Christmas, music, Top Ten List, Tradition

Christmas Music: The Deep Cuts

I posted the other day about the greatest Christmas songs of all time. For the most part, it was a no-brainer (like me). I touched on the idea that there is no bad Christmas music. I find myself loving some Christmas music from the ’50’s that is maybe overly sentimental or just really cornball. I’m thinking “Twinkle Toes” by the Crew Cuts or “Merry Twist-mas” by the Marcels. I’m rolling my eyes and thinking ‘this is lame’ – but I’m loving it. Christmas is the time of year when this is OK. But then there’s the teeny-bopper types: Hanson, Jessica Simpson and Justin Bieber have all released Christmas albums. Here’s where I have a bit of a problem. From some artists it really seems disingenuous – phony. It sounds like cashing in – “this will play and sell every year so…”

Some artists, though, sound like they are really trying to make an effort. For some of them, it sounds like they really care about the season and the music that goes with it. As far back as Robert Goulet’s 1963 album “This Christmas I Spend With You”, songwriters have tried to add new songs to the canon. Goulet recorded “December Time” on that album, the liner notes hopefully predicting that it would appear annually. In the early ’90’s, when Christmas music stalwart Andy Williams was doing his annual Christmas shows in Branson, he introduced “Christmas Needs Love to Be Christmas”. While neither song is remembered today, you have to respect the effort – or you figure it’s pointless to try to add new songs, the songs we already have are perfect and we don’t need any new ones, up to you. Maybe the best example of an artist successfully adding something new is 1984’s “Once Upon a Christmas” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. I never knew this album myself growing up but my wife and her family have always loved it and in the last twenty years I’ve encountered many who count this as one of the better ‘non-classic’ Christmas records. The reason for this is surprisingly simple: Dolly Parton. This album is an odd case of the traditional songs on the album being unremarkable and the originals standing out. Parton wrote or co-wrote 5 of the six originals on the album and they are quite good. In a sexist world, you would think it was Rogers that was driving the bus here but this is Parton’s show – ‘guest vocals by Kenny Rogers’ type thing. Parton sounds like she cares about Christmas. The record is genuine. Here’s my take on why: Dolly hails from Tennessee and in the Southern states the birth of Christ is taken seriously and handled reverently. I’ll presume that Christmas is significant to Dolly Parton and it shows in this album.

I want to own all the Christmas music I can which has led me on a merry chase lo these last 20 years. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover and add many new albums to our collection, mostly in the non-traditional format of mP3. Like my ‘regular’ music, some I need on CD, some I need on vinyl and some are OK just on digital. I’d like to share with you some of my finds, some you may not be familiar with. Not to replace your Crosby’s or Cole’s but for something different to shake up your Christmas party. Not in order. A post like this should really contain links to all these songs but that would’ve clogged things up. Head to YouTube – they all should be there.

“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”Family Force 5 (2009)/Art Carney (1954) — The same venerable Christmas poem set to music in two VASTLY different ways. Family Force 5 are purveyors of crunk rock or crunkcore. (Yeah. I know) But their version of “‘Twas…”, from their “Family Force 5’s Christmas Pageant” album, is outstandingly audacious. It is what they call a stone groove and the boys from Atlanta have created an incredibly catchy chorus. Art Carney’s version comes from a totally different realm. Television’s Ed Norton released this as a single and it is a full-on hepcat work out. It is available on the great jazz compilation “Jingle Bell Swing”. And, one word: “Crazy!”

“Home for the Holidays” – Anthony Hamilton (2014) — I stumbled on Anthony Hamilton when I was looking for a modern equivalent to Sam Cooke or Otis Redding. I was happy to find Hamilton and after I bought his latest album, “What I’m Feelin'”, I browsed through his discography and discovered his Christmas album, “Home for the Holidays”. Now, my problem with some of these new R&B singers is that they seem to play it so mellow. Everything is a slow jam. Anthony’s Christmas album starts off with some great, uptempo original songs. And then, halfway through the album, comes the title track. It’s simply the greatest new Christmas song I’ve heard in many a year. Incredibly gentle and heartfelt, it is performed by Hamilton with singer Gavin DeGraw. Wonderful singing and the chord changes caress your ears.

“Little Drummer Boy” – Audio Adrenaline (2002) — This one might be hard to find but you should search it out. Audio Adrenaline was a great band that unfortunately lost their excellent lead singer, Mark Stuart, when his voice gave out. This is an excellent, energetic version of this Christmas classic. It bowls you over with it’s might. It was available on a compilation called “WOW Christmas: Red”.

“We Three Kings” – Harry Connick, Jr. (2008) — I’ve loved Harry Connick since 1990 and one of the coolest things about him is that he knows Christmas. He’s released four Christmas albums and his first, “When My Heart Finds Christmas”, is his biggest selling album. His third, 2008’s “What a Night! A Christmas Album”, is his least satisfying Christmas vocal CD but it contains this instrumental gem. One of the challenging things about loving Harry Connick is that he is so intelligent and creative that he loves to flex his arrangement muscles. Sometimes his arrangement of a song you know well will render it indistinguishable. His chart for “We Three Kings”, though, is a straight-up powerhouse. His piano playing is stellar and the horns are off the chain. Careful listening to this driving, though. Cops don’t accept it as an excuse when they pull you over for speeding.

“My Little Drum” – Vince Guaraldi (1965) — I recently put together a great Christmas playlist I call “The 12 Nights of Christmas”; songs perfect for quiet nights sitting by the tree, fireplace glowing, snow gently falling outside. Here’s a sneaky little tune from the man who gave us the music for all the classic Charlie Brown specials. This one is found on the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack and you don’t realize it at first but then you notice your eyelids getting heavy as you drift off to the gentle sound of Vince’s piano. This trance-like beauty is a real hidden gem.

“O Come All Ye Faithful” – Abandon Kansas (2010) — An obscure band that put out a great album in 2011, Abandon Kansas are now on hiatus. They recorded an interesting arrangement of this carol for a compilation called “‘Tis the Season to Be Gotee” – an album of Christmas songs by bands that were a part of the Gotee Records stable. Such an intriguing version. Perfect if you are young-ish as, to me, it is a contemporary-sounding, pop arrangement. Infinitely listenable.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” – Engelbert Humperdinck (1980) — The glory of this recording is in it’s worshipful tone. It is an exceedingly reverent version of this timeless carol performed by a singer who’s pipes may have been at their peak at this point. I have to include this celebration of the birth of Christ here due to it’s ending. Some appropriate added lyrics and the soaring majesty of Humperdinck’s performance render the listener awed by not only the finale but by contemplation of the first Christmas and it’s ramifications. Appears on Hump’s second Christmas album, “A Merry Christmas With Engelbert Humperdinck”. It’s a personal favourite of mine.

“Happy Holiday” – Ray Noble and His Orchestra (1949) — Here is the hidden-est of all the gems on this list. I first heard it on an old cheap-o Christmas cassette I had. When I bailed on cassettes I knew I had to find it elsewhere and did so on iTunes. It is available there on only two compilations. I see it was first released on a 10″ album. It’s a gloriously vintage recording that features a husband and wife sharing Christmas and New Year’s Eve together. They reminisce about Christmases past and enjoy a quiet New Year’s Eve together. I always speculate as I listen that these are the last holidays they spend alone together before the kids arrive. For fans of mid-century culture, it is an absolute delight. It’s really hard to find and not on YouTube. You can listen here: https://soundcloud.com/raynoblehisorchestra

“Go Where I Send Thee” – Colin James and the Little Big Band (2007) — Canada’s own Colin James built himself an orchestra in the vein of the Brian Setzer Orchestra and put out a great Christmas album simply called “Christmas”, his forth with the orchestra. Filled with songs we all know, it wraps with this traditional tune. I come back to it every year. It’s fun to sing along to (if you can) and it’s just a great time. Colin’s echo-y vocal, the drummer’s snare work and the backing vocals make this sound like a fun Christmas Eve party out at some roadhouse off Route 90.

“Jingle Bells” – Jose Feliciano (1970)/Vinnie Zummo (2001)  — “Jingle Bells” has been recorded a million times, generally as a swinger. It lends itself so well to an energetic performance. When you hear it done differently, it can be really interesting. The Jackie Gleason Orchestra recorded a version that barely moves, it is so slow. These two instrumental versions are a delight. Jose’s shimmies with a Latin beat and the unknown Zummo’s is a smooth bossa nova groove.

“Silent Night” – Zach Gill (2008) — Another ‘stable’ album. “This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 1” features artists signed to Jack Johnson’s record label. As you would expect from a surfer and surfer-type artists, the album is light and fun and focuses on secular delights of the season. That’s partly why it’s such a breath of fresh air to hear unknown Zach Gill close the album signing a restrained version of the world’s most beloved carol.

“Christmas Time With You” – David Ian (feat. Acacia and Andre Miguel Mayo) (2011) — David Ian is actually rock guitarist Dave Ghazarian. He’s obviously half-a-jazzbo, though, because he’s released three instrumental jazz albums featuring himself on piano. The first of these is called “Vintage Christmas” and contains great piano bar-type versions of Christmas classics and this original song which appears twice on the album, once in this charming vocal version. Ian’s got style and a light touch on the keys. The jazz trio sound hearkens back to Vince Guaraldi’s trio that produced some legendary Christmas tunes. Ian’s outfit offers a nice, fresh take.

If you’re looking for a few albums that are outside the norm, I can certainly suggest some. I think I’ve discovered this year that “Christmas Album” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass from 1968 is my favourite Christmas album. Easy listening, excellent arrangements, great for late night listening. I mentioned earlier “A Merry Christmas from Engelbert Humperdinck”. It sounds like 1980 but in a good way. Great vocals, pleasant versions of songs you know. Lounge music goes great at Christmas and Capitol’s fantastic “Ultra-Lounge” series offers up four volumes of “Christmas Cocktails”. The first two present a swingin’ Christmas party at a Vegas lounge in 1963. Andy Williams put out two well-known Christmas albums in the mid-’60’s but he released “Christmas Present” in 1974. Perfect singing and the arrangements are other-wordly. Brian Setzer knows Christmas. The former Stray Cats front man has put out three Christmas albums with his Brian Setzer Orchestra. The first two particularly are excellent and he presents all of our favourites. If you love your Christmas music in a good, old fashioned orchestral setting Henry Mancini, Percy Faith and David Rose have put out excellent Christmas albums. Other artists who have released great Christmas music you may never have heard include Marty Robbins, the Ames Brothers, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Aaron Neville, Oscar Peterson, Lori Mechem, Chris Isaak, the Hollyridge Strings and Frankie Avalon, just to name a few. Google them.

You can never have enough Christmas music. Hope this helped you out and made you want to seek out some new albums for your collection. Merry Christmas!

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Christmas, music, Top Ten List

The Greatest Christmas Songs

Now, I know what you’re thinking and you’re right: music is subjective. And Christmas music all the more so. Mainly because of the immense amount of sentiment attached to the Christmas season. Your heart and spirit can latch on to a song, maybe you heard it as a child or it relates to memories of the past, connections to family members, etc. Not only that but I’ve always felt that anything was OK at Christmas; meaning nothing was too cornball to listen to or watch. Even things overly sentimental that may even have made you cringe in your better instincts were not only acceptable at Christmas but welcomed. After all, it is the season of such things. So, those who love Christmas music love it. All of it. Well, most of it. Lists like the one I’m about to present are almost redundant because of the sentimental connection I’ve tried to explain. My list of the best Christmas songs will bring blank stares from a lot of you because your own Christmas memories usually are accompanied by your own Christmas soundtrack which may be very different from mine or anyone else’s. However, what I’ve tried to pinpoint are the songs that are generally accepted as favourites, songs that are significant historically and culturally. Yes, opinions will vary but this list, I think, contains songs that serve to enrich the Christmas experience. Chances are, if Christmas is your thing, if you truly love the season for Christ-related or Santa-related reasons or both, than you love most of these songs. Or at least you understand and accept them as priceless elements of the season. For each track I’ve tried to state a case for their inclusion on anyone’s Christmas playlist. And, yeah, ranking can be really sketchy but I went ahead and ranked them anyways. Lastly, there are no carols here as they deserve their own post.

10. “Here Comes Santa Claus” – Gene Autry (1947) — Sub-titled “Down (or Right Down) Santa Claus Lane”, this perennial favourite was written by “The Singing Cowboy”, Gene Autry in 1947. Christmas of 1946, Autry was riding his horse in the Santa Claus Lane Parade (now the Hollywood Christmas Parade) and heard the spectators chanting “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus!”. This inspired Gene to write the lyrics to the song. (Gene relates this story on one of his Christmas albums) Autry recorded his song three times. The first came out on Columbia Records and was a Top Ten hit on the pop and country charts. It’s appreciation was increased by it’s use in the Rankin-Bass Christmas special from 1974, “A Year Without a Santa Claus”. It’s a pleasant, charming song that sings the praises of good, ol’ Saint Nick. And, again, people of a certain age no doubt grew up with Gene Autry’s Christmas music, specifically the “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” LP. “Here Comes Santa Claus” was also recorded notably by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, Bob Dylan, Mariah Carey and Billy Idol (!?).

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9. “Christmas Time is Here” – Vince Guaraldi (1965) — Here’s a perfect example of the ‘connection’ thing I was talking about. People my age grew up with the Peanuts gang and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in particular. The special from ’65 is notable for it’s assertion that the ‘real meaning of Christmas’ is the Nativity. Because we all grew up with Charlie Brown and Snoopy, this special is near and dear to us, that includes the music that goes with it. Peanuts specials were unique in that they presented the adventures of these kids against a backdrop of jazz music. The man who created it all was Vince Guaraldi. His soundtrack to the Christmas special featured not only “Christmas Time is Here” but also the immortal theme, “Linus and Lucy”. The album featured an instrumental version of “Christmas Time” and a version featuring vocals from the children’s choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. The song reminds you of the special, which is all is has to do. But, on top of that, it is a quiet gem, driven by Guaraldi’s gentle piano and drummer Jerry Granelli’s brushes. The song has been covered countless times but it is rare among Christmas songs in that Guaraldi’s version is the only one that ‘counts’. Oddly, it wasn’t covered at all until 1982 – and then it was flood gates. Other artists recording versions include: Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney, R.E.M., Stone Temple Pilots (!?), Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, and LeAnn Rimes.

8. “Jingle Bells”/”Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” – Bing Crosby (1943) — I’ve cheated a bit here with this tie but these are two similar recordings from the greatest of all the Christmas crooners. In 1935, Bing Crosby recorded the most beloved of all Christmas carols, “Silent Night”. As a religious man, Bing was hesitant to record the venerable song as he thought it was inappropriate for a singer of popular songs – and an owner of racehorses – to profit from so sacred a song. But record it he did and it began his 40-year run as the finest interpreter of seasonal warmth. By 1943, Bing Crosby was just about as big as you can get and the thing you need to understand about Bing is that, in Artie Shaw’s words, “he was the first hip white man born in the United States”. His jazz sensibilities and his sense of “swing” were highly tuned by this point. Never was this more apparent than in these two seminal recordings both recorded the same September day in 1943. Teaming with his regular singing partners, the Andrews Sisters, Bing swings like nobody’s business on these two numbers. “Jingle Bells” should have it’s own post. It may be one of the most recorded songs in history and lends itself well to a swinging treatment. “Santa Claus…” is taken at a more middling tempo but the rhythm inherent in Bing’s vocal and the spry accompaniment from the brass make for an excellent recording. Two definitive Christmas recordings from a man at the very height of his powers. “Jingle Bells” has been recorded countless times, most notably by: Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Booker T. and the MG’s, Jose Feliciano, the Hollyridge Strings, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Ben Rector and about a thousand others. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: the Crystals, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Jackson 5, the Beach Boys, Michael Buble and Dokken (!?).

7. “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” – Darlene Love (1963) — Where do I start? Bing Crosby was at the vanguard of the initial wave of popular singers recording Christmas music in the late 1930’s-early 1940’s. Then, with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, few artists indulged in seasonal sounds, the Drifters and Presley notable exceptions. And then, in November of 1963, Phil Spector released “A Christmas Gift for You”, a Christmas record filled with songs by artists in his stable. It has been called the greatest Christmas album ever made and it started the second wave of prolific pop/rock Christmas recordings. The only new song on this album, “Christmas…” is absolutely heartbreaking. The lyrics speak of separation at Christmas but what is most gut-wrenching about it is the chord changes. The song itself – vocals aside – is filled with longing. It’s songs like this that Springsteen channeled for his most emotive work. Indeed, “Bobby Jean” from “Born in the U.S.A.” is almost a carbon copy. Add to this the power of the voice of Darlene Love and you have a potent package. Thing is, the potency of this track does not necessarily come from it’s “Christmas-ness” but it is a Christmas song, often called the greatest Christmas rock song ever. It is heavy. Unsuccessful when it first came out, it has since been covered by U2 (Love sang back-up), Michael Buble and Mariah Carey.

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6. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” – Vaughn Monroe (1945) — The hardest Christmas song title to type. There are a handful of staples in this genre and this is one of them. If you are going to put out a Christmas album, this is going to be on it, particularly if you operate in the traditional pop idiom. Big-voiced Vaughn Monroe introduced this tune with an RCA Victor release in 1945. It was written by legendary and prolific songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn and is one of those tunes that make no specific reference to Christmas. It is a great swinger that rolls at the end of “Die Hard” and has been covered – and covered well – by virtually every jazz/traditional pop singer, including: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (twice), Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Robert Goulet and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass slow it down for an outstanding mellow version.

5. “An Old Fashioned Christmas” – Frank Sinatra (1964) — What a shock for me to learn that the biggest swinger of them all did not really swing at Christmas time. When I first heard Sinatra’s Christmas albums (technically three), I could not immediately connect until I realized that what he was doing so well was being reverent. In 1964, Sinatra teamed up with Bing Crosby and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians and put out the hard to find “12 Songs of Christmas”. Written by regular Sinatra writers (and pals) Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen and sung solo on the album by Frank, “An Old Fashioned Christmas” is the perfect mid-century Christmas song. If you’re like me – and I sincerely hope you’re not – you love any depiction of the past, be it in novel, film or song. Whether it’s 2017 or 1964, the song is all about nostalgia. It’s about a swinger who’s domain is the happenin’ city. But it’s late in December and this cat is thinking of home: “Give me an old-fashioned Christmas…my heart remembers smoldering embers warmly aglow. I’d trade that whole Manhattan skyline, the shimmering steel and chrome, for one old-fashioned Christmas back home”.

4. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – Andy Williams (1963) — Everything needs an opener and this song is the perfect opening tune for the Christmas season. George Wyle was a songwriter who worked for “The Andy Williams Show”. George wrote this song for Andy’s second annual Christmas show and it was released on Andy’s first Christmas record that year. (George Wyle also wrote the theme to “Gilligan’s Island”) All this makes it one of the more recently introduced Christmas standards. It’s an exciting composition in triple time and the lyrics are chock full of Christmas imagery. It is one of the most regularly heard Christmas songs of them all, as it is a celebration of all that we love about the season. For such an iconic song of the season, it has not been covered often. Johnny Mathis did a carbon copy version while Harry Connick, Jr. – as he is wont to do – wrote a very unique arrangement for it and recorded it on his Christmas album of 2008.

3. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” – Elvis Presley (1957) — The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll recorded two Christmas albums, one in 1957 and one in 1971. Only 20 Christmas songs and yet he has a sizable Christmas rep. “Elvis’ Christmas Album” of ’57 is the highest selling Christmas album of all-time (U.S. sales) and this was the first track on it. Presley went into the studio to make this album of Christmas and gospel classics and found himself one song short. His regular songwriters – Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame-ers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – adjourned to a quiet room and emerged a short time later with this simple gem. The magic here is in Presley’s performance. King recorded many timeless rock ‘n’ roll classics between 1956 and 1958 – the years that cemented his legacy for all time – but few of them really display the sheer savage power of his voice. One example is “Jailhouse Rock”. And another is “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. How odd. Christmas songs are generally tender, warm, lovingly nostalgic and evocative of home and hearth. This tune is a beast. The Jordanaires chanting “Christmas”, J.D. Fontana punishing his drums and some stellar blues piano from Dudley Brooks all combine to make this a Christmas rock ‘n’ roll standard.

2. “The Christmas Song” – Nat ‘King’ Cole (1961) — For almost all of the songs on this list I’ve gone to ‘the source’. Actually, it’s better stated to say that most of the greatest Christmas recordings ever are cases where artists are introducing a song to the public. Another great example of this is “The Christmas Song”, first recorded by Nat ‘King’ Cole – often subtitled either “Merry Christmas to You” or “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”. Like “Let It Snow!”, it’s a case of songwriters sweltering in mid-summer and imagining the cooler, cozier vibe of Christmas time. Legendary singer Mel Torme wrote the lyrics and Robert Wells composed the tune. Nat Cole and his trio debuted the song in the ’40’s. The definitive 1961 version was their third recording of it. There is a sublime gentleness in the opening two guitar notes and the sweeping strings that transport you to a dimly lit, warm, cozy room. The fireplace is aglow. The tree is lit. And Nat Cole’s smoky voice sings of the many charms of the season. The ’61 version is actually a perfect recording, Christmas or no. Mel’s lyrics add to the warmth and heartfelt sentiment.

1. “White Christmas” – Bing Crosby (1947) — A no-brainer. An easy, even unimaginative choice for #1. Not even a choice, really. If you decide to write about Christmas music, you are going to talk about Papa Bing and his glorious 1947 version of “White Christmas”. It is the reason secular Christmas music exists. This song really deserves it’s own post so I’ll keep it simple. Written by Irving Berlin and first recorded by Bingo in 1942, it is the world’s best selling single. Crosby’s initial recording in 1942 was incredibly successful. In 1942, the song spent 11 weeks at #1. In 1945 and 1946, the song went to #1 again – no other single in history has reached the top of the charts in three separate years. Although the song has been recorded over 500 times, it has always been associated with Bing Crosby. Crosby always downplayed his role in making the song legendary: “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully”. Along with Nat Cole’s “The Christmas Song”, this is one of the very few perfect recordings in history.

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So…what do you think? It may be hard to argue with these choices as they are, for the most part, universally loved. But did I miss any? Do any of these songs place too high? Aside from some really obscure stuff I could name, there really is no bad Christmas music. By definition, it is pleasant, warm, tenderly nostalgic and evokes memories of home. It truly is one of the joys of the season.

Stay Tuned for my next post when we’ll look at the lesser known Christmas classics

– the Deep Cuts…

 

 

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Christmas, Decorating, Tradition

Change of Season Part 2

“Feels like time for a change of season.” – Daryl Hall and John Oates

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” – Andy Williams

There’s a fifth season in our house and, although I live in Canada, I don’t mean the hockey season. There comes a day near the end of November when my family and I go all out for Christmas. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year. When I lived on my own in Apartment Zero (long story), I would put up my few meager decorations on December 1st because of “Diner”. In the late 1980’s, I loved Mickey Rourke and devoured all his movies. When I stumbled on “Diner” (1982), I fell head over heels. To this day, it’s my second favourite movie of all-time. “Diner” is set at the end of December and, as the years went by, it became something I decided to watch only in December – and every December. All December. Because “Diner” became something of a Christmas movie for me, I decided I would decorate for Christmas every December 1st. So, that’s what I did in the sad, old days; November 30th – nothing. December 1st – Christmas starts.

When I got married and had kids, I implemented the same Christmas policy. However, getting all the decorations out and up on December 1st got more and more difficult as we added more and more to our stock. The kids were thrilled with every additional knick knack or decoration we accumulated and things soon got out of hand. Then we decided that we would decorate our house on the Saturday before the last full week of November. We’d spend the Saturday getting it all out, decorating, watching movies, etc. and it would give us that full week to have everything out and up before or on the first of December. I would often take the Friday off from work to help get ready for the ‘Christmas bomb’ going off in the morning.

When the kids became teenagers, they became involved with the other young people at church and they started to go on the annual retreat which occurred every third weekend in November. This presented a problem because, for years now, the third Saturday of every November was Decorating Day. The retreat, though, was equally important so we decided they would go on the retreat and we would decorate the Saturday before – mid November – or the Saturday after – late November. Here’s where the debate really started; when is the right time to get in to the ‘Christmas spirit’?

We tried it the Saturday after. This usually would give us less than a full week in November and the 25 days of December to be decorated for the season. By the end of that Christmas we all agreed that it just wasn’t enough time. For one thing, we own a lot of Christmas movies and music. We found it hard to get all of our favourites – the list was long at this point – watched in the 4+ weeks we had. And I struggled getting all of my Christmas music – particularly the records, which had to be scheduled at appropriate times – listened to. We decided that we hadn’t had enough Christmas.

We tried it the Saturday before, figuring that more Christmas was better than less Christmas. This presented challenges as well. First and foremost was the fact that the second Saturday in November can fall on or before Remembrance Day (Veteran’s Day). This day is very serious in our house and every year it’s important to us to honour our armed forces and those who have fallen in battle. We feel that it would be inappropriate to give ourselves over to the joys of the Christmas season when we should be considering those who have given their lives in the defense of peace and liberty. One year I remember Decorating Day fell on November 12th. That year we had a lot of Christmas. But this brought up a lot of things to consider, also. First, and perhaps least important, was the idea that when we go all out for Christmas, it is going to show up in our every day lives. In our attire, in our house decorations and in our social media presence. This can throw some people if they think it is too early. While I generally don’t factor in what others think of me and my family and the way we do things, I also like to consider that if some of our neighbours have a specific time they like to get in the Christmas spirit and they see our house and see that we’ve jumped the gun this can be a negative thing for some people, like seeing Christmas decorations in the store the day after Halloween. I know that in our home WE have a specific time and if I see Christmas stuff and I deem that it is too early (for me) that can throw me. But mostly the challenge for us was getting ourselves into the Christmas spirit as early as the first half of November – it just seemed early.

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It can be a bit of a challenge, Decorating Day. We often wonder if we’re ready. As I said earlier, you feel that you have to suddenly ‘turn on’ your Christmas spirit once the decorations come out. But here’s the way it usually works: once the Christmas decorations come out, your Christmas spirit turns on. Once you start seeing the cherished ornaments and once you start doing the traditional things, it just happens. But that’s not to say that it would ‘just happen’ if you put up your Christmas tree in the middle of the summer. Hey, we all love Christmas but watching “White Christmas” in August is simply not the same thing. You could argue that it’s actually wrong.

Here’s the thing: besides honouring the birth of Jesus Christ, perhaps the most glorious thing about Christmas is it’s fleeting nature. The years we started Christmas early, the thing we worried about was would the freshness sustain throughout the next 6+ weeks? Would we start taking the glow of the tree for granted? It’s like watching your favourite movie every weekend; is something lost or diminished? Does it become too commonplace? By the same token, watching “A Christmas Carol” in the spring or listening to your Christmas records all throughout the year just tends to remove the magic from those things. In the old days, they often purchased, put up and decorated their trees on Christmas Eve – ZERO chance to get tired of it. Just the opposite: it was a wonder to behold, like a shooting star or a sunset. “Oh, I love Christmas so much, I could sit by a lighted Christmas tree from September on!” Yes, but come December, something has been lost. Even if it’s still a magical feeling, it’s a three-month old magical feeling. There’s a difference. You CAN’T stretch it out. That goes against the very nature of the Christmas season.

When you think about it, the most magical day of the year is December 24th, Christmas Eve. Not just because of the day that’s on the horizon but also because ‘the season’ hasn’t begun to end yet. Let’s face it; Christmas Day – depending on how you do it in your family – come mid-afternoon, there is a sadness that can settle in. There’s a line from an old story by Christopher Morley that says it well: “Christmas is always a little sad, after such busy preparations”. My kids would get excited early in December. School holidays hadn’t started yet and they were anxious and impatient and I would tell them “don’t rush it! This is the good time because NOT ONE MINUTE of it is over yet. It’s still all in front of you”. Once anything starts, it starts to finish.

Suffice it to say that whenever we decorate for Christmas it is on. That Saturday morning, we’re up early-ish and I bring home breakfast from McDonald’s. Then I will go down and bring up our Christmas CDs. The first sounds of the season are either Bing Crosby or Elvis Presley. The first song is either Bing’s “Silent Night” or King’s “Santa Claus is Back in Town.” Because tradition. Then, my youngest son and I will start bringing the boxes up from under the stairs. You all know the feeling. It’s like a cherished friend coming back to town for a visit. You see decorations you love and maybe there is a story about them. Always it’s memories. Simply getting the stuff out is magical. Then, when it goes up, it is wonderful to see again. We always say that our house shrinks at Christmas. Not just the two Christmas trees but different Christmas ornaments and figures, etc. come out and fill up any empty space in our home. In our house, we change everything: dishes, dish cloths, face cloths, towels, clothing, music, movies, key chains, whole bit. And, as a friend of mine once remarked – I go ‘all Christmas media’: everything I watch, listen to or read is related to the season.

In the end, the last week or so of November you feel yourself starting slow, letting yourself get acclimated, letting it all sink in. Come the first of December, after the American Thanksgiving when you can be pretty sure that it is generally acceptable to be all in for Christmas, you are really ready to dive in to the joys of the season. Christmas is a lot like summer: it’s this magical place you get to visit for a short time. You give yourself over to it in many ways. Every year, I pray that I will be cognizant of where I’m at. That I will wring every moment of joy out of the brief time that Christmas is here. That I won’t take one minute of it for granted. After all, it is the hap-happiest season of all.

ROCKY

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James Bond, movies, music, Top Ten List

Tunes. Bond Tunes. Or Music to Dig James Bond By

To say the James Bond franchise is unique is a major understatement. It has so many cool things attached to it. The world’s most famous English civil servant was the brainchild of novelist Ian Fleming, who himself has so much story attached to him. There’s a good 2014 BBC miniseries that offers a somewhat fictionalized account of his clandestine activities during World War 2. Through these experiences he devised the Bond character and made him a part of the “00” section – a section comprised of operatives in Her Majesty’s Secret Service trusted enough to be allowed to kill opponents at their own discretion. The books Fleming wrote – starting with 1953’s “Casino Royale” – were initially seen as sensational pulp paperbacks but soon earned a certain cachet in the public consciousness. Fleming eventually wrote 12 Bond novels and they are a wonderful part of popular culture in and of themselves. In 1962, the phenomenon reached sensational heights with the first James Bond feature film, “Dr. No”, with Scotsman Sean Connery chosen to play Bond. The films really created the template of all things ‘Bond’: exotic locales, beautiful women, fine dining, cocktails, fast cars, dangerous adventure and music. One of the coolest things about the ‘world of Bond’ is that it has it’s very own soundtrack.

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United Artists was savvy enough to issue soundtrack albums right from the start.

“Dr. No” features the song that has come to be known as “James Bond Theme” over the opening credits and variations of it are used throughout the film. There has been a lot of debate throughout the years over the actual origin of “James Bond Theme”. Suffice it to say that it has been credited as having been written by Monty Norman.  The producers of the first film hired Norman to do the score but were apparently unhappy with the arrangement of the main theme and had John Barry come in to provide a fresh take on it. Barry – born November 3rd, like me – had some success in the late ’50’s with his own group, the John Barry Seven, and then got into film scoring, eventually being called upon to work on the Bond theme as heard in “Dr. No”. Barry has also claimed authourship of the song and twice it has gone to court with the ruling going in Norman’s favour and Norman – still with us at 89 – has been receiving royalties for the song for 60 years. Historically, we have to look at it this way: Monty Norman wrote “James Bond Theme” and that is significant. John Barry arranged it to make it sound like the song we all hear in our heads and that, too, is significant. One thing is for certain; the song is fantastic in and of itself, even apart from the Bond mystique. I love what David Arnold, another Bond film composer, says about the theme: “(it had a) bebop-swing vibe coupled with that vicious, dark, distorted electric guitar, definitely an instrument of rock ‘n’ roll … it represented everything about the character you would want: It was cocky, swaggering, confident, dark, dangerous, suggestive, sexy, unstoppable. And he did it in two minutes”. Norman, it should be noted, went on to do nothing. Barry subsequently scored 11 Bond films and many other movies including “Born Free”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “King Kong (1976)”, “Body Heat”, “The Cotton Club”, “Out of Africa”, “Dances With Wolves” and “Chaplin”. Barry won five Academy Awards and four Grammys for his film work.

The second film in the series was “From Russia, With Love”. While this film doubled the gross of “Dr. No” and people really began to take notice of the franchise, the music from the films had not yet cemented itself into popular culture. Subsequently, the theme from “From Russia, With Love” by English singer Matt Monro (Sir George Martin said Monro was the best singer he ever worked with) was an excellent if somewhat generic and low-key song. And while it was not featured over the opening credits, as became the norm, it was nominated for a Golden Globe. Where things really began to take off for the franchise was the third film, 1964’s “Goldfinger”. This marked the first time John Barry wrote the title song and scored the film as well. This was also the first time the theme was performed over the opening credits. Welsh singer Shirley Bassey had a Top Ten hit in the States with the title song. There are singers that sing to the back rows and then there is Shirley Bassey. She sings past the back rows and out the door. The guy drying his clothes in the laundromat across the street feels the breeze from her belting. The soundtrack album went to #1 Stateside and now the music had become a major element of the mystique. Speaking of Welsh belters, Tom Jones lent his formidable talents to “Thunderball” a year later. Two notable recordings from consecutive films with odd titles for songs. I’ve always thought the lyricists had a tough time writing these songs: “so, he strikes like Thunderball”? 1967 was a big year for Nancy Sinatra so the producers brought her in to sing the theme for “You Only Live Twice”. Nancy became the first American to interpret a Bond theme.

Starting around the time of the success of “Goldfinger” in 1964, “spy jazz” became a sub-genre. The strength and popularity of the Bond themes and the scores of John Barry gave rise to a host of imitators. Other spy movies and television shows emerged and it was essential to have attached to them a soundtrack full of noisy brass and sinister guitar riffs. United Artists, the studio that produced the Bond films, released the soundtracks to the Bond films on their record label and also commissioned like-sounding records that would feed the public’s appetite for ‘Bond-y’ sounds. They released two volumes of “Music to Read James Bond By”, consisting of artists on their roster performing some music from and inspired by the films. I’ve been fortunate enough to have found the first one on vinyl. The soundtracks and themes from “Our Man Flint”, “Charade”, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” and others also became part of the genre. Many instrumental albums by artists performing what today we would call lounge music also appeared, referencing Barry’s incidental music and coming up with their own contributions. Even surf music got into the act with the Menn releasing “Ian Fleming Theme”. Legendary band leader Count Basie put out the very brassy and jazzy “Basie Meets Bond” in 1966 which featured the themes from the movies and also songs from the scores. In 1967, a “non-canon” Bond spoof was released called “Casino Royale” which featured the hit title track which was performed by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Music mogul Alpert showed up years later for the soundtrack of the other non-canon film, “Never Say Never Again”. Herb produced his wife, Lani Hall, singing the theme. An alternate theme was written for the film “Thunderball” and was performed by Dionne Warwick. At the time, an Italian journalist had dubbed Bond “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and a song was written for and recorded by Miss. Warwick with this title but not used. The iconic “James Bond Theme” as been covered countless times, notably by prolific purveyor of spy jazz Leroy Holmes, Glen Campbell, Brian Setzer, the Ventures, the Art of Noise and Moby.

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The “spy genre” took off in the mid-’60’s. Themes and music was an essential component.

A new era of Bond started in 1973 with Roger Moore taking over the role for “Live and Let Die”. Here we have what is loosely referred to as the worst film and the best theme. Paul McCartney got the call to write the title track which he co-wrote with his wife, Linda. His old buddy, Beatles producer George Martin, scored the film. Oddly, once the song had been written, the producers hired obscure singer B.J. Arnau to sing the theme over the titles. Martin, having already recorded Paul’s version, was surprised, having assumed that the Paul McCartney and Wings recording would be used. In the end, Paul insisted, stating he would withdraw his composition if his band’s recording was not utilized. Thankfully, the producers acquiesced. This became the first rock song to be used as a theme for a Bond film and the recording is stellar. Martin’s freight-train orchestration is absolutely exhilarating. The interplay of the guitar and the brass is striking while the pianist’s left hand is riveting and ominous. At the time, it was the most successful Bond theme, reaching #2 in the US. The song was nominated for an Oscar but lost to “The Way We Were” (C’mon!!). Years later, it was covered by Guns ‘n’ Roses who wisely did not tinker with the song and kept Martin’s orchestral assault basically intact. Sidebar: the mysterious B.J. Arnau sings a watered-down version in a night club scene in the film. In 1977, “The Spy Who Loved Me” was released with a score by the popular composer Marvin Hamlisch. The soundtrack is sadly dated and generally reviled because of it’s obvious disco leanings. This film marks the first time that the main theme song bore a different title than the film. It’s probably for the best they didn’t try to write a song called “The Spy Who Loved Me”. The song used over the opening titles was “Nobody Does it Better” and was recorded by Carly Simon. It is an excellent song featuring wonderful piano and was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Song but lost to “You Light Up My Life” (C’mon!!). It was a Top Ten hit all over the world. Still, hearing the line “like heaven above me, the spy who loved me…” always brings a chuckle. The excellent Bond film “For Your Eyes Only” premiered in 1981 and Scotland’s Sheena Easton sang another Academy Award-nominated theme. Easton sang this song – another huge international hit – on screen during the opening titles, the only time this has happened in a Bond film. The soundtrack was done by American Bill Conti, who had given us “Gonna Fly Now”, the stirring theme from 1977’s “Rocky”. 1985’s “A View to a Kill” was 57-year-old Roger Moore’s last go-’round as the MI6 agent and this film’s theme gave Bond his biggest chart success. In the early ’80’s, England’s Duran Duran were hugely popular. The band’s bassist, John Taylor, approached Bond producer ‘Cubby’ Broccoli at a party and drunkenly asked when ‘Cubby’ was going to “get a decent band to do a theme”. This unlikely beginning led to Duran Duran being paired with John Barry and the result was the title track. The song was nominated for a Golden Globe and went to #1 in the US and many other countries. Bond went through a transition period after Moore left the role. Timothy Dalton starred in two films in the late 1980’s and the highlight of his tenure is undoubtedly the theme to his second outing, “Licence to Kill”. Sung by the greatest female voice in soul and R&B, Gladys Knight, the song borrows the horn line from “Goldfinger” and Gladys – a rare American Bond theme vocalist – puts her indelible stamp on the tune that was a Top Ten hit in the UK. It is the longest Bond theme song – of course, a song this good is never long enough.

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“Live and Let Die” soundtrack album cover (1973)

Super-handsome Irishman Pierce Brosnan successfully ushered James Bond into the modern era of film making with the excellent “GoldenEye”. For this film, the producers scored the services of U2’s Bono and the Edge who wrote the title song for Tina Turner – giving us the rarity of back-to-back African American female theme singers. The film was partially advertised as being the “new era” of Bond, which indeed it was. Interesting to note that this new generation of Bond theme composers utilized the lyric “you’ll never know how I watched you from the shadows as a child”, as if Bono and the Edge are recalling watching Bond in a darkened theater in their youth. I love Pierce Brosnan. Unfortunately, the direction the franchise took during his tenure was a poor one. The films became overly sensational and needed a reset; similar to the one that took place with “For Your Eyes Only” after the space exploits seen in “Moonraker”. The themes of the Brosnan films also suffered a downward spiral after “GoldenEye”. Perhaps it was their decision to go with American artists. History has shown that the themes seem to go over better in the hands of artists from the UK. All of the Brosnan themes are performed by American women save for “The World is Not Enough”, which was sung by the Scottish female lead singer of the American band Garbage. Their name says it all.

The franchise was reset once again with Daniel Craig’s introduction in 2006’s “Casino Royale”. During this era, film music composer David Arnold cemented himself as the new ‘John Barry’ of the franchise. “Casino Royale” was Arnold’s fourth Bond film. The grittiness of Craig’s ‘blunt instrument’ take on the character was mirrored in Chris Cornell’s pounding theme, “You Know My Name”. Cornell became the first American male to perform a Bond theme and, to date, his theme is the only one performed solo by an American male. Another American male, Jack White, teamed with Alicia Keys to perform the theme to the next Bond film, “Quantum of Solace”, “Another Way to Die”. The first duet in Bond film history, this great tune features White’s trademark grinding fuzz. Just when you thought the Yankees were taking over Bond themes – and the themes were going to have different titles than the films – in comes England’s Adele with the theme to “Skyfall”. Adele’s excellent theme continued the trend of hearkening back to dramatic Bond themes of old in part by utilizing a 77-piece orchestra. “Skyfall” became perhaps the most successful Bond theme to date as it won a Golden Globe, a Grammy and – the most coveted prize – the Academy Award. This pattern was continued with the theme from the next film, “Spectre”. English singer Sam Smith wrote and recorded “Writing’s on the Wall”. Smith utilizes his falsetto which makes this track the audio opposite of the virile style of Tom Jones. On first listen, the song seems very understated and inaccessible. But it tends to grow on you and it’s ominous chords in the true John Barry style put one in mind of “From Russia, With Love”, which makes it at once nostalgic while still being contemporary. While it was not the hit single that “Skyfall” had been, it garnered the Golden Globe and became the second consecutive Bond theme to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

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Adele’s “Skyfall” single art (2012)

As of this writing, the themes to James Bond films seem to be in good hands. A return to artists from the UK and the compositions utilizing orchestras and striving for a cutting edge yet timeless, and even nostalgic aura make for some quality recordings. Rumour has it, though, that Beyonce has been tapped to perform the next theme. Hopefully, that won’t undo some of the progress of the last few films. In the final tally, we’ve had 13 artists from the UK and 10 Americans (“The Living Daylights” was performed by Norway’s A-ha). Also, we’ve had 14 female theme artists and 7 male. One was a duet and two were instrumentals. So, after all this jabbering, what are the Top Ten James Bond Theme Songs? Glad you asked….

10. “A View to a Kill” – Duran Duran (1985) — Written by Duran Duran and John Barry. Only Bond theme to reach #1 in the US. Nominated for Golden Globe. Excellent tune. Catchy and upbeat.

9. “Another Way to Die” (from “Quantum of Solace”) – Jack White and Alicia Keys (2008) — Only Bond theme done as a duet. Nominated for a Grammy. Despite receiving generally negative criticism, this tune and the previous film’s theme both are indicative of the new era of Bond films and fit well with Daniel Craig’s grim, blunt, violent take on the role.

8. “Goldfinger” – Shirley Bassey (1964) — Top Ten in the US. #53 on AFI’s list of the Top 100 movie songs. Despite my dislike of Bassey’s voice and singing style, the song must rank high here if only for it’s iconic status in the Bond Music canon. In many ways, it is the Bond theme that started it all.

7. “For Your Eyes Only” – Sheena Easton (1981) — Co-written by Bill Conti. Top Ten in US and UK. Nominated for Oscar. Just a nice, classy ballad. It sounds like 1981 but not really in a bad way. I like Sheena Easton. She was Sonny Crockett’s wife on “Miami Vice”.

6. “Nobody Does It Better” (from “The Spy Who Loved Me”) – Carly Simon (1977) — First Bond theme to be titled differently from the film since “Dr. No”. Top Ten in US and UK. Nominated for Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy. #67 on AFI’s Top 100 movie songs list. I love the sound of a piano and this one has some great piano playing, particularly to open the tune. The coda of the song is an example of excellent orchestrating and arranging. Carly singing “sweet baby you’re the best” over the wonderful scoring of the strings and horns is a treat for the ears.

5. “GoldenEye” – Tina Turner (1995) — Top Ten throughout Europe and the UK. Bond enjoyed his first successful ‘reset’ since 1973 and this charismatic theme was a part of that. Written by Bono and the Edge, it was the perfect first theme for the new era. Fantastic, dramatic song. Ominous and dark in the best John Barry tradition.

4. “Licence to Kill” – Gladys Knight (1989) — Interesting how I’ve talked about how artists from the UK seem better suited to perform Bond themes and yet four of my top ten are by Americans. Top Ten in the UK. Most of the appeal here is the sublime voice of Gladys Knight. The song could actually function as simply a ‘song’, apart from the world of Bond. I love the key change near the end as it adds emotion.

3. “Skyfall” – Adele (2012) — Most successful Bond theme to date. First theme to win the Oscar and also copped the Golden Globe and a Grammy. #1 on the charts in several countries around the world. Co-written by Adele, the song definitely benefits from her extraordinary voice. She could sing the phone book and it would be enchanting. But the very best thing about this theme is it’s acknowledgment of past themes. It maintains a modern sound but also contains ‘Bond-esque’ musical cues and simply sounds to the listener like a ‘Bond theme’. The accompaniment of a full orchestra certainly helps this cause, something that Sam Smith will emulate with the next Bond theme.

2. “Live and Let Die” – Paul McCartney and Wings (1973) — Absolutely stunning. The introduction of Roger Moore as Bond was accompanied by the first rock song to be used as a theme. At the time, it became the most successful Bond theme ever, reaching number 2 on the American charts and #9 in the UK. The first Bond theme to be nominated for an Academy Award. The thing that makes this song so great is the same thing that makes the Beatles so listenable. Sir Paul McCartney is such a song craftsman and when he marries that ability to the orchestral genius of Sir George Martin, magic appears. McCartney’s song is hip, cool and contemporary and then the orchestral score that Martin provided for his ensemble – the driving orchestra break – sends this over the top. It is a high-speed thrill ride. Martin adds rock guitar to these timeless classical instruments and comes up with a sinister sonic force. Exhilarating.

1. “James Bond Theme” (from “Dr. No”) – John Barry and Orchestra (1962) — Some find it hard to consider this a “James Bond theme” but it was the theme to the first film, “Dr. No”, and then became the character’s theme; which makes it even cooler. I can’t say anymore about this iconic piece of music than I – or rather David Arnold – have said above. Suffice it to say that it is one of the most recognizable pieces of music in history. Some may say that with the Daniel Craig films the “James Bond Theme” is no longer used or it has been replaced with other pieces of music but consider this: the arc of the Craig films is the origin of Bond as a “00” agent so really he hasn’t ‘earned’ his theme yet. However, you can hear snippets of it in Craig’s “Casino Royale” during action scenes or when Bond is doing something particularly ‘Bond-y’. You’ll also hear it during the closing credits of these films. You’ll notice at the end of “Skyfall” that the franchise has officially been reset with M and Moneypenny in place and Bond ready to function as the agent that we all grew up with. Then, once we’re ready to ‘start fresh’ at the beginning of “Spectre”, that film starts ‘where we came in’; Bond in the gun barrel with his “James Bond Theme” playing.

Spectre

JAMES BOND WILL RETURN…

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music, singing

Paying the Bills

We lost “country singer” Glen Campbell recently. Glen was “known” for his hits “Wichita Lineman”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Rhinestone Cowboy”. He was also known, unfortunately, for his struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease and for the “farewell tour” of recordings he’d been on since his diagnosis. His last album was called “Adios”. Perfect. It got me thinking of the unique situation he was in at the end of his career and life. He knew it was over and acted accordingly. One of the many terrible things about a terminal disease is the knowledge that death is coming and coming soon. While this is an incredibly horrific burden to bear for all involved, it opens interesting possibilities for the artist. If memory serves, Warren Zevon faced a similar situation. Diagnosed with cancer, Zevon rejected treatment that may have incapacitated him and instead focused on making a final album. The album featured many guest appearances and the recording sessions were documented by VH1. Notwithstanding the quality of the album, sentiments were high and the record charted and was nominated for five Grammys, winning two – the first of Zevon’s career. Country singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood was diagnosed with renal cancer and also went into the studio one last time. Zevon and Hazlewood shared a persona in that they neither cared one iota what the ‘hit parade’ may look like at any time in history but instead went with their guts, sometimes producing music that was inaccessible to the general public but was embraced by the industry, by critics and by the more discerning record buyer. Hazelwood’s final album was a completely different scenario to Zevon’s. Lee’s record featured zero celebrity guest stars and enjoyed zero chart activity or Grammy noms. But it was “Hazelwood” right down to the core and he was able to go out on his own terms.

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Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while he was recording what would be his third last album, “Ghost on the Canvas”. He and his producers finished the album with the thinking that it would be his last. He embarked on a farewell tour announcing his diagnosis beforehand so fans would know what was up if things went wrong on stage. Glen was able to record two more albums. “See You There” is a startling testament. Glen revisits old hits and, to me, the strength of his voice is remarkable. Jimmy Webb’s “Postcards from Paris” from this album is one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard. “Adios” – his aptly titled final album – features a less vibrant sounding Glen joined by Willie Nelson and Roger Miller. The thing, though, that I always think of when I think of Glen Campbell is his reputation as a guitar virtuoso. When I was young and first heard this I found it hard to reconcile with the guy who hosted “Glen Campbell’s Good Time Hour” and sang “Rhinestone Cowboy”.

I first heard of Glen Campbell through the Beach Boys. I fell in love with Brian Wilson and his band when I was 12 years old.  Those who know will know that Brian left the touring band at the end of the seminal year 1964 to focus on songwriting and production and was replaced by Campbell. When I was a kid and read this it was a real head-scratcher: “what is Rhinestone Cowboy country guy doing in the Beach Boys?”. Fact is, Glen had already played on many Beach Boys hits as part of the famed ‘Wrecking Crew’. This was a crack group of session musicians that were used extensively in the Los Angeles area at the time. They deserve their own post as a case could be made that they played on almost EVERY significant artists’ songs throughout the 1960’s. The Wrecking Crew boasted excellent guitar players, one of which was Glen. The thing about being a session musician was you had to be good. Very good. You had to be able to translate an artist’s thoughts and ideas. You had to give voice to the directions and demands of producers who were looking for a particular sound. In this environment Glen Campbell became one of the best, one of the most respected and sought after musicians on the West coast. So it actually made perfect sense that he would replace Brian on the road, singing and playing bass at several shows at the end of 1964 and into the new year. Glen – and his fellow session musicians – were often called upon to be part of a “band” that had been created by an inspired record producer with an original idea.

By the late ’60’s, Glen Campbell was a good, ol’ boy from Arkansas who found himself the most technically proficient and the most in demand guitar player in Los Angeles. A virtuoso, adept at any and all types of music but with country in his soul. He chose to leave the comforts of the lucrative studio life and become a country music recording artist. This career path makes him unique, to come from the ranks of session musicians to strike out on his own and be successful. I’m hard pressed to think of another example of a performer taking this path. Sheryl Crow, I know, was a back-up singer before making her own records. Now Glen becomes very popular and successful as a country artist, scoring hits with “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. The general public has no way of knowing of his considerable ability on the guitar. He is, after all, ‘just’ a country singer. While his records didn’t call for it, in concert he was able to show off his incredible skill and YouTube videos can attest that he would often really cut loose in a live performance. Campbell is maybe first in a line of virtuoso guitarists that became popular as singers and personalities that were not necessarily known for their guitar playing prowess. Prince and Keith Urban come to mind. The kind of music they became popular for performing did not necessarily require or feature amazing guitar playing. But when unleashing a blistering solo was called for, all three could deliver. I always imagine people leaving a Glen Campbell show and being amazed that he could play like that. “Why doesn’t he do more of that?!” they may have asked. He didn’t because that was not what paid the bills.

This got me thinking of the many talented people throughout the years that have adopted a persona because it is acceptable and lucrative even though they would much rather be doing something else. The Hollywood studio system during the Golden Age is perhaps where this phenomenon originated. Typecasting was common and if you were an actor who had success in comedies, you made comedies or if you looked like the ‘wise father-type’, you played wise fathers. You can find many examples of this throughout history. Sometimes, it will be like Glen Campbell’s case; he was REALLY GOOD at something other than what he was known for. Other times, it will simply be a case of paying the bills – ‘this is what they know me as and they will pay to see me do this. They won’t pay to see me do what I really want to do’. Think Michael Jordan playing baseball.

People of a certain age will remember Roy Clark. Clark co-hosted a popular country and western-themed variety/comedy show throughout the 1970’s called “Hee Haw”. Roy was an affable country boy who picked and sang and acted in comedy sketches on this immensely popular show that lasted an astounding 23 seasons. Everybody knew Roy Clark as “the host of ‘Hee Haw'”. But Roy was possessed of a skill on stringed instruments that, while largely unknown, was substantial. His abilities on the violin, the banjo and on classical guitar have made him an enormous influence on generations of bluegrass and country musicians. Case in point: to see him play “Malaguena” on an episode of “The Odd Couple” is startling.

The aforementioned Brian Wilson is an interesting example of this phenomenon. As a young man, Brian had aspirations to become another Phil Spector: to be a producer of multiple acts, to have his own stable. In order to get on his feet in the music business, he formed a band with his brothers and cousin that hitched it’s wagon to the surf music trend of the early 1960’s. Unfortunately, the Beach Boys became exceedingly popular and Brian suddenly found himself trapped as the bass player of a surf band. It took mountains moving to even excuse him from tedious life on the road and he was finally able to stay at home and write and produce music; some of the greatest American music ever made. But his reputation was never able to soar above the apparent simplicity of the songs his band put out. Only those who really knew understood his genius and appreciated the harmonic complexity of his work. In keeping with the Beach Boys, both of Brian’s brothers – Carl and Dennis – put out solo records during their decades-long tenures with the band. They also could not emerge from the long shadows and – after exercising their creativity outside the fold – they realized that they had to ‘pay the bills’ – and this meant returning to the band and continuing to be ‘Beach Boys’.

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Along the same lines you have another legendary band from the 1960’s, The Monkees. Originally, the four boys had signed on to be on a TV show – not in a band. The show lasted only two years but the band as a musical entity continued to enjoy popularity after the show ended. Eventually, all four members became proficient musicians and wanted to operate as such and they eventually released albums utilizing their own talents. Then, later on, each had a desire to make their own records – to be solo acts. There must have been times – and this has happened with many bands – when each member had written a song they were proud of. They would have loved to have gone into the studio, recorded the song and maybe nine others for an album, released it and toured behind it and promoted it on television talk shows. But the chances of the public buying a record by Peter Tork were low. One by “The Monkees”? Much higher. Therefore, they had to hang on to their songs and wait until the next “Monkees” project could be put together. Another variation of this can be seen in the case of the Grass Roots. An excellent pop/rock band of the late ’60’s, the Grass Roots employed a horn section which set them apart at the time. The band was actually created by producers P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. The famous Wrecking Crew studio band played on the original songs backing up the vocals of Sloan. When one of these early songs – “Where Were You When I Needed You?” – became a hit, Sloan and Barri had to find an actual band that would become “The Grass Roots”. The “band” went through three incarnations during their hit years. Each time, the producers found an existing band who were not ‘paying the bills’ very well under their own steam and would agree to forego their identity and take up the already-popular moniker – become “The Grass Roots” – and record high quality material in a polished and professional environment. Twice the enlisted bands bristled under the strict direction they were getting and went back to doing things themselves. Interestingly, throughout “The Grass Roots”‘s existence, even with all the changing personnel and the fabricated nature of the proceedings, they put out great songs and had chart success.

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Tom Jones is another great example. Like most men of his age from the UK, Jones was a huge fan of American blues, r&b and rock ‘n’ roll. When he started out in the business, that’s the kind of music he sang. He was basically a white Wilson Pickett. As he began to become popular, managers and agents became involved. Part of their jobs was to find their clients (who generally didn’t write their own songs) quality material to record. Tom’s handlers came across “It’s Not Unusual”, a song they thought would suit him well. Tom wasn’t so sure. He was a ‘shouter’, after all and this track they wanted him to do was not that. It was very middle-of-the-road and horn-based; not the bleating saxes he was used to but popping trumpets. But, of course, he did it and, of course, it was a huge, international success. His people began to bring him more of the same – and country and western. Next thing you know he is extremely popular but he is not recording the type of music he really wants to. He’s not being the type of singer he really is. Then the money and stardom that Las Vegas in the 1970’s can provide is offered to him and he accepts. Now he’s really not Wilson Pickett. But he’s paying the bills. Which brings to mind what you hear from a lot of singers, usually white males. ‘I love rhythm and blues, I love Elvis Presley, I love Jackie Wilson and all the old singers’ – but what these white males record and have success with is nowhere near what purists would call “rhythm and blues”.

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Speaking of Elvis Presley, he and Sam Cooke both wanted nothing more than to be gospel singers. They both, basically, had to compromise. They both became legends in their respective fields – rock ‘n’ roll and soul – and both lovingly recorded some gospel music throughout their careers, albeit ‘on the side’. I’ve always loved the film “The Fabulous Baker Boys”. Real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges portray Jack and Frank Baker, two legends of the piano bar circuit. After umpteen years of this however, Jeff’s character, Jack, is fed up. He has always loved jazz and plays it anonymously in small clubs every chance he gets. As time goes on, he becomes more and more disillusioned with ‘paying the bills’ by playing music he hates while continually putting his jazz dreams on hold. He’s making money playing “Feelings”. He won’t make much playing “‘Round Midnight” in smoky clubs but that’s what he decides he needs.

Speaking of jazzbos, Charlie Watts is a fascinating example of a guy who’s been ‘paying the bills’ for almost 60 years. The legendary drummer of “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” – the Rolling Stones – is a jazz man at heart. As an aside, the man is also a graphic artist and has designed many of the album covers and stage set-ups the band has used over the years. Wikipedia states it plainly and, I think, comically: “Although he has made his name in rock, his personal tastes lie principally in jazz”. Which is very not rock. The guy’s been considered one of the top 12 rock drummers ever and he doesn’t even like it all that much! As early as the late 1970’s, he has put together jazz ensembles for live performance and for recordings. He has put out jazz records with “The Charlie Watts Quintet” and “The Charlie Watts Tentet”. Those of you who have ever seen him play with the Stones in concert or video will know that he always looks like he’s embarrassed or he’d rather be 100 miles away from Mick as he prances and Keith as he twitches and stumbles. Watts has stayed faithful – faithful – to his wife of 53 years, abused alcohol for only three years in the 1980’s, sketches every hotel room he’s ever stayed in, beat throat cancer which showed up 20 years after he quit smoking, has showed up for years on Best Dressed lists and now lives in a rural village in England and raises horses with his wife. He is one sedate cat who just happens to play drums for maybe the wildest band in history. Hey, it pays the bills.

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Frank Sinatra, music, Top Ten List

The Best of Everything Part 4: Later That Day…

We finish up our look at the recordings of Frank Sinatra with Part 4. I’ve tried to break down Frank’s career into sections that represent different eras. We started in the Big Band era and Frank’s work with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey then followed Frank as he went solo and recorded for Columbia Records. In Part 3, Frank moved to Capitol and enjoyed a reign that is like no other in history. Now, in Part Four, we look at a point in Frank’s career that could be called the ‘victory lap’. By the late ’60’s, with nothing left to prove, Frank just made records. Or he didn’t. And they charted. Or they didn’t. None of these things mattered anymore. He was Sinatra. In the late 1960’s, musical tastes and trends went through a mammoth transition. Things had been changing since 1956 but singers of popular song like Frank and Dean Martin and others had continued to stay somewhat relevant and also to enjoy some pop chart success. But by the time Frank turned 50 near the end of 1965, he himself was ready to change and capitulate somewhat to the changing tides in popular music.

Part Four encompasses Frank’s recordings between the “Strangers in the Night” album, released in May of 1966, and the end of his recording career which, in this case, we are calling “L.A. is My Lady” from 1984. I’ve chosen the “Strangers” album as a turning point in his recording career because of the marked difference between the “Moonlight Sinatra” album, released March of ’66 and “Strangers” two months later. While there may have been indicators previous to “Strangers”, that album introduced Frank in a ‘contemporary’ setting – the back cover declared “Sinatra Sings for Moderns”. Frank began to embrace the sounds of the time, if, at first, only slightly. “Strangers” features Frank’s take on two recent Tony Hatch-written hits for Petula Clark. “Call Me” was soon to become an easy listening standard and “Downtown” had been a major international hit for Clark in 1964. FS sounds comfortable breezing through “Call Me” but he seems to have disdain for “Downtown” which comes off weakly. Frank even manages to make an “ewww” sound during the recording. The other two contemporary-sounding numbers on this album would fare much better historically. The title track became Frank’s biggest chart hit, reaching the #1 slot on the pop charts, the easy listening charts and the UK singles chart. The song won Frank two Grammys and added a third for Best Arrangement for Ernie Freeman. “Summer Wind” appears second on the album after the title track. It topped the easy listening charts but only reached #25 on the pop charts. Through time, however, the song has become legendary as distinctly “Sinatra” and one of his most revered and referred to songs. These four tracks on the “Strangers” album were presented by arranger Nelson Riddle in a contemporary setting, emphasizing the rhythm section and a jazz organ Riddle utilized throughout the record. On the strength of the title track, “Strangers in the Night” has become Sinatra’s most successful and biggest-selling record and it ushered in a new pop/rock sound for the Chairman.

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Frank Sinatra’s records from the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s sound like sunset to me (Later That Day…). They just have a unique feel. They always bring to mind the era in which they were released and how, at that time, Frank was perhaps looked on as old fashioned. But he still had his legion of fans who hung on every word. I always feel like these fans literally traveled through their lives with Frank. In the late ’60’s, he was in his 50’s just like they were. The fans may have felt older and out of touch, like Frank was perceived. Maybe their kids had left the nest and they found themselves in a new era of their lives. Maybe they looked at their spouses differently. Maybe they felt a strain. But – like Bruce Springsteen a generation later – Frank was right there with them. To his fans, he was still the pinnacle. To me, there is all this story to these recordings. There is an oaken quality to them. They sounded like the times – which was a new thing for Frank, having presented the standards for all his life – and yet they sounded different than the other records being released at the time. There was a quality, a class about them. It’s hard for me to describe this feeling in words – you’re either going to feel it or you’re not. I say all this to explain that the Top Ten list that follows does not represent the ten best recordings of Frank’s from this era. They are the ten recordings that exemplify this feeling best. Subsequently, nothing from “She Shot Me Down” (1981) appears on the list although this is his last truly great album and features many stellar performances. There is nothing from his 1984 outing with Quincy Jones, “L.A. is My Lady”, mostly because it was generally a return to standards and contains a high ’80’s polish which goes against the vibe I get from these years. Of the two “Duets” albums I won’t even speak.

After “Strangers in the Night”, Frank continued to record good albums consisting of some of the best from the current crop of pop songwriters while still fitting in some traditional pop sounds. If you were to pick up any of these albums, you would hear exactly what I’ve been trying to get across to you. All of them are good but I can particularly suggest “Cycles” and “Watertown”. And I simply must say a word about Frank’s 1967 release “Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim”. Although the bossa nova craze of the early ’60’s had died down, Frank got together with the architect of that sound, Jobim, and recorded simply one of the greatest albums of his career. It is one of my all-time favourites and it features some of Frank’s best singing. It is a cruelly short album but is absolutely gorgeous. Again, the reason the songs don’t figure on my list is that they don’t fit the ‘vibe’ although they are some of the finest vocals of his career. Sinatra ‘retired’ for a year-and-a-half in 1971 and returned in ’73 with “Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back”. Over the next 11 years, he would record only four more albums. Without further ado, here are the ten recordings that best reveal the wonderful sound of Frank Sinatra between 1966 and 1984.

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10. “That’s Life” (1966 – from “That’s Life”) — A great example of that hybrid sound of Frank’s from this time: hip and current but still old school classy. This dynamic recording was released as a single and reached #5 on the pop charts in this era of the new rock sounds. Helping to make it sound hip was undoubtedly the personnel that played on it, consisting of some of the Wrecking Crew, the best studio musicians of the day: Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Plas Johnson and Darlene Love. Legend has it that producer Jimmy Bowen was looking for a certain sound from Sinatra for this song. He just wasn’t getting it but how do you tell Frank Sinatra that he’s not really doing it the way you want it? So, Jimmy decided to keep calling for additional takes which was sure to rile the Chairman. Sure enough, eventually Frank was ticked enough to growl through the record the way Bowen wanted. You can certainly hear it, especially near the end.

9. “Somewhere in Your Heart” (1964 – single, 1968 – from “Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits”) — Here’s a song that no one would ever call one of Frank’s best. It appears on this list partly in honour of “Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits”. The first album in Sinatra’s catalog to claim to be a ‘best of’, this album does not contain anywhere near his greatest hits. What it does contain is singles from the era that serve as perfect examples of the “feel” I was talking about. Non-descript, easy listening, adult pop. Mature, contemporary and almost bland, “Forget Domani”, “Tell Her (You Love Her Each Day)” and “When Somebody Loves You” are delightfully interesting to listen to in the proper context. “Somewhere in Your Heart” is the best of the bunch and, although it was released as a single in 1964, it contains that late ’60’s feel I love.

8. “I Will Drink the Wine” (1971 – from “Sinatra and Company”) — An odd album from Sinatra. It was supposed to be a follow-up to his legendary bossa nova album with Antonio Carlos Jobim but at the last minute it was changed. In the end we got a record with a first side of great new songs with Jobim and a second side of middle-of-the-road pop/rock. Sinatra covers “Leaving on a Jet Plane”,  “(Just Like Me They Long to Be) Close to You” and “Bein’ Green”. Two other songs on this side are “Sunrise in the Morning” and “I Will Drink the Wine”, which has some interesting lyrics. It’s as if Sinatra is passing on the whole hippie scene and longing for something more substantial: “Someone gave me some small flowers, I held them in my hand. I looked at them for many hours, I just didn’t understand…I’ll give you back your flowers and I will take the land. I will drink the wine”. This song went to #16 in the UK.

7. “There Used to Be a Ballpark” (1973 – from “Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back”) — Sinatra returned from a brief retirement with a new nickname. This album has a great title (Frank’s name doesn’t appear on the jacket) and a great photo on the cover. Interesting songs on this album. Some of them sound like showtunes; big songs with big sounds. Wordy with heavy orchestration. Ostentatious. Like other things in the 1970’s – neck ties, lapels, Robert Plant’s hair, Freddie Mercury’s voice – the songs here are audacious and brimming with bombast. Four of the nine songs were written by Joe Raposo, who wrote the aforementioned “Bein’ Green” for Kermit the Frog. “There Used to Be a Ballpark” is Raposo’s sad lament of a bygone era, the lyrics also perhaps serving as a commentary on Sinatra’s career at this point and the theme of this list. “And the sky has gotten cloudy when it used to be so clear. And the summer went so quickly this year…” It’s wonderfully orchestrated by Gordon Jenkins and the lyric reminds me – unfortunately – of “This Used to Be My Playground”.

6. “What’s Now is Now” (1970 – from “Watertown”) — Here is a bright, shining moment from a harrowing album. Sinatra gave birth to the “concept album” in the mid-’50’s and he returns to it here. “Watertown” is the heart-breaking story of a man losing his wife and the mother of his two children to the lure of the big city. The songs were co-written and produced by Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons. It is Frank’s only album to not crack the Top 100 and it’s the only time in his career that he did not record live with an orchestra – he added his vocals to pre-recorded tracks. The album is absolutely crushing to listen to. The ending, devastating. “What’s Now is Now” is a wonderful song that lives outside the album due to it’s inclusion on “Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2” (1972).

5. “Let Me Try Again (Laisse-moi le temps)” (1973 – from “Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back”) — Ottawa’s Paul Anka had a knack for adding English lyrics to French melodies. Four years before this, he had added hopelessly pompous words to a French song called “Comme d’habitude” and handed it to Frank as “My Way”. That song may be the one most people identify with Frank but Frank didn’t like it much and neither do true Sinatraphiles. “Let Me Try Again” has a wonderful melody and it fits well on it’s album owing to it’s grand presentation. Arranged by Don Costa, it is well orchestrated and powerfully sung.

4. “Anytime (I’ll Be There)” (1975 – single) — And here’s Paul Anka again. Paul wrote this one all by himself and Frank put it out as a single in 1975. Full-on, mid-’70’s pop/rock. Female back-up singers pushed forward, strings in the back. Most Sinatra-types likely have no use for this obscure song. For me, it exemplifies the whole aura of Sinatra at this time. When I hear it, I can see the 1975 of my childhood. I see the sun coming up, the market opening for the day, the Italian barbers turning on their lights, stepping out onto the sidewalk. I can’t help but wonder who bought this single when it came out and why? What were they thinking when they bought it and when they played it? Who likes the song now and why? It’s a nugget buried so deep. My mother and stepfather used to run a bar. There was an old jukebox there and this record was in it. When I would hear it, it always amazed me that it was Frank Sinatra. A fascinating and pleasant record.

3. “Love’s Been Good to Me” (1969 – from “A Man Alone”) — In 1969, Sinatra put out this album featuring the songs of poet Rod McKuen. McKuen was at his peak popularity in 1969 and many of his songs had been recorded by numerous artists. His world-weary, emotional lyrics often lamenting lost love were a perfect fit for Sinatra at this time. “Love’s Been Good to Me” is a song that looks back on a life lived in a more realistic and melancholy way than the bombastic narcissism of “My Way”. Recounting loves past in a voice resigned to living without someone, a voice that accepts past joys with the full knowledge that they may never come again. The knowledge that nothing really lasting and good came out of them but they were satisfying at the time. The singer can still look back with gratitude even though he has nothing now to show for it. Nothing but memories. Another lovely melody and a sensitive and moving orchestration by Don Costa. Johnny Cash had the good sense, late in his life, to record this tender ballad.

2. “Cycles” (1968 – from “Cycles”) — This album has been savaged by critics as ‘wimp rock’ but this song speaks to me in the same way that “Love’s Been Good to Me” does. Indeed, “Cycles” serves as sort of a companion piece to the McKuen song. Both speak about the vagaries of life and love. I’m not deaf; I know “Cycles” is a little cornball and the lyrics come off as sounding pathetic but I think that here again Frank sounds weary, as if he is comforting the listener by telling us he has been there, too. Maybe it is a bit wimpy to say “So I’m down and so I’m out…” but the fact is that sentiment is real and the travails he mentions in this song are ones dealt with by all of us. A tinkling piano starts us off in waltz time and the orchestra builds as the song goes on. It’s just life but it hurts. And then it doesn’t. Cycles. Very emotive singing; listen to his voice on “I got fired”.

1. “Summer Wind” (1966 – from “Strangers in the Night”) — This is where I came in. This is the first Frank Sinatra song I ever heard. Before I was into Frank I was into Mickey Rourke and he made a film called “The Pope of Greenwich Village” that dealt with small time Irish/Italian Mafia. “Summer Wind” was used three times in the film and I watched the film several times, usually in autumn. I tried earlier to explain my whole “oaken quality” thing regarding Frank songs from this era and here is where that feeling originated. “The Pope” was made in 1984 so the small time criminals had an ’80’s look to them. I was more used to Mafia movies like “The Godfather” that take place in the ’50’s and ’60’s. So, here I’m seeing the depiction of a ‘crew’ long after the glory days of the Mob have passed. But they’re still doing their thing. Still doing gangster stuff and still listening to Sinatra. Even though by the 1980’s the ship had sailed on so many cool things of mid-century, Sinatra still meant something. There was something about that ’80’s visual paired with this gem from 1966 that really stayed with me whenever it came to latter-day Sinatra. It helped that the film was set in autumn and I watched it in autumn. That seems to go hand-in-hand with my feelings on Sinatra and the ‘autumn’ of his career. The song itself is an absolute classic. It was up second on the “Strangers” album after that celebrated title track. But it was “Summer Wind”, as the years went on, that emerged as the true favourite, the one everybody loved. Again, here’s older, wearier Frank singing about loves coming and going. The wind blows in gently – is there a more pleasing opening 15 seconds in any other Sinatra song? – reaches a peak and then drifts off; a “fickle friend”, indeed. This was Nelson Riddle’s last album with Frank and his use of organ and saxophone on this track are part of what makes it their greatest collaboration of the ’60’s. Going by feeling alone, this is Frank Sinatra’s greatest single recording. It’s the first one I ever heard and my absolute favourite. (Historical note: cool enough to be used in “Blade Runner 2049”)

 

This has been really fun for me. I really appreciate all of you who have read these posts.

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“May you live to be 100 and may the last voice you hear be mine.”

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Frank Sinatra, music, Top Ten List

The Best of Everything Part 3: Frank’s World

It’s 1953 and Frank Sinatra is at the bottom. Like…the bottom. The public doesn’t like that he left his wife and kids to be with Ava Gardner. Mitch Miller at Columbia figures Frank is done so it’s time to sing with dogs. On stage – playing to a half-empty house – Frank’s voice gives out: “dust” comes out, he says later. A new batch of singers is eclipsing his popularity: Johnny Ray, Frankie Laine, Perry Como. Frank marries Ava but they battle constantly and this takes a toll on his health. And yet… There’s buzz around Hollywood that Sinatra’s work in the in-production “From Here to Eternity” is stellar. And there are a couple of very astute men working for Capitol Records who feel Frank still has it and they plan to bring him on board and pair him with a young arranger named Nelson Riddle. When they do, the rest, as they say…

Long story short: Sinatra wins the Oscar for “From Here to Eternity”. Then, he records “I’ve Got the World on a String” with a vibrant chart from Nelson and effectively declares his return. Not only with a vocal full of character and life but with an attitude and a declaration of intent. The very title of this number states his creed. Here, in Part Three of this series, Sinatra’s work starting with joining Capitol in 1953 and ending at a proposed pivot point in the spring of 1966 is explored. It is an era of supreme dominance in all areas of celebrity by Sinatra. Here, of course, we are focusing on his recordings and the way in which they repainted the landscape of popular song craft. This story will be told by looking at seminal recordings from this era and also at the albums he recorded that became hallmarks of genius and definitive representations of the pinnacles of artistry.

Sinatra arriving at Capitol coincided with the Long Playing 33 1/3 RPM album becoming the standard of the industry. Sinatra embraced this format immediately putting out his first long-player at Capitol. Ever wonder why “Strangers in the Night” is usually the only song of Sinatra’s people can name? Because there are few other single songs they are aware of. He was NOT a ‘singles artist’. Sure, he had chart hits but he didn’t burn up the singles charts. He never had a gold record (million dollars in sales) until 1966 (“Strangers”). He used to joke with Princess Grace that she had a gold record (“True Love” with Bing Crosby) before he did. And that perfectly illustrates my point – it was about the package, the album, the ‘tale’. He was an auteur, a storyteller and it took him longer than 3 minutes to tell his story whether it was one of jubilation or one of suicidal despair. However, you can point to sublime moments found on these albums as prime examples of a singer’s art. Briefly, a word on the albums themselves. If you really want the skinny on the Chairman of the Board, go out and buy “In the Wee Small Hours” (1955) and “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!” (1956). With the former, you get a torch album that is perfect. It has a mood and a tone coupled with Nelson Riddle’s subtle orchestrations and topped off by Frank at perhaps his best. His voice is expressive and desolate without being sappy. On the latter, you get another Sinatra/Riddle combination that is perfect. This time, the jams get kicked out. Never has a singer been presented in a more ideal setting. “To swing” is defined for a new age. This is the album that all traditional vocal albums after it have aspired to. A similar twosome was presented in 1958 with the releases of “Come Fly With Me” and “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely”. “Come Fly” has maybe the greatest album cover of the era and it is rare for Frank in that it mixes ballads with uptempo numbers. “Lonely” is a torch album, yes. But here the landscape has been absolutely leveled. Where “Wee Small” presents resigned depression, “Lonely” showcases open-wound suicidal despair. To wrap up great albums from this era, Frank’s second outing with Count Basie – “It Might As Well Be Swing” – is the aural representation of a strutting, suit-wearing, hat-tilting, finger-snapping, life-living time. “The Capitol Collectors Series” offers a great sampler of some better-known singles from this era. It’s actually the first FS CD I ever bought. Here are your Top 20 Sinatra recordings from 1953 to 1966: the “swinger” era.

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20. “Falling in Love With Love” (1961 – from “Sinatra Swings”/”Swing Along With Me”) — Someone says to you “explain Sinatra to me”. Tracks like this are a great start. Nothing spectacular just 1 minute and 49 seconds of breezy, fluid, languid, cool, confident singing. The best example? No, but a fine starting point.

19. “I’ve Got the World on a String” (1953 – single) — The song that reintroduced Frank to the world. Not the first song he recorded upon arriving at Capitol but the first one that declared his intent. Confident singing, brash lyrics. The first song that gave us the Frank we know from the ’50’s and ’60’s.

18. “Mood Indigo” (1955 – from “In the Wee Small Hours”) — This Ellington song is second on the album after the title track. Just a wonderful performance that helps set you up emotionally for the long journey into night to come.

17. “You Make Me Feel So Young” (1956 – from “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!”) — Like #20, this track is just textbook Sinatra. This particular recording is celebrated all the more because it is the perfect kick-off for the greatest album ever made in this idiom.

16. “Nice ‘n’ Easy” (1960 – from “Nice ‘n’ Easy”) — One of the better singles from the Capitol years, this one’s title says it all. Frank is chill and this one stands out partly because you can hear him snapping his fingers. A rare case of a single being used as a title track for an album. Unfortunately in this case, the rest of the songs on the album are slow ballads – as opposed to the cool/breezy title track – from the Columbia era.

15. “(Love Is) The Tender Trap” (1955 – single) — From the film of the same name, this one benefits from it’s association with that excellent movie featuring Debbie Reynolds and Celeste Holm. Great lyrics and another great swinger. FS revisited it years later on his first album with Count Basie.

14. “Come Rain or Come Shine” (1962 – from “Sinatra and Strings”) — A moody, elegant and powerful reading of a dramatic song. Showcases Sinatra’s ability to emote and “act out” a lyric.

13. “The Song is You” (1959 – from “Come Dance With Me!”) — “I alone have heard this lovely strain…” Such a wonderfully sung line from one of the most satisfying uptempo numbers of Frank’s career. A straight-up swinger from an album that won three Grammys and stayed on the charts for 140 weeks!

12. “Hello, Dolly!” (1964 – from “It Might As Well Be Swing”) — Talk about a swinger. This track is almost heavy metal. With shout-outs to Louis Armstrong, Frank and “Splank” (Basie – check the cover) and Co. absolutely blast their way through this. It is as energetic and hard-driving as anything FS did. Smokin’!

11. “This Was My Love” (1960 – b side of “Nice ‘n’ Easy” single) — The “No One Cares” album was an early Frank purchase for me. I was really thrown by the fact it was all ballads. Once I got over that, “This Was My Love” – included as a bonus track – really bowled me over. Such quiet, tender singing from The Swinger and such a sumptuous orchestration. Gorgeous. “Others may cherish fortune or fame. I will forever cherish her name”.

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10. “Ring a-Ding-Ding” (1961 – from “Ring-a-Ding-Ding”) — One of a handful of tracks that can be used to perfectly describe Sinatra and his world at this time. The boys had their own language and this phrase meant “let’s go, let’s get it on, let’s party!”. Frank had his songwriter’s come up with a lyric and he swung through it on this his first album release for his newly created label, Reprise Records.

9. “All the Way” (1957 – single from the film “The Joker is Wild”) — One of the more popular singles for the Chairman. Introduced by Frank in the movie in which he portrayed comedian Joe E. Lewis, this tune won the Oscar that year for Best Original Song. A wonderful string-laden chart and strong singing. This one is very “Sinatra” and has been covered dozens of times.

8. “Come Fly With Me” (1958 – from “Come Fly With Me”) — Similar to “Ring-a-Ding-Ding”, this is a textbook swinger and theme for Sinatra. It’s also very of it’s time, being from the era of continental jet-setting. The lyrics urge the young lady to board the plane and throw caution to the wind. This one is also very “Sinatra” in attitude. In a later recording for Reprise, he sneaks in “and don’t tell your mama” at the end.

7. “It Was a Very Good Year” (1965 – from “September of My Years”) — Another song that is readily identified with Frank. In 1965, he turned 50 and marked the occasion with this album of songs sung from the perspective of a middle aged man looking back. In many ways, the album was an end point of sorts and ushered in a more mature sound as Sinatra led his legion of fans into the ‘September of their years’. The song itself features another stunning chart from Gordon Jenkins. Originally a folk song, Jenkins loaded this version with lush strings that state a phrase that grows in resonance as the song goes on. The lyrics are poignant and this song is a unique triumph in Sinatra’s oeuvre.

6. “Ol’ Man River” (1963 – from “The Concert Sinatra”) — I’m actually coming to this song late in my life and my journey through Frank’s music. “The Concert Sinatra” was an ambitious undertaking from Frank and Nelson Riddle. Frank had always been interested in longer song forms and this was his chance to embrace his highbrow aspirations and record eight songs with a larger-than-normal orchestra. The timeless “Ol’ Man River” is just one example of the many high points on this record (“Lost in the Stars”). A showpiece of mammoth proportions, Sinatra cements his reputation as a serious and gifted vocalist with his performance here. The dark wood quality of his voice was never brought to the fore in a more spellbinding setting than this. Truly remarkable. Headphones suggested.

5. “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” (1958 – from “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely”) — Those who know, know. This is the track. The performance that displays what makes Sinatra Sinatra more than any other. He’d tell you himself; at heart, he was a saloon singer. He sang in the dead of night, after the joint had closed. And this was the song. When he sang this live, it was showtime. He was lit by a single spot, lit a cigarette and sang while just his pianist, Bill Miller, played. This is Sinatra. “It’s quarter to three. There’s no one in the place except you and me…” (This song was recently featured in the film “Blade Runner 2049”)

4. “Fly Me to the Moon” (1964 – from “It Might as Well Be Swing”) — Meanwhile, in outer space… On a lighter note, here we are again at yet another lesson in swing from Francis and Bill Basie. Finger-snapping, grinning, head-bobbing perfection. In 1964, Frank’s version was played on the Apollo 10 mission that orbited the Moon. Five years later, it became the first music heard on the Moon when Buzz Aldrin took a portable cassette player with him when he stepped onto the Moon. Outta sight.

3. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” (1955 – from “In the Wee Small Hours”) — In my opinion, his finest torch song. It’s the lyric: “In the wee small hours of the morning, when the whole, wide world is fast asleep, you lie awake and think about the girl…”. It’s the gentle Nelson Riddle arrangement: not grandiose or dramatic but quiet. An orchestra but a small orchestra. It’s the album cover: Frank, alone on a street corner in the middle of the night, no one around. For me, this is the perfect track to set up the perfect album of songs of lost love. Indeed, it sets up a long career of singing for the lonely in the wee smalls.

2. “The Way You Look Tonight” (1964 – from “Days of Wine and Roses, Moon River and Other Academy Award Winners”) — Kind of out of the blue, on an album with a ridiculously long name, Frank puts on a clinic. He ‘plays’ his voice like an instrument here. It’s an amazing vocal. And you know what? Nelson Riddle… Listen how he starts things off with tooting saxophones and those gorgeous muted trumpets. Frank here sings effortlessly. The man is 49 years old and yet he sings it breezy, light and youthful – and those reeds tooting all the while behind him. Not enough is said about this wonderful recording, this wonderful melding of Frank and Nelson, voice and orchestra.

1. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (1956 – from “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!”) — Commonly referred to as Frank’s shining moment, the absolute pinnacle of his craft. His appeal, everything that we love about Frank is embodied in this recording. FS chose the songs and arranger Nelson Riddle for this album of uptempo numbers. A great many legends surround Frank’s recording of this song. He was a busy man and moved fast. This often put pressure on his arrangers to have charts ready when it came time to record. One legend claims that, called into action suddenly one night during recording of the “Swingin’ Lovers” album, Nelson finished up this arrangement in the back seat of a car as he was being driven to the recording studio. Another one states that after the band had learned the chart and ran through it the first time, the musicians gave Riddle a standing ovation. What is undoubtedly true is that the arrangement is commonly held as the zenith of the collaboration between Frank and Nelson. The chart features a general building – a crescendo – in terms boldly stated by the horn section. And then there is trombonist Milt Bernhart. His four-bar solo riding the crest of the climax of this crescendo has been singled out as a definitive moment in Frank’s recording career. It is exceedingly energetic and has been described as “startlingly out-of-control”. It “has become one of the most widely heard trombone statements in history…(it was) something hysterical, something historical”. All things considered, the recording is the preeminent example of high art in this idiom. Scholar Will Friedwald has gone so far as to suggest that Bobby Darin based the entire ‘lounge singer’ portion of his career on this one recording.

Up Next: The Long Journey Into Evening…

 

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