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, singing, Top Ten List

The Best of Everything Part 2: Sinatra Goes Solo

There was only ever going to be one path for Frank Sinatra. While he enjoyed tremendous success with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Frank was single-minded enough to feel the need to go it alone. Trouble was, singers simply didn’t do that in 1942. As I’ve said before, the comfortable place for a singer to be in this era was as part of a big band. Solo singers, while not unheard of (Al Jolson), were certainly not the norm. Sinatra informed Dorsey he was leaving. Dorsey reportedly said “I hope you fall on your ass”. There is lots of interesting ‘story’ to their parting which you should look up and read. Sinatra took his Dorsey arranger, Axel Stordahl, with him and began making his own records for Columbia.

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The years 1943-1952 warrant their own story as these years are a unique mini-era in Sinatra’s career. The Columbia sides are an origin story of sorts for me. In the early ’90’s, as I was just beginning to discover jazz and traditional pop, I really had no clue what artists to look for. I wasn’t even really sure what it was I was after: jazz, pop vocals, funk, lounge. All I knew was that something else was going on in the ’50’s besides Elvis Presley and Little Richard. And I knew who Sinatra was. The first music I owned as I began to ‘look elsewhere’ was Harry Connick, Jr.’s “Star Turtle” album (New Orleans funk), the soundtrack to the Clint Eastwood film on Thelonious Monk, “Straight, No Chaser” (jazz) and a cassette that made up half of a box set devoted to Frank’s Columbia-era recordings. Subsequently, I knew and loved some of these lesser known recordings before I knew the more popular Capitol songs of the 1950’s.

The reason this era is often overlooked is because, almost from the moment he went out on his own, Frank Sinatra’s career went into a general decline. The material and Frank’s ability to deliver were both at their lowest point. It’s hard to believe but, for myriad reasons that you should look up and explore, for a time in the early ’50’s it looked as if Frank was just a flash in the pan. A singer who flamed brightly with a popular big band but one that couldn’t sustain his momentum as a single. Also, in this era of high moral standards, Sinatra’s personal life was in turmoil. He had left his wife, Nancy, and was in a tumultuous relationship with one of the most beautiful and popular actresses of the time, Ava Gardner. At this time in history, such a lifestyle could be very damaging to a career as the public demanded a certain decorum from it’s stars. Frank’s stormy relationship with Ava had it’s effect on his talent and his judgement. This was also the time of the ‘novelty’ song; screwy songs with hokey lyrics about inane subjects. While Frank did descend into madness with the recording of the infamous “Mama Will Bark”, he was generally incapable of ‘dumbing down’ his aspirations to be the best and he found there was little room and a lesser acceptance of high quality vocalizing. Also though, the sound emanating from his throat was certainly not what it used to be. Amidst all this tumult, Frank persisted but, after some strong years in the mid-1940’s, he found his popularity – and his craft – was waning.

If you explore the recordings he made in this era, however, you will find another segment of Sinatra’s career that brings immense pleasure and warm feelings. Similar to his big band recordings, the Columbia sides make for wonderful living room/rocking chair listening. It’s an era often overlooked due to Sinatra’s general decline but, while the recordings may not stand up under critical scrutiny, they are really fun to listen to as a fan. And that’s the essence of this era: still great from a fan’s perspective but lackluster from a critical standpoint. I can highly recommend “The Complete Recordings: The Columbia Years 1943-1952”. It’s on iTunes for $100 and I see one on eBay for $130. It’s close to 300 tracks. For a sampler, there is “The Best of the Columbia Years”. 4 CDs. I see it, used, on Amazon for about $90. Here are your top ten Frank Sinatra recordings from the time between leaving Dorsey in 1943 and joining Capitol Records ten years later.

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10. Dream” (1945) — If you read part one, you know that a lot of Frank’s early material has tremendous nostalgic appeal. If you’re a fan of the ’40’s and ’50’s, this music takes you right there. “Dream” is the perfect example of this. It seems to shimmer as it descends from the heavens. Written by the great Johnny Mercer, it was a #5 song for Frank. He would revisit it – as he would many of this era’s songs – on 1960’s “Nice ‘n’ Easy”.

9. April in Paris” (1950) — Everything I said for “Dream” I could say here. Another standard that young Frank sings wonderfully: “…no one could ever repriiiiise”. Absolutely gorgeous. Frank recorded it again seven years later for his “Come Fly With Me” album for Capitol. Also a signature song for the Count Basie Orchestra.

8. Castle Rock” (1951 – with Harry James) — Here we have a real barn-burner. Columbia had the idea to re-team Sinatra with his old boss, Harry James, for three songs – two of which appear on this list. “Castle Rock” was an explosion of energy arranged by Ray Conniff. Sinatra and James both tear into this number, both sounding tremendous. Personal note: as I said, at this point in my life I owned very little of this music, Sinatra and Harry Connick among early purchases. Connick was known for singing standards in what could be called a ‘Sinatra vein’. Just before a James solo on “Castle Rock”, Frank exhorts the trumpeter to “go get ’em, Harry, for ol’ times sake!”. When I first heard this – not knowing Harry James was playing on it – I thought it was eerie that Sinatra seemed to be giving Harry Connick his blessing! Historical note: Harry James didn’t think much of this number. He called it “the worse thing that either one of us ever recorded”. I beg to differ, Harry.

7. “Sweet Lorraine” (1946) — You can’t really call Frank Sinatra a ‘jazz singer’. Except on numbers like this. Sinatra’s vocal ‘swings like a mother’ in this early example of his using his voice like an instrument; his phrasing and timing are perfect. Also perfect? “The Metronome All-Stars” jazz ensemble that backed him on this track. There are many great solos here and some great piano playing by a pre-superstar Nat ‘King’ Cole. “Sweet Lorraine” would also become a signature tune of his.

6. “Deep Night”  (1951 – with Harry James) — Another of the three numbers cut by the reunited Sinatra and James. This one – like the title suggests – is perfect late-night listening. Wonderful cadence and flow to Sinatra’s vocal and James summons up all the noir nuances possible in three minutes. Like he’s standing on the fire escape blowing over the alley. At one point, all the brass players join him in a few blasting notes before Frank comes sauntering back in: “Coooome to my arms, my darling…”.

5. “Saturday Night (is the Loneliest Night of the Week)”  (1944) — If you’re making a playlist of this era of Sinatra – and you’re not going chronologically – this is the song you start with. Not only for it’s blast-out-of-the-gates opening but for it’s lively horn arrangement and Frank’s swinging performance. This was one of his most notable uptempo numbers from this era. Great fun.

4. “Autumn in New York” (1949) — Much like “April in Paris”, here is a gorgeous song that Frank puts his quality stamp on. He would also revisit this on “Come Fly With Me”. Lovely string arrangement takes you right to a sidewalk in post-war Manhattan, golden leaves falling to the ground. Another standard, Frank’s is the only version to have charted in the States; number 27 in 1949.

3. “You Can Take My Word for It, Baby” (1946) — Sinatraphiles will look askance at this one ranking so high. On this little known track, Frank is backed by the Page Cavanaugh Trio, a group who borrowed heavily from the style of the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio. Critics would lump this one among the lighter tripe that Sinatra recorded at this time in an effort to recapture the spark of his fading presence at the fore of pop music. I just think this tune drips with charm and is indicative of what is so good about this era of cozy, pleasant little ditties. It’s a wonderful light jazz performance.

2. “I’m a Fool to Want You” (1951) — Again, this tune not being #1 would cause me to suffer at the hands of music critics. Admittedly, if you had to pick 4 or 5 songs throughout Sinatra’s career that serve as signposts of where his craft was at a given time, this would be the brightest light of the pre-Capitol era. Some context is necessary to fully appreciate this recording. At this point in his life, Frank was smack in the middle of his tumultuous relationship with Ava Gardner. With similar personalities, the two stars would battle constantly. Frank felt everything in life deeply and when things were bad with Ava it greatly affected him. One of the few songs for which he has a songwriting credit, the Sinatra legend tells of him tweaking the lyrics to better reflect his situation with Ava. Another legend goes that, nearing desolation, Frank went into the studio late at night, laid down his gut-wrenching, emotional vocal in one take and walked out the same door, off into the dark night. Whether or not the one-take thing is true, what is true is that this is one of the most heartfelt performances of his illustrious career. He did revisit this for his “Where Are You?” album of 1957 but I don’t know why. His original ‘sounds’ like an open wound. Historical note: most Sinatra people will know of the absolute low point of Sinatra’s recording career, the novelty song “Mama Will Bark”. This abomination, recorded with non-singing actress Dagmar and actual dogs, was released as a single in 1951 – with “I’m a Fool to Want You” on the B side. Inexplicable.

1. “Poinciana” (1946) — Here, again, Sinatra people are going ‘what??!!‘. And here, again, I say it’s all about the charm. Frank’s only recording of this Cuban melody drifts into your consciousness subtly, seemingly from out of the ether. If you’re on a classic episode of “The Twilight Zone” and there’s an old radio in your grandmother’s attic that can transport you back in time, this recording is coming out of the speaker. There is a certain quality in this recording. Sometimes, yes, it’s a positive to say that a song is ‘timeless’ but, sometimes, what you really want is a song that is stuck in it’s time, is so very of it’s time. “Poinciana” is that song for me. It is just delightful. Frank’s plaintive “poiiiinciana…” is complimented by a lilting flute and sweeping strings. It’s dreamy.

Up Next: Frank Takes Over the World

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music, Nat King Cole, singing, Top Ten List

But Beautiful: Your Guide to Nat Cole

If pressed, a lot of people nowadays, but certainly not all, could name three or four singers of American popular standards. One name they would probably be able to come up with would be Nat ‘King’ Cole. Most people would know the name, the fact that Natalie Cole was his daughter and that he sang Christmas music. But there is SO much more going on with Nat Cole that needs to be known and appreciated. As opposed to an in depth look at his life and career, what I propose to present is a quick run-through, focusing on the wonderful music he recorded and how it varied throughout his tenure as one of the smoothest voices in popular song. Lastly, I’d like to run down, in order, the ten greatest recordings of the man born Nathaniel Coles.

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There are a few key things about Nat Cole that I would present to a beginner who is wanting to know what all the fuss is about and who is wanting to know what to listen to based on their interests. The first thing I like to point out – the thing that perhaps makes Cole cooler than anything else – is that, at the beginning of his career, he was a jazz pianist. And he was good. He was a student of the recordings of the great Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and Cole was considered one of the leading jazz pianists of the late 1940’s-early 1950’s. So much so that he was the featured pianist on the original “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts originated by Norman Granz that featured all-star line-ups of the finest jazz musicians in the land. Also notable is the make-up of Cole’s early trio – piano, guitar and bass. Those three instruments in particular (no drums) was a unique set up especially in the big band era and it was emulated by many combos that emerged later. It’s amazing to think that, with a voice like his, Nat originally sang only occasionally. Legend has it that he sang live for the first time because a drunken customer demanded it. Nat sang “Sweet Lorraine” and was tipped 15 cents. The recordings of the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio – with or without vocals – are wonderful. They present perfect, smooth, small combo jazz. It’s only Nat’s tremendous success later as a vocalist that somewhat relegates this part of his career to the background. In 1942, songwriter Johnny Mercer founded Capitol Records and a year later Johnny signed Nat and the trio to the label and they began enjoying great success there. The trio was so successful that the revenue from their record sales propelled Capitol to the forefront of the record business, allowing them to build the famous Capitol Tower as a home base. The world’s first circular office building is often referred to as ‘the House That Nat Built’.

By the early-to-mid 1950’s, Nat had – unfortunately, some jazz purists lamented – jettisoned the small group sound and stepped to the fore as one of the premier proponents of the smooth vocal pop tune with orchestral accompaniment. In 1953, Nat scored a hit of immortal proportions with his first recording with an orchestra: “The Christmas Song”. Many hit singles followed and Nat was paired with all the major arrangers of the day: Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May. He delivered album after album of sublime vocals. Indeed, you could look at Nat Cole as an ‘album artist’. Yes, he placed many tunes on the charts (28 top 40 hits between 1954 and 1964) but his main contribution to traditional pop or jazz vocal is a string of excellent albums with great arrangers and attractive album covers.

Nat Cole was a pioneering black entertainer. He became one of the first African American’s to host his own show – “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show” aired for a year starting in 1956. The show was well done and featured many big stars of the day but it could not maintain sponsorship as many brands were hesitant to support so visibly a black artist, even one as universally loved as Nat Cole. Finally, Nat had to shut the show down. Referring to the inability to maintain sponsorship, Nat quipped notably “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark”. Nat was a quiet and gentle crusader for equal rights. He was an inspiration to all black entertainers at the time. Nat had married singer Maria Ellington and eventually had five children, two of them adopted. During his peak years, Nat moved his family to a affluent neighbourhood in Los Angeles where they were met with hostility from their neighbours. Nat attended a community meeting at which a spokesmen boldly stood up and proclaimed that the area did not want any “undesirables”. Nat responded by rising and saying “Neither do I. If I see any undesirables, I’ll let you know”. Nat’s home was vandalized (racial slurs burned into the lawn) and a family pet was killed (poison meat thrown over the fence). Nat soldiered on, dignity intact.

Into the 1960s, Nat began to work with lesser known arrangers and orchestrators. The results yielded many additional hits – “Ramblin’ Rose”, “Dear Lonely Hearts”, “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” – but the old-timey, sing-along quality of this period represented the nadir of Nat’s recordings. Even still, with his vocal charm, he was able to squeeze out a couple more charming tracks. He does a version of “The Girl from Ipanema” on the last album released during his lifetime that is excellent and “Let Me Tell You Babe” is a track released after his death that purists probably hate as it has a late-60’s-pop-soft-rock sound to it but I like it. Throughout his career, Nat had been one of the sharpest dressed cats in the business, always in a sharp suit or sweater, sometimes sporting a fedora – and always, but always, smoking a cigarette in a cigarette holder. This wretched vice became the undoing of Nat ‘King’ Cole. You have to understand that – and if you look into it, you’ll see it’s true – everybody loved Nat Cole. All reports indicate that there was not a classier person in show business. A loving husband and father, he quietly blazed a trail for black artists and was a genuine human being. When Nat fell ill in the early 1960’s, many friends and associates expressed their concern to him. The hazards of nicotine were not as widely known as they are today and people were simply worried that his constant smoking would wreck his voice and his health. A visit to the doctor confirmed a lung cancer diagnosis. The historic Surgeon General’s report confirming the negative effects of cigarette smoke was issued in January of 1964. Nat Cole received his death sentence 9 months later. The disease progressed rapidly and Nat was confined to hospital. He left one last time for an afternoon drive in February of ’65 looking gaunt and aged. He graciously allowed photographers to take pictures of him and his wife outside the hospital. As Mr. and Mrs. Cole drove away, the photographers wept.

Nat ‘King’ Cole died on Valentines Day, 1965. In his last days, he reportedly pressed his doctors to get him well so that he could tell people to quit smoking. His cancer death – along with the Surgeon’s General report – were early events in the worldwide crusade against the evils of smoking and it’s link to cancer. While he was not without his transgressions, Nat Cole was truly and dearly loved by his family, his friends, all of his contemporaries, the press, the recording industry and fans the world over. His legacy is unique and his gifts to all of us are immense.

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Let’s return to that which never dies; the music. You have to be careful with record companies. They will often stick with an established and well-known group of songs and – with little deviation – reissue these tracks ad nauseum. Beware the many redundant ‘greatest hits’ packages. It seems, with Cole, that many of his most popular “hits” are actually some of his most mediocre recordings. Keep in mind that, as you scan this list, you may not see songs you thought you would. In compiling this list, I took many things into consideration and I found that sometimes ‘immense worldwide familiarity’ did not necessarily indicate a quality recording. Not only are there many Cole songs you know by heart and you don’t need me to tell you about them but also, as I’ve said, the recordings embraced by the masses don’t always represent high quality material. Helping you to know what is good based on what you like (trio jazz or pop vocal) is the goal of this list of the ten greatest recordings of Nat ‘King’ Cole.

10. “Baby, Baby All the Time” (1946)  This track from the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio was written by Bobby Troup. I notice that the little known Troup penned two songs in this top ten. Better known as the husband of chanteuse Julie London and as Dr. Joe Early on “Emergency!”, Troup wrote jazzy little numbers for small jazz combo settings and Cole and company introduced this track which quickly became a jazz standard. It’s gentle gait and pleading lyrics are straight down the Trio’s alley. It’s a cozy piece that serves as a delightful example of what Cole and his trio did best.

9.  “That’s All” (1953)  Written in 1952 by singer Dick Haymes’ younger brother, Bob, here’s another standard that was introduced by Nat. This song is unique in that it really had no initial ‘hit’ phase and instead went straight to ‘standard’. Bobby Darin helped popularize it when he presented it as the energetic title track of a 1959 album. Nat’s version was one of his early successes with the great conductor and arranger Nelson Riddle. Riddle’s name is synonymous with the very best recordings of Frank Sinatra but the Chairman himself has said that it was Nat’s records with Nelson like “That’s All” that made him want to work with the arranger. This recording of Cole’s is sublime and is an early example of him plying the sound that would become his trademark.

8. “Answer Me, My Love” (1954)   This song has it’s origins as a German piece to which English lyrics were added. It was a hit in 1953 for both David Whitfield and Frankie Laine. Another of Cole’s outings with Nelson Riddle, Nat had the best-selling version of the song which was popular throughout 1954. It is another marriage of the very finest of Cole’s ballad singing and absolutely gorgeous strings and orchestra directed by Riddle. The chorus of white, female voices detracts from it only slightly. Like “That’s All” before it, this track is quintessential, sigh-worthy Nat Cole balladry. Celestial.

7. “Sweet Lorraine” (rec. December 15, 1943)  Perhaps the oldest song on this list, “Sweet Lorraine” was written in the late 1920’s and featured lyrics by Mitchell Parish who also contributed the words to such perennials as “Stardust”, “Moonlight Serenade” and “Sleigh Ride”. It is another song that has become a jazz standard. This is a significant recording in Nat Cole’s oeuvre. Earlier recordings than the 1943 edition I’ve chosen here represent the first of Nat Cole’s truly fine vocals. Singing this song early on in clubs gave audiences their first taste of Cole’s fine voice and provided him with an opportunity and the confidence to hone his vocal skills. This Trio recording from ’43 – like “Baby, Baby…” – is just another fine example of this small group at it’s subtly swinging best. You can notice a slight lisp that never gave Nat much of a problem – except when he sang “Sweet Lorraine”. Listen for him to sing “I’m as happy as a baby boy playing with a brand new choo-choo choy” – as opposed to “toy”. Three years after this recording, Frank Sinatra recorded a version also employing the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio’s intimate sound. After Cole’s death, Tony Bennett sang “Sweet Lorraine” in tribute on his “If I Ruled the World: Songs for the Jet Set” album (1965).

6. “L-O-V-E” (1964)  Our first selection on this list from the latter part of Cole’s career. Actually, the last part. “L-O-V-E” is the title track of the final album of Nat’s to be released during his lifetime. He finished making the album with his final recording sessions in December of ’64. This means that this swinging number was recorded so sublimely by Nat when he was already sick with the disease that would take his life only months later. This track was written by legendary German Bandleader Bert Kaempfert and Nat, again, was the first to sing it. Although any list of the finest recordings of Nat ‘King’ Cole will undoubtedly be laden with ballads, the cat could swing, as this song attests. It starts off gently trotting and sounding like Bobby Darin’s “Hello, Dolly!” and then – also like the Darin track – builds to a brash climax. It is a joy to sing along to and is a prime example of how good Cole was at uptempo material.

5. “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” (1946)  I realized as I was compiling this list that Nat Cole can give Fred Astaire a run for his money when it comes to introducing some of the most enduring songs in the history of American popular music. Here he is again with his Trio being the first to record another standard written by Bobby Troup. In this case, the song is considered to be an R&B standard and has been covered by an extensive and varied list of artists: Bing Crosby, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Them, Depeche Mode, the Cramps and John Mayer. Cole’s first version with his trio is an uptempo swinger featuring lyrics about traveling the expanse of the American country side on the famed highway. It is one of the very few quintessential Cole recordings not only in terms of quality but also popularity. An absolute delight featuring Cole in great voice and displaying his light-fingered chops on the keys.

4. “Straighten Up and Fly Right” (1943)  A companion piece to “Route 66”.  Many similarities exist between these two seminal Trio recordings. The main difference being that while this is also a song that Cole introduced to the world before it became a standard, this was one that he actually wrote himself. He took the lyrics from an old, black folk tale that Cole’s father – a Baptist minister – had used as a basis for a sermon. A lighthearted vocal from Nat is paired with the Trio’s charming brand of breezy small combo jazz. The song’s popularity has been sustained through uses in the 2010 video game “Mafia II” and more recently in the TV series “This Is Us”.

3. “That Sunday, That Summer” (1963)  And here we are at probably the only recording on this list that I would really have to defend. This song was published in 1963 and, as far as I can tell, Nat Cole was, again, the first to record it. The problem is it appeared on his “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” album, the title track of which went to #6 for Nat in the spring of ’63. He followed that up with an album of the same name made of turn-of-the-last-century sounding songs singing the praises of summer. A lot of banjo. The album was successful for Nat but it is a good example of one of those times when public adoration did NOT mean quality work. The title track is delightful but this old-timey setting simply does not mesh well with Nat’s dulcet tones. The exception is “That Sunday, That Summer”. This is the only track on this list that charted in the top 40 on the pop charts during the “modern era” of the tracking of chart activity which began in 1954-55. Fittingly, in September of ’63, after summer frolicking had given way to autumn studies, the nostalgic “That Sunday” spent 9 weeks on the charts peaking at #12. The banjo is present but subdued and adds to the wistful nature of the lyric and compliments Nat’s dreamy vocal. Again, we’re assaulted with an inappropriate chorus of angelic female voices but it doesn’t matter here. The track never appears on any compilations you’ll find at the record store but that just supports my theory that the real ‘best of Nat’ is not that easily found. Seek out this gorgeous number and drift away.

2. “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” (1961)  Here’s a song that deserves it’s own post. Let’s just take it slow and from the beginning. This song was written by singer Mel Torme and Bob Wells. It was written on an exceedingly hot day in an effort to keep cool. Here’s also another example of a new song making it’s way to Nat Cole first. The Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio recorded the song first in 1946. Cole then convinced Capitol to let him record it again months later but this time with a small string section – an auger of things to come for Nat. This second version became a massive hit on pop and R&B charts. Cole again recorded an orchestral version during his productive year of 1953 with Nelson Riddle. Nat’s fourth recording of it took place at Capitol Studios in March of 1961 with the Ralph Carmichael Orchestra. This is the version that you hear every Christmas. Cole issued a Christmas LP in 1960 called “The Magic of Christmas” and then, in 1963 while his newest version of “The Christmas Song” was becoming legendary, Capitol decided to reissue “The Magic of Christmas” as “The Christmas Song”, adding the new title track and deleting “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”. This version of his Christmas album (complete with new cover replacing white kids admiring tree with Nat chilling in sweater by the fire) has sold untold scores of copies and is still a seasonal favourite. (All this, of course, makes Nat’s “God Rest Ye Merry” the ‘lost carol’!) “The Christmas Song” – the track – is sublime but here’s the funny thing: Nat Cole has an incredibly huge rep as a ‘Christmas artist’ but the truth is that the rest of “The Christmas Song” album is quite boring and plain and since Nat never again recorded a full album of Christmas music this means that his huge Christmas rep is based solely on these three minutes of absolute perfection. There may be no finer recording in Nat’s catalog than his 1961 version of “The Christmas Song”. From the opening two notes, this tune manages to encapsulate all the warmth, peace and joy, all the emotion of the Christmas season. Nat’s vocal is the pinnacle of excellence and the unheralded Ralph Carmichael provides an appropriately lush setting featuring a wonderfully mellow guitar solo. It conjures up all the wonderful feelings usually associated with a night in late December relaxing in a warm room lit only by your Christmas tree and surrounded by those you love. The only reason it’s not number one on this list is because it would’ve been too easy. It benefits so much from these external things.

#1 “Stardust” (1957)  “The Christmas Song” is a resplendent recording. However, part of it’s immense charm certainly comes from the Christmas season itself and all of our thoughts, feelings and memories regarding it. “Stardust” does to you what that Christmas classic does to you but all on it’s own. “Stardust” is the aural manifestation of Nat ‘King’ Cole in all his glory. This standard among standards was written in 1927 by the great Hoagy Carmichael (who not only wrote great songs but possessed one of the greatest names in history) with lyrics added by Mitchell Parish. It is one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century with 1,500 recordings of it to date. Nat recorded his version in December of 1956 for his album “Love is the Thing”. The orchestral accompaniment for this album was arranged for strings alone and conducted by the great Gordon Jenkins. Jenkins provides strings so lush that “Stardust” takes on an ethereal quality. It seems to drift down out of the heavens. Nat does well with any type of material but his legacy and his strength is definitely ballad singing and “Stardust” is the quintessence of this strength and represents one of the peak experiences of vocal balladry in the history of recorded sound. It is that good. “Love is the Thing” was the first of four albums Nat would make with Gordon Jenkins. This album was one of the earliest stereo albums made at a time when such albums were made specifically for a niche stereo hi-fi market. The album was also very successful for Nat reaching #1 on the charts while “Stardust”, released as a single, reached #79. What more can be said? It is a flawless vocal performance wrapped in a plush and almost surreal environment of dreamlike beauty. The album is perhaps the finest single moment in either Nat’s or Gordon’s career and provides us with the finest example of the art of Nat ‘King’ Cole.

In compiling this list one of the many things I discovered is that looking at single recordings maybe isn’t the best way to explore Nat Cole. As Bennett has said, it’s about the catalog, the whole, as opposed to single moments. Nat’s entire career is a joy. Do yourself a favour and grab an album – not a compilation – of his. You won’t be disappointed.

Honourable Mentions: “Unforgettable”, “Walking My Baby Back Home”, “Mona Lisa”, “Embraceable You”, “When I Fall in Love”, “Too Young”, “Somewhere Along the Way”, “Say It Isn’t So”, “Lights Out”

 

 

 

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Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 3

Dean Martin hit ‘legend’ status early. By the late 1960’s, his records weren’t charting anymore and he wasn’t starring in hit movies. But it didn’t matter. He performed on stage in Las Vegas and elsewhere to sold out crowds. Dino played it “drunk” and sang all the old songs and the people loved it. He gathered his celebrity friends together to put on one of his legendary “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” and the people laughed. Funniest of all was watching Dean, laughing harder than anyone. And not just at Don Rickles ripping people to shreds, either. You could believe that he was laughing mostly because he truly had it made. He could sustain a career and reap the rewards with very little effort. He just had to be himself.

The thing about Dean Martin is that he didn’t care. Now, as soon as you say that, it sounds negative. But I don’t mean to say that he had a poor attitude toward things or he was indifferent to his family and friends. When I say he didn’t care I mean that, for the most part, he wasn’t consumed with striving to attain a level of greatness in his singing or his acting. He could sing. He could sing well. He liked to sing. So, he sang. Period. And the record buying public loved it. His talent was based on ‘feel’ as opposed to ‘craft’. He had ‘a way with a song’. While making movies, he was laid back and jovial on set. When the cameras rolled, he acted naturally and his charisma shone through. But that’s not to say he wasn’t good – very good – at what he did. Watch him in his films with Jerry Lewis and you’ll see that Jerry is bang on when he talks of Dean’s comedic timing and his handling of a funny line. Not to mention the looks and expressions he could pull off in place of a spoken punch line. It all came so naturally to him. That is what is at the root of his greatness – it was all so seemingly effortless. He was so completely confident and sure of himself that he was able to simply be himself his entire career. This is what people today remember most about Dean Martin. His attitude, his coolness. He was also successful when he went looking for a stretch and played it serious in films like “The Young Lions” with method actors Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift or “Rio Bravo” with John Wayne. While making records, he could delight you with joyous recordings like “That’s Amore” and “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” but he could also make you close your eyes while his voice washed over you with the smoother sounds of “Once in a While” or “My One and Only Love”. With a change of sound upon moving to Reprise in the ’60’s, he could still delight listeners with a jaunty run-through of “I’m Gonna Change Everything” or make them shake their heads and sigh with the heartbreak of “Nobody’s Baby Again”.

In the interest of taking care of business, it should be noted that the last years of Dean Martin’s life were not happy ones. One of Dean’s sons was Dean Paul Martin, who was known as “Dino”. Young Dino was a noted tennis player and a minor actor. He starred in a TV series in 1985-86 called “Misfits of Science” that also starred Courtney Cox. Dino was also a pilot. He joined the California Air National Guard and rose to the rank of captain. He died in 1987 when his jet crashed into the San Bernardino Mountains, the same mountains that had claimed the life of Frank Sinatra’s mother, Dolly. Losing his son devastated Dean and he was truly never the same. In 1988, Frank Sinatra organized a series of reunion shows featuring himself, Dean and Sammy Davis, Jr. Frank reportedly said that the main purpose of the reunion shows was to give Dino something to do, to get him out and about, to maybe forget his troubles. But Dean’s heart was never in it. He lasted only five performances before bowing out. In the fall of 1993, Dean was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died Christmas Day, 1995 of acute respiratory failure resulting from emphysema. He was 78.

But enough of that. We’re here to celebrate Dino’s LIFE. His legacy is remarkably full and varied. He made many great comedy films in the golden age of Hollywood with one of the greatest and most celebrated comedians that ever lived. He recorded timeless music in his early days, sprinkling lovely Italian melodies amongst gems that are the very definition of mid-century crooning. His alliances with other legends added a luster to his personality as regular joes looked at him as the ultimate ‘pally’: the perfect guy to hang out with. In a tux at Romanoff’s or a sport shirt in the clubhouse after a round of golf. He epitomized the swank Las Vegas lifestyle and aura that appealed to royalty and working stiffs the world over. With his many westerns he won over many fans of that hardy, masculine genre. Adding to this was the appeal of his style of country crooning throughout the 1960’s – just one more way he endeared himself to the majority of the adult record buying public. It seems today he is remembered for one major thing. His most lasting legacy seems to be COOL. When hip, happening people of today look back for inspiration when it comes to handling the lady, handling the cocktail, handling the situation no matter what it is – and handling it dressed to the nines – they all seem to land on Dean Martin. He may have had equals but was there ever anybody cooler than Dino? I don’t think so. As Dean’s character in “Ocean’s 11”, Sam Harmon, said: “Everywhere I go people stare at me in dumb admiration”. Yes. We do.

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Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 2

Most students of mid-century culture are well aware of the story of the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, later known as simply the Rat Pack. (Frank hated the term and neither he nor anyone else in the later group ever used it. They preferred to call themselves ‘The Summit’ or ‘The Clan’) The semi-formal group of famous friends was founded – for lack of a better word – in the mid 1950’s by Humphrey Bogart. He and his wife, actress Lauren Bacall, brought like-minded friends together, friends who could not abide the typical Hollywood pretensions and dedicated themselves to drinking and keeping themselves apart from the social whirl. The members included, among others, David Niven, Judy Garland and her husband, Sid Luft and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra idolized Bogie and after Bogie’s death in 1957 Frank became the leader. In 1959, Dean Martin had become a regular headliner in Las Vegas, as had Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. Often times they were appearing at various hotels in Vegas at the same time. Frequently, when Dean was in the middle of his show, Frank and Sammy would show up to join in a song or simply to heckle. The same would happen to Frank. Dean and Sammy would walk in and hilarity would ensue. Word started to get around Las Vegas and the entertainment world in general that these guys were hanging out together. This meant massive crowds of people flooded into Las Vegas with the idea that if you bought a ticket to see Sammy Davis, chances are you’d end up seeing Dino and Sinatra as well. Add to this the hype surrounding the guys coming together with Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop and others to film “Ocean’s 11” in the various casinos and you had a seismic event going on. The celebrity of Dino and his pallys reached dizzying heights. It was at this point that Dean Martin famously quipped “It’s Frank’s world. We’re just living in it”. This statement actually says a lot about the personalities of the two men. Sinatra was indeed the leader, which is how he liked it. Always headstrong and in charge, Sinatra cut a swath through virtually every environment he found himself in. Dino sat back and commentated. Frank Sinatra was head down, teeth gritted, wrestling perfection into submission. Dean Martin was heavy-lidded, shoulders slowly shrugging. Happy to be home in the evening with his wife, Jeanne, and their ever growing family, Dean was often in bed early to be up in time for an early tee time. There’s a telling scene in HBO’s “The Rat Pack” biopic starring Ray Liotta as Sinatra, Joe Mantegna as Dino and Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis, Jr. The boys are all staying together in a swank Vegas hotel. The camera pans through their various rooms revealing all kinds of debauchery. When we get to Dean’s room, he’s lying alone on his bed with his putter watching the late show in the dark.

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As the 1960’s progressed, Dean Martin made many notable and successful films – with the boys and without: “Ocean’s 11”, “Sergeant’s 3”, “Four for Texas”, “Robin and the 7 Hoods”, “Kiss Me, Stupid”, “The Sons of Katie Elder”. He also pursued dramatic roles in films such as “Ada” with Susan Hayward and “Toys in the Attic”, which was based on a play and co-stars Gene Tierney. Dean’s way of “winking at the camera” came to full fruition when he portrayed suave secret agent Matt Helm in films based – very loosely – on the very serious novels by Donald Hamilton. Dino smirked, drank, sang and kung fu kicked his way through four Helm films starring alongside the likes of James Gregory, Stella Stevens, Cyd Charrise, Ann-Margret, Sharon Tate, Tina Louise and Chuck Norris. The films are delightfully ridiculous.

Dean Martin is at the heart of another wonderfully true Hollywood legend. In the early 1960’s, NBC began hounding Dino to do a weekly variety show. Martin was reluctant, due mostly to his desire to be free to accept movie and night club offers. But also he wasn’t keen on the work and discipline it would take to put on a weekly show. Heading into meetings with the network, Dino made some intentionally ridiculous demands including an overly high salary and, most significantly, that he need not show up for any rehearsals but only for the actual taping of the show. So, one day of work a week. You can just imagine Dino in that meeting. Must have been hilarious. What is even funnier though is that the network accepted! Reportedly, Dino went home to his family and dejectedly said ‘they went for it. I guess I have to do it’. So, Dean was ‘stuck’ with a highly-rated show that lasted for 9 seasons and featured absolutely EVERY major star of the day. The show also featured the Gold Diggers dancing girls, Dean singing – natch – with his pianist, Ken Lane and generally just Dino being Dino. His lack of preparation was played for laughs. He made no bones about the fact he was reading cue cards – his ‘winging it’ became the charm of the show. This is an example of Dino putting in no effort whatsoever – reading the cue cards and laughing during skits – and people eating it up. They loved to watch Dino be Dino.

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In 1960, Frank Sinatra was fed up with working for Capitol Records and so he, of course, started his own record company, Reprise Records. Over the course of the next few years, FS began drawing many of his recording artist friends into the fold including Keely Smith, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis, Jr. and our boy, Dino. Dean’s first couple of albums with Reprise reveal that the company wasn’t sure what to do with him. He started with “French Style”, an album of, you guessed it, French songs. And then there was “Dino Latino”, a set featuring…yep, Latin songs. Then they got on to something. Billed as Dean “Tex” Martin, Dino released two albums of country music. Now, we’re not talking real, sawdust, honky tonking Hank Williams exactly. This is what you might call “country crooning” in the vein of Jim Reeves or Eddy Arnold. There seemed to be a good fit between Dino’s easy way with a song and these gently cantering country tunes. Soon after these two country albums, Dean recorded maybe the finest album of his career, “Dream With Dean”, a wonderful collection of quiet, intimate songs meant to be enjoyed late at night by the fire. During the recording session for this album, Dean’s pianist Ken Lane suggested Dean take a crack at a song Lane had written some 15 years before called “Everybody Loves Somebody”. Dean agreed and this gentle version appears on the album. Some time later, Dean was back in the studio and recorded the song again, this time with full orchestra. Reprise Records was excited about the recording and issued it as a single in June of 1964 – the height of Beatlemania. Traditional crooners like Dean were hard pressed to even place songs on the charts once the British Invasion hit. Remarkably though, Dean’s song not only charted but achieved the seemingly impossible – it went to #1, displacing The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”. “Everybody Loves Somebody” became Dean’s signature tune, eventually even being inscribed on his grave marker.

After the success of “Everybody Loves Somebody”, Reprise continued to team Dean with producer Jimmy Bowen who maintained the easy-loping country sound that seemed to fit Dean so well. A sort of “countrypolitan” sound, Dean still sounded like Dean – smooth vocals steeped in the tradition of the Great American Songbook and the recordings still featured full orchestras, string sections and female background singers – but the songs themselves were either actual country songs that had been hits for country artists or songs introduced by Dean that were obviously written in the country idiom. His Reprise catalogue provides a vastly different listening experience when compared to his Capitol recordings of the ’50’s. Recordings like “The Door is Still Open to My Heart”, “Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On”, “(Remember Me) I’m the One Who Loves You”, “Houston” and, perhaps my absolute favourite Dean Martin song, “I Will”. Nine Top 40 hits in 4 years. Dean’s albums on Reprise are a delight. If somewhat nondescript, they are the perfect accompaniment to a lazy and warm afternoon. For me personally, they seem to transport me back to the late 1960’s and – although I wasn’t there – they provide for me a sort of snapshot of the era. They are very much of their time.

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The entertainment industry changed drastically in the 1960’s and most singers of popular song saw their fortunes decline as the decade went on and tastes continue to fluctuate. There were a handful – and Dean was certainly one of them – that had a sufficient amount of talent, celebrity and flat-out charisma to survive and even flourish by branching out into movies, television and live performances. Dean certainly enjoyed great success in the ’60’s. It could even be said that his career didn’t even hit it’s stride until the middle of the decade.

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Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 1

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dean Martin, SoulRide will be looking at the life of this legendary entertainer. As usual with iconic personalities, the public perception of Dino is one thing but there is much to know and much to love about the man who may be in a group of only three or four singers remembered as the greatest, most definitive and most beloved vocalists of the golden era. Here’s Part 1 of our 3-part series.

Dean Paul Crocetti was born June 7, 1917 in Stuebenville, Ohio. Born to Italian parents from Abruzzo, Dean spoke only an Abruzzo dialect of Italian until he started school at age five. He was bullied in school for his broken English and dropped out of Stuebenville High in grade 10 thinking he was “smarter than his teachers”. And here, already in his early life, is where Dean’s path differs greatly from his famous friend, Frank Sinatra. As we’ll see later, Frank and Dean would set the standard for cool in the early 1960s. Sinatra was always the more earnest. Edgy and driven to perfection in all things, Frank’s nature was very different from Dean’s. In some interviews, Frank would like to cultivate the idea that he had hard scrabble beginnings and was a bit of a tough in his early days, which was not exactly the case. Dean Martin, who said little or nothing about his early days, did indeed operate outside of the law and in some shady, half-criminal environments. After leaving high school, Dean worked as a bootlegger, dealt blackjack and ran card games in speakeasies. He also worked in a steel mill and spent time – as did Sinatra – in the ring, fighting as ‘Kid Crochet’. During his 12-bout fight career, he suffered a broken nose (which was later fixed with the financial help of comedian Lou Costello) and many broken knuckles. I’ve always thought, when I looked at Dean Martin’s hands, that he had strong looking but gnarled fingers and here is the reason. Martin began singing with local bands in the early 1940’s using the name Dino Martini. His style was heavily influenced by Harry Mills of the Mills Brothers. By 1946, he was making a decent living as a singer but was unknown outside of the small east coast night club circuit he operated in.

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In 1945, Martin was performing at the Glass Hat in New York. Also performing there at that time was a comic who was nine years Dean’s junior. Jerry Lewis was a skinny, Jewish kid who would lip sync to popular records. The two became friends but didn’t team up until the summer of 1946 when “Martin and Lewis” debuted at the 500 Club in Atlantic City. They bombed. The 500 Club was owned by Skinny d’Amato, a serious guy with mob connections. After the duo’s first unsuccessful show, Skinny told them – in his quiet, menacing way – that if the boys didn’t improve, they’d be fired. What followed is one of those glorious and true Hollywood legends that reveal true talent and personality in performers that today may be taken for granted or not understood at all. Dean and Jerry, huddled in a back alley, decided to go for broke. What they had scripted wasn’t working so, for their next show, they ad-libbed a routine – made it up as they went along – and were a smash. Jerry Lewis – still alive at 91 – is class in so many ways. Not the least of which is his propensity to heap praise on his ex-partner. Lewis is always quick to point out that Martin had impeccable comedic timing and was one of the all-time straight men with immense comedic gifts. This is something often lost in Dean Martin’s story. The comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis went on to conquer first night clubs, then radio, then television and finally the movies. In the films, Dean sang the songs, kissed the girls and played straight man to Jerry’s antics. But after ten years together, the films began to be more tailored to Jerry’s insane style of comedy and Dean had had enough. Under a deep cloud of animosity, Martin and Lewis split up, ten years to the day after forming their partnership.

circa 1955: American comic team Dean Martin (1917 - 1995) and Jerry Lewis smiling in a promotional portrait. Martin smiles and rests his chin on top of Lewis's head, as Lewis makes a funny face.

By the time he split with Jerry, Dino had scored 13 top 40 hits, many of them becoming not only inextricably linked with Dean Martin but also becoming quintessential “crooning” classics: “That’s Amore”, “Sway”, “Standing on the Corner”, “Return to Me” and the worldwide number one song “Memories Are Made of This”. Recording for Capitol Records, Dean soon gained a reputation as a light, breezy, smooth vocalist known for his effortless delivery. He also embraced his heritage recording many Italian flavoured songs and a complete LP devoted to same: “Dino: Italian Love Songs” (1962). His recorded output while with Capitol consists of several great albums exhibiting the relaxed style Dean came to be known for. “Pretty Baby” (1957) contains lovely mid-tempo numbers like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and the title track and some gorgeous ballads, most notably “Once in a While”, maybe Dino’s smoothest, loveliest work at Capitol. “Sleep Warm” (1959) is a dreamy set dedicated to songs dealing with ‘sleeping’ or ‘dreaming’. This album is notable for the orchestra having been conducted by Frank Sinatra. “A Winter Romance” (1959) is a seasonal treat to be listened to every December. Unique among “Christmas” albums, the songs don’t reference Christmas specifically but are odes to winter sports, indoor and out. “This Time I’m Swingin'” (1960) teamed Dean with the great arranger Nelson Riddle and the results are impeccable. Some of Dean’s finest recordings can be found on this LP: “You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You” (this version was used over the opening credits of the film “Swingers”), “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”, “Just in Time” and a contender for Dino’s finest Capitol recording, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”. Another contender, “My One and Only Love”,  can be found on Dean’s last album for Capitol, “Cha-cha de Amour” (1962).

The 1960’s would bring new levels of stardom and success to Dean Martin. And as the decade unfolded, Dino forged a reputation and a cultural significance that would last throughout the ages.

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