2016: Bobby Darin at 80

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post detailing how badly 2015, the year in which Elvis Presley would have turned 80, had been handled by both his record label and the Presley Estate.  The only major release was centred around a gimmick rather than the great music that Elvis made during his lifetime, and that great music was largely ignored for the entire year.  In 2016, Bobby Darin would have turned 80, but what should we be allowed to expect?

Less than a decade ago, all but three or four of Bobby Darin’s original albums were available on CD.  Now, as 2015 draws to a close, less than half a dozen are available as physical product in America.  Not even That’s All or This is Darin are available from Bobby’s own label, although public domain copies can be imported infrom Europe.  In Europe, the situation is somewhat better thanks to Warner’s release of ten of the ATCO albums spread over two 5CD boxed sets.  But, after the ATCO period, the situation is just as bad as it is in America.

“How did this happen?” is a question that many Darin fans are no doubt asking.  From the mid-1990s, Bobby’s star was once again in the ascendency, with well-advertised compilations of issues of unreleased material appearing with great regularity.  And then, without warning, it stopped.  I say “without warning” but that isn’t strictly true.  There were signs that those behind Bobby-related releases were cutting corners or, perhaps, just getting a bit bored.  Aces Back to Back was released with quite some fanfare (even a single to promote it), but was in reality a hodge-podge of performances that didn’t gel together and about which we were told absolutely nothing in the poorly-conceived booklet.  The 2006 DVD Seeing is Believing contained some great performances but seemed to be edited together by someone using Windows Moviemaker, and with no thought as to which performance should go where.  After that, it was not only a further seven years before a release containing “new” Bobby Darin material, but during that time there was not even the appearance of an official compilation to celebrate what would have been his 75th birthday.

The consequences of all this is that Bobby, despite being highly thought of by critics and having an extremely loyal fan-base, is now struggling to be remembered by the general public beyond half a dozen key songs.  Alas, that is what being forgotten about by your label and, seemingly, Estate does for your popularity.  2016 is the year that can change all of that.  Not only would it have been Bobby’s 80th birthday, but it is also the 60th anniversary of his first recordings for Decca.  Whether we can actually expect anything from record companies and/or the Darin Estate to mark these occasions in style, and to get Bobby Darin talked about and noticed once again, is very much up for debate.

One would like to think that, at the very least, there could be a compilation put together of Bobby’s hits and signature songs that could be advertised on TV, radio and the internet.  This might contain nothing new, but at least it would get Bobby’s name out there again.   But what else could we, or should we, expect?  Frankly, going by the last few years, perhaps we should set our expectations low and hope to be surprised.  The Bobby Darin Show series from 1973 was decimated when released on DVD.  Yes, an apology of sorts was issued by the Estate a month after the release, but one would assume they would have seen the planned DVDs and the packaging they criticise some time before release date and could have had things improved or changed if they really wanted to.  It is, after all, The Bobby Darin Testamentary Trust that is credited on the DVD cover.  Moreover, it took some twelve years from the discovery of the so-called Milk Shows to their arrival on CD.  Another sign we should perhaps not hold out breath for a special release next year.  We have been told for some time that a project is in the works containing the previously unreleased Manhattan in my Heart and Weeping Willow, but there appears to be no sign of such a project as yet.  Also, in the May 2014 apology about the television series DVD, we were told about a remastering and restoration of the final concert-style episode of Bobby’s TV series that would be released – and, more than eighteen months later, there’s been no sign of that either.

Could we possibly dare to hope  that a set of rarities might appear to celebrate Bobby’s 80th?  There are, for example, a number of items that have never appeared on CD – such as the studio recording of Swing Low Sweet Chariot and the songs from the 1972 album that were not released as singles.  And how about the title song from That Darn Cat, a song Bobby recorded for the Disney film but which was never released on record.  A four-song live set from Australia in 1959 was released on a bootleg a couple of decades ago, but has yet to be released officially – and neither has the Something Special LP, which was the soundtrack to the BBC TV special recorded in 1966.   What’s more, I Don’t Know How to Love Her, recorded at Motown in the early 1970s, was heard on a BBC radio show a year or so ago but remains unreleased – as do a number of other tracks  recorded during the same period that are still in the vault (and some of which have been heard).  Can we not assume that there are more songs on tape from The Troubadour in 1969 than the four released so far?  And how about at least the audio of some of the songs excised from the TV show DVD and from the Bobby Darin Amusement Company series that came before it?

A release of Bobby Darin “discoveries” might not set the world afire but, with a decent compilation of Bobby’s greatest moments to accompany it, at least Bobby’s popularity/recognition might once again start to rise – and this without even entering the realms of producing an in-depth documentary, or a book of unreleased photographs and other documents, or perhaps a collection of Bobby’s guest appearances on TV variety shows.

Many will, no doubt, say that none of this will ever happen – and they are probably correct – but it is also time for Darin fans to start asking the question of why none of this will happen, even if the answers might well complicate the situation even more.  No matter how talented the star, if their work is largely unavailable and their legacy rarely brought back into the public eye, that star will, alas, shine less brightly than it needs to outside of the fandom.  Fans do what they can to stop that from happening, but it also perhaps time to start demanding more from the powers that be that can and should be making a difference.  Here’s hoping that 2016 will bring about changes in how Bobby is handled that means these questions don’t need to be asked and that these demands don’t need to be raised.  But, I confess, I’m not hopeful. 

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Peter and Wendy (TV Review)

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A number of years ago, myself and a friend directed a version of Peter Pan for a local AmDram group and, despite everyone’s best efforts, it was not our greatest moment.  What became apparent was that it was extremely difficult to take something as well known as Peter Pan and do “something with it” to make it fresh and current.  We had a great cast (particularly those playing Peter, Wendy and the Darling children), some ideas we thought would work well, but somehow it just didn’t gel in the way it should.

This appears to be the problem with any production or adaptation of Peter Pan, going back nearly a hundred years.  I’m a great lover of silent movies, but someone would have to pay me to sit again through the interminable bore that is the 1924 movie version starring Betty Bronson as the title character.  Part of this is because I can never get my head around an adult woman playing Peter Pan who, by his very nature, is neither an adult or a woman.  The whole characterisation rests on the fact that he is a boy (both in age and gender), and to change that seems to lose much of the poignancy of the production.  That said, I am fully aware that even the first production of the play saw Peter played by a female.  Since then, there have been many film and TV adaptations, perhaps most famous of which are the 1953 Disney animation and the 2003 live-action film starring Jeremy Sumpter, and it has probably been the Sumpter version that has been most successful up until this point.

What we found in our own attempt at Peter Pan was that trying to do something new with it was irrelevant if there wasn’t a point to what you were trying to do.  Considering all the versions there have been on film and television over the years, it could certainly seem that all variations on Peter Pan had been done and that the story should perhaps take a well-earned break from our screens.  And then came along Peter and Wendy on Boxing Day on ITV1, which not only gave Peter Pan something of a makeover and novel twist, it also worked, and may well be the best screen adaptation to date.  The two hour television film merged the “real world” story of a teenaged girl, Lucy, awaiting a heart operation at Great Ormond Street hospital with the fantasy world of the story of Peter Pan – prompted by her reading the book to other children in the hospital.

True, there were moments when the framing device became a little too dominant, and the opening section before the story of Peter Pan itself actually started was perhaps too long, but these were minor issues.  The key thing is that the switching back and forth worked remarkably well, and even added a somewhat darker side to the narrative.  Also well done was the way in which the two worlds often merged as the stories reached their climax, with the hospital ward itself barely disguised during some of the sequences on Hook’s ship – and, of course, how people from one world appeared as another character in the other.  But the framing device also added a somewhat more sombre tone to the film, and thus removing some of the saccharine elements of the story that all too often are brought to the fore.  Some even took to the internet to complain that the ending was unsuitable for kids – but that depends if you want your kids wrapped in cotton wool and sheltered from the realities of life.  The framing device was clever, but the success of Peter and Wendy didn’t rest on this alone.

No, the greatest success of Peter and Wendy lay in the brilliant casting of Hazel Doupe as Lucy/Wendy and of Zac Sutcliffe (in what appears to be his first screen role) as Peter.  Casting slightly older actors in these two roles allowed for the more poignant aspects of Barrie’s original story to be at the fore, with them both on the cusp of adulthood.  Some Twitter users seemed to be frightened to death that Peter Pan should have a Yorkshire accent – it was like reading the comments of middle England had the BBC introduced regional accents into news bulletins in the 1950s.  Quite what the same viewers make of Sumpter’s American accent in the 2003 version, I’m not quite sure.  It no doubt caused fainting fits in cinemas as it was being shown.  While there was still some of the middle class elements of the original story retained, what made the performances of the two central characters work so well was that both Lucy/Wendy and Peter came across as normal kids from 2015, and not perfect children from a Walt Disney-style land of make-believe.   Here’s hoping we see much more of both performers in the years to come.

As Christmas television gets duller and more predictable by the year, it was great to see Peter and Wendy as an unexpected delight – and hopefully it will be one of the ITV dramas that will be repeated every year (if they can fit it in between re-runs of LewisInspector Morse, and Foyle’s War).  One has to wonder quite why it was scheduled to finish at 10pm, when many of the intended audience would have been in bed (especially when Jekyll and Hyde is on at teatime!), but I guess you can’t have everything.

Peter and Wendy certainly shows that there is still something magical about Peter Pan, and also something remarkably poignant.   Perhaps it’s the kids watching who literally don’t like the idea of growing up (and who can blame them).  Or it’s the adults who realise that life was much simpler when they were kids.  Or perhaps it’s those adults who now look back with the fact suddenly dawning on them that, for whatever reason, their own childhood was wasted or taken from them, and that they’d do anything to get it back.

 

Sinatra at 100: 10 Forgotten Gems

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So, today is the big day – the day on which Frank Sinatra would have turned 100.  The celebrations have been going on all year, with concerts and television programmes galore, from star-studded events through to new, almost definitive documentaries.  There have also been a variety of music releases, including the recent, rather remarkable set of songs from Frank Sinatra’s radio appearances from 1935-1955.  I am not going to wax lyrical about Sinatra here, but I thought this would be a nice opportunity to highlight ten stunning recordings and performances that come under the heading of “obscure.”  We all know about Songs for Swinging Lovers and Sinatra sings for Only the Lonely, but here’s some tracks you may not know that are well worth hunting down.

Let’s start in the late 1960s, with the wonderful Forget to Remember, a beautiful torch song that was, bizarrely, released as a single rather than on an album.  Barely known outside of the hardcore fandom – and rarely used on compilations, sadly – this is a master-class in phrasing, and comes complete with a stunning orchestration by Don Costa.  Even better than the studio recording is the one included in the 1969 Sinatra TV special, included as part of a sequence of torch songs that also included A Man Alone and Didn’t We.

From the same period comes I’m Not Afraid, even less well-known than Forget to Remember.  Sinatra had earlier recorded a whole album of songs and poems by Rod McKuen called A Man Alone, but this song by the same writer came along a few months later.  It’s an unusual recording in part thanks to Lennie Hayton’s great arrangement that seems to cross Sinatra with Ravel’s La Valse, as the waltz number becomes enshrouded in dissonant and impressionistic chords as it builds up momentum and reaches its stunning conclusion.

Shortly after the recording of the above two songs, Sinatra entered his period of retirement, emerging a couple of years later with an album entitled Old Blue Eyes is Back, which is more interesting than many give it credit for.  The key song here is There Used to Be a Ballpark, a wonderful number in which Sinatra acts as if he taking his grandchild on a tour of his old haunts from when he was a child, and reflecting how things have changed, and not always for the better.  “Now the children try to find it,” he sings.  “And they can’t believe their eyes, For the old team isn’t playing, and the new team hardly tries.”  It’s a devastating track, and remarkably moving.

Ten years earlier, Sinatra had recorded an album of rather grandiose arrangements of mostly Broadway show songs, The Concert Sinatra.  Included here is his second recording of Old Man River, which has never become as well known as his 1940s performance that was included in the film Till the Clouds Roll By.  To my mind, the older Sinatra gives a better reading of this wonderful song than the youthful one.  It is dark and reflective, and certainly a far cry from the thirty year old Sinatra singing the song in a white suit on top of a pillar.

Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist of Old Man River was also the lyricist of Lover Come Back to Me, a song that Sinatra never got around to recording, but which he performed on the radio and is included in the recent The Voice on Air boxed set.  This performance shows Sinatra at the start of his solo career but producing a majestic take on this song from the operetta The New Moon.  Sinatra would return to the song in the late 1970s, featuring an upbeat, jazzy arrangement backed by a combo in a number of concerts, but the recordings of this that circulate amongst collectors suggest that this was  less than successful.

Sinatra’s years at Capitol are, of course, his most acclaimed, but even here there are some hidden gems that the general public rarely get to hear.  Quite unlike most of Sinatra’s upbeat recordings for the period is I’m Gonna Live Til’ I Die, a raucous and bluesy number arranged by Dick Reynolds for the 1954 recording.  It was released as a B-side in 1955, and then became the finale of the Look to Your Heart compilation album in 1959.  The song isn’t really a swing number, but more of an upbeat belter, with the switch in tempos mid-way through most effective.  Frank had also sung the song on his early 1950s TV show.

At the other end of the musical spectrum is When the World was Young, the first track on Frank’s final Capitol project, the Point of no Return album which, as a whole, is under-rated.  Here he was reunited with Alex Stordahl, who had worked with Sinatra extensively during his Columbia years.  With the exception of September SongWhen the World was Young is one of the first songs in which Sinatra plays a character looking back on his life – something he would build a whole album around a few years later with the September of My Years LP and, of course, the infamous My Way single.

When the World was Young is both wistful and poignant, two terms that can also be applied to Sinatra’s 1962 recording of We’ll Meet Again for his Great Songs from Great Britain LP.  We’ll Meet Again is hardly traditional Sinatra fare, but what is remarkable here is how he takes this old sentimental war-horse and transforms it completely into a beautiful love song.  Sinatra wasn’t in great voice for these particular sessions, but it doesn’t matter, and his greatness can be seen in how he works around his limitations at this time rather than how they restrict them.  The Robert Farnon arrangement is also worthy of note, with its lush strings that never border on the sentimental.

I could list virtually any song from Sinatra’s collaboration with Duke Ellington here – the album Francis A & Ellington K is, after all, one that is just waiting to be rediscovered.  While Frank’s albums with Count Basie are well-known, this one is not, although there is little reason musically for the lack of attention it has received.  Take the performance of Sunny as an example.  Here it is slowed down into a slightly bluesy slow swing, and it sounds as if it had been a standard for years rather than a recent pop song.  The arrangement also allows the wonderful Ellington band to shine and for Sinatra to explore more jazzier phrasing than he often did during this period.  This 1967 album is also notable for being Sinatra’s last full LP of swing material for a dozen years, when the first album of the 1979 Trilogy set saw him concentrating on standards once again.

Finally, we have a song that is particularly fitting.  Nobody paid much attention to Here’s to the Band when it was released in the mid-1980s, but it’s another example of Sinatra performing a song that looks to the past – and this time he’s talking about all of the great people and bands he has performed with during his (at that point) fifty year career.  Along the way, he name checks Basie, Ellington and even Elvis, but also pays tribute to the “nameless” musicians too.  The studio recording is fine in itself, but the song seemed to work even better on the concert stage, with Sinatra, then seventy, coming over as most sincere when he sang:

“To start at the ground and reach for the top
To have such a wonderful career, I just gotta stop
Stop and turn around to thank everyone that sits on the stand
`Cause I wouldn’t have made it without them, here’s to the band!”

So, there we have it, ten Sinatra classics that only rarely get aired.  I could have included tens of others, including the intimate It’s Sunday, the beautiful tribute to Billie Holiday entitled Lady Day, the forgotten torch song Empty Tables, the moving rendition of Nature Boy which saw Sinatra recording with just choir accompaniment, the entire Watertown album, and, yes, even Old MacDonald.  Luckily, while the 100th anniversary of his birth has seen compilations of his most popular material emerge, there has also been a tendency to highlight from time to time the forgotten gems in the Sinatra catalogue, and long may that continue.