Frank Sinatra, singing, Top Ten List

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

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music, Nat King Cole, singing, Top Ten List

But Beautiful: Your Guide to Nat Cole

If pressed, a lot of people nowadays, but certainly not all, could name three or four singers of American popular standards. One name they would probably be able to come up with would be Nat ‘King’ Cole. Most people would know the name, the fact that Natalie Cole was his daughter and that he sang Christmas music. But there is SO much more going on with Nat Cole that needs to be known and appreciated. As opposed to an in depth look at his life and career, what I propose to present is a quick run-through, focusing on the wonderful music he recorded and how it varied throughout his tenure as one of the smoothest voices in popular song. Lastly, I’d like to run down, in order, the ten greatest recordings of the man born Nathaniel Coles.

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There are a few key things about Nat Cole that I would present to a beginner who is wanting to know what all the fuss is about and who is wanting to know what to listen to based on their interests. The first thing I like to point out – the thing that perhaps makes Cole cooler than anything else – is that, at the beginning of his career, he was a jazz pianist. And he was good. He was a student of the recordings of the great Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and Cole was considered one of the leading jazz pianists of the late 1940’s-early 1950’s. So much so that he was the featured pianist on the original “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts originated by Norman Granz that featured all-star line-ups of the finest jazz musicians in the land. Also notable is the make-up of Cole’s early trio – piano, guitar and bass. Those three instruments in particular (no drums) was a unique set up especially in the big band era and it was emulated by many combos that emerged later. It’s amazing to think that, with a voice like his, Nat originally sang only occasionally. Legend has it that he sang live for the first time because a drunken customer demanded it. Nat sang “Sweet Lorraine” and was tipped 15 cents. The recordings of the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio – with or without vocals – are wonderful. They present perfect, smooth, small combo jazz. It’s only Nat’s tremendous success later as a vocalist that somewhat relegates this part of his career to the background. In 1942, songwriter Johnny Mercer founded Capitol Records and a year later Johnny signed Nat and the trio to the label and they began enjoying great success there. The trio was so successful that the revenue from their record sales propelled Capitol to the forefront of the record business, allowing them to build the famous Capitol Tower as a home base. The world’s first circular office building is often referred to as ‘the House That Nat Built’.

By the early-to-mid 1950’s, Nat had – unfortunately, some jazz purists lamented – jettisoned the small group sound and stepped to the fore as one of the premier proponents of the smooth vocal pop tune with orchestral accompaniment. In 1953, Nat scored a hit of immortal proportions with his first recording with an orchestra: “The Christmas Song”. Many hit singles followed and Nat was paired with all the major arrangers of the day: Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May. He delivered album after album of sublime vocals. Indeed, you could look at Nat Cole as an ‘album artist’. Yes, he placed many tunes on the charts (28 top 40 hits between 1954 and 1964) but his main contribution to traditional pop or jazz vocal is a string of excellent albums with great arrangers and attractive album covers.

Nat Cole was a pioneering black entertainer. He became one of the first African American’s to host his own show – “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show” aired for a year starting in 1956. The show was well done and featured many big stars of the day but it could not maintain sponsorship as many brands were hesitant to support so visibly a black artist, even one as universally loved as Nat Cole. Finally, Nat had to shut the show down. Referring to the inability to maintain sponsorship, Nat quipped notably “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark”. Nat was a quiet and gentle crusader for equal rights. He was an inspiration to all black entertainers at the time. Nat had married singer Maria Ellington and eventually had five children, two of them adopted. During his peak years, Nat moved his family to a affluent neighbourhood in Los Angeles where they were met with hostility from their neighbours. Nat attended a community meeting at which a spokesmen boldly stood up and proclaimed that the area did not want any “undesirables”. Nat responded by rising and saying “Neither do I. If I see any undesirables, I’ll let you know”. Nat’s home was vandalized (racial slurs burned into the lawn) and a family pet was killed (poison meat thrown over the fence). Nat soldiered on, dignity intact.

Into the 1960s, Nat began to work with lesser known arrangers and orchestrators. The results yielded many additional hits – “Ramblin’ Rose”, “Dear Lonely Hearts”, “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” – but the old-timey, sing-along quality of this period represented the nadir of Nat’s recordings. Even still, with his vocal charm, he was able to squeeze out a couple more charming tracks. He does a version of “The Girl from Ipanema” on the last album released during his lifetime that is excellent and “Let Me Tell You Babe” is a track released after his death that purists probably hate as it has a late-60’s-pop-soft-rock sound to it but I like it. Throughout his career, Nat had been one of the sharpest dressed cats in the business, always in a sharp suit or sweater, sometimes sporting a fedora – and always, but always, smoking a cigarette in a cigarette holder. This wretched vice became the undoing of Nat ‘King’ Cole. You have to understand that – and if you look into it, you’ll see it’s true – everybody loved Nat Cole. All reports indicate that there was not a classier person in show business. A loving husband and father, he quietly blazed a trail for black artists and was a genuine human being. When Nat fell ill in the early 1960’s, many friends and associates expressed their concern to him. The hazards of nicotine were not as widely known as they are today and people were simply worried that his constant smoking would wreck his voice and his health. A visit to the doctor confirmed a lung cancer diagnosis. The historic Surgeon General’s report confirming the negative effects of cigarette smoke was issued in January of 1964. Nat Cole received his death sentence 9 months later. The disease progressed rapidly and Nat was confined to hospital. He left one last time for an afternoon drive in February of ’65 looking gaunt and aged. He graciously allowed photographers to take pictures of him and his wife outside the hospital. As Mr. and Mrs. Cole drove away, the photographers wept.

Nat ‘King’ Cole died on Valentines Day, 1965. In his last days, he reportedly pressed his doctors to get him well so that he could tell people to quit smoking. His cancer death – along with the Surgeon’s General report – were early events in the worldwide crusade against the evils of smoking and it’s link to cancer. While he was not without his transgressions, Nat Cole was truly and dearly loved by his family, his friends, all of his contemporaries, the press, the recording industry and fans the world over. His legacy is unique and his gifts to all of us are immense.

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Let’s return to that which never dies; the music. You have to be careful with record companies. They will often stick with an established and well-known group of songs and – with little deviation – reissue these tracks ad nauseum. Beware the many redundant ‘greatest hits’ packages. It seems, with Cole, that many of his most popular “hits” are actually some of his most mediocre recordings. Keep in mind that, as you scan this list, you may not see songs you thought you would. In compiling this list, I took many things into consideration and I found that sometimes ‘immense worldwide familiarity’ did not necessarily indicate a quality recording. Not only are there many Cole songs you know by heart and you don’t need me to tell you about them but also, as I’ve said, the recordings embraced by the masses don’t always represent high quality material. Helping you to know what is good based on what you like (trio jazz or pop vocal) is the goal of this list of the ten greatest recordings of Nat ‘King’ Cole.

10. “Baby, Baby All the Time” (1946)  This track from the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio was written by Bobby Troup. I notice that the little known Troup penned two songs in this top ten. Better known as the husband of chanteuse Julie London and as Dr. Joe Early on “Emergency!”, Troup wrote jazzy little numbers for small jazz combo settings and Cole and company introduced this track which quickly became a jazz standard. It’s gentle gait and pleading lyrics are straight down the Trio’s alley. It’s a cozy piece that serves as a delightful example of what Cole and his trio did best.

9.  “That’s All” (1953)  Written in 1952 by singer Dick Haymes’ younger brother, Bob, here’s another standard that was introduced by Nat. This song is unique in that it really had no initial ‘hit’ phase and instead went straight to ‘standard’. Bobby Darin helped popularize it when he presented it as the energetic title track of a 1959 album. Nat’s version was one of his early successes with the great conductor and arranger Nelson Riddle. Riddle’s name is synonymous with the very best recordings of Frank Sinatra but the Chairman himself has said that it was Nat’s records with Nelson like “That’s All” that made him want to work with the arranger. This recording of Cole’s is sublime and is an early example of him plying the sound that would become his trademark.

8. “Answer Me, My Love” (1954)   This song has it’s origins as a German piece to which English lyrics were added. It was a hit in 1953 for both David Whitfield and Frankie Laine. Another of Cole’s outings with Nelson Riddle, Nat had the best-selling version of the song which was popular throughout 1954. It is another marriage of the very finest of Cole’s ballad singing and absolutely gorgeous strings and orchestra directed by Riddle. The chorus of white, female voices detracts from it only slightly. Like “That’s All” before it, this track is quintessential, sigh-worthy Nat Cole balladry. Celestial.

7. “Sweet Lorraine” (rec. December 15, 1943)  Perhaps the oldest song on this list, “Sweet Lorraine” was written in the late 1920’s and featured lyrics by Mitchell Parish who also contributed the words to such perennials as “Stardust”, “Moonlight Serenade” and “Sleigh Ride”. It is another song that has become a jazz standard. This is a significant recording in Nat Cole’s oeuvre. Earlier recordings than the 1943 edition I’ve chosen here represent the first of Nat Cole’s truly fine vocals. Singing this song early on in clubs gave audiences their first taste of Cole’s fine voice and provided him with an opportunity and the confidence to hone his vocal skills. This Trio recording from ’43 – like “Baby, Baby…” – is just another fine example of this small group at it’s subtly swinging best. You can notice a slight lisp that never gave Nat much of a problem – except when he sang “Sweet Lorraine”. Listen for him to sing “I’m as happy as a baby boy playing with a brand new choo-choo choy” – as opposed to “toy”. Three years after this recording, Frank Sinatra recorded a version also employing the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio’s intimate sound. After Cole’s death, Tony Bennett sang “Sweet Lorraine” in tribute on his “If I Ruled the World: Songs for the Jet Set” album (1965).

6. “L-O-V-E” (1964)  Our first selection on this list from the latter part of Cole’s career. Actually, the last part. “L-O-V-E” is the title track of the final album of Nat’s to be released during his lifetime. He finished making the album with his final recording sessions in December of ’64. This means that this swinging number was recorded so sublimely by Nat when he was already sick with the disease that would take his life only months later. This track was written by legendary German Bandleader Bert Kaempfert and Nat, again, was the first to sing it. Although any list of the finest recordings of Nat ‘King’ Cole will undoubtedly be laden with ballads, the cat could swing, as this song attests. It starts off gently trotting and sounding like Bobby Darin’s “Hello, Dolly!” and then – also like the Darin track – builds to a brash climax. It is a joy to sing along to and is a prime example of how good Cole was at uptempo material.

5. “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” (1946)  I realized as I was compiling this list that Nat Cole can give Fred Astaire a run for his money when it comes to introducing some of the most enduring songs in the history of American popular music. Here he is again with his Trio being the first to record another standard written by Bobby Troup. In this case, the song is considered to be an R&B standard and has been covered by an extensive and varied list of artists: Bing Crosby, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Them, Depeche Mode, the Cramps and John Mayer. Cole’s first version with his trio is an uptempo swinger featuring lyrics about traveling the expanse of the American country side on the famed highway. It is one of the very few quintessential Cole recordings not only in terms of quality but also popularity. An absolute delight featuring Cole in great voice and displaying his light-fingered chops on the keys.

4. “Straighten Up and Fly Right” (1943)  A companion piece to “Route 66”.  Many similarities exist between these two seminal Trio recordings. The main difference being that while this is also a song that Cole introduced to the world before it became a standard, this was one that he actually wrote himself. He took the lyrics from an old, black folk tale that Cole’s father – a Baptist minister – had used as a basis for a sermon. A lighthearted vocal from Nat is paired with the Trio’s charming brand of breezy small combo jazz. The song’s popularity has been sustained through uses in the 2010 video game “Mafia II” and more recently in the TV series “This Is Us”.

3. “That Sunday, That Summer” (1963)  And here we are at probably the only recording on this list that I would really have to defend. This song was published in 1963 and, as far as I can tell, Nat Cole was, again, the first to record it. The problem is it appeared on his “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” album, the title track of which went to #6 for Nat in the spring of ’63. He followed that up with an album of the same name made of turn-of-the-last-century sounding songs singing the praises of summer. A lot of banjo. The album was successful for Nat but it is a good example of one of those times when public adoration did NOT mean quality work. The title track is delightful but this old-timey setting simply does not mesh well with Nat’s dulcet tones. The exception is “That Sunday, That Summer”. This is the only track on this list that charted in the top 40 on the pop charts during the “modern era” of the tracking of chart activity which began in 1954-55. Fittingly, in September of ’63, after summer frolicking had given way to autumn studies, the nostalgic “That Sunday” spent 9 weeks on the charts peaking at #12. The banjo is present but subdued and adds to the wistful nature of the lyric and compliments Nat’s dreamy vocal. Again, we’re assaulted with an inappropriate chorus of angelic female voices but it doesn’t matter here. The track never appears on any compilations you’ll find at the record store but that just supports my theory that the real ‘best of Nat’ is not that easily found. Seek out this gorgeous number and drift away.

2. “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” (1961)  Here’s a song that deserves it’s own post. Let’s just take it slow and from the beginning. This song was written by singer Mel Torme and Bob Wells. It was written on an exceedingly hot day in an effort to keep cool. Here’s also another example of a new song making it’s way to Nat Cole first. The Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio recorded the song first in 1946. Cole then convinced Capitol to let him record it again months later but this time with a small string section – an auger of things to come for Nat. This second version became a massive hit on pop and R&B charts. Cole again recorded an orchestral version during his productive year of 1953 with Nelson Riddle. Nat’s fourth recording of it took place at Capitol Studios in March of 1961 with the Ralph Carmichael Orchestra. This is the version that you hear every Christmas. Cole issued a Christmas LP in 1960 called “The Magic of Christmas” and then, in 1963 while his newest version of “The Christmas Song” was becoming legendary, Capitol decided to reissue “The Magic of Christmas” as “The Christmas Song”, adding the new title track and deleting “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”. This version of his Christmas album (complete with new cover replacing white kids admiring tree with Nat chilling in sweater by the fire) has sold untold scores of copies and is still a seasonal favourite. (All this, of course, makes Nat’s “God Rest Ye Merry” the ‘lost carol’!) “The Christmas Song” – the track – is sublime but here’s the funny thing: Nat Cole has an incredibly huge rep as a ‘Christmas artist’ but the truth is that the rest of “The Christmas Song” album is quite boring and plain and since Nat never again recorded a full album of Christmas music this means that his huge Christmas rep is based solely on these three minutes of absolute perfection. There may be no finer recording in Nat’s catalog than his 1961 version of “The Christmas Song”. From the opening two notes, this tune manages to encapsulate all the warmth, peace and joy, all the emotion of the Christmas season. Nat’s vocal is the pinnacle of excellence and the unheralded Ralph Carmichael provides an appropriately lush setting featuring a wonderfully mellow guitar solo. It conjures up all the wonderful feelings usually associated with a night in late December relaxing in a warm room lit only by your Christmas tree and surrounded by those you love. The only reason it’s not number one on this list is because it would’ve been too easy. It benefits so much from these external things.

#1 “Stardust” (1957)  “The Christmas Song” is a resplendent recording. However, part of it’s immense charm certainly comes from the Christmas season itself and all of our thoughts, feelings and memories regarding it. “Stardust” does to you what that Christmas classic does to you but all on it’s own. “Stardust” is the aural manifestation of Nat ‘King’ Cole in all his glory. This standard among standards was written in 1927 by the great Hoagy Carmichael (who not only wrote great songs but possessed one of the greatest names in history) with lyrics added by Mitchell Parish. It is one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century with 1,500 recordings of it to date. Nat recorded his version in December of 1956 for his album “Love is the Thing”. The orchestral accompaniment for this album was arranged for strings alone and conducted by the great Gordon Jenkins. Jenkins provides strings so lush that “Stardust” takes on an ethereal quality. It seems to drift down out of the heavens. Nat does well with any type of material but his legacy and his strength is definitely ballad singing and “Stardust” is the quintessence of this strength and represents one of the peak experiences of vocal balladry in the history of recorded sound. It is that good. “Love is the Thing” was the first of four albums Nat would make with Gordon Jenkins. This album was one of the earliest stereo albums made at a time when such albums were made specifically for a niche stereo hi-fi market. The album was also very successful for Nat reaching #1 on the charts while “Stardust”, released as a single, reached #79. What more can be said? It is a flawless vocal performance wrapped in a plush and almost surreal environment of dreamlike beauty. The album is perhaps the finest single moment in either Nat’s or Gordon’s career and provides us with the finest example of the art of Nat ‘King’ Cole.

In compiling this list one of the many things I discovered is that looking at single recordings maybe isn’t the best way to explore Nat Cole. As Bennett has said, it’s about the catalog, the whole, as opposed to single moments. Nat’s entire career is a joy. Do yourself a favour and grab an album – not a compilation – of his. You won’t be disappointed.

Honourable Mentions: “Unforgettable”, “Walking My Baby Back Home”, “Mona Lisa”, “Embraceable You”, “When I Fall in Love”, “Too Young”, “Somewhere Along the Way”, “Say It Isn’t So”, “Lights Out”

 

 

 

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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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