Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Mercury Rules!

(Versión en español: http://granfusion.blogspot.com/)

Of the 300 singles I owned before the Great Meltdown, I can recall four that boasted the Mercury label. That seems like a small number for such a successful label, but remember that most of my 45s were cutouts. I had a couple of dozen records that screamed “DJ copy—Not For Sale” and several more that had small holes punched through the label, a sure sign that everyone had given up on that release. When your record collection consists of 45s on these labels: Enjoy, Gardenia, Lucky Four and IRC, owning four on one major label does mean something. The only labels that represented a greater portion of my collection were Specialty and Imperial, thanks to Little Richard and Fats.

When I was two (years old, not a conjoined twin), I knew I had two Mercury 45s from my parents. The silver/black logo on the Mercury label appealed to me, and I asked my dad who Mercury was. He gave me a quick explanation of Roman mythology and mentioned that Mercury had appeared on the dime before Roosevelt. Since coins were another interest of mine then, I started hoping I would see a Mercury dime soon. It was several years before one turned up in my dad’s change.

I acquired at least two more Mercury singles via Uncle Tom: a Brook Benton 45 that melted, its title forgotten, and a Ray Stevens single I will feature as Halloween approaches. I discussed one Mercury single, “The Stroll,” last time, and now it’s Patti Page’s turn.

This is my third straight post about a song that got significant airplay, so you’ll be wondering if I really own obscure music, as I claim. This blog is primarily about the stories behind my 45s, and a very few of the stories synch up with Top 40 hits. I can promise you the next 45 will be one you almost certainly have never heard on the radio.

You do all know Patti Page, don’t you? Well, just in case: She was born Clara Ann Fowler in 1927, into a poor Oklahoma family. At age 18, she took the job of singing as Patti Page on a Tulsa radio show sponsored by Page Milk; every previous singer on that show had been called Patti Page. Unlike the others, she took the name with her when she was discovered by Jack Rael. When she recorded “Confess” in 1947, Rael dubbed her voice a second time to save hiring another singer. And since people didn’t figure out that she was singing harmony with herself on her songs, she was sometimes credited as “Vocals by Patti Page, Patti Page and Patti Page.” “Tennessee Waltz” was #1 for 13 weeks in 1950-51. She was the best-selling female artist of the 1950s. She acted a significant role in Elmer Gantry in 1960.

At some point in early 1957, my mother bought “Mama from the Train,” Mercury single 70971. The song was written by Gordon Irving (1915-1996), who also composed “Unforgettable,” twice a hit for Nat “King” Cole. The song, about a woman from the Old Country whose syntax caused her daughter some nostalgic amusement, included the phrase “Throw Mama from the train a kiss, a kiss.”

Well, two-year-old caithiseach heard only “Throw Mama from the train” before he lost it. I wasn’t the only person to hear the sinister double-entendre; the movie Throw Mama from the Train owes its title to this song. But when you’re two, and your mother is sitting right there, and a song you’re playing is talking about throwing Mama from the train, who wouldn’t start bawling?

Maybe you wouldn’t cry, but I did. Every time I played the song, I cried. Why didn’t I stop playing the song? That’s what my mom wanted to know. So, the final time I played it, as I sat on the floor by the record player, weeping at the tragedy of the senseless murder, she leaned over me, hands on her knees, and intoned in a creepy voice, “I’m Mama from the Train.”

Oh, did I get mad at that. Part of it was the humiliation of having my feelings mocked, but part of it was that she scared me nearly to death by raising the specter of her actual demise. Looking back, I think I always felt that she was ephemeral in my life, a visitor who had come to give me life and get me started before going away. And she did go away, when I was nine. After ten months of illness, she ceased to struggle and died on January 10, 1970.

When she came at me with that spooky voice, I frowned and said, “I’m going to throw this record away.”

She smirked and said, “Go ahead.”

I snatched it off the turntable and marched into the kitchen. At the end of the counter we had a small square silver garbage can with a foot pedal. I stepped on the pedal. In my memory I can still see the scraps from dinner, potato peelings lying atop other garbage. I stood there, waiting for her to rescue me from my stubbornness. She didn’t come to tell me I was being silly. My dad didn’t come to tell me I was going to regret it. I dropped the 45 on the pile of garbage. I looked at it. No one came. I took my foot off the pedal, and the lid dropped. And that was that. No one reproached me, but no one told me to get the record back. I think they were done with the bitter sobbing over the fate of poor Mama, lying in a heap on the railroad tracks.

In 1983, I started to think about the song again. I finally went to the record store and sifted through the Patti Page albums until I found one with “Mama from the Train” on it. I took it back to my apartment, steeled myself, and dropped the needle on the vinyl.

It wasn’t the same recording.

The 45 began with no introduction, and this recording started with strings. It wasn’t even in the same key. Exasperated, I drove right back to the record store and looked more closely until I found an LP that guaranteed me the original recording. There was no way I was going to ask the clerk to put that song on for me to check it.

This time, I did have the right version. As a test of my memory, I hummed the first note before I played the song, and I hit it right on. And as soon as Patti Page sang “Throw Mama from the train,” everything came back, and I wept, first for my mom, and then for the willful loss of a 45 that had linked us.

It took me a couple of days to realize that I had not heard the song for twenty years, not since I was two, and yet I remembered how the record should start and the pitch of Patti’s voice. Obviously, the song had entrenched itself in my memory.

“Mama from the Train” hit the charts on October 27, 1956, reached the Top 40 on November 3, 1956 and peaked at #11. As you listen, remember that no one is really throwing Mama from the train. Trust me, it will help you if you keep that in mind.

Patti Page, “Mama from the Train”


Julie Hibbard said...

Gosh you are a terrific writer. I could picture the whole scenario, the song playing, the trash...you waiting to be asked to save the 45.
It reminded me of one my dad rescued from the trash. It was cracked and I threw it away. My dad came in with it and showed me how it would, indeed, still play if put on the record player "just so"...
It was "Happy Together" by the Turtles. Even now, I hear it on my iPod and I SWEAR i can hear that little skip going round and round like I used to on the 45!
Great post

stackja1945 said...

My experience of Patti Page is of Doggie and Tennessee Waltz I have never heard of Mama from the Train, again all part of my new experiences.