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

 

 

 

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The Greatest Christmas Songs

Now, I know what you’re thinking and you’re right: music is subjective. And Christmas music all the more so. Mainly because of the immense amount of sentiment attached to the Christmas season. Your heart and spirit can latch on to a song, maybe you heard it as a child or it relates to memories of the past, connections to family members, etc. Not only that but I’ve always felt that anything was OK at Christmas; meaning nothing was too cornball to listen to or watch. Even things overly sentimental that may even have made you cringe in your better instincts were not only acceptable at Christmas but welcomed. After all, it is the season of such things. So, those who love Christmas music love it. All of it. Well, most of it. Lists like the one I’m about to present are almost redundant because of the sentimental connection I’ve tried to explain. My list of the best Christmas songs will bring blank stares from a lot of you because your own Christmas memories usually are accompanied by your own Christmas soundtrack which may be very different from mine or anyone else’s. However, what I’ve tried to pinpoint are the songs that are generally accepted as favourites, songs that are significant historically and culturally. Yes, opinions will vary but this list, I think, contains songs that serve to enrich the Christmas experience. Chances are, if Christmas is your thing, if you truly love the season for Christ-related or Santa-related reasons or both, than you love most of these songs. Or at least you understand and accept them as priceless elements of the season. For each track I’ve tried to state a case for their inclusion on anyone’s Christmas playlist. And, yeah, ranking can be really sketchy but I went ahead and ranked them anyways. Lastly, there are no carols here as they deserve their own post.

10. “Here Comes Santa Claus” – Gene Autry (1947) — Sub-titled “Down (or Right Down) Santa Claus Lane”, this perennial favourite was written by “The Singing Cowboy”, Gene Autry in 1947. Christmas of 1946, Autry was riding his horse in the Santa Claus Lane Parade (now the Hollywood Christmas Parade) and heard the spectators chanting “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus!”. This inspired Gene to write the lyrics to the song. (Gene relates this story on one of his Christmas albums) Autry recorded his song three times. The first came out on Columbia Records and was a Top Ten hit on the pop and country charts. It’s appreciation was increased by it’s use in the Rankin-Bass Christmas special from 1974, “A Year Without a Santa Claus”. It’s a pleasant, charming song that sings the praises of good, ol’ Saint Nick. And, again, people of a certain age no doubt grew up with Gene Autry’s Christmas music, specifically the “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” LP. “Here Comes Santa Claus” was also recorded notably by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, Bob Dylan, Mariah Carey and Billy Idol (!?).

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9. “Christmas Time is Here” – Vince Guaraldi (1965) — Here’s a perfect example of the ‘connection’ thing I was talking about. People my age grew up with the Peanuts gang and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in particular. The special from ’65 is notable for it’s assertion that the ‘real meaning of Christmas’ is the Nativity. Because we all grew up with Charlie Brown and Snoopy, this special is near and dear to us, that includes the music that goes with it. Peanuts specials were unique in that they presented the adventures of these kids against a backdrop of jazz music. The man who created it all was Vince Guaraldi. His soundtrack to the Christmas special featured not only “Christmas Time is Here” but also the immortal theme, “Linus and Lucy”. The album featured an instrumental version of “Christmas Time” and a version featuring vocals from the children’s choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. The song reminds you of the special, which is all is has to do. But, on top of that, it is a quiet gem, driven by Guaraldi’s gentle piano and drummer Jerry Granelli’s brushes. The song has been covered countless times but it is rare among Christmas songs in that Guaraldi’s version is the only one that ‘counts’. Oddly, it wasn’t covered at all until 1982 – and then it was flood gates. Other artists recording versions include: Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney, R.E.M., Stone Temple Pilots (!?), Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, and LeAnn Rimes.

8. “Jingle Bells”/”Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” – Bing Crosby (1943) — I’ve cheated a bit here with this tie but these are two similar recordings from the greatest of all the Christmas crooners. In 1935, Bing Crosby recorded the most beloved of all Christmas carols, “Silent Night”. As a religious man, Bing was hesitant to record the venerable song as he thought it was inappropriate for a singer of popular songs – and an owner of racehorses – to profit from so sacred a song. But record it he did and it began his 40-year run as the finest interpreter of seasonal warmth. By 1943, Bing Crosby was just about as big as you can get and the thing you need to understand about Bing is that, in Artie Shaw’s words, “he was the first hip white man born in the United States”. His jazz sensibilities and his sense of “swing” were highly tuned by this point. Never was this more apparent than in these two seminal recordings both recorded the same September day in 1943. Teaming with his regular singing partners, the Andrews Sisters, Bing swings like nobody’s business on these two numbers. “Jingle Bells” should have it’s own post. It may be one of the most recorded songs in history and lends itself well to a swinging treatment. “Santa Claus…” is taken at a more middling tempo but the rhythm inherent in Bing’s vocal and the spry accompaniment from the brass make for an excellent recording. Two definitive Christmas recordings from a man at the very height of his powers. “Jingle Bells” has been recorded countless times, most notably by: Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Booker T. and the MG’s, Jose Feliciano, the Hollyridge Strings, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Ben Rector and about a thousand others. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: the Crystals, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Jackson 5, the Beach Boys, Michael Buble and Dokken (!?).

7. “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” – Darlene Love (1963) — Where do I start? Bing Crosby was at the vanguard of the initial wave of popular singers recording Christmas music in the late 1930’s-early 1940’s. Then, with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, few artists indulged in seasonal sounds, the Drifters and Presley notable exceptions. And then, in November of 1963, Phil Spector released “A Christmas Gift for You”, a Christmas record filled with songs by artists in his stable. It has been called the greatest Christmas album ever made and it started the second wave of prolific pop/rock Christmas recordings. The only new song on this album, “Christmas…” is absolutely heartbreaking. The lyrics speak of separation at Christmas but what is most gut-wrenching about it is the chord changes. The song itself – vocals aside – is filled with longing. It’s songs like this that Springsteen channeled for his most emotive work. Indeed, “Bobby Jean” from “Born in the U.S.A.” is almost a carbon copy. Add to this the power of the voice of Darlene Love and you have a potent package. Thing is, the potency of this track does not necessarily come from it’s “Christmas-ness” but it is a Christmas song, often called the greatest Christmas rock song ever. It is heavy. Unsuccessful when it first came out, it has since been covered by U2 (Love sang back-up), Michael Buble and Mariah Carey.

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6. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” – Vaughn Monroe (1945) — The hardest Christmas song title to type. There are a handful of staples in this genre and this is one of them. If you are going to put out a Christmas album, this is going to be on it, particularly if you operate in the traditional pop idiom. Big-voiced Vaughn Monroe introduced this tune with an RCA Victor release in 1945. It was written by legendary and prolific songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn and is one of those tunes that make no specific reference to Christmas. It is a great swinger that rolls at the end of “Die Hard” and has been covered – and covered well – by virtually every jazz/traditional pop singer, including: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (twice), Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Robert Goulet and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass slow it down for an outstanding mellow version.

5. “An Old Fashioned Christmas” – Frank Sinatra (1964) — What a shock for me to learn that the biggest swinger of them all did not really swing at Christmas time. When I first heard Sinatra’s Christmas albums (technically three), I could not immediately connect until I realized that what he was doing so well was being reverent. In 1964, Sinatra teamed up with Bing Crosby and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians and put out the hard to find “12 Songs of Christmas”. Written by regular Sinatra writers (and pals) Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen and sung solo on the album by Frank, “An Old Fashioned Christmas” is the perfect mid-century Christmas song. If you’re like me – and I sincerely hope you’re not – you love any depiction of the past, be it in novel, film or song. Whether it’s 2017 or 1964, the song is all about nostalgia. It’s about a swinger who’s domain is the happenin’ city. But it’s late in December and this cat is thinking of home: “Give me an old-fashioned Christmas…my heart remembers smoldering embers warmly aglow. I’d trade that whole Manhattan skyline, the shimmering steel and chrome, for one old-fashioned Christmas back home”.

4. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – Andy Williams (1963) — Everything needs an opener and this song is the perfect opening tune for the Christmas season. George Wyle was a songwriter who worked for “The Andy Williams Show”. George wrote this song for Andy’s second annual Christmas show and it was released on Andy’s first Christmas record that year. (George Wyle also wrote the theme to “Gilligan’s Island”) All this makes it one of the more recently introduced Christmas standards. It’s an exciting composition in triple time and the lyrics are chock full of Christmas imagery. It is one of the most regularly heard Christmas songs of them all, as it is a celebration of all that we love about the season. For such an iconic song of the season, it has not been covered often. Johnny Mathis did a carbon copy version while Harry Connick, Jr. – as he is wont to do – wrote a very unique arrangement for it and recorded it on his Christmas album of 2008.

3. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” – Elvis Presley (1957) — The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll recorded two Christmas albums, one in 1957 and one in 1971. Only 20 Christmas songs and yet he has a sizable Christmas rep. “Elvis’ Christmas Album” of ’57 is the highest selling Christmas album of all-time (U.S. sales) and this was the first track on it. Presley went into the studio to make this album of Christmas and gospel classics and found himself one song short. His regular songwriters – Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame-ers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – adjourned to a quiet room and emerged a short time later with this simple gem. The magic here is in Presley’s performance. King recorded many timeless rock ‘n’ roll classics between 1956 and 1958 – the years that cemented his legacy for all time – but few of them really display the sheer savage power of his voice. One example is “Jailhouse Rock”. And another is “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. How odd. Christmas songs are generally tender, warm, lovingly nostalgic and evocative of home and hearth. This tune is a beast. The Jordanaires chanting “Christmas”, J.D. Fontana punishing his drums and some stellar blues piano from Dudley Brooks all combine to make this a Christmas rock ‘n’ roll standard.

2. “The Christmas Song” – Nat ‘King’ Cole (1961) — For almost all of the songs on this list I’ve gone to ‘the source’. Actually, it’s better stated to say that most of the greatest Christmas recordings ever are cases where artists are introducing a song to the public. Another great example of this is “The Christmas Song”, first recorded by Nat ‘King’ Cole – often subtitled either “Merry Christmas to You” or “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”. Like “Let It Snow!”, it’s a case of songwriters sweltering in mid-summer and imagining the cooler, cozier vibe of Christmas time. Legendary singer Mel Torme wrote the lyrics and Robert Wells composed the tune. Nat Cole and his trio debuted the song in the ’40’s. The definitive 1961 version was their third recording of it. There is a sublime gentleness in the opening two guitar notes and the sweeping strings that transport you to a dimly lit, warm, cozy room. The fireplace is aglow. The tree is lit. And Nat Cole’s smoky voice sings of the many charms of the season. The ’61 version is actually a perfect recording, Christmas or no. Mel’s lyrics add to the warmth and heartfelt sentiment.

1. “White Christmas” – Bing Crosby (1947) — A no-brainer. An easy, even unimaginative choice for #1. Not even a choice, really. If you decide to write about Christmas music, you are going to talk about Papa Bing and his glorious 1947 version of “White Christmas”. It is the reason secular Christmas music exists. This song really deserves it’s own post so I’ll keep it simple. Written by Irving Berlin and first recorded by Bingo in 1942, it is the world’s best selling single. Crosby’s initial recording in 1942 was incredibly successful. In 1942, the song spent 11 weeks at #1. In 1945 and 1946, the song went to #1 again – no other single in history has reached the top of the charts in three separate years. Although the song has been recorded over 500 times, it has always been associated with Bing Crosby. Crosby always downplayed his role in making the song legendary: “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully”. Along with Nat Cole’s “The Christmas Song”, this is one of the very few perfect recordings in history.

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So…what do you think? It may be hard to argue with these choices as they are, for the most part, universally loved. But did I miss any? Do any of these songs place too high? Aside from some really obscure stuff I could name, there really is no bad Christmas music. By definition, it is pleasant, warm, tenderly nostalgic and evokes memories of home. It truly is one of the joys of the season.

Stay Tuned for my next post when we’ll look at the lesser known Christmas classics

– the Deep Cuts…

 

 

The Best of Everything Part 2: Sinatra Goes Solo

There was only ever going to be one path for Frank Sinatra. While he enjoyed tremendous success with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Frank was single-minded enough to feel the need to go it alone. Trouble was, singers simply didn’t do that in 1942. As I’ve said before, the comfortable place for a singer to be in this era was as part of a big band. Solo singers, while not unheard of (Al Jolson), were certainly not the norm. Sinatra informed Dorsey he was leaving. Dorsey reportedly said “I hope you fall on your ass”. There is lots of interesting ‘story’ to their parting which you should look up and read. Sinatra took his Dorsey arranger, Axel Stordahl, with him and began making his own records for Columbia.

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The years 1943-1952 warrant their own story as these years are a unique mini-era in Sinatra’s career. The Columbia sides are an origin story of sorts for me. In the early ’90’s, as I was just beginning to discover jazz and traditional pop, I really had no clue what artists to look for. I wasn’t even really sure what it was I was after: jazz, pop vocals, funk, lounge. All I knew was that something else was going on in the ’50’s besides Elvis Presley and Little Richard. And I knew who Sinatra was. The first music I owned as I began to ‘look elsewhere’ was Harry Connick, Jr.’s “Star Turtle” album (New Orleans funk), the soundtrack to the Clint Eastwood film on Thelonious Monk, “Straight, No Chaser” (jazz) and a cassette that made up half of a box set devoted to Frank’s Columbia-era recordings. Subsequently, I knew and loved some of these lesser known recordings before I knew the more popular Capitol songs of the 1950’s.

The reason this era is often overlooked is because, almost from the moment he went out on his own, Frank Sinatra’s career went into a general decline. The material and Frank’s ability to deliver were both at their lowest point. It’s hard to believe but, for myriad reasons that you should look up and explore, for a time in the early ’50’s it looked as if Frank was just a flash in the pan. A singer who flamed brightly with a popular big band but one that couldn’t sustain his momentum as a single. Also, in this era of high moral standards, Sinatra’s personal life was in turmoil. He had left his wife, Nancy, and was in a tumultuous relationship with one of the most beautiful and popular actresses of the time, Ava Gardner. At this time in history, such a lifestyle could be very damaging to a career as the public demanded a certain decorum from it’s stars. Frank’s stormy relationship with Ava had it’s effect on his talent and his judgement. This was also the time of the ‘novelty’ song; screwy songs with hokey lyrics about inane subjects. While Frank did descend into madness with the recording of the infamous “Mama Will Bark”, he was generally incapable of ‘dumbing down’ his aspirations to be the best and he found there was little room and a lesser acceptance of high quality vocalizing. Also though, the sound emanating from his throat was certainly not what it used to be. Amidst all this tumult, Frank persisted but, after some strong years in the mid-1940’s, he found his popularity – and his craft – was waning.

If you explore the recordings he made in this era, however, you will find another segment of Sinatra’s career that brings immense pleasure and warm feelings. Similar to his big band recordings, the Columbia sides make for wonderful living room/rocking chair listening. It’s an era often overlooked due to Sinatra’s general decline but, while the recordings may not stand up under critical scrutiny, they are really fun to listen to as a fan. And that’s the essence of this era: still great from a fan’s perspective but lackluster from a critical standpoint. I can highly recommend “The Complete Recordings: The Columbia Years 1943-1952”. It’s on iTunes for $100 and I see one on eBay for $130. It’s close to 300 tracks. For a sampler, there is “The Best of the Columbia Years”. 4 CDs. I see it, used, on Amazon for about $90. Here are your top ten Frank Sinatra recordings from the time between leaving Dorsey in 1943 and joining Capitol Records ten years later.

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10. Dream” (1945) — If you read part one, you know that a lot of Frank’s early material has tremendous nostalgic appeal. If you’re a fan of the ’40’s and ’50’s, this music takes you right there. “Dream” is the perfect example of this. It seems to shimmer as it descends from the heavens. Written by the great Johnny Mercer, it was a #5 song for Frank. He would revisit it – as he would many of this era’s songs – on 1960’s “Nice ‘n’ Easy”.

9. April in Paris” (1950) — Everything I said for “Dream” I could say here. Another standard that young Frank sings wonderfully: “…no one could ever repriiiiise”. Absolutely gorgeous. Frank recorded it again seven years later for his “Come Fly With Me” album for Capitol. Also a signature song for the Count Basie Orchestra.

8. Castle Rock” (1951 – with Harry James) — Here we have a real barn-burner. Columbia had the idea to re-team Sinatra with his old boss, Harry James, for three songs – two of which appear on this list. “Castle Rock” was an explosion of energy arranged by Ray Conniff. Sinatra and James both tear into this number, both sounding tremendous. Personal note: as I said, at this point in my life I owned very little of this music, Sinatra and Harry Connick among early purchases. Connick was known for singing standards in what could be called a ‘Sinatra vein’. Just before a James solo on “Castle Rock”, Frank exhorts the trumpeter to “go get ’em, Harry, for ol’ times sake!”. When I first heard this – not knowing Harry James was playing on it – I thought it was eerie that Sinatra seemed to be giving Harry Connick his blessing! Historical note: Harry James didn’t think much of this number. He called it “the worse thing that either one of us ever recorded”. I beg to differ, Harry.

7. “Sweet Lorraine” (1946) — You can’t really call Frank Sinatra a ‘jazz singer’. Except on numbers like this. Sinatra’s vocal ‘swings like a mother’ in this early example of his using his voice like an instrument; his phrasing and timing are perfect. Also perfect? “The Metronome All-Stars” jazz ensemble that backed him on this track. There are many great solos here and some great piano playing by a pre-superstar Nat ‘King’ Cole. “Sweet Lorraine” would also become a signature tune of his.

6. “Deep Night”  (1951 – with Harry James) — Another of the three numbers cut by the reunited Sinatra and James. This one – like the title suggests – is perfect late-night listening. Wonderful cadence and flow to Sinatra’s vocal and James summons up all the noir nuances possible in three minutes. Like he’s standing on the fire escape blowing over the alley. At one point, all the brass players join him in a few blasting notes before Frank comes sauntering back in: “Coooome to my arms, my darling…”.

5. “Saturday Night (is the Loneliest Night of the Week)”  (1944) — If you’re making a playlist of this era of Sinatra – and you’re not going chronologically – this is the song you start with. Not only for it’s blast-out-of-the-gates opening but for it’s lively horn arrangement and Frank’s swinging performance. This was one of his most notable uptempo numbers from this era. Great fun.

4. “Autumn in New York” (1949) — Much like “April in Paris”, here is a gorgeous song that Frank puts his quality stamp on. He would also revisit this on “Come Fly With Me”. Lovely string arrangement takes you right to a sidewalk in post-war Manhattan, golden leaves falling to the ground. Another standard, Frank’s is the only version to have charted in the States; number 27 in 1949.

3. “You Can Take My Word for It, Baby” (1946) — Sinatraphiles will look askance at this one ranking so high. On this little known track, Frank is backed by the Page Cavanaugh Trio, a group who borrowed heavily from the style of the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio. Critics would lump this one among the lighter tripe that Sinatra recorded at this time in an effort to recapture the spark of his fading presence at the fore of pop music. I just think this tune drips with charm and is indicative of what is so good about this era of cozy, pleasant little ditties. It’s a wonderful light jazz performance.

2. “I’m a Fool to Want You” (1951) — Again, this tune not being #1 would cause me to suffer at the hands of music critics. Admittedly, if you had to pick 4 or 5 songs throughout Sinatra’s career that serve as signposts of where his craft was at a given time, this would be the brightest light of the pre-Capitol era. Some context is necessary to fully appreciate this recording. At this point in his life, Frank was smack in the middle of his tumultuous relationship with Ava Gardner. With similar personalities, the two stars would battle constantly. Frank felt everything in life deeply and when things were bad with Ava it greatly affected him. One of the few songs for which he has a songwriting credit, the Sinatra legend tells of him tweaking the lyrics to better reflect his situation with Ava. Another legend goes that, nearing desolation, Frank went into the studio late at night, laid down his gut-wrenching, emotional vocal in one take and walked out the same door, off into the dark night. Whether or not the one-take thing is true, what is true is that this is one of the most heartfelt performances of his illustrious career. He did revisit this for his “Where Are You?” album of 1957 but I don’t know why. His original ‘sounds’ like an open wound. Historical note: most Sinatra people will know of the absolute low point of Sinatra’s recording career, the novelty song “Mama Will Bark”. This abomination, recorded with non-singing actress Dagmar and actual dogs, was released as a single in 1951 – with “I’m a Fool to Want You” on the B side. Inexplicable.

1. “Poinciana” (1946) — Here, again, Sinatra people are going ‘what??!!‘. And here, again, I say it’s all about the charm. Frank’s only recording of this Cuban melody drifts into your consciousness subtly, seemingly from out of the ether. If you’re on a classic episode of “The Twilight Zone” and there’s an old radio in your grandmother’s attic that can transport you back in time, this recording is coming out of the speaker. There is a certain quality in this recording. Sometimes, yes, it’s a positive to say that a song is ‘timeless’ but, sometimes, what you really want is a song that is stuck in it’s time, is so very of it’s time. “Poinciana” is that song for me. It is just delightful. Frank’s plaintive “poiiiinciana…” is complimented by a lilting flute and sweeping strings. It’s dreamy.

Up Next: Frank Takes Over the World

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”

 

 

 

20th Anniversary of a Life-Changer

I like movies. Some movies I really like. Some I watch over and over because I continually ‘get something’ from them. Some movies have even greatly affected my way of thinking and feeling. Some have actually helped shape my character – who I am as a person. But only one has changed the course of my life.

Now, let’s get this over with: as a Christian person, I believe God has directed my path through life. But I also believe He can use anything to achieve His purposes – including a film about a bunch of drinking, smoking, gambling, skirt-chasing, F-bombing young guys touring the cocktail lounges of Hollywood. I’m talking about the movie “Swingers”, which is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary. It started a chain of events that changed my life.

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It’s October, 1996. I’m weeks away from my 24th birthday. Keep in mind, I’ve grown up loving oldies: popular music from the 1950’s and ’60’s. I love where they ‘take me’ and have a general fascination for the culture and entertainment of mid-century America. So, I’ve traveled through life studying and collecting this music which later began to include the classic rock of the 1970’s. I love Elvis Presley and the rock ‘n’ roll of the ’50’s so much so that I once made the ridiculous statement that ”The Fifties’ actually started in 1954′. I couldn’t conceive of anything substantial having happened in music before Presley and his contemporaries. But I’ve always been aware of ‘other stuff’ going on in the music of the past. The music I hear in the background of my ’50’s movies, for example. And what about Sinatra and Nat ‘King’ Cole? When were they active? Surely not the ’50’s. That decade was just about rock ‘n’ roll. Wasn’t it? And then came the early Sixties with Motown and vocal groups and then the Beatles came and then the hippies, etc. But what about the other side of the coin? What about the singers and the lounge acts? What about the shows in Las Vegas showrooms? This is what I’m beginning to contemplate at this stage of my life: what were the adults listening to at this time? Anyways, by this point in ’96, my main man, Harry Connick, Jr. has released his album, “She” which is a fascinating blend of rock and New Orleans funk. As a follow-up, he has recently – this is summer, ’96 – put out “Star Turtle”, which is even more steeped in New Orleans funk. He is touring and bringing his Funk Band to Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall on November 4th. Here’s where a very dear friend of mine and her husband at the time come in. Fans of Harry as well, the three of us decide to go see him. They treat me as a gift for my birthday which is on November 3rd. So I’m anticipating this show, sensing that Harry is putting down something just a little bit different.

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November 3rd, 1996. Sunday. I turn 24 years old. I’m working the night shift, maintenance at McDonald’s. I get there a bit early and I’m going through the entertainment section of the Toronto Sun. On the very back page I see a picture of three sharp looking guys strolling in front of a Las Vegas casino. I’m intrigued. My first thought is that it’s an article about some new fashion or culture trend coming out of Las Vegas or Los Angeles. I read it and it’s about the movie “Swingers” which does, indeed, depict a new culture trend: the cocktail/lounge revival then taking place in Hollywood. This interests me and the wheels start turning. Days later, again at work, a buddy of mine, Bouncer, comes in saying he was just at a sneak preview of a movie. “Swingers”, he answers sheepishly, figuring I won’t have a clue what he’s talking about. When I express interest, he says I would love it. These guys are like me, he says.

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The next day, November 4th, 1996. As this interest is brewing, my friends and I head down to the Danforth to see Harry. The show Harry lays down is one for the ages. He takes a turn on every instrument on the stage – at one point playing bass while walking up and down the aisles. It’s a full-on, no-glamour, sweaty funk work-out. I get home late that night, head spinning. You see, I know the oldies inside out. Nothing has happened in classic rock that I have missed. Is all that maybe getting old, though? I’m ripe for something new. I’m at home that night, listening to “Star Turtle” and scanning my cassettes. I have no funk. Maybe jazz? What I have at this point is the soundtrack from the Thelonius Monk biopic “Straight No Chaser” and a Frank Sinatra collection of some of his recordings from the late ’40’s. That’s it. So, the next day I head downtown to a couple of my favourite used record stores looking for albums by the Ohio Players, et al. At this point, I’m still learning that the Ohio Players and the Ohio Express are different bands. If you know these two, you know they are VERY different. But this is the thing that is starting to grab me: I know all there is to know about the music I listen to. I don’t just enjoy listening to it, I love to learn about it, to know about it. But now I’m learning that there is music out there that I know nothing about. Not only is the music fascinating me  but I’m getting hungry to learn about it. Despite my stupid comment about the ’50’s, I’m starting to realize that something else was going on in music during that decade. Something cool.

November 8th, 1996 and “Swingers” opens in Toronto and by now I know I have to go and see it. I’m starting to worry that this smaller film may not even make it out to the hinterland of Kitchener, Ontario, where I was living at the time. But it does make it there and I do make it out to see it. It was a matinee Saturday and, not having a car, I have to walk there. An hour and a half, 7 kms (4+ miles). It’s freezing. There is about six people in the theater and two of them get up to leave early on. One particularly head-shaking memory I have of the film is that Dean Martin sings over the opening credits and, at the time, I have no idea who I’m listening to. Now, of course, I know Dino from a mile away. Also distinctive at the time were the video game scenes. These just serve to help me relate to these guys as opposed to just wishing I could be like them. Suffice it to say, I enjoy the film. But more than just enjoying it, it serves as further evidence that there is a whole culture and lifestyle out there that I know nothing about. And what is even better is that this culture had it’s own soundtrack – music I know nothing about. Over the next few weeks, I begin to explore this world I had been introduced to. Most importantly, I make it out to see the film again on a cheap Tuesday night. This time I go with my buddy, Hash. The key thing here was that after two weeks playing in Kitchener, “Swingers” was gone from the theaters there. It had only played in my town for two weeks but I had been twice to see it. Then, of course, I had to find the soundtrack on CD. Another difficult task but I find it and buy it even though it costs north of $25. The search also begins for albums by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the neo-swing act that is featured in the movie. I begin to seek out lounge music CDs, as well. To my surprise and delight, my go-to record store, Encore Records, actually has a lounge section. I buy a volume of Capitol records’ “Ultra-Lounge” series called “Bachelor Pad Royale”. It wasn’t what I expected and I was quite thrown off but I grew to love it. I buy a couple cigars. I try making Manhattans in my apartment. I’m at the movies early that December to see “Jingle All the Way”, of all movies. While I’m waiting to go in, I ask one of the girls that works there if she could check in the back for a “Swingers” poster. Keep in mind at this point no one knew what I was talking about when I mentioned “Swingers”. I remember one guy thought I meant “Sleepers”, a movie out at the time with Bacon, DeNiro, Hoffman and Pitt. She’s easily able to find me a poster which she gives to me for free. It’s still on my wall. The soundtrack for “Jingle All the Way” featured Christmas music by the Brian Setzer Orchestra which became another act I begin to seek out.

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By now it’s the middle of December. Now, for the past two or three years, my friends and I have been regulars at the local Kelsey’s roadhouse. So, I figure maybe Kelsey’s isn’t a cocktail lounge in Hollywood but it’s a good place to start and I begin to envision hanging out there with my friends and also maybe exploring some new venues downtown, maybe with some live music. I’m adding to my music collection, my wardrobe and planning for my upcoming Christmas holidays when I’ll really have the time to ‘get a nightlife’: really start exploring this cocktail culture with my friends. Only one problem: nobody’s up for it. Christmas break comes and I get dressed up sharp as I can, put some tunes on in my apartment and wait for the gang to show up. One by one they can’t for some reason or other: other friends, family, girlfriends, wives, other commitments. See, I was single and living by myself in a town where no one else in my family lived. I worked a crap job. I had all the time in the world. Only no one else seemed to. This is the way it stays into the new year, 1997. Which gets me thinking. Firstly, every one of my friends is pivoting into adult life with all it’s time constraints and responsibilities. Secondly, I have an infinite capacity for mid-century American culture. I’m totally ready to live in the past. I’m all in: jazz and lounge music, cocktails and slacks. But I’m learning that although my friends can dig it, they’re not as captivated as I am. And thirdly: maybe it’s time for me to do some pivoting, too.

So, I decide to get a student loan and go to college. I’ll work my night job, go to class in the day and work on a novel I’m writing every other minute of the day. Which is, like, four. In the spring, my mom invites me down to visit her and my stepfather in Florida. I decide to leave my student loan application with my friend who was going to check on my cat, Reef, asking him to mail it away midweek. While in Florida though, I share my plans with my folks who make me see that if I go ahead as I was planning, I would never have time to work on my novel. They suggest I cut ties in Kitchener and move north to work at their trailer park. I’d live in a 60′ house trailer, work digging ditches and selling sausages and I’d be able to write without worrying about sustaining myself. At first I think there is no way I can leave all my friends and my home and go where I don’t know anybody. The point they made me see was that everybody does what is best for them so I needed to do the same. I could testify to this truth as my friends were moving on and doing what best suited their lives. So I make the monumental decision to quit my job and move. I give McDonalds nine weeks notice and hand in my resignation which reads “That’s it, I quit, I’m leaving the band (John Lennon)”. I’m prepared for an emotional final shift that March – when I get the call to not come in. With pay. They didn’t want me to be there with nothing to lose. Who knows what I’d get up to my final shift. So, real touching from them. I tell all my friends I’m moving and say my goodbyes. Before leaving town I’m sure to make two purchases: black, hi-cut canvas Converse and a package of white undershirts.

So, April 1st, 1997, is when I reached my own pivot point. I moved to rural southern Ontario to run the Dog Patch Diner, selling hot dogs, sausages and coffee. I did dig many ditches, preparing to lay wires for hydro-equipped campsites. One night eight weeks later, I had closed up the diner for the night and was walking back to my trailer with a box full of dirty dishes. I walked by two girls and heard one ask the other “who is that?” It’s me, honey, your future husband. I met Andrea that May long weekend and eight weeks later I asked her to marry me. We’ve been together ever since. I left the Dog Patch Diner for a factory job and I’ve been there ever since. To this day, I haven’t worked on that novel for one minute.

As time went by, drinking gin martinis or Jack Daniels and water alone in my basement – and sometimes being called upon late at night to check on our babies in their cribs – soon made me reassess and to question just how much I was getting out of drinking. It eventually went by the boards. But with the tolerant approval of my wife, I delved deeper and deeper into “mid-century modern” culture. My music and movie collections – and my wardrobe – continue to grow. I always say I’ve got 24 favourite movies: 11 from my young adult days and 10 from my adult life. And three absolute favourites up on top of the pile. “Swingers” is number three because I rank those three in the order in which I was introduced to them. Out of all of those 24 movies I love so much, only one has caused me to get up and seek a new life.

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