“…like photographing a saxophone player”

November 27, 2012 § Leave a comment


1965 Impulse Records Elvin Jones record sleeve

Elvin Jones as photographed by Chuck Stewart (Impulse! Records, 1965)

This 1965 “post-bop” album featuring longtime John Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones as bandleader is described on the back cover as being a “salute” to Coltrane, who was such a big part of Impulse! Records that the iconic jazz label was often called “the house that Trane built.” It was also a company known for its beautiful packaging and striking photography, and this is definitely another example of that in my view. In this case the evocative image is by the prolific jazz photographer Chuck Stewart, who is credited with more than 2,000 album covers for a long list of classic labels starting in the 1950s. Still living in the same Teaneck, New Jersey home he moved into the year this record came out, the 85-year-old Stewart has had several exhibitions of his work in recent years. In an interview on the occasion of one he spoke about what it was like to capture musical legends like Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn and John Coltrane: “You have no way of knowing. People will ask me: ‘How did it feel to photograph John Coltrane?’ And I say, ‘It felt like photographing a saxophone player.’ ”

Here is a good selection of some Impulse! album cover images.

Music to Soothe That Tiger, But Not Frank Sinatra

September 29, 2012 § Leave a comment


Music to Soothe That Tiger, Herbert Rehbein (Decca Records 1964)

“Music to Soothe That Tiger” (Decca Records 1964)

This classic ’60s cover for an easy-listening album by the German composer/arranger Herbert Rehbein is another in the “big cat” series, and also another illustration of the fact that, as I have mentioned before, there is virtually nothing in music (or even popular culture in general) from this era that does not in some way, at least tangentially, lead back to Frank Sinatra. In this case, the connection consists of the fact that Rehbein apparently contributed to the writing of Sinatra’s biggest hit, “Strangers in the Night.”

I say “apparently,” as the history of that particular song has always been somewhat murky, and Rehbein is not officially credited. There was an earlier song called “Broken Guitar” (by the Armenian-American jazz pianist Avo Uvezian) that is supposed to have served as a “prototype,” but the song is considered to have originated with Bert Kaempfert as an instrumental called “Beddy Bye” written for the 1966 James Garner film A Man Could Get Killed (although there remains some disagreement as to whether Kaempfert bought the rights to the tune from a collaborator, a Croatian composer named Ivo Robic). A short time later, the decision was made to turn the piece into an actual song, and Charles Singleton came up with the lyrics, with additional lyrics and arrangement by Eddie Snyder. (For his part, Snyder, as reported in his 2011 obituary in The Daily Telegraph, claimed that he, Kaempfert and Singleton “spent two weeks at the piano perfecting Robic’s song.” As Snyder put it, “We had the scene, a man is sitting across from a girl in a bar. That was it.”) Rehbein’s part in all that was that he was a close collaborator of Kaempfert’s who would have helped him with the original arrangement.

However it was written, Sinatra reportedly hated the song (his widow Barbara says that he always thought the words were “not subtle enough”). A couple of sample quotes, uttered onstage:

“Yeah here’s a song that I can not stand. I just can not stand this song, but what the hell.”

“Here’s a song, the first time I heard Don Costa played it for me some years ago, I hated it! I hated this goddamn song the first I’ve heard it. And I still hate it! So sue me, shoot bullets through me. Shoot.”

And finally:

In any case, whatever Rehbein’s contribution was to one of the classic songs of the era, it is likely he did not spend a lot of time talking about it. It seems that he was a particularly modest person, and while I did not come across many accounts of his life from those involved in music, Rehbein was also a very well-regarded equestrian trainer, and people who knew him in that arena describe him both as having a remarkable ability to communicate with horses (one Olympian described him as “the most remarkable horseman she ever met”) and as “a very kind and honest person,” who was was “extremely humble, modest and unimpressed with others’ money or fame….When people were awed by his numerous talents, he would just turn and say, ‘That’s my job.'”

Herbert Rehbein passed away in 1997, at only 57 years of age. Longtime friend Kaempfert was reportedly devastated by the loss.

I wonder what either of them, or Frank Sinatra, thought of Petula Clark’s version of “Strangers in the Night,” which came out the same year as the original. I kind of like it.

“The Hardest Piece I Ever Wrote”

June 30, 2012 § Leave a comment


1973 Baldwin Jr. High School album featuring a tune by jazz trumpeter Neil Hefti

Metal Music: The Baldwin Junior High School Band plays Neil Hefti, among others

The music on this New York-area junior high school’s album of rock and jazz covers is about what you’d expect (or maybe a little better, as the school’s music program seems to have been quite good; Dr. Zurcher had played tuba with George Shearing in the late ’50s and still has a website detailing many of his teaching methods). The cover, however, is kind of charming, I think. What stood out most for me in the end, though, was that one of the tracks they perform was written by Neil Hefti, who had a long career as a trumpeter, composer and arranger for people such as Woody Herman, Count Basie and Frank Sinatra. Despite that, he is perhaps best remembered today by most people as the composer of music for film and TV, including the themes for the film The Odd Couple and the Batman television show.

The Batman theme apparently didn’t come easy to Hefti. As spaceagepop.com relates,

Hefti really struggled with the tune. “Hardest piece I ever wrote,” he later commented. “I agonized over it for six weeks.” “I couldn’t get inspired (to do the song),” he says. “I’d watched two hours of film footage and thought, ‘This is the campiest thing I’ve ever seen.’ But then I felt what I was writing was not as good as the show. I never had a moment of ‘Eureka!'” When he met with the show’s producers, he went “… reluctantly, apologetically, shuffling my feet and looking like Tom Sawyer. I thought they would throw it back in my face.” Once the tunes’ success was proved by reaching the pop Top 40 charts and winning the Grammy for Best Instrumental Song of 1966, Hefti could breathe a little easier.

As Hefti explained it to Jon Burlingame, author of the 1996 book TV’s Biggest Hits, “Batman…was not a comedy. This was about unreal people. Batman and Robin were both very, very serious. The bad guys would be chasing them, and they would come to a stop at a red light, you know. They wouldn’t break the law even to save their own lives. So there was a grimness and a self-righteousness about all this.”

Hefti’s “musical solution to a combined dramatic and comedic problem,” Burlingame writes, “was perfect: bass guitar, low brass and percussion to create a driving rhythm, while an eight-voice chorus sings ‘Batman!’ in harmony with the trumpets. It was part serious, part silly: just like the series.”

The theme has been covered by a surprisngly large number of well-known bands, including The Who, The Kinks, Link Wray, The Ventures, Snoop Dogg and The Flaming Lips. It is also said that George Harrison, a big fan of the show, based the music for Taxman on Hefti’s deceptively simple tune.

Here are a few of those versions:

A piece on jazz.com by Jeff Sultanof points out that despite the popularity of the composer’s efforts in Hollywood, “knowledgeable fans realize that there was a lot more to Hefti than his work for the small screen. He was one of the most distinctive big band writers of his generation, and possessed an uncanny knack for creating swinging charts that appealed to both jazz devotees and the general public….He left his mark on the jazz world, and was a very nice guy. I don’t think you can do much better than that. I shall miss him a lot.”

Hefti passed away in 2008 at the age of 85, apparently while watching TV. His crypt at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles bears the inscription “Always in Tune.”

Composer and arranger Neil Hefti posing with Frank Sinatra during a break from recording in 1962

Everything seems to lead back to Frank: Hefti and Sinatra in 1962

Here is a recording of Hefti’s 1957 tune Lil’ Darlin’ as played by Count Basie’s band:

Lil’ Darlin’

Clyde McCoy, Wah-Wah Pedals and Feuding

February 2, 2012 § 3 Comments


"Sugar Blues" 10" record by Clyde McCoy

“Sugar Blues”, Clyde McCoy (Capitol Records)

I picked this record up the other week, spotting it at an antique mall in, of all places, Sherman Oaks. Another gap in my musical knowledge – I had never heard of Clyde McCoy, let alone what I was to discover was his role in inspiring the invention of the wah-wah guitar pedal, but I was attracted to the cover (of course) as well as the songs – there’s nothing like blues based on geographic location, not to mention “blues in the night.” But what really piqued my interest was reading on the back of the sleeve that McCoy’s ancestry dates “back to the famous, feudin’ Hatfield-McCoys of Kentucky.” That couldn’t be true, I thought; it had to be something cooked up for publicity.

It appears to be the case, though. It’s consistently mentioned, and moreover those two families seem to have spawned an awful lot of descendants (perhaps not surprisingly, as each of the families at the time the feud started had produced – forebodingly, in some people’s view – 13 children). One of them, interestingly, seems to be indie pop figure Juliana Hatfield. I’d known of her for 20 years, but in all that time it had never crossed my mind that she might come from “those” Hatfields.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud is fairly well known, at least in America, though I don’t think most people are likely to be very familiar with many of the details. Fuller accounts are of course readily available online, but briefly, the hostilities between the two clans living on opposite sides of the Tug River on the mountainous Kentucky-West Virginia border ran (if you date them from their earliest stirrings) for about 30 years  – from the Civil War through the 1890s – and eventually claimed 12 lives (though some sources cite a number more in the vicinity of 20). The first murder victim was returning Union solider Asa Harmon McCoy, and overall it looks like that family got the worst of it. Over the years there have been several reunions and ceremonial truces arranged, but as recently as 2002 there was a lawsuit filed by several McCoys who claimed they were being prevented from visiting a family graveyard located on the property of a Hatfield descendant.

The Hattfield clan pictured in 1897

The feud had ended by this point, but the 1897 Hatfield clan was not to be trifled with

One intriguing thing I came across when reading about the feud is recent speculation that a genetic disease that runs in the McCoy family could be partly responsible for some of the ill temper that fueled it. According to a widely published 2007 article, “The most infamous feud in American folklore, the long-running battle between the Hatfields and McCoys, may be partly explained by a rare, inherited disease that can lead to hair-trigger rage and violent outbursts.” The ailment, which causes tumors on the adrenal gland, is called Von Hippel-Lindau disease, and roughly 75% of McCoys reportedly have it. “Dozens of McCoy descendants apparently have the disease,” the piece continues, “which causes high blood pressure, racing hearts, severe headaches and too much adrenaline and other ‘fight or flight’ stress hormones… No one blames the whole feud on the disease, but doctors say it could help explain some of the clan’s notorious behavior. ‘This condition can certainly make anybody short-tempered, and if they are prone because of their personality, it can add fuel to the fire,’ said Dr. Revi Mathew, a Vanderbilt University endocrinologist treating one of the family members.”

Explanation of the Hatfield-McCoy feud on local plaque

Mountain pride: The feud as encapsulated on a Kentucky plaque

Who knows exactly how much it may have contributed, but contemporary McCoys relate that “affected family members have long been known to be combative, even with their families.” One even recalled a grandfather this way: “When he would come to visit, everyone would run and hide. They acted like they were scared to death of him. He had a really bad temper.” And some commentators believe that the McCoys could be seen as the more tempestuous of the two families.

Of course there were other long-running clan feuds at the time in these sorts of rural areas, and that points to what to me is another interesting aspect of the whole story – the fact that most of the people who had settled in the backcountry were of Scots-Irish stock, and had essentially brought with them their retributive-justice culture, forged in the centuries-long turbulence of the Scottish-English border region and/or their time spent in Northern Ireland, where they were sent in the early 1600s to form a colony in an effort to drive the Irish from their land. There are books that go into great detail about this culture, such as Albion’s Seed, which talks about the violent and emotional tendencies of these people and how they differed from British settlers from other parts of the UK who settled other areas of the colonies. The University of Virginia has a fascinating online series on backcountry culture that speaks similarly of this history. A good illustration of this, as the writer points out, is the story of how Andrew Jackson – Scots-Irish, the seventh U.S. President and notoriously tough and aggressive – was told as a child by his immigrant mother never to sue anybody, but rather to “always settle them cases yourself.” The article notes that “that folk saying was a classical expression of backcountry attitudes toward order, which differed very much from other regions of British America. In the absence of any strong sense of order as unity, hierarchy, or social peace, backsettlers shared an idea of order as a system of retributive justice. The prevailing principle was lex talionis, the rule of retaliation. It held that a good man must seek to do right in the world, but when wrong was done to him he must punish the wrongdoer himself by an act of retribution that restored order and justice in the world.”

The series points out that both the Hatfields and the McCoys “were of border stock; their feud arose more generally from an entire culture and its concept of order as retributive justice.”

Covers of "The Other Irish" and "Born Fighting"

A couple of books on the Scots-Irish: rascals and fighters

I realize I often travel far afield from my original inspiration in many of these posts, and I want to get back to Clyde McCoy himself, but one recent personal encounter struck me as I was reading about the origins of backcountry culture, and I thought it might be worth mentioning. It connects to something I wrote extensively about in another post, on the somewhat wild idea I had that perhaps the well-known link between American country music and traditional Irish and Scottish music might actually be more interesting than it first appears – that since the Vikings had had a large role in settling both Ireland and Scotland (Scandinavian blood is still prevalent in large numbers of the population of those countries), and that in my view those are the areas that have produced the largest number of great pop/rock bands and musicians (and part of this involves the notion that a surprising number of English musicians, such as the Beatles, actually have Irish roots), perhaps the Vikings had something in their sensibility that has translated all these centuries later into musical and literary talent. Again, if that doesn’t sound too fantastical, you might want to read my other piece, but the fact that what I would call ‘good’ pop music traditionally has scarcely existed in Roman-influenced Continental Europe, while Scandinavia (and of course the UK, and especially its more Gaelic-influenced regions) has turned out great bands for decades, and that moreover, roots-based, often-melancholy music (meaning, basically, country music) is still very popular in places like Norway, makes one at least think.

But what I was going to relate is that a few months ago I had the chance to meet a remarkable guy – an actual genius, I’d say, with such an impressive track record in science and technology that he is on a TV show dealing with that at the moment – who mentioned one day in conversation both that he was “100% Viking” in terms of his family background (he is originally from a small Baltic state), and that because of that he has had to battle all his life against a compulsion to retaliate in whole-hearted fashion whenever anyone has wronged him, even in a small way. The conversation was prompted by a recent incident in which he had experienced a surge of that feeling after a somewhat innocuous encounter in which someone was essentially joking around with him. I can’t recall his exact words, but it was along the lines of his instinct being “to hunt you down and kill you, then find your family and kill them,” etc. Anyway, I think the idea is clear enough, and while perhaps one might say that that sort of feeling is not necessarily so unusual, he described it dead seriously as being something he has had to particularly struggle with because of his background. And this is an incredibly intelligent, super-nice person saying this. I guess I would have assumed a Viking could probably be described in those terms, but it was kind of illuminating to get such a first-hand, interior account.

Cover of "Rediscovering the South's Celtic Heritage"

The South: does its storytelling tradition stem from the Scots-Irish?

And it aligns quite well with the idea of the Scots-Irish (insofar as they are at least in part a Celtic/Viking people, albeit a group also forged by their specific experiences that shaped them in a distinct way) being a fiercely independent, emotional people prone to violence and retribution. I am aware that there is a lot of debate about, for example, how “Celtic” the Scots-Irish actually were, that there were differences between lowlanders and highlanders, that Appalachia had a mixed population, etc., but as one of the books pictured above, Born Fighting, points out, whatever they “are,” the Scots-Irish, hardened by centuries of war, have certainly made up a disproportionate share of America’s military from the very beginning, playing major roles in both the Revolutionary (one British writer at the time even called the conflict the “Scotch-Irish Presbyterian rebellion”) and Civil Wars, and continuing to do so today. They have also contributed an outsized portion of  the country’s political leaders (including, among a remarkable 20 presidents, a half Scots-Irish Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton), writers and musicians. It is just striking to me that those last two categories in particular seem to be especially associated with parts of the British Isles that the Vikings, and not the Romans, influenced more strongly. And did those tendencies carry over to form the basis of the storytelling tradition the South is known for? A 2002 book from Louisianna State University called The Companion to Southern Literature says yes, even if the Scots-Irish component became slightly diluted, but if I continue this line of thought this post will turn into a thesis.

Just to clarify something, though – some of what I am talking about here and especially in the other posts on this general topic involve reflections on the Irish and Scottish in general, not just the Scots-Irish; it’s just that the latter group possesses some distinct traits that led it to play a specific role in American history, and for the purposes of this post, both the McCoys and Hatfields were of that particular extraction. For more related musings, if you are interested you can also see this older post, which talks about country music and (the Scots-Irish) Hank Williams, described in the book The Other Irish as “the embodiment of the mountain culture contradiction – a poet that could move people to tears with his sincerity, yet terrify them with his violent self-destructive streak.”

So I do finally want to get back to music and Clyde McCoy, or at least touch briefly on his role in the development of the wah-wah pedal. McCoy (born in Kentucky in 1903, he was a little young for the feud) had a career that spanned seven decades, and during the 1920s he became known for using a mute when he played. Please see the above clip from youtube to give him a listen, playing his signature tune “Sugar Blues” that he debuted in 1930. It’s definitely a trip down memory lane. Miles Davis would later use a similar mute on such tracks as “All Blues.”

But during the 1960s the Thomas Organ company – accidentally, while working on the redesign of an amplifier – developed a pedal that replicated his sound. At first they thought they had hit upon something to be used for wind instruments, but then, according to wikipedia, guitarist Del Casher “suggested to Joe Banaron [head of the Thomas Organ Company] that this was a guitar effects pedal rather than a wind instrument effects pedal.” Apparently Casher also mentioned the sound McCoy had achieved in “Sugar Blues,” and Banaron “decided to market the wah-wah pedal using Clyde McCoy’s name for endorsement.”

Bottom of original Clyde McCoy wah-wah pedal

Weathered Clyde McCoy pedal showing his image

Original models thus came with his picture on the bottom, as shown above, and then merely his signature. Shortly thereafter the name of the pedal was changed to Crybaby, and you can listen to a great 1967 demonstration record – featuring Del Casher – playing one below. The narration starts at the 30-second point, and is worth waiting for.

Apparently this was not the first time such a sound had been concocted, however. As the same article points out, “Country guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins had used a similar, self-designed device on his late 1950’s recordings of ‘Hot Toddy’ and ‘Slinkey.'” Still, the pedal’s release was the first time it had been commercially available, and it quickly made its mark, with users such as Jimi Hendrix and Cream-era Eric Clapton famously adopting it. Here is Hendrix going to town with one (and check out that percussion):

In a 2008 New York Times Arts Beat piece, it was reported that a Rob Jennings had bought a wah wah pedal Jimi Hendrix was supposed to have used at auction for $15,500. “My Morning Jacket wants to borrow it,” the piece said, “and word has been spreading among the other musicians–so many that Mr. Jennings is floating the idea of making a benefit album around the pedal sometime.” Somehow I bet that never got made.

To conclude, I thought I would return to the theme of Scots-Irish clan hostilities, as apparently that spirit lives on in places, as evidenced by this recent comment I came across in researching the Hatfields and the McCoys:

“My dad’s side of the family are Scots … from the hills of South Eastern Tennessee and Northern Georgia, and he and our neighbor have an ongoing feud over the possession of a small boulder/river rock by our property line. The neighbor says that rock is his, my Dad says different. After crossing the property line a few times, that rock is now sitting in our garage, and I now keep my head down when in front of the windows.”

“A Real Pleasure Meeting You in Apple Valley”

December 10, 2011 § 2 Comments


Wayne West's "Streets of Laredo" on Sage Records

Wayne West, "Streets of Laredo" (Sage Records)

I picked this up recently in the dollar bin at Amoeba Records (the huge record store in Hollywood in case you are not familiar with it), mainly because it was autographed. I had never heard of and in fact can find very little online about Wayne West, but the fact that it is also an album of old country music and includes the song “Streets of Laredo” also played a role. (I wrote a long piece dealing with that song and my take on some of the connections between Irish folk music and American country music here.)

I am not particularly into autographs, and haven’t paid much attention to them since I was a kid and would get the occasional baseball program or card signed, but when I started coming across these obscure records signed by long-forgotten artists at Amoeba – and they seem to show up there fairly regularly – for some reason they appealed to me. So I started buying them if they were only a buck and looked at all decent. You can see an enlargement of the inscription below, but it says, “To Joy, A real pleasure meeting you in Apple Valley. My best to you, Wayne West.”

Waybe West inscription and autograph

"To Joy"

On the back of the album it explains that West lives in Apple Valley and plays regularly at Roy Rogers’ Apple Valley Inn. It also says he has appeared “on the motion picture and television screen in many and various roles,” including in Gunsmoke. That is indeed the only credit listed to his name on imdb, for a 1961 episode in which “the theft of a sack of potatoes leads to increasingly violent hostilities.” For his efforts West is credited as “man” in that episode, so it was no doubt a small role – but probably nonetheless exciting to appear on a big show (Gunsmoke, which ran for 20 seasons,” was rated #1 from 1957 – 1961) during the heyday of the Western.

The Apple Valley Inn has some interesting history behind it, I discovered. Apple Valley itself is in the high desert (situated at an elevation of 3,000 feet above sea level) about 90 miles east of Los Angeles and an hour north of Palm Springs. It was developed in the late 1940s by a pair of Long Beach oilmen, Bud Westlund and Newt Bass, who purchased 20,000 acres from the Union Pacific Railroad and set out to build, essentially, a town. One of their first orders of business was to construct the Apple Valley Inn, as a place prospective buyers could stay as well as a sort of hub for the burgeoning community. Covering 28 acres, the inn and grounds were designed in a western “rancho” style, with, as described by Steve Vaught on his excellent blog on southern California architecture and history, “generous use of irregularly stacked stone and exposed woodwork stained in mellow hues. The theme was carried over into the Inn’s interiors, which featured heavily beamed ceilings, plank and adobe-style brick walls and floor treatments in cut stone and rust-red clay tile pavers polished to a shimmering gloss.”

Westlund and Bass mounted a big advertising campaign for their project, one element of which, again according to Vaught, “included the hiring of a Hollywood publicity firm to arrange for famous people to come up to the Inn. To this end they had great success and from nearly the outset of its gala opening November 22, 1948, the charming Apple Valley Inn began attracting an enthusiastic and well-heeled crowd that would grow to include many famous film and television stars as well as leaders in such diverse fields as business, politics and sports who were drawn to the uniqueness of its architecture and starkly beautiful setting.”

Apple Valley Inn - view of pool

Desert oasis: the pool at the Apple Valley Inn

These stars included people such as Dean Martin, Bob Hope, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Lucille Ball  and Natalie Wood, but the celebrity who would come to be most associated with the Apple Valley Inn was Roy Rogers, the “King of the Cowboys,” who took out a 25-year lease on the property in late 1964. According to some sources, including an article in the Daily News just last month, the move to Apple Valley was occasioned at least in part by family tragedy. Roy and Dale Evans’ 12-year-old daughter had died in a bus crash in Mexico that year. Thus their house, on a 141-acre ranch in the then-very-rural Chatsworth area of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, came to be “filled with too many memories” and Roy and Dale decided to make the move to the high desert. (It was a particularly bad stretch, as the next year their son, 19-year-old son Sandy, would pass away in his sleep while stationed in the military in Germany; see this link for an account by someone who claims he was there shortly afterward and heard what happened firsthand.)

Roy Rogers and family enjoying a boat ride

Another view of Roy Rogers & family (apparently he liked fast boats)

Once relocated, the pair ran the Inn for many happy years, and while I have found almost no information about the musical side of their operation, clearly the Wayne West album indicates that they featured regular country music entertainment for at least some if not all of that time. Inevitably, however, and with the rise of Las Vegas and Palm Springs, the Apple Valley Inn eventually declined in popularity, and it closed in 1986. There was an attempt to reopen it in 2003, but that failed, and it now houses businesses and serves as an event center – and has apparently been restored to its former glory.

One memorable footnote to its history, though, and again I first came across this on Steve Vaught’s paradiseleased blog, is that in the Inn’s early days the local phone company did not want to go to the expense of installing phone lines between the main building and the guest lodges. Instead, a homing pigeon “manned” each room, and all a person would have to do to order room service is scribble a note, attach it to the bird, and wait for the kitchen to bring one’s food – along with a new pigeon, ready for the next order.

After perusing a lot of material on the Inn and Roy Rogers himself, I have to say that I find him a more intriguing figure than I had imagined, previously being only aware of just the barest outlines of his career. But he grew up poor in Ohio, survived the Depression by working – like something out of Grapes of Wrath – as a migratory fruit picker in California, and after he made it, first as a singer and then in Hollywood, seemed never to have forgotten his roots (or, put another way, it is said that he “never really changed”). Some of the stories may of course be exaggerated, but it appears that he was pretty much universally regarded as one of the most caring and conscientious stars of his time, and if even some of them are true, he seems to have been an unusually good person – perhaps an even more remarkable fact given all the tragedy he endured, which included the early death of his second (he had an early, brief first marriage) wife, Arline, of complications from the birth of their son Roy Rogers, Jr. in 1946, as well as the deaths of three of his children. But throughout all that, he raised a large family that appears to have adored him, including several children that were adopted (sample story: on one tour they returned home with not one but two adopted kids, including a boy who had been a victim of abuse and was malnourished; unfortunately he was the one who would later die in Germany).

Roy rogers riding Trigger in an old 8x10 movie still photo

Roy Rogers & Trigger (or one of his doubles), in an old Republic Pictures movie still

In other areas, he seemed to actually care about his fans, as a couple of anecdotes (both from this site) indicate. After his early movies, when Rogers started receiving huge piles of fan mail (even Trigger got over 250,00 letters during just one 3-month period), he asked the studio for a secretary to help answer them. They advised him to “throw the letters away. Roy refused, and together with the help of his wife Arline, his mother, and sisters, he spent his own money on postage and tried to answer each letter with an autograph.” Later, “every chance he got when making personal appearances Roy placed Trigger and his fancy horse trailer outside of the arena or building where they were appearing before the show. He wanted all the kids to be able to see Trigger, especially the ones that couldn’t afford to buy a ticket.” And you can find comments all over the internet from people who met him later in life and remark about how gracious he was. And then just stories like this, that the general public would have never known about: “A friend of mine, selling cars in Victorville in the 1960’s, sold Roy a couple of Cadillacs. My friend made mention about a shotgun that Roy had…in the back seat of one of the cars. He said that someday he wished to own such a gun like it, but it would always be just a wish. Roy took it out and gave it to him. What a class act!!”

Someone cynical might – I suppose – wonder if some of that was done merely out of concern for his image, to further his career, etc., but it really seems he was just a decent person. In his New York Times obituary the author says that “to the end, Roy Rogers remained a humble and simple man,” film historian and author Leonard Maltin called Rogers “the ultimate good guy,” and there are just so many similar stories out there that paint the same picture: him driving 200 miles out of his way the morning after a show to visit a girl he heard about who had lost her limbs in an explosion; using the same agent for 49 years based on nothing more than a handshake; even a relatively insignificant thing like him stopping the entire Hollywood Christmas parade for a minute or two to go over to the sidewalk on horseback and greet a 7-year-old girl he noticed had a cast on her leg (this was related years later by the woman herself). He certainly had a soft spot for children, and has been described as a “big kid” himself by some who knew him.

Roy Rogers' hospital visit

Roy Rogers at a hospital in Richmond, Virginia

Some might call Rogers corny, and certainly he was of a different, simpler era. Also maybe a lot of what he did was oriented towards younger viewers (in a 1992 interview he described himself as having been “America’s babysitter”). In his movies he wore a white hat, Indians were always his friends (he was himself actually part Choctaw), and he didn’t kill his enemies, just shot their weapons out of their hands. But however you want to view him or that time period (and of course it also contained that dark strain of bigotry that today is hard to even imagine; in fact you need look no further than the Apple Valley Inn itself to find examples: when they opened they allowed only white Christians as patrons, and no less than Pearl Bailey was refused a room there, and could not buy land in the development either), it’s quite an accomplishment to go from being the son of a shoe factory worker so impoverished that he had to uproot his family to look for menial work during the Depression to a person of whom it can be said that “he had a more positive influence on the lives of boys and girls growing up in America in the ’40s and ’50s than any other single individual.”

And it would be too much of a tangent to discuss it here, but he was also an astute businessman who became adept at licensing his “brand” earlier than about anyone else (save Disney), and as a musician perhaps had more to offer than it may seem at first glance. From a review of a compilation of his music from the 1940s: “Laced in with all the cowpoke corn is some might fine, mighty jazzy musicianship, giving these songs a special little bounce that makes ’em as irresistible today as they were decades ago. If you haven’t checked Roy Rogers out yet because you think he’s hokey and square… well, that’s an easy mistake to make. But if you want to hear “western” pop music at its best, this disc is a fine place to start.”

Roy Rogers posing with guitar in early publicity photo

Roy Rogers, singing cowboy

To round out this foray into the world of Roy Rogers, though, here is one last story, one that Rogers’ son related in an interview just last month, on what would have been his dad’s 100th birthday. It’s a little long, but I didn’t really see what I could easily cut out, so will just reproduce his entire response to a question about whether fans had related stories to him about his father and what he had meant to them:

“There are a lot of them out there. Many who come to the show were kids in the ‘40s, and polio was very big in the ‘40s. Some had polio when they were kids, and they remember so much my dad coming to the hospital to visit. I remember one story a gal told me. Dad came in and brought Trigger — they put rubber shoes on Trigger, and they brought him right up to the children’s ward on the floor and then dad came around to each of them individually. They were each in iron lungs and you have to face backward and look through a mirror to see people when you’re in those lungs. Dad would come up right next to them. And this one little girl said he went right up to her and got her in her face and said to her, ‘I know, honey, you’re having trouble fighting this disease, but if you work really hard you’ll get out of this, — but you have to do this, no one can do it for you.’ She said he hung this child’s gun belt up on the mirror and said, ‘Now I want you to work really hard and when you get out of this iron lung, you’ll be able to wear this gun and I want you to come see me in California.’ Well, that’s all that a little kid needed was a little bit of excitement in their life, and I cannot tell you how many people have brought those cap guns with them that dad hung on their iron lungs back in the ’40s. There are so many stories, but that’s probably the most poignant.” In another interview he rounded that out by relating that the people often said, “And if he had not given me that encouragement, that I had to do it on my own and told me that I had to do it and no one else could do it for me, I may not be here standing here today.”

Roy Rogers Portuguese magazine cover

Don't mess with Roy Rogers (Portuguese magazine cover)

Taking his horse to hospitals. Amazing. Maybe almost as amazing as giving a little girl a gun belt. But the mention of Trigger does bring up something I found at least a little bit odd. Roy Rogers and his beloved horse obviously had an incredible bond – Trigger was “the best thing that ever happened to” him, Rogers was quoted as saying in his New York Times obituary, and there are many touching stories of the bond the two had. And someone who met Roy Rogers in 1992, over 25 years after Trigger’s death, reported that he had tears in his eyes when he started talking about his old horse. But to me that makes it all the harder to understand how he could have been an avid hunter, killing big game and even bears. Hunting is not my thing at any level, so perhaps I just see it differently. I don’t condemn humane hunting, and I guess many would make a distinction between wild and domesticated animals, but still, to me personally it doesn’t add up easily.

In any event, the mention of the Apple Valley Inn on Wayne West’s album has ended up leading far away from Mr. West himself. I still just find very little on him (if anyone has any info I’d be interested in learning more) or Sage Records (though it appears that it was a pretty interesting, rockabilly-based label, and I may revisit it in another piece). Funnily enough, however, the one album of his I see on eBay at the moment is not only the same record, but is signed in the same spot (which isn’t that surprising: it is a nice expanse of almost-white space). It’s actually a better inscription than mine, too. West writes: “To Nancy, who almost fell asleep during my floor show, and to Candy, thanks for being so nice and sweet. My best to the entire Ohmer family.” If you are reading this during the next 6 days (or perhaps even after that point if it gets re-listed), the asking price is $79.

Wayne West autographed album

Another album autographed at the Apple Valley Inn

East of the Sun

September 30, 2011 § Leave a comment


Cover of Hi-Fi Sampler record from Masterseal, 1951

"Hi-Fi Sampler" (Masterseal Records, 1951)

I was drawn to this cover because of the image of the family listening to a record on that great pull-out turntable. I think one could say that that sort of scenario is a little less common in today’s digital music world – one in which the computers on which a lot of music is now played  can tend be located in more out-of-the-way rooms than, say, the living room, where things were often more easily overheard or shared by others in the house…or where, of course, people are just listening on headphones connected to an ipod or what have you. Although this particular  depiction is certainly from before my time, it reminds me in general of the stereo situation in my house growing up during the 1970s. And I guess in the end I just like record covers that include records on them.

But what I wanted to talk about in connection with this sleeve is one of the songs included on the album, “East of the Sun.” Composed in 1934 by Brooks Bowman, a Princeton University student at the time, it was written for a show put on by his all-male acting/musical comedy troupe The Triangle Club. (The club still exists, and describes itself as “the oldest touring collegiate original musical comedy organization in the nation.”) The tune quickly caught on, and has become an enduring standard. Imagine writing a song that would go on to be performed or recorded by this list: Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Frank Sinatra, Louie Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Bob Crosby, George Shearing (see my post on him here), Keely Smith (with Billy May), Guy Mitchell, and, more recently, Joshua Redman and Diana Krall, among many others.

The unfortunate thing is that Bowman would live to see virtually none of that, as he died tragically in a car accident at the age of 23. He had graduated from Princeton the year before, then moved to Hollywood for a brief period to write songs for Warner Bros and then Selznick International Pictures. There he met Cole Porter and was assigned to write songs for a Carole Lombard film, “Nothing Sacred.” Returning to the East Coast to publish some songs and embark on a new songwriting partnership, he attended the Army-Navy football game in New Haven, Connecticut on October 17, 1937. After the game, the car in which Bowman was riding (along with its driver, an old college roommate, and their dates) blew a tire and swerved into a stone wall. Brooks was in the back, and was the only one even really hurt. The driver, Richard Pettit, emerged unscathed, and the two women suffered only minor cuts and bruises.  The songwriter’s heart was ruptured, however, and he died while being transported to a hospital by a passing motorist.

It’s hard not to be struck by that image – the songwriter of one of the classic, romantic odes to love taken by a freak accident in which his heart is ruptured. What – alongside the utter shock – must the surviving friends have felt afterward, not to mention, of course, his family. His mother (to whom he was quite close; the Princeton University Library has Bowman’s papers, and says that “they wrote each other almost daily and in great detail”) was an accomplished pianist from Salem, Ohio (and in fact had had a hand in scoring the song), and on top of everything else involved in losing a son she must have been – I of course don’t know this, but can only imagine – immensely sad that his promising musical career had been so cruelly and prematurely ended. And of course that leads to the fact that in the end it was also just a great loss to the future of popular music, for everyone.

From a website on jazz standards: “It’s likely Brooks Bowman came up with the title from a Norwegian fairy tale where a prince and his step-mother live ‘east of the sun and west of the moon.’ The tune’s lyrics have a fairy tale quality, beginning with the seldom-performed verse: ‘I wish that we could live up in the sky, to live among the stars, the moon, just you and I.’ In the chorus the couple will ‘live in a lovely way, on love and pale moonlight.’ The tune is a romantic ballad that continues to find favor with vocalists and instrumentalists alike.”

Bowman was buried in the family plot in Salem. Princeton’s Triangle Club still receives royalties from “East of the Sun.”

George Shearing: Lullaby for the Piano

July 18, 2011 § Leave a comment


"Lullaby of Birdland" by jazz pianist George Shearing

George Shearing "Lullaby of Birdland" (Pickwick, 1961)

Once again a cover by someone I must admit I knew nothing about before selecting it for these purposes, but one that involves another intriguing story. It also represents another example of someone who recently passed away, in this case only about five months ago. (That seems for some reason to have happened a fair amount during the time I have been writing these pieces.) George Shearing died at the age of 91 in New York this past February, after living a life whose path saw him rise from poor, working-class roots in London to become a world-renowned jazz pianist who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2007.

But first, that artwork. Birds have become sort of a trendy graphic design component in recent years, but something about the way they are used here, and the innocence of the whole thing, really transcends any of that to me. I love how they are perched on his hand and head. I don’t know if their prominence partly explains why I never noticed his closed eyes, but it never occurred to me that Shearing might be blind. He was, however (congenitally), and I think it’s somewhat admirable that they did not attempt to really downplay that by not showing his face, having him wear glasses, etc. (as he does here – on what is nevertheless another great sleeve in my opinion).

George Shearing was born in Battersea – a blue-collar section of South London – in 1919. The youngest of nine children, his father delivered coal and his mother cleaned trains at night. Just that large a family is at least a little hard for most to imagine in this day and age, but what reading about his life really made me think about was just how comparatively little there was to “do” in that era, at least for children. Shearing took up the piano at the age of three, and pondering that led me to wonder how many households must have had pianos back then, in an age of not only no TV, but not even radio for the most part (although they were beginning to appear in homes in the ’20s, and Shearing is said to have shown early musical aptitude by memorizing tunes he heard on the radio: “My family tells me that I used to listen to the old crystal set, then go to the piano and pick out the tune that I just heard.”). That left perhaps primitive phonographs if one’s family was lucky enough to own one, movies, spectator sports, and … probably a lot of time to fill by playing outside, reading or studying, and doing things like learning a musical instrument – if one wasn’t roaming the neighborhood causing trouble, of course. Though there was also no doubt in most instances a lot of work to get done each day – electricity only became affordable to middle- and working-class homes at the end of the 1920s, appliances when they existed were of course vastly more basic, and especially with a large family it must have been a bit of a daily grind in a lot of ways.

In looking into it, I found some information on piano sales, at least in the United States, which was likely pretty similar to the UK in that regard. Max Morath at pbs.org writes that “between the year 1900 and 1920, something like five million pianos were sold. And when you think that they went into homes where maybe who knows how many, 10-12-15 people, used them, it means that the piano was accessible to almost everybody in America.” Pianos of that time have been likened to the big screen TVs of today, and that goes some distance towards capturing how things have shifted to more passive uses of leisure time. But that isn’t a commentary on merely contemporary culture; that shift started to happen during the decade of the ’20s itself: an essay on the jazz age here talks about how “piano sales sagged as phonograph production rose from just 190,000 in 1923 to 5 million in 1929.” (Electronic recording had begun in 1925, and by 1927 over 100 million records were sold.) On the Wikipedia page detailing the “social history of the piano,” the instrument’s decline is described this way: “The piano’s status in the home remained secure until technology made possible the enjoyment of music in passive form. First the player piano (ca. 1900), then the home phonograph (which became common in the decade before World War I), then the radio (in the 1920s) dealt severe blows to amateur piano-playing as a form of domestic recreation. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, piano sales dropped sharply, and many manufacturers went out of business.”

Steger piano ad

"Long-lived friendship"... a vintage piano ad

In reading further about how young people spent their leisure time in general in the early part of the 20th century, I came across a charming list that includes activities like sewing that had not occurred to me. It says that teenagers of the ’20s and ’30s spent most of their free their time with sports, playing an instrument, going for walks or to the beach, sewing, playing with dolls, drawing, and listening to music. It was also nice to see that during breaks at school, fighting was one of their pastimes.

George Shearing, in any case, started by tinkering on his own, then took lessons from a local teacher before studying at a local school for the blind in his teens. What is interesting is that after that, at age 16 and having been offered several university scholarships, he turned them down in favor of working as a solo pianist in local pubs. I don’t know if that was more out of choice or necessity; his obituary in The Examiner, though, portrayed it as the latter. “He was forced to refuse [the scholarships] in favor of a more financially productive pursuit…playing piano in a neighborhood pub for the handsome salary of $5 a week!” However, Shearing pointed out in a 1986 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross that one thing a blind musician can’t do is read music – which is something more or less required to be a studio musician. “This is not available to the blind, but playing in the pub was, and eventually getting my own group was.” That makes it seem less like he was being forced to go earn money at age 16 than that he just felt the typical path wasn’t really going to be an option for him.

Seventy-two years later, upon receiving the news that he would be knighted by Queen Elizabeth, he spoke of those times. “My mind keeps flashing back on my beginnings as pianist playing in a pub for the equivalent of $5.00 a week.  What a journey it has been from that pub to Buckingham Palace.  Receiving such an honor as a Knighthood might also show young people what can be achieved in life if one learns his craft and follows his dreams.”

Joe Roland and George Shearing

Shearing in 1952 - note the great reflection in the mirror

It wasn’t an easy jaunt to get to that point – Shearing was the first postwar British jazz musician to emigrate permanently to the U.S. and forge a successful career, moving to New York in 1947, at a time when, as The Guardian‘s obituary points out, “Shearing and his countrymen, prevented by a Musicians’ Union embargo from hearing the best American musicians in person, tended to regard these stars as supermen, wearing out their recordings, yet never imagining that it might be possible to perform alongside them in New York. However, Shearing put such negative thoughts aside and took the decision to emigrate. His success was speedy and spectacular.”

Shearing’s big hit was the title track of this collection, “Lullaby of Birdland,” which was written in 1952 about the famous New York nightspot (and reportedly in 10 minutes over a steak dinner at home – “I heard it in my head,” he said). He once introduced it at Carnegie Hall by saying, “I have been credited with writing 300 songs. Two-hundred-ninety-nine enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here is the other one.” That reminded me of the time I saw the English pop singer-songwriter Nick Lowe do a gig many years ago, and he introduced “Cruel to Be Kind” by saying, “Here is a medley of my hit.” I do love the British sense of humor. Though it was the first time I heard it, I don’t think he originated the line, however, and funnily enough Shearing used it too.

I also love the fact that Shearing’s South London neighborhood seemed not to have forgotten him. After he died a local publication saw fit to mention that “Jean Gilmore, who grew up living opposite Sir George’s grandmother in Austin Road, said he was ‘very well known’ in the area and the entire community watched with excitement as his fame grew.” I’m sure they drank many cups of tea while exchanging news of his latest triumphs. His life was, as he himself said, a bit of a “fairy tale come true.” His father had even delivered coal to Buckingham Palace, and yet, as Shearing put it, “the poor, blind kid from Battersea became Sir George Shearing.”

Not to mention that he makes an appearance in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, as no less than “Old God Shearing.” Here are some excerpts from the passage: “Dean and I went to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long, mad weekend….Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard…and…began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up….Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up…[T]hese were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. ‘God’s empty chair,’ he said.”

“A Blog Supreme” at NPR says that “Shearing’s vibes, guitar, bass, drums and piano quintet popularized an easier, gentler jazz. But it was never cloying or ‘smooth’ — always tasteful and musically substantial. Within the commercial conventions of the 1950s and early ’60s he was an experimenter, embracing Latin dance rhythms, working with new instrumentalists including vibists Margie Hyams and Cal Tjader [and] harmonica player and guitarist Toots Thielemans.”

He definitely led an interesting life, and if you have any inclination you can listen to the Terry Gross interview here. He talks of  playing in bomb shelters during WWII, his mother being “bombed out” three times, what prompted him to move to America and what enabled him to succeed, and discusses the tension between the commercial and the more creative strains in his music.

Shearing once said that people cannot be “given a great degree of creativity,” but they “can be given the equipment to develop it – if they have it in them in the first place.” I have long felt similarly, and clearly Shearing was given both that innate ‘something’ and, starting with a piano in the house from an early age, the equipment to develop it.


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