Friday, May 9, 2008

Moonfolk, Dragons and Other Puppets

Between the first Bob Keefe post on Wednesday and this one, I received a very helpful email from Yah Shure, who shared his expertise at reading matrix numbers on 45s. I had looked up matrix numbers before, so I should have thought to search for this one. However, I would not have gotten as far with the information as Yah Shure did.

It is evident from the matrix number (K90W-5529) that “The Genie in the Bottle” was a 1959 release. I was being whimsical when I suggested that Scope 1964 had to be from 1964, but I didn’t know if its line about divorce and a horse came before or after the theme to Mr. Ed. “Genie” came first, so now we can wonder if Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, the “Silver Bells” guys, heard “Genie” before the horse started talking.

I was being extra silly when I suggested that a meticulous secretary typed the matrix number of the 45 on the disc. The RCA plant that did custom pressings for smaller labels stamped the matrix number onto the master. Yah Shure gave me that background; he also understood that I was creating an absurdist scenario for lack of better details to discuss, and I hope you did, too!

The flip of this now-somewhat less mysterious single is “Satellite Sadie,” a tune that Bob Keefe penned. I want to talk about the song, and then I’ll discuss a connection I discovered to a completely different realm of entertainment.

I wrote in April that I found (find?) moon exploration intriguing. I have read, and concocted myself, numerous scenarios involving life on the moon that would be somewhat workable under the right circumstances. There are, of course, things that can’t happen. For the ones that could, you just suspend a bit of disbelief, mostly in the politics involved and the shortsightedness of said politicians.

“Satellite Sadie” is one of those songs that could be enjoyed in the Sputnik era but suffered once Apollo came along and nixed the idea of life on the moon. The protagonist discusses his new-found love, Sadie, who has pale green skin and is nine feet tall and just one inch wide. By 1969, I was aware that there simply were not going to be any moon creatures, so I could no longer believe in Sadie’s story. Nowadays, I also have problems with the connectivity issues presented by marrying a woman who is one inch wide. (The nine-foot-tall part doesn’t faze me.)

The guy in the song, though, has to contend with atmospheric issues as well, whether he lives with Sadie on the moon or brings her to Earth, where she would get drunk on the increased oxygen levels and, I suppose, flop over from the increased gravity. If she’s green because of photosynthesis, we face another dilemma altogether. Goodness. But the song is fun, and I don’t want you to judge its premise as harshly as I do.

I would be done with this essay were it not for a bit of research luck that takes me in a completely different direction now. I told you last time that I looked up the publisher for “Genie,” Studio Music, and realized it would be impossible to sift through all of the hits. BMI didn’t cooperate, so I was stuck.

Then I searched for both Studio Music and the publisher of “Satellite Sadie,” Spindletop Music. I almost drew a blank there, too, but perseverance got me a nugget I’ll share now.

One link led me to a web page that was not at all user-friendly. After five minutes of trying to search a mountain of data, I copied the entire text and pasted it into a Word document. Spindletop appeared on page 19 of 56 single-spaced pages. It was worth the delay and the search to see what I saw.

The document was a huge listing of music copyright holders and publishing company owners. By 1978, both Studio Music and Spindletop Music were the property of a guy named Archie Levington. As I said once in a previous post, at this point you are either drawing a blank or hearing bells go off.

Archie Levington was a song promoter for Leeds Music. He worked for Motown (Jobete) in the mid-1960s, but clearly he had some link to Scope Records: he wound up owning both Studio Music and Spindletop Music at some point, maybe even when Bob Keefe was singing for them. By all accounts, he was a wonderful man with a very engaging personality. The document that talks of his multiple publishing interests states that his properties were controlled by his executrix, Frances Allison Levington.

Archie Levington was married to Fran Allison for forty years. From the time I became aware of television, I enjoyed watching Fran Allison’s charming conversations with her friends, Ollie and Kukla.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie appeared on Chicago television beginning in 1947. I don’t know if I saw them on NBC, local Chicago TV or just in later incarnations; I can’t get a good read on their schedule in the early 1960s. But caithiseach loved these two puppets: the one-toothed dragon Ollie, an aspiring writer like caithiseach, and his sidekick, Kukla. They were the creations of Burr Tillstrom, who did all of the voices for the show. These guys, along with the lovely Fran, held a Nielsen share of 17 during their heyday. It wasn’t just kids who watched their antics.

In 1967, the CBS Children’s Film Festival debuted, and Kukla, Fran and Ollie hosted the show. They introduced the films, which often were foreign films. Among the films I saw on their show were The Red Balloon (1956) and Lili (1953). Lili was based on a short story by Paul Gallico called “The Man Who Hated People.” The man, a puppeteer, falls in love with a young girl, but he can speak to her only through his puppets. Paul Gallico’s inspiration for the story? Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

I can’t tell you how much Lili entranced me. There is just one song in the film, “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo,” and I find it to be one of the most sweetly sad melodies I have ever heard, second, perhaps, to the theme of the second movement of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. Written by Bronislau Kaper (1902-1983) and Helen Deutsch (1906-1992), “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” charted in May, 1953 in its original form, as sung by the film’s stars, Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer.

I am not sure how the film can resonate so much with me, as I saw it just once, on the KFO film series. That was about forty years ago. When I saw the film that evening, the song made me weep. As I write now, I have tears in my eyes. I should probably watch the movie again.

I know the story was so bittersweet that I could barely stand it. Unrequited love, constant longing, whatever it is, it got me. It still does, and I can’t even remember what Mel Ferrer looks like.

I will cause a chuckle or two when I say it, but all this leads us to Gene Vincent.

Eugene Vincent Craddock (1935-1971) recorded the amazing slow rockabilly number “Be-Bop-A-Lula” in 1956. He stopped having hits in the U.S. in 1958. He survived the 1960 taxi crash that killed Eddie Cochran. In 1966, he recorded for Challenge Records an album called Am I That Easy to Forget, with backing by Glen Campbell, David Gates, Jim Seals, Dash Crofts and others. Among the songs he recorded for the album was “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo.”

The overbearing echo of “Be-Bop-A-Lula” is gone, and if you thought the reverb was there to mask a lousy voice, you are absolutely wrong. A tender, slow reading of an already sensitive song moves it in a completely different direction from the French-peasant feel of the Caron-Ferrer version. Gene Vincent takes complete possession of this song. As if it weren’t already hard enough for me to listen to the movie version without emotion, it’s nearly impossible for me to ignore the power of the Vincent recording.

I didn’t discover Gene Vincent’s version until last year, when I found it on eMusic. It’s one of the best discoveries of my experiment-with-new-recordings phase, which began in 1962 and is still going on.

And that, friends, is what I know about “Satellite Sadie”: Bob Keefe wrote for Spindletop Music, which was owned by Archie Levington, who was married to Fran Allison, whose show inspired Lili, whose one song was recorded by Gene Vincent. Now, if only Gene Vincent had recorded with Bob Keefe, the circle would be unbroken.

Nah. Not going there.

Wednesday, we’ll revisit my hero, Jeff Barry, in a new context, working with another hero of mine. See you then!

Bob Keefe, Satellite Sadie

Gene Vincent, Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo

Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer, Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo

Dvořák, Cello Concerto, Rostropovich/von Karajan, DG 413 819-2

Satellite Sadie label scan

1 comment:

whiteray said...

"Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo" is indeed a sweet, sad song. I'll have to check the Gene Vincent out. Great post -- along with wandering along remarkable paths, it reminded me of one of my favorite television shows, "WKRP in Cincinnati". (An executrix, says Herb Tarlek, is "something to do with whips.") Rock on!