren’t only worn on stage, but also off as well as he went about his business.  The only time I saw him not wearing it was about half an hour before this final performance. The audience had started filing in, but he had seemingly left something on stage during the rehearsal or sound check. On he wandered, wearing pyjamas. He turned to the few of us already in our seats and said “you have to forgive an old man. I only get dressed for the performance”.

George Melly returned the following year, but I didn’t go and see him. There were reports that he was a shadow of his former self, and I wanted to remember him as he was. I had spent six or seven hours sitting just a few feet away while he was on stage, and I didn’t want to taint those memories. That turned out to be his final performance here.  Perhaps not going was the wrong thing to do.

Melly was a household name here in the UK for many years, with his skills as a raconteur making sure he was a staple of the chat show circuit for decades. He also wrote and presented one-off documentaries on surreal art and forgotten jazz musicians, and had his own music series in 1982. Much of his stage act (and the LPs he made with Chilton) was centred around reviving songs from the early jazz era which would otherwise be forgotten. But, ten years after his passing, Melly himself now seems destined to be forgotten himself. The chat-show today is a place to sell your wares; there seems to be no place in the world today for people who simply like to talk and share their knowledge. Stephen Fry is probably the only real raconteur we have left. An article in The Independent newspaper sums Melly up:

“…to meet the delightful Mr M is to encounter a constant blizzard of amusing tales. You soon learn that he would much rather swap literary stories, showbiz gossip and Green Room hilarities than talk soberly about his Life and Current Projects. Amazon explorers…have an easier time of it than the hapless interviewer who tries to steer Mr Melly through thickets of anecdotal charm towards a straight answer about what he is up to these days.”

Melly finishes the interview by saying “You know, I started life with an adolescent enthusiasm for three things – Surrealism, Bessie Smith and fly-fishing – and I finish up with exactly the same three. Isn’t that extraordinary?” In one of his last interviews he said “I’m no genius, but I do have a talent to amuse”.

Sadly very little of George Melly’s recorded work is available at the time of writing.   There are a few compilations available on CD, but most of his albums with John Chilton have never, alas, made the transition from vinyl to the shiny discs.  Perhaps even worse, there are no DVDs of his stage performances and, strangely, relatively little on YouTube as well.  Here’s hoping that this will change in the near future, so that a new generation can rediscover his work.

Thankfully, his albums are relatively easy to get hold of on vinyl through Ebay or Amazon Marketplace.  It may come as no surprise that many of those being sold have George’s huge signature scrawled across the front or back cover…no doubt added at one of those elongated interval signing sessions at a gig whilst chatting away with his lucky audience!

 

 

“Dear God!”: The Problems with “Vicious”

 

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“Dear God!”

These are the words that Freddie, Ian McKellen’s character in ITV sitcom Vicious says with alarming regularity.  It is also a phrase that many people were no doubt thinking to themselves when they watched the first episode.   It seems somewhat ironic that, in the May 2013 edition of gay magazine Attitude, Derek Jacobi (who plays Stuart, Freddie’s partner) talks about the 1969 film Staircase, based on the play of the same name about two gay hairdressers in a long-term relationship.  Jacobi says of the film  that “[they] cast Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, two dreadful heterosexuals who just camped themselves to death and it was disgraceful.  Disgraceful!  Dreadful, dreadful”.  Going by this comment, it is fine for gay men to “camp themselves to death” as aging gay men, but not heterosexuals in similar roles.  Gay men playing gay roles in this way is supposedly funny, whereas straight men playing gay roles in the same way is offensive.

Vicious is, quite frankly, awful.  In fact, it is so bad that it is almost difficult to know where to start in pulling it to pieces.  But let’s start with McKellen and Jacobi themselves, who play the lead characters – sorry, caricatures – Freddie and Stuart who, we are told, have been in a relationship for fifty years.  I struggle each week to have a relationship with them for 23 minutes.  The original title of the series was Vicious Old Queens, and that, dear friends, pretty much sums up these characters.  There is nothing wrong with portraying an elderly couple as sarcastic and insulting towards each other – I’m sure many are – but the problem is that it is all they are.  It took until episode three for a genuinely affectionate moment between the two to be portrayed.   The whole thing is just so over-the-top, that one can only wonder if we are actually watching a well-worn party piece that McKellen and Jacobi have been performing for friends at dinner parties for years.  That two of the country’s greatest living actors – and most-loved gay men – have made such a huge faux pas  in their portrayal of gay men is really quite sad.  The Attitude article tells us that the “Freddies and Stuarts of this world deserve to be looked at, and their bravery deserves to be honoured”, and I agree wholeheartedly, but they also deserve to be looked at in a way that does not adhere to the stereotypes of forty and fifty years ago.  There is just simply too much…everything.

But we can not, and should not, put all the blame on to McKellen and Jacobi, because the writing really doesn’t give them much to work with.  A half hour sitcom on ITV runs for approximately 23 minutes per episode, and yet the writing is so thin that jokes are repeated endlessly in episode after episode:  the opening phone call between Stuart and his Mother; kicking the dog bed to make sure the 20 year old hound is still alive (it possibly committed suicide after watching this, to be honest); Frances de la Tour being ushered out of the house by Freddie and Stuart; the flirting between de la Tour and Iwan Rheon, who plays the good-looking (if slightly dopey) upstairs neighbour.  These might be amusing moments in one episode, but they recur each week, therefore it seems as if we will be presented with the same joke six times in one series.  That’s hardly making the most out of the little screen time you have.

The very style of the series harks back to the 1970s.  The vast majority of the programme takes place in one room, with a very small group of characters, and there are even little musical motifs and pictures of the outside of the house between each scene.  It’s like a gay George and Mildred or, heaven forbid, Terry and June.  In other words, we are watching a programme made in 2013 about gay men that makes Mr Humphreys in Are You Being Served look progressive – let’s face it, at least he was a happy gay man.

And yet I’m still watching it after three episodes.  I’m not quite sure why.  But there is certainly pleasure to be had from watching McKellen and Jacobi on stage hamming it up for all their worth – they are enjoying themselves, there is no doubt about that.  And the live studio audience are seemingly enjoying themselves too – is this one of those cases where the outtakes are funnier than the programme itself?  There is also no denying that Jacobi and McKellen have great chemistry – in fact, the whole cast does.  Frances de la Tour is quite possibly the best thing about the whole show – she too is hamming it up, but rarely crosses the line into vulgarity in her characterisation that the two leads seem to.   And finally there is Iwan Rheon as Ash, the slightly dopey upstairs hunk of a neighbour.  In each of the three episodes aired so far there has been a tease that he will land up at least half-naked.  Perhaps the possibility that his T-shirt will come off in at least one episode is the real reason why I continue to tune in.

I so want to like Vicious, and I confess that it does raise a smile or two each episode as some of the one-liners and put-downs are genuinely funny.   Deep down I hope that a second series gets commissioned and the writers and actors take note of the issues that viewers and critics have raised and the show gets tweaked to make it the success that we all want it to be.  I genuinely believe there is a funny, ultimately touching sitcom hidden within Vicious, but it just needs a little help finding its way out of a rather cluttered, messy closet.

Guilty Pleasures: The Amazing Mr Blunden (1972)

 

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I must confess that I never really took to Lionel Jeffries as an actor, great though he was.  But I simply never warmed to him.  I think I forever blamed him for the downfall of Oscar Wilde after watching The Trials of Oscar Wilde as a teenager.  His career as director, which includes just five films, showed that he was as talented behind the camera as he was in front, if not more so.  His first directorial effort The Railway Children (1970) has become a classic and graces our TV screen at virually every bank holiday and, while familiarity can often breed contempt, it’s still a great film which you never move on from when it’s found by accident while channel-hopping.  Sadly, though, it was all downhill from there despite Jeffries directing talents, and it all ended in 1978 with the appalling The Water Babies which, rather appropriately, sank without trace.

Jeffries stuck with the family film formula with his next film, The Amazing Mr Blunden, which at one time was on our TV screens nearly as often as The Railway Children but hasn’t been shown for many years, and was out of print for a very long time on DVD until it was re-released in March 2013.  The film is based on the supernatural children’s novel, The Ghosts, by Antonia Barber, and tells the story of two children who travel back in time to try to save two children who were burnt to death in a fire a century earlier.  There are some remarkably dark elements to the film, especially considering it is aimed at a young audience, not least the endless threat that the children are in.  However, this is counter-acted by the gloriously over the top acting of some of the cast, including former sex siren Diana Dors who is almost unrecognisable in her grotesque make-up as Mrs Wickens, the woman trying to kill the kids.  Dors steals the show, but the child actors are also superb, especially Garry Miller who, according to IMDB, was never to grace our screens again.

Mr Blunden shouldn’t work.  It lacks the subtlety and refinement of The Railway Children and often descends into slapstick which sits at odds with the serious nature of the story.  But the film draws us in with its wonderfully atmospheric opening sequence (and the superb period atmosphere) and, after that, we’re hooked and willing to take all the various absurdities and cruelties that the film throws at us.  I confess it doesn’t work so well viewed as an adult, but it’s one of those films that you continue to love as you grow older, partly because it  brings back memories of the first time you saw it, which was probably sat with your Mother on Christmas Eve twenty or thirty years ago.

Dracula (1931) and the problems with restorations.

I have to admit that I started off by vowing that I wouldn’t buy the blu-ray boxed set of Universal horror films that emerged last year.  All signs were that the restorations were good, but did I really need them again?  And did I really want yet more duplication in my collection – after all, the DVD copies would have to be kept or I would lose all the sequels that they contain that the new set does not.  Still, Amazon offered it briefly at a very nice price, and so it now sits on my shelves.

I have yet to see all of the new restorations, but the ones I have seen look superb.  Dracula in particular has an image quality that is better that we ever could have hoped for, and the soundtrack has lost that loud hiss which has accompanied previous issues of the film.

Great news so far.

But there is a problem here, because the restoration of Dracula has only managed to emphasise that it really is not a very good film.  It’s a classic, yes.  And Lugosi’s Dracula is iconic.  And yet it is also a remarkably static film, directed with little directorial flourish by Tod Browning, and the script is often bland and leaden, and sadly based on a stage adaptation of the novel rather than the novel itself.  As such, despite being from the pre-code era, Dracula is a bowdlerised version of Stoker’s novel that is more creaky than the front door of Castle Dracula itself.

Saying these things is, I guess, almost blasphemous.  But I’m not saying these things purely for effect.  Other than Lugosi’s iconic portrayal of Dracula himself, the biggest appeal of the film was the atmosphere that oozed from the screen.  The problem while watching the new restoration is that we now realise that part of that atmosphere was due to the age and rather weathered nature of the film itself.  It is comforting and exciting in equal measure to watch an old horror classic late at night, perhaps at Hallowe’en or on a windy evening with the rain hitting against the windows.  But the atmosphere was in part due to the scratched print, the flickering picture, and the soundtrack that we have to strain our ears to hear.  In other words, part of the appeal was due to the fact the film was old and looked old.  With a sparkling print and a decent soundtrack, the atmospheric element has simply vanished, and all we are left with is a great restoration of a mediocre film.

The same cannot be said for the others in the set I have worked through so far.  But they are, on the whole, much better films that Dracula.  Even the Spanish version of Dracula, filmed with a different cast on the same set, benefits from the restoration it has received.  But, again, it is a much better film than the English-language version, despite the fact it lacks Lugosi.

I can imagine that I would feel the same way about White Zombie if ever a well-preserved print was discovered and then restored.  Part of the appeal of that film, and part of what makes it so damn unsettling, is the poor state of the print itself, with it’s crackling soundtrack and eerily worn, often blurred, visuals.  Looking at a print that is so bright and shiny that it could have been made yesterday would ultimately ruin part of the enjoyment of the film.

There is a peculiar enjoyment to be had from watching not particularly good, creaky old films in worn prints.  Perhaps they remind us of when we first saw the film, late at night on an old analogue TV twenty or thirty years ago when we were twelve and hiding behind a cushion, scared that Dracula himself might fly through the window and appear in our very own living room.  Or perhaps, for some people reading this, an old cinema that specialised in showing dodgy prints of old classics and drive-in features.  Either way, most of us won’t remember our first encounter with these films as being fully restored, sparkling prints – and it was while watching old, tattered copies that we fell in love with them and, possibly, why we fell in love with them.