Bobby Darin at 80: 10 Key Tracks

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

Silly Willy (1956)

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

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

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

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

Silly Willy barely changes the lyrics at all:

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

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

Softly as in a Morning Sunrise (1958)

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

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

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

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

Milord (1960)

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

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

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

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

I Got a Woman (1961)

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

I’m on My Way, Great God (1962)

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

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

Gyp the Cat (1964/5)

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

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

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

If I Were a Carpenter (1966)

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

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

Me and Mr. Hohner (1969)

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

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

Happy (1972)

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

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

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

 

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Sinatra at 100: 10 Forgotten Gems

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So, today is the big day – the day on which Frank Sinatra would have turned 100.  The celebrations have been going on all year, with concerts and television programmes galore, from star-studded events through to new, almost definitive documentaries.  There have also been a variety of music releases, including the recent, rather remarkable set of songs from Frank Sinatra’s radio appearances from 1935-1955.  I am not going to wax lyrical about Sinatra here, but I thought this would be a nice opportunity to highlight ten stunning recordings and performances that come under the heading of “obscure.”  We all know about Songs for Swinging Lovers and Sinatra sings for Only the Lonely, but here’s some tracks you may not know that are well worth hunting down.

Let’s start in the late 1960s, with the wonderful Forget to Remember, a beautiful torch song that was, bizarrely, released as a single rather than on an album.  Barely known outside of the hardcore fandom – and rarely used on compilations, sadly – this is a master-class in phrasing, and comes complete with a stunning orchestration by Don Costa.  Even better than the studio recording is the one included in the 1969 Sinatra TV special, included as part of a sequence of torch songs that also included A Man Alone and Didn’t We.

From the same period comes I’m Not Afraid, even less well-known than Forget to Remember.  Sinatra had earlier recorded a whole album of songs and poems by Rod McKuen called A Man Alone, but this song by the same writer came along a few months later.  It’s an unusual recording in part thanks to Lennie Hayton’s great arrangement that seems to cross Sinatra with Ravel’s La Valse, as the waltz number becomes enshrouded in dissonant and impressionistic chords as it builds up momentum and reaches its stunning conclusion.

Shortly after the recording of the above two songs, Sinatra entered his period of retirement, emerging a couple of years later with an album entitled Old Blue Eyes is Back, which is more interesting than many give it credit for.  The key song here is There Used to Be a Ballpark, a wonderful number in which Sinatra acts as if he taking his grandchild on a tour of his old haunts from when he was a child, and reflecting how things have changed, and not always for the better.  “Now the children try to find it,” he sings.  “And they can’t believe their eyes, For the old team isn’t playing, and the new team hardly tries.”  It’s a devastating track, and remarkably moving.

Ten years earlier, Sinatra had recorded an album of rather grandiose arrangements of mostly Broadway show songs, The Concert Sinatra.  Included here is his second recording of Old Man River, which has never become as well known as his 1940s performance that was included in the film Till the Clouds Roll By.  To my mind, the older Sinatra gives a better reading of this wonderful song than the youthful one.  It is dark and reflective, and certainly a far cry from the thirty year old Sinatra singing the song in a white suit on top of a pillar.

Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist of Old Man River was also the lyricist of Lover Come Back to Me, a song that Sinatra never got around to recording, but which he performed on the radio and is included in the recent The Voice on Air boxed set.  This performance shows Sinatra at the start of his solo career but producing a majestic take on this song from the operetta The New Moon.  Sinatra would return to the song in the late 1970s, featuring an upbeat, jazzy arrangement backed by a combo in a number of concerts, but the recordings of this that circulate amongst collectors suggest that this was  less than successful.

Sinatra’s years at Capitol are, of course, his most acclaimed, but even here there are some hidden gems that the general public rarely get to hear.  Quite unlike most of Sinatra’s upbeat recordings for the period is I’m Gonna Live Til’ I Die, a raucous and bluesy number arranged by Dick Reynolds for the 1954 recording.  It was released as a B-side in 1955, and then became the finale of the Look to Your Heart compilation album in 1959.  The song isn’t really a swing number, but more of an upbeat belter, with the switch in tempos mid-way through most effective.  Frank had also sung the song on his early 1950s TV show.

At the other end of the musical spectrum is When the World was Young, the first track on Frank’s final Capitol project, the Point of no Return album which, as a whole, is under-rated.  Here he was reunited with Alex Stordahl, who had worked with Sinatra extensively during his Columbia years.  With the exception of September SongWhen the World was Young is one of the first songs in which Sinatra plays a character looking back on his life – something he would build a whole album around a few years later with the September of My Years LP and, of course, the infamous My Way single.

When the World was Young is both wistful and poignant, two terms that can also be applied to Sinatra’s 1962 recording of We’ll Meet Again for his Great Songs from Great Britain LP.  We’ll Meet Again is hardly traditional Sinatra fare, but what is remarkable here is how he takes this old sentimental war-horse and transforms it completely into a beautiful love song.  Sinatra wasn’t in great voice for these particular sessions, but it doesn’t matter, and his greatness can be seen in how he works around his limitations at this time rather than how they restrict them.  The Robert Farnon arrangement is also worthy of note, with its lush strings that never border on the sentimental.

I could list virtually any song from Sinatra’s collaboration with Duke Ellington here – the album Francis A & Ellington K is, after all, one that is just waiting to be rediscovered.  While Frank’s albums with Count Basie are well-known, this one is not, although there is little reason musically for the lack of attention it has received.  Take the performance of Sunny as an example.  Here it is slowed down into a slightly bluesy slow swing, and it sounds as if it had been a standard for years rather than a recent pop song.  The arrangement also allows the wonderful Ellington band to shine and for Sinatra to explore more jazzier phrasing than he often did during this period.  This 1967 album is also notable for being Sinatra’s last full LP of swing material for a dozen years, when the first album of the 1979 Trilogy set saw him concentrating on standards once again.

Finally, we have a song that is particularly fitting.  Nobody paid much attention to Here’s to the Band when it was released in the mid-1980s, but it’s another example of Sinatra performing a song that looks to the past – and this time he’s talking about all of the great people and bands he has performed with during his (at that point) fifty year career.  Along the way, he name checks Basie, Ellington and even Elvis, but also pays tribute to the “nameless” musicians too.  The studio recording is fine in itself, but the song seemed to work even better on the concert stage, with Sinatra, then seventy, coming over as most sincere when he sang:

“To start at the ground and reach for the top
To have such a wonderful career, I just gotta stop
Stop and turn around to thank everyone that sits on the stand
`Cause I wouldn’t have made it without them, here’s to the band!”

So, there we have it, ten Sinatra classics that only rarely get aired.  I could have included tens of others, including the intimate It’s Sunday, the beautiful tribute to Billie Holiday entitled Lady Day, the forgotten torch song Empty Tables, the moving rendition of Nature Boy which saw Sinatra recording with just choir accompaniment, the entire Watertown album, and, yes, even Old MacDonald.  Luckily, while the 100th anniversary of his birth has seen compilations of his most popular material emerge, there has also been a tendency to highlight from time to time the forgotten gems in the Sinatra catalogue, and long may that continue.

Bobby Darin: The Milk Shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby Darin: the Musical Chameleon? I Don’t Buy It!

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I’ve been a fan of Bobby Darin for all my adult life, “discovering” him when I was around eighteen or nineteen, twenty-odd years ago.  Last year when I did some work on Elvis Presley (whose music I got into in a big way at around the same time as Darin), I was reminded of just how many musical styles he covered during his career:  rock n roll, country, folk, gospel, show tunes, blues, and big ballads.  However, Elvis was not as versatile as Bobby Darin who did all of the above and threw jazz and swing into the mix too, as well as delving into folk and show tunes in a way that Elvis never did – nor did Elvis tackle more than a couple of protest songs, whereas Darin recorded more than two albums worth.

Despite this versatility, I’ve never been happy with people calling Bobby Darin a “musical chameleon.”  For me, this has a negative connotation – albeit perhaps an unintended one.  I’m no expert on chameleons but, while they can change their colour for any number of reasons, we generally associate it with a kind of camouflage, an attempt to fit in to its surroundings so as not to be noticed or found out.  When we transfer this idea on Darin, it then makes him out to be someone who was just changing his style and genre in order to fit in to (or cash in on) the current music scene – the whole idea of jumping on a bandwagon.

I don’t buy that idea when it comes to Bobby Darin.  I’m not saying he never went bandwagon-jumping in search of a hit – he clearly did when he recorded the Ray Charles-like You’re the Reason I’m Living and even when he recorded If I Were a Carpenter.  But, elsewhere, I don’t think that is what he was doing.

We first come across this idea when he recorded the That’s All album back in late 1958, with the suggestion that he was somehow trying to be Frank Sinatra.  And yet, anyone who knows the music of both men will know that there are actually huge stylistic differences between their arrangements and vocal styles within the big band genre.  I don’t know of a single Sinatra arrangement that has the same sound and feel as Mack the Knife and Clementine.  Sinatra’s orchestrations swung in a very different way entirely.  In fact, perhaps the nearest Sinatra got to that sound was his version of Old MacDonald – recorded after the aforementioned tracks were released, not before – and even then, it’s not the exactly the same, despite the slow build-up in sound and the repeated modulations with each verse.   And it wasn’t often that Sinatra was as downright brash as the arrangements used for Softly as in a Morning Sunrise or Some of These Days.  Maybe on I’m Gonna Live Till I Die – but this was the exception, not the rule.  Darin’s vocal approach was far different too – he didn’t sing from a jazz background as Sinatra did, but he brought rock ‘n’ roll vocal stylings to the big band sound.  I’m not saying this to knock Sinatra in any way – I adore his music as readers of this blog will know – but my point is just that Darin wasn’t somehow imitating Sinatra, he was doing it his way.

If anything, Darin’s swing sound was more like Sammy Davis Jr’s than Sinatra’s.  Check out Davis’s version of There Is a Tavern in a Town, for example, and you will see what I mean.  He also got much of his material from the same place as Davis too:  the current Broadway scene.  Whereas Sinatra was normally reaching back to shows of the 1930s and 1940s, Darin and Davis were culling material from Broadway in the 1960s and, with Darin, the current Hollywood scene too.  Hence the albums Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie, In a Broadway Bag, The Shadow of Your Smile and individual tracks such as What Kind of Fool am I and If I Ruled the World.  Despite these connections with Davis, Darin wasn’t imitating him either, although both crossed over into rock ‘n’ roll material and rhythm ‘n’ blues.

Darin’s last album to be recorded for Atco was his tribute to Ray Charles, and it’s true to say it retains much of the Ray Charles sound.  However, even this wasn’t a straightforward album.  Darin was taking risks here.  What other pop singer of the time would spend over six minutes on I Got a Woman (and, in a late-60s TV appearance, over seven minutes on Drown in my Own Tears)?  Elvis was rarely recording songs over two and a half minutes.  Darin’s I Got a Woman doesn’t actually work – it goes on for far too long – but at least he was willing to take risks or, to be less kind in this instance, be self-indulgent.  Darin was always his own man and recorded what he wanted.  Colonel Parker would have run a mile from such an artist.

Bobby is again accused of jumping onto bandwagons when he released his folk album, Earthy.  And yet, once again, an actual examination of the LP finds that this wasn’t any normal folk album but an ambitious, daring (from a commercial point of view) collection of folk songs from around the world.  What’s more, it’s also one of his best albums.  In this case, the risk and the ambition and the vision paid off.  While Peter, Paul and Mary (who he is often accused of copying) were recording songs by Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, Darin was adapting folk music from across the globe along with a handful of new(ish) compositions in the same style.  And the musicianship here is incredible.  Listen to the final track, The Ee-I-Ee was Rising again – this time through headphones.  Sit and wonder at the remarkably complex rhythms that occur as the song progresses and gets quicker and quicker.  Check out Bobby Darin’s timing – so accurate, and a fraction of a second either way would have thrown the whole thing out.  It’s an incredible performance which can sound like a flippant joke until heard in this way.  And yet the album did very little business commercially.  Darin’s next folk album, Golden Folk Hits, was a simple attempt to hone in on the Peter, Paul and Mary sound, but he’d gone down the artistic route before turning to the commercial one.

Then there have been the comparisons with Bob Dylan when we come to the late 1960s and Bobby’s creation of his own label to record his own protest songs.  And yet, once again, there is no foundation in these comparisons, as what Bobby was writing and recording had very little to do with what other protest singers were doing at the time.  They may have been ignored at the time but, like Earthy, these albums have now gained cult status, particularly in the UK and Europe.  The first Direction album may have contained songs that were musically simplistic, but the lyrics are what matters here.  There is some wonderful word play in The Proper Gander, while Sunday lures the listener in before issuing a damning indictment on organised religion.  Commitment, the second album, is more musically interesting, and is clearly a more varied selection of songs, and Bobby manages to tie together a beautiful melody with a powerful political comment as in Sausalito.  Elsewhere he doesn’t seem to be protesting at all, but there is great wordplay and musicality in Water Color Canvas, and a dry self-deprecating humour in Distractions.

His Motown years were largely disappointing, and yet the 1971 live album (released in 1987) is probably the best live album he recorded.  Yes, he’s relying largely on contemporary covers, but look at what he does with them!  While Elvis’s idea of a Beatles medley was a bland re-tread of Yesterday with the end of Hey Jude tagged on the end, Darin had come up with a multi-song, almost rhapsodic masterpiece.  And, once again, ambition shone through, as in the extended version of James Taylor’s Fire and Rain.

There wasn’t much musical ambition in the Motown studio recordings, as he turned into a bland balladeer with orchestrations that should have been torn up and thrown out long before they reached the studio.  And there wasn’t much ambition on his disappointing TV series either – and yet Darin was still doing what HE wanted when he could.  What other variety show gave over a few minutes each week to a chess game?  Again, this was Darin being self-indulgent and ambitious and this time it didn’t work – but he hadn’t given up despite seemingly losing his way musically in his final years (although appearances on The David Frost Show and Midnight Special showed exactly what he was capable of when he put his mind to it – as did the concert-style final show of his TV series).

No artist leaves a perfect musical legacy.  As I discussed last year, Elvis certainly didn’t, and neither did Bobby Darin.  He took risks, and sometimes they didn’t work or he over-estimated his audience.  And yet the quality of his recordings is far more consistent than Elvis, Sammy Davis Jr, or even (arguably) Sinatra, who went through nearly a decade of artistic doldrums.  But one thing I am sure of is that Bobby Darin had no interest in being a chameleon, and changing his genre and style just to fit in or, worse, cash-in.  If he changed his style, it was always because he thought he could bring something different to it, that he could add something, that he could move it forward, that he could push the boundaries.  So let’s throw away this whole “Darin the chameleon” idea once and for all, and celebrate “Darin the Diverse” instead.

Sammy Davis Jr

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Over the years, Sammy Davis Jr has been referred to a number of times as the “world’s greatest entertainer,” and this may well be true.  He was a gifted singer, dancer, impressionist, comedian, actor, multi-instrumentalist and even an expert at fast-draw (guns, not pencils).  And yet, the title he has been given often masks how brilliant a singer he actually was.  History books have left us with the impression that, for all his vocal talent, Davis was forever trying to emulate or copy his idol, Frank Sinatra, but a closer look at his musical legacy reveals a very different picture.  Contrary to popular opinion, Davis was very much his own man.

Davis began his recording career in the late 1940s for Capitol – an association that can be viewed now simply as a prelude to his work with Decca and Reprise from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s.  I can’t say I’m a huge fan of his early Decca albums, made in the mid-1950s, despite the fact that they helped catapult him to super-stardom.  For example, Lonesome Road, the opening track on the Starring Sammy Davis Jr LP, finds him beginning the song in Sinatra-esque style before moving into a section which sounds like him impersonating Johnnie Ray.  Davis had yet to find his voice.  And yet, even on this album, he had started doing things that Sinatra rarely did, with My Funny Valentine utilising a small group rather than a big band or full orchestra.   What’s more, Davis’s arrangements were often more extravagant and flippant than those often used by Sinatra, with the possible exceptions of certain tracks on Come Fly with Me and Sinatra Swings.

By the time of Sammy Swings, in 1957, and due to be released on CD along with Sammy Awards in a few weeks, Davis had found his own voice.  A look at the track listing for Sammy Swings sees him seemingly avoiding standards that Sinatra was associated with, and he certainly puts his stamp on Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Comes Love, and By Myself.  The arrangements are big and brassy, and Davis himself uses his voice in a way that Sinatra would not have done.  Davis uses his remarkable power, singing in a swing style but with a Broadway voice.   This album, and the even better Sammy Awards, are all showbiz.  What they lack in subtlety, they make up for in exuberance.   For a comparison of how Davis and Sinatra approached songs differently, one could compare their two very different 1950s readings of The Gal That Got Away, with Sinatra’s being more straight-award swing, and Davis’s being a mini Broadway play, starting off in a low-key jazzy style and using an almost rhapsodic arrangement that switches from lyrical sections to bombastic swing and back again.  When he takes on a Sinatra song, as in I Fall in Love Too Easily, he does so in a quiet, subdued manner, using just a guitar accompaniment – something Sinatra didn’t do in the studio until the early 1980s.

By the late 1950s, Davis was putting together albums that were collaborative efforts, including ones with jazz singer Carmen McCrae, the Count Basie Orchestra and, most notably, a whole album of just Davis and guitarist Mundell Lowe.   He was also already venturing far away from standard repertoire, most notably incorporating the influence of Ray Charles with recordings of Mess Around and I Got a Woman (and even incorporating Hound Dog into his live act).   But if there was an ongoing problem with Davis’s Decca recordings it was that he, for some reason, didn’t seem able to take himself totally seriously, often larking around in the middle of serious songs for no apparent reason – almost as if he is embarrassed of his own talent.

When he signed a contract with Sinatra’s Reprise label, he did three important things.  Firstly there was a series of sessions with Marty Paich, who provided Davis with arrangements that incorporated his “showbiz” style of performance, but also added some subtlety.  At the same time, Davis started digging more into Broadway for his repertoire, being among the first to record songs from shows written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, and Lionel Bart.   And then, Davis also stopped the joking.  He was at the peak of his vocal ability, and his first album for the new label, The Wham of Sam, proved that.  Sammy was now his own man, taking songs associated with others and making them wholly his own – not by clowning but by being versatile.  Sinatra’s I’m a Fool to Want You became an unexpected tango, and Blame It on My Youth eclipses virtually every other recording of the song.

The album As Long As She Needs Me encapsulates Davis completely, from the beautiful rendition of showtunes such as the title song and an earnest Climb Every Mountain through to a wonderful, light-hearted reworking of There Is a Tavern in a Town that seems somewhat influenced by Sinatra’s rendition of Old MacDonald.  But just listen to what Davis does with the vocal line – it’s Broadway, swing, jazz and comedy all at the same time.

Davis was also ambitious, with him recording the entirety of the California Suite by Mel Torme for one album made up entirely of Torme compositions.  There were yet more collaborations with Count Basie, Sam Butera, Laurindo Almeida and the great Buddy Rich, with the latter resulting in a wonderful live album that swings from start to finish.  Not only does Davis sing two of his signature songs on this occasion, but he also completely reworks them, turning What Kind of Fool am I into a mid-tempo swing number.   Davis was doing things that Sinatra never did, such as the vocal/guitar duet albums, the recording of the Torme album, and an album dedicated to the songs from Dr Dolittle – not the cheesefest one might imagine, but one of Davis’s very best albums.   He was also appearing in his second Broadway show, Golden Boy.

Then it all fell apart.  Davis started working new sounds into his music such as Motown, soul and funk, and while he didn’t do this badly, his efforts to become hip and cool sometimes backfired and he ended up sounding silly (as in the awful In the Ghetto) and appearing on TV in more and more bizarre costumes.  The best days were gone, but he still had hits with I Gotta Be Me, The Candy Man and Mr Bojangles, and recorded a fine TV special entitled simply “Sammy.”  Davis made a move to Motown and recorded some generally poor albums, although they have nice moments.  And, then it was basically over.  His tour of Australia in 1977 was recorded by RCA and released on two albums released in 1977 and 1979.  And there was just one more studio album, of country material, in the early 1980s.  Davis, helped along by fast-living, drink, sex and drugs, had become an imitation of himself.

But there would be one last hurrah.  The Ultimate Event saw him touring with Sinatra and Dean Martin (replaced by Liza Minnelli) in the late 1980s and video footage from the tour finds him in brilliant form.  His rendition of Music of the Night showed that he was still in touch with what Broadway musicals had to offer, and his comic rendition of Michael Jackson’s Bad showed that he could still poke fun at himself.  Sadly there was no final album.  Davis was diagnosed with throat cancer and died in 1990.

Davis was, despite what we might be told, very much his own man vocally, with his own unique phrasing and styling, and his work for Reprise in particular is a real marvel.  Collector’s Choice released the Reprise albums on CD some time back, and then started on the Decca years, but never finished that part of the reissue programme.  PD company Sepia have remastered Sammy Awards and Sammy Swings and this will be released April 2015, making available for the first time in decent quality two key Decca albums on CD.  Great news – my vinyl copies have long been worn out.

The Sinatra 100: Part One

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2015 sees what would have been the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra.  In a series of blog posts over the course of the year, I will be taking a look at some of my own favourite recordings by “ol’ blue eyes” in what I’m calling “The Sinatra 100.”  The one hundred performances won’t be in any particular order – I’m not that organised – but hopefully they will highlight some little-known recordings as well as visiting some familiar ones.  This first batch of five numbers come from the first decade of the Reprise label.

1.  MOONLIGHT ON THE GANGES (1961)

I’ve always loved this romp, which was recorded for the album Sinatra Swings – originally titled Swing Along with Me, but Capitol forced the title to be changed, stating that it was too close to their own Sinatra album Come Swing with Me from a couple of years earlier.  The whole album is a blast.  Billy May arranged all twelve tunes, which included some rather left-field numbers such as Granada, The Curse of an Aching Heart and Moonlight on the Ganges.  Despite Capitol’s protestations, the album has far more in common musically with the light-hearted upbeat elements of Come Fly with Me than the more traditional-sounding Come Swing with Me.  This is certainly true in the case of Moonlight on the Ganges, which has an arrangement clearly modelled on that provided for On the Road to Mandalay for the earlier album.  As with that number, Billy May uses everything at his disposal in his arrangement, and even if the result is not quite as much fun or not quite as quirky, Sinatra still swings the hell out of it.

2.  I’M NOT AFRAID (1970)

One of the best Sinatra songs you’ve never heard.  In 1969, the singer had recorded an album entitled A Man Alone, consisting of songs and poetry by Rod McKuen.  It was a hit and miss affair, but an interesting effort all the same, with Sinatra in wonderful voice.  Eighteen months later, Frank was recording another McKuen lyric, this time to a tune by Jacques Brel.  Sadly wasted as one of the most uncommercial single sides ever released by Sinatra, this is rather special.  Arranger Lennie Hayton managed to come up with an orchestral backing that drew heavily on the tonal qualities of music by Debussy and Ravel, particularly the latter’s La Valse.  Sinatra’s performance is dramatic and gives him the chance to show just how good his voice was here, just a month before his final session prior to the infamous retirement.

3.  REACHING FOR THE MOON (1965)

Recorded late in 1965 for Moonlight Sinatra, this is one of my favourite ballad performances.  The song had been written thirty-five years earlier for a film that was intended to be a musical but, with the musical having a decline in fortune by the time of its release, had virtually all of the songs cut.  Reaching for the Moon, the title number, remained, but is still one of Irving Berlin’s lesser-known tunes.   Here it is given a sumptuous arrangement by Nelson Riddle with lovely cascading strings during the instrumental break.  Sinatra’s vocal has a darker tone than usual, giving the number more gravitas than, say, the Ella Fitzgerald recording for her Irving Berlin songbook eight years earlier.

4.  OL’ MAN RIVER (1963)

Many will argue that Sinatra’s Columbia-era take on this classic from Show Boat was better, but I’d have to disagree.  This 1963 version derives from The Concert Sinatra, a strange title for an album recorded wholly in the studio.  The album has just eight songs, each arranged in a rather grandiose way by Nelson Riddle, and each one a ballad.  Ol’ Man River here becomes an epic, taken at a remarkably slow pace by Sinatra and featuring some of his very best vocal phrasing.  His voice is deeper and darker here than in the 1940s version, and is all the better for it.  He used a similar arrangement in his 1967 TV special (mostly with just a piano instead of a full orchestra) with Ella Fitzgerald and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and the result was, arguably, even better than the performance here.

5.  WE’LL MEET AGAIN (1962)

Great Songs from Great Britain was, well, not such a great album when it comes to Sinatra’s voice.  He sounds tired after his world tour, and understandably so.  However this was, importantly, his only studio album recorded outside of the USA (it was recorded in London), and the arrangements by Robert Farnon breathe new life into a batch of songs that were, by and large, viewed as past their sell-by date.  We’ll Meet Again is typical of that.  Here Sinatra takes this old war horse and completely reinvents it, making one completely forget the fact that it had been almost solely associated with World War II.  His tired voice forces him to come up with a different style of phrasing, and the result is that the song becomes not a sing-a-long but a beautiful love song.

Ten Favourite Christmas Albums

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A festive entry in my little series of “ten favourite” posts.  This time I turn my attention to music and Christmas albums.  So, in no particular order…

White Christmas with Nat & Dean (LP version)

Back in the 1970s, Music for Pleasure released a lovely 12 track LP alternating songs by Nat King Cole and Dean Martin.  It was a favourite in our house while I was growing up, and featured some fine performances and, rather strangely, the split album idea worked very well.  What’s more, it was one of the few places to find Dean Martin’s “The Christmas Blues” at the time.  It all went to pieces on the CD issue though.  Extra tracks were added, but only from Nat King Cole, thus upsetting the balance and the magic was gone.   The original album is superb though, and worth grabbing just to hear Nat King Cole tell us that he’s the “Happiest Christmas Tree” (Ho ho ho, he he he).

Seasons Greetings from Perry Como

This is Como’s Christmas album from 1958 and is one of the warmest Christmas albums you will ever find.  The first side features secular festive favourites, while the second side features Como singing carols, leading to the concluding lengthy track in which he narrates the story of the first Christmas, with his narrative interspersed by snatches of carols (this was something he started doing on TV in the early 1950s).  Como’s version of “Home for the Holidays” and “Oh Holy Night” make this a must – and the final track makes it a great one for the kids. 

Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas

If ever there was an unjustly neglected Christmas album, this might be it.  Ella forgets jazz for thirty-five minutes as she leads a choir through a series of Christmas hymns and carols.  A very different affair from her Christmas album for Verve, this was her second release for Capitol in 1967, and was either ignored by critics or ravaged by them.  In reality, Ella is probably in the best voice of her career and her warmth and sincerity oozes out of every groove.

A Dave Brubeck Christmas

Jazz Christmas albums are a little hit and miss, but this one is both delightful and unusual in that it finds Dave Brubeck playing solo piano rather than as part of a trio or quartet.   This is great stuff, with Brubeck still in great form despite being in his late seventies when it was recorded.  He might be best known for his  cool/bop jazz recordings, but perhaps the most enjoyable track here is “Winter Wonderland”, which finds him playing good old-fashioned stride piano. 

Michael Buble’s Christmas

It’s not very often a modern Christmas album becomes an instant favourite, but this one seems to be the exception.  Buble presents us with an album of mostly traditional Christmas fare, but a number of tracks have a twist – such as the wonderful Dixieland take on “Blue Christmas” – and others are just so well sung and arranged that it’s hard not to fall in love with the album.

Elvis’ Christmas Album

No, not the original 1957 version, but the 1970 issue which ditches the gospel material and adds “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” (a single from 1966) and the non-festive “Mama Liked the Roses”.  The 1966 track oddly fits snugly amongst the raw sounds of those recorded nearly a decade earlier in which songs range from the dirty innuendo-ridden blues of “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (Hang up your stockings/Turn down the lights/Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight) to the reverent take on “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem”.   Elvis went on to record a second Christmas album in 1971, one which finds him in poor voice and singing a batch of mostly depressing, uninspired new songs.  It has to rank as one of the most disappointing sequels in history.

Harry Connick Jr: Harry for the Holidays

Harry Connick Jr’s Christmas albums are a mixed bag.  The first one, “When My Heart Finds Christmas” was so awful that ever after in our household he was known as “Harry Chronic”.   “Harry for the Holidays” is much better, and catches Harry during one of his better periods, following hot on the heels of his great “Come By Me”,“30” and “Songs I Heard” albums.  So this album features slightly left-field, whacky big band arrangements of mostly well-known Christmas songs.  “Frosty the Snowman”, which opens the album is typical of this, given a noisy makeover that makes it sound like something out of a New Orleans Mardi Gras.  It all runs a little out of steam by the end of the 65 minute album, but “Silent Night”, which closes the album, is given a lovely arrangement, mixing traditional jazz and gospel sounds. 

The Sinatra Family Wishes You a Merry Christmas

I wrote about this one a few days back in a separate post, but this is a fun album featuring Sinatra and his three kids.  Nancy Sinatra never sounded better.

Christmas with Chet Atkins

This is a lovely warm album of instrumentals from country-styled guitarist Chet Atkins, and features fourteen tracks and is ideal for non-obtrusive music while hanging up those decorations.  The original CD issue was rather botched for some reason, but it’s now available under the title “Songs for Christmas” in better sound – it couldn’t be worse than Mum and Dad’s copy of the album, though, which was bought in 1961 and regularly got stuck as the needle tried to avoid the scratches!

The Andy Williams Christmas Album

The BBC recently showed a couple of clip shows from the Andy Williams Show that ran from the early 1960s until the mid-70s (shame on the BBC for cropping the picture!).  Watching it reminds us of how talented Williams was in his prime, with vocal performances that saw him singing jazz with Ella Fitzgerald and folk with Simon and Garfunkel.   His Christmas album was released in 1963 and contains a relatively predictable set of festive favourites.   If the vocals are sometimes just a little too laid back at times, and the arrangements a little saccharine, there are still gorgeous performances of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, “Happy Holidays” and “The Little Drummer Boy”.

This is my last post before Christmas, so have a great Christmas and we’ll gather here again in that strange lull between Christmas and New Year!