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.


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.


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