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Stayin’ Alive: Tony Bennett

A couple of years ago I published a post I called “Stayin’ Alive” (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/stayin-alive/) . It served as a tribute to certain legendary figures from different walks of life that were still alive and – for some – even still working well into their 80’s. Then 2016 happened, a year when we lost a long list of entertainers. Although I’ve only lost three from my list (Gordie Howe, Arnold Palmer and Chuck Berry), as 2017 dawned I felt like I wanted to shine some light on some older entertainers. Just in case they start dying.

Tony Bennett is a good place to start. Tony Bennett is the ONLY place to start. The man and his career are both truly remarkable. Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Astoria, Queens, New York on August 3, 1926. As of today, that makes him 90 years old. Here’s the thing, though, that I want to establish up front: in these “Stayin’ Alive” episodes, I will try to focus on those legendary personalities that continue to maintain their visibility, at least somewhat, despite their advanced ages. Here again, Bennett is the only place to start as he continues to release albums as recently as December 2016.

Tony grew up the youngest of three kids born to parents from families of Reggio Calabria, a town in rural Italy that is also the birthplace of Gianni and Donatella Versace. Tony grew up in poverty but his father, who died when Tony was 10, instilled in Tony a love of art and literature and a compassion for human suffering. Like so many others of his generation, Tony grew up listening to Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. He was known in school as a caricaturist and a singer. In fact, when the Triborough Bridge – now known as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge; a bridge that connects Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx – opened in 1936, Tony sang and stood next to legendary Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who patted Tony on the head. Tony began singing for money at age 13 in 1939. At this juncture we should pause to consider: Tony Bennett is still ‘singing for money’ – 78 years later. Tony also attended New York’s School of Industrial Art and considered a career as an artist.

Tony was drafted into the US Army in November of 1944 in the final stages of World War 2. In Germany, Tony saw bitter combat in cold winter conditions and escaped death several times. He was also involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. At the conclusion of the war, Tony stayed on in Germany and joined the Special Services, entertaining American troops. Dining one night with a black friend from high school, in an army that was still heavily segregated, Tony was demoted and reassigned to Graves Registration duty. He was discharged in ’46 and studied singing on the GI Bill, Bel Canto singing, a discipline that Sinatra was also a proponent of. He made a few recordings in 1949 (68 years ago!) as Joe Bari but got no love. Also in ’49, singer and actress Pearl Bailey heard Tony sing and asked him to open for her at her show to which she had also invited Bob Hope. Hope liked what he heard and took Tony on the road with him, simplifying Tony’s birth name to ‘Tony Bennett’. The next year, 1950, Tony became a proper professional singer and was signed by Mitch Miller to Columbia Records. Again, let’s stop: Bennett records for Columbia today, a working relationship that began 67 years ago.

Tony began his tenure at Columbia as a crooner of pop tunes. His earliest hits remain some of the songs that are still most closely identified with him: “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, “Because of You”, “Stranger in Paradise”, “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Blue Velvet”. When it comes to ‘mid-century modern’ culture and style, these early recordings of Bennett’s are essential listening. As early as 1954, Bennett began to lean towards jazz and soon after hooked up with the man who would become his long-time pianist, Ralph Sharon, who wisely told Bennett that a career focused on singing sweet pop songs would be a short career. So, Bennett continued to go in a jazz direction and to record quality compositions from Broadway shows and Hollywood films. Perhaps the pinnacle of his recording career came in 1962 with his recording of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. The single only reached #19 but it spent close to a year on various other charts and increased his exposure. The album hit #5 and the single and album reached gold record status. At the Grammys that year the single won Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance. It has, of course, become his signature song and was ranked #23 on a list of ‘historically significant’ recordings of the 20th century.

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Bennett continued recording quality material as an album artist into the 1970’s when the most telling episode of Bennett’s career occurred. A common method that singers would use throughout the late ’60’s and ’70’s to stay relevant in the rock era was to record the ‘hits of the day’ in their own easy listening style. Andy Williams basically spent his career doing this. Other notable artists employing this method include Mel Torme (listen to his “Sunshine Superman”), Peggy Lee (“A Hard Day’s Night”?) and maybe most infamously, Bing Crosby and his album “Hey, Jude! Hey, Bing!”. The evil Clive Davis suggested that Tony do the same. Bennett was so opposed to the idea that he became physically ill while recording these tracks. The result (“Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!”) was dreadful and Tony never revisited this genre. And this is the thing about Tony: he has always been a tireless purveyor of what’s known as “The Great American Songbook” or American popular standards. These include quality songs that, for the most part, were written in the early twentieth century and have been recorded countless times by every vocalist that operates in this idiom.

Shortly after this episode, Tony took a hiatus from Columbia and joined Verve, a predominantly jazz label. He recorded sparingly and released two quality albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans but real success evaded him at this time. The nadir of his career came in the late 1970’s. Bennett found himself without a record label, without a manager while performing virtually no concerts outside of Las Vegas. His second marriage was failing and the IRS was after him. Worst of all, he developed a cocaine addiction. An overdose almost took his life in 1979.

At this point, Tony Bennett’s story is a common one. Popular singer struggles in the rock era and turns to drugs and trades on his past successes. But also at this point, his story takes a decidedly heartfelt turn. Actually, Tony’s decisions throughout the ’80’s are a blueprint for getting a career back on track. It started with family. Nice. At the dawn of the 1980’s, Tony called his sons, Danny and Dae. Danny, a failing musician with a head for business, joined forces with his father, an immense musical talent who struggled in the business arena. Like Tom Jones with his son around this time, Tony Bennett’s son became his manager. Danny worked wonders with his father. Most importantly from a musical standpoint, Danny began to book his dad into small clubs and colleges to restore his reputation and image. By 1986, Bennett was back with Columbia Records, this time having full artistic control over his recordings.

A lot of credit has to go to Tony’s son, Danny, who simply thought that a youthful audience would appreciate his father if given a chance. Subsequently, no changes were made to Bennett’s formal appearance, song choice, singing style or musical accompaniment. He continued to be exposed to a young, hip audience with appearances on shows such as “Late Night with David Letterman”, “The Simpsons” and various MTV shows. Bennett stood out, he was different, a sixty-year-old man in a silk suit. The kids were down. It was at this time that Tony put his stamp on the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammy and began what I call the ‘victory lap’. When a performer is on top of the world, the wheel tends to come around. Tastes and styles change and even true artists can fall out of favour with the public as well as with critics. But after a season, if the artist is true and genuine and has the tools and uses them well he can rise again and achieve legend status. His past career is appreciated and he performs again with fresh ideas while maintaining his classic style. Bennett stayed true to who he was as a performer and took up the banner again as the world’s predominant singer of standards.

Writing this post has made me reassess my feelings towards Tony’s recorded output since his victory lap began with the release of “The Art of Excellence” in 1986. I’ve always been a little disappointed with the themes he has explored on his albums. Each of his albums seems to be dedicated to a specific set list of tracks united by a common thread: songs associated with a certain artist or composer and endless variations on the dreaded ‘duets’ format. Too often it seemed to me to be gimmicky. And let’s face it, some themes have been decidedly ill-advised (“In the Playground”, children’s songs ‘featuring’ an appearance by Rosie O’Donnell and “Viva Duets” containing  duets with Spanish artists, most of whom are unknown in English-speaking North America). I wanted them all to be like 2004’s fine “The Art of Romance”: a small group, good songs, excellent singing. My distaste with these ‘theme’ albums stems mostly from my immense disappointment with the two duets albums with which Frank Sinatra ended his decades-long recording career. Pointless and poorly executed, Frank’s “Duets” and “Duets II” are considered pointless debaucheries by Sinatraphiles: classic Frank songs that need no new versions recorded with a baffling parade of duet partners. Compare this with the stellar final recordings of the late Johnny Cash and you lament what could have been: 80-year-old FS, on a stool, singing live with a couple instruments. So, I didn’t want to see this happen to Bennett. I mean, who needs “If I Ruled the World” with Queen Latifah? Add to this the fact that if you saw Bennett live around this time, as my wife and I did twice, you would have been delighted with the sound of his three-piece group and his impeccable and ageless chops. So, why all the gimmicks on the albums?! But here’s what I figure. Tony goes into the studio to record an album of the songs of Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, etc. with the intention of using his unique platform to let the world know what wonderful songs these artists are responsible for. After all, that has been Bennett’s thing since at least the ’60’s, carrying the banner for the great musical figures of the 20th century. Something else to consider is something I had an inkling of but I really had no idea about until I looked into it. It’s about the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. This award has been given out for the last 26 years and Bennett has won it an astounding 13 times, including one stretch when he won it 5 years running. What’s even more amazing is that since the award’s inception, Tony has released 19 albums – and 13 of them have won this award. They’ve also fared well on the charts. Tony’s last six albums have gone to #1 on the U.S. Jazz Albums chart giving him a total of 11 (of his last 19) albums to top this chart. “Duets II” and “Cheek to Cheek” both reached #1 on the Jazz Albums chart as well as the Billboard 200 chart of all pop albums. After a second look, I guess I can concede that only “The Playground” – kids songs featuring Elmo and Rosie O’Donnell, “Viva Duets” – the disposable collection featuring Latino vocalists that Bennett for the most part has little or no rapport with and “Cheek to Cheek” – his chart-topping gimmick album with the questionable talent and repulsive personality of Lady Gaga, are the ones I can say were actually bad ideas.

Bottom line: Tony Bennett has become a legend who really has no peer. And his career as a whole? Well, not even FS was topping the charts at the age of 88. He is a true survivor, still vital, active and relevant well into his 80’s. He truly deserves the accolades now, while he is still here, stayin’ alive.

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Your Guide to Winter Movies

I find that my viewing and listening habits are quite often tied to the calendar. I gravitate to certain movies and types of music depending on what time of year it is. For instance, springtime always makes me want to listen to oldies or Huey Lewis and the News. In the summer, I want to watch Beach Party movies. It comes down to wanting what I’m watching, listening to or reading to compliment the time of year. I find I simply get more ‘out of’ jazz in the fall, for example. I don’t always like to lock myself down to this sort of thing (it’s November. You must watch James Bond movies!) but then again I can’t deny that I do enjoy certain things more at certain times.

Every winter time, there are many things I find I turn to for entertainment. A lot of these things come from personal experience and history. Western movies, for example, are not specifically tied to the winter but for me they are. During the winter of 2003-4, I came down with double environmental pneumonia and spent a lot of time in bed. So, I watched movies and, not wanting to get up and change the movie for a long time, I chose one of the longest movies I owned at the time, “The Alamo”. Ever since then, I feel like watching westerns in the winter. I’ve also found that there are a handful of movies I love that happen to take place in the winter. I really enjoy watching these in January and February and here’s the main reason why. When my family and I are ‘suffering’ through a cold, snowy winter, I feel the need to watch other people struggling, too. I like to see how other people cope. It makes me feel like I’m not alone. Watching certain movies shows me you can still have fun in the winter, get in adventures, dress sharp and not only survive your environment but master it, as well. In addition, most ‘winter movies’ just don’t go down the same in the dead of summer. Sometimes it seems flat out wrong. There are also a handful of movies I enjoy during winter because they depict characters who escape inclement weather and head to sunny climes. These are a bit of a cheat, though, as the bulk of the movie generally takes place in the sun but it’s still enjoyable to see people do what you’d like to do – jump in the car and escape to the sunny south. So, January and February become a cozy, hide-in-the-basement season, watching hockey and winter movies. What follows is basically a guide to some of the best movies to enjoy during the first two frigid months of the year. I’ve sort of ranked them in terms of their ‘essential winter viewing’ status.

“THE PINK PANTHER” (1964) The glory of this film perhaps has become skewed over the years due to the sequels and their depiction of the forever bumbling French Detective Jacques Clouseau. Throughout the ’70’s, Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers made these films in a forever broadening slapstick style, with the outrageously inept Clouseau being continually surprise-attacked by his sidekick, Kato. But the original film was quite different. The first installment was actually planned as the first of a series of films featuring the adventures of Sir Charles Litton, the famous cat burglar, portrayed by David Niven. The unbilled star of this film, though, is Cortina d’Ampezzo, a tiny ski town in the Italian Alps. Most of the movie takes place here and the scenery is gorgeous. Instead of slapstick, this first installment of the series is a straight-up cocktail movie. Apres ski, as they say. Great shots of the mountains and skiing, dreamy scenes by the fire with Henry Mancini’s gorgeous soundtrack playing, and great looking men and women in sweaters. I always say when I watch this movie: “If it has to be winter, why can’t it be Cortina?”

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“THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS” (1967) Perhaps the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures, this film has gained a reputation as one of the ‘worst’ films in history. It’s outlandish dialogue and over the top soap opera plot have garnered it many bad reviews, parodies, one bad ‘sequel’ and the disdain of the critics. As often happens, though, at the same time this movie has gained a faithful following of ardent fans who love it. Most of them say that it’s so bad it’s wonderful and they love it although they know it’s ridiculous. I can see their point and I tend to agree but every time I watch this movie I come away saying that there is some real depth in the story it tells and it really packs a lot of entertainment value. Quickly, the story tracks the lives and careers of three women. Their ups and downs, successes and failures, their men and their ‘dolls’ – the prescription drugs that they all indulge in to varying degrees. The winter aspect comes in to play in a very significant way. One of the girls, Anne Welles, is depicted as coming from a rural New England home, a home that has known many crippling winters. Her dreams lead her to New York City and from there she ends up in sunny California, successful, wealthy but unhappy and addicted to ‘dolls’. Here’s the thing: to ‘cleanse’ herself and reset her life, she goes home. Home where it’s full-on winter and to me that speaks to the idea that winter can represent comfort and home, childhood, family and a wholesome, safe lifestyle. To me, it’s an intriguing and sensitive theme to show up in a film like this. As a side note, I researched the filming locations for this film and found that Anne’s house in “Lawrenceville” is actually the Samuel Jarvis house in the pictuesque historic town of Redding, Connecticut. The house dates from the 1790’s. I got some help on this from the fine folks at the Redding Historical Society.

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“BEAUTIFUL GIRLS” (1996) A rural “Swingers”, this movie, of all the movies I’ve loved in my life, is the only movie I’ve ever watched for the first time, then rewound and watched again. The late Ted Demme (nephew of director Jonathan Demme who directed “The Silence of the Lambs”) directed this story of a group of friends navigating the pitfalls of adulthood in small town Minnesota in February. As I said in my opening, here’s a great example of a depiction of characters coping well with winter weather. Some of the boys run a landscaping business so falling snowflakes means going to work with the plows. They hang out indoors – even engage in some video game hockey a la “Swingers” – and bundle up and spend some guy time in an ice fishing hut.  A great wintertime location shoot combines with a great cast here.  Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Lauren Holly, Rosie O’Donnell, Mira Sorvino, Natalie Portman, Michael Rapaport, Uma Thurman, Sam Robards and David Arquette. Great movie. Funny.

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“GRUMPY OLD MEN” (1993)  A delightful comedy for the whole family. Pretty much. Aimed at the senior citizen set, this film stars legendary film actors Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Buck Henry and Ossie Davis as senior citizens coping with getting older and being alone in the fictional town of Wabasha, Minnesota. This film is wonderful on so many levels not the least of which is the delightful Jack Lemmon wearing nice thick sweaters and relaxing in his ice fishing shack. A great story with charming characters and another depiction of people living happily in the snow during the winter. And not only are they surviving the winter but they are enjoying it. There’s just something comforting about watching people put on a toque and mitts and shoveling out their vehicles. And this is another film on this list that makes ice fishing look awfully nice.

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“NOBODY’S FOOL” (1994)  The legendary Paul Newman garnered yet another Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Sully, a “spry ne’er-do-well” living in snowy North Bath, New York. This is a film of the highest quality with a good cast including Melanie Griffith and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Also stars Jessica Tandy who passed away before this film was released and also an uncredited Bruce Willis. This was at the time in his career when Bruce was reinventing the ‘cameo’ and working without a credit was something he did a couple of times at this junction. He was not involved in the promotion for this film due to his action star status.  It’s R rated, this film, and I must admit that winter does not play a major role here but again it’s cold and snowy and that makes for good watching when it’s 40 below.

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“DEATH HUNT” (1981) A renowned film that most guys of a certain generation have seen and have fond memories of. Charles Bronson heads up a great cast and portrays Albert Johnson – “The Mad Trapper” – a real-life Canadian fugitive who was hunted by the Canadian Mounties in the early 1930’s. Filmed partly in Alberta, this film – like “Nobody’s Fool” – is of the highest quality. The film, also, is a great depiction of life in the ‘Yukon’: the dogsleds, the mountains, the cabins, the barren wastelands. Also starring Lee Marvin, Carl Weathers, Angie Dickinson and Andrew Stevens.

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“THIN ICE” (1937)/”HIT THE ICE” (1943)/”LOST IN ALASKA” (1952) Here’s a great classic movie triple feature, perfect for snowy afternoons. “Thin Ice” is a charming film starring Olympic skater, Sonja Henie and handsome Tyrone Power. Lili is a skating instructor in the Alps and starts hitting the slopes with Prince Rudolph who is traveling incognito! “Hit the Ice” is a vehicle for the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. In this film, the boys get mixed up with some bank robbers and flee to a lovely mountain resort. Costello saves the day by becoming a human snowball! And then Abbott and Costello are back and they are “Lost in Alaska”. In this episode, they team up with a gold prospector to help him get his girl back. All the family friendly laughs center around the frozen north: igloos, polar bears, avalanches, the works

“NORTH TO ALASKA” (1960)/”THE FAR COUNTRY” (1954) Here’s a couple of great films from mid-century that have similar Technicolor looks to them. Both take place in the Yukon. “North to Alaska”, really, doesn’t have a lot of snow on display despite some scenes shot in the Yukon. The plot does deal with some gold mining and life in general at the top of the globe. The film itself is excellent. John Wayne stars and is surrounded by a fine cast featuring Stewart Granger, Capucine, Ernie Kovacs and Fabian. “The Far Country” also stars a Hollywood legend, James Stewart. Shot partially in Alberta, it is another great story of the gold rush. Stewart drives a herd of cattle up to Dawson and ends up in the gold business. Although he tries hard not to, he gets in deep trying to purge a town of corruption and lawlessness. Some great scenery, some romantic entanglements and another quality film.

“SKI PARTY” (1965)/”WINTER A-GO-GO” (1965) Here’s two for fans of the wonderfully corny beach party movies. In these two, the gang leaves the beaches of Malibu for the snowy mountain slopes. “Ski Party” features the gang from the actual beach party movies from American International Studios. Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman star as guys who go undercover in an effort to figure out the opposite sex, represented here by Deborah Walley and Yvonne Craig. All this lunacy takes place on the slopes of gorgeous Sun Valley, Idaho. Great scenery – indoors and outdoors – some actual comedy, mostly supplied by Aron Kincaid, and a couple great songs. James Brown and His Famous Flames make an appearance in what I’m sure are the whitest surroundings they ever performed in. You should watch just to see the Godfather of Soul’s legs move. “Winter a-Go-Go” is just as dumb and just as delightful. It stars James Stacy and William Wellman, Jr. as two good looking young guys who inherit a ski lodge in Heavenly Valley (actually Lake Tahoe and El Dorado National Forest in eastern California) and stock it with a bunch of hotties. Some good skiing sequences and lots of great sweaters. Musical acts include the Nooney Rickett Four (love that name). And keep an eye out for Paul Gleason among the extras. He’s young here but you’ll recognize him from his role as the mean teacher Mr. Vernon in “The Breakfast Club”and Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson in “Die Hard”. Cute film that actually ends with a wedding; rare for one of these teenybopper movies.

“GIRL HAPPY” (1965)/”WHERE THE BOYS ARE” (1960) We wrap up the list with a couple of cheaters. These two films actually represent an entire different sub-genre that require their own post: the ‘escape movie’. By that I don’t mean prison escape, like “Shawshank” or “Escape from Alcatraz” but films that portray characters escaping the winter and inclement weather. These movies are great to watch late in February when winter is nearing it’s end and you’re ready to leave the snow behind and pivot towards the spring. Here’s two pleasant and simple escape movies. “Girl Happy” is one of the better Elvis Presley movies, one of three he made with his favourite co-star Shelley Fabares. This is the only King Movie in which you see snow (in fact, there’s only four or five of Elvis’ movies that show inclement weather at all). Elvis plays Rusty Wells and he and his buds (including Gary Crosby, Bing’s son) leave snowy Chicago and head to Fort Lauderdale to keep an eye on Shelley, a gangster’s daughter. Some great scenes here in whatever is passing for Fort Lauderdale and – like most of Presley’s films – this is an easy-going, fun watch. Ditto “Where the Boys Are”. There’s a little more meat to this plot as a group of kids head to Fort Lauderdale and learn hard lessons about sex – consensual and not so much – and making the move to adulthood. This film begins with our pretty female co-eds Dolores Hart, Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux and Connie Stevens struggling to get to class in a blizzard. They all agree to take Connie’s car and escape for Easter Break in Florida. While there, they run into an amorous trio of guys played engagingly by George Hamilton, Jim Hutton and Frank Gorshin. Unlike “Girl Happy”, here we see some great locations in actual Fort Lauderdale including the famous “Elbo Room”, a bar that still exists. There’s something really delightful in watching people do what you’d sometimes like to do; go from battling the wind and snow of a fierce winter and get in your car and drive south. “Where the Boys Are” provides that and also throws in a lovely, coming-of-age story.

Like Bing Crosby said: “looks like a cold, cold winter”. So, head to the basement and light up a nice, smelly candle and escape with one of these cozy, fireside treats.

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Spotlight on…Del Shannon

I recently listened to a Del Shannon 2-CD Greatest Hits package and it really got me thinking. I have known of him since basically the beginning of my awareness of “oldies”, due in most part to his timeless 1961 #1 song “Runaway”. It was the biggest success of his career and the number he is most remembered for. But I seemed to recall having heard things about his later career, about how super stardom seemed to elude him and of his tragic end.

Del was born Charles Westover in Michigan. Just as he was beginning to get his recording career off the ground, he joined forces with a keyboardist named Max Crook who had invented his own organ-type keyboard called a musitron. Del and Max reworked an older song of theirs called “Little Runaway” and recorded it as “Runaway” in early 1961. The song reached #1 in many countries in April of that year and became one of what I would call the pillars of classic rock ‘n’ roll. Even today, many people have heard or heard of the song and it has even become something more than just a song and has become an iconic symbol of another era. “Runaway” also received the Lucas Stamp. George Lucas deemed the song indicative enough of classic rock ‘n’ roll that he included it in his seminal document of the era, “American Graffiti”. Del is interesting to me because he was more than just a one-hit wonder and was able to follow up “Runaway” with other moderate hits. Indeed, his next single – “Hats Off to Larry” – peaked at number five and he closed out the year with two other songs reaching the top 40. Not bad. While Del was not an excellent vocalist, he did have an excellent falsetto that was featured on both of these early hits and became something of a trademark of his recordings. 1962 started with minor chart activity until late in the year when “Little Town Flirt” reached #12 in the US and also did well globally (#1 in Ireland). And then the hits seemed to dry up. So, really, that’s only two calendar years but three notable hit recordings – one eventually reaching iconic status – is a pretty good resume for the fickle world of early ’60’s rock ‘n’ roll.

He continued to be popular in England – where he was always more popular – and in fact added to his rep in 1963 by becoming the first American artist to record a Beatles song. Del’s recording of “From Me to You” charted in the States before the Beatles version did. In 1964, after a few more minor chart entries, Del had a hit with the excellent “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)” which entered the top ten late in the year. Also in 1964, Del produced some demo recordings for fellow Michigander Bob Seger. The demos fell into the hands of Dick Clark and shortly thereafter Seger signed a recording contract and began his lengthy career with some regional successes. In 1965, British pop duo Peter and Gordon scored a hit with Del’s gorgeous “I Go to Pieces” but chart success eluded Shannon during the late 1960’s. He turned to production and discovered country singer Johnny Craver (?) and the band Smith, who you may remember had a hit with a remake of “Baby, It’s You”. He also produced Brian Hyland’s 1970 hit “Gypsy Woman”. A telling sign that his own recording career was nearly over is his re-recording of his big hit “Runaway” in 1967, although the single was successful in Canada and Australia. Also in that year, back in welcoming England, Del worked with former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham on an album called “Home and Away”. Oldham intended the album to be in the vein of the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece “Pet Sounds”. However – and this is a common story in rock ‘n’ roll history – the record company shelved the ambitious album and refused to release it. Another highly regarded album – “The Further Adventures of Charles Westover” – couldn’t find an audience and sold poorly.

So, at the dawn of the 1970’s, Del had a good rep as a live performer and was looked on as somewhat of a survivor but his lack of chart success disappointed him and – another common story – he turned to alcohol. However, Del cleaned up enough to record the album “Drop Down and Get Me” in 1982. Del had a fan in Tom Petty and Petty produced this album and his Heartbreakers play on it. It features the moderate hit remake of “Sea of Love” (#33). Petty and his friends would come back onto the scene after Del enjoyed a resurgence when he re-recorded “Runaway” yet again for use over the opening credits of the great Michael Mann show starring Dennis Farina, “Crime Story”. At this time, Del also worked with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty’s band mate in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys who had just lost their resident early ’60’s legend when Roy Orbison died. Here’s the part I actually remember about Del and it used to bug me. There was every indication that he would be the perfect – freakishly perfect – replacement for Orbison. But Shannon had been suffering from depression, depression caused by his faltering recording career. He had been taking Prozac for this depression and, despite his possible future as a Wilbury, he took his own life in February of 1990 with a rifle (!?).

The part that bugged me was, at the time, I was stunned by his depression caused by not having a chart hit for many years. What did he expect? I remember thinking. He started out in 1960, he still wants hits in 1990?! Well, yes, he did. Easy for us fans to sit back and say ‘hey, Del, you gave us “Runaway”. That’s good enough’. But for him and for artists like him it’s not good enough. They want to continue to make music and have it heard by the world. When they feel they can’t do that, I’m sure it can be a blow.

So, what is Del Shannon’s legacy? What is he? A ‘one-hit wonder’? Just another tragic example of how middling success can take a toll on those who aim for super stardom? Seems to me it’s yes and no and somewhere in between. He was responsible for one of the most enduring songs of an era that has taken on the rosy glow of nostalgia for many people. And that’s enough for us, the fans. But he had ambitions and he had more music in him. It’s just that the majority of the record-buying public wasn’t into that music. And that’s a shame. It’s also a shame that Del Shannon’s story is a common one.

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 7 – Thank You. Goodnight.

Happy Birthday to Elvis Presley! The King was born 82 years ago today and that makes this Day 7 of Elvis Week 2017.

Day 7 – Thank You. Goodnight: Elvis Presley enjoyed more acclaim than almost any other single person in history. He remains one of the most revered  and loved entertainers ever. And yet his story is a sad one and it is a story – unbelievably – of unrealized potential. But generally when we celebrate the anniversary of his birth I like to keep it positive, so let me get this out of the way: Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, knew many different ways to make barrels of money out of a concert tour. Parker was also right in his element when he would show up the day before in a town Elvis was scheduled to play and promote his boy and make sure everything was in place for the coming show. So, for the Colonel, the ’70’s were great. Unfortunately, for Elvis the ’70’s was an endless succession of concert tours that contributed to his eventual physical decline. But enough of that…

The 1970’s are a complicated era in Elvis World. The main thing that people remember of course is the effect on his appearance that his failing health had. But, truth is, King released some excellent music between 1970 and 1977. I myself grew up largely unaware of the bulk of the music he recorded during this decade. Indeed, years ago when I bought the CD box set of his ’70’s recordings I assumed it contained ALL of the recorded output of the ’70’s but the liner notes informed me that he recorded too much music during this era to fit on a regular-sized box set. This intrigued me. In exploring the songs from the last 4+ years of his life, I discovered a lot of excellent recordings. Most of them would probably be new to most casual listeners. However, 1972’s “Burning Love” is – along with “Hound Dog” – maybe his most recognizable song.

As a matter of fact, the ’70’s got off to a great start. The excellent documentary “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is” was released to theaters. The film is a great document of a season of shows at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. There’s great footage of King rehearsing and hanging out backstage. The songs he was recording at the time are unknown today but they have a unique, contemporary pop/rock sound. It has even been suggested – by Troy Yeary (check out his blog at https://pastimescapes.com/) – that “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is” is Elvis Presley’s greatest single album. Fantastic songs on the album include “Twenty Days and Twenty Nights”, “How the Web Was Woven”,  “Stranger in the Crowd”, “Mary in the Morning” and a stunning live version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”.

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In 1971, Elvis released “Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas”, a collection of Christmas songs including some amazing original material such as “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas (Without You)”, “On a Snowy Christmas Night”,  “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees” and a song that may be among his 10-12 best recordings ever, “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day”. Then a year later Presley released the Grammy-winning gospel album “He Touched Me” featuring excellent recordings of the title track, “Reach Out to Jesus”, “I, John” and “The Bosom of Abraham”. In that same year, in one particularly fruitful three-day session in Hollywood, Presley recorded songs that rank among his best of this decade: the heartbreaking “Separate Ways”, “It’s a Matter of Time”, “For the Good Times” and “Always on My Mind” as well as one of the most identifiable Presley songs, “Burning Love”. Throughout 1973, Elvis spent time at the legendary Stax Studios in Memphis, home of the Stax record label and the great Memphis Soul sound. His prolific work here yielded outstanding recordings that go a long way to establishing his identity as a recording artist in this era. The great soul/funk and country titles include: “If You Don’t Come Back”, “I Got a Thing About You, Baby”, “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body”, “It’s Midnight”, “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and perhaps his most energetic recording – probably in his top ten best songs ever – “Promised Land”. The songs have a depth and maturity. The funky ones are a stone groove and the country sides are clean and polished. His last sessions in a proper recording studio took place in Hollywood in 1975. Some great tracks from these dates are the country tunes “Susan When She Tried”, “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” and “Bringing It Back”. Notable in Elvis World are the songs he recorded for his last two albums at home in Graceland. Elvis and the band set up in the den known as the ‘jungle room’. Elvis was in poor health at this point and you can hear that in his vocals. But the tired, deeper, throatier sound of his voice on these tracks adds to them a weariness that enhances the quality of the recordings. Highlights: “She Thinks I Still Care”, “Moody Blue”, “Hurt”, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, “Way Down” (his last chart single) and “He’ll Have to Go” (the last song he ever recorded). While they are certainly not his most recognizable recordings, there are many tracks from this era that are spectacular and they are a quality addition to his already formidable catalog. The ’70’s songs are definitely ‘ear-opening’ and add another dimension to what you think you know about his recordings.

And then there’s the aura. King throughout the ’70’s had a grandiosity about him. Everything was larger than life. In a fashion sense, the ’70’s in general were over-the-top and Presley took it to another level. A head of thick, jet-black hair, massive mutton-chop sideburns, ruffled shirts with high collars, coats with similarly high collars, rings on every finger, necklaces (among others, a Star of David and a Cross because, he said “I don’t want to miss out on heaven on a technicality”), a cane and his trademark sunglasses (he suffered from glaucoma). On stage, the jumpsuits became yet another trademark. Based on a karate suit, they were one piece which allowed him to move around on stage easily – but that may have been negated by the number of rhinestones affixed to the suits, the belts and the capes. Certainly what he wore on stage in the ’70’s is an iconic and instantly identifiable look. It’s well known in Elvis World that he loved Captain Marvel as a child and this ’70’s look is largely patterned after that superhero. Also, an album was released recently on a collector’s label called “Prince from Another Planet” and that title really fits his appearance at this time. This is yet another thing that made him totally different from any other performer in history.

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He loved law enforcement officers and firearms and never went out without a couple of revolvers on him. Most are aware of the infamous story of his visit to the White House to see then-President Richard Nixon. Out of the blue he traveled to Washington – by himself, something he NEVER did – and somehow was able to talk his way into the Oval Office for a sit-down with the President. The story is even more remarkable when you consider that Elvis was undoubtedly armed but was ushered in to meet with the Commander-in-Chief anyways. Only Elvis. He was also often seen bombing around Memphis in one of his many cars or astride one of his numerous motorcycles. His excessive lifestyle was always on display one way or another.

Bono says you can’t fully understand Elvis Presley without the ’70’s. They are a part of the story. Most people scoff at the era partly because of the absurdity and the parody of some Elvis impersonators. His look in this era has often been played for laughs. But there’s nothing funny about a hard-working entertainer still wanting to feel a connection to his audience, still making good music, still keeping many around him employed by touring constantly and trying to get some fun out of life, wearing and doing whatever he wanted.  The ’70’s are not all about decline for Elvis. They indeed are an essential part of the story and, if you look into them, an entertaining part.

Well, that’s it. But it’s not. There are so many aspects of Elvis Presley’s life and career that we haven’t touched on this week. I encourage you to pick up a good book on him. It’s an interesting story. I’m Gary Wells. Thank you and good night.

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 6 – Comeback

It’s Saturday of Elvis Week! Day 6: Comeback – Elvis Presley began to climb out of the rut his career had gotten into on September 10, 1967 when he recorded a cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”. This marked the beginning of a determination on Presley’s part to get back to being a recording artist. Someone who sought out and found good songs that he wanted to put his particular stamp on and make them his own. Into 1968, Presley began to put his energy into recording non-movie songs. These quality tracks returned Presley to the top 40 on the charts and began to give people the indication that a change was afoot.

Like so many other things in his career, it was simply called “Elvis”. It was an NBC TV special that was sponsored by the Singer sewing machine company. Col. Parker, putting forth yet another bad idea, wanted it to be a program of Christmas songs. But Elvis had other things in mind. It helped that the TV special was being produced by Steve Binder, a man who was determined to use this special to return Presley to relevance. The legend goes that, before starting work on the special, Binder took Elvis out onto Sunset Blvd. and had him walk around a bit. No one recognized the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Whether or not this is true, Elvis’ ‘street cred’ had suffered and he was serious in his preparation for this special and he looked better than he had in years. The highlight of what came to be called “the ’68 Comeback Special” was the time that black-leather-clad Elvis spent sitting ‘in the round’ with some of the boys jamming, banging out some of the old songs. The raw, gritty ferocity Presley displayed was a revelation to the rock press and to the record-buying public. There are two or three ‘moments’ in Elvis Presley’s career that are ‘definitive’. The ’68 special is one of them.

With a new fire in his belly, Presley made the decision to hold his next recording session back home in Memphis. With young, hip session musicians and a savvy producer in Chips Moman, King turned out some of his best recordings at American Sound Studios in Memphis in 1969. With a mature, contemporary, blue-eyed soul sound, records like “Kentucky Rain”, “In the Ghetto”, “Don’t Cry Daddy” and particularly “Suspicious Minds” not only returned EP to the top of the charts but brought him back to respectability.

Into the 1970’s and King is riding high, enjoying chart success, a freedom from Hollywood and looking and sounding maybe better than he ever had. Keep in mind there was a time when Las Vegas was a respectable and lucrative place for entertainers to set up shop. At the dawn of the ’70’s Presley brought his shows to the hotels in Vegas and set and/or broke attendance records in the desert. Then in January of ’73 a concert in Hawaii was broadcast via satellite and beamed around the world. Presley performed definitive versions of some ’70’s concert staples and it was another pinnacle of his career. Even the new arbiter of all that was hip in music – Rolling Stone Magazine – lauded his efforts. The King had reclaimed his crown.

And then the Colonel’s dark specter loomed once again.

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 5 – Hollywood

Day 5: Hollywood – Released from the Army in 1960, Elvis Presley found himself right back in uniform. King went straight to Hollywood to play Specialist Tulsa McLean in “G.I. Blues”. This film is actually a great example of what is good and what is bad about King Movies. “G.I. Blues” is probably his most comedic film that features one of his best comedic performances. Presley breezes through the film with confidence, sings some great songs, and looks fantastic. The cast is pretty good and King interacts with them well and delivers some funny lines with impeccable comedic timing. On the flip side, however, there are some key things wrong with the film that unfortunately became part of the ‘formula’. The bulk of the film takes place in Germany but of course Presley never shot any scenes there. He’s acting up against a screen for some scenes and for others a stand-in is used. The cast, as I said, is not bad but some of the actors are the goofy, lightweight type that we will see ad nauseam in the films to come. Along with the great songs are some lame ones and the soundtrack ‘features’ a lullaby sang to a baby. His next two films were serious dramas, both excellent: “Flaming Star” and “Wild in the Country”. They weren’t received well and performed relatively poorly at the box office so he found himself back in a playful romp, the greatest of all King Movies and my favourite film ever, “Blue Hawaii”. This film featured an exotic locale, pretty girls and 14, count ’em, 14 songs and became Presley’s most successful film. So, the die was cast. People didn’t want to see Serious Elvis. They wanted Fun Elvis. And that’s the paradox: you know “G.I. Blues” and “Blue Hawaii” became the blueprint for every derivative and lightweight film to follow and you wished he would make more serious films. But, man, Fun Elvis is so enjoyable!

The films of Elvis Presley deserve to be studied at length. Presley’s time in Hollywood needs it’s own book or website – I’ve been making notes to this end for years. There is a general and widespread misconception regarding them. Not about their quality, unfortunately, but about the level of enjoyment they – and many other ‘bad’ movies, for that matter – can provide. As I say, there is a paradox at work here: you find yourself frustrated with the lack of quality of most of the films while at the same time you are enjoying them immensely. Again, it’s so hard to accurately and thoroughly report on this area of Presley’s career in such a short space. I think it can be summed up thusly: the years Elvis spent in Hollywood are the years when Col. Tom Parker did the most damage to his client’s reputation. It’s also the time when Parker’s business practices reached the height of thievery and the pinnacle of abuse of power. In a nutshell, basically every deal Parker made in Hollywood for ‘his boy’ succeeded in benefiting himself more than Elvis and showed a blatant disregard for the effect that releasing a succession of family-friendly, light comedy films overloaded with poor songs would have on the reputation and legacy of his only client. Elvis’ acting ability was undervalued and commerce was not only valued by Parker over art but was held up as the only reason to be in Hollywood.

Now the good news. Elvis Presley’s 33 films are infinitely enjoyable. From a strictly critical standpoint, they are hard to defend. They are the very definition of ‘guilty pleasures’. Elvis Presley loved to go to movies as a young man and when the opportunity came to go to Hollywood to make his own films he jumped at the chance and had aspirations of following in James Dean’s footsteps. He wanted to make serious films with no singing. His first four films showed promise: these four showed him in his natural, untamed state, the songs he was made to sing were, for the most part, good – some even great – and he was surrounded by quality actors. Also, keep in mind that in one of them he shoots his brother and in two others he kills men; one he kills with a switchblade in an alley. They were gritty, vibrant and two of them were the best dramas he ever made. But the evil colonel’s plan went into effect when Elvis returned from the Army. And so began a cycle of film contracts that benefited Elvis, yes, but the Colonel even more, box office hits mostly bereft of any artistic quality and songs so asinine that, taken out of the context of the films they were used in, they are slight, ridiculous tripe. It’s even baffling to me that this is what qualified as an album release by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1960’s. Soundtracks. Eight to twelve tracks from the movie with maybe a spare leftover song from the past to flesh it out. The Colonel’s theory was that the films would sell the records and the records would sell the films. For financial reasons, the Colonel had his own stable of songwriters and they filled the movies with songs about fat men overeating, songs about shrimp, about how hard it is to dance in a small vehicle and lullabies sung to babies and small children. They were plot devices not songs. The movies gradually began to feature poor casts and ridiculously claustrophobic studio and back-projection filming techniques. And yet…and yet. Much like Cary Grant and John Wayne, Elvis Presley exuded a natural charisma and a magnetic personality that allowed him to basically play himself in most of his films. And it’s this charm above all other things that makes them so enjoyable. As for the soundtracks, as ridiculous as some of the songs are, Presley’s voice, his style of singing and his way with a song makes a lot of them more-than-listenable. It also helps that there are some genuine gems to be found in these films. The movies are wonderful as ‘comfort viewing’. Often they feature great photography of some beautiful locales, great looking female co-stars, they feature scenarios and lifestyles that any young (or young at heart) person would love to find themselves in and they feature Elvis being Elvis.

By 1967, though, Presley had had enough. He wanted – needed – the exhilaration of live performance again. So, the wheels were set in motion to stop making movies and get back to making records and back to the concert stage. Author Alana Nash has written a mesmerizing book on Col. Tom Parker and his relationship with EP. In this book, she puts forth an astounding notion. Elvis didn’t write his own songs. As previously stated, Parker had a stable of songwriters who were not affiliated with Elvis because they were great songwriters but because they were willing to give up a large percentage of their portion of the profits gained from songwriting to Colonel Tom. These songwriters simply did not have what it took to write songs with a style or a quality to rival the output of Bob Dylan, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Therefore, Elvis spending the bulk of the 1960’s in the vacuum of Hollywood and the family-friendly musical comedy served to preserve his celebrity and keep him visible during this turbulent, political era. Talent and charisma aside, the notion is put forth by author Nash that Presley did not have the apparatus in place to stay relevant during the music scene of the ’60’s. The movies kept him alive in the industry until the time was ripe to bust out of the celluloid prison he was trapped in.

When he emerged, he embarked on a season of artistry that rivaled the significance of his first years. His timing was perfect. Yet again.

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 4 – Private Presley

Welcome to Day 4 of Elvis Week 2017! It’s the week-long celebration of the 82nd anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birth. Today’s episode…

Day 4: Private Presley – It was 1958. Elvis Presley had revolutionized the music business and much of society. It’s hard to overstate the historic and cultural changes that began to take place in the mid-Fifties that EP was at the forefront of. By this point, he had bought Graceland and was at what some would say was his artistic peak. That was when Uncle Sam came calling. A two-year hitch in the Armed Forces was required of American young men at that time and King was no different. They allowed him the time to finish his finest film containing one of his two best dramatic performances – “King Creole” – and then it was off to Germany where he was stationed. Col. Tom Parker thought this was great publicity. He refused to have ‘his boy’ in the Special Services and thought it would be great for Presley’s image to have him simply soldiering with the rest of the fellas. Elvis’ hitch in the Army was major news at the time and his induction and most of his movements getting over to Germany were heavily scrutinized by the media. And Presley was worried. Worried what condition his career would be in when he got out. Two years away in the entertainment industry of the 1950’s, in particular, was a long time. Parker held back recordings to be doled out at particular intervals to maintain the flow of new material while Elvis was away. But Presley wasn’t the only one worried. Gladys Presley was terrified by the prospect of her boy getting hurt or killed while in the Army. This worry was only slightly quelled when Elvis’ parents and grandmother, Minnie Mae, were relocated to a house near where Elvis was stationed in Germany. Unfortunately, Gladys began to gain weight and to experience a decline in her health. She was diagnosed with hepatitis and her condition gradually worsened. She died in August of ’58. Elvis was devastated. We talked on Day 1 about how close Elvis was to his mother. Her death was a major blow to him and one wonders if the rest of his life and career would have been different – perhaps more stable, grounded – if she had lived. This is a huge element of his story to consider. Again I have to say that there are so many facets of the life of Elvis Presley to explore that it’s hard to do it in so short a space. Consider his hitch in the Army alone. While in the Armed Forces, his mother died, he took up karate, he experienced international travel for the only time in his life, he was introduced to amphetamines and he met his future wife, Priscilla. All of these could be dissected in detail. Yet another huge element arising out of this time in Elvis’ life is the plan the Colonel came up with for his one and only client’s career when he emerged from the Armed Forces. While Presley had been in the Army, rock ‘n’ roll had suffered an extreme watering down. The Colonel thought it only logical that now was the time for his boy to reinvent himself as an entertainer for all ages. The edgy rebelliousness of rock might fall out of favour with the bulk of the record-buying public. It was risky. But someone who made wholesome films the whole family could enjoy? Now, that seemed like a sure thing.

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