Saturday, June 28, 2008

My Babysitter, Immortalized in Song

Most of the time, when three-year-old caithiseach found a bargain-bin 45 that was to his liking, he focused on one side and ignored the other. “Skin Divin’” by Eddie Rambeau was such a fun tune that I didn’t feel the need to flip the record. It was several years before I took a longer look at “(Her Name Is) Toni” (Swan 4077).

What prompted that song’s re-entry into the caithiseach playlist was a domestic shift: my parents hired a teen girl from down the street to babysit me, my little sister, and the twins. Of course, her name was Toni. By the time she came into the picture in early 1968, I could read, so I knew the song existed without having played it. I amused her (I think) with occasional plays of that 45.

I know it was early 1968 when she started babysitting us because she was a staunch Republican, a rarity at Merrillville High School during the Johnson Administration. She was gung-ho for a guy named Richard Nixon, who was vice-president when I was born. My parents almost certainly voted for Bobby Kennedy in the May 7 Indiana primary. By September, my dad said he would be voting for Humphrey. The political dialogue in the house that autumn led me to my current belief that less dialogue is more: no one in the world knows my overall political views.

Toni taught me to count to 100 in German. After I mastered that task, she gave me some of her school worksheets to practice. I could pick out some words, including Milch, but I didn’t become fluent in German then. I do suspect that the early stimulation of the language center in my brain contributed to my ability to learn other languages quickly. So, thanks, Toni, for turning me into a language freak who landed in a less-than-lucrative career.

The thing about the B side of the Eddie Rambeau single was that the recording sounded pretty bad. Normally, a well-pressed 45 on vinyl sounds a lot like the master tape, with the requisite crackles from static and careless handling. But “Toni” on styrene sounded like my Ground to Dust 45s, despite having been played maybe a dozen times. The sonic issue made me give up on the song for the most part.

When I got my replacement copy of the 45 in 2003, I played “Toni” and found the sound quality to be just as bad. When Ed Rambeau kindly sent me an mp3 of “Toni” taken from a pristine 45, the sound was still pretty rough. It wasn’t until I bought the iTunes mp3 of “Toni” that I was able to confirm that the B side of the 45 was just a low-quality pressing all the way around. The remastered mp3 sounds great. So that you can compare the 45 to the remaster, I have made a mixed version that folds the 45 into the digital at the beginning of the second verse.

I want to take a moment to revisit the artist. Frequent Commentator stackja1945 has noted that many successful music people are gracious to the people who appreciate their work. Ed Rambeau is one of them. Apart from replacing “Skin Divin’” for me with the best recording then available, he agreed later on to an interview about his time in Hair to augment a chapter in a book I’m writing.

Ed has been working a lot lately, and he has a new album coming out soon, Rambeau Safari. He has written a number of songs that explore different musical styles and lyrical themes. You would never know he was active in the 1960s from this material. There’s no throwback aspect to this CD at all.

If you were too young to see Eddie Rambeau in action, you will want to check out the video below. There is about a minute of intro from the hosts of Shindig, but finally Eddie comes on, and you can see him in action:

And something newer, his surprise reunion with Diane Renay:

“(Her Name Is) Toni” was written by Louis Leggieri Jr. He turned up on the ASCAP site with no titles to his credit, though “Toni” was affiliated with ASCAP. A BMI search shows that Mr. Leggieri has registered nearly 50 titles, none of which I recognize at first glance. He seems to be a Philadelphia native, which would make him a natural for selling songs to Swan artists.

Speaking of Swan, the label was founded in 1957 in Philadelphia and scratched out a living until 1967 as the third indie label of that city, behind Chancellor and Cameo-Parkway. Swan boasted a roster that included Billy & Lillie, the novelty act Dick(e)y Doo and the Don’ts, Freddy Cannon, and . . . the Beatles. Swan leased “She Loves You” and, though it flopped on initial release in September 1963, a newly aware teen market took the single to #1 in February, 1964.

Swan lived primarily off Freddy Cannon and “She Loves You,” but the label did release some other worthwhile 45s. You should check out the Swan 45 discography.

I meant to note last time that “Skin Divin’” featured Frank Slay and his Orchestra. Slay worked with Bob Crewe from the late 1950s on. Slay’s production work includes “Incense and Peppermints,” a bit of a change from his orchestration of “Skin Divin’.”

If you like the song I’m posting, you can get the full remaster at Rhapsody, iTunes or eMusic. A flaw occurred in the remaster of “Skin Divin’”: the opening horn notes were deleted. I just added them back on from my 45, but not everyone will have that option. As for “Toni,” I have never heard a song improve so much from vinyl to digital.

Next time, I’ll introduce you to another vocalist who ended up on Swan, and who sang with Eddie Rambeau. See you then!

Eddie Rambeau, (Her Name Is) Toni

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Divin' into Memories

The long-term consolation I have received for losing many of my 45s to the Great Meltdown has been the opportunity to reacquire a number of those records. Sometimes I have found them on CD, as was the case with the first reacquisition, "People Sure Act Funny (When They Get a Lot of Money)" by Titus Turner. Others will never make it to CD, like "Jealous" by Danny Kellarney. It's especially fun, though, to own again the actual 45 that was part of my memory going back to 1972, the year of the Meltdown.

I wrote a couple of months ago that, on one occasion, I had retrieved from my memory a song I had essentially forgotten. There are a lot of strong memories in my head, and I have found, and bought, most of the 45s I remembered having lost. There are also some partial memories, including a song called "You Can't See the Forest (For the Trees)," which had a red label with black serrated edging. I can't remember the artist, and so I've not been able to locate the 45 to purchase it.

I also know I had 45s on Liberty, Argo, SOMA and Wand that have disappeared. I have looked at label discographies in an attempt to jog my memory, but I haven't recalled anything so far.

On one beautiful evening, though, an attempt to pull out deep musical memories succeeded spectacularly. I have been waiting all year to tell this story, and now it's time.

In September, 2003, I was adjusting to life in St. Cloud, Minnesota, after having lived five years in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was busy with my new job at the College of St. Benedict, and I was usually worn out. On this evening, I decided to make myself take a time out. The best way to ensure that I wouldn't start working again was to jump in the bathtub and do some light reading by candlelight.

I read a few pages of some murder mystery, and then I started thinking about a couple of 45s I was in the process of recovering. One was from eBay, and another was from a vinyl website. I made a mental list of other 45s I remembered wanting, and then I decided to try to visualize my box of records (pre-Meltdown) to see if I could recall any others.

After a couple of minutes, I suddenly saw myself holding a 45 with a white label that had a sort of maroon checkerboard wave across the middle. The label? Swan. I jumped out of the tub, dried off so I wouldn't short out my keyboard, blew out the candles so I wouldn't burn down the apartment, and looked online for a Swan discography.

I found one easily, thanks to, and I nailed the song right away: "Skin Divin'" by Eddie Rambeau (Swan 4077). The title and artist had been lurking in the background, and immediately I recalled the chorus and started singing it, thirty years after the last time I had played the 45.

Some of my non-charting 45s were disasters, but "Skin Divin'" was a pretty fine song. It was written by a successful songwriting team, the production was superb, and the vocalist was a lot more talented than some of the other Johnnys, Timmys, Tommys and Bobbys who came out of the Philadelphia area around 1960.

"Skin Divin'" was, in fact, a regional hit in 1961, but it didn't quite get over the top. Three-year-old caithiseach had a grand time making it a Top Ten tune at his house. What's not to love about a song with a mermaid in it?

Being able to recall much of the chorus wasn't quite enough, of course. I scoured the internet for a CD version, and there was none. I did learn that someone had recently purchased the Swan catalogue, and I wrote to that party but received no response.

I wanted this 45 anyway, and I found it online easily enough. When it arrived, I was disappointed by a bit of a hiss in the groove, but I had the song back. Though it was just one of a dozen or so victims of the Great Meltdown that I have recovered on vinyl, I felt especially satisfied when I dropped the needle on this one.

Eddie Rambeau is yet another artist who came to me via a flop single but made a name for himself in other ways. Ed was born Edward Fluri on June 30, 1943. You will find that Joel Whitburn stubbornly refuses to correct his last name from Flurie to Fluri. Hailing from Hazleton, Pennsylvania, Ed went to Philadelphia to record for Swan in 1961. "Skin Divin'" and its flip (Saturday's song) were his first recordings.

I don't have some details of those early days at hand, so I'll get to them Saturday, but I can tell you that, when I asked Ed who the female vocalists are on "Skin Divin'," he told me he was 17 years old and too intimidated to ask their names.

You would never know that he was 17 or that he was intimidated when he sang the song. It's one of the smoothest vocal performances to come out of that era and that label, about which I'll share more on Saturday.

Apart from "Skin Divin'," Ed recorded two other solo singles for Swan, and he cut a single with Marcy Jo(e) as well. After his Swan songs, he moved to Bob Crewe's DynoVoice label, where Ed recorded a cover of Unit Two Plus Four's "Concrete and Clay." Ed's version spent two weeks in the Top 40, debuting on June 5, 1965, peaking at #35.

Ed also made a name for himself as a songwriter at this time. He and his discoverer/songwriting partner, Bud Rehak, wrote "Navy Blue" and "Kiss Me Sailor" for Diane Renay. Bob Crewe has a co-writing credit for "Navy Blue" as well. On the strength of his hit, Ed appeared on Shindig twice.

Several years later, Ed wound up in the cast of Hair, though not the original cast. He also performed in several other plays on Broadway.

Ed hasn't really stopped there. He has continued to record, and he is finishing up a new album of original tunes as I write. He is also a talented digital photographer.

"Skin Divin'" was written by Mike Anthony and Paul Kaufman, a pair whose main claim to songwriting fame was "Poetry in Motion" for Johnny Tillotson. Anthony has written nearly 400 songs, and Kaufman almost 200. As you will hear, "Skin Divin'" boasts the same understated drive as "Poetry in Motion."

You can learn more about Ed at his site, When I was looking for his 45, I signed his guestbook. I mentioned that I had just found his 45 again, long after my copy melted. By return email, Ed sent me an mp3 of "Skin Divin'" that sounded a lot better than my replacement 45.

Now, the owners of the Swan masters have made "Skin Divin'" available digitally. You can get it at iTunes or eMusic, and probably at Rhapsody. It's not available at Amazon.

I am posting the transfer from the master tapes, but I do request that, if you like the song as much as you probably will, you download it for 99 cents from your favorite source. Ed, and the people who were kind enough to reissue the tune, deserve that.

More Saturday on Ed and his varied career. See you on the flip side!

Eddie Rambeau, Skin Divin'

Friday, June 20, 2008

What My Mother Taught Me, Part B

I didn’t get to spend many years with my mom. I was nine when she died, and she was not at her best during the last nine months of her life. She managed to cram a lot of life lessons into those first nine years, though, and it’s time I recognized her contributions to my outlook on life.

She was the tenth of ten children. Her father was a railroad engineer and the son of an immigrant from Ireland. She was born at the beginning of the Great Depression and started high school as World War II was ending. She could have been an excellent doctor, but circumstances forced her into nursing school. There, she scored so high on her chemistry boards that no one could ever top her results.

She was the plant nurse at U.S. Steel when a Navy veteran who had moved from Southern Indiana to work in the steel mills cut his finger and required her services. They got along very well, it seems, because they married in 1958.

Her doctor said pregnancy would be risky for her, but she gave it a try anyway. She was helping my dad build their house when, at five months, she began having contractions. She spent the spring of 1960 flat on her back, and I was born in May.

I came out coughing and spluttering. Perhaps because my umbilical cord got pinched a bit, my first beverage was amniotic fluid. They yanked me out and tossed me in an incubator for a couple of days. And then I went home. My parents didn’t try to have another child; they decided to adopt instead.

Apart from one haunting memory of looking up from my crib at some blurry faces, my earliest memories center around my mother playing records for me. I have confirmation that I was a low-maintenance child; I played quietly by myself, and when I decided to get into mischief, I would start saying “No, no, no.” Doing battle with my conscience out loud made me an even easier child to manage.

I should say that I was low-maintenance when it came to my behavior. When I was six weeks old, I was put on a special formula. The refrigerator malfunctioned just enough to spoil my milk, and the resulting food poisoning put seven-pound caithiseach in the hospital for two touch-and-go weeks.

I know that because, thanks to my sister Cindy, I have the baby book my mother filled out meticulously from my prenatal days until I was seven. Cindy rescued the book from our attic a couple of years ago, and the book chronicles my mother’s watchful nurturing of my health and my mind.

It sounds as if I’m talking about me, but I’m really talking about her. She sought all possible ways to educate me and keep me well, whether it meant letting me play alone and use my imagination or entertaining me with her records. Clearly, at some point around age two I became so hungry for music that she taught me to use the record player myself. That record player, and the musical instruments she and my dad bought for me to tinker with, developed my musical awareness far more than most children’s. I did not become a virtuoso anything as a result of the early exposure, but my life has been enhanced by the listening and the training I did receive.

I recall two times in particular that she shared special information with me. It happened more often than that, but these two matter. The first was a time when I was eight. She handed me a book, Day Without End by Van Van Praag. This book, published in 1949, was in the Gary Public Library annex at St. Mary Mercy Hospital, where she worked. She brought the decommissioned book home to me. The author wrote the novel about his experiences in Normandy during World War II. Mom was offering me two bits of information: insight into what her brothers, Tom and Cal, had experienced (Cal in France and Tom in the Pacific), and facts suited to letting me decide if war was a good idea or not, at a time that the Vietnam War was raging.

Never mind that the book was written with adults as its intended audience, with adult vocabulary, if not “adult” themes. A first-hand account of the Normandy invasion would certainly be a topic to keep from kids, but my mother trusted my intellect. She always had. And when she was sick, she trusted me to take care of her during the day, when my dad was working, and neither of them thought it necessary to bring in adult help. As hard as it sometimes was for me to accomplish what she needed from me, the gift of her trust still strikes me as proof to her that I would be well after she was gone.

I think she hoped the novel would give me an anti-war mindset, but there was a time during the Korean Conflict that she railed against the unfairness of a draft that excluded women. She didn’t want to become a member of the Army, but she was that type of feminist who realizes that achieving equality in the fun parts of life carries with it the responsibility to accept all burdens of society equally. She would have gone through boot camp and two years of service if it meant she would earn as much as a man for doing the same work he did.

The second special tidbit she shared with me had to do with one of her 45s, “Born to Be with You” by the Chordettes (Cadence 1291). The song entered the Top 40 on June 2, 1956, and it reached #5 during a 17-week run. What she told me was that it was Mom and Dad’s song.

I didn’t necessarily get what it meant that “Born to Be with You” was “their” song, but she made it clear enough that the song bonded them romantically. This was at a time in their marriage that they would stand in the living room and kiss for minutes on end. I would clamor to be picked up so we could all kiss each other. Sometimes they picked me up, and sometimes they ignored me.

Since the Chordettes’ 45 was “their” song, I took special care of it. Mom played it often enough that I didn’t have to put it in my rotation, and especially after her death, it went into a safe part of the box of 45s. As a result, it is a Survivor of the Great Meltdown. When I hear the tune, I can see the dreamy look on her face as she told me it was “their” song.

The Chordettes, of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, consisted of a quartet with slightly fluid membership. It seems that Janet Ertel, Carol Buschman, Margie Needham, Jinny Osborn and Lynn Evans sang on the 1950s hits. The group sang on Arthur Godfrey’s show from 1949 to 1953, when Archie Bleyer (1909-1989), Godfrey’s music director, set up Cadence Records. Bleyer signed the Chordettes to his new label, and the women’s recording career took off quickly.

Their first hit, “Mr. Sandman,” spent seven weeks at #1 in late 1954 (though I don’t see how, as it reached the top spot on December 4 and was out of it by the end of the year). Thanks to Archie Bleyer’s understanding of the singers’ harmonic value, he kept the arrangements of their songs sparse. The formula earned the Chordettes nine Top 40 hits, including four Top Ten numbers.

Bleyer himself had two big hits, “Hernando’s Hideaway” and “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane.” For a man with a small label, he pulled in an exceptional stable of artists, including Andy Williams and the Everly Brothers. Bleyer married Chordette Janet Ertel in 1954, and their daughter, Jackie, eventually married Phil Everly.

Not everything Bleyer touched worked; he released Link Wray’s “Rumble” because Jackie loved it, but he cut Wray loose later and refused to release an album Wray had turned in because it was “immoral.” Bleyer also passed on “Summertime, Summertime” after he took the time to record a demo for the Jamies. Bleyer eventually sold Cadence to Andy Williams.

Don Robertson wrote “Born to Be with You” solo. He composed about 100 pop songs, many with Hal Blair. They were responsible for both “Please Help Me, I’m Falling” and its answer song, “(I Can’t Help You) I’m Falling Too.” Robertson also wrote “Hummingbird,” the Les Paul/Mary Ford standard.

“Born to Be with You” was unlike almost all of the 45s my Uncle Tom eventually added to my music collection. The Chordettes were the only female close-harmony group in the box, and the arrangement was far more gentle than the rocking, sax-laden records I tended to play. But my reasons for leaving the Chordettes 45 alone most of the time was that I wanted to preserve the single, to have it be playable long after I was done being a child, when the echoes of the last time she played the song herself had faded into the distant past, when I could still hear her telling me that it was “their” song before they got married.

I do still have the 45, and I could still play it, but I don’t. Thank goodness for digital technology.

Next Thursday is the anniversary of my mother’s birth. It would have been her 78th birthday, which means that she has been dead as long as she was alive. That particular mathematical quirk doesn’t mean anything, but I’ll tell you this: If your parents and siblings are alive, do not take them for granted, because 39 years has not been enough time for me to stop missing her.

And now, I am going to shift gears. This past year, one of my students, Caitlin, wrote a fashion column for our school newspaper. Since she has quite the eye for good clothing, I thought I would get her take on the Chordettes’ attire, since it matched the time frame and general fashion sense of my mom. Here, then, is the opinion of guest columnist Caitlin Y.:

I had my first run-in with the Chordettes somewhere between the age of three and six. Yet, I did not discover this until last week. Twelve or more years ago, I was forced into a sequined leotard and a tutu to match as my dance class bopped around to “Lollipop,” sung by the Chordettes. In the recitals that followed, we also tapped our way through “Mr. Sandman,” wearing poodle skirts and having endured the pain of our hair being backcombed by our mothers. Looking back, our dances may have had nothing to do with the Chordettes, but our images were all the rage during the decade of this graceful female quartet of the 1950s.

The Chordettes’ attire was the classic style of the Fifties—elegant and truly unforgettable. Skirts, whether flowing or tight, were style staples for women during the era of the Chordettes. Both looks were worn by the quartet. They displayed themselves in lace, sequins, and taffeta, while most women were found in the kitchen wearing cashmere sweaters and aprons. My favorite look of theirs can be seen on their album The Best of the Chordettes. The upper part of their dress is sequined until below the knee, where it expands into a mermaid-like technique. Truly, the Chordettes looked like singing royalty.

Amy Winehouse was not the first to introduce the now-infamous beehive. The Chordettes displayed this look with elegance numerous times throughout their era. Let me say, much backcombing and hairspray is needed for such a dramatic hairstyle. Most Southern belles still use this technique daily.

The Chordettes were one of the most successful female groups during their era, and their style was just as glamorous. As the rock-and-roll scene emerged, the female vocalists were considered passé. However, the essence of their style is still remembered and put into practice by many today.

Let me tell you, if clothing meets with Caitlin’s approval, it’s guaranteed good stuff. So, I expect to see some poodle skirts trickling back into the fashion world soon. And we can say we knew Caitlin when.

Next week, I’ll be discussing the work of a guy whose single vanished in the Great Meltdown, and how I got the record back. Reacquiring that 45 was one of my better efforts. See you Wednesday!

Chordettes, Born to Be with You

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What My Mother Taught Me, Part 1

My Uncle Tom was not the only person who fed me music when I was three years old. His sister, my mother, already had a decent music collection by the time I was born. Almost all of the LPs, perhaps numbering 100, had belonged to my parents before my birth. Then Mom subscribed me to the Disneyland records, so I had some LPs of my own. Singles that survived the Great Meltdown of 1972 that did not come from Uncle Tom’s bargain-bin excursions included 45s by Elvis Presley, Patti Page, and the group I’ll feature Saturday.

The collection that existed when I learned to manipulate the record player (instead of manipulating my parents into playing records) at age two actually served as a core of music that intrigued me and thus incited Uncle Tom’s purchases. If there had been no records in the house for me to react to, I probably would never have received any discount 45s at all.

As Mom’s collection melded into mine (ten years before they Melted together), I began to lose track of which songs she had bought for her own listening pleasure, or Hörenvergnügen. I am sure that Nat “King” Cole figured high on her list of favorites, and I know which song meant the most to her. But the mere fact that there was a sizable record collection makes me realize that I came by my appreciation of music naturally.

I have talked about my dad on this blog, but just about all I’ve said about my mom is that she died when I was nine. I will share more about her on Saturday, closer to her birthday of June 26. For now, I want to examine our relationship to a song she clearly enjoyed, “Hello, Dolly!” by Louis Armstrong and the All Stars (Kapp 573).

The single entered the Top 40 on February 29, 1964, and at some point shortly thereafter, she started trying to talk me into wanting the 45. It wasn’t a hard sell, but I wonder if she would have bothered getting it if I had showed no interest.

What she saw, I believe, was an opportunity to introduce me to a legendary performer during a high point of his career. “Hello, Dolly!” was Louis’s first #1 hit since 1932 and his final pop #1. He was in good form both vocally and instrumentally. Unlike Sammy Davis Jr.’s biggest hit, “The Candy Man,” “Hello, Dolly!” didn’t require that Louis set aside his musical integrity. The show, and the song, have endured, so his recording remains valid.

Mom was giving me more than a glance into the still-vibrant career of Louis Armstrong. She was taking me to another part of the musical world. While she was at it, she was validating the African American contribution to society as a whole.

You know by now that I was born in Gary, Indiana (let’s all sing . . . ). During the first decade of my life, there was considerable “white flight” from Gary, and racial tension abounded. It did not help matters that the main vice of Gary shifted from alcohol and illegal gambling to drugs, and that an alarming percentage of the new residents of the city fell prey to that scourge. There was a lot of murder going on, mostly black on black gang/drug crime, but young addicts started knocking over stores that had already lost much of their business, and the city essentially shut down.

In my new, mostly white subdivision, people who had been stung selling their houses below market value just to escape the violence (and often just not to have African American neighbors) had little good to say about Gary and its people. Sure, people bought records by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole and eventually the Jackson 5, but when it came to dealing with the average black man on the street, there was a lot of hostility.

When my mom went back to work as an ER nurse around 1967, there were plenty of housewives in our neighborhood who would have been glad to earn a few bucks watching her four children. But she opted to deal with a Gary agency that supplied trained childcare professionals. These women, beginning with Mrs. Hawkins, drove in from Gary to care for me and my three siblings. These women were all African Americans, driving into a white neighborhood thirty long blocks from their comfort zone.

I would like to be able to say that my neighbors behaved themselves well. There was never any violence, so that was good, but I heard the local teens muttering words they had heard their parents say about the woman Phyllis Dwyer had hired. Since Mrs. Hawkins did light housekeeping while she watched us, some of the women were jealous or annoyed that they hadn’t thought of hiring someone first. They couldn’t accuse my mom of being lazy, since she was in the ER downtown, giving trauma treatment to gunshot victims.

One day, I told Mrs. Hawkins what the local kids were calling her, and she had me gather them for a friendly chat. She was the definition of dignity, and after she gave the boys her perspective on name-calling, I never heard another negative word. I cannot imagine how much courage one has to muster to do what she did, and how much patience to do it so kindly.

Beginning with the music lesson on Louis Armstrong and continuing with the welcome of Mrs. Hawkins into our home, my mom demystified the African American experience for me to a greater degree than that achieved by most of my peers. Especially at a time when Cassius Clay was saying that blacks should not associate with whites and whites were generally showing little respect to blacks in Gary, her decision to educate me in this area of life was a wise one.

Does that mean I became flawlessly free of prejudice, or that I fell off the horse on the other side and adopted black culture to replace my own? No. I am still an Irish-American, and I have failed my African American friends in disheartening ways. But the lessons I have learned about race would have come to me much more slowly, and in much more difficult ways, if it had not been for my mom and the opportune surge of Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello, Dolly!”

Do I need to give a bio of Louis Armstrong? There’s a pretty complete bio at Wikipedia, so I’ll save the space here.

The songwriting credit for “Hello, Dolly!” goes to Jerry Herman, who wrote tunes for La Cage aux Folles and Mame as well. Herman and Armstrong each won a Grammy for the song. Not bad for a recording that was intended as a demo. I’m very glad Kapp Records decided to release it.

Saturday, I’ll talk about my mom’s most significant 45. See you then!

Hello, Dolly!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

In Or Out, and Don’t Slam That Door!

Reflections on today’s song made me realize that I have featured just three female acts in 47 posts: Patti Page, the Pixies Three, and Connie Landers. Here’s number four, and they have one thing in common: their 45s all had black labels with silver writing. Boy, that’s some connection.

There’s a stronger connection between Patti Page and today’s vocalist, Gloria Wood. The single, “Close the Door Gently” (Diamond 3005) exhibits some of the playful lyrical style that wove through Page’s career. The song is a fast waltz, not unlike some Page hits, but avoiding the tone of such morose tunes as “Tennessee Waltz” and “Mama from the Train.”

“Close the Door Gently” is, in fact, one of the cheeriest-sounding breakup songs I know. Three-year-old caithiseach played this song a lot; it has to be close to the Top Ten in all-time caithiseach plays. I liked the clear, sweet vocals, the whimsical orchestral arrangement, and the message.

How many times did you get told to close the door, stay in or out, we’re not heating/cooling the outdoors, and were you raised in a barn? (Actually, I knew one guy who was raised in a barn, but he doesn’t figure in this blog.) If you heard these clichés as often as I did, the song will click for you as it did for me.

As has so often happened this year, I have learned that Gloria Wood was not a complete obscurity despite the lack of success her single had on this small label. Gloria (1919-1994) got her start in the 1940s when she joined her older sister, Donna Wood, as a singer for Horace Heidt and His Orchestra. Donna sang on a #1 Heidt hit from 1941, “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” Donna died of an apparent heart ailment in 1947 at age 29, leaving Gloria to develop her career without the support of her sister.

Gloria doesn’t seem to have charted any hits with Heidt’s outfit, but by 1947, Gloria was singing with Kay Kyser. In June of 1948, she sang the vocals on a huge #1 hit, “Woody Woodpecker.” She sang some successful duets with Harry Babbitt as well, as part of her Kyser experience.

Gloria had a four-octave vocal range, which worked against her when it came to singing opportunities. She sang thousands of commercials, including Peter Pan Peanut Butter and Rice-A-Roni, and she voiced Minnie Mouse. She sang in the 1948 short animated film Wet Blanket Policy, which launched the Woody Woodpecker theme. In 1953 she recorded “Hey! Bellboy!” for Capitol, and you can hear that one here:

Her range is evident here; other recordings show her matching a trumpet as it climbs higher and higher, and “Close the Door Gently” includes a number of key changes that Gloria handles without breaking a sweat.

More on Gloria in a moment, but I want to mention details of the song. Written by Maxine Bamford and Dorothy Wright. Their collaboration figures as one of the few all-female writing credits on my 45s. Wright co-wrote “Cinco Robles,” a 1957 hit for Russell Arms and also for Les Paul & Mary Ford. Bamford wrote a few more tunes, but nothing as notable as “Cinco Robles.”

The recording itself was orchestrated by Ivan Scott, with “bum-bum-bum” backing vocals by the Four Jewels. Pete Lofthouse created the whimsical arrangement. Lofthouse logged ten years as a trombonist for Lawrence Welk’s orchestra, and Scott backed a number of underrepresented vocalists. The Four Jewels seem to have sung with the amazing Billy Stewart on a couple of his sides around 1962, but I can’t find a lot of work that features them.

I should note that the other side of “Close the Door Gently,” “Wear a Smile,” is designated as Diamond 3005-A, while today’s tune is 3005-X. Not one to respect musical conventions when I was a three-year-old DJ, I never played “Wear a Smile.” If I pull out my turntable and give it a spin this year, I’ll let you know what’s going on with it. It turns out that Billy May arranged that side, so it may have some redeeming qualities.

Now, back to you, Gloria. I would be remiss if I did not report that Gloria and her sister, Donna, have been spied post-mortem by a ghost hunter named Leslie Siegel. You can find details on that matter via your favorite search engine.

Despite the possibility that Gloria is haunting Hollywood, I have always found that the song lifts my spirits. I hope it does the same for you. Coming Wednesday is a song that was a huge hit, sung by an enormously successful music legend. This artist became part of my musical heritage early on, and he’s probably part of yours. See you Wednesday!

Gloria Wood, Close the Door Gently

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Gary, Indiana X 3

I’m still on the Eastern Seaboard, U.S. version, so once again this post will be hampered by sluggish facilities. This time, though, I don’t have to race to finish my post to avoid the stares of people who want to use the Holiday Inn computer.

I’ve reached the point in my musical formation where I get to confess that, with a collection of more than 300 45s and probably 100 LPs, I was exposed to exactly one musical when I was small. I don’t know if that dearth of information contributed to my general ignorance of the genre, or if I’m just not wired to be a lover of musicals. I have come to appreciate the value of musicals. Their history, especially as one of the primary sources of chart songs during the formative years of the recording industry, now intrigues me.

I have decided that my primary difficulty with musicals stemmed from my touchiness about suspending disbelief. When I watch a non-musical film and a thunderstorm occurs in it, I cringe. Why? Because in the real world, if lightning and thunder come simultaneously, the thunder is ear-splitting. It’s a moment of crisis in the storm. It’s much more common to see lightning, wait five seconds, and then hear the thunder. In a film, though, thunder and lightning always come as a matched set, yet the actors sort of ignore the thunder. They should be covering their ears. I have seen exactly one film where there was a flash of lightning, followed by a low rumble of thunder several seconds later. I found that realism gratifying, but I have forgotten which film it was. Darn.

When it comes to musicals, I have a bit of trouble imagining (for example) some New York toughs walking down the street as a gang and suddenly breaking into song and dance. That’s not how it went in my home town, Gary, Indiana.

Hey! Speaking of Gary, Indiana, the one musical three-year-old caithiseach had on LP was The Music Man. The LPs in my collection were an odd assortment, and only one of them came from Uncle Tom. My dad contributed The Fabulous Johnny Cash, which I replaced on CD around 1990. He (Dad, not Johnny) provided an ABC-Paramount LP of martial music: "Reveille," "Taps" and the like. There was a collection of Barn Dance music interspersed with humorous dialogue, but I set it under the footrest of my mom’s recliner, and she crunched it. My bad.

And apart from the one Survivor among the LPs, a sound-effects LP I have discussed before, one of the few LPs I recall vividly was an RCA budget release on Camden records, Instrumental Selections from The Music Man. The catalogue number seems to be Camden CAS 428, but I am having trouble pinning that down. Hill Bowen led the orchestra. Bowen later became part of the "Living Strings" gig for Camden, but around 1958, he was doing a budget version of Music Man tunes.

I suspect that my mom bought this one musical because it included a song about her home town, Gary. That is also why three-year-old caithiseach played the LP. But I liked another tune as well, "76 Trombones." I can’t name any other tunes from the musical, and I’ve never seen it. It’s probably time I did so.

The song "Gary, Indiana" impressed me when I was little, because it was the only song I had heard that featured a place I knew personally. Once in awhile, during my teen years, if someone from Somewhere Else learned that I was born in Gary, that wit would sing the song. But it didn’t happen often, and by the time I moved to Michigan in 1998, not a single person in that fine state regaled me with a rendition of "Gary, Indiana."

And then I moved to Minnesota. In this state, I have had that song sung to me close to one hundred times. I don’t know if it’s because more Minnesotans have asked me where I was born, or because they actually heard my answer to the question, or because they . . . well, they sing the song a lot.

The Hill Bowen instrumental versions of "Gary, Indiana" and "76 Trombones" (a rousing rendition that, I assumed at age three, involved seventy-six trombones) have not made it to iTunes, as far as I can tell. I found someone selling the LP online, but I couldn’t order it in time to post the songs here. Sorry. To give you a feel for the songs if you’ve never heard them, I have included versions I found in my collection. I don’t know who made these recordings; it could be the original cast. I am far too ignorant of musicals to tell you.

Tomorrow (Wednesday, which is already "today" in Australia) I begin my trek back to Minnesota. When many of you read this post, I will be sleeping in Gary, Indiana, of all places. And the day after that, I’ll be driving through brutal storms that follow a wave of destructive weather that created havoc in one of my favorite states, Wisconsin. I ate at the Famous Dave’s at the Wisconsin Dells on my way to Philadelphia, and now that area has been devastated beyond belief. My heart goes out to anyone affected by the disaster.

For Saturday, I’ll be writing about a Big Band singer who was not a Big Band singer by the time her 45 got to me. It was a great tune, though, and I think you’ll like both the song and the singer’s voice. See you Saturday!

76 Trombones:

Gary, Indiana:

Friday, June 6, 2008

Hanna Bar Boooo Ra

I'm writing from Philadelphia. I spent the day with Bobb Goldsteinn, the composer of "Washington Square," which I profiled twice already. I spent the evening on South Street, and I'd have to say that, if everyone got along as well as the diverse crowd on South Street did tonight, we would be a far better nation for it.

I'm in the computer room at the Holiday Inn. I tried to write this post last night, when I would have time to research what I was doing. I couldn't get any internet service last night, so I am going to be mercifully brief and give you a song with a minimalist story.

Following up on the Sterling Holloway CDs I discussed last time, I want to mention another LP that was aimed at kids and contained the audio portion of a video production.

Hanna-Barbera produced this one as a spinoff of sorts from The Flintstones. Sooper Snooper and Blabber Mouse starred in Monster Shindig. I lost the LP in the Great Vinyl Meltdown of 1972, but a guy on eBay was making copies of it available on CD a couple of years ago.

With a premise similar to that of "Monster Mash," but probably as a precursor to the Pickett tune, Monster Shindig was fun-creepy rather than downright scary. (I'll get to the scary records as Halloween approaches.) I can't give you a ton of details on the LP right now, because people could line up and want this PC at any moment, so I'd best just give you the song and go to my room.

Consider this post a space-holder until I get home and am able to provide a more profound look at the LP. Now you know how I write when my research tools are all locked up.

Have a great weekend, and expect a somewhat more detailed post on a Broadway musical phenomenon on Wednesday. See you then!

Monster Shindig:

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

From One Holloway to Another

I am taking a risk this week, but it’s one my readers should have seen coming. Though I was exposed to lots of very good (and very bad) pop music for adults when I was three to five years old, don’t forget that caithiseach was three years old, and for every ten Nat “King” Cole or Fats Domino tunes, there was one child’s recording of note.

Even so, I would have backed off the idea of sharing today’s story if there weren’t such a strong indication of grass-roots popularity among nostalgic adults for the tunes I have in mind today. I’m not talking about such terrible kiddie panderings as Strawberry Shortcake or Hello Kitty Sings Your Favourite Metal Lullabies. I’m talking about honest attempts to entertain children with enriching music and stories.

There is even a difference between child-oriented material that can get into the souls of adults, like “Sugar, Sugar,” and today’s featured music, which really didn’t try to hook parents. But I didn’t hear a lot of griping from my parents when I played this stuff, unlike the feedback that comes from overdoses of purple dinosaurs nowadays.

I suspect that today’s pieces got a pass from parents because, just as Red Holloway is a sax player for the ages, Sterling Holloway was blessed with a voice for the ages. And while you are sure to know that Sterling Holloway was the voice of Winnie the Pooh, you may not have heard some of his other classic work for children. Most of it has been unavailable for a long time, for reasons that can’t be made clear. Here’s your chance to check out these sounds, even if only to evaluate them for your children.

Most of us audiophiles have succumbed at times to the temptation to join a music-subscription service. I have been a member of the Columbia House Record Club, later the BMG CD Club, and I am about to bite the bullet and get into a CD-a-month club suggested by my friend whiteray. I don’t know how many of you had the good fortune to have your parents enroll you in a music club when you were two, but two-year-old caithiseach got an LP every month from Disneyland Records. The records tended to include the audio from films, including Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland.

What I found to be the cool thing about Disneyland records was that sides 1 and 2 were differentiated by showing one dot for Side 1 and two dots for Side 2. That was probably so kids who didn’t know their numbers could decide which side to put on. Since I was a fan of record labeling, I noted the innovation and remembered it.

Non-movie works came in the Disneyland series as well, and my two favorite LPs featured narration by Sterling Holloway. Both as the voice of Mother Goose (Disneyland DQ-1211) and the narrator of Peter and the Wolf, (DQ 1242), this Mr. Holloway provided me with just as much enjoyment as last week’s Mr. Holloway.

Sterling Holloway was born in 1905 in Cedartown, Georgia and died in 1992. He never lost his southern accent, and in a world where actors still affected Shakespearean tones in films, he logged about 100 feature films, many as a voice artist. He cropped up on television series often when I was a kid, and it was always a thrill to see the narrator of Peter and the Wolf acting live.

For that’s what he was to me: the narrator. I know he voiced Winnie the Pooh, and I was only six when he started that gig, but he had already imprinted himself on my musical consciousness via Disneyland Records by then.

I had a lively mind as a child, and I didn’t stand for baby crap in my audio world. Well, almost never. (Wait till December.) Mother Goose rhymes had the advantage of using big words and telling vivid stories, like maids having their noses snapped off by blackbirds. The way Sterling Holloway put the rhymes together, the story held your interest. Throughout this two-sided escapade, Sterling tried to recite “Peter Piper.” He flubbed it over and over, once getting as far as the final word, where he said “plick” for “pick.” [Spoiler here:] When he finally got the rhyme right at the end of the record, everyone on the recording cheered, and so did I. How could you not want Sterling Holloway to make good?

The other record on which he figured heavily was Peter and the Wolf/The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The Peter and the Wolf sequence came originally from a Disney film made up of shorts called Make Mine Music (1946). As far as I’m concerned, this is a legitimate rendering of Сергей Прокофьев’s wonderful work for children, which is the quintessential example of how to expose children to music. The Holloway narration is lively and imaginative; once my copy of this classic went away, I tried out some others, including Boris Karloff and (I think) Laurence Olivier. They stuck to Prokofiev’s narration, which is charming, but the Disney people (maybe Holloway himself) gave the animals names (the duck was Sonya, for example), which made all the difference for me. The emotion Holloway was willing to invest in his narration was unparalleled as well.

The flip side of that record took the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence from Fantasia (borrowed from Dukas from Goethe from Philopseudes), as well as the Paul Dukas music, and turned it into a short story narrated once again by Sterling Holloway. Peter and the Wolf lasts about 15 minutes, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice about ten. No commercial breaks, no video. Just sounds to make you imagine what was happening.

I mentioned that my record went away. Just one LP survived the Great Meltdown, and these weren’t the one. But a couple of really weird things happened in the 1980s.

One day I was looking at LPs around the time my elder son was born. I happened to be looking through the children’s section, and there it was: Mother Goose. I probably would have bought it anyway, but with the prospect of sharing it with my child, whether he was born yet or not, in mind, I could not pass it up. I remembered virtually all of the record even before I played it, but one song, “Myself” (see link below), sung by a young girl, hadn’t stuck in my memory.

As it turns out, the rhymes on this record were almost certainly drawn from The Real Mother Goose, illustrated by Blanche Fisher Wright and published by Rand McNally in 1916. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, you can see the book here.

The second odd thing happened at Wal-Mart. I know, you’re thinking that odd things happen all the time at Wal-Mart, so who is caithiseach to note such a thing? Well, my odd thing was that I was looking at some videos, and a bunch of Disney shorts had been combined on one VHS tape—including Peter and the Wolf. I snatched that one up as well. Just one copy, and I’ve not seen it since.

The original film Make Mine Music seems to have shown Sterling Holloway reading from Peter and the Wolf, whereas he makes no physical appearance in my video. The animation is classic early Disney, nothing cheap. If you or a little one you know likes Disney animation, you need to find this video.

For now, check out part of the audio of Peter and the Wolf, and some snippets from Mother Goose. If you’re a jaded adult, please don’t feel betrayed. There is plenty more oddball pop and R&B from the early 1960s coming your way before 2008 closes up shop. In fact, if you’re a jaded adult, this post, and the next one, are dedicated to you.

In addition to the audio below, I can give you a link to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice on YouTube. Embedding was disabled, or I would have the clip here. You can see the LP label and the cover there.

Blog note: After I post this, I am getting in the car and driving to Philadelphia. There, I will be shopping a bit of my writing and meeting one of the artists I have featured here. (My landlord will be making the rounds twice a day to feed my three pit bulls, so don’t get any ideas.) I am uploading the music for the next three posts today, and I should have no trouble staying on track. But if I happen to be late with a post anytime this month, it’s because of technical difficulties caused by my laptop.

If you’re going to be near Philadelphia on Friday, Saturday or Sunday (till noon or so), stop by the Holiday Inn at 4th and Arch and ask around for Seán Dwyer at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. Someone will know who I am and where to find me. I would love to thank you in person for reading this stuff.

For Saturday, I’ll be looking at another concoction aimed partly at kids, but this one is related to a prime-time animated series that dominated the genre until The Simpsons came along. See you Saturday!

Sterling Holloway, Peter and the Wolf Part 1

Mother Goose, Part 1

Mother Goose, Part 2

“Myself,” a song from Mother Goose

Monday, June 2, 2008

caithiseach Learns About Video

Aha! I finally doodled around enough with this blogging concept to figure out how to add videos. Next, I'll move my writing from wax tablets to digital letters, an upgrade I plan for October 2008.

What you have before you is an off-day addition to the Red Holloway posts, a video from June 7, 1995, with Red playing sax on Shawnn Monteiro's version of "Black Coffee." Now you can see what I've been hearing since 1963.

The regular post will be up Wednesday (Tuesday night). See you then!