Elvis Presley, rock 'n' roll, Top Ten List

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 5

I have a family friend, a lady who was a teenager during Elvis Presley’s ascendancy in the late ’50’s-early ’60’s. She knew I was an Elvis guy and would often talk about how much she loved him. She was one of those people of a certain age who claim Elvis as their own and say things like “I have all his records”. I always have a feeling with people like this that they love Elvis the Superstar, Elvis the Icon. They collect the cheesiest Elvis artifacts and souvenirs. In a way, it’s similar to the way Britons loved American blues and rhythm and blues in the 1960’s perhaps even more than Americans did. The thinking being that – in the UK – they were observing things from a distance and therefore could see the glory in the music that much better. People born in the same era as Elvis – people that grew up with him – definitely see him in a different way and love him for different reasons. Those of us born, say, in the early 1970’s perhaps look at him from a more historical standpoint. Our generation is maybe more apt to dig beneath the surface and to study a performer like Elvis Presley the same way we might research the Vietnam war – digging in and wanting to know the origins and the significance. Those of us who begin to grasp the importance of the King do the research, look into all his recordings from all the eras and collect it all because we want to know it all. Back to my family friend and her generation. When the 45s came out in the ’50’s, they bought them – they bought them all until they themselves got married and had kids and life took over. Therefore, they say “I have all his records” when really they’ve never even heard 80% of what he recorded. And they don’t look at Elvis or GRASP him in the same way. A perfect example is the time when this lady family friend brought me her Elvis cassette. She said I would appreciate it and I could have it. I looked at it and actually it was interesting. It was his “Gold Records Vol. 4” album. Cool, I’m thinking, that’s different. I open it and take the cassette out. Oddly, the songs listed on the tape are “Kentucky Rain” and “Don’t Cry Daddy” and others from that era. This was not the same album the cover showed! I looked at the tape more closely: “As Sung By Ronnie McDowell”, it said. I was dumbfounded. I carried on with my thank you’s but I was floored. It got me thinking: this woman was there when it was happening. She should be a bigger fan than me. Yet one of her prized possessions was an album of songs sung NOT by Elvis but by the world’s premier Elvis sound-alike. But here’s the thing: she was happy. She loved Elvis. He made her feel good. He was a part of her fondest memories of life. I thought she was crazy but she got just as much out of Elvis as I – the ‘Elvis scholar’ – did. And that’s The Thing About the King. People LOVE him. The people that think Ronnie McDowell is Elvis and have never heard “Just Pretend” and wear the airbrushed jackets and t-shirts from the flea market with Elvis riding on the clouds or something, they love him. And the people that research his time spent at Crown Electric or dig into his relationship with his step-brothers or try to figure out if Toby Kwimper is really the predecessor of Forrest Gump, they love him, too. Us scholars may scoff at these older fans but, look at them, they’re happy. They love Elvis, too. The only thing I would say, though, is those people could be so much happier if they really dug in to Elvis World. They love the tip of the iceberg. I think the other 80% would be exciting for them to learn about, too.

And that goes for music fans in general. I don’t know if any iconic superstar suffers more from being not fully understood than Elvis Presley. The image, as the man himself once said, is one thing. The man is another. People that reject the suggestion that Elvis may be more significant than Bruce Springsteen don’t really know the whole story. It’s a shame to think that the coming generation sees Elvis only as the black and white rebel with the curled lip, or the Hollywood victim being neutered by endless ‘playful romp’ films or the bombastic jump-suited ’70’s prince from another planet. They may love “Don’t Be Cruel” and that’s great. But if you want a real treat, look into Elvis Presley. Dig a bit deeper. I guarantee you you’ll be glad you did. His is essentially a sad story but it’s riveting.

Wow. Sorry. I don’t think I intended to get so deep. After all, we’re here to celebrate the 83rd anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley by trying to figure out what his best songs are. We’ve been through the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s and also looked at the movie music. And don’t forget; he also recorded some stellar Christmas music and some truly stirring gospel, the music he maybe connected with most. I need to thank you all for reading these posts. It’s fun for me to write them but it’s always better when someone reads them. I hope I’ve made some sense – I don’t always! In the end, these posts were read by over 600 people in 23 countries; “Elvis World”, indeed! Once again, thank you. Thank you very much.

Finally, I’ve submitted for your approval The Ten Greatest Recordings of Elvis Presley. Let the debating – and the listening – begin!

10. “What a Wonderful Life” (1961) — Movie song from “Follow That Dream”. The lyrics reflect the freedom depicted in the movies.

9. “Separate Ways” (1972) — The saddest song I ever heard. An absolutely heartbreaking commentary on the break-up of Elvis and Priscilla written by Red West.

8. “I Got Lucky” (1961) — A sublime pop vocal. Like a personal family heirloom to me. A cherished gem.

7. “Rubberneckin'” (1969) — The King struts through this balls-out rocker recorded back home in Memphis.

6. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (1957) — A stunning, savage vocal on the greatest Christmas rock ‘n’ roll song ever recorded.

5. “Burning Love” (1972) — Polished sound. Ringing guitar. Full-throttle, crowd-pleasing iconic rocker.

4. “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) — One of his two or three best vocal performances ever. Fan favourite and the title track from one of his two or three best movies ever.

3. “Promised Land” (1973) — Maybe the single most energetic song I’ve ever heard. And probably the coolest. An absolute freight train.

2. “A Little Less Conversation” (1968) — Probably my favourite Elvis song. A thrilling late-’60’s rock ‘n’ roll song from maybe his greatest soundtrack. Just a delight to listen to – and sing along to.

1. “Suspicious Minds” (1969) — And here we are. The King’s “masterpiece”. A shining moment from some unbelievable sessions and the second-most significant set of recording dates of his career. Of history, maybe. The most confident, assured and vibrant rock vocals you could ever ask to hear.

I can’t thank you enough for reading. I’ve had a blast sharing my thoughts with you. Happy Birthday, EP! And thanks.

Me and My Man

**the image used in this post I actually own!**

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Elvis Presley, rock 'n' roll, Top Ten List

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 1

The holidays are over so depression automatically sets in? I don’t buy that. Gladys Love Presley saw fit to have her baby, Elvis Aaron Presley, on January 8th, 1935. That means that January’s Elvis Week begins on January the 2nd. New Year’s Day marks the official end of the Christmas season and the next morning you wake up and – bam! – it’s Elvis Week!

For this Elvis Week, I’ve decided to tackle the enormous task of ranking the best recordings of Elvis Presley. In a way, though, this is an easy task. He has SO MANY stellar records that a Top Ten list could include many different songs and still be valid. It would be pretty hard to debate any one person’s choices. And how do we define “best”? I’ve tried to be really clinical and highlight songs that are sung and played well – which is a ridiculous statement, they all are but what I mean is: songs that are universally held to be “great”, with maybe some personal faves thrown in. This “greatness” will also include intangibles like a wonderful turn of phrase, a stellar performance from a musician, a connection to an event in Elvis World, or historical and cultural significance. I’ve also broken his career down into decades: ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s, all distinct eras of Presley recordings. Other categories could have included best movie songs, best Gospel songs, best live recordings, best Christmas tunes… I’ve decided to go with the three decades and movie music. As a fifth and final post, I’ll try to take the best from each list and arrive at “The Best Elvis Presley Song”. This will obviously not be definitive but instead will simply serve as a good starting point for debate and comparison. Although, again, I have to say that it will probably be hard to say that the song that emerges here as his ‘best’ is NOT his best – it just may not be your favourite or the one you think is the best representation of the King at the top of his form.

Anyways, blah, blah, blah. I think you know what I mean. Here’s my Top Ten Elvis Presley Song: the ’50’s:

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On the cusp. Publicity photo, early RCA days. January, 1956.

10. “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (for Me)” (1957) — It could be argued that Elvis Presley was a gospel singer who got stuck singing rock ‘n’ roll just to pay the bills. (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/paying-the-bills/) Indeed, in the early days, he auditioned to join legendary gospel quartet the Blackwood Brothers but was turned down. In 1956, Presley burst onto the scene and the powers that be denounced him as ‘evil’. The idea of him singing gospel or revered Christmas carols was repugnant to the establishment. But I have always maintained that, as the Lord had blessed him with his singing voice, that voice shined particularly bright when he sang certain gospel music. “Peace in the Valley” was written by Tommy Dorsey – not that Tommy Dorsey but gospel songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey. It appeared on the biggest selling Christmas album of all time, “Elvis’ Christmas Album”. His recording, featuring the Jordanaires and some fine, mellow guitar playing, is stellar. In a particularly moving moment, EP performed it on his third and final appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1957. The screaming teenagers quieted down and Presley showed the frowning parents watching at home another side of his talent and personality. Watch how he backs up into the Jordanaires as he looks down and sings “there will be peace…”. It’s not showmanship – it’s the singing he had done in his church and in his homes all of his life. Sullivan had once sworn to never have Presley the reprobate on his show. After King sang “Peace in the Valley”, Sullivan came out and solemnly declared Elvis to be a “decent, fine boy”. It is actually an emotional moment and one of great cultural significance.

9. “Heartbreak Hotel” (1956) — In many respects, this song marks The Beginning. It’s writing was inspired by a newspaper report of a suicide and the note that was left behind (“I walk a lonely street”) and it was presented to Elvis in late 1955, before he had moved from Sun Records to RCA. Elvis loved it immediately and memorized the song vowing to record it at his next session. That came in January of ’56 and it was the second song Elvis recorded at his first session for RCA. The songwriters, upon hearing Presley’s echoy, bluesy recording, could not recognize their song. This started a trend that saw Presley take a song and make it his own. Although he almost NEVER received a credit as such, from the VERY BEGINNING Elvis was the arranger and producer at all of his recording sessions. In Sam Phillips words, the credited producer at Elvis’ sessions was “not a producer. (They were) just at every session”. “Heartbreak Hotel” became a hit of gargantuan proportions. Number 1 on the pop and country charts, top 5 on the R&B chart, 27 weeks in the Top 100, the biggest selling single of 1956 and EP’s first million-seller. It started a chart run lasting 21 years that is unrivaled in music history. Number 45 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Co-written by Mae Boren Axton. Her son, Hoyt, wrote “Joy to the World” and “Never Been to Spain” in the ’70’s, the latter of which King recorded. See? This is what I’m talking about. This song could easily be called his best of the ’50’s and even his best EVER but here it’s 9th! Whatever. Onward.

8. “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I” (1959) — I can see some of you have your eyebrows raised. This tune over “Heartbreak Hotel”?! Well, yeah. It’s the vocal. Maybe this tune, recorded by Elvis on a leave from the Army, serves as sort of a bridge between the animalistic singing of ’56-’57 and the pop vocalizing to come in the early ’60’s. It’s still sexy but it is delivered with such finesse, the lyrics are caressed. Simply, it’s the sounds he makes on this record that are so delightful. “I’m a fool but I’ll love you, dear…”. Written in 1952, it was recorded by Canadian Hank Snow, Tommy Edwards and Jo Stafford before Elvis released his version as the B side of “I Need Your Love Tonight”. “A Fool Such As I” went to #2 in the US and #1 in the UK. King’s version was nominated for Record of the Year at the 2nd annual Grammy Awards. It was later recorded by Bob Dylan.

7. “All Shook Up” (1957) — This song is notable in Elvis’ canon for being what I think is his most successful single ever in terms of chart activity. Number 1 on the US pop charts for 7 weeks, in the Top 40 for 21 weeks, #1 on the R&B charts for 4 weeks, #1 in the UK for 7 weeks and Billboard’s #1 song for 1957. Two million copies sold that year. Elvis biographer, Peter Guralnick, says – so it’s true – that Elvis suggested the title to songwriter Otis Blackwell which resulted in King getting one of his few writing credits. The song rolls along in mid-tempo with a vocal that is quintessential EP. #361 on Rolling Stone’s list. Listen to it again – for the first time. The Beatles recorded this during the “Get Back” sessions but it was never officially released and Billy Joel’s 1992 version for the “Honeymoon in Vegas” soundtrack cracked the Top 100. A re-release of Elvis’ version charted again in the weeks after King’s death.

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“All Shook Up” single art. March 22, 1957.

6. “That’s All Right” (1954) — It’s often said that it all started in the summer of 1954. “It” being everything. Recorded July 5 at Sun Studio in Memphis and released July 19th. Written and recorded by blues man Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in 1946, Elvis Presley’s recording is truly the stuff of legend and it is not far-fetched to suggest that “rock ‘n’ roll” was invented by Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black that hot summer afternoon. Long story short: Sam Phillips had been trying to record King in a mellow, ballad setting and things hadn’t been working. On a break, the boys worked out their frustrations by kicking out the jams with a spirited version of Crudup’s old blues. It was literally what Phillips had been looking for; marketable white boys that played music like black guys – the way it should be played. With emotion, energy and grit. Balls. Phillips hit ‘record’, had the boys run through it again and the rest, as they say… To try to understand the significance of the recording, you have to try to understand American society at the time, especially in the South. Such was the climate that, when bassist Bill Black heard the playback – he and his white buddies “sounding black” – he remarked, only half-jokingly: “Damn. Put that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town”. Probably the most significant recording in history that didn’t chart at the time of it’s release, “That’s All Right” sold 20,000 copies and hit #4 on local Memphis charts. In 2004, exactly 50 years after it’s initial release, it was released as a single in England and went to #3! Rolling Stone has argued that it is the first rock ‘n’ roll record and placed it at #113 on it’s Best 500 list.

5. “Too Much” (1957) — This one may not be as well known but it is a personal fave. I also believe it to be a wonderful example of some of Presley’s finest rock ‘n’ roll singing. He is strutting and the way his voice intentionally cracks on the “take” in “take me back, baby, in your arms” is just perfect. This song is exactly what you want from the most staggering 24-month span in any performer’s career. It went to #2 on the pop charts and was top 3 on many lists at the time: Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played by Jockeys, Most Played in Jukeboxes, #3 on the Country chart and #3 on the R&B chart.

4. “Mystery Train” (1955) — “That’s All Right” is his most legendary Sun recording but this may be his best. Junior Parker released the song on Sun in ’53 and one of the mysteries about the track was where the title came from as it is mentioned nowhere in the lyrics. Released by Presley in the late summer of ’55, it’s enduring appeal stems from it’s ominous sound. The echo from Scotty Moore’s guitar sounds sinister in a way and the track brings to mind so many other blues songs from the past that feature lyrics depicting some dark and calamitous happenings in the singer’s life. In “Mystery Train”, the train is the villain and has taken the singer’s baby away. As a single, the song was released as the B side of the country tune “I Forgot to Remember” and made some noise on local country charts. Indeed, “Mystery Train” was the first song to make Presley known as a country singer. The fact that it is not really a country song is further testament to EP’s unique blend of country and R&B. Rolling Stone’s ranking it as high as #77 on it’s 500 list speaks to how highly it is regarded.

3. “Hound Dog” (1956) — There are fewer recordings more iconic than this one. There are fewer tracks that completely encapsulate everything that rock ‘n’ roll was meant to sound like. Like Elvis Presley himself, this song has catapulted into the stratosphere as something other than what it was originally. Like “Rock Around the Clock”, “Hound Dog” is understood historically and culturally but you need to work hard to hear it as a “song”; a song of vicious import, a feral moment in music history that has been taken for granted. Everything about this recording is the foundation of all rock music to come. A direct line can be traced starting with “Hound Dog” and running through Led Zeppelin and all the way to Jack White. Stories of the song’s history before it reached King are legendary and I suggest you read up on it. It was written by two 19-year-olds, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were soon to become legendary in their own right penning classic songs for Elvis and the Coasters. Presley’s version was not only immediately iconic and indicative of the whole rock ‘n’ roll movement but it was extremely successful for Elvis. It was simultaneously No. 1 on the US pop, country, and R&B charts in 1956, and it topped the pop chart for 11 weeks — a record that stood for 36 years. And with a preposterous 10 million copies sold it is one of the biggest-selling singles ever and is the 19th Greatest Song of All-Time according to Rolling Stone Magazine. Presley’s vocal is savage and Scotty Moore invents rock guitar with his work here.

2. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (1957) — So, somebody from Mars – or a teenager of today, same thing – says to you “Who is Elvis Presley? What was he? What did he do that was so great?”. You would show this person some television performances or some concert footage. You would also, surely, play this person some recordings. If you had to pick only, say, five records that would perfectly pinpoint for this stranger ‘what’ Elvis Presley was, you would (or could or should) play them “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. “He’s one of the best singers ever” you would say, “his voice….” you would add, shaking your head. In this seasonal chestnut you would have one of the finest examples of what he did so well with his voice. Not only that but you have that voice in a gritty, blues setting that allows the voice to growl and claw it’s way through the lyrics. The white, clean and neat sound of the Jordanaires does not detract from the raunchy proceedings. Dudley Brooks plays the piano as if he’s recalling days pounding the ivories in seedy juke joints all over the South. And DJ Fontana pounds his snare drum like he’s back in his living room and his parents have just gone out to the hardware store. On top of all this, it’s a Christmas song, a song from a season near and dear to Elvis in many ways. The song is so ridiculously “Elvis” and it’s a shame we can only listen to it during the last six weeks of the year. This is his second-best vocal performance of the 1950’s. Bettered only by…

1. “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) — One of the best-known Elvis Presley songs due to the production number version of the song contained in the film of the same name. That’s all I’m going to say about that number in the film as I feel it neuters this remarkable recording. The song is another written by Lieber and Stoller; the top three songs on this list are Leiber/Stoller numbers. It had a goofy lyric about life behind bars, the type of song they would have written for their act, the Coasters. But Presley plays it straight and handles it as pure rock ‘n’ roll. This is the prime example of ALL of Presley’s recordings of the relationship between rock singer and rock guitarist. Both Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore lay down performances for the ages on their respective instruments. Along with his work on “Hound Dog”, it is his playing on “Jailhouse Rock” that cements Scotty Moore’s rep as the man who invented rock guitar; no less is he than the man that gave birth to Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Slash. And Presley’s vocal? I dunno…what can I say? This is the pinnacle of what he was as a vocalist. He did well on many ballads throughout his career but this type of singing was his bread and butter and this is probably the best example there is of that type of singing.

Next: The 1960’s – Elvis returns from the Army – and the Colonel has a plan…

USA Los Angeles Elvis Presley

Press conference, private railway car, Los Angeles. 1960.

(**the images and media used in this post are not mine**)

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Frank Sinatra, music, Top Ten List

The Best of Everything Part 3: Frank’s World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up Next: The Long Journey Into Evening…

 

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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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Elvis Presley, In Memoriam, Red West

Red West: One of the Good Ones

Robert Gene “Red” West died this past July, aged 81, of an aortic aneurysm. He had “pains” in the afternoon and, by evening, he was dead. Red is probably best known as a longtime “bodyguard” of Elvis Presley. They met in high school and formed a bond that lasted until 1977, the year Elvis died. As this month we mark to 40th anniversary of Presley’s death, it’s timely to take a quick look at the interesting life of Red West.

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Red and Elvis boxing, June 14, 1956

Red was born is Memphis and attended Humes High School with his cousin, Sonny West, at the same time Elvis did. Red was a strapping, red-headed athlete and knew Elvis only by sight when he came upon a group of toughs hassling Elvis in the boys bathroom. Quiet Elvis, with his slick hair piled up in a pompadour and guitar slung over his shoulder, was regularly the brunt of teasing. Famously, Red confronted the gang and managed to extricate Elvis from the situation. A friendship was born. Red went on to occupy a unique position in “Elvis World”. Never a sycophantic ‘yes man’, Red was something unique to Elvis: he was his friend. That’s not to say that their relationship ran smoothly. Far from it. But through it all I think it can be seen that Red’s motives were pure in his relations with Elvis even though Red was strong-willed enough to go toe-to-toe with his boss at times. Also, as we’ll see, he was more than capable of operating and earning outside of just working for Elvis. Keep in mind that “working for Elvis” meant a lot of good things but it also meant that you never had money of your own.

Red West was nothing if not a “good, ol’ boy” and he and Elvis hit it off instantly when they met. It floored Red when he heard his buddy on the radio and it was soon after that Elvis decided he wanted Red around so Red began driving Elvis and his band to dates. Red also tackled the challenging job of simply getting Elvis from the car to the stage door which became increasingly difficult as Elvis’ publicity soared and the girls that went to these concerts began to grow more and more demonstrative. As we’ve discussed, Red was big, strong and hot-headed. Simply put, if you stepped to him it was lights out for you. On the eve of Elvis heading to Hollywood to make his first movie, Red got into another fight. Elvis’ father, Vernon, was petrified of bad publicity and had the first of his shouting matches with Red, telling Red he was not going to make the trip to Hollywood. Red, mostly disappointed that Elvis did not have his back, blew a gasket and said he was quitting to join the Marines, which he did. Already we see Red’s “no BS” policy in effect. While many would endure anything and toe the line to ensure a free ride through life with Elvis Presley, Red wasn’t having it and quit.

Two years later came the event that perhaps is the most significant in “Elvis World”; the death of Elvis’ beloved mother, Gladys. Months before her death, Red showed up in Memphis on a two-week leave from the Marines. He learned that Elvis was in Hollywood but stopped by Graceland to pay his respects to Mrs. Presley. Before he left, Gladys implored him – as indeed she did any and all of those in EP’s circle – to “look after my boy”, indicating plainly the anxiety and worry that had plagued her since her only child had become famous. Red called Elvis from Memphis and King flew Red out to the coast, Red arriving on the set at Paramount a “crew-cut hick” in his Marine uniform. He spent the rest of his leave hanging out with Elvis in the California sun and then headed back to camp in Virginia. In August of 1958, Gladys Presley died and Elvis was beside himself. As soon as Red heard of his friends’ distress, he asked for leave from the Marines and was denied. However, later that same day, Red learned that his own father was gravely ill and was heading home to be with him when he received word that he had passed. He was unable to attend Gladys’ funeral but was dumbfounded when Elvis appeared at the funeral for Red’s father. Elvis, only two days removed from laying his beloved mother to rest and still overcome with grief, almost had to be helped over to Red where the two wept together. Elvis lamented the fact that just two days earlier he had been in the same funeral home for Gladys’ services  and now he was joining his friend in his sorrow over his father. At this moment was born a unique bond between Red West and Elvis Presley; they each had lost a parent on the same day.

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Margit Burgin, Elvis and Red, Bad Homburg, Germany, October, 1958

Elvis was in the Army going through his basic training when Gladys died. Shortly after, still mourning the loss of his mother, he prepared to ship out to Germany. On the eve of his departure, Red, fresh out of the Marines, came to say goodbye. On a whim, Elvis asked Red to come with him and he did. Mostly, Elvis desperately needed people with him; his friends, people from back home who ‘knew’ him and that would have been reason enough to have Red in Germany with him. But there was more than that. Red – and others – have been called ‘bodyguards’ but they had to do much more. There was always plans to be made and details to look after and Elvis never actually traveled with a ‘staff’ so ‘the guys’ looked after things. But protecting Elvis from overzealous fans could be a full-time job and Red did it well. Red was sometimes VERY aggressive when carrying out his duties and there was often fights. Once again, Elvis’  father, Vernon, would be sick with worry over the potential of bad press and would get into screaming matches with Red. And, once again, Red got fed up and quit.

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Red and Elvis jam on the set of “It Happened at the World’s Fair”, 1963

Returning Stateside, Red traveled to Hollywood where he looked up people he had met through Elvis, people like Nick Adams and Robert Conrad both of whom had their own TV shows. Robert Conrad was making “Hawaiian Eye” and later “Wild, Wild West” and Red was able to find regular stunt work on these and other television shows. When Elvis returned from Germany in 1960, he tracked down Red and they renewed their friendship. It wasn’t long before Elvis was heading to Hollywood to start his movie-making machine throughout the ’60’s. He used Red often and the sharp-eyed can spot him in the films. He was usually the first guy to attack Elvis when the fight broke out. Interesting when you think of actors back then and the way they liberally used stunt men for even the most innocuous looking scrap. But here was Elvis and Red, a couple of redneck hillbilly boys, getting paid to do on camera what they had always done for kicks down at Graceland. Sometimes Red even got to say a few lines. He portrayed Elvis’ brother in “Wild in the Country”, for example. One of the many interesting things about Red West was that even with his athletic prowess and his proficiency as a street fighter, he was also a songwriter. He began to make inroads in the music industry by writing songs, making a demo recording featuring himself singing and then shopping it around to see if someone would record it. Quite often, he would present these songs to Elvis and the King recorded many of them: “If Every Day Was Like Christmas”, “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees”, “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and the incredibly heartbreaking “Separate Ways”. This means that Red West, a “bodyguard”, wrote better material for Elvis than some of the professional songwriters writing songs for Elvis’ movies. Red’s involvement in EP’s recording career went even deeper. Often times Elvis could not be bothered to appear at the recording studio to decide on and record songs for his movies. Red was often recruited to go to the studio, sift through AND CHOOSE the songs that Elvis would sing in the movies. Once the songs were picked, Red would record them with the band, singing them in the way he knew Elvis would. He would then take the recordings to Elvis so Elvis could learn them before going in to record them properly. Red also joined Elvis in his passion for karate, sparring with Elvis and for a time running a karate school in Memphis. When Elvis’ marriage to Priscilla was on the rocks, she took up with renown karate instructor Mike Stone. Elvis was enraged. He was determined to have Stone killed. Who did he turn to? Red West. West recalls he felt he was in a daze while he arranged the weaponry and prepared to carry out any instruction Elvis gave him. Finally, Elvis cooled down and said ‘forget it. It’s too heavy’. Red breathed a sigh of relief.

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Sonny West, Elvis and Red, Atlanta Georgia, June 5, 1976

It’s common knowledge that the 1970’s saw a general decline in Elvis Presley’s health. A lot – but not all – of this was due to his use of pharmaceuticals. Red was especially persistent in trying to steer Elvis away from this lifestyle. Elvis always maintained that he knew what he was doing. He was not addicted and he knew how to use prescription drugs responsibly to relive his many ailments. In this negative atmosphere, with many close to Elvis becoming increasingly concerned with the changes in his habits and his sometimes violent reactions, everyone was on edge. In the mid-1970’s, there were a couple of instances when Elvis had his life threatened and his security staff had to be particularly vigilant. Quite often, certain lines may have been crossed in dealing with unruly fans. It was undoubtedly hard to tell, in the heat of the moment, who was a homicidal maniac and who was simply an excited fan. Again there were fights, beatings. Vernon – always petrified of being poor again and trying vainly to curb his son’s extravagant spending – continually questioned Elvis’ need of such a large ‘staff’ and when lawsuits started to mount up due to Red’s and others physicality, Vernon pushed through the idea of firing many employees. Three security men – Red West, his cousin and long-time Elvis associate Sonny West and newly arrived Dave Hebler were let go. By Vernon. Red West was hurt and angry. 22 years with Elvis and fired by Vernon without a word from Elvis. Here’s where the big debate regarding Red that polarizes many Elvis fans begins. Red is suddenly and cruelly expelled from the life of his long time friend. He is left without a job (although working for Elvis NEVER actually PAID much). He is angry, sure, at the way he’s been treated but also at the way Elvis is killing himself. In an effort to make money but also to hopefully prompt Elvis to right the ship, Red writes a book. Together with his cousin Sonny and Dave Hebler, they publish the infamous “Elvis: What Happened?”. The book is published in the summer of 1977, two weeks before Elvis dies. Knowing what we know about Elvis’ dependence on pharmaceuticals it’s tough to remember that, before Red’s book was released, the general public had no idea that anything was amiss in Elvis World. The book shocked the public and devastated Elvis. Red took a lot of flak over exposing many secrets as “silence” had long been the mantra of the Memphis Mafia. But let’s face hard facts: Elvis’ intake of prescription drugs was mammoth and – although he did indeed have legitimate health issues – over-prescribing himself was killing him. It has been suggested that Red, Sonny and Dave were the only ones of the inner circle who actively pestered Elvis to get his act together and this could be one of the reasons they were dismissed. Also, as I’ve explored in previous posts, Elvis’ father could never enjoy his son’s success as he lived in fear of one day being poor again. The Memphis Mafia were nothing but hangers-on according to Vernon and he NEVER wanted ANY of them around and this presents an obvious reason why the boys were fired. The debate rages in Elvis World: was Red motivated solely by greed or was he legitimately trying to help his friend by exposing his foibles? No one can say for sure. However, I’ve learned that analyzing the life and career of Elvis Presley is a massive undertaking.  There is so little black or white in his tale and so much room for conjecture. I have found that you need to have all the information. Consider many different accounts from many different sources. Mostly I think what you have to do is accept that Elvis was human. He was an incredibly charismatic man who lived a life that had no blueprint – NO ONE before him had trod a similar path. But he was human and, like all of us, heavily flawed. So when you take the case of Red West you have to look at the facts. Before Elvis was anything but an outcast, really, Red stood up for him – even though the two high school kids barely knew each other. He helped Elvis in the early days but then left to join the Marines. Elvis opened doors in Hollywood for Red, yes, but Red walked through most of them himself and built his own career and reputation in film. Red worked for Elvis through the ’60’s but also found success working with other artists and wrote some high quality material for Elvis. Three prominent members of Elvis’ inner circle wrote a massive book on their lives with the King. In it, they agree that Red wrote his book to make money – naturally. After all, he had a story to tell that many people would want to hear. But they also all agree that NO ONE was closer to or loved Elvis more than Red West. And, while we’re facing facts, most of the claims in Red’s book have been proved accurate. In the summer of ’77, a shocking book is published with hard-to-believe allegations about Presley’s drug use – allegations that had NEVER been raised before. Then TWO WEEKS after this ‘outrageous’ book is published, Elvis Presley dies a drug-related death. You really have to look up the facts and draw your own conclusions.

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The infamous book, released two weeks before Elvis died.

 

After Red’s life with Elvis came to a close, he became a full-time actor earning a recurring role in Robert Conrad’s series “Black Sheep Squadron”. He also made guest appearances in many television shows throughout the 1980’s. He is perhaps best known to audiences for his role in the classic Patrick Swayze film “Roadhouse”. He also appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rainmaker” and Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer”. Unbeknownst to just about everybody, he gained his first starring role in the 2008 independent film “Goodbye Solo”. Roger Ebert called it “a masterwork” and the New York Times hailed it as “a near-perfect film”.

A major player in the life of Elvis Presley has died this year, the 40th anniversary of the death of the King. The Memphis Mafia is never included in official family business in Memphis during the annual Elvis Week marking the anniversary of his passing but this year Red and his wife of 56 years, Pat (Red met Pat when she was a secretary for Elvis) were going to be involved in some events with longtime Elvis associate, disc jockey George Klein. Unfortunately, that won’t happen now. It’s this Elvis fan’s opinion that Red West gets a pass. He gets the benefit of the doubt. There really is too much evidence to support the deep love that flowed between Red and Elvis. They went back too far together and Red had too many more options outside of Elvis to make any of Red’s actions purely mercenary. One of the many sad parts of Elvis’ story is the people he left behind. People who lost a son, a grandson, a father and a friend. Many people were left behind to suffer with sadness, frustration, anger and guilt. Red West was one of these people. And he was one of the good ones.

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Vernon Presley, Elvis and Red, Chicago, 1972

 

 

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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 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.

Dino Paul Crocetti was born June 7, 1917 in Steubenville, 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 Steubenville 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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