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.

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Jonah Jones, Bobby Darin and a Heavy Load

May 31, 2011 § Leave a comment


Jonah Jones "I Dig Chicks" (1958, Capitol)

This is one of the classic “bad” album covers you will find if you check various sites devoted to such things. I think it’d be hard to argue with either of those adjectives. In any case, the artwork didn’t prevent the record from winning a Grammy in 1959 for Best Jazz Performance (Group). It did not, surprisingly, win for Best Album Cover – that went to a Shostakovich album released by RCA. Other winners included Ella Fitzgerald (in two categories), Duke Ellington (in three), the great Billy May, Nat King Cole, and, of course, Frank Sinatra, who was awarded Best Male Vocal Performance and Album of the Year.

A list like that sort of brings home the extent to which popular music in the late ’50s was still fairly “adult.” Rock and roll had of course arrived, but the time when hordes of teenagers would take to their garages to learn guitar, bass and drums and then write and record their own songs was still, for the most part, several years away – as was the turmoil the coming decade was to bring in general. The musical world was still largely one in which songwriters wrote the songs, arrangers arranged them, session players recorded them, and vocalists sang them.

Maybe the way to characterize it is to say it seems like it was a period of transition. Even Bobby Darin, who won Best Artist and Best Record that year, for “Mack the Knife,” was described as both a big band and a rock singer. He was perhaps an interesting illustration of the changing times, going from a Brill-Building songwriter to a singer of everything from the innocent, early rock of “Splish Splash” to the standard jazzy-pop-nightclub sorts of things that “vocalists” of the era would commonly do, to eventually even country music (interestingly, Roger McGuinn played 12-string guitar in his band before forming The Byrds). But then, like the decade, he got increasingly political and folky, and finally disillusioned, when, working on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, he was at the Ambassador Hotel the night Kennedy was assassinated. Darin subsequently sold his home and most of his possessions and retreated to a trailer in remote Big Sur in Northern California for the next year. Returning to Los Angeles in 1969, he started a label, Direction Records, whose purpose was to “seek out statement-makers.” The label’s – and his – debut album, he explained,  was “designed to reflect my thoughts on the turbulent aspects of modern society.”

Sadly, Darin died in 1973 at the age of only 37. His heart had been damaged by rheumatic fever as a child and finally gave up, something he had feared would happen, which apparently drove him to try to achieve as much as he could while he was able. And he indeed did a lot, including packing in an acting career that even saw him garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1963.

What a trajectory. I’m not quite sure what particular turns Jonah Jones’ life took, but it seems he was able to marry his childhood sweetheart, have four kids, and live to the age of 91, having even performed at the Blue Note just the year before. From at least that broad perspective, then, it appears that he was pretty blessed. Though no doubt there must have been some hurdles placed in his way, as a black person born in Kentucky in the early part of the 20th century. But by the spring of 1959, three of the top ten jazz albums in the U.S. charts were by his quartet. The ’60s were coming, but they weren’t there yet, and Jonah Jones was making music, playing the clubs in New York and Vegas (his name even sneaks into a famous shot of the Rat Pack (below) in front of the marquee at the Sands Hotel; he was playing the lounge while they headlined the main room), and putting out some great album covers.

Jonah Jones appearing in The Sands' lounge

Big Cats and the Birth of Third-Dimensional Sound

September 13, 2010 § 2 Comments


"The Cats Meow", The Harmonicats (Mercury, 1956)

The appeal of this whimsical slice of 1950s art direction only increased for me when I realized that the big cat is the one in charge of the record player (as well as the one with the pillows). Perhaps he’s readying the song she just requested…. In any case, this is from a 1956 album by the Harmonicats, who had had a million-selling hit with their 1947 debut, “Peg O’ My Heart,” and were in the midst of a career that would span some 50 years.

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when harmonica acts (and this is distinct from any use of the harp in a blues context) populated the land. With names like The Harmonica Bobcats, Johnny Puleo’s Harmonica Gang, Jammercats, The Harmonicuties, The Harlemonicats, The Harmonica Rascals, and the most famous, The Harmonicats, some of these pop or jazz groups had quite a presence during this heyday, which lasted more or less from the 1920s through the ’40s. The Harmonicats once performed at baseball’s All-Star Game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, as well as many times on the Ed Sullivan Show, and the aforementioned Puleo entertained Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Nixon at the White House. But to me what is intriguing is the fact that The Harmonicats played a role in the development of one of the most groundbreaking advances in recording technology, the echo chamber.

I had never really thought about it, but of course it had to start somewhere. It so happens that a studio called  Universal Recording in Chicago was its birthplace. The person who ran Universal, Bill Putnam, was a genius engineer/innovator who was to develop some of the still-most-coveted audio gear ever made – things like compressors and mic preamps and mixing consoles. I don’t want to bore the reader who is not interested in recording technology (i.e., virtually everyone) by going into too much detail, but suffice to say that Putnam is a legend in that world. Bruce Swedien, an engineer and producer who worked at Universal and with everyone from Duke Ellington to Michael Jackson, said of Putnam in Mix magazine:

“Bill Putnam was the father of modern recording as we know it today … The processes and designs that we take for granted — the design of modern recording desks, the way components are laid out and the way they function, cue sends, echo returns, multitrack switching — they all originated in Bill’s imagination. That’s pretty serious stuff.”

Wikipedia credits Putnam with the following list of achievements: “Universal Recording was seminal in the development of experimental studio techniques. It was the location of the first use of tape repeat in a recording, the first isolated vocal booth, the first recording with multiple overdubs of a single voice, the first 8-track recording trials and the first experiments with half speed disc mastering.”

The Harmonicats

This all started, though, with the Harmonicats. In 1946, when Putnam and his partner decided to expand their studio operation into a label as well, they founded Vitacoustic (or “Living Sound”), which almost immediately garnered attention as an innovator in the field of recording. In a Billboard story in early 1947, titled “Putnam Springs New Waxing Technique With ‘Vitacoustic’,” the engineer’s new “third-dimensional” technique was described: “Putnam’s gimmick, while hard to describe, is said to make a band sound as if it were in the listener’s room, similar to a good wired music system in a restaurant with four or five speakers set at the right places.”

The label started with a bang, as their very first release was “Peg O’ My Heart,” in April of 1947. Billboard noted that on the track, “Mouth organing was highlighted by a unique echo chamber effect giving depth and glucose which helps to cover up other technical flaws.” Whatever its components, the record quickly sold over 100,000 copies locally, and looked like it had legs: “Disk has created a mild panic in Chicago and St. Louis at this writing, and looks to spread fast,” the magazine said, as well as, “Record biz has seen everything but a harmonica platter hit–this might be the baby to do it.” Soon “Peg” had sold about 1.4 million copies for Vitacoustic, and would go on to sell over 20 million copies, making it the second-most popular 78-rpm record of all time to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”

In those days, echo or reverberation was achieved not inside some small effects unit or box, but by running the sound into a room and then re-recording it, and the first space used for this was Universal’s women’s room. Art Sheridan, who was a Chicago producer and label owner of the era, said,  “Bill Putnam and Bernie Clapper developed the first echo chamber by running a microphone and a receiver into the adjacent ladies’ washroom, which was that old-type tile thing–it had great resonance–and while we were doing a session we put a guard outside the door so that nobody would come in and flush the toilet.”

I had never known too much about the history of pre-1950s recording, but the development is interesting. Apparently, when electric recording started in the ’20s, many were done in ambient environments such as churches or big halls. When jukeboxes appeared, however, their metallic sound made records sound too thin, so from the mid-’30s to the late ’40s/early ’50s, records were recorded “dead,” the idea being that that would counteract the jukebox effect. After Putnam devised the echo chamber, though, the ambient sound again became the fashion. Audio specialist Steve Hoffman (www.stevehoffman.tv) says that, “One by one, the ‘echo craze’ spread across the country and around the world. Capitol built their chamber in 1953, and when they moved to the Capitol Tower in early 1956, their chambers were well thought out and amazing sounding (still are).”

That made me pause, because I thought I recalled a controversy a few years back in which Capitol Records was worried that a nearby construction project might endanger their Les Paul-designed echo chambers. I found that had indeed been an issue, as a 2008 piece at allaboutjazz.com relates:

“Capitol says recording quality at its Hollywood building is at risk. The music firm says a proposed high-rise next door would damage its unique underground echo chambers … Capitol executives are trying to stop the multimillion-dollar project because of fears that pile-driving and excavation for the three-level underground garage will damage one-of-a-kind, below-ground echo chambers that are used for high-end recordings.”

The article quotes Maureen Schultz of Capitol as writing that, “The sound in the studios is one that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. The echo chambers are as much a part of the Hollywood history as the Capitol Tower and the Hollywood sign.”

I am not positive, but believe the project fell through…thankfully, as it also would have overshadowed the quirky, iconic tower – personally one of my favorite buildings anywhere – by three stories.

As for the Vitacoustic label, somehow despite its initial success it soon floundered and went into bankruptcy, and the Harmonicats moved on. Bill Putnam, though, kept moving forward with audio products and studios, including the legendary United Western Recorders complex in Hollywood, said to have produced more hits than any other studio in the United States. (The list of artists that recorded there is absurd, but if you’ve ever heard Pet Sounds, “California Dreamin’ “or “My Way,” you’ve heard Western Recorders.)

Western Recorders, Hollywood, 1960s

Frank Sinatra, in fact, took to Putnam so well that the engineer became an unofficial member of the Brat Pack. Again, From Mix magazine:

“Legendary arranger Nelson Riddle made an introduction that would completely transform Putnam’s world. In 1960, Frank Sinatra was arguably the most powerful man in show business. At first meeting, Sinatra instinctively sussed that Putnam wasn’t merely a techie, but a fellow leader, a fellow swinger, becoming the only ‘technician’ Sinatra ever became true pals with. Coincidentally, Sinatra’s contract was up with Capitol. He started his own label, Reprise, which would record all of its seminal tracks at United’s A and Western’s 1 rooms, including monster hits like “It Was a Very Good Year” and “Strangers in the Night.” ”

The article also says that Western had “the sweetest echo chambers on the planet … and rooms so acoustically marvelous, that they have gone virtually untouched by the present owners some 40 years later.”

As Bruce Swedien says in another interview, “If you have ever listened to pop music or tried your hand at recording music, Milton T. “Bill” Putnam has touched your life! … Also, at the center of Bill’s personality was a graciousness that few people exhibit. Another fantastic facet of his character was a not-so-normal sense of humor! I loved him dearly for that!”

Bill Putnam also built his studios. (Photo Universal Audio)

Universal still makes highly regarded audio products, and is now run by Bill Putnam’s two sons.

The harmonica itself – an ideal instrument to play or to use to teach music during the Depression as they were relatively inexpensive – declined in popularity after WWII. As The St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture points out, “A ban on German goods prohibited the importation of harmonicas from Germany, where the highest-quality instruments were made; youth orchestras disbanded and schools halted their instruction programs; and large harmonica bands pared down to smaller units, usually trios.” The Harmonicats, though, as mentioned, had a long career, eventually producing 36 albums. By the late ’60s they were even doing versions of Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones songs. All three of the original Cats passed away within a couple of years of each other, in the mid-1990s.

One of their legacies was changing the mindset of the Musician’s Union, bringing them to accept the harmonica as a legitimate instrument and thus admit its players. (Ironically, the fact that the harp – like the ukulele or the kazoo, for example – hadn’t been considered a musical instrument had given “Peg O’ My Heart” a leg up, as there was a musicians’ strike at the time and the track, being one of the few that could be played, received extra airplay.) Another aspect of the Harmonicats’ story that strikes me – to sort of carry on the “American” theme present in a couple of the earlier posts – is the fact that they were composed of members of Armenian, Italian and Polish descent (and really looked it, too). Eventually convening in the midwestern melting pot of Chicago (where the Polish side of my family lived for a generation after coming to the United States as well), they do their first show in a St. Louis burlesque house, struggle for a time but persevere to eventually find massive success with their first record, go to Hollywood to appear on television in its early days, and even have a part in the creation of one of the recording industry’s fundamental techniques. (It seems that Cats leader Jerry Murad may have played a role in conceiving the idea to record using some sort of echo: there are different versions of the story, and it isn’t completely clear to me; I suppose it’s most likely that the idea and its execution were a collaboration between the group and Putnam, at least to some degree.) I don’t know too much about any of them, though one member, Don Les, was apparently born blind and had his sight restored by an operation at the age of 12; I don’t even know how to begin to imagine what that must have been like. But one of the anecdotes I came across about leader Jerry Murad was from a member of a competing group at the time, and he could not have been more adamant about what a “standup” guy Murad was.

Personally I would say that if he had any role at all in the cover for “Cats Meow,” I like his taste.

(Note: Thanks to http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/vitacoustic.html for an excellent and extensive article on the Vitacoustic label.)

 

J.F.K, Hard Country, and the Point of No Return

September 7, 2010 § 1 Comment


This cover is certainly of its time – 1970 – and I think most would also say it falls into the classically tasteless category so completely that it could possibly be an all-time great. Its greatness may be aided by the fact that it is an album of versions of Johnny Cash songs… That just adds an aspect of coolness that a lot of collections of this sort often lack. I can’t help but wonder if he ever saw it. I would certainly think so, though I’m assuming he would have had no say in anything to do with this release, coming out as it did on a small Nashville label he had no connection to, and given that U.S. copyright law allows anyone to cover any published song, as long as they pay the required fees. But I like to think that he loved it, and had obtained the original artwork and had it blown up and framed on his wall.

One of the first things I noticed about this record was the odd name of the label that did release it, “Certron Corporation Music Division.” There was no doubt that a name like that was begging to be looked into, and what a strange story it turned out to be. It all revolves around the person credited as the producer of this record, Aubrey Mayhew. Mayhew was working for Pickwick Records in New York in the early ’60s when (according to a piece in The Chicago Sun-Times by Dave Hoekstra, from whom I gleaned many of the facts I will relate) he heard about a “down-on-his-luck Nashville singer named Donald Lytle” – who had, according to The New York Times, left home at 15 to roam the country on freight trains, later ending up in prison for assaulting an officer while in the Navy. After his release he had hitch-hiked to Nashville, where he wrote a few songs and played some bass for George Jones. Mayhew eventually found Lytle sleeping under the Shelby Street Bridge there. He changed Lytle’s name to Johnny Paycheck, got Pickwick in New York to release some of his stuff, and eventually moved to Nashville to start his own label with Paycheck and steel guitar legend Lloyd Green. He called the label Little Darlin’, and it became known for what was called “hard country” – a more renegade, energetic and ‘authentic’ alternative to the smoother, more poppy type of country music that even then had begun to take hold in Nashville. Little Darlin’ put out artists like Lightning Hopkins, Jeannie C. Riley and Stonewall Jackson, and is said to have – and this sounds incredible to me – over 5,000 unreleased songs.

That's a fifty...

By 1970 Little Darlin’ had run out of money, and Mayhew struck a deal with Certron, a producer of magnetic tape, to form a new label, which would continue on in the same vein with Johnny Paycheck and others. One of the people who recorded for Certron was Clint Eastwood. According to Hoekstra’s 2005 conversation with Mayhew, the actor had “always said he was a singer,” and after a bad experience in the early ’60s with “some slick guys in Philadelphia” (who apparently had tried to fashion him into something more country-pop), “Eastwood decided to give music another try when an industry friend told [him] that Mayhew could be trusted.” Eastwood ended up recording the single “Burning Bridges,” which appeared in his “Kelly’s Heroes” film, as well as, according to Mayhew, “six or eight other things.”

Apart from all this musical activity, though, Mayhew became known for a rather different interest. Fate had conspired to place him in Houston on the day J.F.K. was assassinated. Seeing the TV coverage, Mayhew somehow had the presence of mind to rush to the phone to call a friend in town, who “brought over two tape recorders and all the tape he could carry.”

Again, Mayhew from the conversation with Hoekstra: “We recorded everything off the television for about 12 hours. I rushed the material back to New York, and we put out the first ‘Kennedy Speeches’ album. At that time, we had 300 Woolworth stores in our pocket. We got prime display. We sold about 3 million albums in four months.”

Somehow all of this combined to leave Mayhew with such an interest in the Kennedy shooting that he became one of the most active collectors of Kennedy-related material in the world, amassing a collection of over 300,000 objects. His prize possession, however – incredibly – was the Texas School Book Depository, which he bought for $600,000 at a 1970 auction. He lost the building to foreclosure three years later, though until the end of his life he claimed he had removed the window from which Kennedy was shot, and had it stored in Nashville. This was disputed by the son of the owner of the building at the time of the assassination, Caruth Byrd, who, Hoekstra writes, “argued that he inherited the book depository window from his father, who … removed the window shortly after the assassination. Mayhew argued he had the true window because the elder Byrd removed the wrong one.” Elsewhere Mayhew has said, “I also have a letter from a very wealthy civic leader who was half-owner of the Texas School Book Depository who said he witnessed them taking the window out and told them they were taking it out of the wrong window.”

Mayhew signing the papers for the Texas School Book Depository

Mayhew, like one of the figures in the previous post, Bob Keane, who discovered Ritchie Valens, only passed away last year. He was 81. But what a life. My favorite story requires me again to credit the Hoekstra article, in which Mayhew recounts how he came to write “The Pint of No Return,” which became a big song for Stonewall Jackson. Mayhew had attended a Johnny Paycheck gig in Secacaus, N.J., and recalls:

“Two girls were at a table and I went over and started talking to them,” Mayhew said. “During his break, Paycheck came over. We all ended up going out after the show. Paycheck was driving. We had no idea where we were. We went down this long road and came to a pier on the seashore. It was 5 in the morning. There was a sign that said ‘Point of No Return.’

“I looked at Paycheck, he looked at me. He was drunk. I wasn’t. I said, ‘Paycheck, you’ve just reached the pint of no return.’ We took the girls home, went to the hotel and wrote the song. It had to be pretty important to turn down two pretty-looking women.”

When he died, The Guardian in London said about Mayhew: “The margins of the American record business have always been unregulated, a natural home for entrepreneurs such as Aubrey Mayhew, who has died aged 81. A producer and label owner in the 1960s and 70s, Mayhew swam against the current of mainstream music, in the nonconformist tradition of men such as Sam Phillips, Syd Nathan of King Records and the Chess brothers.”

Again like Bob Keane, Mayhew seems to me to have lived a particularly colorful, entrepreneurial, and ultimately perhaps “American” life: serving in WWII, then getting his start in the music business as a booking agent and promoter, eventually taking the initiative to track down the future Johnny Paycheck and later begin his own label, then another one. Even the recording of the Kennedy material: talk about seizing an “opportunity.” He works with people like Clint Eastwood and Charlie Parker, then develops his obsession with the Kennedy assassination and buys the Book Depository – then loses it, and later loses the rights to the Little Darlin’ catalog by trying to act as his own lawyer. He was also the author of three books. And he definitely had an imagination: he often suggested oddball song titles like “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to Kill” and “Don’t Monkey with Another Monkey’s Monkey,” which ended up earning him songwriting credits on many Little Darlin’ songs. According to some he wasn’t always easy to get along with, but colorful people just aren’t a lot of the time. One of his obituaries called his a “fascinating and wonderful life,” and noted that his career spanned 60 years and that he was “survived by his loyal and loving dog, Pal.”

It’s hard to even know what to add to that.

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