Don’t Be Cruel: Presley and the Press, 1956

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By the beginning of 1956, everything was in place for Elvis Presley to burst onto the national and international music scene.  Since July 1954, his recordings for the Memphis-based Sun label and his exciting live performances had brought him regional fame, and Presley was rewarded for his hard work at the end of 1955 when he was signed to the major label RCA.  Within weeks, he would record Heartbreak Hotel, his first single for RCA and his first to reach number 1 in the U.S. charts, and then, at the end of January 1956, he would appear on national television for the first time.  His performances on twelve television episodes over the next year have become both infamous and legendary and, following his final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS, 1948-1971) on January 6, 1957, Elvis would only ever appear on television three more times before his death some twenty years later.

Despite all of the success that 1956 would bring Elvis, with three singles and two albums reaching the top spot in the U.S. charts (and that’s without mentioning the release of his first film role), the year would also prove to be a difficult one when it came to his treatment in the national and international press.  This article examines the circumstances of how one television performance in June 1956 resulted in a change of attitudes towards Elvis within print media from little more than curiosity about the new phenomenon to downright hostility and revulsion.

Elvis Presley’s first national TV appearance was on the January 28 edition of Stage Show (CBS, 1954-1956), hosted by big band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, singing a medley of Shake, Rattle and Roll  and Flip, Flop and Fly, as well as I Got a Woman.  Both numbers had been staples of his live performances during the Sun years.This was the first of six appearances on the show within the space of just a couple of months.

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Rather strangely, Elvis didn’t perform Heartbreak Hotel, his first RCA single, until his third appearance on the series.  By this point, he appeared to be causing little controversy beyond a few raised eyebrows.  The trade journal Motion Picture Daily referred to him in advance of his fourth appearance as ‘an abandoned performer who plays and sings in a manner that Marlon Brando should, and doesn’t’ (Anon, 1956a: 8) – no doubt a dig at Brando’s vocalising in the previous year’s film Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955).   But the focus was on the failing viewing figures for the television series itself.  ‘Properly exploited,’ we are told, ‘he might even return the Saturday night blue ribbon to CBS,’ but even Elvis (and high profile guests such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dick Haymes, Joey Bishop, and Della Reese) couldn’t save Stage Show from being cancelled in the summer of 1956.

A number of publications saw Elvis as the obvious successor to Johnnie Ray (below), a singer who had entered the charts for the first time in 1951 with his double-sided single Cry and The Little White Cloud That Cried, with the songs reaching #1 and #2 respectively in the U.S. charts.  Ray was seen as a crossover artist of sorts, mixing elements of pop singing with rhythm ‘n’ blues, and his stage performances were notable for his emotional delivery as well as on-stage antics including provocative moves that would later be associated with Elvis himself.  Ray’s popularity faded quite rapidly in the USA (although re-emerged briefly in 1956/7), but lasted until the end of the decade in the UK and Europe, where he would retain a devoted following until his death in 1990.

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Presley’s parallels with Ray came early on.  For example, in their review of Elvis’s first album, Variety stated that ‘Elvis Presley belts away in uninhibited style and his current click continues where the Johnnie Ray vogue of a couple of years ago left off’ (Schoenfeld,1956: 50).  Later, Ed Sullivan was even quoted as saying ‘I’d been told this guy was disrupting the morals of the kids, that his whole appeal was sensual.  But all I saw was a pale carbon copy of Johnnie Ray’ (Doncaster, 1956a: 12).  Looking back at articles from early 1956, there is little suggestion of Elvis being controversial, instead he is simply referred to as ‘frenetic’ and ‘uninhibited’ (Schoenfeld, 1956: 50).

When the New York Times reviewed Elvis’s first album, they also compared Presley to the earlier singer, stating that Elvis was, ‘nominally a country singer, who has the most torrentially belting style since Johnny (sic) Ray’s early days’ (Wilson, 1956: 131).  It’s also interesting that the newspaper, which would go on to criticise Elvis more than any other in the early years of his career, gives the album a surprisingly positive review.  ‘On ballad numbers,’ John Wilson writes, ‘he takes off with a drive that is startling, hair-raising and thoroughly provocative.’

The New York Times also published a positive piece in late May 1956 about a New York library that was trying to lure in young readers through a series of ‘disc jockey concerts,’ with the one in question concentrating on Elvis.  The librarian in charge of the events told the newspaper: ‘It is an important part of the librarian’s work to help young people identify their interests and to guide them in reading that will develop these.  What some youngsters consider music, many adults consider noise.  But libraries aren’t run for individuals with just special kinds of tastes’ (Barclay, 1956: 24).  While many adults were not approving of Elvis’s music, there was at least a tolerance for the latest teen idol.

Not all writers were quite as positive, however.  Gord Atkinson in the Ottawa Citizen, for example, was using the ‘C’-word about Elvis (‘C’ for ‘Controversial’ that is) as early as March 1956, but not in an entirely negative way.  While bemoaning the fact that ‘it’s the gimmick today that seems to make recording stars,’ they do call Elvis ‘the most controversial and electrifying show business personality since Johnny (sic) Ray’ and note that he ‘almost explodes before an audience’ (Atkinson, 1956: 26).

Over in the UK, relatively little was written about Elvis at all in the newspapers of the first half of 1956.  Perhaps most notable was Lionel Crane’s article in the Daily Mirror, entitled Rock Age Idol.  Remembering that UK audiences had yet to see footage of Elvis (outside of, possibly, a newsreel), the article is again one with a tone of curiosity rather than viewing the new star as controversial.  What is perhaps most notable here is that it introduces one of two themes that would recur in articles during the second half of 1956 and beyond: class.  Elvis’s poor background and, in particular, his new-found riches, would be mentioned time and time again as the year went on.  Here the writer quotes Elvis as saying ‘“Look at all these things I got … I got three Cadillacs.  I got forty suits and twenty-seven pairs of shoes.” I asked him how knew it was exactly twenty-seven pairs and he said: “When you ain’t had nothing, like me, you keep count when you get things”’ (Crane, 1956: 9).

Following the series of appearances on Stage Show, Elvis was seen twice on The Milton Berle Show (NBC, 1948-1956).[1]  The first of his appearances was a special edition on April 3, 1956, from the U.S.S. Hancock stationed in San Diego, and saw Elvis on a bill that also included movie star Esther Williams and jazz greats Buddy Rich and Harry James.

By the time of the second Milton Berle appearance on June 5, we start to get early signs that Elvis was being viewed as a commodity as much as a serious artist.  Vernon Scott’s article in the Schenectady Gazette on June 7 (but clearly written before the Berle appearance) is one of the first to find Elvis’s manager, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, blatantly and unashamedly selling merchandise – to journalists, no less.  He gives Scott a postcard and says ‘this is for you…absolutely free of charge. Any fan who writes in gets one for nothing.  Then, of course, if they want one of our souvenir packages can send in the attached order’ (Scott, 1956: 26).   Elsewhere in the same article, Elvis is asked why he sings ‘such off-beat songs.  Elvis grinned, “I like rock and roll because it’s selling.  But if I had my way I’d be singing ballads and love songs.  Man, I’m no bopster or hipster.  I’m from right back in the country.”’  Once again, we have another reference to Elvis’s background/class (this time through a supposed quote from Elvis himself), and the article also appears to demonstrate a sense of naivety and innocence on his part – a young man caught up in a business he doesn’t quite understand or have control over, but enjoying the ride while it lasts.

While the vast majority of articles in the first five months of 1956 show curiosity, bemusement, and general head-scratching by the authors at the Presley phenomenon, that all changed after the performance of Hound Dog on the second Milton Berle Show appearance.  The articles that appeared shortly afterwards condemning the performance set the tone for how Elvis was seemingly viewed by many adults and conservative America in particular for the rest of the year and beyond.  Previous commentators such as Guralnick (1994) and Jorgensen (1998) have put forward a straightforward account that Elvis’s performance was viewed with disdain by television audiences at the time, and this was the catalyst for the condemnations of Elvis as both a person and an artist that were to follow.  However, the issue is somewhat more complex than this, and has as much to do with how television (and Milton Berle himself) was viewed at the time.

It is easy now, some sixty years later, to wonder what all the fuss was about.  However, television was still in its relative infancy, and many adults were still getting used to the idea of sharing their family evenings together with strangers being beamed into their homes.  Television time in the evening was also family time for parents and kids to gather around the small box in the corner of the room and experience the programme they were watching together.  But people were not yet as comfortable with television as they would be in the decades to come.  However, while parents struggled to grapple with the new medium and the implications it would have on their family life, an article from the period reminded readers that ‘Children and teen-agers in television homes form a unique group in that they will be the first group to grow up with television.  Particularly to children, television is not something intruding upon already established patterns, but is an accepted fact in their lives, present from virtually the beginning.  Television at this point promised to be a part of their total experience far more significant than it can ever be for the great majority of adults’  (Riley, Cantwell and Ruttiger, 1949: 230).

Despite what appeared to be a concern that children and teenagers might view television in a different way to their parents, there was also the understanding that the new technology could help to bring the family together.  The article goes on to say that there was deemed to be a high percentage of ‘TV owners who express an awareness of an enhanced family solidarity.  Television itself is a new focus of interest, the fact that the family is together more, and the creation of a bridge between adults and children, all reflect the possibility of an enlarging role of television in creating new ties between family members’ (Riley, Cantwell and Ruttiger, 1949: 232).   A New York Times article from the same year put it altogether more simply: ‘Today the homely scene has changed.  Mother, Dad and the children aren’t reading books – they’re grouped around the television set in the living room’ (Anon, 1949: 21).

At the same time, there was also a fear of the new technologies that had started entering homes in the years following the end of World War Two.  Lynn Spiegel writes that ‘the home magazines of the postwar era adopted [an] ambivalence toward machines, scrutinizing each step forward in household technology for its possible side effects (Spiegel, 1992: 47).  She goes on to say that ‘the idea of “technology out of control” was constantly repeated as the language of horror and science fiction invaded discussions of everyday life.  The television was often likened to a monster that threatened to wreak havoc on the family’ (ibid).

Television in America was therefore being viewed in contrasting and contradicting ways during the early-to-mid 1950s.  On the one hand, it was seen as an instrument to bring the family together as one but, on the other, there was almost a sense of fear that it could also ‘wreak havoc’ on the same family, not least because what children and teenagers liked to watch and what parents wanted them to watch were often vastly different to each other.  Spiegel notes that ‘as numerous surveys indicated, youngsters often preferred the programs that parents found unwholesome, especially science-fiction serials and westerns’ (Spiegel, 1992: 57).   These concerns were nothing new, nor were they exclusive to the medium of television, having been debated around film almost since the movies began and, in part, leading to the introduction of the Production Code.  Even this, however, did not stop all concerns.  For example, in 1947 the New York Times reported that ‘crime movies and radio programs offer too many pointers on criminal methods to youngsters, members of the Women’s City Club of New York declared yesterday at an open meeting’ (Anon, 1947: 25).

Despite (or because of) these various arguments, many saw the people they were watching on television as, essentially, being invited into their homes, and therefore they expected them to be on their best behaviour and act as they would expect their own family to act – and not everyone on television was obeying those unspoken rules.  At the very centre of this issue was Milton Berle whose variety show was entitled at the time Texaco Star Theater.  Lynn Spiegel writes that ‘Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater (which was famous for its inclusion of “off-color” cabaret humor) became so popular with children that Berle adopted the personal of Uncle Miltie, pandering to parents by telling his juvenile audience to obey their elders and go straight to bed when the program ended’ (Spiegel, 1992: 57).

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Criticism of Berle’s television shows began in the early 1950s.  Jack Gould (who would go on to be one of the most vocal critics of Elvis Presley in 1956) launched an attack on Berle’s show in the New York Times in September 1951.   ‘Uncle Milty, the self-appointed guardian of the nation’s youth on Tuesday nights,’ Gould writes, ‘is a rather trying relative this season’ (Gould, 1951: 32).  He goes on to accuse Berle of reducing his performance to the ‘one-dimensional plane of the burlesque comedian.’  Speaking of Berle’s various guises during his television appearances, he says ‘the characterization is neither pleasant nor amusing any more and, as executed by Mr. Berle, has a harshness and coarseness which are most unpalatable.’  Perhaps most notable within the article are references to the striptease and the burlesque – terms that Gould would go on to use in relation to Elvis.  He ends his article by writing  ‘Steadily creeping in Berle’s act are routines more generally associated with the runway of the burlesque house than the screen of home TV. … Mr Berle could not resist the temptation last Tuesday [of] prancing around to the accompaniment of the standard theme for a striptease. … Much of the contemporary Berle humor has for its payoff  some reliance directly or indirectly on effeminacy, and already this season the comedian has come through with the inevitable reference to the trapdoor on the long underwear. … Television viewers are not prudes…but Mr. Berle has rather special obligations to TV…with a large children’s audience, [and] he must keep in mind that there are minimum standards he is expected to observe’ (Gould, 1951: 32).

By the time Elvis appeared on what was by then called simply The Milton Berle Show in 1956, Berle’s fortunes had fallen considerable from the early 1950s when he was generally known as ‘Mr. Television.’  Texaco had withdrawn their sponsorship several years earlier following falling ratings, and the show had thereafter gone through format changes, for a time becoming what is best described as a backstage sitcom with Berle playing an exaggerated version of himself, with ‘self-deprecating jokes about Berle the control freak, Berle the egomaniac, Berle the frantic comic’ (Inman, 2006: 18).  When Elvis performed on a special edition of the show from the U.S.S. Hancock on April 3, 1956, as with the Stage Show appearances, reviews were indifferent.  There was certainly none of the outpouring of shock, revulsion and hatred that would follow the June 5, 1956 show – the very last episode of The Milton Berle Show to air.

The Berle show had already been cancelled (and was only airing every three weeks during its final run), and so eyes appear to have been on the programme to see how Berle’s eight-year residency on a Tuesday evening would come to an end.  Elvis performed both I Want You, I Need You, I Love You and Hound Dog.  The latter was a song that he heard performed by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys during Elvis’s largely unsuccessful stint in Las Vegas during late April and early May, and quickly incorporated it into his act.  The performance of the song on The Milton Berle Show was similar to that which he had been giving in concerts for the previous few weeks.  Dispensing with his guitar, television audiences got to the see the gyrations that Elvis’s live shows were becoming famous for.  This would, perhaps, have been bad enough but, for the last minute or so of the song, he cut the tempo in half, upped the ante when it came to his suggestive movements, and treated viewers to what is perhaps best (and most often) described as a ‘bump ‘n’ grind’ routine.  Guralnick states that he ‘goes into his patented half-time ending, gripping the mike, circling it sensuously, jackknifing his legs out as the audience half-screams, half-laughs, and he laughs, too – it is clearly all in good fun’ (Guralnick, 1994: 284).

As we have already learned, there was already concerns about what children and teenagers were seeing on television during this period, and The Milton Berle Show (in its various guises) had already come in for criticism for this.  Now, as Berle was saying goodbye to his television show, with much of America watching, Elvis had turned television into the unwanted ‘monster’ and ‘bad influence’ that much of middle America had been fearing.  Watching Elvis’s performance now allows us to appreciate that the young performer was, as Guralnick suggests, just having a bit of fun – the end of Hound Dog is clearly tongue-in-cheek rather than intending to be viewed as something overtly sexual.  What’s more, Berle’s history of ‘off-colour’ humour during his period as a TV show host only compounded the issue.  There is also the unanswered question of whether Elvis’s half-speed finale to Hound Dog was planned or off-the-cuff.  A surviving live recording from a concert in Little Rock a couple of weeks earlier informs us that this was part of Elvis’s normal act and so, presumably, he would have performed it that way during rehearsals for the television show.  This, in turn, begs the question of why someone didn’t inform him that such a routine wasn’t suitable for television audiences.  Or, perhaps, with it being the last show in the series, no-one cared anymore.

The criticisms came thick and fast.  One of the first and most scathing was Jack Gould in the New York Times who, as we have already seen, had been one of the most vocal critics of Milton Berle’s variety show.  He started by criticising Elvis’s vocals.  ‘For the ear he is an unutterable bore,’ he said, ‘not nearly so talented as Frankie Sinatra back in the latter’s rather hysterical days at the Paramount Theatre.  Nor does he convey the emotional fury of a Johnnie Ray’ (Gould, 1956a: 67).  He went on: ‘His one speciality is an accented movement of the body that heretofore has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blonde-bombshells of the burlesque runway.’  Elvis was essentially being compared to a female stripper but, as we have seen, these are not dissimilar accusations to those that Gould had already made against the Berle show when it was still Texaco Star Theater back in 1951, comparing Berle’s comedy routines to burlesque.  While Elvis’s Hound Dog routine was clearly pushing the boundaries of acceptable taste on television at the time, one also has to wonder, given the past criticisms of Berle and his shows, whether he would have attracted less condemnation had he performed in a similar way on a show hosted by someone else.  Either way, the floodgates had opened, and attacks on Elvis and his performances continued unabated.

Gould didn’t end his tirade on Elvis with the Berle show. With Berle no longer on air, Gould appears to have found in Elvis a new corrupting influence to campaign against.  Picking up again three months later, following Elvis’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Gould wrote that Elvis ‘injected movements of the tongue and indulged in wordless singing that were singularly distasteful’ (Gould, 1956b: X13).  He then launched into a strange and almost hysterical monologue about how teenagers were being failed by society.  He complains that teenagers have too much money in their pocket and that easy access to cars has ‘been accompanied by a lessening of parental control.  Small wonder, therefore, that the teen-ager is susceptible to overstimulation from the outside’ (ibid)  He goes on to blame record companies who have ‘disgraced themselves’ by ‘some of the rock ‘n’ roll songs it has issued.’  He ends his rant with the hope that Elvis ‘will do everyone a favour by pointing up the need for earlier sex education so that neither his successors nor TV can capitalize on the idea that his type of routine is somehow highly tempting yet forbidden fruit…If the profiteering hypocrite is above reproach and Presley isn’t, today’s youngsters might well ask what God do adults worship.’

While Gould might have been the most vocal opponent of Presley in the mainstream American media of the time, he certainly wasn’t the only writer at the time to compare Elvis to a female stripper – and attacks on Elvis’s masculinity were something which continued within newspapers and magazines right through until his death in 1977 and beyond.  Pat Doncaster reminded UK readers in December 1956 that Elvis had been called ‘a male burlesque dancer’ and a ‘male Marilyn Monroe’ (Doncaster, 1956b: 7).

Jane Newcomb, in the same month, repeats the stripper complaint telling us that ‘his wiggles have been variously described as: shagging, jazzing it up and acting like his pants were on fire.  … They are all slang terms for the physical act of love.  And this, most people agree, is what is selling Presley.  Just plain, crude sex’ (Newcomb, 1956: 9).  Newcomb’s article continually refers to sex.  ‘Every girl watching him sees herself as Elvis’ partner in his fantastic writhing orgy,’ she writes.

Newcomb also makes reference to Elvis’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show (NBC, 1956-1960), telling readers that he had been ‘de-sexed’ on the show.  Elvis’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show, on July 1, 1956, is almost as infamous as his one on The Milton Berle Show. Unlike Berle’s show, which was reaching the end of its run, Allen’s was just starting out in a new format that concentrated more on comedy than on variety.  Allen’s humour was also very different to Berle’s.  While Berle was often low-brow, Allen tended to veer more towards satire, and often poking fun at the establishment with it realising.  He presented on his show the ‘new’ Elvis Presley, with Elvis wearing a full dress suit and singing Hound Dog to a real basset hound.  Allen wrote nearly forty years later that ‘When I booked Elvis, I naturally had no interest in just presenting him vaudeville-style and letting him do his spot as he might in concert. Instead we worked him into the comedy fabric of our program. I asked him to sing Hound Dog (which he had recorded just the day before) dressed in a classy Fred Astaire wardrobe – white tie and tails – and surrounded him with graceful Greek columns and hanging draperies that would have been suitable for Sir Laurence Olivier reciting Shakespeare. For added laughs, I had him sing the number to a sad-faced basset hound that sat on a low column and also wore a little top hat’ (Allen, 1992: 172).

Many fans believed that Allen, who had stated on record that he didn’t care for rock ‘n’ roll, was simply making fun of Elvis.  However, Allen was correct when he said that the routine fitted into the ‘comedy fabric’ of the program, and certainly Elvis wasn’t the only performer on the show to be presented in such a way.  When Jerry Lee Lewis kicked his piano stool off-stage during his appearance, it can be seen thrown back on to the stage again (presumably by Allen).

Allen was, in fact, one of the first to jump to the defence of Elvis following the Milton Berle appearance.  Allen had been criticised in the Sarasota Journal for booking Elvis on his TV show, to which he replied:  ‘He has made many TV appearances before the Berle show, all without arousing any hue or cry, so there can be no firm basis for keeping him off TV altogether.  The heart of the matter is that he thoughtlessly indulged in certain dance movements in his LAST TV appearance which a number of people thought objectionable. … When I was a teenager all the adults I knew told me that Frank Sinatra had no talent.  Later I’ve heard it said that Vaughn Monroe had no talent, that Liberace had no talent.  I’m sure the point is obvious’ (Allen, 1956: 2).

Allen’s point, quite clearly, was whether someone had talent or not was not something that could be measured in a definitive way, and that previous teen idols who had been criticised when they came on to the scene were now respected members of the music world and that the same might happen to Elvis (and, of course, Allen turned out to be correct).

Another subject that often arose in articles about Presley at the time was that of his poor background, his upbringing, and his newfound wealth – with the rise from poverty to riches seemingly irking the journalists as much as Elvis’s gyrations.   Many writers of the period seemed to think that somebody from Elvis’s poor background should stay there, and in not doing so, he was punching above his weight or trying to be something he was not.  ‘He’s been criticised for his wild extravagance in buying four cadillacs,’ Jules Archer wrote.  ‘But this seems an understandable spree for a youngster who is now being showered with sudden wealth, but who as a child only saw meat on the table once a month’ (Archer, 1956: 19).

Newspapers, particularly the New York Times, appeared to see this change in financial fortune as pretension.  We can see this coming through most notably if we return to Jack Gould’s attacking piece from just after the Berle show aired.  Gould writes that Presley was ‘attired in the familiar oversize jacket and open shirt which are almost the uniform of the contemporary youth who fancies himself as terribly sharp’ (Gould, 1956a: 67).   Already we can see that the stance is being taken that the singer is a nobody attempting to be a somebody (‘fancies himself as terribly sharp’).  In fact, Gould believes that Presley is only good at the ‘hootchy-kootchy,’ but then adds that is ‘hardly any reason why he should be billed as a vocalist’.

It was almost inevitable that Elvis’s acting in his first movie would be criticised, particularly in the hostile New York Times.  It was, after all, seen as Elvis trying to go legit – here he was trying to prove he was an actor when the newspaper wouldn’t even believe he could be called a singer.  Again, it was being misinterpreted as something akin to pretension or, more simply, another case of Elvis trying to be something he wasn’t. Bosley Crowther’s put-down in his review of  Love Me Tender (Robert D. Webb, 1956) is almost legendary:  ‘The picture itself is a slight case of horse opera with the heaves, and Mr. Presley’s dramatic contribution is not a great deal more impressive than that of one of the slavering nags’ (Crowther, 1956: 22).

It was only with the arrival of G. I. Blues (Norman Taurog, 1960) in 1960 that Crowther would start to give Elvis some slack, and thereafter many Elvis films were given good reviews in the New York Times, particularly the light-hearted musical comedies.  They weren’t, after all, attempts by Presley to be taken seriously as an actor as he was in the 1950s, but seen as an admittance that what he was good for was ninety minutes of fluffy nonsense with nice scenery, a few palatable songs, and pretty girls.  The New York Times were far happier with that; any attempt at being a dramatic actor had gone.  The status quo had been returned.    Elvis now knew his place.

Love Me Tender also got poor reviews elsewhere.  In the UK, The Times thought that Elvis sang with ‘jerks that suggest a species of St. Vitus’s dance and breathlessness natural to the end of a cross-country race’ (Anon, 1956b: 5).  Rather oddly, the anonymous writer also thought there were ‘some pleasant scenes of train hold-ups and robberies!’

While Elvis’s class, aspirations, singing, acting, and even masculinity were under attack, there were still some people that were willing to stand up in defence of the young star.  Jock Carroll, a Canadian writer, came to Elvis’s defence in Weekend magazine with a lengthy article simply entitled I Like Elvis Presley.  ‘The solemn accusation that these old codgers throw at our boy is that he is “selling sex,”’ he writes. ‘Come now, fellows.  Ever hear of Marilyn Monroe, Anita Ekberg, Jane Russell, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eartha Kitt? Or, perhaps in your day, Mae West or Theda Bara?  What do you think the girls have been selling?  Violin lessons?’ (Carroll, J. 1956: 7).  It’s interesting to note that, once again, Elvis was being compared to women and not men.  Carroll could just as easily have listed Valentino, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn.  The meaning would have been the same.

But it was John S. Wilson who was the critic that perhaps made others think again about the musical worth of Presley.  In his lengthy review of Elvis’s second album, he refers to Elvis’s ‘impressive, if sometimes distorted, talent’ (Wilson, 1957: X16).  Elsewhere he praises Elvis’s mastery of the blues in So Glad You’re Mine, Anyplace is Paradise and Long Tall Sally, before stating that between his first and second album there has been ‘an improvement in his diction, in the use he makes of his strong natural voice, and in the thoughtfulness of his presentations.’

Despite the album being released in October 1956, the review was not published until mid-January 1957.  By this point, Elvis had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on three occasions, with his final performance ending with Sullivan patting Elvis on the back and telling him he was ‘thoroughly alright.’  It was the start of the change of public (and critical) opinion towards Elvis.  Sullivan, like Berle had once been in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was treated by audiences as part of the family, invited into their homes each week, but Sullivan had attracted none of the controversy of Berle.  Indeed, Sullivan’s show was possibly the most family-friendly variety programme on television.  If Sullivan thought Elvis was alright, then perhaps he was.

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While the print media didn’t change its mind about Elvis overnight following the endorsement from Sullivan, attitudes towards him and his music softened in general.  That said, it was not all smooth sailing from this point on.  For example, a review of Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957) in the UK referred to it as a ‘dreadful film.  An unsavoury, nauseating, queasy-making film, to turn even the best insulated stomachs’ (Zec, 1958: 11).  Also, not all of the American public were convinced either.  In response to a defence of Elvis by Fred Sparks, letters poured in both for and against Elvis.  ‘Your pal Presley acts like a baby with a handful of blue blades who’s been told to go play in traffic,’ writes one (Sparks, 1957: 12).  While another doesn’t hold back, saying that ‘the joker can’t sing on key.  When he tries his eppiglotis stands out like a jumping frog on account of because frogs croak and it’s an awful strain (sic).  He has a nasty curled lip, a mean eye and those ridiculous sideburns remind me of a hoss-rangler who was hanged a long time ago in Helena, Montana.’

Elvis’ Christmas Album, released in late 1957, was also greeted with contempt and, in some cases, horror, by a number of critics, and a few radio stations banned the playing of any tracks from the record.  However, the often-told story that Irving Berlin was so incensed by Elvis’s version of White Christmas that he and his staff called radio stations imploring them not to play the track, appears, following an in-depth search of trade journals/magazines and newspapers of the time, to be unfounded.  There appears to be no indication in any print media from the time that this ever happened.

Elvis’s transformation in the media from a bad influence on teenagers to ‘thoroughly all right’ was completed when he spent two years in the army, from 1958 to 1960, and then was welcomed home in a TV special hosted by then-establishment figure Frank Sinatra, even allowing the former and current teen idols to tentatively duet together for the one and only time.  This was swiftly followed by the release of the romantic comedy G. I. Blues, the gospel album His Hand in Mine, and singles such as Are You Lonesome Tonight and It’s Now or Never, that reached out far beyond the core Elvis fan base.  The transformation (still a controversial one among some of the fan base) from rock ‘n’ roll performer to family entertainer was complete.

1956 was, without doubt, the most important year in Elvis Presley’s career.  His recordings and television performances within those twelve months have gone down as some of the most important moments in 20th Century cultural history.  While he started out the year by simply causing many to raise their eyebrows, just a two-minute performance of Hound Dog on The Milton Berle Show turned opinions from confusion to outrage.  What is clear, however, when putting this performance into a wider context of television history (and therefore cultural and social history) is that Elvis very much became a scapegoat for those that disapproved of the changes going on around them, from the new technology of television through to the social acceptance (and even the embracing) of less prudish elements of entertainment that came with the new technology and, most importantly, the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll, which would change popular music forever.

 

REFERENCES

Allen, S. (1956).  ‘Steve Allen Defends Appearance of Presley.’  Sarasota Journal, 28 June, p.2

Allen, S. (1992).  Hi-Ho, Steverino! My Adventures in the Wonderful Wacky World of TV.  Thorndike: Thorndike Press.

Anon. (1947). ‘Woman Assail, Defend Effects of Programs on Children, with Changes Suggested.’ New York Times, 7 November, p.25.

Anon. (1949). ‘Television Feared as Foe to Culture.’ New York Times, 3 January, p.21.

Anon. (1956a).  ‘Passing in Review.’ Motion Picture Daily, 14 February, p.8.

Anon. (1956b). ‘Mr Elvis Presley’s First Film.’ The Times, 11 December, p.5.

Archer, J. (1956). ‘Stop Hounding Teenagers.’ True Story, December, pp.18-28.

Atkinson, G. (1956).  ‘Possibilities in the “Pops”.’  Ottawa Citizen, 31 March, p.26.

Barclay, D. (1956). ‘Library Rocks ‘n’ Rolls, and Books Come Later.’ New York Times, 24 May, p.24.

Carroll, J. (1956).  ‘I Like Elvis Presley.’ Weekend, 8 September 1956, p.7.

Crane, L. (1956). ‘Rock Age Idol.’ Daily Mirror, April 30, p.9.

Crowther, B. (1956). ‘The Screen: Culture Takes a Holiday.’ New York Times, 16 November, p.22.

Doncaster, P. (1956a). ‘Do We Want this Shockin’ Rockin’?’ Daily Mirror, 16 August, p.12

Doncaster, P. (1956b).  ‘The Rage of the Year.’ Daily Mirror, 28 December, p.7.

The Ed Sullivan Show. (1956).  TV, CBS. September 9.

The Ed Sullivan Show. (1957).  TV, CBS. January 6.

G. I. Blues, (1960). Film. Directed by Norman Taurog.  USA: Paramount.

Gould, J. (1951).  ‘Radio and Television.’ New York Times, September 28, p.32.

Gould, J. (1956a).  ‘TV: New Phenomenon.’ New York Times, 5 June, p.67.

Gould, J. (1956b). ‘Elvis Presley.’ New York Times, 16 September, p.X13.

Gurlanick, P. (1994).  Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. London: Abacus.

Guys and Dolls. (1955).  Film. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. USA: Goldwyn

Inman, D. M. (2006). Television Variety Shows: Histories and Episode Guides to 57 Programs. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.

Jailhouse Rock. (1957).  Film.  Directed by Richard Thorpe.  USA: MGM.

Love Me Tender. (1956).  Film.  Directed by Robert D. Webb. USA: Twentieth Century Fox.

The Milton Berle Show.  (1956).  TV, NBC.  April 3.

The Milton Berle Show. (1956).  TV, NBC.  June 5.

Jorgensen, E. (1998).  Elvis Presley: A Life in Music.  New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Newcomb, J. (1956). ‘The Ants in Elvis Presley’s Pants.’ Exposed, December, pp.9-11, 55.

Riley, J.W. Cantwell, F.V. and Ruttiger, K.F. (1949).  ‘Some Observations on the Social Effects of Television.’ Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol 13, No. 2, pp. 223-234.

Schoenfeld, H. (1956).  ‘Album Reviews.’ Variety, 14 March, p.50.

Scott, V. (1956).  ‘“Can’t Sing Worth a Hoot’, Elvis Presley Drawls.’ Schenectady Gazette, 7 June, p.26.

Sparks, F. (1957). ‘Why Elvis Fans Howl Like Hound Dogs.’ Movie Teen Illustrated, Summer, pp.10-12.

Spiegel, L. (1992).  Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stage Show. (1956).  TV, CBS.  January 28.

Stage Show. (1956).  TV, CBS.  February 11.

Stage Show. (1956).  TV, CBS.  February 18.

The Steve Allen Show. (1956). TV, NBC. July 1.

Wilson, J. (1956).  ‘Stylists in Jazz.’ New York Times, April 15, 1956, p.131.

Wilson, J. (1957).  ‘Elvis Presley: Rocking Blues Shouter.’ New York Times, 13 January, p.X16.

Zec, D. (1957). ‘Elvis, You’re a Bore!’ Daily Mirror, 16 January, p.11.

[1] Dates given here are for The Milton Berle Show in all its incarnations and covering the various title changes over the years.

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. 

Elvis Presley, Irving Berlin and White Christmas

elvis-presley-xmas-billboard-560

Sometimes a story is told so many times that we believe it without questioning it.  We’re all guilty of it – and it is particularly true when it comes to showbiz stories.  However, in 2015, some of these oft-told tales simply fall to bits thanks to the availability of primary documents such as newspapers, magazines and trade journals through online archives.   Take, for example, the story of Irving Berlin’s apparent anger towards, and hatred of, Elvis Presley’s recording of White Christmas in 1957.  We have been told many times over several decades that Berlin tried to get the recording banned and/or that he tried to persuade DJs not to play it.  But is it really true?

There are a number of myths told and retold about Elvis’s White Christmas recording.  The first of which is that it used the same arrangement as the recording by The Drifters a few years earlier.  While Elvis clearly models part of his vocal on the earlier version, the arrangements are far from the same.

The opening of the Drifters take on the song starts with backing vocals, whereas Elvis’s starts with a basic piano and guitar introduction. The backing vocals continue throughout The Drifters’ version, but Elvis opens the song without backing vocals at all, and the backing vocals on his recording are far more restrained than on The Drifters version. In fact, the work of the backing vocalists in the two versions are VERY different indeed.   In the first run-through of the song, Elvis sings the “may your days” section in a straightforward, traditional manner, but the Drifters do not – they sing this section in the same manner as Elvis’s repeat of this verse.  The Drifters repeat the entire song – Elvis only repeats the second half, this time employing a vocal line very similar to the Drifters.   The Drifters version contains other instruments, such as the use of an organ, for example, and their recording ends rather differently to Elvis’s too.   So, rather than Elvis copying The Drifters arrangement, he simply uses their vocal line for the repeat section.

USA-LPM-1951-A-1959

One story that certainly is true is that the Christmas album received largely negative reviews when it was released.   One writer in the Ottawa Citizen review called the album “a masterpiece of seasonal miscasting,” and that it was “ludicrous and pathetic.”  However, the interesting thing here is that the album isn’t given a poor review by this writer because he or she is shocked by Elvis, but quite the reverse.  “Most of the time,” the review reads, “he’s so hushfully reverent in his approach to these unfamiliar themes that he just isn’t there at all.”

Despite the review in the Ottawa Citizen, the album certainly fell foul of censorship, with certain radio stations banning the playing of the album totally, and others banning White Christmas in particular, with one radio station official in Canada referring to the LP as “degrading” in an interview with Variety on December 4, 1957.   At least one DJ was fired for breaking a ban on playing the album, according to reports (although even this is now debatable).

It is certainly true to say that there are many articles about the album in trade journals and both local and national newspapers in 1957.  So this, surely, is where we can find the first mention of Irving Berlin trying to get White Christmas banned?   No, is that answer to that.  In fact, the story doesn’t seem to appear at all anywhere until 1990 when Laurence Bergreen included the anecdote in his acclaimed biography of Irving Berlin, As Thousands Cheer.   There, we are told that, on hearing the recording for the first time, “he immediately ordered his staff to telephone radio stations across the country to ask them not to play this barbaric rock-and-roll version.”  In the notes for the book, Bergreen lists an interview with Walter Wager as the source of the information.  Wager was a novelist and, later, an executive of ASCAP – and yet there are questions raised here as to how Wager knew this information if he wasn’t with Berlin at the time – and there is no indication that he was.  In fact, this could easily have been a story that Berlin told to him at a later date, and that Wager then repeated in the late 1980s to Bergreen.

The story really entered the Elvis world in 1994 with the release of the CD If Every Day was Like Christmas.  Here, the story from the Berlin book is regurgitated in Charles Wolfe’s liner notes.  Since then, it has been taken as the truth – and why not?   There was nothing at the time to suggest that the story was false, exaggerated or inaccurate.  It has been repeated many times since then, most recently in the liner notes for the FTD edition of Elvis’ Christmas Album  and, yes I admit it, my own book Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide (none of us are infallible!).   We don’t question these stories until something suddenly makes it fall apart – and the thing that makes it fall apart is that there is no mention of it until 1990.

We live in a world now where there are many free online archives of newspapers and magazines, and even more that are not free or only available to researchers and academics.  This allows us to go back and see how things were reported at the time – and that’s exactly what I wanted to do about a year ago.  But there was a problem.  This story, in which one of the most respected songwriters of the 20th Century tried to ban a recording by the new sensation Elvis Presley, was nowhere to be found in these publications.  Not in Billboard or Variety, not in the New York Times or Washington Post, not in fan magazines, not in regional newspapers.   There was/is no logical reason why such a huge story would not have been reported in some (or all) of these publications – unless it never happened.   This would have been big news, and would have been picked up by the trade magazines and journals at the very least.  And we should also remember that Berlin was having more than his fair share of publicity in 1957 because it was the 50th anniversary of his time in show business – even more reason why such a kerfuffle would make the news.

But there was nothing.  Until 1990.

The only source for the story is that interview with Walter Wager that Bergreen used for his book – every other retelling of the story stems from that, not from other witnesses or interviewees.  Sadly, it is a fact that interviewees are often unreliable, and this is something we are discovering more and more now that we can go back and check facts ourselves with relative ease.  Why would Wager twist, exaggerate or lie?  Sometimes, it appears that interviewees tells us what we want to hear, or memories are dimmed and foggy thirty years after the events.  Or perhaps Berlin told him the story and Wager was simply repeating it – and it was Berlin who was exaggerating or fabricating a good tale.  What is clear, however, is that Berlin never did set in motion an attempt to get the recording of his beloved White Christmas banned.

Perhaps there is a nugget of truth somewhere – that, perhaps, Berlin wanted to ring those radio stations but was advised against it, or he thought it would bring too much unwanted attention to the recording, or perhaps the royalty cheques were just too tempting.   We will never know the answers to these questions.  But, thanks to the ongoing digitisation of our recent past, we do know that neither Berlin or his staff made those calls.

Elvis at 80

elvis gun

As the year in which Elvis Presley would have turned 80 draws to a close, perhaps it is a good time to look back at what has been, by and large, a year not just of disappointment, but also of comparative disaster – and all due to Presley’s own music label.

It is certainly true to say that Elvis’s popularity has taken something of a tumble over the last ten years or so.  The early 2000s saw the success of the remix of A Little Less Conversation, the release and commercial success of the greatest hits collection Elv1s (and its sequels), as well as what remains the ultimate release of the Aloha from Hawaii and 68 Comeback TV shows on DVD.  And all of that is without factoring in over a dozen re-release singles reaching the top 5 in the UK in 2005 and roughly the same amount reaching the top 20 in 2007.  After that, however, popularity amongst the general public seemed to wane – it was due to an infectious disease called Presleyitis which is more often than not caused by a record label releasing so many inane and bland items aimed at the general public that they no longer give a damn.

What do I mean by that?  Well, as of 2015, if you go onto Amazon you can have Prime delivery on brand new, unopened copies of around 100 different CD Elvis compilations issued by his own record company – that’s not including the public domain releases.  By compilations, I don’t mean products such as FTDs or the Legacy Edition series, but hits compilations, rock compilations, country compilations, gospel compilations, and our old favourite, Christmas compilations!  100.  And people thought Elvis’s catalogue was a mess in the 1980s!

Meanwhile, the last few years have brought us a series of “Legacy Edition” titles that have nothing in common with Legacy Edition titles by other artists but are, instead, two albums shoved on a double CD with a few singles from the period thrown in.  We also have the Original Album series of 3 or 5 disc boxed sets of original albums.  Again, with other artists these are just fine – nice, budget reissues.  With Elvis, however, we have one set with the same album included twice, one dedicated to movie soundtracks that also includes Pot Luck, and one that includes Viva Las Vegas, which was never an original album in the first place.  Speaking of soundtracks, the 20CD soundtrack box from a year or so ago was a nice idea, but ended up with songs being listed but missed off the CD, incorrect artwork, and other errors.

So, all in all, 2015, the year of Elvis’s 80th birthday didn’t have much to live up to – and could only be an improvement.  Right?  Wrong!

It all started ominously with the Elvis80 release in Germany, which was basically a double CD greatest hits release (because the public really needed another one of those) with a third disc that included such tasty treats as There Ain’t Nothin’ Like a Song and a remix of Shake That Tambourine which somehow turned out to be more embarrassing than the original version.  Oh yeah, and a duet on Love Me Tender with someone we’ve never heard of.

Then came the news that the world had been waiting for – a Legacy Edition release of the Today album.  Now, don’t get me wrong I actually really like the Today LP – but with Legacy Editions supposedly reserved for an artist’s best work, it hardly fit the bill.  And, to make matters even more strange, Sony went back to the original soundboard tapes of some 1975 concerts and reconstructed from scratch, and remastered, a concert released in 1980 that was in itself reconstructed.  They took the time to do this, but on FTD (the collector’s label dedicated to Elvis) they released some historically important concerts from 1956 and 1961 without even trying to improve the sound that had been achieved in 1998 – which in itself wasn’t an improvement on the release from 1980 and 1984.

But still fans held their breath, because they knew there was something coming that would “make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.”  They weren’t kidding.  The culmination of this wonderful year of celebration by Sony turned out to be the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra overdubbed on to Elvis recordings.  Wow.  Just what we always wanted or, in Priscilla’s words, “just what Elvis would have wanted.”

Whoever came up with the idea deserves medals for both blandness and stupidity.  It is not possible to hear what Elvis would have sounded like with a symphony orchestra by placing one on top of his vocals.  If he had recorded In the Ghetto with the RPO he would not have used the same vocal phrasings and techniques that he did with just his core group back in 1969.  The vocal performance would have been very different indeed.  This should not be hard to figure out – well, you’d think, anyway.

And so what happened?  Well, someone arranged the new backings – quite what they were smoking when they were doing so is a mystery, as some sound less like they belong on an Elvis record and more like they’re channelling Debussy and Ravel…while Elvis sings Steamroller Blues, no less. Elvis’s voice on the new album might be crystal clear, but the new backings draw attention to themselves from the opening scratching strings on Burning Love to the closing notes of If I Can Dream.  The most horrendous thing about the entire project is that it wasn’t released quietly.  Oh, no, Elvis’s widow – sorry, ex-wife (it’s easy to get confused) – appeared on talk show after talk show in the UK, Sony publicised the release like mad, and the public went out and bought it, making it #1 in the charts.

This is the worst possible result of such an endeavour.  Firstly, it encourages Sony to make more bizarre, boring and bland releases such as this, and, secondly, it means that those who bought it and were buying their first Elvis album are now unlikely to buy another one.  Ever.  The album succeeds in not just being ludicrous and dull (quite an achievement), but it also even manages to make Elvis’s vocal sound worse than it did to start with on occasion.  Just check out What Now My Love.  The RPO arrangement is bizarre, and Elvis sounds awful.  Double whammy.

And that’s it, folks.  In a year when Sony should have been working like hell to release something wondrous on the back of the publicity created by Elvis’s 80th birthday, they provide us with a year bookended by utter crap releases, with a bit of unassuming country music that no-one really cares about in the middle.  Elvis’s 80th birthday year should have been the moment when Elvis rose in stature once more.  Sony will, of course, say that he did, because cash-tills were ringing and the album was a commercial success.  But at what cost?

Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide is available through all Amazon stores. 

Bobby Darin: A Listener’s Guide – Now available

BOBBY COVER RIGHT SIZE2

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my book Bobby Darin: A Listener’s Guide, which is available in Amazon stores in paperback and Kindle formats.

Bobby Darin made more than 500 recordings during his short lifetime and this book examines all that have been released, from those he made during his short tenure at Decca to performances from the 1972-3 TV series.  The book works through Bobby’s recording career, session by session, song by song, providing a new commentary on the songs and their performances.  Alongside this runs the story of how Bobby and his recordings and performances were discussed in newspapers, magazines and trade journals at the time, referencing over 200 articles.  The book runs to 346 pages, and includes appendices covering a lifetime discography, a list of Darin compositions performed by other artists, the most complete list published to date of Bobby’s television appearances, and more.

Please note that the “see inside” preview feature on the Kindle product page on Amazon currently contains an error involving font sizes (switching back and forth from one to the other).  The book has been downloaded to 2 different Kindle devices, the PC Kindle app, and the Kindle app for Android phone, and the issue is NOT repeated on any of them. Amazon are working on correcting the preview page.

Bobby Darin: The Milk Shows

milk shows

The last in the series of blog posts reviewing Bobby Darin recordings.

March 1963 saw the announcement that Bobby would “be featured in a Monday through Friday program series on Radio Station WIBA.  The program titled Bobby Darin will be heard at 3.33 p.m. and will feature a talk (sic) and music by this young star, designed to appeal to both adults and teenagers – not rock and roll music.  The Bobby Darin show will be sponsored by the American Dairy Association.”[1]

These five-minute radio programmes became known as The Milk Shows.  Darin would record the shows at Capitol studios, and they would then be overdubbed with fake (very fake) applause, thus giving the impression that the songs were being performed live – although how many listeners were fooled is debatable.   The tapes of these shows were found back in 2002, with a trio of songs being released on the Aces Back to Back release in 2004.  After this, there was an inexplicable delay of another ten years before the release of a double CD set containing more than ninety tracks.

If you’re wondering how ninety tracks fit on a mere double CD set, then it’s worth stating that no songs featured in the series was recorded in full (with one exception).  Each song was a bite-size version lasting, in most cases, sixty to ninety seconds.  This in itself makes the release a unique listening experience, but it is also worth remembering that Darin was accompanied by just a jazz quartet featuring Richard Behrke, Ronnie Zito, Milt Norman and Billy Krist – no matter what the song.

The material that Darin chose to record for The Milk Shows cover the whole gamut of his repertoire, from renditions of rock ‘n’ roll hits Splish Splash and Multiplication to a wide variety of standards and show tunes.  Some of the songs had been recorded by Bobby previously for record release, and those numbers often get given a different feel here thanks to the stripped back instrumentation.  Other tracks are ones that Bobby never did record in a studio, and so these versions are the only ones we have.

The recording dates for these shows are unclear.  The news article quoted earlier is from the beginning of March 1963, suggesting that the recordings probably began around the same time.  Whether all tracks were recorded at once or over a longer period is not known, although it’s worth noting that, when Darin draws upon songs he had already recorded, all of them date from studio sessions before March 1963, thus suggesting that The Milk Shows were recorded over a short space of time during that spring and/or summer.  For example, while You’re the Reason I’m Living (and songs from that album) are included here, Eighteen Yellow Roses and songs from that album are not.  There are a couple of exceptions.  Days of Wine and Roses would be recorded in 1964 for the Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie album (in a very different arrangement), and The Sheik of Araby was recorded in late 1965, but remains unissued.  However, Darin dates The Milk Show version of Days of Wine and Roses by referring to it as “this year’s” Academy Award-winning song, thus dating the performance to 1963, but sometime after the ceremony that took place on April 8.

While these recordings are to be welcomed, it should be mentioned that Darin is not always in the best of voice, and certainly doesn’t always give a song the care and attention he would for a commercial recording.  The very first song on the double CD is a case in point.  Too Close for Comfort, from the musical Mr Wonderful, hardly gets the album off to an auspicious start, with Bobby’s voice sounding croaky and he hits a number of bum notes along the way.  Things improve somewhat for Pennies from Heaven, which gets a nice run-through, but the big finish doesn’t quite come off in the way it normally would on a Darin recording.  Part of this is due to the low-key performances, but there is also a sense here that some of the songs simply weren’t rehearsed enough.  Around the World is an example of this.  It gets an upbeat, jazzy rendition but there are points when Bobby lags behind the beat and others where he seemingly makes the melody up as he goes along.

Elsewhere, it seems to be simply a worn-out voice that is the problem.  Climb Every Mountain starts off well, and has a better arrangement than the outing it would receive ten years later on The Bobby Darin Show TV series, but the climax of the song shows that Darin’s voice is shot to pieces.  Perhaps this was one number that should have remained in the vault.  Climb Every Mountain isn’t the only song here that wouldn’t be given a studio recording but would appear years later.  Sixteen Tons was given a brilliant (and lengthy) reworking during an appearance on The Jerry Lewis Show in 1968 and would emerge again on The Bobby Darin Show (although not included on the DVD of that series).

Unsurprisingly, some of the most interesting songs here are the ones that Bobby didn’t record or perform elsewhere.  The choice of material is also intriguing.  A number of tracks are songs associated with Bing Crosby, for example, including I’m an Old Cowhand (during which Bobby can’t resist throwing in some impressions), Sweet and Lovely and Too-Ra-Loo-Ra Loo-Ral which gets crooned nicely in Darin’s softest voice.  Less surprising perhaps are the series of tracks associated with Al Jolson, including April Showers, Rock-a-Bye Your Baby, and Let Me Sing and I’m HappyApril Showers is particularly good, and reminds us just how good a ballad singer he was during this period, particularly when not bogged down by the choir that appears to pop up at every opportunity when the tempo falls below a certain number of beats per minute on the Oh! Look at Me Now and You’re the Reason I’m Living albums.

Some of Bobby’s biggest hits get quite a makeover in this new setting.  Lazy River, for example, is taken at an ultra-slow pace and is given a bluesy vocal that has little of the show-stopping nature of the studio recording. Splish Splash, on the other hand, seems a little bizarre when backed by a jazz quartet, although Dream Lover doesn’t suffer in the same way – in fact it works better here than with the big band on the Darin at the Copa album.  You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby is also heard in a very different arrangement to the hit twist version.  This swing version is just as credible, and makes one wish that Darin had recorded it again in this style at a later date.   Interestingly, Mack the Knife isn’t sung here, but is just used as an instrumental theme tune for the radio show.

It is often the ballads that get given most care and attention by Darin in this set of performances.  For example, Autumn Leaves is given a Latin rhythm and is beautifully sung, and a full studio recording of this lovely song would have been very nice indeed.  Also given a Latin feel and a similar vocal is the song which is, arguably, the greatest written by Irving Berlin, How Deep is the Ocean, as well as Fools Rush In.  The use of these Latin rhythms is interesting as Darin rarely employed them elsewhere, although, going by these brief outings, an album in the bossa nova style would not have been a bad move.  Elsewhere, I’ll Be Seeing You is given a gentle swing rhythm, but Darin sings it as a ballad, mostly singing it in his subdued voice which is most effective.    Also of note is a sincere rendition of La Vie en Rose.  Perhaps the most bizarre ballad performance finds Bobby reciting the lyrics of Days of Wine and Roses while the tune is played in the background.

A number of songs from the mammoth January 1963 sessions appear here.  Hello Young Lovers and This Nearly Was Mine are given renditions similar to their studio counterparts, whereas the arrangements of I Ain’t Got Nobody, Please Help Me I’m Falling and Be Honest With Me are simplified somewhat and benefit from the lack of backing vocals – although Be Honest With Me still sees Darin adding the same mannerisms to his voice as he does on the You’re the Reason I’m Living LP version.  What Kind of Fool am I is given a lightly swinging version here that arguably is more effective than the more traditional performance recorded a few months earlier.  What is particularly interesting is how Bobby approaches the end of the song in a completely different way.  There is no big finish here – instead, he sings the final lines is his softest voice, almost a falsetto, and it is just as effective as the traditional ending.  During the Broadway album sessions, Darin had recorded Tall Hope from the musical Wildcat.  Here he turns his attention to the most famous song from that show, Hey Look Me Over.  The normal march rhythm of the song is cast to one side in favour of a straight-ahead jazz approach, but it all seems a little half-hearted, and isn’t helped by a rather inept and unenthusiastic attempt at scat singing.

Alongside the well-established standards are some of the novelty songs that Darin appears to have had a genuine affection for given that the album of duets with Johnny Mercer is filled with such material.  Here we have Manana, co-written by, and a hit for, Peggy Lee, for whom Bobby often expressed his admiration.  Darin puts in a great performance here, with his voice sounding stronger that on many of the other tracks.  While Manana is fun, a number like Mairzy Dotes and Dozy Doats is an example of a novelty song that is simply tedious.  ‘A’ You’re Adorable gets a nice run-through, as does Row, Row, Row, which includes the verse which is not featured on the recording with Johnny Mercer on the Two of a Kind album.

Ironically, the best song from The Milk Show recordings is All the Way, released on Aces Back to Back but, oddly, not included on The Milk Shows set.  Quite why this lovely performance wasn’t included the second time around is a mystery, not least because it’s the only  full-length performance in the ninety or so songs.  Here, Darin takes a Sinatra signature song, gives it a gentle jazz combo backing and a subdued, beautiful performance that certainly deserved to be the climax of the double CD set.  Strangely, the other two songs from the shows released on the Aces Back to Back CD were reissued on The Milk Shows release.

The double CD release is, of course, wonderful to have, but it can also be rather frustrating.  Much of this is to do with technical issues such as the fake applause and, even worse, Bobby trying to interact with the fake applause.  It all becomes rather distracting, especially when each song only runs for a minute or so.  That said, presumably the applause was already on the tapes when they were found and so couldn’t be removed.  Less forgivable is where songs are joined together in such a way that Bobby is talking over his own singing,  perhaps saying “thank you” to the audience that isn’t there when he’s already started on the next number.  The same happens in reverse, where he’s introducing the next song while still finishing the previous one.  While one can understand why there was a desire to present each CD as one uninterrupted piece, there also seems little reason why songs couldn’t have been re-ordered so that these overlaps didn’t take place.  If that wasn’t possible, then a simple fade out and fade in would have worked better than the jarring mix of two songs together that occasionally happens.  Despite this, it should be reiterated that the sound quality of these tapes that were lost for more than thirty years is very good indeed.

Technical issues aside, the run of more than fifty songs in a space of just over an hour is almost exhausting, and with each song having the same instrumentation in its backing, they tend to run in together as if they were one long medley and thus suffer from becoming aural wallpaper.  Likewise, while Bobby is on very good form in places and gives some fine, nuanced performance, there are also moments where Darin the perfectionist is, seemingly, on holiday.  Back in 1960 in an article in Downbeat magazine, Gene Lees had commented on problems with Darin’s intonation in his early albums of standards.[2]  During The Milk Shows recordings this issue rises again, whether due to a tired voice or the sheer speed required to get everything down on tape.  However, we also need to remember that these were, in all likelihood, intended for a one-off broadcast not to be repeated – and certainly not to be listened to over and over again some forty years later.

What The Milk Shows undoubtedly show us is that Darin should have recorded with a jazz combo more than he did.  The one album that resulted from such a set-up, Winners, is Bobby at his very best, and one can imagine that, with a sensible amount of studio time, a number of the songs performed here could have been recorded in full performances for a follow-up album that would have been just as good.  That, sadly, didn’t happen, and so The Milk Shows CD release is the nearest we have, and for that we should be thankful.

[1] “Bobby Darin Show,” Capital Times, March 2, 1963, 3.

[2] Lees, “Bobby Darin and the Turn from Junk Music,” 16.