Wednesday, December 24, 2008

DJ for a Winter’s Eve

A note: I can extend voting for the Great Vinyl Countdown, my December 31 post, until December 26. I’ve realized that the math isn’t that hard. Here's what you need to know to vote.

I should be getting maudlin right now. Fourteen months ago, the cosmos bestowed upon me the idea of sharing the 45s I owned as a baby. I wrote out the 2008 post schedule that October. The songs I could feature, that is, the ones I had reacquired after the Great Vinyl Meltdown, filled out 51 weeks. I took that as an omen, and I plowed ahead into the blogging world. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed more any endeavor that involved a whole year and considerable work.

On the way, I learned a lot, thanks to my fellow bloggers and the Blogger Who Won’t, Yah Shure. I made fast friends with Bobb Goldsteinn, who was just an icon before last April. And most of all, I began to feel as if I exist apart from my little home-to-work-to-home niche, because I didn’t start with ten readers per week and end up with two. At least a few people out there have read much of what was essentially a childhood memoir.

Next year will be more of a straight music-history blog from caithiseach, but 2008 involved a lot of personal musing, and the gracious people out there never intimated that I was stupid for spilling my guts or that I was . . . boring. If you just scrolled through the chatter to get to the song, at least you didn’t insist on telling me so.

And while there are two more posting days for 2008, I have used up all of my childhood vinyl as of today. Well, that’s not quite true; I didn’t feature “Sugar Moon” by Pat Boone (#5, 1958) or “Old Cape Cod” by Billy Vaughn and His Orchestra (actually the B-side of “The Sundowners,” #51 in 1960). Those Dot records seemed redundant, given my prior mention of Boone, Vaughn and Dot. For Saturday, I’ll bring you two pieces of vinyl from my college years. But today marks the end of this year-long theme of grooves that shaped me.

So, here we go. In 1965, my parents upgraded our record player to a stereo turntable that had removable speakers that could be placed wherever I wanted around the room. Very cool. With these new possibilities, an idea occurred to my mom: since people were coming over for Christmas festivities, we could make their walk up to the house that much more cheery if we played Christmas music for them.

So, my dad, being the electrician that he was, took the speakers outside, wrapped them in plastic, and ran the wires through the window. Since I was on break from Our Little Saints Kindergarten, I was put in charge of the considerable pile of Christmas LPs and singles while my parents undertook more menial and less important tasks like buying groceries.

Late that afternoon, when Mom was at WiseWay getting last-minute ingredients, I went to work. It was dark out, thanks to the Winter Solstice, but there was a big plastic snowman on the front lawn, and it was cheerily lighted. The speakers were sitting behind an evergreen shrub that lived beneath our picture window, so no one would have known from where the music emanated.

The only problem I encountered was that I couldn’t hear the music. Of course, I was indoors, and the windows were shut against the winter chill, but I had to be sure the music was actually playing.

Didn’t I?

Well, Mom came home, and while she wasn’t upset about the music, she did tell me she could hear it from the street with the car windows closed. I thought that was fine, since the neighbors deserved to share in the special cheer that only music, especially Christmas music, could bring. Mom went back outside and used hand signals to tell me when the music had reached the correct volume. I was not to crank it again. So I didn’t.

When she came in again, she told Dad, “I was coming down the street, and “Christmas in Killarney” was all I could hear. Who was singing that song anyway, little caithiseach?”

I was surprised that she didn’t know what songs were on LPs she had bought. I told her it was Bobby Vinton. There’s nothing like having a guy nicknamed the Polish Prince belting out a tune chock-full of Irish clichés. The album, A Very Merry Christmas (Epic 24122), contained such gems as “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle” and “Christmas Chopsticks.” It was a very multicultural set, between Asian and Irish themes and tales of differently abled musical instruments.

Bobby Vinton, of course, is not a no-name with a crummy Christmas LP as his sole claim to infamy. Bobby, born Stanley Robert Vinton in 1935, was huge in the 1960s, with 26 Top 40 hits for the decade, including the #1 hits “Roses Are Red (My Love)” (1962), “Blue Velvet” and “There! I’ve Said It Again” (1963) and “Mr. Lonely” (1964). He took “Blue on Blue” to #3 in 1963 as well.

One misconception about Bobby’s career is that he went away and suddenly reappeared in 1974 with the #3 bilingual (English-Polish) smash “My Melody of Love.” In fact, he charted twice in 1972, so his hit hiatus was a mere three years. By the time his chart run really ended in 1975, he had logged 31 Top 40 entries. Not too bad for a Pennsylvania kid.

And what’s up with his hometown, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania? Whenever I look up one of those male crooners, he’s from that town. Perry Como, Bobby and all four of the Four Coins hail from Canonsburg. That’s six Top 40 vocalists out of 8,000 people. That would be the equivalent of 6,000 Top 40 singers from New York City, and I don’t think there are even half that many.

The song he was singing when Mom came home was written by a triumvirate of tone: James Cavanaugh (1892-1967) wrote 212 ASCAP titles, many related to specific locales: Birmingham (Alabama), Buffalo, Cuba, Georgia, Bizerte, Harlem, Grand Central Station, Texas, Scottish Highlands, Maine, Latin America, Hawaii, Honolulu, Hoboken (New Jersey), Mississippi, Germany, New England, France, Argentina, Pago Pago, Dixie, Mexico, Japan, Tipperary and, of course, Killarney. Hmm. Cavanaugh wrote “You’re Nobody ’Til Somebody Loves You,” and he worked with people as distinguished as Chick Webb and Dean Martin.

John Redmond, author of 308 songs, wrote a number with Cavanaugh, and on his own, he showed a predilection for Hawaiian themes and the occasional Christian motif. A Cavanaugh-Redmond song written with Nat Simon, “The Gaucho Serenade,” was used in a number of films in the 1940s.

Frank Weldon, rounding out this group, penned 118 titles, including a number of the Cavanaugh-Redmond works. Two Cavanaugh-Weldon songs, “I Like Mountain Music” and “A Little on the Lonely Side” (the latter co-written by Dick Robertson), were also used in multiple films, in the 1930s and 1940s.

Produced by Robert Morgan, the Vinton album reached #13 on the Christmas LP chart. The album was selling like hotcakes while Bobby was at #1 with “Mr. Lonely.” But really, how could he be lonely when he had all those Irish folks doing jigs around him?

Now I’ll shift gears. For more than thirty years, it has been a New York City Christmas Eve tradition for a certain group of carolers to gather outside the former home of Irving Berlin, which is now the Luxembourg Consulate, at 17 Beekman Place. There, they regale the current residents with “White Christmas.” A couple of years ago, the event-coordination torch was passed to Bobb Goldsteinn, the writer of “Washington Square.” This year, as he mused on the event and the long-term significance of the tradition, he was given a song that expresses what the event means to him and to his fellow carolers.

Wednesday night, the Christmas Eve tradition continues, with the new song, which Bobb wrote in 45 minutes (the best inspirations happen quickly), sung as a prelude to “White Christmas.” The song is already recorded, and a video posted, so I will refer you to YouTube for the blog debut of “We HYMN ‘White Christmas.’”

And with those thoughts, I leave you to your celebrations of whichever seasonal event you choose. I am off to visit my dad, who contributed heavily to the home atmosphere that allowed me to collect so much vinyl and spend time enjoying it.

Saturday, I’ll bring you a pair of unusual songs I heard only during my summers in Mexico, one in 1979, the other in 1980. And a week from now, I’ll present the Great Vinyl Countdown as the final post of the original premise of the Great Vinyl Meltdown. Merry Christmas to you.

Bobby Vinton, Christmas in Killarney


The Blogger Who Won’t, Yah Shure said...

Thank you so much for the wonderful history lessons from your childhood. The music added the icing to the cake.

Best wishes for the Holidays!

jabartlett said...

Best to you and yours from me and mine . . . .