Saturday, November 29, 2008

Art for Art’s Sake Vs. Utilitarianism

This post is going to touch on a concept I learned in graduate school, but don’t let that scare you away. It’s about music, and I won’t test you on the material. I won’t even put you to sleep.

I mentioned an “innovation” for this post, but I am starting the writing an hour after I wanted to upload the post, so screw innovation. I’ll get my point across the usual way, if you’re kind enough to follow the in-text music links at the appropriate moment.

What I want to bring up is the times that music, usually a great bonding material, creates isolation. Music bonds people instantly when, for example, someone walks through a store that is part of the exclusive selling chain for the new AC-DC album, and he picks up a copy of Black Ice just as someone wearing a ratty AC-DC t-shirt walks by. T-Shirt Guy nods knowingly at CD-Holding Guy. What T-Shirt Guy doesn’t know is that CD-Holding Guy, who is now writing a blog post about the moment, had no intention of buying that CD anytime real soon. But I did nod back.

I like almost all music, in the sense that I can find a redeeming quality in almost any track. My students (and I) are amused at my fondness for “Shake That” by Eminem, an artist I dismissed for a decade but now listen to voluntarily. I listen to his work without having given up my affinity for Pérez Prado and Howard Jones. It’s one big all-inclusive music world in caithiseach-land. But not everyone lands as firmly on the fence as I do, and taking a side in the world of musical politics leads to snobbery and even ostracism.

In college, we discussed the trajectories of literary movements, some of which lasted a century. To keep this really short, I’ll note that sometimes people thought art should be ornamental, a way to make life more beautiful, and at other times, people expected art to serve a social purpose. In Latin American Modernism of the late 1800s, the point was to be pretty. By the time César Vallejo came of age, poetry served to educate the masses, give perspective on how life could be better. In the 1990s, an Indiana University professor wrote a paper in which he took Wordsworth to task for not addressing the plight of the homeless. Sheesh.

So it has gone with recorded music, in much more rapid cycles. From the early “frivolous” tunes of the 1890s to serious hymns and patriotic World War I music, to the Charleston, to Depression commentary and patriotic World War II music, to 1950s love songs, to anti-war Vietnam music, to “Playground in My Mind,” and so on. At times, there is a mix of trends and attitudes toward music. I got caught in one such whirlpool in the 1970s. It wasn’t pretty.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that the 45s I owned when I was a toddler were all over the stylistic map. I developed a preference for bouncy, melodic music, but I didn’t limit myself. That broad exposure to music set me up to be completely comfortable with what they were playing in 1976, as you will soon hear: cue the music!

What I am going to say now will make more sense if you cue the music. That minute of music includes snippets of “Sail Along, Silv’ry Moon” by Billy Vaughn and His Orchestra and “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” by Connie Francis. Those songs, and others I owned, put the alto sax and the classic 1-4-5 progression (the guitar in the Francis song) in my comfort zone. They made it very probable that I would take an instant liking to the third song in the clip.

So, on a Sunday morning in early April, 1976, WCFL in Chicago, the “other” Top 40 station in town, suddenly dropped into its rotation the new ABBA single. I heard it ten times in the next three days, then the song disappeared forever. From the first listen, I found “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” (Atlantic 3310) very pleasing to my musical palate. What I didn’t know was that absolutely everyone else I knew would hate it.

I blame the limitations of AM radio for part of the problem. WLS and WCFL, like many stations of their time, did something they called “compression” when they played songs. Someone at the station would take songs and speed them up a tiny bit, thus saving ten seconds per song, the equivalent of a short song and two extra valuable commercials over the course of an hour. The DJs claimed that compression didn’t change the sound of the song, but I knew better. Listen to this approximation of “I Do” (easily the hardest song title to type, ever) as it came out of the speaker of my clock radio in 1976: Cue the music again! (You can compare that sound file to the one at the end of the blog.)

Compression made most ABBA singles sound as if there were a bit of Swedish Chipmunk in the singers’ DNA, which is unfortunate, as you know if you have heard them sing at the proper speed. In 1976, most of the people I knew were casual enough about music not to notice the pitch difference, so they thought all the artists on the radio sounded a bit odd. It was only the sopranos, however, who really sounded bad. They, and Eddie Holman, who sounded like a lesbian when he sang “Hey There, Lonely Girl” on WLS in 1970.

The other aspect of the “I Do” issue, for my friends, is that they had not been exposed at an early age to Billy Vaughn and Connie Francis. I was able to enjoy all of the ABBA music I heard: rock(ish), Calypso, pseudo-classical, and jazzy stuff. The style of “I Do” was something with which I had no experience: schlager. All Europeans have been exposed to the stuff, via the Eurovision Song Contest and any number of releases by German singers. I didn’t know in 1976 that schlager was to be disdained. I liked the sax, the harmonies, and the structure of “I Do.” And when I finally heard the song in stereo, in a car with a good sound system, in late May, 1976, I fell for the voices and the sax.

Everyone shook their head in disgust and snickered to my face. I just pined for a song I had not bought while the 45 was available. I recreated it in my head, especially in biology class, when I was not intrigued by the lesson.

It was another 45 I let slip by. But one day in Shoals, Indiana, my brother (future Iraq veteran brother) found a copy at the Alco Dime Store. While everyone was up the hill at my Aunt Helen’s house, having a pre-Christmas dinner, I rigged my grandparents’ console stereo so it would play the 45 over and over, and I listened to the song 25 times.

When I went back up the hill, my siblings shook their head in disgust and snickered to my face.

I didn’t let them bother me, because they hassled me in numerous other ways already. But my credibility at school was dropping because I liked this song. What was I to do about that?

I kept liking the song, but I shut up about it. Those people were lost causes, not worthy of attempts at conversion. (I say that to mask the pain.)

This is where “art for art’s sake” comes in. “I Do” is a vase, meant to sit on a corner table, as “Sugar, Sugar” and a number of other Jeff Barry songs are meant to do. There is a place for the utilitarian song, like Edwin Starr’s “War.” But I, unlike a lot of people of my generation, am willing to devote three minutes and fifteen seconds to sonic delight with no redeeming qualities. It does occur to me that some of the people I know who think music must have a purpose are in the habit of plopping themselves down in front of Big Brother XLV or a Minnesota Timberwolves game. And no, friends, I am not referring to anyone who reads this blog.

A complaint (and praise) I have heard about the recordings of ABBA is that they are in control of what they do. In that aspect, I see their work as an attempt to produce pop in a classical form. I don’t mean orchestral rock in the style of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but an attempt to be crisp in the performance of the songs. One such song, “As Good As New,” is documented as having given Madonna the idea for “Papa Don’t Preach.” And one of the most raw songwriters and performers you’ll ever hear, Kurt Cobain, often had ABBA cranking on the tour bus. Go figure.

In such company, I no longer feel bad about enjoying their music. I don’t listen to it to feed my brain, but it covers a multitude of wounds after a long work week. And something few notice is the depth: buried in many of the smooth songs is an instrument that lunges against its tethers. It takes some doing to tease the rage into the open, as in this case: Cue the music yet again!

That somewhat raw guitar is buried in the depths of an ABBA mix. I know where it is, of course, so it sounds obvious to me. I’ll be interested to know if the chord structure and occasional specks of other instruments and voices give it away, or if you are left wondering which song is its source. If you ask, I’ll tell you Wednesday.

So, I have always seen ABBA’s work as art without attempts at pretentiousness. Close to the other end of the spectrum I would place Bob Dylan, whom I respect for reasons that are basically the polar opposites of the reasons I respect ABBA. I thank Bob, for example, for singing in such a way that I always thought I could be a star, too.

The rock critics who grew up listening to the Vietnam-era music of the 1960s then became the judges who trashed ABBA at Rolling Stone and elsewhere. In 1981-82, I read in Rolling Stone something to the effect of “The Visitors is a pretty lousy album, but given the size of their stock portfolios, we should be glad ABBA is making any music at all.” Just Wednesday, I read about the ABBA corpus in a new Rolling Stone LP guide, and the consensus was that the albums were pretty good and worth acquiring. It’s funny what happens when the critics are people who listened to ABBA as kids, rather than Hendrix, the Stones and Dylan.

I don’t feel vindicated, per se, I just feel glad that there are people besides me who can handle art for art’s sake in the musical realm. I just hope they like Dylan and Eminem, too.

A final note: It intrigues me that the original sheet music for “I Do” includes a verse that ABBA never recorded. It’s no more significant than the rest of the lyrics, but it would be fun to hear it. Fun for me, and maybe not for you. Oh, well.

For Wednesday, I’ll bring you one of my childhood 45s, one I recovered after the Great Vinyl Meltdown, one that proves that you should never start a record label just to find a home for your own recordings. See you Wednesday!

ABBA, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pay Us, If You Please

Amid my collection of cutout 45s, there is a sprinkling of older children’s material on 78 rpm discs. They came from a visit to a house in Gary, where the growing-up children had outgrown their kiddie records. I don’t remember if these people were friends of my mother; they may have been an acquaintance we never visited. I believe money changed hands when the box of 78s came my way.

These weren’t just any old black lacquer discs. Some of them were Golden Records 78s, which had the distinction of being six-inch records with an LP-sized spindle hole (rather than the large hole common to American 45 releases). The Golden Records were, well, golden. I found them very appealing for that reason. Colored records have always caught my eye.

I also received at least three cowboy-related 78s produced by the Record Guild of America. I hope you will look at the scan here, but if you can’t, I’ll tell you that each side of the seven-inch record showed a color drawing with a Western theme, surrounded by an orange band filled with cattle brand markings. The song groove was pressed into clear plastic, it seems, that was glued to the drawing. One side of the record had a larger outer lip, which was subject to chipping, in part because the other side was trimmed to the size of the drawing, and there was not much support for the plastic. The songs were fun to listen to, but I haven’t tried to digitize them yet, so I have not heard them since maybe 1975.

The focus of this post is one particular Golden Record, one that eventually helped pave the way for artists to get more royalties out of movie companies. In case you or I ever sell something to the movies, this is a good precedent.

This disc, Golden Records D214, contained “The Siamese Cat Song” and “Bella Notte.” The cat song fascinated three-year-old caithiseach, because the vocals are so unusual, and because it was the only song I owned then that attempted to sound Asian. My version was sung by Anne Lloyd and Sally Sweetland, accompanied by Mitchell Miller and Orchestra.

These were not the Disney artists who performed the song for the animated film Lady and the Tramp (1955). That was Peggy Lee, singing the roles of both Si and Am.

This is, of course, the same Peggy Lee (1920-2002) who was born Norma Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota. The same one who sang “Fever” better than anyone else. The one who not only sang “The Siamese Cat Song” but co-wrote it with J. Francis Burke, whom I mentioned in January in reference to another of his compositions, “Midnight Sun.”

I wanted to talk about this legendary singer in another context. A bit less than twenty years ago, Peggy got annoyed at the money Disney was raking in from video sales of Lady and the Tramp, mostly because the company wasn’t paying her any royalties for the videos. She got a good lawyer and sued Disney. She won. This victory helped not just her, but many others who had not had the foresight in the 1950s to ask for royalties on video sales when they negotiated their contracts.

Since then, contracts for royalties have become much more vague about the specific media from which a performer or writer will receive royalties. The language these days sounds sort of like “royalties from any means of delivery, real or imagined, including multidimensional holography, on the Earth, the moon, and any other rocky or gaseous bodies in the known Universe, or in any unknown Universes yet to become known.”

Or something like that. And while such language may seem like overkill, you would be stunned at how many people aren’t being paid their cut of a sale simply because the images are imprinted on aluminum instead of celluloid. As much as some actors make, by comparison to the annual income of people who work 2000 hours a year, the idea that a company can stop paying its workers while it still rakes in the bucks strikes me as mildly unfair.

And since it is somewhat contradictory for me to present you with this very cool song free of charge and, thus, free of royalty payments, I will make explicit the always implicit request that you go out and buy the items you want to keep.

Between now and my Saturday post, people in the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. The holiday dates back continuously to 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. Although people here now use the holiday to watch American football and eat incredible amounts of food, there is still room for being thankful for what we have. So, enjoy your holiday, and be thankful.

For Saturday, I will talk about what happens when you’re the only person you know who likes a song. I hope to try an innovation on that post while I’m at it. See you Saturday!

Peggy Lee, Siamese Cat Song

Friday, November 21, 2008

Remembering November 22

In the summer of 1963, when I was alternately groovin’ to “Yakety Sax” at the Dwyer Café and spinning my suddenly vast collection of 45s at home, I began to come down with increasingly frequent cases of tonsillitis. Mine was caused by herpangina, which is NOT related to that other herp, any more than a herpetologist is. I got it in my nose, and it blistered my mouth, and then it just cycled and recycled. My doctor told my parents that the next time my tonsils became infected, he was going to yank them. I remember those days.

I remember the car rides to Shoals, Indiana in the summer of 1963. I remember the amazing Christmas of 1963, when I received the previously mentioned Gaylord and the amazing Stutz Bearcat (photo 1 and photo 2), the first car I ever drove that could be financed, for $4 per month. I remember going to a woman’s house for nursery school, which we now call daycare. She had a lot of books, including some Deputy Dawg books, which were my favorites. Upstairs, in her son’s room, which we were allowed to visit on rare occasions, there was a plastic hand grenade. Fascinating. I liked going there.

Amid all those memories, there’s one I should have had but don’t. It’s not that I was ultra-political when I was three, but when you’re born into an Irish Catholic family that is only two generations into being American, you know your own, and when your own is president, you love him, even if you’re three years old.

I knew the president from the Zenith console television. I knew him from the newspaper. I knew the letters JFK when they appeared in headlines.

And November, 1963 has always been a complete blur to me. I have found it especially odd that today’s date, 45 years into the past, has left no traces alongside the Bearcat and the hand grenade.

Around 2000 or so, I began to pick at that puzzle, and I made a deduction. I knew that those tonsils came out in the fall of 1963. I knew how my first day back at nursery school went: Mom dropped me off as usual, but when she turned to leave, I felt a sudden panic. I remember the sensation vividly. I remember running to her, screaming. I remember the pattern on her coat. I remember the shade of her lipstick. I remember her hairdo. And I remember the shocked look on her face when I begged her to take me home. She did.

The separation anxiety came from my time in the hospital. At one point, my dad was sitting with me in the stark white room. I remember the railing at the foot of the bed. My dad told me he was going to the cafeteria for lunch. He left, and a nurse came in, turned me over and, despite vociferous protests, jabbed a needle in my butt. I told her she would hear about it from my dad. I guess they were trying to keep me from further infection. I didn’t care at that point.

After a period away from nursery school, the teacher called 942-14xx, the phone number we had (which I won’t complete here), and my mom handed me the red phone we had (very trendy; everyone else’s was black), and the teacher proceeded to try to entice me to return to school by inviting me to the Christmas party. My hopeful mother was watching me, and my flat “no” probably made her want to tear out her hair. But she had seen the look on my face. Did she do me a disservice by letting me stay home? I don’t know. But I remember being grateful.

My theory in 2000 was that I was in the hospital when President Kennedy was assassinated. I could find no other explanation for the vacuum in my brain surrounding that event and the funeral. But I had no way of knowing.

Recently I mentioned that my sister found our home movies in the attic in 2004. She also found a box that was full of papers that had been chewed up by nesting mice. She was going to dump it, but she decided to scoop out the nests, and amid all those scraps of paper, there was one big rectangle of paper that the mice had left completely untouched. It was my baby book.

Enter the Log O’Life.

My mother kept meticulous records of my early years. The last entry in the book is from 1967, when she fell prey to the illness that would take her life in 1970. Her early death kept me from learning more about my childhood, but she, and the mice, left the story for me to ready at Christmas, 2004.

I learned that I was put on a special formula that had to be refrigerated. The refrigerator malfunctioned without my parents’ knowledge, and I was given spoiled formula. I was six weeks old, and I spent twelve days in the hospital from that one. That set the tone for my abdomen, and I had to be rehydrated several times over the next three years.

Then came the tonsil drama. My final case of tonsillitis did occur in November, 1963. And between being miserable with tonsillitis and a fever, going into the hospital for treatment prior to surgery, and the tonsillectomy itself on November 25, my agenda was a bit crowded, and I didn’t have time to watch motorcades, news updates, or funerals.

When I exited the hospital, the world was a new, worse place. I do remember that. I don’t know that I had the wherewithal to be distraught enough at the president’s passing for it to have contributed to my existential angst, but all of my relatives were in shock, and I know I picked up those vibes.

Linked to those memories are my visits to Dunkenburger, a small chain located in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago, Indiana, and possibly elsewhere nearby. I remember eating at the Gary restaurant, and I remember asking my dad to drive me by the wreckage when the building burned.

In 1962, Dunkenburger offered as a promotion a 45 produced by Hi-Hat Records, a Gary label that I discussed in these pages in February. I got a copy, which came “compliments of Dunkenburger,” and was not for sale. The 45, BP-153, contained the voices of the “1st American in Orbit, Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr. and Pres. Jack Kennedy.” The president spoke about Col. Glenn after he was recovered from the ocean, and the 45 celebrated the space milestone. The president was still in office when the 45 was released.

I played this 45 sometimes, but a conversation between two adults, with no music involved, got a bit old for two-year-old caithiseach. I remember playing it after the president died. And though the recording must be a matter of public record, you probably have not heard it. Col. Glenn mentions many historic facts, including the lights that greeted him in Australia. The president’s speech comes in about 5:50 into the recording.

As always when I think about this senseless murder, I wonder why the man could not have been allowed to live out his lifespan. Right now, he would be 91, and I could have scheduled this post for May 29, his birthday, rather than November 22. There are ways far simpler than assassination to rid ourselves of a president: one is to vote him or her out, one is to impeach and convict, and another is to sit back, wait, and thank God for term limits. I’m not even fond of the execution of deposed tyrants, though I support locking them up for the rest of their days.

Now, with a new president who breaks ground even more contentious than that of being the first Roman Catholic president, far too many tactless people have speculated on the dangers of being “first” in such a public way. Anyone who was alive in 1963 needs to work to ensure that the event I cannot remember from November of that year is never recreated in the person of any other president.

For Wednesday, I will bring you a song from a little yellow 78 rpm disc, and I’ll tell you about how the singer triumphed over Big Business to receive her just rewards. See you then.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Word Only a Five-Year-Old Could Love

I told you in July that my second personal attempt to buy a 45 in a store was my disastrous purchase of a 45 about Batman. My first foray into music commerce occurred a year earlier, and it’s time to tell that story.

My parents didn’t take me to see Mary Poppins. I don’t remember wanting to go to see it. I have never seen the film. But I did have contact with the biggest hit from the film, though it reached only #66 on the Hot 100. Did the song get WLS airplay, or did my cousin Bobby perhaps own the soundtrack LP? The song didn’t earn WLS airplay, and I’m not going to call Bob to ask if he had that album.

Maybe the Walt Disney show ran a clip of the song. That could well be how I was exposed to “Super-cali-fragil-istic-expi-ali-docious” by Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and the Pearlies (Buena Vista 434).

I remember very well the day that Mom and Dad took five-year-old caithiseach to the record store in Gary to purchase the 45. A small, suspicious part of me wonders if Mom and Dad were acceding to my request to buy the record, or if they wanted to see the look on the face of the store clerk when I asked for the record.

You see, I could say “Super-cali-fragil-istic-expi-ali-docious.” In 1965, the human race had not evolved to its current state, and only Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, two other kids and I could say that word. My parents couldn’t. (Now, of course, all humans can say it.) So maybe they made me ask for the 45 because they wanted it but could only point at it.

The very tall (five feet) woman (16 years old) who sold me the record couldn’t say it. Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Mom: Tell her what you want, Seán.
Me: I want “Super-cali-fragil-istic-expi-ali-docious,” please.
Clerk: You can say that? I can’t say that. Hey, Fred, come listen to this guy. Say it again.
Me: I want “Super-cali-fragil-istic-expi-ali-docious,” please.
Fred: Groovy. Hey Dexter, come check out this kid. Say it again.
Me: I want “Super-cali-fragil-istic-expi-ali-docious,” please.

So, I got “Super-cali-fragil-istic-expi-ali-docious.” I didn’t know many tricks, but I was good at that one. I took the record home and played it often. I played it enough that Uncle Tom felt encouraged to buy the whole soundtrack for me. We went shopping at Big Top, and when I wasn’t looking, he slipped the LP into the shopping cart. When he got me home, he showed me the LP. I was suitable impressed and grateful. And he paid full price, not a nickel a disc, as he paid for the 45s.

That trip may have been the time Uncle Tom let me drive the car in our neighborhood. He put me on his lap and let me steer. I drove into someone’s yard, despite his request that I turn to the left. He took over the steering wheel after that.

But even if I did my driving on another occasion, getting that LP made it a great trip. I bought into the whole Mary Poppins thing from a musical point of view, though I didn’t do anything like try to use an umbrella to fly.

When I became a Mary Poppins fan, I also became a Julie Andrews fan. I had no prior knowledge of who she was, but it turns out that Julie, born Julia Wells in 1935 in Surrey, was in a movie I did eventually see, The Sound of Music. We were singing that doe-a-deer song in school long before I knew about the movie, but that’s how it is with my knowledge of music. You won’t ever see me do a series on musicals, because I don’t get them so well.

Julie also appeared in a movie that my college pals and I liked a lot, 10. It happens that my roommate, Ray, was a great fan of everything Julie, so when the Bo Derek hype converged with his Julie Andrews fixation, you can bet we all went. And when Bo said to Dudley Moore, “Esta noche la paso contigo,” I said, “Oh, wow,” and several people turned to me and said, “What did she say?” By the time she translated it for Dudley, my friends knew what she was up to.

Ray had some difficulty with Julie’s appearance in the film S.O.B., because, as he put it, Mary Poppins should not be displaying her breasts. He’s probably right. Julie must really have been fond of her husband, to let him talk her into that. I do remember that neither Ray nor I refused to look at stills from the film.

Her absolutely amazing singing voice was damaged by vocal-cord nodules in 1997, and nearly silenced by her doctors, whom she sued for malpractice. She can sing again now, though I haven’t heard the post-op Julie.

As for the song, it was written by Robert (born 1925) and Richard (born 1928) Sherman, who formed the perfect Disney-score team in the 1960s. They are responsible for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Jungle Book and The Aristocats, among many other works.

I should mention Dick Van Dyke. As the male counterpart to “Mary” in “Super-cali-fragil-istic-expi-ali-docious,” Dick sings in a faux-Cockney accent that is not his real voice. As a Missouri native who grew up in Danville, Illinois, near where my step-grandmother met Burl Ives, with a short stint in Crawfordsville, Indiana, there’s no way he could put on a convincing accent from anywhere on the British Isle. Born in 1925, Dick appeared on Broadway and thus earned the lead role on the Dick Van Dyke Show. Johnny Carson was considered for the role, which would have made for some serious confusion unless they changed the name of the show.

You can hear Dick’s real voice in a full episode of his show, one featuring Henry Calvin, who scared me in Babes in Toyland. Or you can take my word for it: he’s not really Cockney.

That’s what I have on these people. I am proud that I can type “Super-cali-fragil-istic-expi-ali-docious,” and even more proud that I can still say it. Yep, I’ve still got it.

For Saturday, I will be presenting you with a rare recording of historical value. Trust me when I tell you that you will want to listen to this one. See you Saturday!

Julie Andrews et al., Super-cali-fragil-istic-expi-ali-docious

Friday, November 14, 2008

Debut 2B

Bill Erman made music careers possible for a number of people by venturing into the record-label business. In the case of Johnny Cooper, Bill was content to let Johnny’s compositions (“Rivalry,” “Bonnie Do”) serve as the A sides of the 45s. In both cases, however, Erman-penned songs filled the B side. Erman wrote both sides of “Little Bride”/“Dumb Dumb Bunny” for Johnny, as well as “While You’re Young”/“Diggity Doggity.” “Oreo” is a Cooper song, but its flip, “Flame of Love,” is credited on the label to Bill Erman, Johnny Cooper and Cal Starr (who registered just one other song). At the BMI site, Johnny is not given credit for that song.

So, despite having written only 44 songs, three more than Johnny Cooper, Bill Erman managed to represent himself well on Johnny’s singles. It could be that some of Johnny’s compositions came along after his Ermine years, of course.

Speaking of the label, photos of Ermine labels show lots of toying with the logo and design. The place to see them and all things Ermine is Terry Gordon's music site.

And now, “I Found Love with You” (Ermine 37), the other Johnny Cooper song I have owned for 45 years without playing it. I don’t have any reason why I ignored this one, either. We’ll see.

In retrospect, the sax intro would have pulled me in. It sounds a lot like Billy Vaughn, though, and three-year-old caithiseach would not have found this one as compelling as “Yakety Sax” or even the Billy Vaughn recording of “Old Cape Cod” I owned. Johnny’s voice is a bit better suited to “Rivalry,” as he has some trouble working with the slower 6/8 tempo of “I Found Love with You.”

Of the four sides I owned that have been sitting as a time capsule since 1963, I find this one the most disappointing, but really, can any song you’ve hidden away that long be a disappointment? I don’t think so. The mystery was fun while it lasted.

I do still own some songs I’ve not heard yet, including a 45 that seems to be of Finnish provenance. But these 45s are not from my Uncle Tom, or even from my childhood. If they turn out to be amazing when I finally play them, I will let you hear them.

For next time, I will bring you the first 45 I ever purchased. My Jan & Dean/Neal Hefti single was my second purchase; this one was my practice run. I did a good job for a new consumer. See you Wednesday!

Johnny Cooper, I Found Love with You

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Debut 2

Before I head into this post, I want to expand on a point I was making last Wednesday. I said then that “the days when songwriters used three-syllable words in songs aimed at kids” were gone. I was mostly right about that, but I didn’t think in time of a counter-example. I know an excellent example of music aimed primarily at children that satisfies an adult’s wishes to hear music that is both fun and intelligent.

Kevin Kammeraad and his wife, Stephanie, are the purveyors of an incredible book with companion CD called The Tomato Collection. At their page, look down and click on “Track Listing/Listen.” You can sample as much or as little of each track as you wish.

The poetry is quirky and extremely engaging, full of three-syllable words that kids can ingest easily. The poetry of the book is set to music that is spectacularly arranged in every possible style, from Beatlesque to twelve-bar blues to . . . I mean it, every possible style. The production is stunning.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I like what I like. But I am not leading you astray when I tell you that I don’t know many CDs that are more entertaining than this one. The CD contains roughly 50 different songs. If it sounds as if I’m plugging a friend’s CD, I’m not. I have met Kevin and Stephanie, and they gave me valuable advice on setting up a small press. But they are friends of a friend, and they are not likely to remember me. Thus, I’m not angling for a cut of any sales here.

And now, the next topic:

At the end of August, I presented two songs by Davi, songs I had owned since 1963 but never played. I mentioned that I had another such 45, and I would bring it to you later. Now is later.

The artist is Johnny Cooper. He never scored a Hot 100 hit, but one of his singles made some headway in Chicago. “Bonnie Do” (Ermine 42) spent eight weeks being “played” at WLS, with a January 25, 1963 peak at #19. Not bad for a guy on a label that also engendered releases by Susan Dwight and the Minks, Angelo’s Angels and Freddie Montell. (Freddie has had a track anthologized, “Stop and Rock,” which was the A side of Ermine 110.)

What do I know about Johnny Cooper? As much as I was able to learn about Michael Allen, Jimmy Edwards and Davi, thanks to names that do not lend themselves to narrow online searches. There’s a Johnny Cooper who is currently recording, but the Ermine Johnny Cooper released his five singles in 1961 and 1962, so there’s not much chance that it’s the same Johnny. I find it interesting that “Bonnie Do” was not Johnny’s final 1962 release; “Oreo” (Ermine 44) was. Yet “Bonnie Do” debuted on the WLS survey in January, 1963.

Today’s previously unheard single is “Rivalry” (Ermine 37, 1961). Ermine’s discography on Global Dog indicates that Ermine 30 and 31 were released, then 32-36 were either skipped or unknown to the discographer. So “Rivalry” may be the label’s attempt to jump back into the fray. I am going to listen to the song now.

Piano reminiscent of “Love Letters in the Sand.” Matching strings come and go. Johnny Tillotson type of voice, doubled on the chorus. Not a bad set of lyrics. As for the playing surface, it’s clean from having no needles dropped on it. A pop or two from sitting in a box unsleeved for 45 years.

As was the case with Davi’s single, I don’t know what kept me from making “Rivalry” part of my playlist. The song is as good as some I played regularly. Considering that I played “Since Gary Went in the Navy” by Marcy Joe at least once a month despite not liking it much, I can’t justify blackballing this one.

John Francis “Johnny” Cooper wrote this song with Rita Blair. Johnny has 41 titles still listed with BMI, an impressive total and a sign that he wasn’t as obscure as he would seem. His songs are published now by Bill Erman Music, which tells me where the label got its name. As for Rita Blair, she co-wrote “Rivalry” and a song called “Sputnik,” which is not the song by the same name that Webb Wilder recorded. That’s all Rita Blair still has to show.

As for Bill Erman, I was able to learn from the book Chicago Soul by Robert Pruter that Erman owned at least three labels: Witch, Cortland and Ermine. The labels were in fact Chicago-based, and Erman must have worked “Bonnie Do” hard to get the Chicago clear-channel AM Top 40 station to give the song two months of airplay. Impressive. Erman owned the Diamond Coal Company, based on Cortland Avenue in Chicago, but he wrote songs (including some for Johnny Desmond) and finally decided to venture into label ownership. Witch and Cortland were his R&B labels, and Ermine was where his rock and country artists went. Overall, Cortland and Ermine, at least, did put a few songs on the outer fringes of the Chicago music map.

That’s it for now. If I find more details, I’ll bring them to you on Saturday. See you on the flip side!

Ooh, I see that this is my 100th post on the blog, for what that's worth. Thanks for letting me stick around this long.

Johnny Cooper, Rivalry

Friday, November 7, 2008

1920 + 40 = Kid’s Tune

Boy, when I dig into the stuff four-year-old caithiseach should have been playing on his record player, all kinds of people relive their childhood as well. That makes me happy. And thanks to Anonymous and Yah Shure, I recall that my Uncle Tom gave me “Pony Boy” rides. When he wasn’t around, my dad did the same. I had forgotten that. I wonder just how many kids got bounced on an adult’s leg to that tune.

Both of today’s songs disappeared in the Great Vinyl Meltdown. They were on kiddie records, one on an LP (a Golden Record, I think) and the other on a 78. I actively sought the one on the LP, and when I recovered it, transferred to CD, it became the most improbable reacquisition to date.

I learned in my search for the song that it had actually been a hit for adults in the 1920s. The same holds true for the second tune, which started as a risqué folk song. I’ll take them one at a time.

“Where Do You Work-A John” started as a hit for Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. The song poked a bit of fun at Italian immigrants to the United States, a theme that seems to have petered out in the 1960s, except for Joe Dolce’s 1981 hit “Shaddap You Face.” Waring’s song entered the charts on March 5, 1927 and peaked at #6.

The version of “Where Do You Work-A John” I knew as a child was obviously aimed at children. The whimsical melody was not changed, which shows how flexible some melodies are. But there’s a gulf between the 1920s versions and the children’s version; they are all sung by adults, but the arrangement of the version I knew first seems to be more childlike.

For perspective, here’s a YouTube video of a version by Guy Hunter on Edison 51917. I can’t figure out if Hunter’s version precedes Waring’s, but it gives you an idea of the way the song was presented back then.

I don’t know who recorded the children’s version. When I found it again, I did so by glancing at the track listing for a CD called Mother Goose Songs and Stories. (It sits on my CD rack between the Motels and Mötley Crüe.) Claiming to “bring out the genius in your child,” this CD contains the Italian-immigrant-mocking song, a song about cigarette trees, and three train songs. No actual Mother Goose that I could see. I plunked down a couple of bucks and took the CD home in hopes that its version of “Where Do You Work-A John?” was the one I sought. Indeed it was. That was quite a shock. Lesson learned: Look at the track listing of every CD, in case there's something useful on one.

The other song of the day, “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” was a song presumably written by Harry McClintock in his hobo persona around 1897. By the time he recorded it in 1928, the song was attributed to Billy Mack. The song’s initial purpose was to describe how hobos lured children into their lifestyle with tales of life on the road. The lyrics became much more tame over the years (see Wikipedia for examples), ending with the “cigarette trees” becoming “peppermint trees” in the children’s version.

Apart from Harry McClintock, whose version wound up in film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the best-known version would have to be the Burl Ives recording from 1949, shown on YouTube with photographic accompaniment:

I also found the song on a Highwaymen album from the early 1960s. The version I knew from a 78 rpm record included a spoken interlude by an adult who sounds vaguely cowboyish and an enthusiastic boy who is enthralled by the idea of sugarplum trees with marshmallow leaves. It’s all of a minute long and ends abruptly, so I wonder if there should be more to it.

Thinking about these “adult” songs that have wound up in the children’s repertoire, I have to wonder which of the songs we know will be siphoned off by the kiddie market. “Born to Be Wild?” “You’re So Vain?” “She Loves You?” Maybe not. But something will go the way of these songs, and it probably won’t be the “Lollipop” I quoted last time.

For Wednesday, I’ll bring you the A side of the second of the two 45s I never played when I got them from Uncle Tom. The first one, by Davi, turned out to be decent. We’ll see about the other one next week. I promise I won’t hear it more than 30 minutes before it’s available to you. See you Wednesday!

Where Do You Work-A John?

Big Rock Candy Mountain

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Is It Live, Or Is It Memories?

I have mentioned before that Christmas, 1963 brought a technological advance to our home. My parents bought a reel-to-reel tape deck, and they recorded audio to accompany most of the Super 8mm film footage my dad took of a number of big family events. A few times during my early childhood, my dad pulled out the projector and showed the footage. I laughed at most of it. Then the film went into a box, not to be seen again for ages.

I have not mentioned before that my sister found the film reels in our attic, and she had them transferred to DVD for me for Christmas, 2004. Then, for the first time in my active memory, I saw my mother at Christmas in 1959, pregnant with her only child. She looked happy. Considering that she had just ten more years of life in her, I find the images bittersweet.

But today’s post is about the audio. I confiscated the tape recorder and the audio tapes right after college, and eventually I transferred them to my hard drive. I had to use a different machine for the playback, because the original one had given up all of its ghosts. It still spins, but all you hear is static, no matter what tape you slip between capstan and roller.

When I played one of the tapes, I heard three-year-old caithiseach opening a present and finding a mechanical dog that I could take for a walk by pulling on his leash. My adult persona exclaimed, “Gaylord!” And a deep memory unlocked itself.

Then, later on, the tape came on at the end of a song I had forgotten. The 45 that held it was a children’s record with two songs per side. It was almost certainly on the P-R-O-M-E-N-A-D-E label, though I had some kids’ Western tunes on a 4-song 45 with a black label as well. That 45 was a Victim of the Great Vinyl Meltdown. The thing is, I had the second song, “Pony Boy” by Marty Martin and His Six-Shooters, on a separate Peter Pan 45 (Peter Pan 535), which survived the Meltdown. Thus, I remembered that song, which, according to the tape, was the song I preferred of the two my mom recorded.

But as an adult, having just the last few seconds of “A Boy in Buckskin (and a Gal in Calico)” on an old tape was not enough. As soon as I heard the song, I remembered enjoying the melody and the harmonies involved. So, I started my search.

One guy had put the recording I was after online, from an album he had encoded in RealAudio (that was therefore mushy-sounding). The album billed the singer as Artie Malvin, who had a career in the Army during World War II, singing for Glenn Miller. In a bit of historical irony, Artie seems to have sung a version of “A Gal in Calico,” which is a different song and confuses search engines mightily. In the 1950s, Artie, who is in fine voice here, sang a lot of children’s songs.

I made do with that recording for a while, but eventually I found that someone who owned an antiques shop had a 7” 78 rpm record (Peter Pan 415) that included the identical recording, but billed as by Frankie Starr with the Peter Pan Orchestra and Chorus, directed by Vicky Kasen. This version also had the sound of squeaky wagon wheels dubbed into the martial drum intro and the outro. Dumb. But both the RealAudio and the 78 version had a verse that had been cut off my 45, so I was glad to get the 78.

The final verse, though, is about as jingoistic a piece of music as I could ever hope to hear. I don’t have a problem with being proud of some of the things my country has done in honest attempts to improve life for people in other nations, but my applause for attempts to recreate the British Empire American-style is tepid.

So. In order to get rid of the squeaky wagon wheels, I took an identical opening drum riff and spliced it onto the recording. My kind commentator, Yah Shure, apologized awhile ago for mentioning the name of Mitch Miller in a blog comment, but the drums are from his version of “Yellow Rose of Texas.” So there.

After “A Boy in Buckskin” comes “Pony Boy,” a song that defies lyrical logic: “Pony Boy, Pony Boy, won’t you be my Tony Boy. Don’t say no, here we go, off across the plains. Carry me, marry me, ride away with you . . . “ I do not get it at all. Is he planning to marry his horse? Or a boy? There is something slightly twisted going on, and I’ll need some therapy to get over that one.

The writer of “A Boy in Buckskin” was J. Fred Coots (1897-1985), who registered more than 300 songs with ASCAP and, according to Wikipedia, wrote more than 700 songs, often for children. His biggest hit would have to be “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” (I promise I am not trying to bring on Christmas early.) But that song gets some competition from “Love Letters in the Sand.”

Regardless of who really sang “A Boy in Buckskin,” you have to give credit to the people who made the recording for trying to put together a decent effort. Some thought was put into the instrumentation and the vocal arrangement, unlike a lot of today’s kids’ music, which was clearly recorded in someone’s house on a $100 Casio keyboard. Gone, too, are the days when songwriters used three-syllable words in songs aimed at kids. Maybe that will change at some point, but I’m not optimistic.

For Saturday, I have a couple more juvenile recordings, one a 1920s song for adults, and the other a legendary folk tune. See you then!

Artie Malvin?, A Boy in Buckskin

Marty Martin and His Six-Shooters, Pony Boy