A Cork on the Ocean: Your Guide to the Music of the Beach Boys Part 3

Sirius XM has launched a Beach Boys channel for the summer! Listening to the music of Brian Wilson, et al. randomly has inspired me to highlight these timeless songs in a 3-part series. So, let’s go surfin’ now!

The Beach Boys broke new ground in 1974. They ventured into a new stratum that pleased the masses no end. But for the group itself, it must’ve felt like something of a denouement. By the early ’70’s, the Beach Boys had fallen out of favour with the record buying public. 1973’s “Holland” peaked Stateside at #36 with it’s highest charting single, “Sail On, Sailor”, reaching #79. Prior to that, “Carl and the Passions – So Tough” had confused the public and stalled at #50 with “Marcella” performing poorly as a single, peaking at #110. The Boys were under a new record deal with Warner Brothers who apparently had so little confidence in “So Tough” that it was initially released as a set with “Pet Sounds”. Their stock in the industry was at an all-time low. There are many factors that contributed to the state the Beach Boys found themselves in at this point.

Then in 1973 George Lucas released his seminal coming-of-age film, “American Graffiti”, which I touched on in Part One. Lucas’ ode to his teenage years contained wall-to-wall music – the first film to do so – as 1963 was depicted as not only the golden age of youth but also as an era when pop music was every kid’s friend and the radio was a constant companion. It is telling that Lucas chose Beach Boys songs as part of this tableau. It is even more significant that he chose the melancholy “All Summer Long” to play over the closing credits as a bittersweet coda to the pleasures and simplicity of youth. Lucas’ film was the original sleeper hit, the soundtrack was landmark in it’s conception and rock ‘n’ roll of this golden era was embraced again. That’s when Capitol Records stepped in.

When the venerable record company thought that Brian had misstepped with “Pet Sounds”, it’s reaction was to celebrate the past by releasing the first Beach Boys compilation, “The Best of the Beach Boys”. Then when Brian announced he was shelving “SMiLE”, Capitol looked back again and issued a “Volume 2”. When 1968’s “Friends” album sold poorly, Capitol again mined the vault and released “Volume 3”. And again in 1974, when perhaps Capitol figured that the Beach Boys’ best days were behind them and also wanting to capitalize on the spotlight George Lucas had just shone on them, they looked to the past again. They gathered up 20 Beach Boys favourites and issued a double LP in the summer of ’74. “Endless Summer” seemed to confirm Lucas’ assertion that the Beach Boys belonged in a past era. It seems that every time the band tried to step outside the box and take a contemporary direction with their music, if it didn’t catch like wildfire, Capitol dusted off the oldies.

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Along with the Eagles first compilation, “Endless Summer” is a legendary anthology that has sold millions of copies.

“Endless Summer” became one of the most pivotal albums in the band’s career. It came at a low ebb for the band’s record sales, chart success and group unity. The compilation sold three million copies and performed incredibly well on the charts peaking at #1 (only their second US#1 album) and spending 155 weeks on the charts. That’s basically three years. And consider this: the next 3 “Beach Boys” albums released in the following 2 years were greatest hits packages. So, how did the group feel about this? Remember this is a band comprised of men who are only in their late 20’s and early 30’s. Men who still had new music in them, men who were still writing new songs and still had something to say.

Mike Love was over the moon. He was vindicated. Not being able to write by himself and not having Brian around to write with, Mike was more than happy to strut around the concert stage in one of his 10,000 hats singing “Fun, Fun, Fun” while the crowd cheered and sang along. But for Carl and Dennis, for example, they were just beginning to have their own music heard. They were just beginning to drag the band – and themselves – out from Brian’s shadow and cut a trail of their own. What? Were they just supposed to give all that up and become an “oldies act”?

I’ve mentioned Kent Crowley’s biography of Carl, “Long Promised Road”. I think the best thing I got from that book, the thing I hadn’t really considered in 30+ years of loving the Beach Boys, is that they were the very first “oldies act”. Because of the enormous success their back catalogue was experiencing, they became a hot concert draw again. And when the kids bought tickets for the show, do you think they were pumped to hear the tracks from the latest album? Or were they anticipating a wonderful trip back in time to the summer of ’63? You guessed it. The crowds that now flocked to their shows were maybe even unaware that the Beach Boys had even released “Holland”, a pretty good album. All they wanted was “I Get Around”. Funny when you think that the “oldies circuit” is such a huge thing nowadays and has been for awhile. So many bands that haven’t released new material in years can tour non-stop, hitting all the casinos and state fairs they can handle. And even if these bands have released a new album, nobody in the crowd wants to hear those new songs. Here again the Beach Boys were the innovators. Although this time it wasn’t exactly in a good way.

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During the second half of the 1970’s, the Beach Boys’ stock as a live attraction skyrocketed.

The Beach Boys were, though, for better or for worse, a much more visible act now. However, there was still one thing missing. Or one person. After issuing four albums of old material in two years, the band figured maybe it was time for some new music. Maybe Brian Wilson could be coaxed out of ‘retirement’. The “Brian’s Back” campaign included a song of the same name and a comedy sketch on “Saturday Night Live” which featured Brian getting dragged out of bed by Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi dressed as cops and forced to go surfing. Something short of comedy, I don’t think I ever felt sorrier for Brian than I did when I first watched the sketch. The “Brian’s Back” campaign – which has been described as “arguably exploitative” – culminated in the first album of new material in three years, “15 Big Ones”. Brian had been coerced again, this time to the studio, where he created a very good album comprised mostly of oldies and featuring the hit single, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” (#5).

Brian was indeed back for the next album released a year after “15 Big Ones”. “The Beach Boys Love You” was originally supposed to be a Brian Wilson solo album but the rest of the band sent up a familiar cry: “what about us?”. Brian basically wrote and performed the entire album himself. So, here’s two consecutive, well made albums created by a man who’s mental and physical health is greatly deteriorated. As I’ve said before; Brian Wilson’s B-game was yards better than many other artists’ A-game.

The “comeback” was short-lived and record companies were looking at the Beach Boys askance now. Whenever the band needed a new contract, the label always specified that Brian must be involved. It always amazes me when I read that the guys would be in negotiations with a prospective label. The execs would sometimes specify an exact percentage of work that had to come from Brian. The guys would assure the label that Brian would be involved – even though they knew that Brian was flat on his back, 300 pounds and in another land. The group also began now to really fight with each other. Like, fist fight. The late 1970’s and early ’80’s saw them persevere and release albums, some OK, some terrible. Carl, Dennis and Mike Love all released solo albums, Dennis surprising many by releasing the extraordinary “Pacific Ocean Blue”. By the time Dennis passed away in 1983, the group had all but abandoned the idea of making new music. They would release only four more albums in the next 30 years; the ambitious “The Beach Boys” in 1985, the pointless “Still Cruisin'” in ’89, the horrific “Summer in Paradise” in 1992 and the polished “Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys” record “That’s Why God Made the Radio” in 2012, which was made only because it was to mark their 50th anniversary.

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Eventually, Brian (center, natch) pursued his solo career. Then when Carl (bottom left) died, “The Beach Boys” were basically over. Mike (top right) took over and brought Bruce (top left) with him. Mike ‘fired’ Al (bottom right) and Al began to tour with Brian.

How to sum up the Beach Boys from a musical standpoint? I guess, maybe, it’s not as hard as I think. It comes down to Brian Wilson. It really does. As a young adult, he had music in him and it flowed out of him. Unfortunately, he suffered from an undiagnosed or an improperly diagnosed mental condition that eventually made it impossible for him to function, not just as a composer and producer but also as a human being. He made beautiful music – music that literally affected history – while the circumstances permitted. And then when circumstances changed, he couldn’t. The band that was left was loaded with talent but Brian’s departure combined with the changing musical landscape of the late 1960’s made them incapable of carrying on successfully. Add to this the fact that the industry and the public had a certain perception of the group – and their name was “The Beach Boys”, after all – and it was nearly impossible for them to produce anything other than what was expected of them.

The Beach Boys were the first band in history for which it became commercially and financially viable to live on what they had done in the past. After 1974, they continued to release new material sporadically but it simply didn’t matter. The fans wanted the oldies. They still made some good music and even had some hits. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” and “Getcha Back” were moderate successes and 1988’s “Kokomo”, from the soundtrack to the film “Cocktail”, became the Beach Boys’ biggest selling single and their fourth #1 song. With it’s theme of fun in the sun, though, it further cemented the Beach Boys’ rep as purveyors of sunshine. I have not included any tunes from “That’s Why God Made the Radio” in this list of the best songs of this era, although the “second side” is excellent. Thing is, that record can almost be considered a “Brian Wilson” album. The album is good as a whole; the last couple of tracks are particularly striking and serve as a fitting coda for The Beach Boys. “Summer’s Gone”, indeed. Anyways, here’s some really hidden gems, some great songs they released that no one ever heard. Consider that 6 of these 10 songs are from 2 albums which illustrates the fact that good songs from the Beach Boys in this era were few and far between. And I’ve kind of abandoned the “hidden gems” idea for this era – they were all hidden at this time. The Beach Boys themselves were hidden at this time. Anyways…

10. “Strange Things Happen” (1992 – from “Summer in Paradise”) — The success of “Kokomo” was a vindication for Mike Love. See? All the public wants from us is ‘fun in the sun’. Don’t f#$% with the ‘formula’. This resurgence encouraged him to drag the Beach Boys back into the studio to record this atrocity. It is a soulless, plastic-sounding album that is the only one in the Beach Boys catalogue to feature zero contributions from Brian. The album is all Mike and producer Terry Melcher and is an adult travelogue of tropical episodes. Thing is, I like some of the record. See, I love a wide range of musical styles because I listen with my imagination. If I “get something” from a song or if it takes me to a certain time or place then it’s OK with me, even though I may realize it’s terrible. This is exactly how I feel about “Summer in Paradise”. There are several vomit-inducing moments but there are a few delightful ones. “Lahaina Aloha”, especially Carl’s voice on the chorus, “Island Fever” and “Strange Things Happen”. Written by Mike and Terry, “Strange Things Happen” stands out partly because the lyric actually does not specifically refer to ‘fun in the sun’. If it was recorded by anybody else on any other album and with organic instrumentation you’d be able to herald this track without the asterisk. It’s hard to highlight individual musician performances here because there really aren’t any – the album was basically made with a computer. Mike delivers an OK vocal with his suspiciously auto-tuned-sounding ’90’s voice but Al Jardine particularly shines when he comes in for the chorus: “Every time I touch my baby…”. The fact that the song is relevantly long seems to add to it’s quality. It’s pretty good and I thought I needed to include a track from this album as, like I say, I do ‘get something’ from it.

9. “Mona” (1977 – from “The Beach Boys Love You”) — “Love You” followed on the heels of the successful “15 Big Ones” the year previous. The whole “Brian’s Back” campaign – while perhaps premature – was still trending throughout the industry and with the record buying public. Brian really took the reins with “Love You”, basically making the record himself. I sound like a broken record but I can’t stress enough how amazing I think it is that, although his life was in tatters, his mind ravaged by mental illness, he still was able to make music better than most artists in the business. “Mona” is a fun song and a favourite of mine from the album. The track – written by Brian – jumps out of the gates with the Moog synthesizer sound that permeates the album. Dennis takes the lead and moves through descending chord changes singing the praises of Mona using the childhood lingo and playful banter Brian favoured all his life: “…won’t it, won’t it, won’t it be groovy…can’tcha can’tcha can’tch just hear it, rock ‘n’ rock ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll music…” Of course the payoff – especially for Beach Boys fans well aware of Brian’s feelings towards Phil Spector – comes at the end: “Come on, listen to “Da Doo Ron Ron” now. Listen to “Be My Baby”. I know you’re gonna love Phil Spector”. Perhaps he’s not using two dozen musicians, but Brian does employ a Spector-ish “wall of sound” production technique on this record and this track in particular. Perhaps 40 years later, the wall-to-wall Moog of this album gives it a bit of a synthetic feeling which may make it polarizing for fans; they either love it or hate it. But this is a fun track for all that is going on in it.

8. “Lady Lynda” (1979 – from “L.A. [Light Album]”) — Here’s an album I’d like to devote a post to. On the surface, it is strangely wrong, from the odd name of the album to the instrumentation to the “10-minute disco version”. I stumbled on this record fairly early in my exploration of the Beach Boys’ music on cassette at a second hand store. I was captivated from the start. The album could use some trimming; it would’ve made a great EP. There are tracks so embarrassing, ridiculous and pointless that the entire affair can be disregarded as a nadir. However, there are songs on this album that are truly transporting; they take you away to a wonderful place. It’s an adult place. A place of leisure but of longing. A gentle, dreamlike land. You like to sail but you don’t get out as much as you’d like. Mostly you sit on the boat as it gently bobs at it’s mooring in the harbour in south Florida (the album was recorded in Miami). You exchange pleasantries with the nieghbouring boats anchored close on either side of yours but mostly you keep to yourself. Your loved one is far enough away that you aren’t together as much or as often as you’d like to be. Things are in the works to bring you closer together but for now it’s mostly waiting, anticipating, yearning. Then there are the times when you are together and those times are pure bliss. It’s night. Dark, warm, quiet. This to me is what my edited version of “L.A. (Light Album)” is all about . “Lady Lynda” staggered me when I first heard it. Then I found out that Bach had a hand in it but I was still impressed. I feel it is the finest contribution Al Jardine made to the Beach Boys. Indeed, it is the only truly great contribution he made. It was released as a single and hit #6 in the UK and #39 on the adult contemporary chart Stateside. It features lovely harpsichord and Al and Dennis collaborated on the excellent string arrangement. The gorgeous background vocals are especially notable at the 2:30 mark when the song goes up a key. The payoff, though, is the last minute-and-change. Mike starts things off with “come along with me…” and then the group voices fly off into that celestial place where only the Beach Boys can go. It’s a transcendent final 60 seconds. “Darling, you know you make my heart sing…darling, your love is like the breath of spring”.

7. “Angel Come Home” (1979 – from “L.A. [Light Album]”) — When it was released, “L.A. (Light Album)” was cruelly described by noted rock critic Dave Marsh thusly: “(The album) is worse than awful. It is irrelevant”. I’ll concede that it is greatly inaccessible and hard to understand. But to dismiss it is to miss out on some great music from Carl and Dennis Wilson. Of the ten songs on the record, Carl and Dennis had a hand in writing and singing lead on all the tracks but two; Al and Mike contributed a song each. (Carl and Dennis are therefore responsible for 6 of the 7 good songs on the album) Both Wilson brothers wrote with American lyricist Geoffrey Cushing-Murray and Dennis contributed two songs from his second solo album that was never released. I say “contributed” but as I noted before if the band needed material – and they often did at this point – than your solo record or your side projects took a backseat. “Angel Come Home” was written by Carl and Cushing-Murray and given to Dennis to sing. The song inches out of the gates with keyboards and Carl’s “oooh” backgrounds. Dennis’ hoarse whisper appears accompanied by prominent snare. The interaction of Dennis’ lead and Carl’s back-ups; the juxtaposition of the harsh and the smooth. Their interplay particularly on the chorus is perfect. “Angel Come Home” contains that quiet, benign beauty that I described earlier and it is definitive of the character of this album.

6. “Love Surrounds Me” (1979 – from “L.A. [Light Album]”) — “Love Surrounds Me” is a companion piece to “Angel Come Home” and the former follows the latter on Side One. Here’s Dennis again singing a lyric by Geoffrey Cushing-Murray although this time it’s Dennis’ composition. The song was slated for release on Dennis’ unfinished “Bambu” album which fell apart due to financial shortcomings and the need for all Beach Boys hands to be at the pumps. “L.A. (Light Album)” (gosh, I hate typing that) is the prime example of the depths to which the Beach Boys had fallen in the late 1970’s. Record labels were insisting that Brian Wilson be apart of any Beach Boys product as a condition of the contracts and the band kept promising his participation. I can only assume that those around Brian at the time considered him simply eccentric and to be playing games to avoid making music. It was not generally known or even conjectured that Brian might actually have serious psychological issues. Carl and Dennis completed two of Brian’s older songs for inclusion; “Good Timin'” actually became a Top 40 single and “Shortenin’ Bread”…did not, let’s just say. The band also reached out to former member Bruce Johnston and to the producer of the band Chicago James William Guercio for help completing this record. “Love Surrounds Me” begins even more quietly than “Angel Come Home” and never builds to much more than a velvety stroll. Highlights include crisp instrumentation, strong drum work and Carl again who, at about the 1:50 mark, sings incredibly high for a 33-year-old man before the song drops back to earth with a two note synth lick. Again, this song displays well the mood of the entire record; modern yet somehow distant from anything else coming out at the time. And stealthy. Moving like dark, black molasses. It’s night, this song.

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Interesting cover art for an interesting album. “L.A. (Light Album)” (1979) was a low point for the Beach Boys but there are golden sounds to be found on this rarity.

5. “Goin’ On” (1980 – from “Keepin’ the Summer Alive”) — For the follow-up to the admittedly bizarre “L.A. (Light Album)”, the Beach Boys returned to more familiar territory – right down to the title of the record. This album was produdced by Bruce Johnston although he had not officially returned to the band as a member yet. The album also features many appearances by Mike Love and not one appearance by Dennis Wilson. That speaks volumes. Indeed, this is the last Beach Boys album that was released during Dennis’ lifetime as he would drown in 1983. To me, “Keepin’ the Summer Alive” is a funny record (not ‘funny ha-ha’) that comes off as sort of an enigma. Along with 1978’s “MIU Album” (another ridiculous title), this Beach Boys 1980 offering just seems to exist. It was a bad era for the band; they were in disarray. Brian was not really focused on making commercial music, which label execs kept insisting on. Their label, CBS, was treating the band as suspect. Therefore, Bruce was back on hand helping out, the album title contained the word “summer” and there were several songs written by that old tandem of “B. Wilson/M. Love”. And yet it’s just sort of there. I know. Great review, eh? There are a couple of good tracks. Carl throws us all a curve by writing a couple with Canadian rock legend Randy Bachman. But the only song that really sparkles is “Goin’ On”. It’s 1980. The boys are in their mid-to-late 30’s. But on this track, their vocal artistry transcends all the vagaries of age and – in Brian’s case – the limitations inflicted by years of cigarette smoking. Right out of the gates, the wash of voices here are pitch perfect and a joy to hear. Mike, Carl and Brian share the lead and all sound great. Mike takes the verse with Brian contributing “do doo doo”‘s. Carl shines with his part: “I love you, I miss you…”. But the voices blending on the “Ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo goin’ on!” is spectacular. With a sax solo and a key change the song scales the heights. A lot of these hidden gems I can understand falling though the cracks. But with “Goin’ On” I have to say – this song should have been eaten up and it should be played now regularly for the public at large. It would go a long way to improving general morale.

4. “It’s OK” (1976 – from “15 Big Ones”) — Fun is in. It’s no sin. I found “15 Big Ones” on cassette on a trip I took to New York state when I was a kid. I was so pleased to find a really different album from the Beach Boys catalogue. I was familiar with the lead off track, the hit single “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”, but what really hit me was the second cut, “It’s OK”. “15 Big Ones” was the end result of the whole “Brian’s Back” campaign. I said earlier that, at this point, the band was in a hole so Brian was dragged out of bed to oversee these sessions. Brian envisioned an underproduced album of oldies. Silly Brian. Don’t you know you can’t do what you want with your band? The group resisted this and his proposed title: “Group Therapy”. In the end, though, the album is made up of mostly cover versions from the classic era. Indeed, Chuck Berry’s classic “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” got the Beach Boys stamp and went to #5 on the charts. But there was some originals and some leftovers used to flesh things out. “It’s OK” was written by Brian and Mike and features a good, old fashioned vocal from Mike. His lyrics here are also a good example of what he does best. The short choppy lines are fun and simple. Got to hand it to Mike; he does know how to verbalize the pursuit of ease and simplicity in life: “In the shade lemonade, in the sun ocean spray…good or bad, glad or sad it’s all gonna pass. So, it’s OK let’s all play and enjoy while it lasts”. So much yes. And the vocal arrangement for the ending is vintage Beach Boys. Dennis’ husky “find a ride” with Mike’s “in the sum-sum-summertime” in the back.

3. “Where I Belong” (1985 – from “The Beach Boys”) — You could say that there are two sides to the Beach Boys; the celebration of hedonism, as displayed in “It’s OK”, and the prayer-like beauty of celestial vocal sound. A perfect example of the latter – from any era – is “Where I Belong” from the self-titled album of 1985. This record is really the only properly polished release from the Beach Boys during this section of their career, perhaps aside from “That’s Why God Made the Radio”. But unlike that final CD, which you could say was simply a Brian-helmed ‘heritage’ album celebrating their 50th anniversary, “The Beach Boys” was an earnest attempt to make a contemporary, modern-sounding album that was specifically aimed at the charts and the masses. I shudder to say this but the boys brought in Englishman Steve Levine who had produced Culture Club. Now, I don’t know how you feel but I always say that there are three things that really creep me out: sunken ships, slivers and Culture Club. But, hey, in 1985 Culture Club was big. They were selling a lot of records and placing them on the charts. Levine came in and brought with him some state-of-the-art digital production techniques to help make the Beach Boys sound hip. Really, I’m OK with this. This was an attempt so showcase the band in the best possible light. They could still sing amazingly well, they were pioneers in many ways so it was legitimate to attempt to present their music this way. In good, ol’ Beach Boys fashion, though, here was a record that featured synthesizers, drum machines and a “synthaxe” (?) while at the same time they had also recorded a version of the classic “At the Hop” which didn’t make the final cut. One foot in the past, one in the present. It could easily have been a very popular record. But it wasn’t. A review of the time said that while it wasn’t artistically brilliant it did showcase what were still the finest vocals in all of pop. Carl contributed three songs, two of which – “It’s Gettin’ Late” and “Maybe I Don’t Know” – bear his blue-eyed soul/soft rock stamp. But “Where I Belong” is from another place altogether. Carl’s voice – he is almost 40 years old here – is just as angelic as it has always been. He wisely employed Al Jardine’s voice on this track and it is one of Al’s great contributions. The track is very synthy but it doesn’t matter. When Carl sings “don’t need to search no more exotic islands…” it is…well, there are no words. The Beach Boys have many great songs. They have many songs that are almost unbearably gentle, sweet and nearly perfect. The quiet beauty of “Forever”, the aural feast of the instrumental “Pet Sounds”. But I would say that none are more distinctly overwhelming than “Where I Belong”. I tell you this in all seriousness; you get yourself a pair of headphones and close your eyes. Particularly if you know something of the Beach Boys and the late Carl Wilson, listening to this song will prove to be truly astounding.

2. “Getcha Back” (1985 – from “The Beach Boys”) — Terry Melcher was an interesting guy. The son of Doris Day, he was a producer of note in the 1960’s and also the supposed target of Charles Manson. He appears at different times in the Beach Boys’ story. A lot of fans maybe are not too down with him because of his collusion with Mike Love on “Kokomo” and the “Summer in Paradise” album. He showed up in 1985 to co-write with Mike “Getcha Back”. This has been somewhat of a standout track for me. I first heard this song way back when I bought the compilation “Made in U.S.A.” on cassette. It was intriguing to me because at that point I was not very familiar with much Beach Boys post 1970’s. The song starts out with some “drumming” – machine-made drumming. One reviewer thought it was appropriate that the first Beach Boys album to be released after the death of drummer Dennis started with “drumming”. Except that Dennis played actual drums. Whatever. “Getcha Back” starts out great – it’s a great sound. Mike sounds good doing his patented “bow bow bow-ooo” while the other voices – notably the rehabilitated falsetto sound of Brian Wilson – come soaring in sounding as good as ever, really. Add to that some honking sax. Mike’s done well with the lyrics again. Indeed, the story he tells draws you into the song. It’s kinda sad. “Our song” comes on the radio and the reminiscing starts. Things have gone bad and now we’re apart. Could we ever get it back? Great vocal arrangements by Brian and just generally a classic Beach Boys feel without sounding like parody. “So, if I leave her and you leave him…”. The chord changes sound like longing. “Getcha Back” was accompanied by a music video (lame) and charted at #26 – #2 adult contemporary – and returned a measure of visibility to the Beach Boys. Great song, worthy to stand with the best of their latter-day recordings.

1. “Baby Blue” (1979 – from “L.A. [Light Album]”) — My three favourite movies are, in order, “Blue Hawaii”, “Diner” and “Swingers”. I often say that I make a point of not watching them too often as I never want them to become commonplace. There are a couple of Beach Boys songs about which I feel the same. “Surf’s Up” is one.”Forever” is another. “Baby Blue” is definitely on this short list. I never want to hear it just in passing. I never want it to be playing in the background. When I listen to this song I must have headphones, I must be alone. Part of the appeal of this song is Dennis. Like I said about “Where I Belong”, when you have a connection with the artist, the feeling you get when you listen to their finest work can be heightened. Dennis Wilson is a unique personage in rock history. Some would say that his artistry was never given full reign and that being a part of the Beach Boys – a group that has more or less been purveyors of their past since 1974 – is also a bittersweet part of his story. In this day and age, I figure a talent like his would have been allowed to grow and he wouldn’t have been pigeonholed. Like Brian did with “Pet Sounds” and “SMiLE”, Dennis had something to say with his music, something vastly different than his image. Although his solo album “Pacific Ocean Blue” was indeed well received by the critics and sold in fairly good numbers, he never really received the credit he was due. And instead of being allowed to complete his sophomore effort “Bambu” he had to surrender some songs to the family business. On top of all this you have his destructive lifestyle and his sad final years culminating with his untimely death in the ocean the Beach Boys had praised in song so often. Virile, weathered, handsome Dennis Wilson, substance abusing Dennis whose songs were never fully understood, Dennis who was never properly respected as an artist partly because of his band and partly because his quiet, reverent music didn’t gel with his public image, did indeed produce a song like “Baby Blue”. It is otherworldly. Quiet and gentle, it is dominated by dramatic piano and brother Carl’s subdued vocal. Dennis sings the bridge which transports you to that boat I spoke of earlier: “Late at night when the whole world’s sleeping, I dream of you…” I’ve always felt that Carl and Dennis had a strong respect for their family history of gorgeous vocals and vocal arrangements. It seems that on songs they’ve crafted themselves, they fully utilize the capabilities of the group voices. The vocals in the second half of “Baby Blue” testify to this. This song is night. This song is longing. This song is the sadness of being apart and the bliss of being together. I wrote a short story in my late teens and realized when I was done that every episode in the story was influenced by “Baby Blue”. Every scene took place with “Baby Blue” playing overhead, as a backdrop. Santa Monica State Beach in the middle of the night. Things aren’t working out the best with us but we’re trying and a resolution seems near. Until we get things settled, I wait for you…….”Baby Blue” plays. “Lie alone in bed at night / feel the pull of a lonely day / thoughts like music start to play / I wonder where you were today”. And the fact that it is brought to you by rugged Dennis Wilson who lived a tough life, suffered in his final years and died young, make it all the more exquisite.

Thank you so much for coming along with me, reading and commenting in the Facebook groups. Your participation made writing these all the more enjoyable for me.

 

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Listen to My Heartbeat: Your Guide to the Music of the Beach Boys Part 2

Sirius XM has launched a Beach Boys channel for the summer! Listening to the music of Brian Wilson, et al. randomly has inspired me to highlight these timeless songs in a 3-part series. So, let’s go surfin’ now!

There are few bodies of work in the pop idiom more revered than that of Brian Wilson’s. And the music he made between July 12, 1965 and May 18, 1967 is his crowning achievement. Again, it is SO hard to encapsulate the story of the Beach Boys – particularly this period – in so small a space.

Throughout 1965, Brian had quit touring with the band and stayed home to write music and record it with the best musicians in the business in the best recording studios in Los Angeles. At the beginning of 1966, he began work on “Pet Sounds” – an album and the recording of which deserve it’s own post – an album that has become known as one of the two or three greatest albums ever conceived. The music on “Pet Sounds”, however, was a major move away from anything the Beach Boys had done previously. Earlier I mentioned that Brian Wilson was much better suited to being a producer with a stable of artists. Instead, he was the brains behind a band that the whole world thought of as a lightweight pop vocal group that sang songs about surfing and cars. In the 1960’s, being allowed to break out of the mold the industry had decreed for you was nearly impossible.

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Bruce Johnston, Terry Melcher and Tony Asher in the studio with Brian during the recording of “Pet Sounds” (1966).

It was these restrictions that inhibited Brian Wilson throughout this golden period of his career. The fact that he was still able to make the music that he did is nothing short of remarkable. Brian created the “Pet Sounds” album with the Wrecking Crew while his band toured Japan. When the boys came home, they all got together to listen to the tracks Brian had created. The simplification of the story is that the band was floored by what they heard. With the exception of Mike Love who felt that Brian had abandoned the “formula” in favour of a Brian Wilson solo record. This was damaging to Brian’s psyche and his confidence. It didn’t help that Capitol tended to agree with Mike – it was a vast departure from the sound that the public had come to expect from the Beach Boys. Brian finished the record after adding the guys’ sumptuous vocals. When the sales for “Pet Sounds” proved sluggish and when it stalled on the charts, peaking at “only” #10, Capitol Records turned it’s back on this landmark album and it’s visionary creator by ceasing promotion of the album and instead issuing “The Best of the Beach Boys”.

From February through September, 1966 – over seven months – Brian was busy constructing “Good Vibrations”. Keep in mind that the time and money spent on this one song was astronomical for the time and shows the respect and leeway Capitol was still granting Brian. The song was their 3rd #1 record and sold incredibly well. This further spurred Brian on to create what he thought would be the greatest record ever made.

The “SMiLE” album has been described as “an American gothic trip” and would have been a sprawling epic, telling the story of the American experience throughout history. Mounting pressure from the record company, his father, Murry, and – yes – from Mike Love was piling up on Brian’s fragile shoulders. His perceived eccentricity was also assumed to be a factor in making it difficult for him to complete his opus. Unfortunately, this “eccentricity” was, in reality, a sometimes crippling mental disorder that often took the form of horrific, threatening voices that Brian would hear in his head. Under the weight of all this, “SMiLE” was abandoned. With it crumbled the Beach Boys reputation. Brian Wilson retreated from the world.

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Brian Wilson at home in Bel Air during the “SMiLE” era.

Perhaps the most significant ramification of this retreat was Brian’s turning down an offer to play at the Monterey Pop Festival. The Beach Boys’ absence from this pivotal cultural event was seen as a requiem and the Boys were instantly labelled “un-hip”, which left the group to carry on in some sort of netherworld. The rest of the band knew full well that their cred was made up of about 95% Brian Wilson but they were still a band comprised of many talented pieces so they soldiered on. “Smile” became “Smiley Smile” (“a bunt instead of a grand slam” – Carl) and then “Wild Honey”. These two albums were down home affairs created by the band as a whole. But Brian as an entity had become perhaps even more important to the listening public then the band itself and the Beach Boys seemed out of touch with the rock scene of the late 1960’s. To make matters worse, the record industry began to look at the Beach Boys – without Brian in control – differently, too.

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The Beach Boys, 1968.

The first part of this era is filled with indelible songs that even the most unversed fan knows and loves: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Sloop John B”, “God Only Knows”, “Good Vibrations”, “Do It Again” and “Sail On, Sailor”. Also, the mini era post-“Pet Sounds” to pre-“Endless Summer” contains some excellent music. Music that is somehow made more enjoyable to us who ‘know’ because it is different, quieter Beach Boys music, unencumbered by greatness. Here’s the best of the hidden gems from this era.

10. “Little Pad” (1967 – from “Smiley Smile”) — This song was written by Brian Wilson only a short time after he wrote the revolutionary “Good Vibrations”. This in itself is indicative of the change he had gone through. It had just about killed him to follow his muse and strive for the heights, competing with the Beatles (who were basically 5 strong) and changing the face of pop music. After the demise of “SMiLE”, Brian decided to take the low road; no more shooting for the stars. Instead, he wanted to keep things simple. Songs don’t get much simpler than “Little Pad”. Indeed, the albums that were made in the wake of the aborted “SMiLE” album are today considered the origin of “lo-fi”. It is an unknown fact that, while the Beach Boys could rely less and less on Brian to continue charting new territory, they led the way to a more stripped down, casual sound in pop music. “Little Pad” is the “hiddenest” of gems and it is adored by those who know. The song starts with a shouted “Do it!” and a lot of giggling and then gives way to more angelic Beach Boys harmonizing. Carl plays the ukelele and dreams out loud, stating his desire for a little pad in Hawaii. The song is comforting and soothing with lyrics we all can relate to. A personal favourite, when I lived in a tiny bachelor apartment years ago, this was a cherished theme song.

9. “I Was Made to Love Her” (1967 – from “Wild Honey”) — I have a dear friend who’s a guitarist. Once, back in the day, he scoffed while I was playing the Beach Boys and said “don’t the Beach Boys ever use a guitar?!” So I played him “Student Demonstration Time” but I had to concede his point. A case has been made by Kent Crowley in his book on Carl that his guitar playing was influential and I’ll concede that, as well, but we all know that the Beach Boys – despite their garage beginnings as a ‘surf band’ – are not “guitar based”. That’s not to say they can’t rock out. This cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” is a case in point. Interesting to note that here it is Carl who shines but not as a guitarist. Carl Wilson was respected in his day and is revered today for his angelic voice. But the vocal he lays down here is “balls out”. Tapping in to his childhood spent digging rhythm and blues and early rock ‘n’ roll, Carl lays down a great blue-eyed soul vocal here. Right from the outset. Listen to the way he sings “I was born in Little Rock, had a childhood sweetheart…”. The second half of that line is amazing and the song could end then and it would still make this list. The “Wild Honey” album followed on the heels of “Smiley Smile” and is considered the second of a group of three consecutive “chill out” albums that the Beach Boys made themselves, as a self-contained band again. Carl referred to these albums as “music for Brian to cool out by”, referring to the break Brian was taking from his control of the band’s sound. “Wild Honey” is fascinating to listen to owing in part to the fact that it is a straight up soul album, owing greatly to the Stax/Motown sound of the time. “I Was Made to Love Her” features instrumentation that includes great piano and tambourine and it features another great group vocal. The song rolls along and is a stone groove.

8. “The Trader” (1973 – from “Holland”) — Carl Wilson is featured again on this track known only by those of us on the inside. “Holland” is a pretty cool album made at a pivotal point in the Beach Boys history. They had fallen out of favour with the critics and the record buying public so, to try to inject some new life into the proceedings, they made the costly move of transporting themselves and recording equipment to Holland. Also at this time, they had taken on a new manager, Jack Rieley. Jack and Bruce Johnston didn’t see eye to eye so Bruce had left the band. But the Boys had added two members of a South African group that Carl had discovered – The Flame – and Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar made contributions to this album. It’s an excellent record that features great work from all group members. You’d do well to check out all of side two, for example, featuring great writing and vocals from Carl, Ricky, Blondie, Dennis and Mike (not to mention Brian’s contribution, “Mount Vernon and Fairway [A Fairy Tale]”, added to the original album on a 7″ record). But I really dig Carl’s “The Trader”. The song was a statement of sorts from Carl. Jack Rieley was something of a lyricist and he wrote the words to “The Trader”, which tell a tale of colonization and slavery. This was heavy stuff from the Beach Boys but Carl offset this by having his young son, Justyn, greet the listener at the beginning of the song. “Holland” is an interesting album in the Beach Boys canon. It signalled the end of an era.

7. “Forever” (1970 – from “Sunflower”) — “Sunflower” is another intriguing album. Historically, it has nothing obvious to recommend it. It even lacks the cache that the previously mentioned trilogy of “chill out” albums enjoy. But it’s sneaky good. Their first album of the 1970’s was also their first album for Reprise Records. The ’70’s were marked as a time when the Beach Boys had trouble maintaining a constant label on which to release material. The cover depicts an older group of fellas posing with their children in a picture taken by Ricci Martin, son of Dean. “Forever” looms large in “Beach Boys World”, the inhabitants of which cherish it’s existence. As stated in Part 1 of this series, Dennis Wilson was a rebel. Coerced to join the band, he ended up venting his pent up frustrations and virile energy behind the drum kit. But by 1970, Dennis was starting to show signs of his submerged musical vision; one of tenderness and quiet beauty. It seems almost cliche – handsome, rough-and-tumble, hard living guy suddenly sits at the piano, of all instruments, and pounds out solemn chords and whispers words of love. But Dennis was not a cliche; he was the prototype. “Forever” is his crowning achievement and the song for which he is best known. (But for my favourite Dennis/Beach Boys song, stay tuned for Part 3) 1968’s “Friends” album had contained Dennis’ initial offerings to the group and those two songs – “Little Bird” and “Be Still” – were surprising in their sensitivity. “20/20”, released the following year, had contained Dennis’ infamous “Never Learn Not to Love”; a song derived from an original composition by one Charles Manson. But with “Forever”, Dennis made his most significant contribution to the band’s catalogue. The strumming guitar, the boisterous vocals on the bridge and Dennis’ heartfelt lead all add up to a simply beautiful track. Brian himself said that “‘Forever’ has to be the most harmonically beautiful thing I’ve ever heard”. Heady praise from a man who knows. For me, it’s the simple purity of the lyric and Dennis’ reading: “If every word I said would make you laugh, I’d talk forever”. Only a song of rare beauty could survive what John Stamos and The Beach Boys* did to it in 1992.

6. “This Whole World” (1970 – from “Sunflower”) — It’s funny; I’ve been talking about this era when Brian Wilson “checked out” but here he is again contributing a gorgeous song. Think of it this way: if another artist had made the type of music that Brian Wilson made when he was supposedly just chilling out, that artist would be revered today. Brian could make beautiful music in his sleep. It helped that the rest of the band – Carl, in particular – were beginning to perfect using the studio as Brian had in his heyday. Carl’s production work during this era is fantastic and he begins to emerge from his big brother’s shadow and takes over control of the band’s sound. Brian has said that “This Whole World” is “about love in general”, which sums up the positivity of his body of work. He wrote the song, taught the boys all their parts, sang on it himself and played piano. He basically produced the record – recorded in his home studio – although the credit reads “Produced by The Beach Boys”. All in all, not bad from a supposed recluse. Allmusic says that here Brian reestablishes his reputation as a “brilliant melody writer(s) and arranger(s)” and “wipes away three years of artistic cobwebs”. Carl’s guitar starts things off and the song features his great vocal. His voice in this era – he is 24 here – is a delight to hear. Brian created a chant background vocal – “Om dot dit it” – that is accompanied by chimes and gongs. Mike shines with his “I’m thinkin’ ’bout this whole world” after Carl sings “Here comes another day for your love” at about the minute mark. The ending is celestial. Two minutes of pop perfection.

5. “Time to Get Alone” (1969 – from “20/20”) — “20/20” – the Boys 20th album – was released early in 1969. Brian had checked himself into a psychiatric hospital and was absent for the recording. Carl and Dennis cobbled together parts of songs that Brian had been working on recently and finished them for inclusion on the album. It was the last album released during their classic era with Capitol Records. “20/20” went to #3 in the UK and #68 in the US – which is indicative of their reputation at the time. Huge in England, disowned at home. The hit single “Do It Again” starts the album but the second track is one of two almost perfect recordings that grace this record. “Time to Get Alone” was written by Brian – I may need to rethink my assertion that he had checked out at this time! Brian had wanted to give the song to a fledgling group he was working with called Redwood, who would later become Three Dog Night. But the band, at this point, was not about to give up any songs to outsiders; they needed all the help they could get themselves. “Time to Get Alone” is in waltz time and was recorded in Brian’s home studio. Video footage of the recording exists. The song has delightfully pleasant chord changes and typically idyllic vocals on the chorus. This era is by far the time when the Beach Boys’ group vocals were not only the best of their career but the finest sounds ever made by human voices in the pop genre. (“Baby, it’s time…”) Consider that the lyric talks of winter; snow, cold and tobogganing of all things. Times had certainly changed for the Beach Boys. And I’ve heard it said that the “deep and wide” at the 1:42 mark is the greatest single moment in the Beach Boys catalogue. I don’t know about that but “Time to Get Alone” has a staggeringly gentle beauty. Here’s the footage of the recording but you need to check out the master.

4. “Here Today” (1966 – from “Pet Sounds”) — “Pet Sounds” is not about singles. Some of the better known Beach Boys songs are from this landmark album but, almost more than any other pop album in history, that record is about the whole. Truth be told, “Pet Sounds” is a work of such singular artistry that it can seem inaccessible if you don’t approach it in the right frame of mind or with misguided expectations. It makes me almost – almost – sympathize with Mike Love and execs at Capitol. You can imagine their confusion when they first heard that record coming from the purveyors of fun in the sun ditties. I say all this to say that when I first heard “Pet Sounds” (I found it on cassette at A&A Records in Market Square in Kitchener, Ontario in 1992) I really didn’t know how to assess it. All these years later, I am still learning about it’s glorious nuances. But aside from the hits, “Here Today” is perhaps the only unknown song on the LP you can dig on first listen. Brian liked to work with lyricists and for “Pet Sounds” he teamed up with ad man Tony Asher who wrote the words to this uptempo number. Musicologists praise the “bass literature” of this song and Bruce hailed the break in the middle as “perfection” and owing to the work of Bach. If you listen closely to the break – as all Beach Boys fans know – you can hear some studio chatter (about cameras) that was left in the final mix. Listen for Brian’s “Top, please!”. Mike takes the lead and the Wrecking Crew is on hand with the addition of Terry Melcher on tambourine, which is actually pronounced in the mix and greatly adds to the feel of the song. Carol Kaye and Lyle Ritz make significant contributions on bass and Larry Knechtel shines on the organ. An interesting, driving song that sometimes sounds almost sinister with it descending sax honks on the chorus and the organ on the break.

3. “Disney Girls (1957)” (1971 – from “Surf’s Up”) — Bruce Johnston won a Grammy for “I Write the Songs” but this is his standard. Bruce had operated successfully in the music business before joining the Beach Boys and he did so again after he left the Beach Boys in the early 1970’s. This ability to function outside of the fold makes it all the more difficult to understand why it’s him that has stayed with Mike Love all this time. Before he left in 1972, though, he nailed it. When you discuss the most affecting Beach Boys songs with which Brian Wilson had little or nothing to do, “Disney Girls (1957)” is near the top of the list. Bruce has always seemed to me to be a softy so it’s no surprise that his most enduring composition is gentle and nostalgic. Bruce plays most of the instruments and the song is dominated by his gentle piano and a strummed guitar. He also employs a Moog synthesizer, creating a wah-wah sound that fits with the lyrics that speak of escaping reality. And the words are wonderfully pleasant and contain many key phrases that depict a happiness attained later in life that may actually be the manifestation of the dreams of youth. First he lets you know that he likes to check out: “reality, it’s not for me and it makes me laugh”. Then, as he reminisces about “Patti Page and summer days on old Cape Cod”, he realizes he may actually have found his “turned-back world with a local girl in a smaller town”. The payoff comes after a rather awkward bridge which has always been my only beef with the song. After the Beach Boys’ voices drift off into the ether, Bruce’s lead reappears to take us home: “All my life I’ve spent the nights with dreams of you…it’d be a peaceful life with a forever wife and a kid someday”. I mean, the song is gorgeous. It’s been covered many times by the likes of Cass Elliot, Art Garfunkel, Doris Day, Jack Jones, Captain and Tennille and Bruce himself on his 1977 solo album, “Going Public”. In 1975, Barry Manilow would take Bruce’s “I Write the Songs” to the top of the charts and earn Bruce a Grammy award but I will always love Bruce Johnston for “Disney Girls (1957)”.

2. “Our Sweet Love” (1970 – from “Sunflower”) — In researching this essay, I stumbled on an astounding fact: there is next to nothing to read on the internet or in my Beach Boy books about the song “Our Sweet Love”. Therefore, this may be the greatest Beach Boys song no one’s ever heard. We are talking “Sunflower” again here; a nondescript album in the canon with nothing remarkable to recommend it. The Beach Boys are on the outs with most everybody and Brian Wilson has virtually abandoned the creative process. Carl Wilson has stepped to the fore and displays great acumen in the recording studio. “Our Sweet Love” was buried on side 2 of the record and it was written by Carl with Brian and contributions from Al Jardine; it may be the only song recorded by the Beach Boys written by those three. The song begins with dreamy guitar and strings and Carl’s angelic voice. It is subdued and prayer-like: “honey, it’s heaven”. At the 1:08 mark, it floats off on Carl’s “sweet love, sweet love…”. It is optimistic and absolutely gorgeous. Listen closely for the sleigh bells at the very end.

1. “I Can Hear Music” (1969 – from “20/20”) — If there is a creation of Carl’s in this era more sublime than “Our Sweet Love”, it is only his “I Can Hear Music”. Written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, it was originally released by the Ronettes in 1966. When you consider that this song is thought to be Carl’s first attempt at taking over for his brother, Brian, and controlling a session, the result is remarkable. The song begins with a wash of divine vocal sound and strummed guitar. Sleigh bells are present throughout. Carl’s lead is on point; as we’ve said earlier this was probably the era in which he sounded best. And I think we’d all have to agree that Carl Wilson possessed the finest voice in this vocal group comprised of fine voices. Indeed, in any of the few times the Beach Boys were enlisted to provide back-ups on the songs of others it is Carl that is dominant. If Carl’s voice was the closest to perfection, it is not too much of a stretch to assume that he would be the one (after Brian, natch) to most ably arrange the Beach Boys’ voices in a way that would showcase them in their finest light and this is the case with “I Can Hear Music”. The a cappella break in this song is beyond description. It’s another example – one of the top two or three – of the segments you play for the uninitiated to back up your claim that they were the best vocal group ever. And Carl’s “ohhhhh…” that brings them back to the chorus is pristine. I like what Kent Crowley says of “I Can Hear Music” in his book on Carl: “Brian’s only involvement in the song was to be astonished when he heard it”. This production of Carl’s was a landmark in this era as it showed the others in the group and the record industry at large that Carl – at 22 years old – was able to take over the musical direction of the Beach Boys. This included not only producing wonderful records in the studio but also the ability to reproduce their sound in a live performance.

Next Up… 1974-1992: The Beach Boys break new ground again, ascend to the heights and embed themselves into the fabric of history…

 

 

 

 

The Warmth of the Sun: Your Guide to the Music of the Beach Boys

Sirius XM has launched a Beach Boys channel for the summer! Listening to the music of Brian Wilson, et al. randomly has inspired me to highlight some of their lesser known songs in a 3-part series. So, let’s go surfin’ now!

Brian Wilson and I go way back. My earliest recollection of hearing music is my mother’s Elvis Presley records. (And “Maneater” and “Stray Cat Strut”) I connected with Presley early and became not just a “lifelong fan” but a sort of student; of his music, his personality and his impact on society. However, I think I can safely say that the first music that I discovered for myself was the music of the Beach Boys. I was 12 years old and my Aunt Lori gave me some records, among them the Beach Boys’ iconic greatest hits package, 1974’s “Endless Summer”.

I listened to this record throughout the summer of 1985, the summer I was 12. At the end of that summer, my family was moving away from the city I had grown up in to a small town. Perhaps the impending separation from my friends and from the life I had known caused me to gravitate to the Beach Boys’ songs; songs of joy, songs of love, songs of longing. The music spoke to my imagination. It gave me a “place to go”.

I’m going to try very hard to be concise throughout this 3-part series. I intend it to be a set of articles for those only slightly familiar with this music that will highlight some of the lesser known gems in the Beach Boys canon – and not a dissertation on the career of the group and their cultural impact; although their story is so rife with fascinating episodes that I would like to tackle such a series one day. They are often misunderstood and underappreciated and a multi-part series on them would go a long way to clearing that up.

But – like I’ve done with Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Nat Cole (search for them on my blog to read the articles) – I’d like these articles to direct your attention to the music; which has also been somewhat misunderstood and underappreciated. I plan on going a little deeper than their more recognizable hits as most of us are more-than-familiar with iconic Beach Boys music. We could call this the best of the “2nd tier”. Of course, the Beach Boys catalogue is so deep that we could carry on to highlight a 3rd and 4th tier; the hidden gems.

One can’t talk about the music of the Beach Boys without talking about Brian Wilson. Brian was born the oldest of three boys to Murry and Audree in 1942 in Hawthorne, California. The late Rolling Stone writer Timothy White wrote a book of such staggeringly thorough research that I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is called “The Nearest Faraway Place” and it deals not only with Brian and the Beach Boys but it also gets in-depth about what White calls the “Southern California Experience”. White’s book begins with a long history of Brian’s forebears. The story White relates goes a long way towards explaining the person of Murry Wilson. The generational issues that plagued previous Wilson men landed heavily on Murry – and he in turn “landed heavily” on Brian.

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The most thoroughly researched book I’ve ever read. This fascinating read has become an essential book in my collection. Photo Credit: Henry Holt and Co.

Brian was a gentle child who was subjected to brutal treatment at the hands of his father. It’s so hard to abbreviate this aspect of Brian’s journey but suffice it to say that Brian turned to music not only as a companion and an outlet but also as a means to communicate with and satisfy the demands and expectations of Murry. Murry himself had been a songwriter; somehow restraining his demons long enough to compose pleasant little ditties in the hopes of having them published and perhaps even recorded and performed by a big name. He was successful once when Lawrence Welk performed Murry’s “Two-Step Side Step” on the radio.

Brian was intrigued by the intricate harmonies of the vocal group the Four Freshmen. He became obsessed with mastering these harmonies by breaking them down – separating them and teaching them to his two younger brothers, Carl and Dennis. Carl was keen on Chuck Berry and rhythm and blues music and Brian absorbed that as well. Dennis was a rebel, for lack of a better word. He would go toe-to-toe with Murry and then take off into the streets and down to the beach. It was surfing, girls and beach life that Dennis was most interested in and it was these pursuits that he talked about around the house and in the music room that Murry had set up for the boys.

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An absolutely priceless picture of Carl, Dennis and Brian Wilson (foreground) horsing around on their front lawn in Hawthorne.

The Wilson boys had an older cousin named Mike Love. Mike was into doo-wop and when the two families would get together, Mike and the three Wilson boys would talk music and listen to the radio and sing songs themselves, Mike taking the bass parts. The four young men began to entertain the idea of forming a group. With the addition of high school friend Al Jardine, they did just that, filling the music room of the Wilson home with their fledgling sounds. This caught the attention of father Murry who quickly put himself in charge of the boys’ progress. He did, after all, have some connections in the music business and he was possessed of the belligerence needed to operate in that arena.

But first, Murry needed a holiday. He and Audree were going to Mexico. Brian, the oldest, was left in charge of the house and of the $500 ’emergency money’ Murry had left behind. No sooner had the Wilson parents left the driveway than the boys took the $500 and rented instruments so that they could work on a song. Dennis had come back from the beach raving about the scene there and suggesting that Brian write a song about surfing. It was this song the group worked on while Murry and Audree were away.

When Murry returned and saw all the instruments and learned to what use the emergency money had went, he blew his stack, focusing his physical rage on Brian. Once Murry had the situation explained to him, and their song, “Surfin'”, played for him, he calmed down and went into business mode. The song was eventually released on the tiny Candix label and became a minor hit for the newly christened “Beach Boys”. Capitol Records became interested and the boys soon found themselves in the studio recording their first album.

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Teenagers. Working out the harmonies while recording their debut LP, “Surfin’ Safari” (1961). Mike, Brian, Carl, Dennis and David Marks. Photo Credit: Capitol Records.

Whew! Seems wrong to compress this story like that! The main purpose here, though, is to talk about the music that the Beach Boys made in this first era of their legendary run as “America’s Band”. During the years 1961 to 1965, Brian Wilson and his group did no less than put their stamp on history; music history and cultural history. And Brian Wilson did it almost single-handedly. Although he would much rather have followed Phil Spector’s lead and been a producer with a stable of artists, Brian found himself “paying the bills” as the bassist of a surf band. The songs that went over with the public in this era dealt with surfing, cars and girls; what Mike Love would later infamously label “The Formula”. The songs come across as so simple that, to the general listener, they are just fun songs. But Brian began to create compositions that were vocally and harmonically intricate if you knew what to listen for. I’ll concede though that the classic songs from this era are still cherished today because they depict and celebrate the sheer joy of living; not necessarily because of Brian’s tonal shifts or chord changes. The great songs from this era are songs we all know and love so well that they have become embedded in the fabric of life itself; you want to depict fun, happiness and the release that warm weather provides, play a Beach Boys song: “Surfin’ Safari”, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, “409”, “Little Deuce Coupe”, “Shut Down”, “Fun, Fun, Fun”, “I Get Around”. Don’t let your familiarity with these songs rob you of your enjoyment of them. They represent a remarkably successful string of records that are sophisticated creations while at the same time being infinitely accessible. You may have heard “Surfin’ U.S.A.” a thousand times and you take it for granted. Try to listen to it again for the first time; there are few records from this era more exhilarating.

OK, so, you know all those songs but what else was going on? Glad you asked. Got a list right here.

10. “Catch a Wave” (1963 – from “Surfer Girl”) — Some of the songs I will present on these lists may seem to be pedestrian or common in the Beach Boys catalogue. Most times the reason for their inclusion is that they are perfect examples of what the group did so well. Some songs are simply great representations of their ‘sound’. “Catch a Wave” may be one of these songs. Written by Brian and Mike, it is a rare time when all the boys played on a recording with no session musicians. Even Al Jardine AND David Marks play on “Catch a Wave”; Marks would leave the group less than 6 months after this was recorded. Mike Love’s sister, Maureen, cameos on harp. Never released as a single, it’s appeal may come in part from it’s inclusion on “Endless Summer”. It appears early on that compilation – track 3 – and helps to create the mood of that album. It is an integral piece, one of many parts, but, taken on it’s own, it has a good, mid-tempo groove with some solid drumming from Dennis and a great solo from Brian on organ. Features some of Mike’s better wordplay. It’s one of many of their songs that sounds like a summer sunset, the end of a fun day spent outdoors. A year later, Jan & Dean gave this song new lyrics about skateboarding and took “Sidewalk Surfin'” to #25.

9. “In the Parkin’ Lot” (1964 – from “Shut Down Volume 2”) — Maybe the most hidden gem on this list, Brian took this little ditty and sent it skyward by tacking on four bars of gorgeous vocals to the beginning and the end of this song from this very good album with the silly name. Earlier in the year, Capitol had released a compilation of instrumental hot rod songs and called it “Shut Down”. I suppose the Beach Boys could’ve called their album something else – but it was likely Capitol that named both. “In the Parkin’ Lot” is most notable for Brian’s arrangement of the boys’ sumptuous voices but it also shines due to it’s ‘slice-of-life’ vocal imagery, brought to you by Roger Christian. Christian was a disc jockey in Los Angeles in the ‘golden era’ and spent some time at the famous KFWB near Hollywood and Vine where he was introduced to Brian Wilson. The two would go for milkshakes and write songs. Christian – a disc jockey, mind you – was great with word imagery and he knew cars. If you look him up, you’ll see that he wrote the words to many great songs by the Beach Boys and – more impressively – he wrote the lyrics to the majority of the best songs of Jan and Dean. If you close your eyes and listen to “In the Parkin’ Lot”, you’ll hear a cute tale of a guy and a girl waiting until the last minute to get out of the car in the morning and get to class on time. But it’s the stunning display of  vocals that bookend this song that set it apart.

8. “All Summer Long” (1964 – from “All Summer Long”) —  A lot of you may say that this enduring title track from ’64 is, indeed, one of the better known Beach Boys songs and not a “2nd tier” song. I won’t argue with that – I may even agree – but I will stand by the assertion that it may not be one of the first 10 or 15 songs a casual fan will mention. Again I will use this song as an example of what the Beach Boys did best in this era. The song is an absolute delight written by Brian and Mike. Brian has crafted another perfect pop song – both with his composition and his production – and Mike again nails the ethos of what the Beach Boys were about. Mike’s lyrics depict a perfect idyll of summer activities with personal touches we all can relate to. He takes the lead vocal here and sings of sitting in the car with a coke, miniature golf, Hondas, horseback rides and randomly hearing your favourite song on the radio. These images provide for us today delightful pangs of nostalgia for a bygone era. Again, all the boys were present in the studio and I was delightfully surprised to learn that it is Brian himself playing the distinctive marimba on this track. This song ascended to rarefied air in 1973 thanks to George Lucas’ seminal coming-of-age film “American Graffiti”. Lucas’ film is a significant paean to the pivot point in the lives of young people but also paints a portrait of the major shifts experienced in American society in the early-to-mid ’60’s. Not only did Lucas give his stamp of approval to the 42 songs he used to exemplify the aura of the time but he was savvy enough to know that this Beach Boys song – in not only the lyrics but the tone of the song – speaks of the end of something; summer, yes, but Lucas also heard in it the “sundown” of the innocence of the era that ended with the death of JFK and the coming of the Beatles. He felt strongly enough to use it over the closing credits even though it was released 2 years after the year in which his film is set.

7. “Kiss Me, Baby” (1965 – from “The Beach Boys Today!”) — This album represented a major leap for the Beach Boys and a turning point in their career and in Brian Wilson’s life. Brian and the boys had been going non-stop for 4 years, releasing some of the most iconic music in American history. Consider that all this time Brian had been doing most of the heavy lifting: composing the music, arranging the songs, arranging the vocals, playing bass and various keyboards, singing and performing and touring. He was doing all this while battling psychological issues of immense proportions that I won’t get into. A week after recording the backing track for “Kiss Me, Baby” with the famed Wrecking Crew (plus Carl on guitar; himself on piano), Brian had a significant anxiety attack and nervous breakdown and announced he was retiring from touring and staying home to focus on making music. “The Beach Boys Today!” is significant as the album that indicated that things were pivoting. Gone were songs of surf and cars and goofy teenage love. This album was filled with serious statements on mature love and life. I single out “Kiss Me, Baby” because it is sublime. Written by Brian and Mike – who also take the leads – it begins with dreamy vocals and dramatic piano (Leon Russell is also credited on piano here). Mike’s lyrics tell of the aftermath of an argument – and there is a sense that what the couple is fighting over is no longer just ‘kid stuff’. Excellent percussion from the legend Hal Blaine leads us to one of those ‘cliffs’ I love in a song – the vocals seem to hang in midair for a second and then we drop into the chorus: “We both had a broken heart…oh, baby…kiss me, baby, love to hold you….” Beautiful vocals from all five Boys. A gorgeous song.

6. “Wendy” (1964 – from “All Summer Long”) — I’ve always thought that there was something significant about the second half of “Endless Summer”. The songs always seemed a bit more serious while still feeling like sunshine and warm air. Maybe the first half is the glow of midday; full bore fun in the sun. And the second half is late afternoon, approaching sunset; exhaling, afterglow, driving back home, tired but exhilarated. “Wendy” fits that ‘second half’ vibe for me perfectly. Another song written by Brian and Mike and featuring all five Beach Boys playing and singing. There’s just something about the sound of the guitars and the vocal arrangement. Brian lays down a nice organ solo and when the voices come back in – “Wendy, I wouldn’t hurt you like that…” – it is one of a thousand examples of how good their voices sounded together. This song may be looked at as one of those simple, little ditties but there is more going on here. There is certainly emotional content, yes, but if you look it up, you’ll find that there is a surprising amount going on with the composition, as well: “The song begins with a minor i chord in the key of D minor, moves to a major IV…then modulates to the key of F major (the relative major of D minor) through a substituted plagal cadence…” I don’t know what any of that means but I do know that it substantiates the claim that the genius of Brian Wilson was hiding in plain sight; you may not have understood it but it was there. As I say, “Wendy” has a unique quality to it and it made me a major fan of that feminine appellation.

5. “The Warmth of the Sun” (1964 – from “Shut Down Volume 2”) — Here is an earlier example of that “Wendy” vibe I just mentioned. “Shut Down Volume 2” is an interesting album. It contains what could be considered ‘filler’ like “Shut Down, Part II”, “Louie, Louie” and “Denny’s Drums” but it also contains the iconic up-tempo “Fun, Fun, Fun” and ballads like “Keep an Eye on Summer” and “The Warmth of the Sun”. A dramatic ballad, the song begins – as many of their songs do – with soaring harmonies featuring Brian’s lovely falsetto. Mike has written some fine lyrics here which immediately seem different from other sentiments from his pen. The words express a confusion about life, wondering what is the value in the things that I do? It is fitting that this conundrum is solved when Brian sings that it’s all good “for I have the warmth of the sun within me at night”. It’s a manifesto of sorts from the Beach Boys that says that while things may not always be great, things like sunshine and the freedom and joy it can afford will help – if not save – you in the end. There is an emotion inherent in this song owing to the day it was written; November 22, 1963. The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated was a turning point for American society and elicited feelings in the entire nation. Brian and Mike were not immune to this and both were inspired to create this beautiful statement from a tragic event. This song is often mentioned when discussing Brian’s inventive chord changes in his earlier compositions. Beach Boy dad, Murry Wilson, did an instrumental version of this song on his lone album, the surprisingly enjoyable “The Many Moods of Murry Wilson” on Capitol (1967).

4. “Car Crazy Cutie” (1963 – from “Little Deuce Coupe”) — “Run, a-run, a-do run run. Oh, oh, run…” Annnd, I’m done. But seriously: I love Capitol Records but…in the summer of ’63, the label put out an album of hot rod songs called “Shut Down” which featured the song of the same name and “409” by the Beach Boys. This was done without their participation or knowledge. So, Brian quickly finished up some songs he had been working on and hustled the boys back into the studio to record their own album of car songs. They released the “Little Deuce Coupe” album only one month after their previous album, “Surfer Girl”. The Boys flying through the recording of this album with the speed of a ’32 Ford can be seen in the fact that half the songs are under two minutes in length and the whole album runs about 20 minutes. Nevertheless, this is looked on as one of the earliest “concept” albums. The longest song on the album? The one that LEAST sounds like it was a rush job, “Car Crazy Cutie”, written by Brian and Roger Christian. Brian constructed a very cool vocal arrangement that puts one in mind of the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron”, which was recorded around the same time as this tune. Once again, the song begins with a distinctive vocal intro and the tune drops in to a great mid-tempo guitar-driven groove. Again, the band features Al Jardine and David Marks, who would not play on another Beach Boys record until 2012. Roger’s car-savvy lyrics tell of a gal who’s a real “rodder’s dream gal” who’s “hip to everything, man, from customs to rails” and when he “takes her to the drags, man, everyone flips”. I love this song and – like “In the Parkin’ Lot” – it’s the vocal bookends that make it stand out.

3. “Do You Wanna Dance?” (1965 – from “The Beach Boys Today!”) — Beautiful harmonies, strikingly complex arrangements. These are the things we often think of when thinking of the Beach Boys. But here is an example of them exhibiting sheer energy in a driving remake of Bobby Freeman’s classic song. This is the only song on this list that was a domestic A-side single. I wish I knew musical terminology to describe to you what Brian has done here with the arrangement. Utilizing Freeman’s pounding piano chords to build the song up with crescendos, Brian has maximized the dramatic import of the composition. Although he used the Wrecking Crew on this one, the instruments that stand out the most are the pounding piano played by Brian himself and the guitar (that doubles with the piano) played by Carl, who also takes the solo. Brian has replaced Freeman’s unique percussion sound in the breaks with Carl’s boss guitar. But again it’s the vocals that really stand out. The lead is taken by Dennis and this is significant. The highest charting Beach Boys song to feature Denny on lead, “Do You Wanna Dance?” benefits from his masculine voice. Indeed, the energy inherent here is due in large part to his reading of the lyric. I love how his voice starts things off here, popping out of the gates. The times when the group comes in to sing “oh, do ya, do ya, do ya, do ya wanna dance?” are exhilarating! Particularly heading for the outro; listen for Brian’s falsetto wail at the final crescendo. Add Hal Blaine’s drums and this thing rolls. Consider that this track features organ and two mandolins. Not easy to hear them but they contribute to the overall sound. Makes me think that actual video footage of Dennis Wilson, at this point in his life, recording this song would be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

2. “Don’t Worry, Baby” (1964 – from “Shut Down Volume 2”) — Here’s where we can begin debating the definition of “2nd tier” Beach Boys songs. I’ll allow that the general public is aware of this beautiful song but it also fits the criteria presented here as in it is not immediately indicative of the Beach Boys’ sound in this era. The fact that this is on the same album as “Pom Pom Playgirl”, “Shut Down, Part 2” and “Louie, Louie” shows the strides Brian was making as a composer. Brian wrote “Don’t Worry, Baby” as an homage to Phil Spector and Brian’s favourite record, “Be My Baby”. Roger Christian provided the lyrics which depicted a young man’s apprehension regarding an upcoming drag race. Thing is, Brian had spoken at length with Roger about his frustrations with his father, Murry, and his own vulnerabilities where girls were concerned. Roger – to his credit – seems to have taken these talks with Brian and turned them into a lyric about a drag race – that’s not really about a drag race. Here, too, we can also begin to collectively shake our heads and struggle to accurately describe such a work of art. Dennis starts things off with a gentle snare and those glorious vocals come in followed by some nice piano from Brian. And, again, there is just that sound to this song. It has that dreamy sunset sound to it. Maybe I shouldn’t be so amazed that all the Boys play on this recording but I am. They all contribute to an amazingly smooth recording. I have read that Brian was unsure about singing a falsetto lead on a single – although this was technically not a single as it was released as the B side of “I Get Around”, the Beach Boys’ first #1 song. “Don’t Worry, Baby” charted in it’s own right and peaked at #24. It is one of the few Beach Boys songs to have been covered extensively, having been essayed by the likes of Bryan Ferry, the Bay City Rollers and Billy Joel. Keith Moon did a brutal version on his terrible solo album that reportedly made Brian break down crying. B.J. Thomas took it to #17 in 1977 and the Everly Brothers do a fine version – featuring the Beach Boys – on the soundtrack of “Tequila Sunrise”. The vocal arrangement is one of Brian’s finest and if someone asks you what is so good about the Beach Boys, play them this song.

1. “Let Him Run Wild” (1965 – from “Summer Days [And Summer Nights!!]”) —  I see now that I have given myself a ridiculously difficult task – trying to describe not only “Don’t Worry, Baby” but now also “Let Him Run Wild”. Appearing on a fun and somewhat underrated album, “Let Him Run Wild” was written by Brian and Mike. Brian’s composition is a nod to the song stylings of the great Burt Bacharach and is notable as being the first song that Brian wrote under the influence of marijuana. It was also the first song that made Carl and Dennis realize that Brian was starting to move into another realm and it is a significant signpost on the way to “Pet Sounds”. Vocally, this is another 6-Beach Boy performance with Bruce Johnston putting in some of his first shifts. Several star members of the famed Wrecking Crew are on hand and the track starts with Frank Capp’s vibraphone followed by Brian’s lead. Some dreamy guitar work by Carl (or Howard Roberts) and a nifty bass line from Carol Kaye carry the tune along gently. We drift into the chorus – “Let him run wild, he don’t care…” – and are neatly lead back to the verse: “I guess you know I waited for you…”. I dunno – I’m out of things to say about this gorgeous track. It was the b-side of “California Girls”.

Next Up… 1966 – 1973: Brian pivots and leaves everyone behind

 

 

 

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 fourth 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” – José 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. José’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!

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…

 

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”

 

 

 

Dino 100: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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