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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beach party, movies, summer

Summer Movie Blogathon: “Muscle Beach Party”

(Note: I’m thrilled to be writing this post as a part of Chris Sturhann’s “Summer Movie Blogathon” on his Blog of the Darned https://chrissturhann.blogspot.ca/)

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I discovered the Beach Boys when I was 12 years old. Soon I began to grow enamored of mid-century Southern Californian culture in it’s entirety. This quickly and obviously led me to the “beach party” movies, especially those produced by American International Studios in the early-to-mid 1960’s. The first film I discovered in this genre was 1964’s “Muscle Beach Party”. On a personal note, I had taped it off TV when it was broadcast on the late, late show on CITY TV in Toronto where I grew up. It was part of their line-up of “Not So Great Movies”. You often hear people say ‘I’ve watched that movie 100 times!’. While I may not have seen “Muscle Beach Party” 100 times, I must’ve watched that video tape dozens of times.

“Muscle Beach Party” was released in March of 1964. It was the second in American International’s “beach party” movie series which began the previous year with “Beach Party”. This second film also features the most unlikely looking beach types in Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello as Frankie and Dee Dee. Also returning are John Ashley, Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, Morey Amsterdam, Jody McCrea and many of the “beach party” guys and girls. The film opens with three car loads of kids beginning some vacation time on the beach at Malibu. Frankie and Dee Dee are the leaders of this troupe but early on we see a hint a trouble as Dee Dee seems to be withholding affection from Frank.

Muscle Beach Party frame grabs (34)

It’s Easter vacation and the gang is heading to Malibu where they’ve rented a house on the beach. Morning finds them hitting the surf and discovering a yacht anchored just offshore. Relaxing on the beach, Frankie talks to Dee Dee about some of his dreams. He loves being free to surf and feels like there is an ’80 foot wave’ out there just waiting for him. A gym full of muscle men has set up shop next to the kids’ house lead by ‘trainer’ Jack Fanny. The kids watch the men doing their morning exercises and heckle and mock them. Out on the yacht, “Bella Contessa”, we meet S.Z. Matts who is the business manager and traveling companion of the very rich Julie Giatta-Borgini. Julie has dragged S.Z. to this neck of the woods in her desire to “buy” Flex Martian, the head muscle man, whom she has fallen in love with while looking at his picture in a magazine. She heads to the beach for a look at Flex and the other muscle men and takes Flex back to the yacht for lunch. Next we see Frankie and Dee Dee stealing away for some alone time by the fire on the beach. Instead of reverie, the discussion gets heated. Dee Dee wants Frankie to grow up, settle down and accept responsibility. Frankie, of course, bristles, declaring he wants no strings. He asks nothing of the world and only takes what’s free: sun, sky, beach and ocean. Back at the muscle house, S.Z.’s assistant, Theodore, continues to negotiate the purchase of the muscle men with Jack Fanny. Jack seems reluctant. When Julie and S.Z. return with Flex, they find that there are still some details to hammer out. Bored with such details, Julie decides to walk on the beach. She overhears Frankie sing a song and kisses him, smitten. This is witnessed by Dee Dee and the two girls trade barbs. Frankie gets slapped and Dee Dee storms off. Meanwhile, S.Z. and Jack have concluded their deal. S.Z. tells Julie the good news but now she says she doesn’t want Flex and Co. She’s in love with Frankie! When Jack, Flex and the muscle men find out they have been jilted, they are none too happy. Later, the kids are hooting at Cappy’s while Dick Dale entertains. Frankie and Dee Dee are trying to patch things up when Julie comes in asking Frankie to sing. Dee Dee sits down in a huff and Julie records Frankie’s song, telling him she’s going to make him a recording star. This infuriates Dee Dee but before she can punch Julie out the muscle men barge in. Jack Fanny declares war on the surfers in order to restore his and Flex’s honour. Before the fists can fly, Deadhead announces that the surf is up and the gang splits. That night, the kids further mock the muscle men and Jack Fanny commits himself to destroying them. Later, in a significant scene on the beach at night, Frankie discusses with Julie whether or not they would be right for each other. Frankie says he’s got paradise right here, right now. Julie tells him he can have all of that and more if he goes away with her. Frankie realizes that Julie and her plans for him are the 80 foot wave he had talked about earlier. This is his dream supposedly coming true. Frankie meets the gang on the beach saying they can all come with him on his adventure. The gang, however, is not having it. They are happy where they are. Thanks but no thanks. Julie and S.Z. run into Dee Dee. Julie explains that Frankie and her are going away together. Dee Dee says that is fine. She is angry but wants Frankie to be happy. Dee Dee storms off and S.Z. wonders aloud if Julie has done the right thing, taking Frankie away. Julie gets upset and asks why can’t she have what these kids have just because she has money. S.Z. wisely suggests that’s it’s a case of “people for people” and that Julie and Frankie don’t fit together. Frankie arrives and begins to pack. S.Z. takes matters into his own hands explaining how Frankie will live off Julie and be “kept”, describing in harsh terms how things will be. Frankie has second thoughts and takes off. S.Z. explains himself to Julie by telling her he was trying to save Frankie and Dee Dee from broken hearts. Frankie runs down to Cappy’s to apologize to Dee Dee and explain to the gang that he was dazzled by Julie’s promises but now he’s come to his senses and realizes that his paradise, his 80 foot wave, is right here with Dee Dee and his friends. Julie arrives to hear the end of his speech and tells Frankie she understands and all is cool. Until the muscle men come in and a ridiculous brawl ensues. The surfers survive the rumble, watch as Julie’s yacht sails away and party the night away on the beach!

Muscle Beach Party lobby card

The first sequel to “Beach Party” (1963) is probably the best of all the ‘beach party’ movies. Perhaps it’s the absence of Harvey Lembeck as the excessively imbecilic Eric Von Zipper that elevates this film. Certainly the cast is the best of the series. In the previous film, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were billed 3rd and 4th behind ‘mature’ leads Bob Cummings and Dorothy Malone but in this second installment they take top billing and center stage. Frankie and Annette may not look like typical Californians but they carry off the roles well. Avalon definitely had personality and he handles the humourous material naturally. When he is called upon to play it serious or angry, he’s also very convincing. When you think about it, for a guy who’s legacy may be lightweight, he sure had a fair amount of acting – and singing – ability. Annette is pretty and bubbly and you can easily buy her as the girl who is planning for the future and encouraging her man to do the same. One thing about American International; they seemed to be able to attract pretty female talent. Case in point is Luciana Paluzzi as the Contessa. The Italian Paluzzi – still with us at 80 – is possibly best known for portraying SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpe in “Thunderball”. She also appeared in “Return to Peyton Place”. John Ashley returns as Johnny (formerly Ken). Small and dark like Avalon, Ashley comes off well as a teen-aged surf bum. He later married “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” actress Deborah Whalley. In the ’80’s, he produced the television show “The A-Team” and provided the narration over the opening credits. Don Rickles appears as trainer Jack Fanny. Rickles is exactly how you’d like him to be – delightfully zany. Jody McCrea plays Deadhead. McCrea – son of Joel McCrea – obviously knows what he is doing onscreen despite getting stuck playing the moron. He is also exactly in the type of shape guys wanted to be in, maybe even more so than the bodybuilders. Dick Dale is actually a straight-up guitar legend. His rep is so huge that it actually suffers from being in these “beach party” movies. His music in the films is not his own and nowhere near indicative of his virtuoso playing. Here he’s cool, though. Virile. Candy Johnson and her crazy dancing? I’m sorry. Terrible. Real life bodybuilder Peter Lupus appears as “Mr. Galaxy – Flex Martian”. Lupus is billed here as “Rock Stevens”, as he was in the many ‘sword and sandal’ films he made in the 1960’s. He is given idiotic lines and doesn’t particularly shine in delivering them but it’s all good. We give Peter a pass because of his work in the television series “Mission: Impossible”, where he shone delivering few lines but effectively portraying the team’s ‘muscle’. Valora Noland and Delores Wells deserve special mention. Fresh-faced and attractive, it’s fun to watch them as they decorate every scene they are in. It is difficult to find any info on the internet about Noland but Wells was a prominent Playboy model in the early ’60’s. Singer Donna Loren doesn’t have any lines and only duets with Dick Dale on one mediocre song so there’s not much to say about her in this film. But she turns in a great performance singing “It Only Hurts When I Cry” in “Beach Blanket Bingo” and had a wonderful voice but a decidedly unsuccessful singing career. She is still thriving in the fashion industry in Hawaii. Morey Amsterdam is loony as Cappy, owner of the kid’s hangout. He was funnier in “Beach Party”. Curiously, Buddy Hackett has a low billing in this film. He is great as the oddly named “S.Z. Matts” and while here he is much less manic than he usually is, he is obviously in control, understands his character – such as he is – and plays him well. Little Stevie Wonder actually sings a song. 13 years old at the time, Stevie here puts me in mind of James Brown in American International’s ‘winter beach party’, “Ski Party”: a whole lot of soul in an extremely white environment. Don’t think Stevie built his rep on having been in “Muscle Beach Party”. Keep an eye out for future “Grizzly Adams”, the late Dan Haggerty as one of the muscle men, cutey Amadee Chabot as one of Jack Fanny’s assistants and Peter Lorre, in his last film, as the silent partner, Mr. Strangdour, the strongest man in the world. I take the time to go over the cast because I think each of the above is worth pointing out. It’s actually a great cast with everyone playing their parts well. It’s interesting to me to note that seemingly everybody in this type of film went on to make either terrible movies, terrible movies in Europe or no movies. Ever seen John Ashley in “Black Mamba”? Or Valora Noland in…like..nothing? But the thing is – that’s OK. We love these actors in these roles. They become our friends. We become one of the gang.

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“Muscle Beach Party” was filmed in part at Paradise Cove in Malibu. The location now is the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe. They have an excellent website (http://www.paradisecovemalibu.com/) and a really good social media presence. Nice to know that you can plan a trip to the actual place where this and other films were made. It’s also great while you watch this movie to look around in the background and see what the land and homes were like at the time. The painting used over the opening credits I call the “Muscle Beach Mural”. It was painted by cartoonist Mike Dormer, whose surfer cartoon character “Hot Curl” can be seen on sweaters throughout the film. I’d kill for one of those sweaters and certainly for the mural. Dormer also created the children’s show “Shrimpenstein” who was a miniature Frankenstein’s monster that was created when his creator dropped a bag of jelly beans in his monster machine. Apparently Frank Sinatra and the boys never missed an episode. Dr. Pepper was prominently placed in the film, which was why Donna Loren appeared to sing a song; she was the “Dr. Pepper Girl” and sang in their commercials. Legendary Beach Boy, Brian Wilson – genius behind the band’s music – co-wrote six songs for the film. With frequent co-writers Roger Christian and Gary Usher, Wilson penned the excellent opener “Surfer’s Holiday” sung by Frankie and Annette and the equally good “Runnin’ Wild” that Frank sings in Cappy’s. Although American International did not capitalize by issuing a soundtrack LP, Frankie Avalon did sing these two songs and others on his album “Muscle Beach Party and Other Movie Songs” on United Artists Records. A quality recording, the first side features songs from the “beach party” movies and side two showcases Avalon’s great voice on songs from other popular films.

Frankie LP

Here’s the thing about this film. Of all the “beach party” movies – including movies in the same vein made by other studios – “Muscle Beach Party” is really the only one that has a script with any merit. I’m referring mainly to the Frankie-Dee Dee-Julie storyline. Early in the film, we see Frankie on the beach talking to Dee Dee. Keep in mind how old these kids are. We are never told specifically but I think it’s safe to assume they all are at the ‘pivot point’ in life – the time when you begin to turn away from your childhood and look forward to being an adult and assuming your role in society. I’ve always felt strongly about this point in life. It is heavy. It is rife with storylines about how well or how poorly people make the transition. I think of John Milner in the great coming-of-age film “American Graffiti”. In that film, it is said of him “y’wanna be like John?! You can’t stay 17 forever”. In our film, Frankie is dreaming out loud on the beach, sharing part of himself with Dee Dee, his girlfriend. “I think about it sometimes”, he says, “out there, way beyond that white boat, there’s a wave building…maybe it’s 80 feet”. Avalon does well getting the viewer to realize that this is his dream in life – maybe not exactly an 80 foot wave but he has dreams of fun, adventure and accomplishment for his life. The more realistic Dee Dee gently shoots him down saying that that wave is in his head. Even a seagull has to come down once in a while. Frankie disgustedly shakes his head: “Girls don’t fly!”. Later, again on the beach, Frankie and Dee Dee have an argument. Dee Dee again encourages Frankie to start making his life count for something. Sidebar: I own the novelization of “Muscle Beach Party” that came out slightly before the film. It’s written by Elsie Lee, a female author, who punches up the idea that Dee Dee is, of course, the more mature of the two. She is – step by step – making Frankie into the man she wants him to be – the man she knows he CAN be. She uses subtle feminine wisdom to get him to begin to be ready to assume responsibility and be an adult. And – most importantly, a husband. Back on the beach, Frankie counters with the simple fact that he is happy. He’s living the way he wants to live. He says that Dee Dee is starting to sound like a wife. He expresses his desire to avoid “time-payment city…being in hock, working 8 to 5”. Dee Dee comes back with the fact that they could have a nice home and fill it with kids. Then Frankie delivers a classic line: “Look, this beach is free and the sky goes straight on up and your life is your own. Now, isn’t that enough?” No, it isn’t, Dee Dee answers. All you do is take, she says. I only take what’s free, Frankie answers. It’s actually a really well written scene and one that virtually everyone can relate to. Women will smile knowingly and think of how much more grounded and sensible – and, let’s face it, more right – they are. Guys will remember their youthful freedom and how reluctant they were to give it up and face reality. In the midst of all this hassle with Dee Dee, in comes Julie, the Contessa who is gorgeous and filthy rich. She takes a shine to Frankie. Later comes the important scene I alluded to in the synopsis. It’s night and Frankie and Julie are on the beach. When Frankie asks Julie “where do you go on that big, white boat?”, Julie talks about all the wonderful places she can take him. He asks about surf and she replies “the riders look like gods skimming the crest of the waves”. Frankie looks off into the distance and it hits him: “it’s an 80 foot wave”. He realizes that Julie is handing him everything he’s ever wanted. It’s a dream come true and Frank is all in. Until S.Z. shines a bit of light on the realities of “life with La Contessa”. Frank’s second thoughts lead him to a realization. Frankie realizes that he is already living his dream life. He loves Dee Dee. He loves being leader of the gang. He loves his life: living, working, saving for holidays like this and dreaming. Taking him away from all that is not a dream come true. He has been asked a question that is seemingly easy to answer: what is your perception of paradise? I have a special place in my heart for this idea as it formed the basis of the novel I started writing in my early 20’s and have yet to finish (20+ years later).

Let’s get one thing straight: I understand that most surf movies (except “Big Wednesday”) are lame. I know how none of them accurately depicted true surf culture and how “Gidget” resulted in the glutting of Malibu, ruining it for real surfers. And I know that the American International pictures in particular are goofy and kind of dumb. I’m not suggesting that the Academy take another look at these films. They are guilty pleasures, I always say. I’m a fan not a critic. And what I am saying is that these films are really enjoyable if only as snapshots of a wonderful time in American history. The location shooting, some of the things you see in the background or the furnishings in the beach houses, the cars all combine to make these films delightful especially to those of us immersed in mid-century culture. “Muscle Beach Party” is a great example of one of these films. Films I like to call “delightfully ridiculous”.

Muscle Beach Party

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Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 3

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

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

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

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

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Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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