Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Boy Too Big For His Britches Hitches A Ride With Santa

The spot light hit me and a hush fell over the crowd as I got ready to sing.

I knew I was about to be great.

Bing and The Ladies
It was the night before the night before Christmas in 1951 and I was sure the whole town of Wilmington, Vermont had come to listen to me sing a song.

Why wouldn't they?

I was cute. A veritable little Ronnie Howard, with red hair and an angelic voice.

Of course, there were some other people in the show. It was after all, the annual town Christmas Concert and there were many with talent, some far better then me, who would perform. But everything at that time revolved around me to a ridiculous degree.

Let me explain.

When I was very young, I was told I was getting too big for my britches. By a lot of people. A lot of the time.

My teachers. Some of my friends' parents. My parents. Complete strangers!  People on the street would randomly approach me, whack me along-side my head and mutter dark threats.  It might have had something to do with my precociousness.

But I never took these comments seriously. 

At the age of nine I knew everything there was to know about the world, thank you very much, and I could handle my life quite well with out anyone telling me what to do.

So when I was told I needed to rehearse the song I had learned off a record called, "I'd Like to Hitch a Ride With Santa Clause" with Mrs. Turner, the pianist and school music teacher, I thought, "Get real. I don't rehearse." And then I think I broke into maniacal laughter..

The Andrew Sisters and Bing Crosby had made a small hit out of ILTHARWSC. a few years earlier, although it has gone the way of those Christmas standards that fall, mercifully, through the cracks of established holiday music.

I mean, there were lines in the song about cracking whips and dodging weather-vanes and being humiliated by the entire school you were attending, for heavens sake.

Oh wait, that was my life.

Anyway, I learned the whole thing and I felt, as a seasoned performer who had appeared as the lead in "Tom Sawyer" and had played a pivotal character in "Life With Father" for the local little theater, that I was beyond rehearsing.

Rehearsing? I don't need no stinkin' rehearsin'!

My parents had always guided me with a light reign. I was never forced, except in rare occasions, to do anything my little heart didn't want to do. Frankly, I think this type of parenting might have contributed to some serious lapses of judgment later on in my life.

So the day of the concert instead of singing with Mrs. Turner, I was upstairs in my bedroom rehearsing my bows and expressions of humility to the crowd that appeared on one of my walls.

Really.

I actually drew stick figure pictures of  people in an auditorium applauding my greatness and strung them together with Scotch  tape on the wall next to my bed.  My mother often wondered how come we ran out so quickly. Not beds. Tape.

And so it was that I stood upon the stage that night, right after the Clyde sisters rendition of "Silver Bells", and just before Mrs. Ringlemeyer, a German war bride with a very thick accent, and who was, without a doubt, the ugliest woman I had ever seen up to that time in my life, and warbled a rather provocative rendition of Ertha Kitts' classic, "Santa Baby", I was ready to lay-em-in-the-aisles..

I began my song with a little musical prequel about being new at school and not being invited to play and other such child-hoodish nightmare stuff. Mrs. Turner was seated at the piano wearing a brightly colored dress with a huge sprig of holly and red flowers pinned to her left shoulder and a pinched look on her face  She normally always smiled at me so. I wasn't quite sure what that look was all about.. I mean, I had spoken with her before the show. I said, "Hi, Mrs. Turner" What more could she want from me?

I went through the whole song once. It had several verses and a refrain that changed from one line the next. But - no problem. I was a trooper.

The Original Flop Sweat
Then Mrs. Turner and I came to the end together; the slightly out of tune piano ringing out what I thought would be the finish. But, as the song ended, it seemed that I recognized the beginning; so, in mid-turn and as I was about to receive my well deserved applause, I started to sing, "I'd Like to Hitch a Ride With Santa Clause" again. Mrs Turner pinched look became even pinch-ier. There was an element of panic in her playing tinged with a slight touch of annoyance.

Beads of sweat sprung like carbuncles from my face as I realized we had never practiced the ending. The ending? Hell, we hadn't practiced anything. I began to experience tunnel vision and I noticed a somewhat uneasy feeling rippling through the crowd.

We came to the end. She did that little be-boppity thing with the piano and I started singing the song.

Again.

This time Mrs. Turner banged rather hard upon the keys, although she did keep playing the song. She glared up at me from a face bathed in sweat. The sprig of holly and the red flowers she wore was wilting before my eyes. The crowd had by now reached it's limit of cute little boy singing a rather banal song and I noticed a few gathering in groups at the back of the hall. Some were clutching pitchforks and lighted torches. I also thought I saw a noose hanging from someones hand. My voice had lost it's precociousness and had dropped to a jagged and faintly shrill groan.. I forgot a plethora of words. I think I even said something about flying saucers from Mars somewhere in the middle.

The song, thankfully, ground to an end and Mrs. Turner slammed the keyboard door upon her hands, hoping, I think, that if she broke a finger or two, she would be excused from playing "I'd Like to Hitch a Ride With Santa Clause" ever in her life again.

I slumped off the stage with muffled grumblings in my ear, and just a smattering of applause from my sister and my parents. God bless 'em. They stuck with me no matter how stupid I became.

Even then I tried to blame someone else. "Mrs. Turner did it. I didn't know she was ending."  Yeah, George. Speak to the sock puppet. You didn't rehearse. You just merrily sailed in like Stephen Sondheim on opening night; sure of  your lines. No one was there.

It was a bitter lesson. I never again went on stage without at least a modicum of rehearsal time.

So. Merry Christmas to all, and fasten your seat belts. The ride with Santa Clause is going to be bumpy.

© 2010 George Locke

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Best Christmas Album Evah'

I have been dubbing around with this blog post for so long that it's going to be Valentines Day before I post it. I had this image of drawing a picture of the record album under a snow covered Christmas tree with an image of Irving Berlin and Bing in the background.  OK. Just close your eyes and imagine it.

'Oiving Thinking White

In 1945, Bing Crosby invested $50,000 of his own money (probably after one of his horses actually paid off ) in a new company from a Germany rising out of the ashes of the recent collapse of the Third Reich.

It was called  Ampex and it was one of the first to produce magnetic tape and the recorders/playback machines that go with it.

Bing recognized this ground breaking technological advance in sound recording, and he was the first American artist to use tapes in the record making process.  He also purchased a tape machine and gave it to his friend, guitarist Les Paul. Les had accompanied Bing in a couple of sessions and "Der Bingle" appreciated his talent.  We all know what Les did with this new technology.

That's not what this blog is about.
Admit it. You have this CD.

It's about what Bing recorded on one of the magnetic tape machines shortly after his purchase of stock in said company; which is to say, the best Christmas album ever.

A probably apocryphal tales relates that when Irving Berlin wrote this timeless classic, he tossed it onto the desk of his secretary and, with breezy self assurance said. "This is the best song I have ever written." Best? Well, certainly close to the top.

 This album is considered the longest in-print disc of all times, with only The Original Cast Recording of Oklahoma beating it out, having been cut in 1943.

"Best" is purely subjective, of course. But I've heard enough songs over the past sixty-eight years, to fling a few titles around with some degree of authority. And right up there is "White Christmas".

My folks had a copy of it. Probably your folks did too. And your grandparents.

Bing Crosbys' White Christmas was recorded and released in 1945 as a five record, ten song set of 78 rpm plastic discs. It was eventually released as an 'album' in or around 1955 and as a CD in the mid 80's. Of course, the title song is the one we all remember. It was the song Bing sang at the beginning of  the movie of the same name right before Danny Kaye saved him from a collapsing brick wall. It was not the first time the song showed up in the movies, having been introduced in 1942 with Bing and Fred Astaire in Holiday Inn.

Berlin was one of the finest composer of his time. And, according to some sources, (Gerald Mast "Can't Help Singin'" pub. Overlook Press, 1987)  he wrote his best ones specifically for individual performers. Like "Cheek to Cheek" for the aforementioned Fred, "Better Luck Next Time" for Judy Garland, "They Say it's Wonderful" for Ethel Merman (think of that first note she hits in the first syllable of the word "wonderful"!) And of course, "White Christmas" for Harry Lillis Crosby.

The whole album is a box of bright jumbled jeweled ornaments. Crazy, but cozy ( Sorry. I promise no more alliteration!) picture postcards (whoops!) of memories. The title song is taken from the point of view of a person who is not near ANY white Christmas (probably Beverly Hills) and all he can do is wish for that which he remembers.  Each note and word is perfect for the emotion it evokes.

The first line shows how Berlin uses words to sculpt a feeling. "I'm and "white" are stressed, rather then "Christmas." The drawn out vowels weave this sense of longing that the singer is trying to express. And who to do it better then Crosby with his mellow, almost oboe-like tones?

There's so much going on in this song. The whistling at the end, which I try every now and then, but am woeful at best. And the harmony Bing sings in the final part of the refrain with a bubbling  "....whi-i-i-ite" is the only way I can sing this annual classic.  I also take out my imaginary pipe and play bells on imaginary Christmas ornaments, 'ala "Holiday Inn" for corn sakes!

The rest of the album is like frosting on the cake and takes us from "Silver Bells" busy sidewalks to Hawaii (to this day I cannot pronounce the Hawaiian way to say "Merry Christmas") and then shoots over to "Christmas in Killarney", with Bing doing his best Father O'Malley "...with ahhlah the folks at home!"

Mixed in are several season standards, like "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and, as a good ex-alter boy, a rendition of "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful" with the Latin verse tossed in at the end. The music director of the church I attend has asked all of us to sing that last verse this year. Somehow, we have not been doing it..

I did have to repeat Latin II in high-school, but, heck, I'll give it a shot.

This album/disc/ MP3 is probably in every home in the country. And why not.

They don't make 'em like that any more.

© 2010 George Locke

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dave Brubeck-New Documentary and Joe Bananas-Old Hipster

The Sweetest of Hipsters
It would seem the above should not mix. One has leaped the boundaries of time and imagination and gives me music that makes me smile and tap my foot. The other is a guy who entered my life armed with misery, self loathing and a love of things addictive

Joe Bananas isn't actually his real name. "Joe" is.......but his last name only rhymes with that long yellow fruit.

I met him while serving Uncle Sam in Ft. Bliss near El Paso Texas on or about the summer of 1962. The '60s have become the decade where odd plants began to grow in my life. To coin a phrase, it was a seminal time in which I lived..


I'm not sure how Joe and I got together.  Maybe it was when I was doing a noon dj gig at the base radio station; playing some old jazz discs. Pops, Bix a little Benny and some Gramercy Five.  I think they were "V Disc" 78's from back in the forties. Talk about a seminal decade.

So we hooked up over bottles of codeine (Robitussin AC - "The Champagne of Bottled Cough Syrup"....we really called it that!) and funny little cigarettes.

He introduced me to all that stuff and I, of course, tipped my hat to all that stuff and said "Well. How do you do!"

But with Bananas came another thing. His love of jazz.

Especially be-bop. Not "swing". BEE-BOP.

Joe was appalled at my choice of music. He would call me "Jit", short for jitterbug, and laugh (the kind of laugh that involved just rocking back on his heels with a slightly open mouth, but not making a sound.) 

Joe Bananas knew all the players....Gene Ammonds, ("Jug" he called him.) the great tenor saxophonist and one of the founders of the Chicago School of jazz sax along with Von Freeman, Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon.  Joe introduced me to the sound of Charlie Parker. He would tilt his head slightly and adjust his shades (he always wore sunglasses) and say in that cool quiet voice he had....."Jit!  Dig it, man. "Bird" lives".  And then that silent laugh.


He said that a short time after Bird passed, his friends played a benefit concert someplace in NYC and just as the curtain opened and before the first note, a large, white feather floated down from the ceiling above the seats and the cry arose. "Bird lives!"

Well.....who knows? 

I came to know Lester Young ("Prez"), "Miles" and "Diz".  They all  seemed like personal friends of  Joes, although it was never verified.

Joe came from Hartford and told me story's of sex and scandal involving himself and family members and nights on the fire-escape. And drugs. He also possessed the ability to grow a five-o'clock shadow less then 20 seconds after he shaved. He always looked bristly and unkempt.  He treated life like a cruel joke played by the Almighty with gloom proceeding his foot steps and pent up anger bubbling quietly below the surface.

Joe Bananas as Remembered by Yours Truly
He had a gimmick in which we would eat at a restaurant and, after being presented with a bill, he would slap the offensive piece of paper and declare in a loud stage whisper.

"That's outrageous. I won't pay!"  But, of course, he always did. And he always left a big tip. I have adopted this mock exhibition of deep insult and, to this day, I mutter the same words after being presented with the bill for remuneration at any and all places that deal with food or drink.

Ask my wife or kids.

A few years later, I, and Brian M. (one of perhaps the 2 or 3 people I have ever known in my life who I would consider a true friend.) bought a 1953 Studebaker Lark with a V8 mill that had so much torque that when you revved the motor, the front end of the car would twist violently and we drove it almost half way across the country. That's another story, but our first stop was in Hartford. I blindly looked for Joe's number out of a 100 year old phone book in a dingy booth and actually found him. He took us both home to his parents house, where he still lived and treated Bri and I like kings. We even went out that night to a local jazz club.

Years before, in Fort Bliss, Bananas and I would get weekend passes and always checked into a room at the McCoy Hotel in El Paso.  We hung around with another guy; a short squat Jewish gnome from New York city with the name of Al Cohen and the three of us would wander across the "Bridge of the Americas" into Ciudad Juarez, once known as El Paso del Norte; there to indulge our young mens pleasures and passions; checking out jazz clubs and hang-outs where musicians played.

A Must for Your Jazz Library
Juarez was not as it is now, with a murder every day. Back then it was a warm, lovely town of "mariachis" and silver belt buckles with turquoise inlay; dark eyed women and the thrum of "guitarones" where all things were available, or at least, there were people would make you believe it so.

It was from a jazz club record machine in a cavernous, cool dark dance hall called the "El Presidente" where I first heard the Brubeck quartet with the famous single "Take Five"  with Dave, Joe Morello (drummer), Paul Desmond (alto sax and composer of the song) and Eugene Wright (double bass).  It was in 5/4 time and after I dropped a few more dimes in the juke-box, (yes it was a dime back then)  I also heard "Blue Rondo A-La Turk" in 9/8 time, which really twisted my head and "Pick Up Sticks" in which Morello famously drops his drum sticks at the end of the cut.


Joe Bananas barely moved his head; and yet, with tiny snaps of his bearded chin, he kept perfect time. Cohen grinned from ear to ear in that knowing way. Al had spent several years in a kibbutz right outside Tel Aviv. Armed with sub-machine guns, he and other kibbutznik's would work in the fields
. He had left Israel before he could serve time in the IDS. When he got back to New York, he was drafted.

God has his little jokes.

I'm telling you all this because Dave Brubecks birthday is coming up. He will be 90. Yes, he is still among us. And still playing. He just finished up a gig in Worcester, Mass. on November 19th.  His birthday is December 6th, a day before me. I always felt a kinship with him, in that sense.

It also just so happens that the Turner Classic Movie Channel is presenting a new documentary, Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way this Sunday, December 5th. The executive producer is Clint Eastwood (a composer and good pianist in his own right) and it's directed by Bruce Ricker, who has previously collaborated with Clint on tributes to Johnny Mercer and Tony Bennett. The footage sculpts a loving image of the man and is a fitting tribute to a legend who wears his fame, and his ageless talent, lightly.

I don't know if Joe Bananas is still around. But, if so, he is probably smiling from under is shades and nodding....ever so slightly.

© 2010 George Locke

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Football Game, A Pizza And A Funeral

Yesterday, I was at the Flatbread Pizza Company in downtown Portsmouth NH.  Congress Street. Lots of winding roads in Portsmouth. Easy to get lost. But we didn't. What we did was eat some really good pizza..
Flatbread Ambiance

We walked into the place and there was a crowd. Of course, there was a crowd at every resteruant in town. But, even though we were told by a very nice young woman there would be a 25 to 30 minute wait we decided to stay. It beat standing outside in the cold. I asked for directions to the mens room and the nice young woman said "Like, totally dude." and directed me.  I was flattered. I'm over 60 and haven't been called "dude" for a long time. 

I don't even resemble Jeff Bridges.

Well. Maybe a tiny bit.

The place was a vast, dark, open chasm of noise, music, people, swirling discs of dough, great smells, smoke, clay ovens and wooden paddles. They serve organic stuff. Mostly pizzas, of course. Reasonable prices and great ambiance. 

Great Big Eyes
As we waited for our food, which was served within a reasonable time period (Under 30 minutes.)  I heard the song that was playing in the background. Whitney Houston moaned "I'll Always Love You."  A song written by a secret obsession of mine, Dolly Parton. Great voice. Great big eyes. And a decent guitar player. Really.

There's this part that comes somewhere in the middle; where Whitney sings,".....and I'll....always love you...ou..ou..ou ou. Always  love you.............oooooooooou!"

You know the part I'm talking about. And apparently so did half the crowd in the place; for right on cue, everybody ululated at the "love you" part. Right in tune and at the right tempo. For a few moments, the folks at "The Flatbread Pizza Co." were in sync. 

And then things went back to a happy, busy hum.

There are gatherings of people where a certain song weave's itself into the very fabric of the ether and the crowd suddenly becomes the audio fabric of that moment. 

I'll give you another example, and this one blind-sided me.

Liverpudlian Fans Imitating Gerry and the Pacemakers
The Liverpool (England) Football Club started a tradition of singing Gerry and the Pacemakers 1963 version of Rodgers and Hammersteins "You'll Never Walk Alone", before every match.

You know the song. 

Carousel.  Jerry' s Kids. Yeah, thats the one.

It's a little more jaunty then the Broadway version. But so is Gerry Marsden.

I'm a middle age guy with a pot-belly from the northeastern part of the US. 

Football to me means Tom Brady marching the New England Patriots down the field with short, and middle distance passes and thumping the Pittsburgh Steelers. Or...who ever gets in his way. I know little to nothing about soccer. Especially the part when Liverpool (or in some cases Celtic, depending on who you talk to.) sings this song.

The first time I heard this on a YouTube clip, I was floored. It blew me away. The fans were standing and holding their scarves and singing and it is truly a beauteous thing to behold.

There are songs that hold us together, somehow. Many times they are unconscious in their interpretation; we sing them in particles and pieces, and somehow they come out all right.

This morning I attended the funeral of a friend. A lovely woman who brought much joy to those around her and who lived her faith with courage and wit while suffering through a debilitating sickness. And at the end of the mass, the congregation sang "Amazing Grace" as her coffin was slowly wheeled up the center aisle.

People groped for their hymnals, but most didn't really need them; as we all have an idea of how that song is sung. The tune has skirrled from pipes when those in law-enforcement or the military are honored and has floated gently in the air through the honey voice of Judy Collins. It is a song for the ages.

Listen closely the next time you are in a crowded place with music. If it's a well known tune, chances are some one or, possibly most, will sing a word or two.

Speaking of public singing, check out Youtube for "Flashmob singing".  It may be a commercial, but it gets your attention.

Copyright © 2010 George Locke











  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

He Made Me Want To Diddle My Deedle

"If I were a rich man. diddle diddle deedle diddle die." A comment made by Tevya to The Lord.

I lust for this part.  It has become my deepest desire.  But, I am scared to death to play it; for so many good men have donned the personae of  the Russian milk-man and I am fearful of botching it.

Wait.

Let me back up a bit.

Jerry Bock died Wednesday of complications from a stroke.

He was 81.

It was he and Sheldon Harnick that prompted me to attempt the diddling of the aforementioned.

Not only myself, but countless men have wished to don work boots, make-up stained tunic( with a vest), trousers,  artfully crumpled hat and prayer shawl and prance about the stage, arguing with God and expressing a very logical desire to be a rich man. Not only men such as myself but, according to Jason Robert Brown, creator of the Broadway hit "The Last Five Years" even a gay midget named Karl.

In Ohio.

Bock and Harnick more or less owned Broadway from 1958 to 1970, writing such hits as the Pulitzer Prize winning "Fiorello" (which we talked about a few weeks ago at the passing of Tom Bosley) "She Loves Me' and "Fiddler On The Roof" which debuted in 1964 and has become the staple of  high school (even elementary school) music teachers and directors.

The premise seems, at first, far from the flamboyancy of  musical gems such as "My Fair Lady", or "West Side Story" and yet this tale, based on the works of Yiddish writer Scholom Aleichem and a book by Joseph Stein (incidentally, Stein died just a week before Bock!); plunks us down in the fictional little Russian town of Anatevka at the turn of the last century and holds our attention from the first note the shaky fiddler strokes to the final scene as the town, now suffering, once again, a dysprosium and scattering of His chosen people, straggles off stage, following the now grounded fiddler..

I have often wished for a family background filled with some sort of diverse ethnicity then the white-bread, Anglo-Saxon ancestry I bear.  I'm not belittling the Locke or Heath clans. It's only` genealogy envy..

We always think the family on the other side of the fence sounds spicier.

"Fiddler" (as it is often called) is crammed with color and foot stomping exhilaration. The tunes arrange themselves in your mind in such a way that you will never forget them. If you come from the place I grew up, it opens vast windows of cultural panoramas and tableau's of places you have never imagined..

The show spawned an Oscar award winning movie and Grammy for best soundtrack. It has become a cultural phenomena, appearing in the strangest of places. (ie: the endi



ng of "The Bob Newhart Show" when the entire Vermont town Bob dreamed of left our tv screen with the strains of "Avatevka" playing in the back-ground.)

Jerry Bock used his knowledge of the Yiddish theater and clarinet led klezmer bands as a launching pad for "Fiddler" and we were blessed with music for the ages.

Thank you, Jerry. May you stand beside the heavenly fiddler and
                                                                direct His notes.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Me And My Arrow


Straight-up and narrow.

I still hum that tune and juggle those lyrics around, every now and then. I liked the 1971 animated ABC Movie of the Week (and the first full length cartoon granted prime-time status, excluding a Disney flic or two.). My kids, now fully grown with babes of their own, also enjoyed a nodding acquaintance. As a dj in a small market town, I got some of the cast-off promo albums that the music director (md) didn't want. The soundtrack to "The Point" was one of them.

What can I say about Harry Nilsson? He was born in 1941, a full year before me, and died in 1994. He wrote music with lyrics that invaded the melody and filled all the empty spots perfectly. His work was hand-crafted and is timeless
.
He was also uncanny in his interpretation of other composers, such as Fred Neils' "Everybody's Talkin' At Me." from the Academy Award winning movie, "Midnight Cowboy" and from which he received a Grammy.


My last blog cradled a self-destructive life. And Harry certainly had, some think; especially toward the end; the same destination in mind. There is a documentary out there; "Who Is Harry Nilsson And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?" written and directed by John Schienfeld and released in 2007.  It's available on Netflix. If you want to learn more of Harry's' life, check it out.

Paul Williams, he of  "Rainy Days and Mondays", "We've Only Just Begun" and other hits of the 70's and 80's and a friend of Harrys once called him a "big bunny.......with sharp teeth."  Paul was closely connected with The Muppets and I think of his song, "The Rainbow Connection" with fondness.

I think Harry was more of a living muppet then a bunny. Sort of like John Denver and Mother Angelica. In real life they were caricatures of Jim Hensons creations. He was likable but distant in many ways. He never did any live touring concerts. When asked, he would usually reply..."That's for other people."

Mickey Dolenz (Monkee fans take a bow) once described Harry as living life in a car going at full speed at all times and rather then slowing down when approaching a stone wall would hurtle right at it. Incidentally, Mickey and fellow band member Davy Jones did voice overs for the movie; Davy speaking Oblio's (the main character) lines and Mickey assorted other voices.

It is the RCA album, "A Touch of Schmilsson in the Night" that still floors me every time I hear it. It was released in 1973 and featured a 39 piece ochestra and the voice of Harry flawlessly interpreting some great american songbook songs. His voice can break your heart and heal it again, all in one song.

I think it was Irving Berlins 1923 ballad, "What'll I Do?" that dove head-first into my heart. It was during a turbulent time in my life and the song struck a very large chord. Other masterpieces include, "This Is All I Ask", "As Time Goes By" and "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now?"

Johnathan Schwartz still plays tunes from that magnificent album every now and then as he explores "Seriously Sinatra and High Standards" for Sirius radio.

Harry was friends to many, including John Lennon and Ringo Star. I thought of him as a contemporary and noted his passing with sadness. Only one of the three talents I mentioned are with us. And each year the list gets smaller and smaller.

I think the change of seasons is getting to me. I promise to be a bit more upbeat the next time we get together.If you like good music interpreted in a stunning fashion, look into "A Touch of Schmillson in the Night." You wont be sorry

© 2010 George Locke

Saturday, October 30, 2010

No Regrets






Hey, I know you're busy, but....can you spare a minute? Do you see those two women over there?  The African American lady with a touch of swagger? Yes, that one. And the white lady beside her?  The one that looks as though a slight breath of air would knock her over? The one with the eyes that stare into your head and bore holes in your soul?

That one is Edith Piaf.  The other is Billy Holiday. And I've been thinking about them, lately.

You see, there's this cabaret review I'm involved with.

Small. Intimate. A tiny theater in central New Hampshre called the Music Clinic; and a member, Laurie McDaniel, a slight, sweet woman with a powerful voice, has chosen to sing Piaf's signature "La Vie en rose". I've listened every night for the past few weeks to this song and Laurie's interpretation of one of Frances' greatest gifts And I became intrigued with Edith.

While growing up, I heard my Quebecois grandfather and my own mother speak in hushed tones of this chanteuse. They quickly changed the subject when I asked. Only saying that she was a wonderful singer. And I heard her scratchy recordings on a wind-up Victrola. A voice of deep poignancy with a vibrato to give you chills. I didn't speak French. But after listening to her sing "Je ne regrette rien", I felt..... somehow... different.  

While casting about on the internet, I noticed that Netflix offered the Oscar-award winning movie of the same name. So, early one afternoon this week, I started watching the actress Marion Cottilard  consumed by the role of "The Little Sparrow" in Olivier Dahans stunning  2007 French/Canadian production of, "La Vie en rose." It was like being present when a train crashed, or an airliner drops from the sky. You don't  want to watch; but you have to.
Towards the beginning of the film, Edith is seen talking to someone in a record studio and behind her on the walls are large photo's of Billy Holiday. She loved Lady Day.

They were both born in the same year and shared a bruised bond of self-inflicted abuse and epic personal tragedy.

Billie Holliday was loved by many things. Men, women, microphones, the needle; but seldom herself  She was born in 1915. Both women were pulled from the people they loved, Both grew up in brothels. Both seldom saw their parents. They each sang and people stopped in their tracks to listen. They both embraced addiction with alcohol and drugs  They spent money. They lived a life of  reckless abandonment, and were connected with those beyond the law. They shared smears from the press and adoration by their fans.  They died within a few years of each other; wrapped in fragile bodies that had become withered, like dry leaves.

But it is Edith and this movie I want to speak of. If you see only one picture in the next month, it must be "La Vie en rose".  I recommend it for the acting. For the non-lineal way the film unfolds. For the brilliant editing by Richard Marizy and the cinematography by Tatsuo Nagata. And the direction.

Cottilard has said her life was changed by working with Olivier Dahans and donning the persona of Piaf. You believe she is "La Mome Piaf" as her life unfolds in flashbacks and then played forward.(Spoiler alert) There is a scene in which she learns of the death of her lover that cannot be described. It must be seen to be felt with all it's intensity. I was drawn to this movie and, though there were times I wanted to go and do other things, I could not. It was that mesmerizing, and it is easy to see why Cottilard won the Oscar as best Actress. My God. That face. Those eyes. Those hands. Her body as it grotesquely ages (another Oscar for makeup). She has channeled Edith, and it is almost too much to look at.

But look you will, in this brilliant bio-pic.

There is a moving scene in the film, "Saving Private Ryan" in which a group of GI's are sitting around in this bombed out shell of a French town in Normandy. The American/French translator, Specialist Timothy B. Upham (played by Jeremy Davies) attached to the unit has found a wind-up record player with a long sound-horn and some records by Piaf. As they are playing, to while away the time, he translates the words to his comrades  And as he speaks, these rough young men of war are visibly softened by her voice and what she is singing about.

I can't tell you more, other then you must see this picture. Much of the singing is from Piafs own recordings. But the acting is Colliards' alone. And it is breathtaking.

You can hear the ghost-like wisps of  "The Little Sparrow" when Laurie sings. If you need directions to the theater, give me a call.  The show runs through tomorrow, October 31st.

© 2010 George Locke 







.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Of Soul Searching And Found Gems




Wow! I picked up the paper today and saw that a long overlooked composition by Kris Kristofferson, "Why Me Lord", arranged as a duet between Johnny Cash AND Ray Charles from 1981 has been located and will be released to the general public soon. I got the warm-fuzzies as I read the article. I don't often get the warm-fuzzies, because I'm usually too busy talking to allow anything to interrupt.

I talk far too much for my own good, and, if not for a gentle word now and again from my wife, would blather on forever in gatherings; not allowing anyone else to join in the conversation.

I say things that are a bit "off color" and reveal what I have been asked not to repeat in public.

I am "on" from the moment I get up till my head hits the pillow. And sometimes even while asleep I can disrupt Rose.

This is not a George bash. Just fact.

The one person I can count on to forgive my transgressions, even ahead of my loving wife and family, is Jesus.

I don't talk about my spiritual life very often; except with the people I consider friends, and if you have read this far, then you must share some friendship with me.

I have been kept from harming myself and others for almost 68 years on this earth by Jesus' grace and protection. There were times when, in a younger body and thinking (or not) with a younger mind, I could have left this mortal coil, as the Bard would say, in a spectacular ball of flame and explosive roar of twisted metal.

Or, more likely, with a pathetic whimper.

But he kept me around for a reason, one of them being to write songs for His glory.

There are many good gospel singers, musicians and songwriters out there too numerous to list, including Michael W. Smith, Marty Hagen, among others.

Occasionally, artists from the popular music world will cross over, as is the case with Kristofferson and his perfect song of love and repentance.

He poignantly sings/talks in that gruff voice and asks the question; "....... what have a ever done to deserve even one of the pleasures I've know?" Its a powerful plea to heaven asking for help to do then things that need to be done to repay our Savior for His death on the cross for all of us.

Youtube has a great clip of "The Man In Black" himself doing the song (in this case just his acoustic guitar and humble voice) and another of Kristofferson, which I think is just as powerful. But the idea of Cash singing with Brother Ray soulfully backing him is something I will look forward to hearing.

Amen.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Politics and Poker




The passing of Tom Bosley last week brought into focus the life of a sweet gentle man who's presence was always reassuring.

Bosley was the "Dad" we sometimes wish we had. He was grounded with a marvelous ability to be himself with perfect timing and a professional sense of responsibility that led others (including Henry Winkler and the cast of "Happy Days") to ask him for advice when faced with difficult decisions.

He started in radio, and movies, but his big breakthrough was as Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia in the Tony award winning musical "Fiorello" in 1960. His interpretation of the rotund, Tammany Hall fighting moderate Republican, who is best remembered for reading the comics to the children over the radio when the newspapers went on strike in the early 1930's, won him the Best Actor in a musical, as well as the musical itself topping the "best of the year" list. "Fiorello" also won a Pulitzer prize, one of only eight Broadway shows to do so.

Such songs from the the show as "Politics and Poker" (one of my favorite tunes from the Great White Way) and "A Little Tin Box", a song sung by a flock of crooked politicians before a judge investigating corruption in New Yorks city hall, are musical gems long overlooked.

Politics and music don't always go hand in hand, but there have been times when the song writers were right on target, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick ("Fiorello") included.

The Gershwins collaborated with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskin in 1931 with a satiric musical entitled "Of Thee I Sing" which gave us a few memorable tunes, such as the title and "Love Is Sweeping the Country" (Like the Birdies Above) sung by George Murphy and June O'Dea. I'm not sure but I think this song is the theme song for a 1950's sit-com starring either Peter Lawford or Robert Cummings. Or none of the above.

By the way, the show was successful with it's satiric slant even though Kaufman once remarked that ,"Satire is what closes on Saturday night."

There have, of course, always been political theme songs, such as "I Like Ike" from the 1950 presidential race. Dwight Eisenhower (the aforementioned Ike) easily won as he promised to go to Washington to "clean up the house". There was no cleaning. Just a new interior decorator.

Did you ever noticed that about politicians, both coming and going? They always say "we" meaning you and I, are sick of things and they will go to Washington to straighten them out and clean house.

You know what? Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart are dead. Mr. Smith does not go to Washington anymore, and, frankly, nothing changes. Four years from now, another group will be howling for change. Probably the same ones who are whining now about mud-slinging and wringing their hands as the clock towards mid term election day ticks perilously closer to H hour.

"Politics and poker. Politics and poker. Open up the pack and find the joker."

Yep. Fiorello got it right.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Late Again



Well, I did it again. Missed another birthday. My children (and, unfortunately grandchildren), flung far and wide across this land have become painfully aware of the lack of memory I have when it comes to that day we all celebrate once a year.

Two of my boys have birthdays this month that I managed to miss and several musical legends have slipped under my radar. The musical legends are dead and can't complain. My progeny can and have every right to.

What is it that allows a person approaching 68 years on this earth to wander somewhat aimlessly through life and miss the high-lights? Like birthdays? I hope it's not ego, which sometimes staggers me with it's weight. And I can't blame age, because I have always dealt with this issue.

It's probably short term moronic hiccups. Brain farts that stink up the place.

I'm sorry guys (and girls). Dad and Grampa George has never missed things purposefully. He just needs to try a little harder.

By the way yesterday was John Burks Gillespie (Dizzy) birthday. He of bent horn and soul patch (before it was called that) and bull-frog swelling of the neck, throat and cheeks. Google's logo for him was less then good. It was stupid.

Diz spit balled his way out of Cab (Hi-Dee-Ho) Calloways (later of the movie "The Blues Brothers") band and became the hip-ster daddy of bop along with Charlie Parker, Miles and a handful of others; mostly on 52nd Street. He side-stepped narcotics and gave us "Salt Peanuts", "Night in Tunisia" and "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop". He influenced Chico O'Farrell and Pancho Sanza and a legion of afro/latin based bands.

And the first time I saw his body swell so that his face disappeared leaving only a sepia toned melon for a head with horn rimmed glasses and a piece of bent brass protruding from his mouth, I almost lost my lunch.

But my. What beautiful sounds.

Diz is gone.

My children are still here. I love you madly, and though I might have not said it enough, not a day goes by in which I do not think of you. You are always on my mind.

Love
Dad

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Greatest Baseball Song Ever Written




The title sells the content, doesn't it?

And it could go on forever.

I'm not a big fan of "...the best of anything" because "best" is purely subjective, and with the estimated population of our planet nearing seven billion (at this hour), the "best" could get a bit crowded.

Plus, it is necessary to actually think; something that does not always fit my busy schedule.

However since this is the season of ground balls between the legs, bloody socks, grit and grand-stand heroics against all odd, and because so many songs have been written on the subject, I think a musical smack-down is in order.

To go on-line and Google would be cheating somewhat, so I dug around amidst the synapses and flotsam of my well worn brain and pried forth a few.

It sort of helps that I, along with a lot of other good people were in a show written and produced and directed (the New England answer to Orson Wells) by my brother Gary Locke and "The Players Ring" about a year and a half ago called, "Play Ball".

"Take Me Out To The Ballgame" of course jumps right out. This aging paean to the grand-old game brims with memories of Ernie Harwell directing the crowd to sing along or Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in the 1940's movie of the same name. It can be instantly recognizable to anyone, including those who could not care a fig about the game.

"Glory Days" by The Boss still rocks and rolls over that guy who relives a past that he never caught up with.

The Chairman of the Board, the aforementioned Sinatra, sang a haunting song so wonderfully interpreted by Paul Lusier in the show, "Play Ball". "There Used to Be a Ballpark". He gave me shivers every night.

The little known, but perfect story of "Catfish", written in part by Bob Dylan is baseball from a slide guitar and an open bottle of booze.

From Broadway we get "You Gotta Have Heart" an aging managers exhortation to a team that has to face those "Damn Yankees". Yes. I said it. DAMN YANKEES!

So many songs. So little time.

The cool as an ice-cube Dave Frishberg has written several songs to his favorite sport. Among them is the immortal "Van Lingo Mungo" and a misty eyed look at "Dodger Blue".

Noel Paul Stokey gave us a piece of our lives with his recording of "Right Field"; a song which sadly (and comically) declares where many boys (and girls) found themselves.

In keeping with the theme, "Centerfield"; a chart topper gift from John Fogerty proclaims the promise that each spring sprouts a-new.

Although technically not a song, a car radio hissing and crackling and Phil Rizutto providing the play-by-play background in "Meatloafs'" "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" should be included in what would become the steamy anthemn for many front-seat lovers in days of yor. It was so succesful, that Epic records released a version for those of us in New England who cling to grand hopes and awake to smashed dream; with Dick Stockton providing the breathless commentary as a steal of home is attempted.

Dozens of albums have been release extolling the game and hundred of songs written. It comes as no surprise that no other game hold so many feelings to so many of us. Not football, (only a jaunty ditty penned by Johnny Mercer called "Jamboree Jones" comes to mind, along with a forgetable song called "You Gotta Be A Football Hero [To Get Along With The Beautiful Girls]".

So, what is your favorite musical recognition of a game we all know that is designed to break your heart?

Friday, October 8, 2010

John




I gave my fourth son his name. Not the seventeenth century philosopher. The other one who had his birthday celebrated by Google with a multimedia "logo" tribute featuring the spidery wire-frame glasses within the thin, wistful self portrait. The music they chose was a snippet of "Imagine". Even today, I choke up when I hear those simple, block piano chords, and his working class hero voice.

He shares a place with "The American Songbook". It was here, in this country where he achieved his greatest triumphs; though England can certainly claim his place of birth. If not for the power and world wide influence of Capitol Records and Hollywood, John Lennon would not have become one of most powerful icons of 20th century music.

John Winston Lennon can easily stand beside Elvis, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan and George Gershwin, to name a few.

His face, which stares out at us from numerous record jackets; plunked on a head and dressed in a generations clothes that threatened to race ahead of Carnaby Street and Sunset Boulevard, (black leather jackets, Nehru collars, Victorian military uniforms or buck- naked); hair styles, one of which was named for the band he played with and several musical styles, is instantly recognizable. Even my children, who's ages span the early forty's to the mid teens, know his music. My 331/3 rpm record collection bulges with his work, and my 21 year old has stuffed his iPod with everything Lennon.

I liked him the moment I saw him, chewing gum and singing while hunched over that Rickenbacker guitar, his legs slightly apart and bobbing gently with a sleepy-eyed wise look. Lord, he was cool. I wanted to be him. Even more then I wanted to be Dylan. And with that wish, I found myself drifting from acoustic into electric. And a year or so later, so did Bob.

Google says they want to celebrate his birthday, as opposed to that terrible December day many years ago when he was shot in New York city by a young man who possessed a brain squirming like a toad.

My brother was born on December ninth. My self, December seventh. John Lennon was killed on the eighth of that month. Somehow, I consider that fact important, although I'm not sure why. I wept the day he died. Like Mr. Holland.

He, with Sir Paul, wrote songs that we hum. His performances were, at once, stand up and knock-you-out electric, and in the next moment softly intense. He was in your face and charmingly sweet.

He was part of the most celebrated quartet of our time. And later became a voice of moderation and love in a world swirling with change.

I loved him, though at times I grew frustrated with that left-leaning social intensity he carried with Yoko. I couldn't understand what he wanted or where he was going.

I will be 68 this December. John would be seventy today. I wonder where he would have taken us if not taken from us thirty years ago. Opera's, perhaps? Movies that would break new ground, as did "Yellow Submarine"? Maybe a tour with the remaining..........ah no. I will not go there.

I can only Imagine.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Viva Las Vegas, Jacques!




The last few weeks have found me busy with a show called "Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris". Besides being one of the longest working titles of anything I have been involved in ("A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum" running a close second) it also possesses some of the most gut wrenching lyrics I have ever listened to.

Since I am involved as a guitarist in this production, I have been able to absorb much of what is performed and have come to the conclusion that Brel was an ego-maniacal, eclectic, mad, fantastic genius.

Songs like "The Bulls", or "Fannette", or "Next" hurtle at you. And, as you try to stop them from puncturing your soul, sometimes you fail and are left with a bitter/sweet wound.

Actually, that description would be typical of a Brel lyric.

This post involves the "American Songbook", and in my spare moments, I have found a direct link from Brel to America through his translator, Mort Shuman.

Shuman, born of Polish Jewish immigants in Brooklyn New York in 1936 and died in 1991 from complications after a liver operation. He left behind a wife and four young daughters.

Shuman began writing music and lyrics at the age of 18 while attending The Music Conservatory of New York. He was affected by his love of rhythm and blues and he, along with another son of Jewish immigrants, Doc Pomus, (born Jerome Solon Felder) soon found himself at the Brill Building; that vast concrete and steel percolator of popular song that bent, irrevocably, the course of American music.

His work includes such hits as "Why Must I Be A Teenager In Love", "Save The Last Dance For Me" and erstwhile single-name superstar Fabians' "Turn Me Loose", (oy!)

Allowing for that, he was also the co-writer of "This Magic Moment", "Little Sister" and "Viva Las Vegas", a song that sweeps us back to a time of rhinestones, white leather fringed jump-suits with large collars and the comeback of "The King".

Shuman and Pomus eventually went to Europe where they wrote and sometimes performed songs rather successfully to a huge segment of those thirsting for things American. Such French hits as "Allo Papa Tango Charlie", "Sha Mi Sha" and "Brooklyn By The Sea".

He wrote for the French rockquer Johnny Halladay and even had time to write a hit for Small Faces in England; "Sha La La La Lee".

Mort Shuman was constantly honing his craft and wrote a musical overseas entitled, "Budgie". It was not terribly successful, but it introduced him to the English lyricist Don Black ("Born Free", "To Sir With Love", "Diamonds Are Forever" and a host of Bond movies.) And with this knowledge he began one of his greatest works; a revue highlighting the songs of Jacques Brel.

Occasionally, the full impact of Brels words have been lost in translation; such as "Ne Me Quitte Pas".

Originally written as "Don't Leave Me", Rod McKuen (a close friend of Brel) sings it as "If You Go Away". There is a line which translated correctly says something to the effect "....as for me I will offer you pearls of rain which comes from a country where rain never falls".

Shuman translates as "...but if you stay, I will make you a day that has never been nor will be again."

Somehow, the lyricism is lost.

But it sold a million copy's.

Mort Shuman, along with composer (Milton) Eric Blau, eagerly dove into the music by Brel and produced the revue herein mentioned.

The original opening song shows a knack for writing, but, again, looses something in the translation. "Les Flamandes" as composed by Brel, is a tongue in cheek assessment of the Flemish. But Shuman and Blau turn it into "Marathon", a miniature time line of the United States in the 20th Century, and it bares no relationship to the original.

Regardless of flaws, this revue has been successfully done and redone many times since it opened on Broadway in 1968.

The Music Clinic Theatre Company in central New Hampshire has produced the latest manifestation.

And it is grand! Cest magnefique!

Each member of the cast; Erin Murphy, Bo Guyer, Tom Mann, Rodney Martell and Laurie McDaniel (the creative director and heart of this show) is tuned to perfection. The songs spill into the audience with elan and bright courage. There is joy, trust, cynicism, love and despair, which is worn on the sleeve of each performer.

And the music director, Justin McCarthy plays with a steady hand and a professionalism seldom found in "small market" theater productions.

Then there is me.

A short, gnome-like guitar player with a desire to help, and a limited arsenal of knowledge.

But it works.

From now through July 31st, it is the perfect way to spend a warm summer evening. As if strolling The Rue De La Pais. Call 603 677-2777 for more info.

Ahh yes, I remember it well.

© 2010 George Locke

Friday, July 9, 2010

What The Person With The Verdigris Said




I'm dyin'

No, really

I'm doin' what the witch said at the end of "Wizard of Oz".

No. Not moaning, "What a world. What a world."

Although that thought has occurred, along with a deep sigh in Al Gore's direction. Tough enough going through a divorce, (even a 'mutually agreeable one, whatever the hell that means....believe me, there is no such animal, no matter how many teeth the separating couple may show in their smiles...it gets ugly at some point, and no one is happy!) now you see what you were talking about has some convenient truth.

I'm melting!

So I have been humming Cole Porter's opus to heat for the last few days.

"It's too darn hot. It's too darn hot. I'd love to sup, with my baby tonight. And play the p-" Well, you get where I'm going. Hopefully anywhere away from the heat here in the northeast.

Hot, hazy and humid.

I wonder if Porter wrote that song when in the middle of one of these stupid meteorological monstrosity's? If he did, he's a better then I am, Gunga Din.

Now there's a guy who understood heat.

"Though I've belted you and flayed you, by the livin' god that made you, you're a better man then I am, Gunga Din." Rudyard Kipling brought the regimental bhisti to life.

And so did Sam Jaffee who played said water bearer in loin-cloth-clad role of a lifetime back in 1939.

When Bob Dylan re-recorded "You Aint Going Nowhere" for "Greatest Hits Volume 2", the re-written lyrics included the line, "Clouds so swift an' rain fallin' in / Gonna see a movie called 'Gunga Din'".

I knew we'd find a music connection some where.

And who could forget that great comedy record in which a much shot-full-of holes Gunga Din tries to play the bugle, (Spoiler Alert, Spoiler Alert) to warn the soldiers, while perched at-top a ridge and as the recording continues the bugling get more distorted and horrible.

Until he dies.

Which takes me back to the beginning of this piece.

Now, there have been other songs about heat, from the American Songbook.

Irving Berlins "Heat Wave".

We're having a heat wave
A tropical heat wave
The temperatures rising
It isn't surprising
She certainly can.
Can-can.

N
ope. I'm sorry, but if a partially clad female were to wander by me in the midst of a Can-Can, my lightly steamed eye-lids would register nary a flicker. Boiling temperatures and gut wrenching humidity do not for love make, Young Skywalker.

Porter had it right.

It's too darn hot.
It's too darn hot.
I'd like to sup with my baby tonight.
And play the pup, with my baby tonight
But I'm not up to my baby tonight.
Cause it's too darn hot.

But enough blogging. It's just too darn hot. It make me limp.

© 2010 George Locke






Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kazoo's, Scarecrows and Starship Troopers




Frank Loesser was born a hundred years ago today.

He makes me think of scarecrows and kazoo's. And Robert Heinlein.

Bear with me on this one.

Frank Loesser wrote the happiest songs I have ever sung or heard sung. Just the titles make you smile.

"Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition". It was written a few days after Pearl Harbor and helped a stunned nation shake it's head, reeling from a punch, and focus on the enormous changes that lay ahead for America in the next five years. The title was based on an apocryphal statement uttered by a US Navy chaplain aboard a ship under attack at Pearl.

Tommy Tune is not the original long legg-ed lanky dancer. The original is Ray Bolger; the fumbling scarecrow in the 1939 classic "Wizard of Oz".

And it was his buttery voice that sang "Once In Love With Amy" from Loessers' 1948 Broadway show, "Where's Charley?" The song stopped the show every night, and Bolgers' low growl and lecherous laugh and his plea for everybody to "...sing along with me!" had the audience doing just that. God, but I love that song.

Loesser wrote good songs. After "Where's Charley" he strung together some stunners with a wonderful story for "Guys and Dolls"; considered by some the "best" Broadway musical comedy ever written. Such songs.

"Luck be Lady", "Fugue for a Tinhorn", "If I Were A Bell" and the title song just pop out of the speakers and the smiles dance across the faces.

"Most Happy Fella'" gave us "Standing of the Corner", and "Im-a' the most happy fella. In-a the whole Napa Valley......!!"

There was a near miss with "Greenwillow" and one ot the songs, "Never Will I Marry" is difficult for those that attempt to sing it. Including your's truly.

And movies. O Lord. What songs.

MGM's "Hans Christian Anderson" is one movie I could watch over and over. "Inch Worm", "Anywhere I Wander", "Thumbelina", and the title with the seasoned warmth of Danny Kaye pushing out those lyrics to those sweet, sweet tunes.

Other movie hits include, "Baby It's Cold Outside". A sleek Ricardo Montalban (yes the same actor who gave Kirk fits as Khan Noonien Singh) seduces Esther Williams. Another duo of the same tune by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett from "Neptunes Daughter".

Who hasn't plinked "Heart and Soul" out on the piano? Hoagy Charmichael wrote the tune but Frank gave us the words. Tom Hanks the ultimate version in "Big".

"Slow Boat to China", "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" and "Two Sleepy People" sung in that slow southern way by the aforementioned Charmichael.

I think of kazoo's when I think of Frank Loesser. Bobby Morse with that upturned chin and grin of impetuous youth from "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Singing "I Believe in You" to his reflection with a kazoo chorus behind him.

And Frank wrote the song, "The Ballad of Roger Young" about a real Medal of Honor Winner who died in the south Pacific during World War 2. It's a song of courage and selflessness that is quoted extensively by Robert Heinlein in his sci-fi opus "Starship Troopers." I never thought to make the leap from "Guys and Dolls" to the 1997 film by Paul Verhooeven. But I did.

Frank Loesser. The world smells sweeter for his being around.

His daughter Susan wrote in her biography about him that "...he was a bright burning comet who's light was extinguished too soon"

I'll drink to that.

© 2010 George Locke

Friday, June 11, 2010

Where Would We Be Without A Song?




Vincent Millie Youmans. Born in 1898 and died in 1946 was a member of that pantheon of American Songbook genius's that gave us so much.

He wrote melodies. Wonderful tunes that appeared in such Broadway shows as "No No Nanette", (which, as a Red Sox fan I wish to distance myself; see "Curse, Bambino of" filed under "No Longer Applicable".) or movies like "Flying Down To Rio" in which we first glimpse Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (they were NOT the stars; it was Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond) dancing together to "The Carioca".

You remember. That was the scene where Fred and Ginger were touching foreheads as they twirled about on a fabulous RKO set. At one point they even comically "clonked" together like coconuts.

But, I digress.

Youmans also wrote such terrific time surpassing goodies such as "Tea For Two", "I Want To Be Happy"and a song which pierces my heart with such sweetness that it almost makes me weep when I hear it sung, "More Then You Know."

But, with lyrics by Billy Rose and Edward Eliscu we were favored with "Without A Song".

And it is upon this I wish to meditate.

There have been wonderful interpretations of this from Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet and Louis Armstrong to "Little" Jimmy Scott, Mahalia Jackson and Nana Mouskouri (who has a remarkable version available on Youtube.) My favorite is Ray Charles' from "Standards" in which he implores the Raylettes to "sing the song, children."

There are only a few songs which contain the perfect intersection of words and lyrics that make it what I consider, a Profound song. I capitalize "profound" because it transcends your average into someplace deeper. A few examples of "Profound" songs are:

The aforementioned, "More Then You Know"
"Imagine"
"Someone To Watch Over Me"
"As Time Goes By"
"Like A Rolling Stone"
"Johnny B. Goode
"Fortunate Son"
"Skylark"
"Sophisticated Lady"
"Strange Fruit"

"Without A Song" is considered "most certainly an art song" by Alex Wilder, author of "American Popular Songs-The Great Innovators 1900 to 1950" (Edited by James Maher and published in 1972 by Oxford University Press). He goes on to say that at the least it is a favorite of concert singers, as it has the range of a full octave and a fifth; challenging and within the comfortable bounds of most good singers.

But he feels the words are pretentious and basically without substance. Certainly the word "darky" which is used in the second verse would never be used now.

I remember once when a friend and I in the Army were getting ready to perform for a camp talent show (I was accompanying him on guitar) and he had chosen this song, he left out that word and substituted "man". I looked at his beautiful African-American face and with complete innocence asked..."why?" He smiled, older then me by a few years and dozens of decades of repression and said, "Well, that word is about the same as the $64 dollar word. You know what I mean?" His smile never faded.

I suddenly knew what he meant. And an ignorant white kid from New Hampshire had just attended class.

But the sense of the song is, without a doubt, very personal and very true. We cannot get through any thing in life without a song.

The song begins with the words: "Without a song, the day would never end." I always thought it rather odd that the lyricist would begin at the end of the day.

But there is no doubt that sometimes we hear a song just before we click off the lamp.

Certainly we recall a lullaby.

Ray Charles' version begins as it was written, but then he ad-libs at the end, "When you wake up in the morning, you gotta have a song." And that's what I feel when I do wake up. A song is somewhere in the mumble-jumble of my dream shattered sleep (to use a phrase from Gordon Lightfoot's. "Carefree Highway"). A morning melody that snaps me to attention and gets me moving.

It could be something as mundane as "Break Me Off A Piece Of That Kit-Kat Bar" or it could be Gershwins "Rhapsody in Blue".

"When things go wrong, a man ain't got a friend." Deep down within every person lies the moan that can only be expressed with a heart-felt song. When grief over whelms us, it is sometimes the healing touch of a melody that can salve the wound.

"That field of corn would never see a plow. That field of corn would be deserted now." Every generation, every nation, every person who has ever put a hand to a tool, be it a sun baked hoe handle or a Dell keyboard does so with a song. We listen during our busy day.

We are strung by melodies and musical notes through centuries. Builders of pyramids, workers on roads, those who help the cities rise above the skyline and those who constructed the boats we sail and the planes we fly. Those who toot clarinets for a living or sell wind-up toys on the street corner. The man or woman who rides the subway at dawn to toil away in a crowded office. All of us share music as a way to make it through the day.

And then the line..."A man is born. But he's no good no how. Without a song."

Ah. Here is where me and the lyricist disagree. Is it right to think that someone born without music can be "no good no how"? I don't believe so. Oh, certainly, there are times when we need to collect our thoughts. To meditate silently on the questions of the moment.

However, I don't believe anyone is born without music. Perhaps it is only the beating of our hearts, or the rhythm of our breathing that we feel. Maybe it is the gentle caress of our mothers hand. All of us are born with music. Certainly, Vincent Youmans was.

The bridge affirms what we already know..."I got my troubles and woes, but sure as I know, the Jordan will roll (again, an African-American influenced lyric indicating escape from slavery and the Christian symbolism of the 'washing away of sins' in the river where Jesus was baptized by his cousin John.)

The song ends with the singers questions of the unknown...."I'll never know what makes the rain to fall. I'll never know what makes the grass so tall. I only know, there is no love at all, without a song." We all know what makes these particular things happen. But, metaphorically, there are some things we have no understanding of.

Why, when I am in a line of traffic and I pull into the other lane that is zipping along, does it all suddenly slow down? Why, after buying dozens of hangers for my clothing, the next day I can't find any again? Why does the guy I bench in my fantasy baseball team, because he has been playing like a broken legged idiot, suddenly turn into Babe Ruth or Cy Young? These are my questions.

But I do know there is no love at all, without a song.

Your significant other and you have a song which will always remind you of the day you met and fell in love. Or proposed.

Your song.

Mine was "Stardust." My wife thought better of it. She knew it was, "You Were Meant For Me" sung by Gene Kelly from "Singing In The Rain." I agreed. It has become our song.

So here's to one song that says it all. And check out some of these versions.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IH2fBMcwOFQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyJAtc-pcwU

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrqhbzsdwWk

© 2010 George Locke

Without A Song words and music by Edward Eliscu, Billy Rose and Vincent Youmans

Saturday, June 5, 2010

When I Sit Down Late At Night



Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind, but now I see.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
We have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

I must preface this with a caveat. This blog is titled "The American Songbook" but, the subject matter is not American.

Through the recordings of Pete Seeger, Judy Collins and others, "Amazing Grace" has been considered by some an Appalachian folk song. Not true. It is English in origin. However, it is perhaps one of the most recorded of all songs by American performers. With that in mind, I begin.

All of us hit that spot when the world has just become too much to bear. Thankfully, it is usually a passing phase in the events that wash over us as the days tick by. This is not meant as a... "poor me". It's just a fact we all face.

Sometimes, it is the events of the day itself that burdens us.

A missed call.

A harsh word from someone who matters in our life.

A bill we forgot or neglected to pay. Or several bills, piling up behind the dam we've built of our denials or lack of funds. Or both.

Sometimes, it comes to those who face a day without work....nor even the possibility of acquiring a job that would satisfy them, and, though that may sound selfish, it is important,......and the loneliness of a silent house when all who live there have scampered off to their daily tasks.

Often it is the tv or newspaper or radio; blaring forth the ignoble and horrifying things one human does to another. Or many others. A wrong choice. Or even a planned evil.

It could become fear in a few moments.

If you play an instrument or love the sound of music; this is when you seek refuge.

I ask you. What is the song that gives you hope?

To me, "Amazing Grace"; strummed without a pick in the soft, dark oasis of my kitchen, with a light from the stove and a small lamp glowing from the living room like pools of dim water; this becomes my anchor in a sea of depression.

A song written by an eighteenth century slave trader when faced with a moment of truth, John Newton did not change is profane ways immediately. He was known as a writer of exceedingly obscene and totally improper words put to popular sailors tunes. He had turned his back on religion as a young man, and became immersed in all the debauchery life presented.

While aboard a ship, The Greyhound, in March of 1743, a violent storm put the entire crew at risk. Newton was manning a pump furiously, and stepped away for a moment. When he returned, the man who took his place was gone. Washed overboard.

It was later reported that at this point he yelled to the captain, his voice straining to be heard above the lashing winds and driving rain. "If this will not do, then Lord have mercy on our souls!"

The Lord apparently heard and the ship road out the storm without another loss of life.

Newton pondered what he had said and then, in a moment akin to what Paul must have felt when knocked off a horse on his way to Damascus, he made a decision.

He was a slaver. He continued in this profession for several more years.

Soon, however, he left the sea and settled in Liverpool as a custom agent. He studied Greek and Latin and poured over the many books available to a man who wished to become a preacher. And a preacher he did become, ordained in "The Church of England" in 1764 where he became a curate in Olney, in Buckinghamshire.

He, along with poet William Cowper, began writing hymns; the most famous being....."Amazing Grace." It is the most recognizable song in the English language. Perhaps in the entire world.

Bagpipers squeeze and poke the melody from their chanters. The famous and infamous have sung it, from Judy Collins to Johnny Cash. From "The Lemonheads" to Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Elvis, "The Byrds" and everything in between.

Sometimes, I don't even sing the words. I just strum the chords. And everytime. The clock ticks back into place. The world seems a little bit saner.

If you're a performer, you have probably waited for the applause to subside after a song you have done. Even if there are only a half dozen people left in the audience. And, if you're like me, when there is nothing left to do, you have begun to sing "Amazing Grace" a'capella, because, at that moment, it feels right. It becomes the most beautiful thing in the world, not from anything you have done.

No.

It is not your skill or lack thereof that creates this breathtaking moment.

It is the soul of the song. And each and every time I have done this, without fail and no matter what the venue; in church... in a club... in a bar... at a school....or wherever, everyone knows the song, at least the first verse. And it is always sung with a spirituality I have never found in other songs.

Oh, I don't play it all the time. Sometimes a three chord, 12 bar blues; played as slowly as possible, is what rolls out in those dark, desperate hours. And I just moan, sort of like Satchmo did in "West End Blues". A quiet kind of song with no words.

Sometimes.

But, mostly its "Amazing Grace".

© 2010 George Locke