Elvis and the Critics, 1976-77

This blog-post is a piecing together of a number of excerpts from the book Reconsider Baby. Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide. It takes the reader through Elvis’s concerts from March 1976 through to the spring of the following year, and concentrates on how these were received by critics and reviewers at the time, as well as the fans’ reaction to some of the negative reviews.

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Despite continued worries about Elvis’s health and state of mind, 1976 saw Elvis embark on what must have seemed like a never-ending touring schedule. The first tour was at least respectable.  Whereas Hurt was the only new song added for the tour, Elvis did at least sometimes pull surprises out of the bag such as Until It’s Time For You To Go and Steamroller Blues.    

At the afternoon show in Cincinnati, Elvis split his trousers (not for the first time) and left the stage to get changed, with J. D. Sumner introducing the band while he did so.  Billy Reed in the Courier-Journal wrote a lengthy column about the show which concentrated on Elvis’s weight rather than his singing abilities.  He quoted a female fans as saying “Lord, he looks like Raymond Burr, his face is so fat.  I came to see Elvis Presley and I get Raymond Burr.”  Elsewhere in the piece, the columnist referred to Elvis as “fat.  Not just overweight, but F-A-T.”  Later he calls him “Moby Elvis,” “the Great White Whale,” and “Whalelvis.”  The following week, numerous letters were published in response to the article, including one telling Reed to “drop dead.”  Despite the splitting of his jumpsuit, Elvis appeared to be in good spirits.  According to the report, when he returned to the stage after getting changed, he brought the ruined garment with him, laughing, and showing the audience the damage, telling them that the jumpsuit he had on now was the last one he had with him and so he needed to be careful.  The evening show, released unofficially, finds Elvis in solid form and giving an enjoyable show, particularly for the period, albeit with a shorter setlist than usual.

For the next six months, the tours continued. Nothing of significance was added to the setlists, except that the band introductions, and instrumental solos that went with them, now lasted ten to fifteen minutes, thus reducing the amount of time that the audience actually got to hear Elvis.  Sometimes there were solo numbers from Kathy Westmoreland and Sherrill Nielsen as well.  On occasion, a show such as that given in Memphis on July 5th would give hints of former greatness, with Variety noting that he had the audience “in his palm” after telling them “it’s the end of our tour and I have as much time as you want tonight.” Mid-show, he shows defiance at his critics, announcing That’s All Right and saying, “I’ve had a couple of people say ‘you can’t do that anymore,’ but by God you watch me.”  It is a surprisingly touching moment as Elvis goes on to sing a spirited rendition of the song, clearly trying his best for his hometown crowd and trying to convince them (and possibly himself) that everything was just fine.  In the end, he was on stage for ninety minutes.  It isn’t classic Presley, but it is Elvis being the best he could be at that point in time, and by the end, as he attempts It’s Now or Never, it is clear that he has used up all the energy he has, and is totally spent. 

Exceptions such as the Memphis show aside, for the majority of the time performances were merely passable at best, and, on occasion, they were disasters, with the singer seemingly half asleep and barely able to speak.  Reviewers and critics couldn’t work out whether to try to overlook the obvious shortcomings, or to voice their disappointment and, on occasions, pity.  Elvis’s performance at Long Beach in April 1976 was described in Variety as “unambitious,” and the singer appeared to be “indifferent.”  Most telling is that the writer states that “the most serious offense is attitude.  Program has remained basically unchanged for years.  Talk to the audience is minimal, while chatting to fellow performers onstage is excessive.”    Meanwhile, a review from the following month in Rolling Stone described Elvis as “weak,” and “that you go to see him as much out of reverence for the past as from expectation for the immediate future.” 

Reviews from the period continually refer to the Elvis of the past, and perhaps that was hardly surprising given the release of The Sun Sessions LP at the time.  Robert P. Laurence asked in a headline if “No Longer Young, Must [Elvis] Still Symbolise Youth,” before taking readers through a list of his achievements before stating  that the “gold record figures for Elvis singles cut off at 1972; that’s the way the Colonel wants it.” Little did the writer know that Elvis didn’t have any gold singles after 1972. A review of a concert in Minnesota also suggests that Elvis and his performances are entrenched in the past:

There’s also a ‘Let’s Pretend’ element to the show.  Let’s pretend that Elvis, dressed in a tight white jumpsuit extravagantly overlaid with rhinestones, won’t really be 42 next Jan. 8, that he doesn’t have a weight problem so serious he had to check into a hospital last year to drop about 30 pounds, and that his predominately female, mainly middle-aged audience is still teen-aged: chewing gum like mad, saying ‘Kid’ in front of each sentence and hurrying home from school to catch American Bandstand…What else for the 41-year-old millionaire, so establishment these days that Richard Nixon made him an honorary narcotics officer, but to parody the Elvis of old, once the epitome of teen-age rebellion and outrageous sexuality?

There is a sadness in some of these pieces of writing that it isn’t still the 1950s, that Elvis is no longer the anti-establishment figure that he once was, and, perhaps more than anything, that the audience members themselves (and therefore the writers) were no longer the same age as they had been twenty years earlier.  For even the kinder critics, seeing Elvis on stage with the added weight, singing songs about divorce rather than the excitement of first love, and tossing off renditions of his early hits with an acknowledgement of just how innocent those lyrics had been in most cases was a constant reminder that nothing remains the same, and everybody gets older, even rock ‘n’ roll kings. 

Meanwhile, there were other critics who were less interested in reminiscing and far more concerned with letting their readers know of the stark realities of the level of Elvis’s performance and his physical condition.  Dale Rice wrote that “an overweight Elvis merely went through the motions of what once must have been a polished performance.  The show lacked enthusiasm, and the only thing that sparkled was Elvis’ costume…Surprisingly, the songs didn’t bring people to their feet.  In fact, the audience response was far less than I had expected it would be.”  Unsurprisingly, the mail bag over the next week was full with fan’s reactions to his review.  However, this time, alongside the angry condemnations of what had been written, others were writing to agree with what Rice had said.  One person wrote “in our opinion your review was a perfect description of the concert.  We were extremely disappointed by that ‘fat, puffy, over-fed’ Elvis Presley.”  Another added “[Rice] reported exactly what we felt and saw at Elvis’ performance,” while Dene Snyder confessed that “Elvis was not much of a showman Sunday night.”  Such comments must have been worrying.  Negative comments from critics was one thing, similar comments from fans themselves was something else entirely.

The final tours of 1976 were, for the most part, an improvement on what Elvis had been delivering in concert during the previous six months.  The Chicago Stadium FTD release, containing the concerts from October 14th and 15th finds Elvis slimmer, sounding somewhat rejuvenated, and giving more controlled, careful vocals than earlier in the year.  In late December, another short tour would also find Elvis in good form, culminating in the famous New Year’s Eve show in Pittsburgh that was, to all intents and purposes, Elvis’s last great show.  In between the October and December tours were rather more routine efforts both on the road and in Las Vegas, with Elvis betraying signs of being bored and tired with the latter.

One thing that stands out during the reviews of these shows (and those during the first months of 1977) is the way critics talk about Elvis’s age.  Elvis was only in his early forties, and yet he is talked about as if he is much older.  “If Elvis is 41 years old, his voice doesn’t reflect it,” wrote Pat O’Driscoll in the Nevada State Journal.  Another writer asks if you can be “sexy at 42 with a weight problem.”  Elvis is being talked about as if he is in his sixties rather than his forties.  Perhaps this is, at least in part, because he had been in the public eye for such a long time, or maybe the reporting of health problems for the last four years had contributed to this somewhat twisted view of his age and what should be expected from him. 

If there had been an upswing in performance quality in late 1976, then it had disappeared by the first tour of 1977.  There are signs that he is still trying, not least by the inclusion of such rarities as Reconsider Baby, Moody Blue, Release Me, and Where No-one Stands Alone.  However, if the mind was willing, the flesh was weak, and the performances are marred by Elvis sounding out of breath and tired, and his speech slurred. 

With four tracks still needed for the next album, and Elvis unwilling or unable to take part in studio sessions, producer Felton Jarvis had no choice but to record Elvis on tour in the spring of 1977, in the hope that a previously unheard song would enter the repertoire.  Despite weeks of recording, only three new songs would be caught on tape.

Unchained Melody had been a part of Elvis’s live repertoire for a few months.  The performance featured Elvis playing the piano, something he only rarely did in concert.  The finished recording is stunning.  It presents Elvis in total command of his craft, with his voice sounding better than during most recordings from this period.  The almost rhapsodic arrangement works well and is grandiose without being totally over-the-top.  However, much of the magic of the recording was created after the event through the overdubbing process.  The original undubbed recording is surprisingly ragged.  For once, the overdubs had improved the original recording dramatically.

Little Darlin’ is a throwaway version of the 1950s hit for The Diamonds.  While this might have been fun in concert, and would have been suitable for a live album, the jokey performance had little place on the regular album where it ended up. 

The final song released at the time was If You Love Me (Let Me Know), a rather innocuous song that had been recorded by Olivia Newton John.  Let Me Be There had been a fun and infectious addition to the repertoire a few years earlier, but If You Love Me is not such good material, and Elvis’s performance (and the arrangement used) adds nothing to the subpar material. 

All three songs would end up on the Moody Blue LP, released in June 1977.  Despite the difficulties in putting it together, the album was a decided improvement over From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee – even the artwork was classier.  It remains a surprisingly enjoyable album that paints a rather positive portrait of Elvis in his final years.  Even so, Robert Hilburn was correct in saying that “no one in pop is operating as far beneath his potential as Presley.”  Dave Marsh was even less impressed, referring to the album as being “within a track of the worst piece of garbage Elvis ever recorded.”  Unsurprisingly, those who reviewed the album after Elvis’s death saw it differently.  Wiley Alexander wrote “there is not a bad song on the album.  It is one of Elvis’ best, and that’s saying a lot…It is full of class, but so was Elvis.”

Despite the pleasant Moody Blue album, Elvis’s concerts were getting more and more problematic.  A whole CD was released on the FTD label of the recordings made during the spring tours, and the quality of performance is often shocking, with Elvis struggling for breath and mumbling his way through songs. Something as straightforward as Lawdy Miss Clawdy had become laboured, and it is hard to believe that this is the same singer who had powered his way through the gospel-tinged arrangement in the Memphis concert just three years earlier.   Bridge Over Troubled Water finds Elvis struggling with his vibrato and veering out of tune throughout the performance.  Meanwhile, the Mystery Train/Tiger Man medley sounds utterly lifeless.  Also noteworthy are the slowed down arrangements, making the overall sound remarkably bare at times

His appearance was getting worse, as were the reviews.   Fans, however, still stuck by their man.  Greg Oatis, in the Toledo Blade, wrote a decidedly unfavourable review of Elvis’s concert in Toledo on April 23, 1977 (the night before Unchained Melody and Little Darlin’ were recorded).  He referred to the singer as a “parody of his past performances,” and said that several couples sitting near him in the audience left early, “evidently disappointed.”  He states that Elvis was a “little pudgy,” and that “the only standing ovation he got was when he quit singing.”

The next day, a new article appeared in the newspaper saying the review had stirred a “hornets’ nest of fans.”  It says that the objections were to Oatis writing that Elvis “has a bulge around his waist, that he can’t play the guitar, that he mumbles at times, and that the old pelvis movement isn’t what it once was.”  Interestingly, he also says that none of the callers said those comments were inaccurate, but “all said it was unfair to write those things about Elvis, and if he read them he would never come back to Toledo.”

This, however, wasn’t enough.  A week later, the newspaper printed eight letters from unhappy fans.  One wrote that “Elvis in Toledo was an honor.  Mr Oatis’ article was an embarrassment.”  Another thought the review was “thoroughly disgusting.”  Someone also thought that the article dealt “with the writer’s personal opinion of…Presley.”  Clearly this fan didn’t realise that a personal opinion was the whole point of a review.

Despite all of this, the poor reviews kept on coming.  After a concert on April 27th, Damien Jaques wrote: 

The greatest superstar doesn’t get lost in the middle of a song and have the band start over.  He doesn’t carry sheets of paper on stage because he doesn’t know the lyrics to a song, and then ask the audience to forgive him if he makes a mistake.  He doesn’t mumble and swallow lyrics, sing so softly that he can’t be heard and play almost exclusively to the few rows in front of the stage.  And the greatest superstar doesn’t walk off stage after 70 minutes of all of this, failing to return for even one encore.

Despite the fact that Elvis was clearly struggling, a deal was inexplicably struck for him to record an in-concert TV special in June 1977. It would provide a sad final chapter to Elvis’s career.


Harry Connick Jr: True Love. A Celebration of Cole Porter (CD Review)

There is good news for Harry Connick Jr fans: his new album, a tribute to the songs of Cole Porter, is his best work since Songs I Heard, released in 2001.  In truth, it doesn’t have much competition in that regard, because, after that album, Connick took a series of disappointing musical detours.  First, he recorded easy listening albums that were one thing that Connick had never been: dull and boring.  Then, he revisited the funk sound of some of his 1990s albums (which I never had an objection to), but the resulting album, Smokey Mary, seemed half-hearted and even regurgitated tracks from Star Turtle to make up its rather meagre running time.  Then there were forays into country(ish) and pop.  By this time, I had stopped buying Connick albums.  Listening to the tracks on Youtube or a streaming service showed me quite clearly that he had given up on the music that made him famous, and therefore I gave up on him. 

Until now.

True Love is a brilliant return to form, and his first release after changing labels to Verve.  It is unclear just what made Connick revert back to his earlier style, but it is most welcome, and from the opening bars of Anything Goes many Connick fans (and maybe ex-fans) will give a collective sigh of relief – because this actually sounds like a Harry Connick Jr album.  The wonderful thing about Harry’s earlier albums such as Songs I Heard or Blue Light Red Light, is that the arrangements on them were both slightly wacky and instantly recognisable as Connick’s.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that Connick’s writing for a big band had a style just as recognisable as Nelson Riddle or Gordon Jenkins had.  Luckily, the new album doesn’t see any attempt to change that style or to tone it down.  If you loved Come By Me, released some twenty years ago, then you will love this.

There are many highlights.  For example, the album opens with Anything Goes, with the big band sounding just as it would have done in Connick’s heyday.  Vocally, Connick sounds younger than he has done for years.  Sure, the voice is a bit darker, and the vibrato slightly wider, but he’s not a twenty-year-old anymore. What shines through this opening number, though, is that he sounds unshackled – and perhaps he is.  There is a sense here that a decision has been made to give up on trying to be commercial and reaching out to a wider audience, and of a musician just doing what he wants – and, in this case, it means using some slightly racy alternate lyrics about Grandma going clubbing, extra-marital affairs, and nudist parties.

I Love Paris is even better, with the orchestration and arrangement seemingly influenced by what would have been heard at the Cotton Club in the late 1920s or early 1930s.  The chorus taken up by the clarinet seems to cross that early Ellington sound with gypsy jazz, but soon (perhaps too soon) the baton is passed to saxophone, trumpet, bass, piano, drum, and finally trombone solos (with Lucien Barbarin as the guest trombone soloist). 

For anyone who has seen Connick live, or who owns the 20, 25, or 30 albums, it is wonderful to have a number here that spotlights his piano playing.  Begin the Beguine is bookended by a solo piano rendition of the song, with the band taking centre stage for the central section.  This isn’t as epic a piano solo as the ten-minute Avalon on the Swinging Out Live video, but the style and sound is the same – and one wishes that the decision had been made to make the whole track a solo.  As it is, with this being the only number without a vocal, it serves as a timely interlude before he swings his way through the remaining four songs.

Of those, True Love and You’re Sensational are the second and third songs here to be pulled out from the soundtrack to High Society (Mind If I Make Love To You was the first), but it’s the album’s finale, You Do Something To Me, which works best out of this final batch of numbers, as Connick’s arrangement has a kitchen-sink approach throwing in influences from his Sinatra-style vocal through to Latin and New Orleans elements in the orchestration. 

One can only hope that this is (in the words of Steve Allen) the start of something big.  It’s just a shame that it has taken so long to persuade Connick that this is what he should be doing.  It is understandable, of course, that artists do want to try new things and go down different avenues (I’ve written a book on Bobby Darin, and if anyone highlights that approach to a music career, it’s him), but the problem with that is that artists now make one album every three years rather than three albums every one year – and you can lose your core audience if you abandon them for years at a time.  Given his tour celebrating New Orleans last year, and now the new big band album, the stars seem to be aligning for Connick to make a musical comeback.   

Eddie Izzard at Norwich Theatre Royal: Review

The fact that Eddie Izzard is even coming to a relatively small theatre such as the Theatre Royal in Norwich instead of performing at arenas as he has done in the past, is perhaps a clue that he doesn’t have the audience pulling power that he once had. Or perhaps I could be generous and assume that he simply wanted to reach as many people as possible on this, his final tour before he attempts to become an MP.

Anyone who has seen the DVDs of his stand-up shows from the last eight years or so will know that he has lost his mojo a little. He doesn’t tell jokes as he’s not that type of comedian, and while his bizarre, off-on-a-tangent imagination was funny twenty years ago, it has become stale now, and his one-man sketches have now become so ridiculously long that they are stretched to breaking point and seem self-indulgent. (Talking of self-indulgent, I have never know a programme at a Theatre Royal show costing £10! And no, I didn’t).

For someone of my age that’s rather sad, for Izzard was THE comedian for me and my friends around the time I left home when I was in my early twenties. The VHS tapes (yes, that long ago) of Live at the Ambassadors and Unrepeatable were treasured and watched time and time again, and each time we laughed uproariously at the thoughts of cats drilling behind the sofa or wondering why people being chased by daleks simply didn’t go up some stairs which the daleks couldn’t get up. It was perfectly normal and common to quote Izzard in conversations, just as previous generations had quoted Monty Python. He reached his peak with the Glorious, Definite Article, and Dressed to Kill tours (on DVD), and then the sheen seemed to rub off a little and later efforts didn’t have the same sparkle.

In the first half of the show tonight at the Theatre Royal, there was certainly some of the magic of the early days. Not Izzard at his very best, but he had interesting things to say and he kept the performance moving along at a fair lick as he discussed William the Conquerer and why, if God created all living things, how come no animals other than humans pray. It was the second half where it fell to pieces, and it became a self-indulgent bore for much of the time – and even if Izzard isn’t always funny, he’s rarely been dull. Jokes and mimes were extended for far too long, and the performance seemed to lack shape. The final section, on Lord of the Rings, just ended suddenly with no great hilarious finale, and then it was “good night,” and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience thinking, “oh? that’s not an ending.” And it wasn’t, for he came back for an encore about space which was a damp squib, too. The same feeling occurred at the end of the first half, where he simply announced an interval at a time when he just seemed to be getting into his stride. It was almost as if he had a clock on stage, and the show was being run by that rather than being driven by the material. The issue of jokes and mimes being dragged on for too long has been raised by critics for quite a while now, and one wonders why some of those criticisms haven’t been taken on board.

With Izzard soon running to be an MP, the show would probably have been better if he got serious for a while and told the audience why he was doing that, what got him into politics, and what he thought of current politics. Just as when he, rather surprisingly, talked about the death of Princess Diana in one of his heyday shows, he doesn’t have to try to be funny in order to be interesting. There were indications he might go down that route when he briefly turned to his marathon runs, and the passing of his parents, but soon we were back to how Pingu might tell Bible stories. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that two of the biggest laughs were when Izzard told us traditional jokes told to him by his ninety-year-old dad.

All of that said, it was enjoyable (especially the first half), and I’m certainly glad to have seen Izzard in person and the audience seemed to lap it up – but whether that was because he was hilariously funny or whether it was because he was simply Eddie Izzard, is up for debate. There was a standing ovation from many in the audience at the end, but it felt less like an audience showing appreciation for a comedian at the peak of his powers, and much more like an audience paying tribute to, and giving support for, a man who has rightly become a national treasure and with whom fond memories of youth are attached.

Doris Day

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Doris Day, who passed away this weekend, had the rather unusual position of being one of the most beloved, and yet underrated, acting and singing stars of the Twentieth Century.

She is remembered first and foremost by many as the lead in the fluffy romantic comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s that paired her with Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, and James Garner.  But those films were just the tip of the iceberg of her achievements.  Well-made and well-performed though they are, they give little indication of what a great actress Doris Day really could be when she was given material worthy of her talents.  Many will cite as one of her best the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which she introduced the hit song Que Sera Sera – but even that doesn’t contain a performance as good as Love Me or Leave Me, Young Man with a Horn, or Julie.  And she wasn’t afraid of courting controversy such as in 1951’s Storm Warning, a Warner Bros social conscience film primarily about the KKK, a movie with a final reel that is still shocking today, and one can only wonder how it got past the censors at the time.   And it’s worth reminding ourselves of just how popular she was on the screen – she won the Laurel award for top female star every single year between 1957 and 1964 inclusive.

But it is her musical achievements that seem forgotten partly thanks to her on-screen stardom.   Her string of albums for Columbia from the late 1940s through to the mid-1960s contained mostly first-class renditions of songs from the Great American Songbook.  She wasn’t always paired with arrangers of the quality used by the like of Sinatra, but her thoughtful interpretations of the material nearly always made one forget that.  Every word was crystal clear, and if any female songstress was going to compete with Frank Sinatra when it came to the intelligent reading of lyrics, then it was Doris Day.  Take a look at Mean to Me from Love Me Or Leave Me, as she sings the song with her abusive husband (James Cagney) in the night-club audience.  No histrionics, very little volume, just absolute perfection.

Her best known hits were pure pop, but her best recordings found her adding jazz inflections into her interpretations.  What Every Girl Should Know is an album with a horrible title and cringe-worthy liner notes, but try and find a better vocal rendition of Mood Indigo by Duke Ellington than the one tucked away on that little-known album.

A year or so after that was recorded, she finally got the chance to do a full-blooded jazz album, paired with pianist Andre Previn (who we have also lost this year).  It was called simply “Duet,” and it remains one of the best jazz vocal albums ever recorded, and how it didn’t get recognised at the Grammy’s that year is anybody’s guess.  Day and Previn proved to be a dream team, complimenting each other beautifully, and while the album concentrated mostly on ballads, the up-beat jazz numbers were a delight.  The version of Close Your Eyes that opens the album may well be the very best recording of Day’s career, and her treatment of Fools Rush In is simply stunning.

Sadly, though, Duet wasn’t the commercial success that might have been hoped for, and Day’s later albums, while good, never really hit the mark in the same way as the pre-Duet album had done.  There was an awful religious album, a Christmas album, a kids album – pretty much everything but the albums of great standards that she should have been singing.   In 1965, she recorded Sentimental Journey, an album of songs associated with her big band days of the 1940s, and that rather apt release which took everything back to where it started for Day, was her final album release for three decades.  In 1994, a set of songs recorded in 1967 was released, and in 2011 came My Heart, a hugely successful issue of some songs that she had (mostly) recorded for her TV series in the 1980s when Day was in her mid-60s.   Any notion that she might have retired in the 1960s because of a failing voice was blown out of the water with this album, with Day (aged 89) the oldest person to have a hit album in the UK charts with a record of new material.

Sadly missing from that album was her wonderful 1985 reunion with the band of Les Brown, with whom she had worked in the mid-1940s.   One watches the video and wonders whether there really is something in those eyes that says “I’ve missed this.”  Whether or not she had  missed it, we shall never know – but one thing is for certain: we had missed her.  Her retirement from music in the 1960s deprived the world of so many more wonderful albums that, no doubt, we would still be listening to today.

But the 1960s had been a changing time in the music industry, especially for artists like Doris Day.  By the end of the decade, Sinatra was announcing his retirement, Ella Fitzgerald was without a stable recording contract, Bobby Darin had become “Bob” and was recording protest songs, Julie London and Jo Stafford had both effectively retired, and many jazz musicians who had made their mark in the 1930s and 1940s were musically homeless until Norman Granz came to their rescue with the Pablo label in the 1970s.

Despite attempts to lure Doris Day out of retirement, she couldn’t be tempted.  Only a short-lived, low-budget TV show entitled Doris Day’s Best Friends got her back on screen, where she was visited by human friends, but mostly it was about sharing her canine ones.

And now, aged 97, she has passed away.  Tributes are pouring in, as they should.  No doubt her films will be shown on TV in the coming week from Calamity Jane through to A Touch of Mink and maybe even a thriller like Midnight Lace.  Move Over Darlin’ and other hits will be played on the easy listening radio stations.

But take time out, if you can, to dig that bit deeper and listen to some of what I think was probably the real Doris Day – the superlative singer of jazz ballads both on screen and on record.  And, while you go hunting, here’s Doris in 1975 from the second of her two TV specials singing perhaps one of the most fitting songs for this occasion.  This was her final network TV special and a fitting and dignified end to her entertainment career.

Review: The Birth of the Blues (1941)

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The Birth of the Blues should perhaps be called The Birth of Jazz, or perhaps even more appropriately, The Birth of Jazz According to Hollywood.  If you want to know just why this film from 1941 is problematic in 2019, just check out the last sixty seconds, where the audience is informed that Louis Armstrong learned jazz from an all-white, middle-class jazz band.  Armstrong appears (for two seconds, literally) in a montage of the great jazz musicians of the age, of which only he and Duke Ellington are African American.  The really great jazz musicians of the early 1940s were apparently Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, and George Gershwin.

The films charts the rise to fame of a group of jazz musicians headed by Bing Crosby.  It is a loose re-telling of the story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose claim to fame were that they were the first group to record jazz, back in 1917.  This claim to fame is pretty much glossed over in the film, which seems a little odd considering it should perhaps be the climax of it.  Instead, the film concentrates on how the group popularised jazz in New Orleans polite society and how they worked to take their new music to the rest of America.

It’s hard to know whether to be completely offended by the whole endeavour, or to allow yourself to be charmed by the effortless performances by Bing Crosby and Mary Martin.  But for every good performance, the film presents us with a racial stereotype or a rewriting of history.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, but this movie seems to be more problematic than most from the period, if only due to its endless endeavour to whitewash history.  There are the occasional moments when the film tells us that African Americans might just have had something to do with the beginnings of jazz – in the rather cute prologue (see below) and where Eddie “Rochester” Anderson teaches Mary Martin how to jazz up a Tin Pan Alley number – but they are few and far between.

Musically speaking, many of the songs are Tin Pan Alley numbers rather that jazz as such, but Bing Crosby and Mary Martin sing beautifully and work very well together on screen.  However, the best number in the film is a wonderfully staged and arranged St. Louis Blues, sung by Ruby Elzy and a chorus. Unfortunately the sequence from the film is not on YouTube, but a performance from a radio appearance from the time is, although it is not as good:

The current DVD of the film runs around eight minutes shorter than the given run time on the internet, and so it may be possible that it is slightly edited for whatever reason.  Picture and sound are very good.  The film was released in the UK on DVD as a double bill with Blue Skies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Harron: Griffith’s Boy Bobby

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This is a rather poignant interview with Robert Harron from 1918, and first published in Photoplay in April of that year.   This vintage article is included in Silent Voices: Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities, available in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon.

Griffith’s Boy – Bobby

Harron, the Screen’s Premier Juvenile.  “The Boy” in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance

Author: Elizabeth Peltret

 (Photoplay: April, 1918)

One of the most effective scenes in The Birth of a Nation is a quiet one; a scene without a trace of “dramatic punch,” but it remains vividly in your memory after many a more spectacular scene is forgotten.[1]  It is the meeting of the two boy chums in a sleepy little Southern town before the war.  They poke each other in the ribs, chase into the house, dodge around the furniture in the big hallway, and run upstairs, their arms around each other’s shoulders.  “Everyone” says of this scene that it doesn’t look a bit like acting.  Then, too, the light-heartedness of it, and the peacefulness of the little town, are in poignant contrast to the battle scene where the two boys meet again only to die in each other’s arms.  The Southern boy (Bobby Harron) crawls over to his Northern chum, and puts his arm about him.  It looks as if they are tired from too much play and are just going to sleep for a while.

Since the making of the Griffith masterpiece, Bobby Harron has seen a great deal of battle and sudden death.  Last year he was in Europe with D. W. Griffith, and Lillian and Dorothy Gish, making war scenes for the great director’s next picture.[2]  One can only surmise the number of times he must have been called upon to die, or nearly die – the story may have a happy ending – but it is possible that he is killed or wounded in this war, counting rehearsals, innumerable times.  Also, he has seen real danger, and real history in the making – among other things the arrival of General Pershing and his staff in Europe, for the Griffith party went over on the same ship – and yet with all this, he seems just the same fun-loving boy he looks to be in The Birth of a Nation.  But underneath is a keen knowledge of human nature and an equally keen sympathy.  He seems more interested in people than in events.  In discussing the war, he said more about the effect it would have on individuals than about anything else concerning it.  For example, soldiers themselves:

“It’s going to be just as hard for a lot of the fellows to come home from the war as it was for them to go,” he said.  “They’ve changed a lot, of course, the fellows who used to work in stores, and offices, and factories.  They’ve made new friends; they’re heroes – members of the military caste, you know.”  He mentioned Service’s poem, The Revelation:[3]

The same old sprint in the morning, boys, to the same old din and smut,

Chained all day to the same old desk, down in the same old rut;

Posting the same old greasy books, catching the same old train:

Oh, how will I manage to stick it all, if I ever get back again?

Don’t you guess that the things we’re seeing now will haunt us through all the years;

Heaven and hell rolled into one, glory and blood and tears;

Life’s pattern picked with a scarlet thread, where once we wove with a grey,

To remind us all how we played our part in the shock of an epic day?

 “But that won’t apply so much to the moving picture actor.  We’re funny people!  We have plenty of time evenings and between scenes, and yet we hardly ever learn anything outside our work.  Most of the fellows who go from the film will have to begin all over again, when they come back, even if they aren’t maimed or crippled.  There are quite a few moving picture actors and it’s not a bit hard to forget them.”

Probably very few persons have thought of this phase of the subject.  If there were only a few of the “thin red ’eroes” it would not make so much of a difference.  But in this war the individual is lost in the great throng of men who, while their praises are sung today, will have to come back later when the tumult and the shouting has died and people are speaking in prose again.  Nearly every young man who goes to war sacrifices something in a business or professional way, but there is before him the chance to win, in a brief time, a degree of fame that otherwise it would take him years to gain, and, whether he wins distinctive military honors or not, his war record will give him preferment and a sort of distinction.  But the motion picture actor who has won any marked degree of success is known the world over.  If war takes him away for a year or two, he must look forward to the probability that when he comes back his name will have been virtually forgotten, not only by the public but by managers as well.

Although he did not mention the fact himself, the war will possibly cost Bobby Harron much in those things everybody wants – success, income, material security and a foothold on the ladder that leads to fame.  For he has been drafted, too, and is only on leave of absence.  Although so serious a matter to him, he turned it off with a characteristic story.

“I heard of a fellow who went to a dentist and had all his teeth pulled before going up for examination.  The examining officer looked him over and said, ‘You’re exempt; you have flat feet.’

“I tell you what,” Harron said with quiet sincerity, “I’d rather leave my family, my friends, my work and my club forever – I’d rather die right now – than to be told I wasn’t wanted because my health was not good enough.  To know – absolutely know – that you are not physically fit would be worse than to go through a hundred wars.”

Although he is very slight, his clear eyes and skin and the impression he gives of buoyant vitality would seem to indicate perfect health.

“It’s a case of sooner or later with me,” he said.  “I am going when we finish this picture.  The other day, Mr. Griffith said, ‘Well, Bobby, I guess you’ll be glad when we finish these scenes,’  ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘get them right, if it takes ten years.’”

Bobby laughed heartily at the recollection.  It seems that the unexpected answer so surprised Mr. Griffith that he looked almost petrified, but presently a light dawned.  “I gotcha,” said the great director, “the longer we take on these scenes, the longer you live.”

“That wasn’t what you might call an especially encouraging remark to make, now was it?” remarked Bobby.

Bobby Harron has been in the pictures since 1907, when he was fourteen years old.  He started in with the old Biograph company in New York.

“I was going to a parochial school,” he said, “and one day, I asked the Brother to let me know the next time he heard of a place for a boy.  A little later the Brother sent me around to the Biograph studio.  The man in charge was named McCutcheon; his son, Wallie, is now a major in the English army.[4]  He asked the usual questions, and the upshot of it was that I went to work in the cutting room at a salary of five dollars a week.  After I had been working in the cutting room about two months, he took me out and gave me a small part in a picture.  It was a comedy named Dr Skinnum (sic).[5] Anthony O’Sullivan was in it, I remember, the same Tony O’Sullivan who is now in charge of the “lot” over at Mack Sennett’s.  I remember thinking at the time that there was no future in that kind of work for a young fellow, and that as soon as I could I’d go and get another job.  But I never did.  I kept on when Mr. Griffith took charge; came with him to California, and have been with him ever since.”

His first leading part was in a picture called Bobby’s Kodak.[6]

“This picture gave me my first big joy in life, because it gave me the chance to be the kind of kid I had wanted to be in my dreams, but had never had the chance to be in real life.  My oldest brother and I had always had it in us to be little devils, but we lacked the teamwork of the Katzenjammers.  We always took it out in fighting to see which one was going to play the lead.  For instance, I’d come to him and propose that I play hookey and fix up a nice little story for him to tell the Brother, but he’d say, ‘Well, I don’t see why I can’t play hookey and you tell the story to the Brother,’ and so it would end by neither of us playing hookey.  It was that way with every bit of mischief we tried to do – we were great chums” there was no pause but a hurrying on of speech – “he’s dead, now – killed two years ago in an automobile accident.”

Bobby comes from a family of ten children and is the oldest of seven living; five sisters and one brother, all in school but one sister.  One brother, aged 14, has appeared in a picture with Louise Huff.

“Oh, he’s a comer, all right!” said Bobby.

Speaking of his trip to Europe, one of the first things he mentioned, referring to it with an air of tremendous pride, was that they went over with General Pershing and his staff, “taking the same high place in French history that is given to Lafayette in American history.”

“Of course the fact that the general and his staff were to accompany us was supposed to be a deep and dark secret of state.  It was quite some secret.  The first I knew of it was two days before we sailed.  I was walking down a New York street, when a fellow I knew stopped me, took me aside, and looking around to be sure there was no one who could overhear him, whispered, ‘I’ll tell you something if you’ll promise me not to tell anyone.’ Of course, I promised, and he said in a slightly lower whisper, ‘You’re going over with General Pershing and his staff.’

A little later I met a man who had booked with us for passage.  ‘Heard the news?’ he asked.  ‘No,’ I said.  ‘What is it?’ ‘General Pershing is to sail with us, but for goodness sake, don’t tell anybody.’

“After that, knowing it would make Mother feel easier to know that every care would be taken of General Pershing, I decided to tell her that he would be with us.  I knew she wouldn’t say anything about it, but nevertheless my conscience troubled me a little until just as we were going aboard, with a lot of dock hands within easy hearing distance, someone yelled at the top of his voice to a friend at the foot of the gang-plank, ‘Hey, who do you think’s on board – General Pershing!’

“Yes, it was quite some secret.”

For Bobby seasickness was not one of the horrors of war.  “I didn’t get really seasick at all,” he said, “because every time I felt there was any danger of it, I went to bed and stayed there until I felt right again.  I didn’t get up at all for the first three days out – not because I was really sick, but because the roll of the ship bothered me a little and I wasn’t taking chances.”

Speaking of taking chances, he had only been back in Los Angeles about a week when he went with a party on a little two-hour trip to Catalina Island; a trip that is nearly always disagreeable and choppy.  Everyone on board was sick – everyone, that is, with the exception of three passengers, and he was not one of those three.  He admitted that he was so sick he wanted to die and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he has been kidded to death about it ever since.

“A lot depends on what you happen to be in,” he said in explanation.  “We went over to Catalina in a launch.  And when it’s choppy on the li’l old Pacific and you’re in a launch, you know it.  There may be more roll on the Atlantic, but then the ship we went on was as big as this –” his gesture embraced the whole Los Angeles Athletic Club where he lives.

“Not to change the subject at all,” he went on, “we landed at Liverpool and I, for one, went through a regular third degree.  And I knew that one wrong answer would result in my being shipped right back again.  Most of the questions were posers.  For instance, I was asked if I had been invited to come or had come of my own accord.  I took a chance and answered that Mr. Griffith had send for me.  It turned out to be the right answer.  If I’d said that I had come of my own accord, they would have ended the interrogation right there.  Then I was asked why Mr. Griffith had sent for me and not for someone else?  Was I, then, absolutely indispensable to Mr. Griffith, and, if so, why?  Couldn’t someone already in England do the same work I was brought over to do?  Why not – it was awful.

“Of course, I knew that women were doing everything in England.  But one thing that gave me a shock, was that, just as we stepped off the train in London, a young woman ran up to me and, touching the little visored cap she wore, said, ‘Carry your grip, Sir?’

“Coming back, the ship we were on was camouflaged – painted in green and grey blotches to make it indistinct – and exactly the same secrecy was observed as we had going over.  For instance, whenever we mentioned the name of the ship, even to each other, it was always in a whisper.  We didn’t even know exactly when we were to sail until almost the last minute.  When I went to see about my passport, the room was full of people, so when the official asked me the name of the ship I was going to sail on, I leaned across his desk and whispered, ‘Adriatic.’ ‘ADRIATIC’ he bawled in a voice loud enough to carry a block.  ‘When does she sail?’”

He made a valiant attempt to curl the ends of a very diminutive moustache.  He was able to get hold of it, and that was about all.

“How do you like my moustache?” he asked.  “I’ll tell you what I was going to do:  I was going to get a lot of English clothes, with a cane and a monocle and all that stuff, and walk into the club here just as I’ve seen other fellows do after a trip ‘Abroad,’” he put on a very supercilious expression to illustrate – “and I was going to keep it up, accent and all, for about three days until I had everybody saying ‘Well, will you look at that?’ and ‘What do you think he thinks he is?” but I couldn’t do it.  The first person I met was Jack Pickford and we’ve been chums for so long that it was too much for me.  Perhaps I’ll do it next time only a little differently.  I’ll miss this club when I go to war, but it would be fun to walk in here with a waxed up military moustache and a long beard. That’s exactly what I’m going to do to!” With a flash of inspiration, “Just after peace is declared – no, better still – I’ll have the ruling powers inform me of that even in advance so I’ll have plenty of time; I’m going to grow a beard.  Then I’ll strut in here with a good long one, to say nothing of the moustache, a member of the ‘military caste,’ don’t you know?”

He wore his own moustache in Intolerance.[7]

“It’s the only way to do,” he said.  There was just a suggestion of pride that he was able to grow one at that time.  “Not even actors – fellows who ought to have known better – thought it was my own.  There’s a man up here who can make such good ones.  But any kind of a false moustache is hard to get on, and if you don’t take it off at lunch time, you’re always eating hair.”

The little moustache evidently brought out a resemblance to his father none of the family had noticed before.

“I had always thought that I looked a little like both my parents.  It was a big surprise to me when my father told me that a woman had stopped him on the street – that was in New York – and said ‘I beg your pardon, but aren’t you Mr. Harron?’ He admitted that he was, and she explained, ‘I recognize you by your son on the screen.’

“Do people often come up and speak to you on the street?” he was asked.

“Oh, no, not often,” he answered.  “Those who do are mostly middle-aged women.  It’s different with Chaplin, though.  Everybody recognises him.  We used to run around quite a bit together and wherever we’d go someone would be sure to say ‘Oh, look, there’s Charlie Chaplin,’ and kids would run up to him and say ‘Hello, Charlie.’

“I’d like to be a comedian – wouldn’t you?”

[1] The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915)

[2] Hearts of the World (D. W. Griffith, 1918)

[3] The Revelation by Robert William Service (1874-1958)

[4] Wallace McCutcheon Sr (1858-1918) and Wallace McCutcheon Jr (1884-1928)

[5] Dr Skinum (Wallace McCutcheon, 1907)

[6] Bobby’s Kodak (Wallace McCutcheon, 1908)

[7] Intolerance (D. W. Griffith, 1916)