Tchaikovsky, Rostropovich and Me: A Passionate Affair!

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When I turned 13, I was then getting interested in classical music – something that my parents didn’t really listen to, but my interest had been aroused by one of those inspiring teachers at school that we all too often believe only exist within Goodbye Mr. Chips or Dead Poet’s Society. With my birthday money in my pocket, I headed off to the local department store to buy an LP of the fifth symphony. I was a little naive in thinking that only one composer had written a fifth symphony, and so was a little traumatised when confronted by many different works with the same title. I had heard of Tchaikovsky, and so bought that one and headed home. Job done. Then I placed the LP on my record player and realised it didn’t sound a bit like the work I had heard (which was, of course, by Beethoven), but I fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony nonetheless, somehow absorbed by the while EMI Eminence label as it spun around, the informative liner notes (that I didn’t wholly understand at the time) and the painting on the front of the LP cover. The recording was the one contained in this boxed set.

A few years down the line, I came across Manfred, clearly part of the same series of LPs, and bought that too, and then some of the others as and when I came across them – which was more difficult back in the days before looking something up on Ebay and being given a choice of copies to buy. A few more years later, and I was converting to CD, and bought a different cycle of the Tchaikovsky symphonies, which I suppose I thought would sound the same no matter who was conducting. My Rostropovich LPs were disposed of, and I was left with a rather unsatisfying set of the music I had loved.

Eventually, the Rostropovich set on CD came my way but some symphonies were split over two discs – a ridiculous idea – and the artwork which had clearly first attracted me wasn’t there either. But it was a step in the right direction. A further step came last year, when Warner in Japan released the seven symphonies on seven individual discs but, alas, only the first three had the original artwork of the LP, and the other four just had a generic picture of Tchaikovsky (no idea why).

Now, with this current set, we are almost reaching perfection. No symphonies are split over two discs, and the artwork of the LPs can be found on the front of the cardboard sleeves containing each CD. There is one exception (hence the “almost” perfection) in that the first two LPs are combined onto one CD and so only the artwork from one LP is retained. It’s a shame the missing artwork wasn’t used for the front of the box, but this is, I think, good enough. Why, at 43 years of age, LP artwork matters to me so much, I have no idea. Perhaps a mid-life crisis as I yearn for the things that gave me pleasure in my youth. Perhaps I’m just a sentimental old fool (and that is the only explanation for me re-buying the 5th symphony on vinyl last year!).

But this is truly a wonderful (and ridiculously cheap) set.  Rostropovich’s interpretations aren’t for everyone. But his passionate, emotional readings of these works sparked something in a 13 year old boy thirty years ago, something he has never ever forgotten – and if a recording can do that, then you can’t ask for much more. I fell in love with these recordings back then, and am just as much in love with them now as me and the Rostropovich Tchaikovsky cycle celebrate our Pearl anniversary. There are no plans for separation any time in the future, for there is enough passion in these six discs to sustain any relationship.

Destination Victoria Station: the Lost Johnny Cash album.

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A few years ago, Sony released a 63CD set called “Johnny Cash: The Complete Album Collection” which also included an album originally issued on the Supraphon label and another which was only issued in the UK.  Bearing this in mind, it seems somewhat surprising that there is still a “lost” Columbia album that hasn’t been reissued since its initial release back in 1975.

“Destination Victoria Station” was released by Columbia Special Products and could only be bought at Victoria Station restaurants, meaning that it was unavailable outside America even back in 1975.   This is basically an LP in which Cash sings about trains – one of his favourite subjects from the Sun years through to his final recordings in 2002.   Eleven of the twelve songs included are familiar to Cash fans – but not necessarily these performances of them.

Five songs previously recorded by Cash were here given a makeover to either a lesser or greater extent:  Casey Jones, Hey Porter, John Henry, Waitin’ For a Train, and Wreck of the Old ’97 were all re-recorded for the project, some in very different arrangements.  Meanwhile (and rather bizarrely) two more songs had new vocals added to the backing tracks used on previous recordings.  These are Orange Blossom Special and Wabash Cannonball.  The title song, Destination Victoria Station, was a brand new studio recording of a brand new song, which was later given a live outing on the UK-only album Strawberry Cake – an album perhaps best known for having an IRA bomb alert in the middle of the concert, causing the audience to be evacuated (all of which is heard on the LP).  Thankfully, it was a hoax.   The remaining four songs are taken from Cash albums ranging from 1968 to 1975.  Folsom Prison Blues is taken from the 1968 live album recorded at Folsom Prison, whereas Texas-1947, City of New Orleans, and Crystal Chandeliers and Burgundy come from obscure LPs from the early to mid-1970s.

This mish-mash of sources and recordings should result in a rather shoddy album, but that isn’t true.  In fact, it is actually a cut above most of what Johnny Cash was releasing at the time.  On the eight new performances, Cash is in splendid form.  He gives the remakes a rather different, less frenetic, more relaxed feel, to their previous studio incarnations, with them having more of a fatherly-tone in the storytelling – and most of these are story songs.  Only Orange Blossom Special is something of a disappointment, with the new vocal appearing to be half-hearted, but I wonder if it ever did work particularly well in the studio compared to the exciting live performances that came later.  The new song is appealing enough, even if it was never going to be a classic Cash composition – and it’s placing as the final track leaves the album with a rather bland ending.  It’s also nice to hear some of the reissued tracks here too.  City of New Orleans never deserved to be stuck on the rather appalling Johnny Cash and his Woman album, and Texas 1947 (from Look at them Beans) is as good a train song as Cash ever sang, and deserves to be much better known.

While Destination Victoria Station is not a masterpiece, it certainly deserves to be better known, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t included in 63CD boxed set.  The fact that it is a themed album means it holds together as a listening experience much better than other LPs of the period such as John R. Cash, the Junkie and the Juicehead, and Look at Them Beans which mix the great with the not so great, and the secular with the sacred.  The likelihood of it ever appearing on CD now appears to be slim – although it would be nice to see it appear in the Bootleg series, pulling together the other “lost” Cash Columbia sides at the same time.  In the meantime, the vinyl edition from 1975 is kicking around on eBay or Amazon marketplace surprisingly cheaply, and is well worth your time if you are a Cash fan.

Ella Fitzgerald’s Country Album: Misty Blue

117365037It’s hardly surprising that viewpoints on this album vary wildly. For fans of Ella’s jazz material, it’s a waste of talent. For fans of country music, it’s a weird mish-mash of styles. But, let’s be honest, Ella had never been JUST a jazz singer. In fact, she had wrapped her tonsils around country music before, such as A Satisfied Mind back in 1955, and much of her material from the early to mid-1950s wasn’t jazz either, with her tackling the likes of Crying in the Chapel and Soldier Boy during those sessions. And, throughout the 1960s, she incorporated some of the “now sounds” (as she called them) into her albums and concerts, including Beatles tracks and the likes of Walk Right In. So, really, this country album didn’t come completely out of left-field.

It certainly was a strange choice of album as her first project for Capitol, but that doesn’t mean it is bad. In fact, it’s hugely enjoyable for the most part. Ella’s country is not dissimilar in sound to that on Bobby Darin’s You’re the Reason I’m Living album – and by that I mean that it takes country material and melds it with big band instrumentation. The songs are well-chosen too, with Ella given the chance to sing some rather feisty lyrics such as “This Gun Doesn’t Care Who It Shoots,” and there is also a wink and a nudge on a few tracks too, such as Evil on Your Mind and Don’t Let That Doorknob Hit You.

Ella was probably never in better voice than in the mid-1960s. On ballads, she had a fuller sound that was silky smooth, but she was also adding a kind of soul-like rasp to her voice on bluesier and upbeat material. The best songs here are those written by Hank Cochran – It’s Only Love and Don’t Touch Me, with Ella’s performance of the latter being truly beautiful. Also listen out for the phrasing on Born to Lose – absolutely stunning.

These songs might not have been her natural “bag” but they are beautifully recorded and Ella throws herself into this (on the face of it) unlikely project with great enthusiasm. She would continue to explore new avenues during the late 1960s with an album of hymns and spirituals, and even dalliances with rock on her two albums for Reprise – and that’s not to mention her reinvention of Hey Jude on the under-rated Sunshine of Your Love LP. In concert she would wail her way through Spinning Wheel, and even enter protest territory with What’s Going On (recorded live twice) and her own Capitol single It’s Up to You and Me – her self-penned response to the killing of Martin Luther King that has sadly never made it to CD.

The Wonders of Pablo Records

Most people with any knowledge or love of jazz will agree that the late 1920s through to the early 1940s was the first golden age of jazz, and that the 1950s was jazz‘s second coming, with the genre branching out into disparate and yet linked sub-genres such as be-bop, cool, west coast jazz and the resurgence of the big band. But what is generally forgotten or, perhaps, under-estimated, was what I would suggest was jazz‘s third golden age: the 1970s.

The 1960s was a tough time for many jazz artists and many jazz fans. Older statesmen of the genre seemed to lose direction, with big bands such as Basie and Ellington often making albums of current pop songs or short, simple arrangements of standards. Ella Fitzgerald ended up without a permanent contract, resulting in some unlikely albums for Capitol and Reprise. Meanwhile, acid jazz came to the fore, but was hardly the most accessible form of jazz. Yes, there were some fine albums recorded during the decade but as the 1960s progressed, jazz got lost in a milieu of a lack of ambition and direction and an overdose of pretension.

But then, in the early 1970s, Norman Granz came to the rescue. Granz had been behind the idea of taking jazz to the concert hall in the 1940s with his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, and he was champion of the jam session. He liked to sit a group of musicians in a studio or on a stage and light the touchpaper to see what happened. In 1972, he recorded a concert in Santa Monica, which he released as “Jazz at the Santa Monica Civic.” The concert was billed as a Basie/Ella Fitzgerald show, but Granz had some surprises up his sleeve, and presented the audience not just with the main stars of the evening, but also a revival of the JATP format, bringing out guest stars such as Stan Getz, Harry Edison, Roy Eldridge and Oscar Peterson for a number of jams. The show lasted nearly three hours (all of which is now available on CD) and signalled the birth of Pablo records – the finale is below:

Pablo records, for me, is the 3rd golden age of jazz. Pablo was not concerned with nurturing new talent, but bringing the old guard back to doing what they did best. Granz pulled together a great roster of talent, including Basie, Ellington, Fitzgerald, Joe Pass, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Sims and more. All were viewed in the early 1970s as well past their prime, but the recordings they made for Pablo show something different altogether, and the label went on to win multiple Grammy awards.

Pablo is well-known for two things. Firstly, a succession of some of the most awful album covers ever created:

And, secondly, reiterating the old saying that you should never judge a book by its cover. The big band albums aside, the key element of Pablo recordings was the notion of improvisation and spontaneity. Granz would get a group of musicians together and let them just jam on a batch of songs, often recording a whole album in just a couple of hours. The results are some of the greatest and most under-rated jazz albums ever recorded.

Granz was always keen at Pablo on mixing things up, trying combinations of musicians that would never normally come together. Ella Fitzgerald’s voice was sounding rather ragged and harsh in 1973, but Granz put her in that most exposed of environments: the guitar/vocal duo. The result, the first of four albums with Joe Pass, is regarded as one of her finest hours. Count Basie and Oscar Peterson were pianists with wildly differing styles. Basie was the most economic of all players, using as few notes as possible to make his solos, whereas Peterson was a virtuoso of the keyboard, often using more notes in five minutes than Basie would in an hour. But, again, Granz pulled them together for a series of albums that are remarkable in their musicianship and entertainment. Many of the albums for the label were live efforts, with Ella Fitzgerald (as an example), being recorded in a live setting in 1972, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1979 and 1983. In 1977 Granz virtually took over the Montreux festival and released a staggering fourteen albums from the event (and I may have missed some). He also used the label as a way of releasing tapes that he had recorded up to three decades earlier, allowing for new material by long-gone greats such as Art Tatum, Lester Young and John Coltrane.

Perhaps because of their look, the Pablo albums are almost unknown today outside of the jazz world. Ella’s Verve catalogue is still well-known, and yet much of it sounds square compared to the records she made in her twilight years for Pablo. Pablo’s product wasn’t progressive, forward-thinking jazz, and some afficianados might even call it conservative, but for me jazz has never been about intellect and challenging music, but having a great time. Pablo’s output was brilliantly accessible music, and wonderfully played by the great masters who managed to end their careers on a high thanks to Granz’s willingness to let them get on with their craft and do what they did best. Most of the albums have been released on CD through the Fantasy label.

So, here’s a toast to the wonders of the Pablo label, and jazz‘s 3rd, little-known, golden age.

Bobby Darin at 80: 10 Key Tracks

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May 14, 2016 would have been the 80th birthday of Bobby Darin.   In celebration, here is a look at ten key (although not always obvious) recordings from the five hundred or so that Bobby made between 1956 and 1973.

Silly Willy (1956)

Some singers find their voice the very first time they set foot inside a recording studio, and record some of their greatest work during their early years.  Elvis Presley is probably the best example of this, recording the classic That’s All Right at his very first professional recording session.  This was not the case for Bobby Darin, however.  In fact, it was over two years after he entered a studio before he recorded his breakthrough single, Splish Splash.  Prior to that, Bobby seemed to be constantly in search of his own sound, with many of his early records adopting the styles and mannerisms of other singers of the period.  He needed something to make him stand out from the rest of the would-be pop stars trying to carve themselves a career in the mid-1950s, and that something was his own identity.  Nowhere is this more noticeable than during the eight sides he recorded during his short tenure with Decca.

Recorded at his first session was a song that saw Bobby turning his attention to the novelty rock ‘n’ roll material with which he would eventually find stardom.  Silly Willy is no Splish Splash, however.  Much of the problem with the song is the awkward transitions between the two different tempi and rhythms that the song employs.  It is a shame, for there is much to enjoy in Darin’s performance, but the various elements simply do not gel together in the way that they should.

Silly Willy is interesting, however, in that it provides us with our first audible clue that Bobby wanted to be more than just a pop singer.  The number has its roots in a 1920s risqué jazz number about a drug-addicted chimney sweeper called Willie the Weeper which, in turn, provided the inspiration for Minnie the Moocher, which Darin would record a few years later.  The lyrics of the first verse of Silly Willy and Willie the Weeper are so similar that it’s clear that Bobby knew the more obscure song and was drawing from that rather than the better known Minnie the Moocher.  The first verse of Willie the Weeper reads:

Have you heard the story, folks, of Willie the Weeper?/Willie’s occupation was a chimney sweeper/He had a dreamin’ habit, he had it kind of bad/Listen, let me tell you ’bout the dream he had.

Silly Willy barely changes the lyrics at all:

Listen to the story about Willy the Weeper/Willy the Weeper was a long time sleeper/He went to sleep one night and dreamed so bad/Now let me tell you about the dream that little Willy had.

What is remarkable here is not the fact that Bobby Darin “borrowed” lyrics from an older song (this was not a rare occurrence in pop music at the time), but that he knew the lyrics to Willie the Weeper at all.  Most of the well-known recordings, such as those by Louis Armstrong and George Lewis, were instrumentals – possibly with good reason due to the song’s repeated references to “dope” and taking “pills” – and so one has to wonder where Bobby heard the lyrics in the first place.  If nothing else, it shows just how wide his knowledge of popular music was even at the tender age of nineteen.

Softly as in a Morning Sunrise (1958)

Bobby struggled to find a breakthrough hit following his move to ATCO in 1957, but eventually made the big time with Splish Splash.  However, never one to rest on his laurels, he wanted to try new things and avoid being pigeon-holed as just another rock ‘n’ roll singer.  In late 1958 he recorded his That’s All album, which would feature the track which would become his signature song, Mack the Knife. 

On the same album was Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, taken from a 1920s operetta called The New Moon.  The treatment it receives here is raucous and brash, both in the arrangement and the singing, and it’s clear that the whole point is that it is going against how the song was originally conceived and normally performed (particularly within a vocal arrangement).

There is a possibility that Bobby got this idea from the 1954 Hollywood biopic of the song’s composer, Sigmund Romberg.  In Deep in my Heart (Stanley Donen), Romberg, played by José Ferrer, attends a show in which the song is being performed and is mortified at the up-tempo, crass arrangement of his beloved composition.  There is more than just this casual link between the two performances.  For example, towards the end of the song, Bobby changes the lyrics in exactly the same way as they are in the film sequence by repeating words:  “Softly, softly, as in an evening sunset, sunset.”  But he goes yet further, breaking the “fourth wall” and talking to arranger/conductor Richard Wess, telling him “the title of this tune is Softly, so can we do it that way please?”  He then proceeds to sing it louder than ever.  It’s a brash and cocky move, totally breaking with convention, and the kind of thing which separates him from Sinatra, who treated his material somewhat more reverently.

Sinatra did come close, however, on the rarely heard attempt-at-a-hit Ya Better Stop, recorded in 1954, in which he shouts as the song starts to fade: “Oh here now, this ain’t gonna be another of those fade-away records.  Get your grimy hand off that dial, man!”  The chief difference here is that Sinatra waits until the song is over before his interjection, whereas Darin is making out that he has almost no regard for the song itself in the way it was originally intended.  That, no doubt, was not the case, but Romberg was probably turning in his grave despite the fact that Bobby had just exposed his relatively obscure song to a new generation. Ya Better Stop remained unreleased until 1978, nearly twenty years after Bobby’s recording of Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.

Milord (1960)

Bobby wasn’t just recording in different genres, he was now recording in different languages!  Only one song appears to have been recorded at the session on June 20, 1960, in New York, but it’s a Darin classic, albeit one that is not particularly well-known.  A year earlier, Bobby had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on the same bill as Edith Piaf, and here he takes one of her signature songs and turns it into a tour-de-force.

Milord is one of Bobby’s most infectious recordings, and there are few recordings within the Darin legacy where his enjoyment of singing a particular song jumps out of every groove as much as it does here.   He sings the entire number in the original French, although he changes a few words to account for the song being sung by a man instead of a woman.  There is a Gallic element to the orchestration thanks to the use of the accordion, but the arrangement gains momentum with each verse, until Darin lets loose completely during the instrumental, singing along and clearly having a ball.  The only fault, perhaps, is that it’s all over in two minutes – but what a great two minutes!

Despite the wonderful singing and arrangement, ATCO clearly didn’t quite know what to do with a song sung completely in French, and it languished in their vaults for four years before they released it as a single, reaching #45 in the U.S. charts during a period where Darin was having something of a lull when it came to chart success.  The Daily Mirror in the U.K. called the release “interesting, but I can’t see it tearing the charts apart.” Likewise, the Australian press weren’t too excited either, saying “as great an entertainer as Darin is, he doesn’t inject into the number the mood and feeling that Piaf did.”

It’s hard to tell what the critics were listening to, but it certainly didn’t seem to be Bobby’s version of Milord.

I Got a Woman (1961)

Darin had already recorded I Got a Woman at the jazz combo sessions nearly two years earlier that had produced the Winners album (that version remains unreleased), and also for the Darin at the Copa album.  However, he tackled it again for his Bobby Darin sings Ray Charles LP – for a whole six and a half minutes.  The song starts off in normal fashion, but then Bobby keeps the “alright” ending of the song going for over three minutes despite it being basically the same line repeated over and over again.  This is Darin at his most self-indulgent, and yet there is still a point to it, for he finds almost every possible variation of singing that line during this extended coda which listeners are going to love or tire of quickly and simply hit the “next” button on the remote control.  There is also a rawness here, particularly with this song.  During the main section, he reaches for notes and misses them, but it doesn’t matter – Darin is showing us that this music is all about “feel” and not about technical perfection, and he hits that message home time and again during the course of the album.

I’m on My Way, Great God (1962)

In July 1962, Bobby started work on his first album of folk songs.  Earthy wouldn’t simply tap into the then-current vogue for folk music, though, but would instead pull together both traditional songs from around the globe as well as newer compositions written by the likes of Tom Paxton.

I’m on My Way Great God is the first of the spiritual/gospel songs on the album, and it is quite an epic.  It starts off with minimal instrumentation, with the arrangement growing subtly with each subsequent verse.  The song also utilises a choir, but here they are not at all intrusive in the way that they are on the big band album recorded during the same series of sessions.  It’s interesting to note just how controlled Darin’s vocal is, starting off at barely a whisper, and then slowly but surely getting more and more powerful over the four-and-a-half minute running time.  Bobby, no doubt, was aware he had a showstopper on his hands, and included the number in the folk section of his live concerts through 1963 as well as when he appeared on The Judy Garland Show filmed just days after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Gyp the Cat (1964/5)

In 1964, Bobby couldn’t get a hit record for love nor money.  In September 1964, he made his first attempt at recording his own composition Gyp the Cat, a clever pastiche of Mack the Knife, this time about a thief, and using a similar melody to the Kurt Weill song.  As with Mack the Knife, the song tells a story, and the arrangement works in the same way, with it gaining in intensity with each successive verse.  It’s a lighter affair lyrically, with a nice twist in the final verse, and would have been a better choice of single than Hello Dolly which was released instead.  Despite the British Invasion, there was clearly still a place in the singles charts for this type of material, as Armstrong’s Hello Dolly and the Darin-produced Wayne Newton hit Danke Schoen had shown.  The 1964 version of Gyp the Cat remained unissued until thirty-odd years later, with a 1965 recording of the same song issued as a B-side.  It was something of a waste of a fun Darin original, in his signature style, and showing that he could poke fun at himself through a pastiche of his earlier hit.

We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here (1965)

We Didn’t Ask to be Brought Here (recorded just after he returned to Atlantic in 1965) was a fine, adult, contemporary pop song with a clear message and, as such, was Darin’s first overtly political single.  While there were no specifics mentioned within the song, it would have been clear to listeners at the time that the song was referring to events such as the Vietnam War and the Cold War when he sings “the world’s gone mad.”  Billboard called the single “his greatest chance for the charts since Mack the Knife.  In the current commercial protest vein, he excels with his own composition backed by a hard driving dance beat.”  Sadly, very few got to hear it, and the single sank almost with trace.  One has to wonder if both Darin and the advertisements for the song had something to do with it.  An original advert is shown in Jeff Bleiel’s book, That’s All, and tells the reader that the song has a “great message” but then has a picture of Darin in a suit and tie – hardly the image associated with someone singing a protest song in 1965. The image and the content were simply an anachronism.

If I Were a Carpenter (1966)

Bobby Darin told many times in concert a humorous story of how a couple of agents came to see him in 1965 or 1966 and offered him songs by the likes of John Sebastian and Tim Hardin that he rejected and that went on to become hits.  Quite how much of the story is true is debatable, although it was no doubt at least partly based in fact, even if it had been somewhat embellished.  “When they came to me the next time, I was lying in wait for them,” he told an audience in 1973, and the song he ended up recording was If I Were a Carpenter, a number which would introduce yet another phase in the career of Bobby Darin.

Despite the fact that Darin spent time trying to ease the rumours that Tim Hardin was annoyed at him “stealing his song,” the original stories still make for good copy.  Fred Dellar, in the liner notes for the CD release of the If I Were a Carpenter album, repeats the story that Hardin was “incensed” that Darin had “copied Hardin’s own vocal approach.”  He even quotes Hardin as saying “he played my version through his headphones, so that he could copy my phrasing.”  While Darin was clearly inspired and influenced by the original Tim Hardin demo, he certainly wasn’t listening to it through headphones when he recorded the song as he makes a number of small, but not unimportant, changes to both the melody and the timing.  The bridge section, for example, is sung faster in Hardin’s version, but in tempo in Bobby’s.  Meanwhile, certain notes are exchanged for others in Darin’s rendition, particularly in the second verse where this happens on multiple lines.  Finally, Bobby’s vocal is far more intimate, more delicate, than Hardin’s.  Somehow, from somewhere, he had found yet another new voice that had only ever been hinted at over the previous decade.

Me and Mr. Hohner (1969)

In 1968, Bobby moved away from traditional record labels and set up his own:  Direction, where he would spend the next two years recording songs of protest and social commentary.  Darin’s second album for the label opens with Me and Mr. Hohner, and finds Darin talking, almost rapping, the lyrics, producing a sound that was considerably ahead of its time.  At face value, this is a song about police harassment in general, but the references to “South Philly” at the end of each verse makes it clear that this is Darin’s view of Frank Rizzo, who was Police Commissioner in Philadelphia at the time.  His obituary in the New York Times states that Rizzo was often viewed as a “barely educated former police officer who used a hard line and tactics bordering on dictatorial to suppress opposition and keep blacks out of middle-class neighborhoods.”  The 1991 article goes on to say that “Mr. Rizzo personally led Saturday-night round-ups of homosexuals and staged a series of raids on coffee houses and cafes – saying they were drug dens.”  This, together with the multiple charges against Rizzo (all of which were dropped) regarding the beating of suspects, fits in with the picture the song paints of a young man and his harmonica “not doing nothing to no-one/When a squad car stops and out jumps cops/‘You’re one of them if I ever saw one’” and the fear at the end of each verse of getting a beating.

The track is brilliantly executed, with a fine production and Darin’s vocal sounding completely natural despite the nature of it.  Billboard called it “another strong message lyric set to an infectious beat [with a] top arrangement and vocal workout.”  Later in the year, Variety stated that Bobby was told he couldn’t sing the song during his appearance on This is Tom Jones (he sang Distractions instead).

Happy (1972)

Finally, we come to Bobby’s last single, which was released in December 1972.  The effect of television appearances could be seen when Happy was sang twice on Darin’s TV series in early 1973, and the song went on to reach #67 in the US charts.  That may not sound much, but it was his highest charting single since The Lady Came from Baltimore in 1966, and his first to chart at all since 1969.  Happy is subtitled Love Theme from Lady Sings the Blues, but this is a little confusing.  The song itself never appeared in the film sung by anyone.  Indeed, it hadn’t even been written at the time of the film’s release.  Instead, the song simply borrows a melody from the incidental music in the film and adds lyrics to it – much like Somewhere My Love (Doctor Zhivago) or Stella By Starlight (The Uninvited).

Darin turns the song into an epic.  There is a huge orchestral arrangement but, even when the full force of the band is heard during the bridge section, Bobby shows that he can compete and he belts out this section before turning on a dime to a much softer voice for the end of the vocal.  The single clocks in at just under four minutes, but the version released on LP is two minutes longer, although Darin doesn’t sing a single note extra.  Instead, the extra two minutes are an extended orchestral outro, with backing vocals at the very end adding a gospel feel to the proceedings.  The number and production were atypical Darin, but show that Bobby could still deliver even this late in the game.  Billboard called the single “one of Darin’s finest performances on record.”

(Bobby Darin: A Listener’s Guide is available in Kindle and paperback format from Amazon)

 

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. 

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.