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.

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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)

Frank Sinatra: 20 Years On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (Review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Movies

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2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Raymond Burr, and Barbara Hale passed away a year ago this month.  This blog post pays tribute to them in an examination of the Perry Mason movies made between 1985 and 1993.

People tend to look at you kind of funny when you tell them that you prefer the Perry Mason TV movies of 1985 to 1993 to the original series that ran for nine seasons from 1957 to 1966.  Raymond Burr, forever associated with the role, stated in interviews to promote Perry Mason Returns (1985), the first of the TV movies, that he thought the first run of the series should have stopped after five seasons, and that he wanted to call it a day after seven.  He also said that he had been keen to make the occasional two-hour episode during that initial run in order to do Erle Stanley Gardner’s often complicated books more justice (excuse the pun) as well as to give more backstory to the main characters of Perry, Della Street (his secretary), and Paul Drake (his private investigator).  The TV movies that began in 1985 didn’t adapt any of Erle Standley Gardner’s original stories, but they did give the chance to give more development to the main characters that Burr had been so keen to do.

As a twelve-year-old back in 1986 when Perry Mason Returns was first shown on the BBC in the UK, I was entranced from the very beginning.  I caught most of the other TV movies featuring Burr over the next ten years or so, and have been revisiting them all again over the last few months after purchasing The Complete Movie Collection, which pulls together Burr’s 26 Mason TV movies as well as the four that were made directly after his death with other lawyer characters standing in for Mason who was always “out of town.”  It was a sad way for the films to limp to their inevitable conclusion, but Burr was apparently keen that the movies continue without him – although why investigator/lawyer Ken Malansky (played by William R. Moses) wasn’t “promoted” to the running of the cases after Burr’s passing is something of a mystery.  This, at least, would have given the series at least a chance of working.

There are some significant differences between the TV movies and the original series, most notably that they are considerably more predictable.  The cases that Perry takes on nearly always involve a celebrity of some sort, working for a radio or TV station, or a stage production, or in film, or a politician, or even a notorious mobster.  This means that they often go over the same ground, which is a shame, but as with so many popular programmes on TV, it is the formulaic nature of the series that people love so much, and glitz and glamour was very much a staple of American TV dramas during this period.  Ironically, though, it is those stories that break away from the formula that are most memorable.

Take, for example, the Case of the Lost Love (1987), featuring Jean Simmons as guest star as one of Perry’s old flames.  The episode is particularly well-written and, for the first time, the writers start to feed in elements of Perry’s life away from the courtroom, and even touches on a subject such as mental health – and deals with it in a responsible and subtle way (especially considering this was three decades ago).  Moving even further away from the formula is The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990) which, along with the Lost Love episode, rates as the best of the movies.  Here we don’t have the killing of a loud-mouth TV presenter, or the writer of a tell-all book, but, instead, that of a Nazi SS Officer.  Mostly set in France, this tale also features one of the best casts assembled for the later Mason mysteries, with Ian Bannen, Ian McShane, Yvette Mimieux, and a wonderful turn from Theresa Wright.

Even the most run-of-the-mill of the movies are worth a watch, however, most notably because of the touching chemistry between Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, with more hints about their characters’ relationship over the years being revealed in some of the movies.  We learn, for example, in one episode (the title of which I shall not reveal in order to avoid giving spoilers) that Mason has a daughter (who doesn’t know he is her father).  In another, The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host (1993), Burr’s penultimate appearance, Mason and Della finally share an intimate kiss just prior to the closing credits.  In a talk show appearance of his own in 1993, Burr offers the information that they had just filmed that scene in what now appears to be an obvious deflection of a question put to him about whether he and Barbara Hale had ever been romantically involved – Burr liked his private life to remain that way, and it was only after his death that it became public knowledge that he had been in a relationship for over three decades with actor Robert Benevedo, who he had met on the set of Perry Mason in the late 1950s.  He even went out of his way to make up stories of having previously been married, with children, for reporters – saying that both his wife and children had died.  But what seems clear from the Telltale Talk Show Host is that the Mason/Della romance might have been developed in the films that would have been made had Burr not passed away, and there is little doubt that such a move would have pleased fans.

Some twenty-five years after Burr made his last appearance (in The Case of the Killer Kiss, 1993), the Mason TV movies remain staples of various cable television channels, and hold up as surprisingly entertaining ways to pass ninety minutes.  There is something remarkably comforting, even heartwarming, in Burr’s portrayal of the ageing Perry Mason – something grandfatherly, even.   There is also a certain reassurance here, too, that Perry Mason, striding along majestically in his fetching big black coat and hat, will provide us with adult entertainment that is still suitable for all, with a surprising lack of gore or violence considering the subject of murder.  This, too, was something that Burr spoke proudly of in promotional interviews when Perry Mason Returns was about to air.

There is more humour here than in the original TV series, and certainly Mason comes across as more human.  The relationship with Della Street is also different, and perhaps reflects more than ever the genuine affection that Burr and Hale clearly had for each other, as well as hinting that there was something more going on between Mason and Della than we were being told about.

All of this doesn’t mean that these are better than the classic TV series of the 1950s and 1960s – I doubt anyone would argue that – but there is still something very special about them and, unlike so many TV programmes from the late 1980s and early 1990s, there is far more to enjoy here than giant shoulder-pads and dodgy hair-dos.

Perry Mason: The Complete Movie Collection (a 15-disc set) is available from Amazon for approximately £25.