The Complete Johnny Cash Mercury Recordings (review)

The Complete Mercury Recordings brings together Johnny Cash’s five albums for Mercury made between 1986 and 1991, as well as various bonus tracks and also the supergroup album Class of ‘55

Class of ’55, released in 1986, is very much the best album of the bunch.  Cash teams up with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison for the LP.  It is, in many ways, a sequel to the live The Survivors album from a few years earlier, which featured Lewis and Perkins, but not Orbison.  There are some wonderful moments in this enjoyable nostalgia trip, most notably the tribute to Elvis, We Remember the King, and the eight-minute romp through Big Train from Memphis.  But one thing is clear – this isn’t a Cash album, even if he does take centre stage for a couple of numbers. 

Cash’s tenure at Mercury really began with Johnny Cash is Coming to Town, released in 1987.  It’s a decent effort, opening with Cash belting his way through Elvis Costello’s The Big Light.  Cash had never been against recording songs by “modern” songwriters, and in the past had embraced the music of Dylan, Kristofferson and Springsteen.  He would go on to record Hidden Shame, also by Costello, while at Mercury, before recording all manner of contemporary songs during his final decade with Rick Rubin.  The rest of Johnny Cash is Coming to Town is less interesting, although perfectly enjoyable, but it barely made a dent in the country music charts. 

The next two albums had specific themes.  Water From the Wells of Home is essentially a duets album, with so many guest stars that one sometimes forgets that it was even issued under Cash’s name.  There are expected collaborations with members of the Cash family, but also Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, the Everly Brothers, Paul McCartney, and Glen Campbell, among others.  However, the star power didn’t help to produce a distinguished product or make it do better in the charts than its predecessor.  Instead, it’s actually rather dull.  It is presented in the current set with two bonus tracks that are early mixes of songs on the album. 

The next album was also a special project, with Cash revisiting his hits and signature songs on Classic Cash.  The 20-song album presents us with no surprises, but it does remind us that, despite the mediocre albums of the 1980s, Cash was still capable of making good music.  None of these remakes are better than the originals, but they are one of the few occasions where an artist revisits their hits in the studio later in their career and the results are very good – Sedaka’s remakes in the late 1980s (due to a change of label) for his Timeless greatest hits album were also examples of where the practice works.  Classic Cash is undoubtedly the best of the Mercury albums, although purists will tell you otherwise.  But it has the best songs and the best performances – and it sounds even better in the “early mix” disc or all twenty songs that sounds considerably less “eighties” than the final versions (which are also included). 

The two final albums, Boom Chicka Boom and The Mystery of Life, are very much like continuations of Johnny Cash is Coming to Town.  They are fine, but unexciting.  The liner notes of the new boxed set gives us a clue why – Boom Chicka Boom was pieced together from sessions spread over two years, and some of The Mystery of Life, Cash’s final album for Mercury, were leftovers from his first, Johnny Cash is Coming to Town.   Listeners of country music didn’t care about the music that Cash was making at the time – and it appears that Cash didn’t care either. 

It’s nice to have all of this material in one place, and the alternate takes etc are nice to have, too.  The music is solid country – but solid recordings were not enough to reboot a career that had been declining in sales for fifteen years.  Some of the re-recordings of songs available on earlier albums give us a clue as to the problem here.  Take a listen to the Mercury version of The Ballad of Barbara, and then listen to the version on The Last Gunfighter Ballad from ten years earlier.  They sound almost the same.  Sure, production techniques had changed a little, but Cash sounded no different, and neither did the arrangements. 

In short, in the late 1980s he was making the same albums as he made in the late 1970s.  Each one of the albums over that ten year period had moments that were very good indeed, and some albums were better than others (The Baron, Johnny 99, Rockabilly Blues), but country music had changed and Cash hadn’t changed with it.  There’s evidence a-plenty here that Cash was no longer interested in recording in the studio, and perhaps he would have walked away from it completely if it hadn’t been for Rick Rubin coming on the scene and persuading Cash that he could be relevant again.  Certainly, no-one buying the predictable The Mystery of Life in 1991 could have predicted the final chapter in Cash’s career.

Neil Sedaka: One More Ride

I don’t write many blog posts these days, but I thought that this deserves one.

When I was around sixteen or so, Neil Sedaka appeared on TV (The Des O’Connor Show, I think), promoting a new album of his greatest hits (Timeless), and his new single, The Miracle Song, which became rather popular here in the UK. A little later in the year, a concert recorded in Birmingham was shown on TV, too, and that was enough to get me hooked.

I was lucky enough to see Sedaka twice at the Royal Albert Hall, in 2012 and 2017, both of them great shows that got the audience both laughing and crying. Sedaka refers to himself as having been the king of the sha-la-las and the dooby-downs, but he’s also the king of creating songs that creep up at you and not only tug at the heartstrings, but actually snaps them. If you’re not moved by Solitaire, The Hungry Years, Going Nowhere, or The Leaving Game, you must have a heart made of stone – and behind the cheery exterior are often songs that often have a lot to say: The Immigrant has certainly taken on a life of its own in the Trump era, for example. The story of loss of innocence in Superbird is one that, in middle age, I can identify with . And was there ever a time when Going Nowhere was more appropriate than ours?

Original recording of “Going Nowhere.”

In the 1970s, Sedaka made one of the greatest comebacks in popular music, and now in 2020 he’s back again, through the most unlikely of circumstances. A couple of months ago, he popped up on YouTube in a short video made in his living room in New York (with his pet bird who probably has a fanclub of its own now), singing a medley of his 1950s and early 1960s hits to try to lift some spirits during lockdown. Buoyed by the response, he came back the next day with a few more tunes – and then added he’d come back every day until lockdown ended. Quite whether he expected to still be doing these “mini-concerts” nearly two months later is anybody’s guess, but he has been good on his word and not missed a single weekday since he made his promise (with the exception of one due to technical issues). I’ve counted 37 videos thus far, covering well over a hundred of his songs.

The video that started it all. With Basel.

The early videos covered hits like Oh Carol, Laughter in the Rain, Breaking Up is Hard to Do, and Calendar Girl, but as time has gone on Mr. S has been opening his trunk of what he calls his “forgotten children” – songs that appeared on albums (many out of print, alas), B-sides and/or were written for other singers. The process of resurrecting these wonderful songs has clearly been a happy one for Sedaka (you can see it on his face with every video), who settled into the video format very quickly, and for the last few weeks has been taking time to introduce these songs that he hasn’t sung in public for decades, isn’t afraid to goof occasionally – or to shed a tear, either. “I’m a cryer,” he said on a BBC documentary a few years ago. Me, too.

Contains “The World I Threw Away”

There are some surprises, too. A few days ago, there was a performance of The World I Threw Away, which Sedaka had previously recorded back in the late 1960s for an album intended for the Australian market. But, stripped back to just a piano and an unamplified 81-year-old voice, Sedaka blew the fifty year old recording out of the water, giving it a sense of depth and despair that just wasn’t present before. The rawness of the performance reminded me of the qualities of the first album that Johnny Cash recorded for Rick Rubin: almost painfully raw and utterly devastating. There isn’t much similarity between Cash’s dark baritone and Sedaka’s tenor, of course, but they do have one key thing in common: both men are great storytellers (and The World I Threw Away is beautifully told). We see Sedaka-as-storyteller so often in his post-1970s work, like the moving Superbird (with its baroque influences and the beautiful twist in the final verse), the nostalgic Betty Grable, the French cabaret style of One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round (curiously absent from the videos so far), or the daft-as-a-brush Tillie the Twirler.

For how many more weeks Neil will continue with his mini-concerts, we don’t know (although I doubt his public will allow him to stop them completely any time soon), but the video series has been a delight from start to finish, with the online feedback clearly demonstrating that ten minutes of music each day, forgetting the bizarre and dark situation we are all in, can put a smile on people’s faces. Beyond that, though, the videos are important as a wonderful recap of a career that has lasted over sixty years so far, and spotlighting songs that Sedaka himself thinks are important or which he is particularly proud of, rather than just those that made the charts or that fill the “best of” compilations. So, if you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing songs like The World I Threw Away, Superbird, or Cardboard California, head over to the NeilSedakaMusic YouTube Channel or check out the original recordings.

Ella Fitzgerald: All That Jazz (Review)

The final albums of legendary music stars seem to fall into one of two camps critically: either they are reviewed as being “a little sad,” or as only having “slight glimpses of former glories” – or they are viewed as artistic triumphs. Ella Fitzgerald’s final album, All That Jazz, recorded in 1989 and released in 1990, has always tended to fall into the first group.

Ella had barely recorded at all after 1983, producing an album with Joe Pass in 1986 and then this final album at the end of the decade. And yet live performances from the period that have been preserved actually show her to be in good form for much of the time – and even adding new or rarely heard material to her repertoire. But what may well have led to her return to the studio in 1989 was the 1988 release of a thirty year old concert recorded in Rome, which went straight to #1 on the Billboard jazz charts. In concerts, Ella made references to the album, and seemed proud of her achievement. And, although it wasn’t known at the time, it was the first in a steady stream of previously unreleased concerts from Ella’s Verve years that is still on-going.

In the liner notes to All That Jazz, Norman Granz makes reference to the change in Ella’s voice by the time it was recorded. He also makes reference to the fact that she was one of the few of the jazz greats still alive, let alone recording. And yet, a great jazz combo was put together for the album, including Al Grey, Clark Terry, Harry Edison, Ray Brown, Bobby Durham and Benny Carter. This wasn’t just a rehash of what Ella had done in the past, though. While a couple of numbers were associated with her, others had been out of her repertoire for decades, and others had barely been recorded by anyone. There are not really any How High the Moon-style flight of fancies here (the nearest we get is the scat number Little Jazz, but it’s a pale imitation of what had gone before); the days of raising the roof with five minutes of scat singing were perhaps gone. Here, the general vibe is that of a relaxed get-together of some old friends. Even a song such as Oh Look at Me Now is given a ballad reading.

So, while this was an unambitious record, it certainly was a sensible one for a seventy-something who was well known to be struggling with her health. And yes, that voice is certainly weaker than it was just five years earlier, but it’s still that voice. The opening Dream a Little Dream of Me, that Ella had swung with Basie back in the early 1960s, seems to set the scene very well. Ella is happy to contribute an opening and closing chorus for each number, and let her musicians have the spotlight for the rest, giving this a real feel of a jam session – a kind of later version of an album such as Fine and Mellow or even Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie.

Ballads like My Last Affair (a song she had first recorded over fifty years earlier) and Baby Don’t You Quit Now fit Ella like a glove, and while Ella sounds a little more uneasy on the upbeat songs like Jersey Bounce and When Your Lover Has Gone (to which she still manages to contribute a short scat chorus that puts other singers half of her age to shame), she still manages to swing with confidence, and that ability to twist and turn a melody at will hasn’t diminished.

Ironically, the weakest upbeat number is probably the title song – not the well-known number from Chicago (a show that Ella had recorded two songs from in 1975 for a single – her only Pablo recordings never to have made it to CD), but a song from the mid-1960s first heard in the movie A Man Called Adam – a song that fails not because of Ella, but because it’s not the greatest song in the world. Elsewhere, the only ballad that Ella seems to struggle with is That Old Devil Called Love, with its angular, wide-ranging melody just too much for a well-weathered voice. Two songs were only released on the CD version of the album. Little Jazz was of no great loss to those who bought the vinyl, but they missed a lovely ballad performance by not getting to hear The Nearness of You – which would have been a better title for the album than All That Jazz.

Ella did venture into the studio again a year or so later, supposedly to record another album with Joe Pass – a project which was never finished and which no audio has been released from. She also recorded The Setting Sun, her very final studio recording, the theme song to a Japanese film – and if ever there was an appropriate title for a legend’s last musical statement on record, it was that. That song isn’t commercially available (although it’s on YouTube), and her voice had deteriorated further by that time.

No-one is going to pretend that All That Jazz is Ella’s finest or most exciting moment on record (although it did win her a Grammy). It clearly isn’t, and yet it seems a warm-hearted and fitting end to her recording career, and it’s certainly not the sad album that so many have made it out to be. There is no strain in what Ella does here – she knows her limitations, and it’s almost as if one can imagine her in a comfy chair in her living room, microphone in hand, and with a group of musical friends with her, playing through some old favourites, asking each other “do you remember this one?” or “why did we never get around to such-and-such?” And what a wonderful image that is.

Ella Fitzgerald: These Are The Blues (review)

There are a handful of Ella’s albums for Verve that more obscure or forgotten than the rest, and These Are the Blues from 1964 is one of them. Some of them, ironically, include some of her best work, such as the Whisper Not collection, but this blues album doesn’t fall into that category. It finds her in a small-group setting, led by Wild Bill Davis on organ.

The organ is the first of the issues with the album. As with the later with-organ album Lady Time from the late 1970s, it fails to give her the rhythmic drive that a piano-led combo or full big band can. It may be fitting for the blues, but it’s not fitting for Ella Fitzgerald. But then, for the most part, neither are the blues themselves.

The impression one gets when listening to the album is that Fitzgerald doesn’t really know what to do with these songs. She was fine with throwing in a blues song into an album project or a concert, but here she’s faced with ten of them. She was not a blues singer in the first place, although she successfully included them in her live shows from the ’50s onwards (maybe before). But in those cases, she took a blues number and moulded it into something that fit her. In the case of this studio album, she does almost the opposite in that she tries to fit the songs, and she often loses all identity. For a good third of the album she sounds more like Pearl Bailey than Ella Fitzgerald – check out the spoken “this house is surely getting raided” at the beginning of the LP for proof of that (and here how uncomfortable she sounds saying it). Elsewhere she sounds more like Dinah Washington, and she also sometimes seems to be channelling Bessie Smith. She was doing party-piece style impressions of Dinah and Pearl as part of her live shows around this time (normally in her version of Bill Bailey), and that can be fun – but it doesn’t work when she does it for a full song and in a serious number (and probably doesn’t realise she is doing it either).

In concert, even without the impressions, she could be remarkably impressive on a blues number. Check out her version of “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” that was the encore for her concert at Montreux in 1975. It is stunning. The same is true when she launched into what she often referred to as a “Joe Williams Blues,” a fast blues that she would ultimately turn into a masterclass in improvisation. But those are more about improvisation than blues.

On These Are the Blues, she occasionally does use the song as a launchpad for improvisation, most notably on Trouble In Mind when the faster tempo kicks in. But the song loses all meaning. This eight bar blues is essentially a song about suicide – but Ella can’t help but give it a happy ending. On the uptempo repeat of the verse with the lyrics “I’m gonna lay my head on some lonesome railroad line/Let the 2.19 train ease my troubled mind” she changes them to “I’m gonna lay my head on some lonesome track/But when I hear that whistle, I’m just gonna pull it back.” But at least the song DOES sound like an Ella number, unlike some of the others. Elsewhere she works through something like See See Rider at something of a snail’s pace, and with no obvious awareness of where it’s going. Even St Louis Blues, which she often sang in concert so brilliantly, is disappointing, sung at a slow pace and with Ella seemingly making up verses as she goes along, with half of them not making any sense – and for over six minutes.

The irony here is that there was a blues album in Ella. In 1996, a blues album was pulled together from her studio and live albums at Pablo, with whom she recorded from 1972 through to the end of her career nearly twenty years later. There, on a label with no intentions of bowing to commercial interests (check out the covers!), Ella worked entirely in the jazz genre, with Norman Granz placing her in various combos and bands. So on “Bluella” (as the compilation is called), we get her wonderful version of Fine and Mellow from 1974, sung with a combo; Basella, Duke’s Place with the Duke Ellington orchestra, and a stunning ten minute C Jam Blues with Count Basie and his band. If you want to hear Ella singing the blues, then that’s the place to go. These Are the Blues is out of print on CD – and, for once, that might be for a good reason.

Offenbach at 200

Once upon a time, far too many years ago, there was a boy. He was eleven years old, and had just started high school. There, he met a music teacher – one of those teachers destined to inspire many of the pupils who came into contact with him. A whole new world of classical music suddenly opened up to the boy and he was eager to explore it.

He didn’t hear classical music at home, and so the boy went to the local library and started borrowing records from their collection. But he was a novice. He had no idea what he “should” be listening to, what music was part of the “canon” and what music was obscure. So, he borrowed “Attila” by Verdi, with no idea that most people had never heard of it and would have probably directed him to “Rigoletto” or “La Traviata” instead. He borrowed Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony because he got it mixed up with Beethoven’s. But his naivety regarding the music he was eager to explore meant he had no bias. No-one had told him what was good, or what was bad, what was serious, what was important, or what was trivial.

Someone else had inspired the boy as well. When he had been younger, around seven, he had met an elderly lady who lived close by and they had become friends. Each week, he would go there and they would play board games or card games, maybe watch a classic film on the TV, drink lots of tea, and eat lots of cake. Lots. And they would read books together. One of those books, about the same time the boy was expanding his musical horizons, was “Robinson Crusoe.”

One day, he was in the library, looking for a new musical work to fall in love with, and there on the shelf he spotted a boxed set of records, with a yellow cover and a title emblazoned across it: “Robinson Crusoe” by Jacques Offenbach. He had no idea that there had been an opera made out of the story – and had even less idea that most other people were unaware of it, too. He had no prior knowledge of Offenbach, either. He borrowed the records, went home with them tucked under his arm, and fell in love.

Just as with the music teacher and the elderly neighbour (who the boy continued to visit several times a week for fifteen years until she passed away, and he still misses her more than could be imagined), there was an instant connection. Sometimes these things cannot be explained. Not only was there the music on the records in that boxed set, but also the story in the booklet that came with it, about how neglected the work had been over the years, how it had been carefully reconstructed for the recording, and the detective work that had gone into making that happen. It was a very romantic story for a twelve-year-old to come across.

There might have been notices on many of his records that “home taping is killing music,” but he made a copy of “Robinson Crusoe” all the same, and he borrowed it from the library as many times as he could. In fact, he borrowed it so many times that, after several years, the library agreed to sell the set to him. After all, nobody else could take it out because he had it all the time. A few weeks later, a huge fire destroyed the library, and the boy’s beloved “Robinson Crusoe” would have been lost forever had he not now owned it.

The finale of Act II of Robinson Crusoe. Just sublime from the 2:00 mark

That was a long time ago, and the boy grew up and became me. I spent my teens trying to find more Offenbach, although there wasn’t much to find on the shelves of the record shops here in Norwich. I managed to find the Nicolai Gedda recording of “The Tales of Hoffmann,” and on my first or second visit to London (memory gets foggy now) I went into the giant HMV on Oxford Street (RIP) and found the Sadler’s Wells version of “Orpheus in the Underworld” from the 1960s. Then there was the Ofra Harnoy recording of the cello concerto (long before it was pieced back together into a work twice the length of that recording) bought on cassette tape, and a couple of albums of overtures found in a much-missed second-hand classical and jazz music shop called Ives Records – where I spent much of my misspent youth and spent even more of my pocket money.

As time went on, I started earnestly collecting all kinds of classical music – and other genres too, particularly jazz – and now I’m a middle-aged man with a collection of CDs that runs into the thousands. But if you don’t drink or smoke, what are you going to do with your money?! I have fallen in love with other composers or other works over the years, but no classical music has given me the joy that Offenbach has. Offenbach: the one who has spent much of the last two centuries being ridiculed or classed as too lightweight, has brightened up my often rather depressing life more than he could possibly imagine.

This week, on June 20th, my beloved Jacques will be celebrating his 200th birthday. And somewhat unsurprisingly, there have been a fair few releases on CD to celebrate the anniversary. He is loved after all. There have been new discs of relatively obscure arias, some famous and not so famous overtures, three discs of piano music, an album of cello music, and a rather scrumptious thirty disc set from Warner collecting together classic recordings of the best-known works with a few lesser-known ones thrown in for good measure. The English National Opera are performing “Orpheus in the Underworld” in the autumn and, best of all, I finally got to see my beloved “Robinson Crusoe” performed at the Royal College of Music in a wonderful production that was well worth that twenty-five year wait. Sadly, the BBC Proms have decided to ignore the anniversary, which seems somewhat bizarre – and unforgivable. Perhaps nobody told them.

Nicolai Gedda sings “Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach”

Offenbach has managed to put a smile on my face during some very dark times, and no doubt will continue to do so in the coming years. It is just a pity that people still seem less than willing to investigate his remarkable legacy – and because of what? A reputation? Sheer musical snobbery? I fear it’s the latter, I really do. There is nothing so utterly pointless as musical snobbery. I despise it more and more as the years pass. There is nothing wrong with enjoying music, letting it cheer you, letting it thrill you, or invigorate you, or letting it make you laugh.

So, in order to celebrate Offenbach’s birthday, why not get hold of the sparkling, vibrant new recording of the cello concerto by Edgar Moreau? It’s quite something. Or how about the delicious album of soprano arias from operas well-known and obscure by Jodie Devos? If you want to get even more obscure, try the Brilliant Classics album of songs by Offenbach entitled “Melodies” – it’s more interesting than the title!

Or perhaps you could treat yourself to that Sadler’s Wells version of Orpheus I bought in London many years ago, or grab yourself “The Tales of Hoffmann” – and then read the detective story about how that opera’s been reconstructed. Offenbach’s operas seems to have so many detective stories attached to them. Tales of researchers travelling the globe and sifting through archives to put all the pieces of his operas back together again. Is that actually why all three of the non-fiction books I have written are, in essence, works of detection? Perhaps that romanticised view of putting “Robinson Crusoe” back together that I read when I was twelve actually influenced my own research in adult life without me realising it.

And of course, maybe – just maybe – you could discover for yourself “Robinson Crusoe,” still available (on CD now) from the Opera Rara label.

The last few minutes of Offenbach’s Cello Concerto.

I would say at this point, let’s “raise a glass” to the wonderful Offenbach on his 200th birthday on Thursday, but I don’t drink. In all honesty, I doubt Offenbach would have approved of me raising a cup of tea to celebrate his bicentennial, but it will have to do. Perhaps he’ll see the discs of his work on my shelves, or hear them in my CD player and forgive me. I hope so.

So, happy birthday, Jacques. And thank you.

Bobby: Directions. A Listener’s Guide. 2nd Edition

During a career of seventeen years, cut short at the age of thirty-seven, Bobby Darin did it all. He recorded well over five-hundred songs ranging from jazz and swing through to folk, rock ‘n’ roll, and virtually everything in between; was a composer of dozens of songs and film scores; played piano, guitar, harmonica, drums, and the vibraphone; was a record producer; made over two-hundred television appearances; was an Oscar-nominated actor; hosted his own variety show; and was hailed as one of the greatest live performers of his time.

Bobby Darin: Directions covers all of these facets of Darin’s career, but tells its story through his recordings, taking the reader session by session, song by song, on a journey from his first tentative session in 1956 through to his final one in 1973.

This significantly expanded and revised edition of 2015’s “A Listener’s Guide” provides a commentary on Darin’s vast and varied body of work, while also examining in detail how he, his recordings, films, and television and live performances were discussed in newspapers, magazines, and trade publications from the 1950s through to the 1970s.  The text of the second edition is around 40% longer than the first (in terms of word count) and much of that is taken up by examining nearly 600 contemporary articles and reviews, telling for the first time how Bobby’s life and career played out in the printed media, and often forces us to question our understanding of both the man and his music.  All of Bobby’s music is discussed, up to and including Go Ahead and Back Up, issued in 2018.

Perfect for both dedicated fans and those approaching Darin’s work for the first time, this is the ultimate book on the career of one of the most electrifying performers of the 20th Century.

Large format paperback (7 inch by 10 inch).  Over 100 black and white illustrations including rare record sleeves from around the room and candids previously unpublished in book form.  465 pages.

Paperback available from all Amazon sites.    Please note that there are no plans for a Kindle edition at this time.

Original Dixieland Jass Band, 1917.

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In February 1917, jazz was recorded for arguably the first time when the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded Dixieland Jass Band One Step and Livery Stable Blues.   I say “arguably” because it depends on your definition of what jazz music is.  For example, thirteen tracks (mostly ragtime) precede these recordings on the masterful Le Grande Histoire du Jazz, a collection of 100 CDs released in four boxed sets that almost singlehandedly made the case for the EU public domain fifty-year rule for recorded music.  In other words, buy them now if you don’t already have them – the prices have already started rising.

But I digress.  This modest post takes a look at advertisements and reactions in the press to those early recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band.  We start with the New York Times, and an advertisement for an appearance by the band less than one month before they made recorded music history.

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The Scranton Republican, April 17, 1917.

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The Decatur Daily Review, April 21, 1917.

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The Hutchinson Gazette, April 25, 1917.

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El Paso Herald, April 28, 1917.

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The Wassau Daily Herald, May 1, 1917.

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The Sandusky Star Journal, August 14, 1917.The_Sandusky_Star_Journal_Tue__Aug_14__1917_p5

“With Heart and With Voice” – National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company Review

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For the last two evenings, I have been at the Norwich Theatre Royal watching the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company’s productions of Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer, and Ruddigore.

It has been rather a long while since I took the time to see some G&S at the theatre, partly because the same old operas get performed time and time again, and sometimes I think I can recite the Modern Major General’s song as reliably as those in the cast.  (Please don’t ask me to; I’m exaggerating).

I was very much “into” G&S when I was a teenager – ah yes, I was that popular kid at school.  In fact, school was to blame as my first school production was of the The Mikado.  It got me investigating the other operas, too, borrowing copies of them from the local library.  And then in 1989, the BBC broadcast the complete G&S on Radio 2 and I dutifully taped them each week and listened to some of them repeatedly.  (As a side note:  Does anyone have copies of these performances?  I would so much like to get hold of them again as they are, bizarrely a key part of my teenage years).  Perhaps understandably as a fifteen year old teenager, the two “supernatural” works grabbed my attention most of all at that time.  However, they were never performed by touring companies coming to Norwich, so the nearest I got were those often-dry TV productions from the early 1980s.   As I grew older, my tastes changed, and G&S got put on the back burner in favour of Elvis, Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and jazz.  And then, this year, I saw that The Sorcerer and Ruddigore are finally being performed in the Theatre Royal, which is literally outside my front door.  Finally seeing them live was an offer I was not going to refuse.  I re-familiarised myself with the music, and then expected to be disappointed.

The Sorcerer was preceded by Trial by Jury as a curtain-raiser last night – although The Sorcerer is quite long enough by itself for an evening’s entertainment, but Trial is always good fun, so who’s complaining?  What is interesting after seeing Ruddigore tonight is that it highlights the problems with The Sorcerer – and I’m not talking about the performance, but the source material – and those problems aren’t apparent when watched separately.

There is probably a good reason why The Sorcerer is not done very much, as there really isn’t a great deal of plot and the characters aren’t particularly likeable on the whole.  And yet the music is often some of the most beautiful in the G&S operas (something I remember from that BBC production from 1989), and luckily most of the best songs are in the first act which, to say the least, has a meandering libretto.   Constance’s “When He Is Here” is a lovely ballad, as is Dr. Daly’s “Time Was When Love and I Were Well Acquainted.”  But the opera doesn’t really come alive until J. W. Wells appears about fifty minutes into the proceedings.

This isn’t really noticed in the current production, which is transported to (I’m estimating) the 1930s.  That in itself is enough to grab our interest while Gilbert finally gets around to providing us with a plot.  The opening chorus, presented to us as a choir rehearsal, is performed with so much zest and energy that it’s hard not to be sucked in.  In fact, it’s true to say that I have rarely seen the chorus in an opera provide as much joy to the audience as the soloists.  They throw themselves so much into their individual characters, over-acting their socks off (intentionally, I might add), that it’s hard not to fall in love with them and wait intently for them to return to the stage, which, I’m pleased to say, they often do in The Sorcerer.  It’s this sense that the performers are having a ball that made the last two evenings so enjoyable.   The soloists also share the same enthusiasm, although, oddly, they have less to work with in their parts than the chorus.  Richard Gauntlett provides us with a spiv of a John Wellington Wells (which works very well), and Ellen Angharad Williams shines as Aline.

Ruddigore is, rather bizarrely, a reversal of The Sorcerer:  the plot comes thick and fast from the very beginning, the main characters are much more interesting, but the male chorus in particular have much less to do – which is a shame as they were great fun on the previous evening.  Seeing the two operas side by side, there’s little doubt that Ruddigore is a much better work on the whole.  Again, I’m talking about the source material here and not the production.  The first half of the production is a lengthy eighty minutes, but it seems to zip along at quite a pace, helped, perhaps by the episodic nature of it and the split into three seamless scenes.  Another big bonus here is that it gets off to a strong start through Gaynor Keeble’s impressive “Sir Rupert Murgatroyd” (what a wonderful voice she has).  And then there comes the huge shock – Bradley Travis who is playing Robin/Ruthven is under fifty!  Actually, under forty.  Possibly under thirty.  Of course that IS the intention, but anyone who has seen G&S in the past will know that the leading male and female roles are often NOT played by age-appropriate cast members.  Robin is meant to be in his twenties, I believe, but on the Malcolm Sergeant recording from the 1960s is played by a 78 year old.  You see where I’m coming from here?  This makes a massive difference to the performance – not least by the amount of physicality that can then be brought to the role – although Travis spends much of the second act writhing around on the floor (as you do).

This youth element is what enlivens these productions more than anything.  When I was singing G&S at an amateur level, I’m sure no-one else was under sixty.  Ian Smith, Chairman of the company, boasts in the programme: “I don’t know of any other Opera Company in Britain that takes as many graduates from the leading Music Colleges as we do.  Young enthusiasts with splendid voices embarking on their professional career in the very safe hands of Gilbert and Sullivan.”  And he is right to boast about this.  Not only is this giving young performers a chance that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, but it also pays dividends for the company in giving the productions more energy and vitality than they otherwise would have had – and if you want proof of that check out the chorus work in Trial/Sorcerer (there are some members of the chorus who grab your attention despite not having a single line of their own) and the young cast of Ruddigore.

Both of these operas must be very difficult for a company on such a tight budget as this one – they almost beg for special effects and clever sets. They don’t get either here (and at one point, The Sorcerer pokes fun at itself over that), but don’t let that put you off.  Also don’t let it put you off that you might not know these particular works.  Ruddigore, in particular, provides the tried and tested G&S formula – indeed, compare the finale to Act I of The Mikado to the finale of Act I of Ruddigore and, dramatically, it’s pretty identical – just replace Katisha with Despard and you’re almost there.   I really do wish that audiences would be more daring with the choices they make – these performances were far from full houses, and it’s such a shame with so much to enjoy.   I hope that this doesn’t mean that the company resorts to bringing us The Mikado and Pirates instead next year, as it’s really nice to see these other works performed.

What you get with these two productions (and I’m guessing the others on the current tour) is a damned good evening of entertainment – and that, really, is exactly what G&S should be about.   I’m not going to pretend that these are the most polished productions you will ever see (although it might be the ONLY production of The Sorcerer you ever see), or that the sets are the most exciting in the world, but that is more than made up for by what else is being offered – fun.  That is what the evening is all about, and these fresh, sometimes intriguing productions, certainly provide that in abundance.

I’d like to make another comment about the programme note from Ian Smith, in which he states the company receives just £21,000 combined in grants and donations compared to the millions of other opera companies centred in London (he mentions the ENO).  We have to start realising the worth of the arts in this country.  Funding has been cut for the arts subjects at university level, there has been discouragement of taking arts subjects at schools, and funding has been cut for companies such as this one.  The government can try to drum it into our heads that we need scientists more than musicians, but there’s not much point in finding cures for deadly diseases if we don’t have music and the arts to enjoy during those extra years we gain by these cures.  And that goes for whatever areas of the arts provide your enjoyment.  Companies such as this HAVE to survive, as do our orchestras, our independent film makers, and so on.  If our country really is going to continue with this hair-brained political suicide, we’re going to need something to take our mind off it – and I very much doubt that most of those spouting the nationalistic twaddle on Twitter have ever seen a single opera written by two of our country’s national institutions in their lives.  And that’s an irony that Gilbert himself might well have appreciated.

I’d like to conclude by saying health has thrown quite a bit of crap my way over the last couple of months – but for six hours this weekend I forgot about it completely and did a great deal of smiling, and what more can you ask of a theatre trip?

Frank Sinatra: 20 Years On

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As someone who has written a book about the music of Bobby Darin, what was especially nice about the recent release of the Frank Sinatra: Standing Room Only 3CD set a few weeks back was to hear Sinatra in 1966 recommending that his audience takes time out to go and see Bobby while they were in Vegas.  The comments were, for this listener at least, unexpected, but put to bed once and for all the fake-feud between Darin and Sinatra that the media seemingly made up around 1960 and have continued to talk of as fact ever since.  It should also be added that, in a 1975 newspaper interview, Tina Sinatra said that her father would be performing at a Darin tribute concert (a concert that sadly never happened).   Another suggestion that the stories of animosity were untrue.

A second edition of my book on Bobby Darin will come out late in 2018, all being well, just as the second edition of my book on the music of Elvis Presley came out last year.   Those books take a reader through the recordings of the artist in question, from the first to the last, re-evaluating them from a modern viewpoint as well as providing excerpts from contemporary reviews and articles from trade magazines and newspapers, showing how the music was received at the time.  They have garnered some nice comments, but the question I’m asked most (especially by those who know me and my musical tastes) is “are you going to do one on the music of Frank Sinatra?”  The answer to that is always that I would love to, but where would I start?  Sinatra recorded more than double the amount of songs than Elvis and Darin put together, and if I ended up writing close to a quarter of a million words on Elvis, how much would I end up writing on Sinatra?  And what about collecting together all of those reviews and articles.  I have around 400-500 for the new edition of the Darin book, so with Sinatra I would be looking at probably five or six times that amount – at least!  I am not sure I am up to that task.

But this week marks twenty years since I switched on the TV and browsed Teletext one morning only to see on the news that Frank Sinatra had passed away.  It’s one of those moments that you don’t forget.  I had “got into” Sinatra about five years earlier while working in a used record store.  There were no customers, and so I started browsing through the albums, trying to find something to play.  I picked up, by chance, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back.  And that was the start of that.  And I have Sinatra to thank for so much more than just his own music.  I picked up the albums he made with Basie, that got me searching out his records.  The same is true for Duke Ellington after hearing the much-maligned album that Frank Sinatra recorded with him.  And then came the VHS (as it was back then) of the 1967 TV show with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.  And who couldn’t fall in love with her?  Through Sinatra, I found Basie, Duke, and Ella.  And through them I found John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson.  And through them I found…  Well, you get the idea.  But it all comes back to Frank Sinatra.  Without him, I would never have heard any of them in the wonderful, weird world of musical six-degrees-of-separation.

And so, twenty years after Sinatra’s passing, I thought it would be nice to look at ten of the Sinatra albums, TV shows and concerts that I cherish most, but which aren’t always talked about a great deal.   Of course, our musical preferences change on a regular basis – you learn to like things you didn’t, and go off things you used to love.  But, right now, here’s ten glorious moments with Frank Sinatra.   Albums dates refer to year of release.

1.  The Voice of Frank Sinatra (1946).   There really is no other place to start than with Frank’s first album.  Many have argued that this was the first pop concept album.  Just as many have argued that there were earlier ones.  But it doesn’t matter, because Sinatra took the notion of the concept album to a whole new level.  In this case, not just the bringing together of eight wonderful ballads, but their orchestration with a string quartet and small rhythm section.  If I had to live without any era of Frank Sinatra music (and I hope I never have to make that choice for real), then it would be the Columbia years, but despite that, this collection of eight songs is wondrous in its concept and delivery.  And if These Foolish Things doesn’t tear you in two, then nothing will.

2.  Close to You (1956).  Let’s skip those albums you already know about, and concentrate on Close to You, one of Sinatra’s least-known Capitol albums, and one that seems like a cousin of The Voice.  Here, again, he utilises the string quartet, augmented at various points by a woodwind or brass instrument.  Sinatra avoids the over-used American standards here, and goes for more obscure ones.  They aren’t “unknowns” exactly, but more “rarely heards.”  I don’t think there is a better version out there of P. S. I Love You or Blame It On My Youth.   And Frank gives Chet Baker a run for his money on Everything Happens to Me, only to go on to eclipse all versions in 1981 when he re-recorded the song for She Shot Me Down, although it remained in the vaults for over a decade.

3.  Monte Carlo, June 14, 1958.  This concert, finally released officially in 2016 (although any self-respecting fan had it in their collection long before that) is a stunning tour-de-force, and a rare snap-shot of where Sinatra was musically at this time.  He brings something to the relatively bland Monique here that he seemed to miss entirely in the studio.  And what can be said about Where Or When?  Sinatra takes it as a stripped back ballad, and sings the hell out of it, again beating the studio version that also remained in the vaults for years.  That song alone is worth the price of admission here, and I’ll take this show over any other from the 1950s that we are lucky enough to have in our collections.

4.  Point of No Return (1962).  This is one of those albums that have had a bad rap over the years.  We hear tales that Sinatra wasn’t really bothered about recording this album of ballads, his last LP for Capitol, and his last with Alex Stordahl as arranger.  But how can anyone listening to this come to that conclusion?  When the World Was Young is as perfect a recording as I can think of.  We don’t think of Sinatra singing French cabaret-type songs, but here he does, and does so beautifully, as always completely understanding the character at the heart of the piece.  A new, jazzier phrasing can be found in I’ll See You Again, and These Foolish Things, originally recorded for The Voice of Frank Sinatra, is here darker and moodier.

5.  Hibiya Park, Japan, April 21, 1962.  This concert was released on DVD on the World on a String boxed set in 2016.  This was part of Sinatra’s charity world tour in 1962, in which he travelled with just a jazz combo to support him, and raising a huge amount of money in the process.  What is so special here is that I don’t ever remember seeing Sinatra happier on stage.  His smile seems to beam from the beginning of the show to the end.  He interacts with the crowd in a way we have rarely seen, clearly getting a kick out of the amount of children in the audience at whom he smiles, waves, and even blows kisses to at various points.  Musically, the show is shorter than some of the others on the tour, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the singing or the playing – despite the wind trying to blow music stands across the stage.

6.  The Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim (TV show, 1967).  The late 1960s were a wonderful time for music specials.  1968 brought us Elvis’s NBC TV special, and the year before had brought us this.  Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald had appeared together on TV before, but not like this.  Everything just clicks into place, from the playful, semi-serious first duet medley, through to the finale of the show where Frank and Ella just go for it.  Ella was in superb form (and, oddly, without a permanent contract at the time) and Sinatra couldn’t be happier to be jousting with her.  The medley with Jobim is also a delight, and one can only wish that somewhere out there is material that was recorded for the show but not used due to time limitations, and one day we’ll have a deluxe release.  Is there more material?  Possibly (collectors will know that there is material in the vaults from the 1973 TV special).  We can but hope.

7.  Francis A. & Ellington K. (1968).  This wonderful album seems to have been much-maligned over the years, with it said that Sinatra wasn’t in great voice, and Ellington not in great form.  And yet it contains some of my favourite performances from both the Ellington band and Sinatra himself.  All I Need is the Girl may be taken at a pedestrian pace, but it’s so exciting, with both singer and the band threatening to let rip at any moment.  And is there a better version of Sunny out there?  If so, I haven’t heard it.  A follow-up album, with Frank singing an LP’s worth of Ellington songs, would have been most welcome, but never happened.

8.  Watertown (1970).   Watertown has become something of a cult favourite in recent decades.  It’s one of those albums that few have heard, but those that have would never be without it.  This is, essentially, a song cycle about a man whose wife has left him, and he now has to look after their two children.  He doesn’t know if she will come back or not.  Sinatra was always challenging himself – and his audiences.  And that is the case here.  This isn’t an easy listening album.  It demands your attention from beginning to end.  Michael & Peter, a song in the form of a letter to his wife about his children and what they are doing, is so remarkably moving.  And the disappointment is palpable when The Train arrives at the end of the album and the man’s wife is not on it.  But nobody appears to have heard the album at the time of release – except Nina Simone, it seems, who covered one of the songs on a 1985 album.  But this is a beautiful, haunting album.  Lady Day remained unissued for years, with Sinatra re-recording it with a lush Don Costa arrangement which was released on Sinatra & Company.  

9.  The Lost Songs (1973-1978).  OK, I’ll come clean.  This isn’t really an album at all.  It is just me taking the opportunity to draw attention to a group of songs that Sinatra recorded during the 1970s that deserve to be heard.  In the studio, at least, Frank seemed to be lost during this period.  He didn’t know what to record.  Albums were discussed and discarded.  Albums were started, and discarded.  Singles came out that were never going to do well commercially.  Other singles came out that were the worst things Sinatra ever disc.  Other songs remained in the vault.  And yet, the really good recordings from this period (outside of the 1973-4 albums) are stunning and deserve to be heard.  I’m talking here of Everything Happens to MeJust as Though You Were HereDry Your EyesLike a Sad SongEmpty TablesSend In the ClownsBang BangI Love My Wife.  Most people have never heard these because many were only available on CD through a 20CD set from the 1990s.  So, if anyone from the Estate is reading, get a collection of these lost 1970s songs (and the 1980s singles too) out on CD.  They deserve to be heard.

10.  The Ultimate Event (1988).  One of those concerts that is out on DVD, but no-one is sure whether the release is legal or not.  This was recorded in Detroit, as part of a tour featuring Sammy Davis Jr and Liza Minnelli alongside Sinatra.  What is wonderful here is that all three are on fire, and the clear love they have for each other.  Davis takes the audience from Rodgers & Hart, through Newley & Bricusse, and on to Michael Jackson and Andrew Lloyd Webber in twenty minutes.  Liza Minnelli had, arguably, never been better.  Her repertoire is familiar, but she wrings every ounce of emotion out of Quiet Love and Sailor Boys.  Then comes Sinatra, showing that Minnelli and Davis created great results but so can he – but seemingly with much less effort!  Finally, the three of them come together for a wonderful medley.  Again, this is an edited show – how great it would be to see a release of the whole thing.

Perhaps that’s an idea for the next Sinatra anniversary?

 

 

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (Review)

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There has been much anticipation over the last year or so about the three and a half hour documentary about Elvis Presley, entitled The Searcher, which finally got aired last weekend.  Many have believed that this would be the definitive documentary on Elvis and his music, both with regards to what he recorded and what he was influenced by.

In reality, the documentary proved itself to be worthy of its subject in many ways.  It was well put together and edited, it didn’t stray much from its mission to be mostly about the music rather than the man, and there was enough confidence by the filmmakers to delve deep into the Elvis legacy for the soundtrack, skipping over many hits and, instead, presenting songs that many viewers would not have heard before.   The way the documentary used the 1968 TV show as a pivot for the various chapters of the story worked well enough, but it seemed to borrow the idea from the HBO Sinatra documentary a year or two back which used his 1971 retirement concert in much the same way, and with better effect.

However, there was little here that hadn’t been said before.  The story is well-known, and here it certainly got a sophisticated telling, but it’s hard to find anything here that shone new light or new perspective on the established narrative.  There is plenty of material that could have questioned some of that narrative, but instead there was no effort to do so.  For example, Steve Allen was said to have booked Elvis purely for ratings, despite the fact that he booked Elvis before his TV performances caused ratings to soar.  Allen was said to have hated rock n roll music, and yet nothing was mentioned about the other rock ‘n’ roll acts on his show, the fact he defended Elvis in print, and that he gave Elvis’s first album a good review in a magazine column.  This material might not have been widely known in the past, but it certainly is out there now, and this would have been a good opportunity to at least show just a hint of the other side of the equation.  The same is true of the Colonel, who also comes across as a one-dimensional bad guy.

As is so often the case with these things, facts are intentionally or unintentionally distorted.  D. J. Fontana tells us that the “bump ‘n’ grind” ending to Hound Dog  on The Milton Berle Show had not been done before, and nobody knew what was happening, and yet we have aural evidence from a Little Rock concert a month earlier which shows us that it was a regular part of the performance.  Clearly, some mis-remembering on Fontana’s part, but an important detail nonetheless.  Meanwhile, the discussion of Elvis’s Las Vegas return in 1969 was accompanied by footage of Elvis a year later, with no indication in the voice-over or on screen that this was the case.

Some things were almost conspicuous by their absence – there was no mention of Elvis winning three Grammys – despite this being a documentary almost entirely about his music career.  Likewise, there was no mention of the two concert films by name – although footage from them was shown – meaning there was no talk of Elvis on Tour winning the Golden Globe.   The Memphis sessions of 1969 were dealt with in surprisingly little screen time, and Elvis Country, possibly Elvis’s greatest album wasn’t even mentioned at all, despite its return to Elvis’s musical roots and the use of footage of a press conference where Elvis discusses the importance of country music to him.

While the storytelling was sophisticated, the story it told often lacked nuance, and was remarkably safe. The 1968 TV special was a one-stroke return to form.  Not true – and the comment that it received universally great reviews is also not true.  There was no mention of the non-formula movies at the end of the 1960s, which might not have artistic or commercial successes as such, but they certainly demonstrated that Elvis and his work was changing.  There was much discussion about the publishing situation but, again, nothing about some of the fine music that came through that avenue from the likes of Pomus and Shuman or Don Robertson.   There was no mention of how Elvis approached his studio work in the 1970s, and how the mega-sessions might have helped or hindered that process.  And, oddly, nothing at all about the final videotaped performances from Elvis’s last tour.  They might not be an easy watch, but a choice excerpt from Hurt, or I Really Don’t Want to Know or Unchained Melody would have been apt in demonstrating that there were still flashes of brilliance even at the end.

Despite these failings, or (to be kinder) artistic choices, The Searcher achieved something which very little Elvis-related TV does – bringing it back to the music, and that is always a good thing.  However, the endorsement by the Estate does make it feel just that bit too safe.  We never really learn what made Elvis tick.  We learn about his musical influences, and the loss of his mother, but very little else.  Despite much talk about the evil Parker, we don’t ever get to grips as to how their relationship worked, or why Elvis didn’t just sack him when he was unhappy with his choices – a question which many viewers were probably left asking themselves.  In many respects, I’m reminded of Vincent Canby’s review of Elvis on Tour:  “Close-ups do not reveal anything but, rather, they enshrine an ideal, like an official photograph of a president or a pope.”  The Searcher seems to have a similar problem.

If you enjoyed The Searcher and would like to know more about Elvis’s music and how it was received during his lifetime, check out Reconsider Baby: A Listener’s Guide.  http://a.co/eenPMzO