Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Vortex of Incompetence, or Cleverness Beyond Measure?

I’m writing about female artists every other Wednesday, and you may well imagine that not every singer in my collection is a flawless songbird. Since I am now writing when it’s still Women’s History Month in the USA and April Fools’ Day to points east of here, it seems the perfect time to bring up women who have become part of the historical record while becoming the butt of its jokes.

In recent years, such people as William Hung have made a fortune off their lousy singing voices. Our appetite for artistic train wrecks isn’t as new as “reality” TV, however. I offer you a couple of 1960s artists, as well as one who is still cranking ’em out, but in the oddest way of them all.

The first artist is a sister act, and many of you know their work. I’m sure, though, that even some thorough music fans will have managed to miss the Shaggs.

Begun as a trio of Dot, Helen and Betty Wiggin, later adding sister Rachel, the Shaggs were put onto the musical treadmill by their father, Austin, while they were schoolgirls. It had been predicted by Austin’s mother that his daughters would form a band, and he went for it with the single-minded fervor that only those who believe they are fulfilling prophecy can achieve. He even took his girls out of school so they could spend all of their time working on their music.

And what music it was. When their album, Philosophy of the World, was released in 1969, the few people who heard it thought it was a joke, or at least really awful. One hundred copies seem to have survived of the thousand LPs pressed. One copy belonged to Tom Ardolino of NRBQ, and the band used its pull to get Rounder Records, of all people, to reissue the album in 1980. Then, it received critical notice, but not acclaim.

At first listen, the music sounds like some little kids beating on pots and pans and screeching. But I, having heard the songs before and revisiting them for this essay, have come to agree with Cub Koda, the erstwhile Brownsville Station front man who went on to become a stunningly cogent music critic (primarily for All Music Guide). He says:

“The guilelessness that permeates these performances is simply amazing, making a virtue out of artlessness. There’s an innocence to these songs and their performances that’s both charming and unsettling. Hacked-at drumbeats, whacked-around chords, songs that seem to have little or no meter to them (“My Pal Foot Foot,” “Who Are Parents,” “That Little Sports Car,” “I'm So Happy When You're Near” are must-hears) being played on out-of-tune, pawn-shop-quality guitars all converge, creating dissonance and beauty, chaos and tranquility, causing any listener coming to this music to rearrange any pre-existing notions about the relationships between talent, originality, and ability. There is no album you might own that sounds remotely like this one.”

I listened to the songs carefully, and I now note that Helen’s drumming is not as random as it seems, and the guitar parts are rehearsed, if not good. Thus, the songs are reproducible in their recorded form, which means the girls intended to do what they did. They even stopped the recording and told the producer when one of them had messed up. Mind-boggling, but true. That leads me to ask: were these recordings signs that a higher form of life had arrived on Earth, dealing out tunes that mere humans could not appreciate? What if the collapse of the music industry means that all music will eventually sound like these songs?

You will love the broad Boston accents, which rival those of the Jamies (“Summertime, Summertime”) and, in a similar vein, the Jersey non-rhotic vocalizations of the Royal Teens (“Short Shorts).

If you have an open-minded ear (?), you will eventually learn to appreciate the messages and the arrangements of the songs I have brought to the blog. For contrast, I am also including a 1975 recording of a song not composed by Dot Wiggin (the first album was all her work), “Wheels,” which shows the girls in a far better light technically. At the end of that one, nevertheless, you catch a glimpse of the original Shaggs chaos coming through. The contrast makes me think they really did know what they were doing on their original compositions. If you do enjoy their work, you are in good company: Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain ranked their LP as one of their favorites.

Love ’em or not, you will have to admit that their original songs are not the same type of train wreck that “Photograph” by Ray Conniff is. He should have known better, whereas the Shaggs clearly did not. (Thanks to whiteray for this timely musical revelation.)

The next joke was perpetrated on the suspecting American public in 1966. Mrs. Miller, whose first name was Elva and whose actual last name may have been Connes, rather than Miller, warbled her way into a Capitol Records contract as a bit of comic relief from her stablemates, the Beach Boys and the Beatles. According to Wikipedia, she became offended when she realized that Capitol was actually making fun of her, but she got over it. Her album sold 250,000 copies in three weeks, far more than almost all of us have sold of our own work.

Mrs. Miller said that her production team chose the worst, rather than the best, takes of the songs she sang. And perhaps you know what became of her album, Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits: It spawned two Hot 100 singles (links below) and is a cherished collector’s item. Mrs. Miller died in 1997 at age 89.

But the real oddity in my collection is an enterprising woman named Mik Tap, who, perhaps to hide a voice as odd as those of the previous artists, releases all of her recordings backwards. Her website claims that there is an “ethereal beauty to the backward masking of the songwriters’ original intent.” I don’t know about that, but when I listened, I know I did not hear anything as sinister as the mutterings alleged to emerge from playing “Stairway to Heaven” backwards. But then, the reverse of a stairway to heaven is a descent into hell, while the Mik Tap songs can’t possibly be an attempt to mess with the inner workings of our minds. Can they?

For Saturday, we’re up to Week Fourteen of the 1950s charts. See you then!

The Shaggs, Philosophy of the World

The Shaggs, Who Are Parents

The Shaggs, My Pal Foot Foot

The Shaggs, Wheels

Mrs. Miller, Downtown

Mrs. Miller, A Lover’s Concerto

Mik Tap, Im Er Od

Mik Tap, BHOTR

Saturday, March 28, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 13: Lucky for Some

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

I’m back on track for my discussion of the 1950s charts. There’s nothing pulling me away from St. Cloud for an extended period of time, so I have my references books to make this post work. Some good things have been happening in the charts, so here we go.

March 26, 1955: The Davy Crockett craze is full upon us. The Bill Hayes version of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” spends its first week at #1 on the Best Sellers. Fes Parker is in the Top Ten, and Tennessee Ernie Ford is at #17. Hayes jumped from 31 to 1, bypassing another craze: the Crazy Otto craze. Johnny Maddox stays at #2 with his medley of songs by Crazy Otto, while the German pianist himself is bouncing on and off the Best Sellers chart with the two-sided hit “Glad Rag Doll”/“Smiles,” which is turning out to be very hard to document in book form. When the dust settles, I’ll tell you about all of the variations of this single’s chart tour.

The big debut is “Dance with Me Henry (Wallflower)” by Georgia Gibbs. It will spend three weeks atop the Juke Box chart. I suspect that it was fueled by teen girls who are trying to entice boys to dance with them. I hope it worked.

March 31, 1956: Les Baxter leads a considerable number of instrumental hits on the Best Sellers with “The Poor People of Paris,” at #1 for the third week. “Heartbreak Hotel” is still just #8, up from #11. At some point this song is going to begin to perform abnormally well. The Jockeys are helping a bit, as the song has reached #6 on their chart, up from #7.

This week marks the start of the ultra-small skiffle craze. Lonnie Donegan and His Skiffle Group jump onto the Best Sellers chart with “Rock Island Line.” It’s probably more significant to recall that two guys named Lennon & McCartney were putting together a skiffle group before it evolved into whatever you want to call their later work.

March 30, 1957: Buddy Knox with the Rhythm Orchids take over #1 on the Best Sellers for a week, though they won’t reach the summit on the Top 100 at all. The rush of #1 “Young Love” versions is giving way to competing “Butterfly” versions: Charlie Gracie is poised to top the Juke Box chart in a couple of weeks, and Andy Williams begins a #1 run this week on the Top 100 and the Jockey chart. Debuts this week are fairly nondescript, even the ones by iconic names: Eddie Cochran (“Sittin’ in the Balcony”) and the Platters (“I’m Sorry.”)

March 31, 1958: “Tequila” rules the Best Sellers again. A couple of big debuts show up as well: the previously mentioned Laurie London phenomenon, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and a song that enters the Best Sellers at #26 and the Top 40 at #27, “Don’t You Just Know It” by Huey (Piano) Smith and the Clowns. The Smith single will climb to #9 on the Top 100, but given its initial sales reception, I would expect more. The possible culprit? No pop airplay. None.

March 30, 1959: A lot of girls were happy to see Frankie Avalon atop the Hot 100 for the 4th week, but I’m guessing that a lot of DJs and hard-core guys would prefer to have it fade out. But what could take its place? “Alvin’s Harmonica?” “Pink Shoelaces?” “Hawaiian Wedding Song?” We’re starting to hit the pre-1964 doldrums that will make the Beatles so welcome.

The biggest Top 40 debut is “Where Were You (On Our Wedding Day)?” by Lloyd Price, but its Top 40 entry position is also its peak. Long-term bigger debuts are “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I” at #26, which will peak at #2, and “I Need Your Love Tonight” at #33, a future #4 hit. They happen to appear on opposite sides of RCA Victor 7506, and the artist happens to be Elvis (Presley).

After spending two weeks at #20, Buddy Holly’s hit, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” climbs to #13. The flip, “Raining in My Heart,” enters the Hot 100 at #95, but it will peak next week at #88 and fade away.

For your listening pleasure, here are the Juke Box smash designed to get guys onto the floor, “Dance with Me, Henry” by Georgia Gibbs, and the song you never heard unless you bought it, “Don’t You Just Know It” by Huey (Piano) Smith and the Clowns. The lead singer of the Clowns was Bobby Marchan, who will have a solo hit in 1960.

For Wednesday, I’ll bring you some female vocalists whose skills made it easy for the rest to succeed. Remember, Wednesday is April 1. See you then!

Georgia Gibbs, Dance with Me Henry (Wallflower)

Huey (Piano) Smith, Don’t You Just Know It

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Clarinet As Vehicle to Stardom

These days, the drum machine is the “instrument” that helps an “artist” sell “records.” From 1955 until a few years ago, it was the electric guitar. During the 1960s, there was a stretch when a cheesy organ or a horn section would do the trick.

From the 1930s through the mid-1950s, there were actually competing bands that based their sound on the clarinet. Woody Herman fronted a band as a clarinetist, as did Artie Shaw. But the biggest, best, and most creative of them all was the jazz clarinet virtuoso Benny Goodman.

I didn’t grow up listening to Big Band music, but in the 1960s, Benny Goodman’s name, if not his recordings, were still part of the American pop-culture vernacular. As sometimes happens on this blog, I am probably writing for the under-40 set when I write the basics about Goodman’s career.

Benny was born in 1909 to Russian Jewish immigrants. By the time he was 16, he had joined the orchestra of Ben Pollack in Benny’s hometown, Chicago. He was successful enough before he turned 20 that he tried to get his father to retire from his job in the Chicago stockyards. Instead, his father continued working, only to be killed by a car in 1929 as he stepped off a streetcar. He never saw Benny’s greatest success, and that loss affected all of the Goodman family.

In the early 1930s, Benny began working with a superb African-American pianist, Fletcher Henderson, and the result was a hotter form of jazz than what music fans were used to. His band was about to fold in 1935, when a couple of trajectories converged.

Benny’s band had been playing on a late-night radio show in New York called Let’s Dance. Few in New York listened to it, because it came on too late. The West Coast jazz crowd learned about Benny via that show, which aired at a listenable time there. When he took his band on the road, they wound up at the end, both literally and figuratively, at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Ready to disband if they didn’t make a hit there, the band used the Fletcher Henderson charts they had used on the radio, as well as Henderson’s huge hit, “King Porter Stomp,” to turn the indifferent audience into an explosive, dance-crazy crowd.

After three weeks at the Palomar, playing for up to 8,000 people, Benny was officially reigning over the Swing Era as the King of Swing. And he did it all with a clarinet. By January, 1938, Benny and his band were big enough to play Carnegie Hall. There, they recorded their most iconic performance, “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing).”

Given his musical longevity, it should come as no surprise that Benny tried out a number of different band structures. One of his more significant groups was a sextet that featured the early electric-guitar work of Charlie Christian. Beginning in 1938, Benny began recording Mozart, and after that, he commissioned clarinet works by Béla Bartók and Aaron Copeland, among others.

The 1955 film The Benny Goodman Story provided Benny with some amusement, but it contained a lot of good music, recorded by Benny, who was portrayed in the film by Steve Allen. If you want to know the Hollywood version of Benny’s life, check it out.

Benny died on June 13, 1986, and he left behind one of the largest legacies of any Depression-era artist. Of his 164 chart hits, 16 went to #1, including the two-sided 1936 hit “It’s Been So Long”/“Goody-Goody.” He worked with many huge stars of the Swing era: Gene Krupa, Bunny Berigan, Harry James, and numerous others.

If you don’t know his work, here’s a taste of it. In addition to the three songs listed below, here’s a 1937 film of the band in action, including drummer extraordinaire Gene Krupa:

For Saturday, we’re up to Week Thirteen of the 1950s charts. See you then!

Benny Goodman, King Porter

Benny Goodman, Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)

Benny Goodman, Goody-Goody

Saturday, March 21, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 12: A Tale of Two Cities

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

In the course of human events, into each life some snow must fall. And apart from that, sometimes pages in a book stick together. If I had been reading a novel when that happened, I might have noticed. But I was preparing to go off to attend a conference in Chicago, and one music chart looks a lot like another, so how was I to know I was looking at the chart for March 31, 1958, rather than March 24?

Look at the date on the chart, you think to yourself. Yeah, I know. It doesn’t matter, though, because I have still managed to figure out a way to write a post about a song that hasn’t hit the Top 40 yet.

I have to write about this song because it’s the only song I brought with me that coincides with the 1950s charts for Week Twelve. When the 1-terabyte external hard drives creep below $100, I will buy one and use it to store my whole music collection. Then, if I remember to take it on business trips, I will be able to overcome glitches caused by crisp paper and inattention.

So, I’m in Chicago. It’s spring here, like everywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere, but when I was walking to the Hyatt by the Chicago River, the air was really cold. Not much colder than Week Twelve of the 1950s charts, however. The debuts this week have had little staying power: there’s yet another Davy Crockett version, this one by Tennessee Ernie Ford (March 19, 1955); another version of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” by Gale Storm, a Best Sellers debut on March 24, 1956, “Mama Look at Boo Boo” by Harry Belafonte on March 23, 1957; and “This Should Go On Forever” by Rod Bernard on March 23, 1959 (it didn’t go on forever, obviously).

With such a thin crop to feature, you can imagine that I was pleased to find that, during Week Twelve of 1958, a future #1 hit by a One-Hit Wonder jumped into the Top 40 at #12, after entering the chart the week before at #61. It also leapt onto the Best Sellers at #13 in its debut week there. And radio loved this song; in its second week there, it climbed from #15 to #11.

Of course, I was looking at Week Thirteen when I decided this song deserved the spotlight for this post. Fortunately for me, March 24, 1958, Week Twelve, is the official debut date for the song, thanks to the DJs. My approach to this series normally would be to wait until the song made a dent in the sales charts on March 31, but I’m stuck now.

And so, since this is the one smash debut for Week Twelve, let me tell you about “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” by Laurie London.

First of all, the song owes its status as a #1 hit to radio. While it raced up the Best Sellers and Top 100 charts to #2 very quickly, “Twilight Time” by the Platters, and then “Witch Doctor” by David Seville, shut it out of the top sales spot. But the Jockeys made it #1 for 4 weeks, so it’s pretty legit. (Note to Wikipedia editors: the summary there says he spent 4 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, but the chart did not yet exist, and he did not top any sales chart.)

And where did Laurie London go after this auspicious debut? Well, he stayed home in London, and that seems to be what he did wrong.

Laurie was just 14 when he released this gospel tune. He looked like a wholesome London boy with a clean face and a bright smile. His accent showed in his vocals, which made him exotic to Americans, I’m sure. He was the first British artist to hit #1 on any American chart in the Rock Era.

All of the online bios are brief, which is a pity, as I can’t confirm a career quirk about which I read in a Rolling Stone guide or in a #1 hits book. When Capitol picked up his single from Parlophone for U.S. release, there was “encouragement” to have Laurie tour the United States to back this hit and subsequent smashes. His dad didn’t want him to come over, and that was probably a wise choice for the long-term mental health of little Laurie. (Think Britney, Lindsay, et al.)

But if Laurie really wanted to have a music career, and his 42 other recordings would make one think he did, his dad blew it for him. Unless the book I read was lying, or I got the story wrong. Laurie even tried singing a lot of songs in German, including “Itsy Bitsy Teene Weenie Honolulu Strand Bikini,” which sounds like sexy English, but “Strand” is German for “beach.”

However the scenario played out, American record-buyers were denied a look at Laurie, and so they blew him off. We are still left with this unusual, all-inclusive gospel tune, taken to #1 by a London boy named London, while America’s gospel queen, Mahalia Jackson, only managed #67.

For Wednesday, I’ll bring on the postponed Benny Goodman feature. See you then!

Laurie London, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

Monday, March 16, 2009

St. Paddy's Day Special: Traditional Music/Ceol Traidisiúnta

To those expecting a Really Old Music post today: To my surprise, a lot of people came to check out the post of Irish music. The visits are still going on, and I don't want to distract anyone who comes to read it, so I'm going to leave things alone until Saturday. Look for Benny Goodman next Wednesday. Thanks!


This is a special St. Patrick’s Day post. The regular Saturday post is below this one.

This is just a short note to celebrate some of the good music I know from Irish and Irish-American artists. The mini-bios in English are mine, and the Irish ones (see below) are from Vicipéid, the Irish-language Wikipedia.

Dervish are from County Sligo. Their lineup includes Brian McDonagh (mandola), Liam Kelly (flute, whistles), Tom Morrow (fiddles), Shane Mitchell (accordion), Cathy Jordan (vocals, bodhrán, bones), and Michael Holmes (bouzouki). I first encountered them at the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana, several years ago. They have been recording copiously since 1989. My favorite song of theirs is “An Spailpín Fánach,” from End of the Day (1996). Shane McAleer is the fiddler on this tune.

Solas is the Irish word for “light.” The Irish-American group that took the name has produced nine albums since 1996. Like light through a prism, the members have scattered over time: only Séamus Eagan (flute, whistle, bodhrán, etc.) and Winifred Horan (fiddle) remain from the group that recorded Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers in 1997. From that album, I have selected “Aililiú Na Gamhna” for you. At the time, the group’s vocalist was Karan Casey, from Co. Waterford, who now enjoys a successful solo career.

The Chieftains, to state the obvious, are the trad band of greatest renown. Apart from their work as a group, beginning in 1963, they have collaborated with a number of artists, including Elvis (Costello), Mick Jagger, Ziggy Marley, and Tom Jones. I discovered them (late) in 1978, when I picked up their album Chieftains 9: Boil the Breakfast Early in part because it included a delightful tune called “Seán Ó Duibhir a’Ghleanna” (Seán O’Dwyer of the Glen). If you didn’t know my full name before, you do now. I fell in love with the tune “Carolan’s Welcome,” composed by Turlough O'Carolan (Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin, 1670-1738), a blind itinerant harper. The tune seems not to have been named by Carolan, but by the Chieftains, who played it for the Pope’s arrival in Ireland. The song offered me my first taste of music on the uilleann pipes, “uilleann” referring to “elbow” and being a relative of “ulnar.” Paddy Moloney played them here.

There’s plenty more to listen to, but if I get going, I won’t ever stop. The song links appear after some Irish text.

Dervish: Banna traidisiúnta ó gContae Shligigh in Éirinn ab iad Dervish. Bunaíodh an banna seo sa bhliain 1989. Roghnaíodh Dervish mar iarratasóir na hÉireann sa Chomórtas Eoraifíse don bhliain 2007, ach críochnaigh Dervish in áit deireanach na Chomórtais.

Chieftains: Grúpa ceoil traidisiúnta Éireannach atá ar na Chieftains, a bhí bunaithe sa bhliain 1963. Is iad Paddy Moloney, Michael Tubridy, Matt Molloy, Kevin Conneff, Seán Keane, Martin Fay, agus Derek Bell na baill a bhí ag seinm leis an mbanna i rith na blianta. Is é Moloney atá ina cheannaire ar an mbanna, agus is eisean a scríobhann nó a chóiríonn an chuid is mó den saothar atá acu.

Bhí Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin (25 Márta 1670 - 1738) ina chruiteoir, cumadóir is ceoltóir caoch. Thaisteal sé timpeall Éire ag seinm agus ag canadh leis a saoithre féin agus indiu tá cáiliúil air mar sin. agus d'éag sé ar an 25 Márta 1738 i Ros Comáin. Cláirseoir a bhí ann a chum cuid mhaith dá chuid ceoil féin, chomh maith le dánta éagsúla. Thosaigh sé ag foghlaim an cheoil nuair a chaill sé radharc na súl ag 18 mbliana d'aois, agus chuaigh sé ag taisteal ar fud na tíre ag seinm agus ag cumadh ceoil do phátrúin éagsúla. Agus é ag seinm i dtithe na n-uaisle chuala sé ceol Iodálach agus chuaigh an stíl nua sin i bhfeidhm ar a chuid cumadóireachta féin. Mar gheall ar a dhaille ní fhéadfadh sé ceol a léamh ná a scríobh ach mhair timpeall dhá chéad píosa a chum sé sa traidisiún. Rinne Seán Ó Riada agus daoine eile athbheochan ar cheol Uí Chearbhalláin sa dara leath den fhichiú haois agus tá an-cháil ar phíosaí ar nós "Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór" agus na píosaí a dtugtar 'plancstaíplanxty' orthu.

For Wednesday, some Big Band clarinet virtuosity. See you then!

Dervish, An Spailpín Fánach

Solas, Aililiú Na Gamhna

Chieftains, Carolan's Welcome

Saturday, March 14, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Weeks 10-11: Halloween in March?

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

I’m back on track for my discussion of the 1950s charts. There’s nothing pulling me away from St. Cloud for an extended period of time, so I have my references books here to make this post work. Some good things have been happening in the charts, so here we go.

March 5-12, 1955: On all three charts for both weeks, “Sincerely” by the McGuire Sisters has a lock on #1. Fess Parker’s version of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” comes aboard on March 12, and two versions still wait in the wings.

The Sarah Vaughan version of “How Important Can It Be?” jumped up 9 spots on March 5, and it seemed to be giving the Joni James cut some serious competition. However, a drop of 7 spots for March 12, with an uptick for Joni James, shows that Joni’s eventual Top Ten recording is the stronger of the two sides.

March 10-17, 1956: An epic moment in pop music chart history arrives this week. I don’t believe I can overstate the significance of the March 10 arrival on the Best Sellers chart (#19) and the Top 40 (#28 after its Top 100 debut at #68 the previous week) of “Heartbreak Hotel” by E. Presley. This is the first of 153 chart singles, 114 of which will teach the Top 40, with 18 reaching #1 and 6 more stopping at #2. But although “Heartbreak Hotel” is destined to peak high, on March 17 it climbs only to 15 on the Best Sellers, from 14 to 12 on the Jockey chart, and to 21 on the Top 100. It still doesn’t register on the Juke Box list.

March 10 is also the debut week for an iconic Perry Como tune, “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom).” Perry was reportedly not fond of doing novelty numbers, but they were his bread and butter in the 1950s. The flip, another uptempo number called “Juke Box Baby,” is strong enough to peak at #10 on the Top 100, though it is relegated to Best Seller Flip status on that chart.

On March 17, a real blast from the past takes a one-week peek at the Top 40 charts when the Benny Goodman Trio with Rosemary Clooney reaches #20 on the Joke Box chart with “Memories of You.” The song stalled at #52 on the Top 100 and did not show up on the airplay or Best Sellers charts. Benny charted 164 times between 1931 and 1953, and when the film that chronicled his life came out in 1956, Benny was still valid enough to get the recording gig that led to this final hit.

March 9-16, 1957: Perry Como comes up with another big debut on March 9, as “Round and Round” opens at #13 on the Best Seller chart. The jockeys had moved on the record the previous week, and now it shoots from 24 to 12. The radio play helps boost the Top 100 performance from 32 to 19.

Elsewhere, March 9 is Fats Domino’s first Best Seller week with “I’m Walkin’,” whose #4 performance will be matched in May by a kid who gets a boost from his family’s TV show, Ozzie and Harriet.

March 16 brings us a Diamonds smash, “Little Darlin’.” Competition arrives for “Party Doll” by Buddy Knox with the Rhythm Orchids . . . in the guise of Steve Lawrence. You can imagine the disparity between those versions. Even so, Steve jumps onto the Juke Box chart at the same time as Buddy’s version, and Steve’s version will peak at #5.

March 10-17, 1958: This is the debut week for “Tequila” . . . by Eddie Platt. It won’t go as far as the Champs version, which jumps from #23 to #12 on March 10. And in a huge leap for a Best Seller in those days, the Champs go all the way to #1 for March 17.

March 10 is the Best Seller debut for “Maybe Baby” by the Crickets, at #27, and the Top 40 entry date for “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” by Danny and the Juniors. In her second and third Top 40 weeks ever, a newcomer named Connie Francis jumps from 19 to 7 on the March 10 Top 100 chart. The song has quite a chart history: Five artists charted with it in 1923, and Harry James did so in 1946. Still to come is Marie Osmond in 1975.

The Best Sellers chart for March 17 shows how eclectic the Top 40 was in the 1950s. Debuts include a song in gutter Italian, Lou Monte’s “Lazy Mary (Luna Mezzo Mare),” John Zacherle’s “Dinner with Drac,” and “Lollipop” by the Chordettes. I think I’m going to have to put “Dinner with Drac” on the blog so you can tell me if you find it amusing, considering its novelty status.

March 9-16, 1959: The Hot 100 serves up a bittersweet Top 40 debut on March 9, as a posthumous Buddy Holly single, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” climbs from #45 to #36. There are some other recognizable debuts: Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise,” Dodie Stevens’s “Pink Shoelaces,” and, way up at #19, “Never Be Anyone Else but You” by the kid from the Ozzie and Harriet show. The flip, “It’s Late,” enters the Top 40 on its own merit on March 16, shooting 91-44-21 at the same time that the A side scrambles from #19 to #9 on the 16th. Ricky Nelson was pretty big then, eh?

“La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens, which had dropped out of the Top 40 on February 23, got a boost from the events of February 3rd, moving back to #37 on March 2, and #28 on March 9. That’s all it can do, as it drops back to #41 on March 16. No, wait: it will get one more push back to #30 on March 23, and then it will really go away, ending Ritchie’s presence in the Top 40, but not the Hot 100.

The really huge debut of the week takes a #55 debut into the Top 40 at #16. The song is “Come Softly to Me” by the Fleetwoods, the debut single for the trip from Washington state, and soon their first of two #1 singles. They show the softer side of the chart; Ricky Nelson and Ritchie Valens have had two-sided records, a rock side and a ballad side, get a lot of airplay. Soon, the loud stuff will back off, and the early 1960s will be very mushy, until the kids get tired of that and embrace the Beatles.

For your listening pleasure, I would like your opinion of the concoction of John “the Cool Ghoul” Zacherle, who hosted horror movies in Philadelphia as an ersatz Bela Lugosi, which enabled the local Cameo label to sign him and make him a national star . . . for a few weeks. Again, is his recording funny? Note that the sax is pretty hot; it’s the Applejacks backing his song.

Here he is (with lettering spelling his name “Zacherley”) on vintage TV. This medium seems to suit him better:

And how can I bypass the one Rock Era week that Benny Goodman spent in top Top 40? And with Rosemary Clooney singing, you can’t go wrong. Frankly, his clarinet sounds as sweet as it ever did.

For Wednesday, expect Really Old Music from Benny, as well as a bio. But you should consider stopping by on Tuesday, March 17, considering that I’m Irish and such. See you Tuesday and Wednesday!

John “the Cool Ghoul” Zacherle, Dinner with Drac, Part 1

Benny Goodman Trio with Rosemary Clooney, Memories of You

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Music from Another Cold Place

Before I start, here is some sad news: Jimmy Boyd, whom I featured here last December, died Saturday (March 7) at the age of 70. I send my heartfelt condolences to his family.

This evening, it is 9 degrees F. (-13 C) in St. Cloud, Minnesota. We’re headed for a low of -9 F. (-23 C). The change sounds much more drastic in Fahrenheit than in Celsius, and it should. After a few days of 68-degree (20 C) weather in Indiana, returning to Minnesota just in time for a near-blizzard is a distressing experience.

Six hours east of here, it is 3am in Stockholm, and the temperature is 28 F. (-2 C) there. It’s true that Stockholm is on the Baltic Sea, but I would think that, at the end of winter, the water would keep the air cooler, as Lake Michigan does for Chicago this time of year. I am doubly, perhaps triply, offended at the current warmth of Stockholm in comparison to my landlocked town.

Sweden comes to mind for a couple of reasons. First, I have a lot of neighbors whose families trotted over here from Sweden or Norway several generations ago. Second, I’m thinking how much better those people’s bodies seem to be adapted to March blizzards than mine is. I am just two generations removed from a temperate island in the North Sea that is green year round. I don’t have enough body fat to keep me toasty. I just shaved the beard I grew all winter, a beard that kept the winter chill off my face. I guess I’ll use a scarf in the morning when the wind drives ice particles at my cheeks.

Maybe, then, moving to a place that Swedes found comforting in the winter was not my best idea ever. But I like Sweden, its people, and its music. Regular readers know I appreciate the music of a Swedish act, ABBA, enough to feature them on the blog. But ABBA went the way of most of my favorite bands more than 25 years ago. Current pop music has become another somewhat bleak landscape.

When I was looking for acts to fill the space left empty by ABBA, the Eagles, Elton John, and the J. Geils Band, among others (I had already replaced the Beatles with Elton John), I gave other Swedish acts a look. I found Roxette acceptable; I know that one blogger friend has never quite gotten them, but I think “It Must Have been Love” is a priceless and exquisitely produced bit of bittersweet pop. That made two Swedish acts I could listen to without cringing. But Roxette drifted away as well.

I tried expanding my world view to Norway, but the band Dance with a Stranger, complete with a lead singer named Elg, didn’t work too well for me. Back to Sweden, I learned to love Väsen, but they are more folk and World Music than pop, which is where I live.

And finally, I learned of yet another Swedish female vocalist, this time a solo singer, whose album found its way into my regular listening cycle.

On a 1993 album titled Shapes (Epic Sweden 473737), Josefin Nilsson gave me another Swedish voice to enjoy. Sounding gritty, more like Roxette’s Marie Fredriksson than ABBA’s Fältskog or Lyngstad, she carried the songs chosen by her producer farther than they might have gone with a lesser voice. The album was pop, not leaning toward jazz or folk. It was a solid follower of ABBA and Roxette and worthy of a place in that genealogy.

Data in English on Josefin Nilsson is, at this point, thin, so I resorted to the Swedish Wikipedia for help. She was born in 1969 in Alvare, on Gotland, an island south of Stockholm in the Baltic Sea. In 1993, she was a former member of the Ainbusk Singers, which included her sister Marie Nilsson-Lindh as well. Ainbusk contributed backing vocals to one of Josefin’s songs on Shapes. A look at the current Ainbusk website indicates that they are both in Ainbusk again.

Josefin has also appeared on the Swedish stage in a Swedish-language production of the musical Chess. She has starred in a couple of films: the 1997 Swedish film Adam & Eva, as Eva, and the 2000 comedy Det blir aldrig som man tänkt sig (noted on IMDB as “probably the best Swedish film ever”), in the lead role of Sophia.

Given her Ainbusk return and her film success, it’s no wonder that Josefin left me in the lurch after this album to seek yet again a Swedish singer to fill that niche in my ever-growing bunch of favorite musical niches. If you have suggestions for me, do speak up.

The Josefin Nilsson album that put her on my map includes some of my favorite Swedish musicians, including Rutger Gunnarsson on bass and Lasse Wellander on guitar. Anders Glenmark, who sang the chorus on Murray Head’s “One Night in Bangkok,” contributes vocals. The album was produced by Benny Andersson, who also contributes the keyboards and arranged the songs.

It would seem that Josefin agreed to sing the songs chosen by her producer, rather than select tunes herself. Benny Andersson co-wrote all of the songs with Björn Ulvaeus. This duo wrote Chess with Tim Rice, and they were the executive producers of the 2008 film Mamma Mia!. They wrote a number of worldwide hits between 1974 and 1982, and they earned two gold records in the United States with the #1 hit “Dancing Queen” (1977) and the #3 hit “Take a Chance on Me” (1978).

Get the latest on Josefin Nilsson at her website. In addition to the album songs, here are Josefin and Helen Sjöholm, with Benny Anderssons Orkester, singing “Jag vet vad han vill” (“I Know Him So Well”) from Chess.

And for comparison, the Elaine Paige/Barbara Dickson English version from the original cast album of Chess.

For Saturday, I will be in full command of my computing resources, so I will not have any trouble with the 1950s chart post for Week Eleven (with more details of Week Ten thrown in). See you then! And if you live in Minnesota, stay warm!

Josefin Nilsson, When I Watch You in Your Sleep

Josefin Nilsson, Where the Whales Have Ceased to Sing

Josefin Nilsson, High Hopes and Heartaches

Josefin Nilsson, Leave It to Love

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Madison Time, Part 1

This evening, I feel just a twinge of pity for authors who are on the road while deadlines loom. I wanted to write this blog post 24 hours ago, but I had no way to post it, so I didn’t write. Today, I was going to spend the evening at my sister’s house in Illinois and write the essay, but I saw that the weather was going to get in the way of my return home. With 2-4 inches of slushy snow expected for Madison, Wisconsin on Sunday, I had to choose between driving this evening and getting past most of the storm, or writing and driving through all of it tomorrow.

So, I took the prudent path and drove on to Madison. That meant driving through heavy rain on the Tri-State Tollway, the signs for which somehow no longer mention that the governor of Illinois is Rod Blagojevich. Then, just north of Janesville, Wisconsin, a pretty solid fog set in.

This fog was not as bad as a fog I faced in northern Iowa about a year ago. That fog was not there, and then it was, coming on as a wall of white that stretched for forty miles. I wound up renting a room two hours from home, because my speed was down to 20 miles per hour at the time.

Tonight, I was able to drive at the speed limit of 65 miles per hour, thanks to clearly painted road lines. There was just one glitch. Some guy in a silver SUV came upon me at 70 miles per hour, then he tucked himself back into my lane one car length ahead of me. That’s fine; I don’t try to impede the progress of people who prefer to drive faster than I am driving. But once this guy got ahead of me, he panicked at the darkness and slammed on his brakes. I had to do the same. I passed him.

He slowed down to about 50, and I was well ahead of him for about fifteen minutes. Then he came whizzing back up and passed me again. Then he slowed down again. I passed him again, and the next time he caught up, I was exiting at Highway 151.

I am going to assume that this guy was just a crummy driver and not some sort of vigilante or bully. I will also assume that he was not a Madison driver. I have had nothing but good experiences in Madison; last Saturday, I stopped in town and visited Famous Dave’s, a barbecue joint I happen to like a lot. This was actually the 29th Famous Dave’s I have visited. If you’re playing at home, the photo of the restaurant and other pertinent details will be posted on my website in a few days.

And tonight, the people at the Red Roof Inn set me up nicely with wi-fi and everything else I need to write this post and upload it for your listening pleasure, and perhaps your reading pleasure, though this post is mostly an excuse for not posting 24 hours earlier.

Oh, just a tidbit before I start. While I was at my sister's spectacular new house, built by the hands of her significant other, I was helping the S.O. get his Surround Sound going. To test it, he was playing the satellite radio 1980s channel. I was doodling with the wires, and S.O. said, "That's 5.1."

A bystander, not a family member, commented, "No, that's the 1980s."

That's the sort of disconnect this day has brought.

This is meant to be a post on the charts from this week in 1955-59, but I want to post it before Saturday is gone, get some sleep, and start the slog home to Minnesota so I can undo the disorganization that a week away causes, in time for school to start an hour earlier on Monday, because we need the sun to stay out an hour longer, even though it is too cold where I live to do anything with that hour, and the mornings were getting just light enough that I could rise to go to school without feeling that most of the night was still ahead of me.

Well, then: what I do want to say now about the week’s charts is that, during this chart week in 1955, the biggest #1 hit of the Rock Era, prior to “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John, debuted on the sales charts. Let me note that the statement is a matter of interpretation. Guy Mitchell stayed at #1 for 10 weeks on the Jukebox chart with “Singing the Blues,” but as far as sales charts go, the longest run prior to Olivia belonged to Pérez Prado and His Orchestra with “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.”

I will do double duty on the charts next week, to make up for the lack of detail today, but I can give you a dose of detail on this song. First of all, Pérez Prado recorded many of his compositions and/or biggest hits at least twice, sometimes three times. In his corpus you will find a large number of recordings made in Mexico City around 1949-50. These recordings include the original versions of “Mambo no. 5,” “Qué rico el mambo,” known here as “Mambo Jambo,” Mambo no. 8,” and “Cerezo rosa,” literally “Pink Cherry Tree.” The first three songs were re-recorded around 1959, but “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” got its second treatment in 1954-55 for the film Underwater!

Pérez Prado didn’t write this tune; Louiguy, a Catalan composer, did, as “Cerisier rose et pommier blanc.” Mack David wrote English lyrics for the song, though the instrumental Pérez Prado version made no use of them. Alan Dale rode the coattails of the Pérez Prado version all the way to #14 with a 1955 vocal version. I was hoping to offer you that recording as well as the Pérez Prado versions, but I ordered the song too late. It may be waiting for me at home.

I am bringing you the circa 1950 Mexico City recording of the song, followed by a version (featuring Billy May on trumpet) that was recorded on August 23, 1954. Either that version was trimmed when the stereo version for the film was mixed, or the orchestra recorded a very similar version that was released in stereo in conjunction with the film.

I think of the Mexico City version as the essential version for several reasons. The orchestra was made up of Latin musicians (if my sources are correct), whereas Pérez Prado was obliged to use U.S. union musicians for the later recordings. The early version includes themes that are not brought into the 1954 recording. Finally, the ending of the older version has a jazzy chord structure that is replaced by a more pop chord blast at the end of the film recording. Less objectively, I knew the older version for ten years before I heard the mid-1950s versions.

Enjoy the songs while I sleep and then drive home. For Wednesday, I’ll talk about a European female singer who lives in one of the few places that is colder than St. Cloud, Minnesota. See you then!

Pérez Prado, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, circa 1950

Pérez Prado, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, 1954

Pérez Prado, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, 1954-55 stereo

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What’s Wrong with Being First?

Today, I’m going to talk about a harmonic convergence that led to my interest in collecting, and eventually writing about, Really Old Music. I didn’t come by that interest naturally; even though my parents introduced me to pop music when I was two years old, the oldest music they really listened to was Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz.” Even my dad’s parents seemed to have begun their record collection in the mid-1950s, though it’s likely that they simply tossed their 78s from the 1940s when they broke. My mom’s parents didn’t seem to have a record collection at all, but her dad turned 74 when Elvis first charted, so that’s no surprise.

Since no one played Big Band music for me when I was little, it took an adult caithiseach, interested in what had Come Before Rock, some time to learn the names of the artists who made music prior to Bill Haley. Even then, I thought recorded music sort of started with the Big Bands of the 1930s, and I impressed myself one day by buying a CD compilation of Glenn Miller recordings. That foray came ten years after I began to steep myself in Celtic music, which was a necessary lateral move I had wanted to make for years.

When CD compilations of 1950s music began to abound, I bought them as quickly as finances allowed. I figured they would not stay in print forever, and I was right about that. Some of these compilations included songs that did not fit neatly into the Rock Era collection I was amassing. I found myself with a small but significant collection of songs that had charted between 1950 and 1954. The Ames Brothers, early Nat “King” Cole, and Doris Day formed part of this batch of “early” music.

If I logged my music as most other collectors did, I might still be collecting Rock Era Top 40 and gathering the occasional pre-1955 song. But when I convert my songs to compressed files, I don’t sort by artist. From the beginning, I wanted my folders to show longitudinal, rather than stylistic, variations, and so I start my file names with the date that a song entered the Top 40, according to Joel Whitburn.

That system meant that I needed to know the debut dates for the songs I owned from 1950 to 1954. It turned out that there was a Whitburn book that dealt with the matter: Pop Memories 1890-1954. I even got to make a bit of use of the book without buying it: I could see sample pages on the Record Research website, as well as on Amazon. Thus, I was able to rename my Ames Brothers songs according to their debut dates. But beyond the A artists, I was stuck.

Finally, after I drooled over that book for a couple of years without being sure it held much value for my collection, a friend decided I should own it, and I got it for my birthday. That gift opened a portal into the rest of the music story, and I, an avid collector of sound, found myself mesmerized by the data the book offered.

My first goal was to collect as much pre-1900 music as I could. Imagine: artists singing into horns about a bygone era when wagons were far more common than automobiles, or about waiting for a call from a beau on that newfangled instrument, the telephone. How cool was that?

Still, there was a definite problem with expanding my collection to the pioneer era of recording: Very little of the material was available on CD. I didn’t see how I was going to get past that hurdle, until a day that I bought a 100-pack of CD-Rs.

How would blank CDs make it easy for me to collect music from 1890? The Verbatim CD packaging included an offer for 100 free downloads from eMusic.com Ah! One hundred free songs is a good thing, and with no further obligation, even a suspicious consumer such as caithiseach could not pass up the offer.

On the eMusic site I found the entire Stax-Volt catalog, now owned by Fantasy Records, whose entire catalog, including CCR, was also there. But more to the point of this essay, there was a bunch of early music available for download. And at about 23 cents per song after the 100 free tunes, they were a bargain that I, again, could not ignore. For the past three years, I have been paying $20 a month and downloading 90 DRM-free mp3s.

This is not an ad for eMusic, though you could consider it a tip for collectors. But the beauty of getting these mp3s lay in the fact that the early recordings had a fairly narrow dynamic range, which meant that the compression of mp3 technology had little effect on the quality of the sound. The format was perfect for recordings from 1890 to 1925 or so, and these songs exist in abundance on eMusic.

So, now, I have a solid and not at all random collection of the big hits from 1890 to 1954. My Pop Memories book serves as a checklist to some degree, and it has allowed me to expose my mind to a wide variety of artists, previously known and unknown, that I would not have met were it not for the intersection of eMusic and Pop Memories.

One example of the exposure I received is my acquaintance with the first commercially recorded jazz tunes, the efforts of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Controversy swirls around this group, which was founded in 1916 to bring an extant musical idiom, New Orleans Jazz, to Chicago. The act arrived so early in the evolution of the genre that it referred to itself as a “jass” band, reworking the word to “jazz” more than a year later.

On January 31, 1917, this band made some audition recordings for Columbia. These, the first jazz recordings ever, were not released until the act had some success with Victor recordings, but the original Columbia takes of “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” and “(Back Home in) Indiana” saw the light of day in late 1917.

The personnel story is convoluted and best read on Wikipedia. What needs to be mentioned here is that a lot of purists don’t like to give credit to a white act for originating a musical genre with African American origins. The same thing happens, of course, when Bill Haley and Elvis (Presley) are described as the originators of rock and roll. What can be said about the Original Dixieland Jazz Band is that they are documented as having made the first recordings that can be called jazz, and they composed as a group some of the most iconic jazz tunes of all time, including “Tiger Rag.”

Wherever you fall on the “originators of jazz” argument, the fact is that you have an opinion only if you have been able to read about early jazz, and that would happen only if you knew where to find the names of the bands that deserve to be explored. My whole point of talking every other Wednesday about Really Old Music is to enable you to know what to look for if you have any interest at all in going back in time to the early days of music.

The Pop Memories book is lamentably not available right now, but if you want to know the names of some acts worth pursuing and perusing from the old days, I’ll gladly give you some personal pointers, if you email me. Though I, as late as 2006, did not envision myself being attracted by the pioneers of music, I now find myself trying to dig up not just every Top 40 hit from the Rock Era, but every chart song ever recorded. It’s a fascinating evolution from Billy Golden’s “Turkey in the Straw” to “Chain Hang Low” by Jibbs, which uses the melody of “Turkey in the Straw.” Along the path from one version to the other, we find a lot of firsts, and I’m glad I can share with you today the first jazz recordings.

Since I am back home in Indiana for the week, it makes sense to include that song, as well as the huge smash “Tiger Rag” and the presumed first jazz recording, “Darktown Strutters’ Ball.” Enjoy them, and consider taking the plunge into the past yourself.

Saturday, I’ll bring you Week Ten of the 1950s chart action. See you then!

Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Indiana

Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Tiger Rag

Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Darktown Strutters’ Ball