Christmas, music, Top Ten List, Tradition

Christmas Music: The Deep Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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