Wednesday, August 12, 2009

You Can't Do This in Most Homes Now, but It's Safe to Do If You Own Vinyl

Hello, friends. This summer has been a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, the best of times and the worst of times, with little middle ground. I intended to keep blogging from the road as I traveled, but I was forced to spend far too much of my non-driving time doing work for an employer who doesn’t appreciate me enough to pay me for that work. I did get to do what I wanted to do, which was travel to as many Famous Dave’s barbeque restaurants as I could, and my efforts there seem to have earned me a year of free food. That’s the best/sublime part. The ridiculous/worst part—well, would you do two hundred extra hours of professional work, even if it’s spread over the course of an entire year, for nothing? That’s what I was supposed to do. And I was supposed to do a lot of it in the summer, when I am also expected to be gearing up for another year of teaching.

And so, the only things that could get me onto the blog this summer were the death of a pop icon and the arrival of Vinyl Record Day.

I want to talk about a feature of vinyl records that you simply can’t reproduce with a digital file, at least not without a bunch of software. In the days of record players, the act I’m going to describe was easy to undertake and loads of fun.

I’m talking about playing a song at the wrong speed.

I was very small when I acquired my first 78 rpm records, and I learned by accident that playing them at LP speed created deep rumbling sounds. To my young ears, the ponderous, roaring noises resembled what the world must have sounded like in the time of dinosaurs. Singing transformed itself into roars of rage, and drums became the earth-shaking thuds of huge dinosaur feet slamming into the earth.

Moving in the opposite direction, my 16 2/3 rpm talking-book records, played at 78, made sounds like very small, energetic animals. I’m glad I wasn’t using headphones when I was five, or I might have scrambled my brain.

I’m not sure I would have thought to talk about this aspect of vinyl if I hadn’t spoken recently with whiteray about something I did by accident a couple of years ago. At that time, I acquired a 45 of “Are You Ready?” by Pacific Gas & Electric, one of the late-night WLS hits from the summer of 1970, when I used music to distract me from the many issues I would otherwise have been pondering.

When I slapped that 45 on my turntable, it started playing at 33 1/3 rpm. I smiled to myself and let it run through the very slow intro. And then, when the song slid into its groove, magic occurred.

The backing track, played at normal speed, is pretty solid. But when it slowed to 74% of its regular speed, the guitar, bass and drums sounded like a raunchy slow blues that opened up the track to serve as the underpinning for any new melody and lyrics you might want to lay over it. Have a listen, and feel free to write a song around the riff.

And that, folks, is something you’ve never been able to do with a mere CD player and a shiny disc. When CD players first came out in 1983, someone, and I think it was Yamaha, made a CD player with a pitch control. That feature soon disappeared, though some players now offer pitch control again. However, I doubt that you can drop the pitch of a CD enough to create the effect of flipping the speed of a turntable from 45 to 33.

The song links below do what I described above. If you’re a product of the CD generation and you’ve never fiddled with the speed on a turntable, now you don’t have to—unless you want to. I hope you enjoy this glimpse at what five-year-old audio engineers used to do.

This is one of the many reasons why vinyl should never be allowed to disappear from the face of the earth.

It just occurred to me for the first time to wonder why my parents never asked me why I was playing my records at an ultra-slow speed. If I ever come up with an answer, I’ll let you know.

Diamonds, The Very Slow Stroll

Sterling Holloway, Mother Goose on Speed

Pacific Gas & Electric, Are You Ready to Use This Groove?

Dolly Parton, Here You Come Again, But More Slowly

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Oh, Michael.

He was born in Gary, Indiana, 21 months before me. I’m from Gary, too. We kids were all so proud of the child singer. He gave us a dream. His voice cheered me through the dark summer of 1970 after my mother died in January. His summer hit turned out to be my favorite 1970 song.

I will always remember him as the singer of the following songs.

Sorry for the hiatus. Back Saturday.

Jackson 5, ABC

Jackson 5, The Love You Save

Jackson 5, I'll Be There

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

You’ve All Heard His Name

A long list of names from music’s pioneer era still shows up in print or in conversation. Many readers will have heard of such people as Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Al Jolson, yet a decent percentage of this crowd will never have actually heard their recordings. I attribute this fact primarily to the disappearance of their recording catalogs from the shelves as far back as the vinyl days. Though such a creature probably exists, I have never seen a two-LP set of Paul Whiteman’s Greatest Hits.

Thanks to the sad state of pre-1955 reissues, a vast array of artists who once were the last word in music may never cross your eardrums. Think about it: Vanilla Ice is long gone as a hot commodity, but you can still buy his musical output. Much deeper digging, and greater motivation, are required to make the music of Thomas Waller part of your world.

They called him “Fats,” and apart from the iconic name, there are plenty of iconic song titles to his credit, including “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” The titles are most likely familiar, especially since a 1970s Broadway musical celebrating the Waller legacy put him on the map for a new generation. You may have heard these two songs, but probably by other artists. Today, you can hear the Fats Waller versions of these and a couple of other tunes.

Thomas Waller was born in New York in 1904. He began to study the piano when he was six years old, and when he was 14, he went to live with pianist Russell Brooks after Fats’s mother died. He polished his stride piano technique under the tutelage of James P. Johnson, the master of the form, which involves rapid left-hand octaves as the rhythmic base for the right-hand melody. (I simplify.)

Apart from his considerable jazz knowledge, Fats studied the classical repertoire with significant tutors, including the Austrian conductor Karl Böhm. It’s his classical training that took Fats to the next level: in his recordings, you hear structures that you hear in recordings by acclaimed classical pianists who are playing masterful compositions. With apologies, Fats was known as the “black Vladimir Horowitz.”

Fats was a powerful artist with as light and agile a touch as any pianist’s, when he needed it. It should not be surprising that his compositions display inventiveness and nuance so understated that his listeners may not even have known why they found him so impressive.

Something that frustrated Fats was the failure of this audience to give him the respect due a Horowitz. His vocals were playful, especially when he had been told to record a Tin Pan Alley tune that he considered to be garbage. By laughing in the face of such songs, he made them work and made them his own. This frivolity, though, paired with the ease with which he flowed through the notes, made him seem perhaps less serious than a pianist who would appear in a tux, bow to the audience, play with a permanent frown on his face, break a sweat, and bow to much applause, the first noise from the audience, at the end of the performance.

Fats, then, probably never received his due, and there’s no question that race contributed to the nation’s perception of his work. He was notable enough as a pop-culture phenomenon to appear in caricature in a Merrie Melodies short, “Tin Pan Alley Cats.” (You can find it at YouTube; it is one of the Censored Eleven Warner Brothers cartoons.) Whether that nod in his direction was really an honor is debatable, but I’m certain that no similar Horowitz send-up was considered. Liberace got the treatment, but he was no Horowitz.

Okeh Records first recorded Fats when he was 18 years old, and soon he was in demand as a composer. With lyricist Andy Razaf, he composed the songs for three Broadway musicals before the end of the 1920s. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” came from the show Hot Chocolates.

Once Fats started recording for Victor around 1929, his group, billed as Fats Waller & His Rhythm, produced 63 Top 25 hits, including 6 that topped the charts. In the manner of George Gershwin, Fats composed a major work, “London Suite,” and he recorded it in London in early 1939. He was scheduled to tour Europe that spring, but Hitler made things hard for him.

Fats came by his nickname honestly, and he ate and drank with abandon. He was experiencing strain from his multiple pursuits, including a fairly successful film career and the writing of more musicals. After a Hollywood engagement in December, 1943, he contracted pneumonia, and he took a train back to New York. He only made it to Kansas City, where he died on December 15, 1943.

The works of Fats Waller are, unlike those of many artists of his era, mostly available these days. Several hundred of his recordings can be found for download. To make the task of collecting Fats easier for you, I’ll post five tunes.

Now that I have bought myself a 1-terabyte music-storage drive, I’m going to work on acquiring bunches of Fats Waller recordings. Many are available on eMusic, where they cost about a quarter each. As amazing as his songs are, the songs are a bargain at a much higher price.

There you have it. The music of Fats Waller, available for listening to those of you who know the name, but not the sounds. Enjoy!

Saturday, it’s Week Twenty-Three of the 1950s Chart Meltdown. See you then!

Fats Waller, Ain't Misbehavin'

Fats Waller, Honeysuckle Rose

Fats Waller, I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter

Fats Waller, Truckin'

Fats Waller, Your Feet's Too Big

Sunday, May 31, 2009

People Don’t Eat People; Purple People Eat People

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

I’m done teaching for the 2008-2009 school year! You might think that would give me a lot of time to write a music blog, or sleep, or things like that. I’m not to that point in the wrap-up process yet, and this will be a very busy summer regardless of how quickly I sort out everything at school.

A quick note: Sometimes I think about how cool it is that people come here from very far away. So, hello to my reader in Skopje! (Everyone else will get his or her turn later.)

Given how busy I’ve been, I’m hoping you won’t mind if I focus on the lighter side of 1950s pop in this installment of my perusal of the charts.

May 28, 1955: It’s week five at #1 on the Best Sellers chart for “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” by Pérez Prado and His Orchestra. The King of the Mambo also is getting the most airplay, but Georgia Gibbs still rules the Juke Box chart with “Dance with Me Henry (Wallflower).”

Tunes new to the Best Sellers are “Blue Star” by a One-Hit Wonder, Felicia Sanders, a cover of “Heart” by the Four Aces, and “Love Me or Leave Me” by S. Davis Jr. This would be Sammy, debuting his fourth-biggest Top 40 hit of eight. The biggest won’t come until 1972, when he scores a chart-topper with “The Candy Man.”

Bill Haley’s current hit is now a Top Ten single, climbing from #14 to #10 on the Best Sellers. He finally registers on the Jockey chart, at #20. Airplay is likely to fuel sales and really get this song moving.

June 2, 1956: There is finally a chink in the armor of “Heartbreak Hotel.” The Jockeys have turned their attention to “Moonglow and Theme from Picnic,” Morris Stoloff’s smooth instrumental. Elvis will not be completely done at #1 for a few weeks.

Some hot numbers just entering the charts will have lasting legacies. “It Only Hurts for a Little While” by the Ames Brothers is not one of them, but “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” by Elvis is. Apart from being a hard title to type, this song has jumped from #90 to #31 on the Top 100, and it enters the Best Sellers at #19.

June 3, 1957: “All Shook Up” is no longer the Best Seller #1, but it remains the favorite on the other three charts. Pat Boone has dislodged Elvis on the Best Sellers with “Love Letters in the Sand.”

There is an odd and not very resonant group of debuts this week. “Goin’ Steady” by Tommy Sands, “Freight Train” by Rusty Draper, and “Four Walls” by Jim Lowe make their first Best Seller appearances. Showing her street cred with the Jockeys, Patti Page debuts a two-sided hit on that chart, with “Old Cape Cod” leading the way, and “Wondering” following. Lieutenant Buddy Knox with the Rhythm Orchids debuts “Rock Your Little Baby to Sleep” on the Top 40 and the radio chart.

June 2, 1958: The Everly Brothers maintain the consensus #1 song, “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” Someone is sneaking up on them, but the Jockeys will give the Brothers the nod for a couple more weeks.

The Champs hope their latest debut single, “El Rancho Rock,” will maintain the magic of “Tequila.” Of course, it won’t, just as 1960’s “Too Much Tequila” will also stall at #30. Jerry Lee Lewis is hoping that “High School Confidential” will be his fourth consecutive Top Ten hit. The Jockeys won’t play the song, though, because they have been made aware that Jerry Lee’s wife is thirteen (13) (XIII) years old, and she is also the daughter of his bass player, his first cousin J.W. Brown. Sigh.

There are a couple of Spanish-themed tunes debuting on the Best Sellers: “Zorro” by the Chordettes and “Padre” by Toni Arden, the only Rock Era Top 40 hit for a singer whose hits go back to the 1940s. And that about wraps up the debuts for this week . . . oh, except for the #7 song on both the Best Sellers and toe Top 100, which even the Jockeys have catapulted to #10: “The Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley. And yes, it will be a huge #1 hit shortly.

June 1, 1959: We have a new #1 song, the history lesson I mentioned last week. Though the story is told in the first person, I do not believe Johnny Horton was old enough to witness the events of 1814, but he sings successfully about “The Battle of New Orleans.”

What’s new? A song for beatniks, “Bongo Rock” by Preston Epps. This One-Hit Wonder is joined by another, the Wailers, who are really hard to find via search engines unless you mention the name of their hit, “Tall Cool One.” For some reason, the song will rechart in 1964, but that doesn’t make them a Two-Hit Wonder in my book.

Also jumping into the Top 40 are “Crossfire” by Johnny and the Hurricanes, “Bobby Sox to Stockings” by Frankie Avalon, “I Waited Too Long” by LaVern Baker, “My Heart Is an Open Book” by Carl Dobkins Jr., “Along Came Jones” by the Coasters, and both “Lipstick on Your Collar” and “Frankie” by Connie Francis. Now, that’s a week chock-full of debuts.

For your listening pleasure, I can’t resist the obvious: here’s the huge 1958 debut by Sheb Wooley, a future 6-week #1, and a pop One-Hit Wonder nevertheless. If you check your country chart book, though, you’ll find that Sheb has 8 Top 40 Country hits to his credit. This novelty tune is not one of them.

For Wednesday, I’ll bring you the thrice-postponed discussion of a piano player many of us know by name—only. I’ve been delayed by work responsibilities and a desire to get this post just right. See you Wednesday!

Sheb Wooley, The Purple People Eater