1957 – Ruth Brown – Rock and Roll

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Ruth Brown - Rock & Roll

Cover Critique: I love the colour scheme here. Orange, white, red, and pink. It really makes her name pop out. I do hope the U.S. Postal Service made a special stamp from that picture of her, as it was clearly the designer’s subliminal intention. I also like how the folks at Atlantic put “rock & roll” in tiny letters running the wrong way – hard to read, easy to miss and showing they had the good sense to feel a little bit ashamed of marketing this as rock and roll. Two stars.

Track Listing:

Lucky Lips
As Long as I’m Moving
Wild Wild Young Men
Daddy Daddy
Mambo Baby
Teardrops from My Eyes
Hello Little Boy
Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean
5-10-15 Hours
It’s Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)
Sentimental Journey
Old Man River
So Long
Oh What a Dream

As I understand it, R&B evolved from the urban blues market in much the same way rockabilly evolved from country swing – the youth wanted faster and edgier sounds. And Ruth Brown must have been a reigning queen hitmaker on the R&B market in much the same way as B.B. King was for the electric blues, as both of them got albums out well in advance of the pack. Like his album Singin’ the Blues, Ruth Brown’s awkwardly titled Rock and Roll is a compilation of her successful singles, ranging from the lush late 40s into the leaner sounds of the 50s.

Now when it comes to Ruth Brown, the singles are only half the story and the less interesting half. Her band sported a fuller sound than any concurrent rockabilly acts, and when they really revved up they (like Louis Prima’s ensemble) could actually give those boys with the exciting but still thin electric guitar sound a run for their money. Alas, these singles don’t really capture the impact of the Ruth Brown stage show – find some youtube clips from the era and you’ll see that Ruth Brown was a live performer first and foremost, the band kicking into high gear while she commanded the stage with telling looks and gestures; here’s a woman who was a burly, comical wildcat on stage instead of a lady.

None of that is really captured on these more modest studio takes. Everything is moderated and mostly lacks the fire of the live performances. Ruth Brown has a fun brawny delivery but the visual cues are a big part of the draw because the songs themselves are not technically overwhelming.

First song is the worst. ‘Lucky Lips’ has to be heard to be believed – a Leiber and Stoller comedy number and an example of professional hacksmanship at its worst because no amount of humour can get past the fact that it’s a goddamn Christmas song. That last bit of the chorus when the backing singers echo Ruth’s “with lucky lips I’ll always have a fellow in my arms” gives it away. How is this sonically different from ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town?’ It isn’t, and when combined with lines like “when they spin that wheel of fortune all I do is kiss my chips / and I know I’ve picked a winner ’cause I’ve got lucky lips” it ranks right up there on any Worst of the Fifties playlist you may want to create. Do you realize how many people had to say yes to this song that it became the leadoff track on Ruth Brown’s first LP?

If you make it through ‘Lucky Lips’ and haven’t died laughing, Rock and Roll gets better in that at least the other songs are real music and not a cheap parody thereof. Random thoughts: ‘Hello Little Boy’ is the rowdiest, raunchiest number by far and an easy standout. On the other hand, this tame version of ‘Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean’ pales compared to her Apollo performance of the same. ‘Teardrops from My Eyes’ was a huge hit for Ruth and a major breakthrough in the R’n’B sound, but it’s still an ostensibly sad song done in a weirdly upbeat style that leaves me unsure what it’s trying to convey. Meanwhile, ‘It’s Love Baby (24 Hours of the Day)’ comes closest to bridging the gap between the Ruth Brown singing style and the dramatically emphasized Etta James style. I like the piano in ‘Mambo Baby’ but the “he goes… (clapping) …all the time” part obviously doesn’t translate to record. ‘5-10-15 Hours’ gives space to the saxophonist and gets a standardized slinky feel that is a welcome change of pace.

The oddest thing is how Rock and Roll wraps things up with four old-school tracks: ‘Sentimental Journey,’ where Ruth Brown tries to follow the path of Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington while her backing male vocalists (especially the baritone) take the mike away from her; an unnecessary take on ‘Old Man River’ with more prominent backing vocalists; and to end, a sentimental, orchestrated 1949 ballad called ‘So Long’ (sounding like a fascinating historical relic by this time) and a sentimental doo-wop ballad called ‘Oh What a Dream.’

Bottomline is that I’m not enamoured of this stuff but it’s possible if this chronological journey had begun in the 30s or 40s instead of the 50s I would have the necessary backstory to understand Ruth Brown’s impact. As is, the Rock and Roll LP comes rather out of context. These singles, which could have been towering highlights in the standards-soaked early 50s, do not have the same punch in 1957. It all has a good sound, I just feel like it could have been more energetic and with that energy almost every one of these songs could have been like ‘Hello Little Boy.’ I would recommend it mostly on a historical basis for those who already love old school R&B.

Best Track: Hello Little Boy.

Worst Track: Lucky Lips.

Rating: Three stars.

And now the live show…

1957 – Pete Seeger – American Ballads

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Pete Seeger - American Ballads

Cover Critique: Horrible cut-out of a banjo. Saloon style font. The small letters that say “sung by” … “and his five string banjo” I actually mistook for decorative curlicues until closer inspection for this critique. Golden tan colour. Someone signed this bit of art. Very conscientious of them. It does paint a rather accurate picture of the starkness of the record, so it does its job. Two stars.

Track Listing:

Pretty Polly
The Three Butchers
John Henry
Jay Gould’s Daughter
The Titanic Disaster
Fair Margaret and Sweet William
John Hardy
The Golden Vanity
Gypsy Davy
Farmer’s Curst Wife
Down in Carlisle (In Castyle there Lived a Lady)
St. James Hospital
Jesse James
Barbara Allen

Pete Seeger put out dozens of records on the Folkways label in the 1950s and trying to follow them all is as ridiculous as trying to keep up with all the albums jazz artists were releasing. He released children’s records, political records, historical records and political historical records. I chose the more or less neutral American Ballads from 1957 as a likely starting point, though Seeger is more famous for individual songs (‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone? ; ‘Little Boxes’) and for being on the scene than he is for any particular record. American Ballads is a misleading title as practically every song has its roots in the old country but maybe titles like ‘Jesse James’ and ‘John Henry’ gave the whole thing an American flavour for the Folkways people. At any rate, American Ballads does offer a minor compendium of many different types of balladry.

Folk heroes are represented by ‘John Henry and outlaws by ‘Jesse James’ and ‘John Hardy.’ ‘Jesse’ is where the political undercurrent really gets out of hand as the song paints James as an economic justice warrior and modern-day Robin Hood. The man was in no way fit for the lionization he received in songs like this one. “Jesse had a wife / to mourn for his life?” So did men he killed, etc. I much prefer ‘John Hardy,’ a more dramatic and fatalistic tale with a swifter pace and stronger melody.

Then there are the gallant love ballads in which men and women drop like flies (back in the days of yore when love caused people to mysteriously sicken and die). These in particular have no American vibe, being based solidly in the older traditions like ‘Barbara Allen’ (sung a capella and meant for singers with sweeter voices than Seeger was blessed with) and ‘Fair Margaret and Sweet William.’

Deathbed laments are given a showing with ‘St. James Hospital’ a stark precursor to the more famous ‘St. James Infirmary’ that bears little similarity, being a folk song where the latter is a blues. Train songs get their due with the lullabyish ‘Jay Gould’s Daughter’ which sweeps up hobos, engineers and the death of Jay Gould the robber baron’s daughter (the veiled politics of American Ballads strikes again, as his daughter dies complaining to him of hobos riding the trains – never mind that Gould had two daughters, both of whom long outlived him).

Disasters at sea! Seeger selects ‘The Titanic Disaster’ to commemorate, a horrible little ditty set to a sunny melody that will leave you fighting the urge to sing “husbands and wives / little children lost their lives / it was sad when that great ship went down” for the rest of the day. ‘The Golden Vanity’ is a more sober experience with a lulling, hypnotic melody and again pits the martyred poor against the rich.

The straight-up murder ballads are actual highlights from the record and are smartly placed at the very start. ‘Pretty Polly’ has Seeger’s most intricately gothic banjo work and a suitably chilling tale of a girl murdered by her sweetheart while ‘The Three Butchers’ involves the betrayal of a good samaritan. Fun factoid: The original English versions had the butchers as the protagonists but in the modern age where “butcher” has dark connotations, Seeger or someone else switched the roles so there’s only one protagonist and precisely three men instead of an unnumbered group. Neither offers any clear motive for the awful murders they relate nor is any justice done or moral given.

That leaves only two songs to lighten the mood, which is admittedly a bit unbalanced. Five minutes of ‘Gypsy Davy’ with its hyper-repetitive chorus and trivial plot is a bit much, but ‘Farmer’s Curst Wife’ is actually pretty funny and you can hear Seeger smiling as he tells the tale.

So, obviously American Ballads isn’t the lightest listen (only 3 out of 14 tracks avoid a body count) and it contains only modest amounts of energy in its performances. I mean, it’s only one man and his banjo and Seeger never really lets go and starts howling and thrashing and raising the dead, if you know what I mean. This was the era when folk music was considered pure and had to be kept that way. However, Seeger is quietly personable all the way and his technical skill with the banjo can’t be doubted. I enjoyed American Ballads. Its main use is educational. If you’re already a fan of traditional music you’ll get plenty out of this but it doesn’t work so good as an introduction.

Best Track: ‘Pretty Polly’ ties for first place with ‘John Hardy.’

Worst Track: ‘Jesse James.’

Rating: Four stars.

1957 – Charles Mingus – The Clown

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Charles Mingus - The Clown

Cover Critique: Well, it’s a clown so that’s 0 stars.

Track Listing:

Haitian Fight Song
Blue Cee
Reincarnation of a Lovebird
The Clown

The Clown was Mingus’ first followup to Pithecanthropus Erectus and is usually referred to as his second masterpiece in a row. For you to agree with that statement you are required to like Charlie Parker and love clowns. If you do, run and get this album. Prepare to be amazed. If you’re indifferent to Bird and/or hate clowns (such is my case), then prepare yourself to enjoy roughly two thirds of this LP.

Four tracks again, just like on Pithecanthropus. The Pithecanthropus people were all ousted by the time the followup was being made. Some of the new guys had more luck: Dannie Richmond became a permanent fixture on drums, while Jimmy Knepper (trombone) and Shafi Hadi (sax) spent several years in the Mingus ensemble.

‘Haitian Fight Song’ kicks things off with a whole minute of bass soloing from Mingus. There is an actual artistic purpose to this decision as the bass carries the underlying melody so it’s not just Mingus being drunk with power and abusing his position as band leader. As for the song’s tone poem abilities … I thought at first it was about a boxing match and that made no sense at all. It turns out he based the idea on the Haitian Revolution, better explaining the gravity and steadiness of the song. He doesn’t recycle ideas from ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’ – high doses of chaos and shrieking would make it an inferior clone and thankfully Hadi only slips into that zone for a few moments. Mingus was trying to find new ways to express his feelings on matters of suffering and injustice and did a nice job this time out. Unlike ‘Pithecanthropus,’ ‘Haitian Fight Song’ also stands all by itself as a remarkable composition where the former tone poem really required some awareness of its intent to be effective.

However, I hold the minority opinion that ‘Blue Cee’ is actually the album’s highlight. It’s a fun track and fun does not often go with Mingus (he was called the Angry Man of Jazz, after all). No concept, just a good melodic spine, some swagger in the riff and a lot of improv that does not include any squawking of any sort. It’s not ambitious but I always enjoy this track regardless of my ambient mood. Funnily enough, there were two bonus tracks that Mingus left off The Clown in favour of ‘Blue Cee’ because word was going round that he couldn’t swing! So he looked to the blues for inspiration and I applaud his decision to show them what for.

I have not heard enough Charlie Parker to form an accurate impression of ‘Reincarnation of a Lovebird.’ It gets off to a slow start but certainly has effective moments and may well function as a deep-cutting tribute for those avid fans of Bird. I appreciate its intricacy and they conjured a certain moodiness that can hit you even if you’ve heard less Parker than I have. It definitely rewards repeated listens and has steadily grown on me but I am aware I’m not its target audience.

Lastly, ‘The Clown.’ A twelve minute spoken word conceptual piece on a clown realizing that the only thing people laugh at is misfortune. It ends with him dying when his stage collapses on top of him and listening to the crowd enjoying his demise. I barely made it through the “song” once and have no desire to ever revisit it. Mingus was trying to make a revelation but I don’t see why this needed to be the venue. What was his complaint? That too many performers only gain renown after they die? Skip this, listen to ‘Fruit Tree.’ That slapstick is a cruel form of entertainment? No one with a real knee-jerk dislike of the medium will possibly want to listen to this or need its message. It doesn’t even work as music. Jean Shepherd gives us the lowdown while Mingus and his crew noodle away in the background. I really do not care for it at all and honestly don’t see any way I could have. I will take a lifelong rain check on this one. Sorry, Mingus.

Three out of four songs doesn’t look that bad. It’s a pity the bad one takes up almost a third of the record. Problematic. I would not proclaim this a masterpiece, though if you’re a Mingus fan you will be rewarded for your troubles. I personally recommend the curious to just stop the player when ‘Reincarnation of a Lovebird’ is finished and go on to happier things. Yes, I really hate clowns.

Best Track: Blue Cee.

Worst Track: The Clown.

Rating: Three stars.

1957 – Toshiko Akiyoshi – The Many Sides of Toshiko

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Toshiko Akiyoshi - The Many Sides of Toshiko

Cover Critique: The amber-lit happy smiling face of Toshiko. I always prefer aloof mystique but it doesn’t look fake. The artist as approachable human being. Three stars.

Track Listing:

The Man I Love
Minor Mood
After You’ve Gone
We’ll Be Together Again
Studio J
Toshiko’s Fantasy: Down in a Mountain; Phrygian Waterfall; Running Stream
Bag’s Groove
Imagination

Having mastered the art of blistering speed and dynamic and then the opposing art of tonal sophistication and phrasing, by 1957 Toshiko set out to combine the approaches, making the album title more than just a random marketing move. The Many Sides of Toshiko, indeed. It might even make the best all-around introduction to her work provided you can find a copy.

The Gershwin classic ‘The Man I Love’ starts the album with a return to the swoonworthy romantic piano of ‘Laura’ off the first album – a captivating choice for the leadoff track and bookended by the choice of ‘Imagination’ for the final number. After the rather spartan feel of The Toshiko Trio, there’s a real infusion of colour and energy this time that gives the album a fuller sound even though she’s still heading a trio. This time, with Jake Hanna on drums and Gene Cherico on bass, neither of whom had any special star power in the jazz world but who clearly gelled with her sound – and Cherico remained a semi-permanent fixture, recording with her right up to the 80s.

There’s a balanced mix of moods to The Many Sides. ‘After You’ve Gone’ (a song that was a number one hit in 1919!) is given a loose, playful reading that undercuts the pathos quite mischieviously right to the very end. Going by sound, ‘Toshiko’s Fantasy’ is of a swinging arcadia where no one gets too worked up but they know the importance of the groove. The nine minutes of ‘We’ll Be Together Again’ start in sunny optimism with Hanna supplying an endless series of drum flourishes; Toshiko then smoothly deepens the tone and the drumming disappears, Cherico stepping into the gap with a hypnotic bass riff over which Toshiko moodily creates an atmosphere of shadows. When Hanna kicks back in and energy returns it’s almost a pity.

Faster material tends to include little quotations from her first album, which irked me at first until I remembered that Toshiko’s Piano had basically vanished off the face of the earth by that point in time and hardly anyone could be expected to recognise it in America or Japan. Nevertheless, for those who’ve been lucky enough to hear Toshiko’s Piano, ‘Bag’s Tune’ is a bit superfluous. Other than that, this record is golden. I have no honest idea why Toshiko is given so little attention by the jazz community. I hope it’s not because she’s a woman or Japanese. Perhaps it’s all to do with the prevailing idea that “lead instruments” in jazz are saxophone and trumpet, leaving Toshiko in the same sad state as Chico Hamilton, The Modern Jazz Quartet and others who thought piano, cello, vibraphone and flute could dare usurp the role.

Best Track: ‘The Man I Love.’

Worst Track: Least memorable is ‘Studio J.’

Rating: Five stars.

Songs from the album are hard to find and even harder to find with the accurate labels. Here is ‘Imagination,’ at least.

1957 – Gene Vincent – Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps

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Gene Vincent - Gene Vincent and his Bluecaps

Cover Critique: Greasy haired, bedraggled, black-clad rocker with his dynamic blue-clad band. Men of action! It’s a trifle but some skilled marketing went into it. Three and a half stars.

Track Listing:

Red Blue Jeans and a Pony Tail
Hold Me, Hug Me, Rock Me
Unchained Melody
You Told a Fib
Cat Man
You Better Believe
Cruisin’
Double Talkin’ Baby
Blues Stay Away from Me
Pink Thunderbird
I Sure Miss You
Pretty, Pretty Baby

**Bonus Tracks**
Important Words
Bi-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Go
Five Days, Five Days
Teenage Partner
Five Feet of Lovin’

So soon into his career and there are already problems piling up. Not enough to profoundly damage the listening experience but enough to dampen my enthusiasm a little. There’s no real blame to pass around (except to Capitol Records, for not letting ANY singles on to the album and thereby stretching Vincent and the Blue Caps’ songwriting to the limit). The stars were simply not aligned for the Blue Caps to remain together as a band. Just one of those things.

Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps is a simple enough rockabilly record – straightforward, no surprises (well, there is one), a bare minimum of slow numbers, just one rocker after another with catchy choruses and an atmosphere compatible with any teenage party. It’s definitely a step down from Bluejean Bop; however, to condemn the record would just be petty. It has a function and it fulfills it. Considering the various problems gumming up the works, and the (second) departure of Cliff Gallup as soon as the sessions were over, it’s rather amazing how well this sendoff to the classic Blue Caps turned out. Instead of something awful, we’re given good old by-numbers rockabilly, with a great band on its last legs at the helm. In a few months everyone would be gone except the drummer.

In these sessions, the band actually did better with the more laid-back material like ‘Cruisin’ and ‘Double Talkin’ Baby.’ The excitement was wearing off and cries of “rock it, Blue Caps!” wouldn’t bring it back, leaving rockers like ‘Hold Me, Hug Me, Rock Me’ undercooked and unconvincing. Contemporary singles like ‘B-I-Bickey-Bi Bo-Bo-Go’ and ‘Five Days, Five Days’ had fabulous conviction which would have really spiced up the album. Those fools at Capitol did it a disservice – luckily, CD reissues correct this problem.

One obvious classic is to be found: ‘Cat Man.’ They were really going in a new direction with this one. Tension-building Spanish styled guitars, some wild yells of “Cat Man!” and a really unsettling lyric about a predatory male whom Gene nonchalantly identifies as himself at the end of the song. And it’s sung and played very straight – nothing hammy, no winks at the audience to reassure you that they don’t really mean it. Two minutes of awesome. Fun fact: Nick Cave decided ‘Cat Man’ was effective enough in its aim to cover in the early days of The Birthday Party (and he also made use of the same “evil acrostic” bit in his later song ‘Loverman,’ which considering the title might actually be a subtle call back, or maybe I’m reading too much in to it). This might not be the first dark and deadly rock song in history (I’m pretty sure that’s actually Chuck Berry’s ‘Downbound Train,’ another hopeless obscurity from a typically upbeat rock and roller) but it’s real close to the starting gate. Don’t miss it.

Second best song has to be their smooth and slinky cover of ‘Blues Stay Away From Me,’ the Delmore Brothers’ lazy country classic; Gene gives it his loveliest singing in the batch, Gallup has some room to move and they really transform the song (and be sure to check out Johnny Burnette’s ramshackle contemporary recording, sadly left off his Coral album – record producers are such idiots).

On the negative side, Vincent did slow songs better than any rocker on the market and after the quality of his slower pop interpretations on Bluejean Bop (‘Wedding Bells’ and the like), what is most surprising is how underwhelming the two ballads on the Gene Vincent album are. ‘Unchained Melody’ … is ‘Unchained Melody,’ no more, no less. The trilling mandolin-style guitars give it a more sophisticated sound than contemporary string arrangements but you really have to be a soul singer to bring some kind of life to ‘Unchained Melody’ and as much as I love Gene Vincent’s voice, I have to stand by Bobby Hatfield on this one. The other ballad, ‘I Sure Miss You,’ is from his earliest 1956 session, which probably explains why it descends into an Elvis impression with Gene’s hushed, breathy falsetto ignored in imitation of the star of the day. Fascinating from an art evolution standpoint (in less than two months he gave totally confident readings of ‘Weddings Bells’ and ‘Peg o My Heart’) but disappointing in terms of this album.

However, when it comes down to it there’s nothing really “bad” about this record; no staggering mistakes or corny marketing maneuvers like ‘Bop Street.’ Okay, ‘Pink Thunderbird’ is a very silly song, but it has a great chorus attached and came from the most energetic of the final October sessions. The verdict on Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps is that it sounds great if you’re having a rockabilly party but on closer inspection is spread a little thin. Leave aside unfair expectations. It would have been wonderful had the Blue Caps moved in new directions, kept it together and gotten an experimental groove on but the times weren’t conducive to such a thing. Rockers had to go on tour, get on TV, scale the charts. Gallup was a family man losing interest in the rock and roll lifestyle (you can’t blame him) and that reflects in his playing. He turned to school maintenance and continued to play his guitar without seeking fame. He was probably happier for it. Rock is known to chew up the people who ascribe to it. Gene Vincent’s career wasn’t over but this album is a farewell to his classic Blue Caps – one of the best bands on the early rock and roll scene. Don’t ever let them be forgotten.

Best Track: Cat Man!

Worst Track: ‘Hold Me, Hug Me, Rock Me’ doesn’t do anything for me.

Rating: Three stars.

1957 – Lena Horne – Stormy Weather

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Lena Horne - Stormy Weather

Cover Critique: A glamorous lady in blue. Cool, confident, classy and radiating strength. Very nice. Four and a half stars.

Track Listing:

Tomorrow Mountain
Out of This World
Summertime
Mad About the Boy
Ridin’ on the Moon
Stormy Weather
Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home
Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home
I’ll Be Around
I Wonder What Became of Me
Just One of Those Things

If you want to know who was keeping the Songbook “alive” in the rock and roll era, a quick listen to Stormy Weather will supply the answer. It’s as if Lena Horne knew that the golden era was over and rather than let herself be pushed meekly into the shadows, she pushed back and recorded this feisty album – or maybe she was just venting frustration over the blacklisting that had stalled her career in the first half of the decade (her first studio album got released in 1955 but unfortunately I missed it while doing that year).

Horne never was a jazz singer – in her youth she sang straight sentimental pop, lushly orchestrated and pleasant on the ears. After being released from Hollywood she became a premier nightclub performer and her live album At the Waldorf-Astoria became RCA’s top-selling record by a female artist. The most remarkable aspect to her recording career is how she transformed herself from a pleasant but routine singer in the 1940s (another in a long line of impeccably trained mechanical songbirds) into Lena Horne, a forceful, smoldering presence with astonishingly modern phrasing. When did it happen? What was the catalyst?

Having given a listen to the Waldorf album I suspect she learned it through the nightclub circuit. Above all else, put on a show. Give em a good time, vary the mood – be a little saucy, a little torchy; make them laugh and then sober them up. Start happy, end happy, but take them for a ride. This made her popular in her time but seems to have had the opposite effect on subsequent listeners, putting her firmly in the second tier after giants like Ella and Billie. Snobs who value “technique” above all else are only part of the reason. A lot of people reach for the old Songbook singers for some mellow, “easy listening” comfort. Those people when they put on Stormy Weather will not be pleased. Too loud, too unrestrained. This lady doesn’t just croon, she bellows.

It all begins with ‘Tomorrow Mountain,’ an upbeat vision of a morally bankrupt paradise selected from Beggar’s Holiday, a musical update on the 18th Century play The Beggar’s Opera (itself the inspiration for The Threepenny Opera) that was written by John La Touche and composed by Duke Ellington. Just this backstory gives Stormy Weather an edge in its industry. But the attraction isn’t the song – it’s Lena’s smoking delivery that blows the mind, more so when attached to ridiculous proto-psychedelic lines like “marshmallows bloom already toasted / and the clouds are made of marmalade and jam.” Nobody else could have done this song justice. Lena owns it, hands down.

Vivacity is the key. Listen to her take on ‘Ridin’ on the Moon’ and compare her full-throttle delivery to other singers of the day. Peggy Lee? Wasn’t her style. Ella? Too well-mannered. Tony Bennett may have been the only one who could rival this approach but he still lacked the modernity of phrasing. The one-two punch of ‘Baby Won’t You Please Come Home’ and ‘Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home’ really proves the point. You could actually lift the vocal straight out of the latter and give it a rock backing (a weird thought, but one I had) and it would fit right in.

A lot of praise has to go to husband Lennie Hayton’s orchestra as well, as it possesses the crackle and attitude of the New York school of orchestration, rather than the smothering syrup of Hollywood. Hayton props up Lena’s performances without distracting from them and even goes for some creative additions, such as channeling Moises Vivanco to give ‘Out of This World’ a taste of exotica. Then there’s whoever’s responsible for the song selection, as it’s formally impeccable; leaning heavily on the bygone classics and ignoring the kitschy material that helped Lena break up any possible monotony while performing live but would have damaged the glamour image Stormy Weather was clearly going for. Instead we get the best songs by Arlen (represented five times over, no less), Gershwin, Coward, Porter – the guys who set the gold standard.

In fact, the weakest reading here is (surprisingly) of ‘Summertime.’ It seems like Horne was experimenting with a theatrical reading, but ‘Summertime’ is a sultry number at heart and this aggressive style is an uncomfortable (though interesting) fit. Trying to take it someplace else is commendable though – especially when the song is a standard and the people involved aren’t rock and rollers. She uses the same theatrical tactic on her signature song ‘Stormy Weather,’ where it makes more sense. Both of these numbers are plenty memorable, so it’s not worth docking points.

To conclude: Stormy Weather is an easy pinnacle of Songbook interpretation and, as I’ve made abunduntly clear, it gets my highest recommendation. Make this your introduction to the genre and you will never mistake it for “easy listening” music again. I know that’s how it worked for me.

Best Track: ‘Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home.’ “Free and easy, that’s my style.”

Worst Track: ‘Summertime.’ Flawed but curious.

Rating: Five stars.

1957 – Peggy Lee – Dream Street

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Peggy Lee - Dream Street

Cover Critique: A copy of In the Wee Small Hours with all the noir mystique removed. This is supposed to be a themed album centered on lost love but Lee’s look is one of vacant optimism. Meh. Two stars.

Track Listing:

Street of Dreams
What’s New
You’re Blase
It’s All Right With Me
My Old Flame
Dancing on the Ceiling
It Never Entered My Mind
Too Late Now
I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face
Something I Dreamed Last Night
Last Night When We Were Young
So Blue

A rotten idea in the first place: Try to turn Peggy Lee into Frank Sinatra. Because Decca executives know that’s what we all really want when we listen to Peggy Lee: Frank Sinatra! Makes sense, doesn’t it?

In the service of this idea, Lee’s musical directors put in an order for harp (the most prominent instrument by far), vibraphone and piano and seemingly interrupted all of Lee’s first takes to tell her “Peggy, take the edge off. Do it again, but gently.” The songs they selected also lacked melodic potential and so the whole thing ended up a gruesomely inadequate and rather exploitative rip-off of In the Wee Small Hours that actually comes out worse, lacking that album’s groundbreaking significance and wasting the talents of a singer who was still going strong in those years.

In all fairness, the attempt may have been equally inspired by the previous year’s rendition of ‘You’re My Thrill,’ which in hindsight was something of a blueprint for Dream Street – a tuneless dirge with harp and bells all over it. But you know how Peggy sang THAT one? She sang it like the object of her affection was tied to a chair and she was whispering it in his ear. It was bloody well intense and unforgettable – and contrary to first impressions, contained plenty of energy, noticeably missing here.

Beyond Sy Oliver’s saccharine, faux-artsy arrangements, the song selection is also to blame. Two songs from In the Wee Small Hours are placed right next to each other in the middle of the album – no way was that accidental – but the main problem is that these showtunes are played like showtunes. I’ve seen My Fair Lady and in the context of the film ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to [Her] Face’ worked as an epiphany on Rex Harrison’s part but here the dramatic pauses and heavy silences are kept while the visual component and story buildup are removed. It no longer makes sense as a song and becomes a slice of slow, ponderous fluff surrounded by similar (and even weaker) material. The showtune teams who wrote these songs came up with some precious little phrases, too… “I love my ceiling more / now that it is a dancing floor?” “My old flame / I can’t even think of his name?” Stoner rock’s got nothing on this stuff.

As with In the Wee Small Hours there is a total lack of passion and desperation despite the melancholy vibe they’re clearly aiming for. Peggy even sounds disinterested. Two seperate attempts are made to raise the energy level, namely ‘Something I Dreamed Last Night’ (with locomotive percussion and a vibraphone break) and ‘It’s All Right With Me.’ They’re not bad songs and should work but in this environment Peggy almost seems nervous about revving it up.

So what works on an album like this? Not a lot. ‘Street of Dreams’ builds some tension through a good violin intro and has a certain elegance that the rest of the songs merely shadow. ‘Too Late Now’ transforms into a quasi-Arabian fantasia … for some reason. It doesn’t fit the song but it does make it stand out a bit in the chintzy fairyland of bells and harps that is Dream Street.

The punchline comes at the end, when standup bass ushers in a jazzy, playful take on ‘So Blue’ that serves the sole purpose of saying “Peggy Lee’s still got it!” It sounds like an outtake from an earlier, happier session. Remember when John Lennon ended Mind Games with ‘Meat City,’ like he was saying “I could have rock and rolled my way through this session but chose not to?” The producers of Dream Street could be saying the same thing. Not being John Lennon, they did not get away with their choice.

I don’t really have to mention that this is a completely conservative record for 1957, since In the Wee Small Hours was conservative for 1955. It may have been designed as a conscious demonstration of what “adult” music should be all about, as the rock and roll wave gained ground but it actually serves to demonstrate why the Songbook and the Singers were losing all relevancy. You want an album from 1957 that proves the opposite? Go listen to Lena Horne’s Stormy Weather, a hot coal next to Dream Street‘s sugar cube. Of course, some people prefer sugar cubes and for them Dream Street could be a treasurable experience indeed.

Best Track: ‘So Blue.’

Worst Track: ‘It Never Entered My Mind.’ Not the first time the Backscratcher Song wins this award from me.

Rating: One and a half stars.

1957 – Miles Davis – ‘Round About Midnight

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Miles Davis - Round About Midnight

Cover Critique: An amazing album cover, not quite as important as what Martin Denny did for the creation of Exotica but a step in the right direction. It uses the same technique as most 50s album covers – snap a photo of the artist and his instrument, run a filter, choose a font, go home. This time round someone knew quite well what they were doing and as an added bonus, what you see in the photograph perfectly matches what’s on the record (unlike the iconic Elvis cover). This is the cool jazz king complete with veiled eyes and bored slouch. An enigma first and foremost. Doesn’t it make you wonder what kind of jazz he represents? It intrigues and it would also look good hanging on a wall or propped in a corner if you’re lucky enough to have the vinyl. Five stars without a doubt.

Track Listing:

‘Round Midnight
Ah-Leu-Cha
All of You
Bye Bye Blackbird
Tadd’s Delight
Dear Old Stockholm

‘Round About Midnight was Miles Davis’ first record on the Columbia label and his first with a then-unknown (and still extremely restrained) John Coltrane. It’s a landmark jazz album and, like Time Out, a rewarding and melodic listen for jazz novices. The important thing is the atmosphere, becoming Chet Baker’s only rival at capitalizing on nocturnal moods. If you don’t play this album in the evening you’re doing it a disservice.

The highest of the highlights is ‘Round Midnight,’ played with a muted trumpet and conjuring a mood so dusky and romantic that I dare say it’s unrivaled. Oddly the moment that most impresses me is at 2:40 into the song, where the pace abruptly picks up and ebbs back into the flow without ever disrupting it. They also deliver a take on Cole Porter’s ‘All of You’ that perfectly conveys the sweetness of the tune and gives the melody far more room and respect than is expected of a bop ensemble. Among instrumental renditions this is a strong candidate for the “definitive” tag.

‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ is the longest track and has a curious set of solos to consider: Davis sticks to the melody and offers more delicate trumpetwork and Red Garland’s piano solo has a lightly swinging lilt that forms a perfect response. Both of them clearly modulated their solos to fit the tone of the song. Coltrane is the odd one out, as he steps in between them and (to quote the AllMusic Guide) “smatters notes quickly all through the melodic body of the tune.” It sounds like he’s playing to something in his head that doesn’t have much to do with ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ as such. Fans admire this technique but I don’t think it’s a good fit here. It works much better on the looser framework of ‘Dear Old Stockholm,’ a fine conclusion to the record even though something like a third of the song is given over to the bass player (Paul Chambers, who previously contributed to The Toshiko Trio and sounds a little more inspired on this outing).

Really, everything works as long as Davis and the group are keeping their cool. Where they somewhat fail to convince is as a hot ensemble. ‘Ah-Leu-Cha’ disrupts the elegant flow of the album without containing enough energy to compensate. Or perhaps it just “sonically” doesn’t belong, as it dates to an earlier session (1955) than the other material and jumped out at me even before I read the wiki. It is ‘Round About Midnight’s only express inconsistency and not worth docking points over. The album is awesome to behold, deserving of its reputation even to a recent convert to jazz and an essential listen. I sing its praises because it is very rare for one of these jazz albums to “get” me after only a couple of listens. Everything from Hamilton to Mingus has taken intense bouts of concentration and intellectual battles to come to love so ‘Round About Midnight stands apart and I wish to emphasize that.

Best Track: ‘Round Midnight.’

Worst Track: ‘Ah-Leu-Cha.’

Rating: Five stars.

1956: The Recap

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The project has completed the year of 1956. Sailing onwards into the bold year of 1957 when Patsy Cline and Buddy Holly first surfaced, when Miles Davis stepped into the spotlight, when “exotica” finally received its name tag and when cover artists finally got a clue. I have written a brief recap for the collaborative site and my father and I put together a generalized list of the albums studied from best to worst. My personal list would rank Mingus and King higher but would otherwise look similar. We also put together a list of the top ten “Songs of the Year,” which is short enough to copy here:

1. Frankie and Johnny by Lonnie Donegan
2. The Train Kept A Rollin’ by Johnny Burnette
3. Fontessa by The Modern Jazz Quartet
4. My Funny Valentine by Chet Baker
5. Black Coffee by Peggy Lee
6. Jump, Jive an’ Wail by Louis Prima
7. Blue Suede Shoes by Elvis Presley
8. Jump Back Honey, Jump Back by Gene Vincent
9. Every Day I Have the Blues by B.B. King
10. Recuerdos by Stan Kenton

1956 – Johnny Burnette – Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio

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Johnny Burnette and The Rock and Roll Trio

Cover Critique: A good shot of the trio (there were actually more of them in the studio) in action but not a very interesting cover. Two stars.

Track Listing:

Honey Hush
Lonesome Train (On a Lonesome Track)
Sweet Love on My Mind
Rock Billy Boogie
Lonesome Tears in My Eyes
All By Myself
The Train Kept A-Rollin’
I Just Found Out
Your Baby Blue Eyes
Chains of Love
I Love You So
Drinking Wine Spo Dee O Dee

It took until December of 1956 but we were finally given the real deal: an entire album (or nearly) of true rock and roll, mean and nasty odes to white-trash delinquency that make Elvis and Gene sound like Buddy Holly in comparison. That Johnny Burnette went from this to teen idoldom (best known for ‘You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine’) is the scariest and/or funniest part of the story. But for one brief moment the intangible spirit of rock and roll was captured, I suspect by sheer accident. Why? Because no one who knew what they were doing would allow the fuzzed guitar power of ‘Honey Hush’ to pass them by like the Rock and Roll Trio did. Instead of recognizing the many possible futures that lay in amplification techniques, they shrugged it off as a novelty effect – good for a song or two but nothing to explore further. For that, we had to wait for the Yardbirds.

The Rock and Roll Trio consisted of Johnny Burnette (vocals, acoustic guitar), his older brother Dorsey (bass) and friend Paul Burlison (lead guitar). All three shared a background in amateur boxing, which tells you a lot right there. They won the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour (the America’s Got Talent of the day) three times in a row, winning them a contract with Coral Records and a bunch of promotion – TV appearances, touring with Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins (whose cousin Tony Austin became their drummer). Unfortunately none of this resulted in commercial success and within a year the band had dissolved, leaving the Burnette brothers to seek fortune elsewhere – and so they patched up their differences and struck out for California to gain the attention of Ricky Nelson, writing songs for him and finally gaining a little secondhand success. By 1960 Johnny had learned to be a teen idol himself, however his life was tragically ended in 1964 by a boating accident.

All of this means that the Coral sessions are his primary legacy and this album (available now in a much expanded 17 song edition including ‘Tear It Up’ and other gems from the sessions) gives you cut after cut of the raw, primal, blistering rockabilly that made his critical reputation. I had been immersed in the 50s for so long when I first played this CD that my jaw literally dropped when the first notes of ‘Honey Hush’ began. When Big Joe Turner cut the original it was just another piece of Big Joe Turner jump blues with the line “don’t make me nervous, I’m holding a baseball bat” sounding more like moody but tasteless hyperbole than an active threat. Here we have Johnny not even bothering to sing, shouting at the top of his lungs while Burlison sets the standard for every garage band to come. People hunting for the progenitors of punk rock rarely go back further than the 1960s but if you’re looking into it then you should check this out.

‘Honey Hush’ kicks off a golden run of tracks, culminating with the animalistic intent of ‘Train Kept a-Rollin,’ for which Burlison again employs some strategic amping. It is sheer primitive genius. The other songs are more straightforward rockabilly, but there again, the energy level annihilates any competition. It’s all about the brawn. One of my favorites, ‘Rock Billy Boogie,’ is exactly the sort of generic dancefloor celebration that could have been sung by anyone from Bill Haley onwards. The joy of the Burnette delivery is that the band couldn’t hone their punches at all, somehow turning this fluffy throwaway into a dark rocker (again I suspect by accident). ‘Lonesome Train (On a Lonesome Track)’ and ‘Sweet Love on My Mind’ make it clear that the persona of a desperate delinquent was made for Johnny where someone like Elvis could only ever pretend. Track after track show the Trio picking their battles and winning every one.

Of course, what is a landmark record without some headscratching embarrassment? In this case, the disastrous decision to include three ballads on the second half of the album, sequenced to deliberately kill the mood by following the knockout punch of ‘Train Kept A Rollin’ with the eye-watering pain of ‘I Just Found Out.’ Johnny Burnette at this stage in life was a clumsy, bearlike balladeer (it’s a credit of sorts that by the time he got around to ‘You’re Sixteen’ he was able to do a credible Hollywood-Elvis impersonation – say what you will, he must have really worked hard to sing that way). As soon as he painfully stammers “I-hi I just found out…” it’s apparent that something went dreadfully wrong, maybe the producers trying to soften him up for the ladies (with the stammer conveying vulnerability, I guess). It doesn’t work well taken out of context and taken WITHIN context it’s laughable – we’ve just heard him sing song after song conveying lust and fury, threatening his woman with a baseball bat, and now we’re supposed to buy a sudden attempt at country-boy sensitivity? The worst of them is probably ‘I Love You So,’ where he’s backed with inane doo-wop vocals, but they all damage the listening experience. ‘Chains of Love’ is at least done in a ragged style that halfway suits the Trio but that doesn’t mean it has a lot going for it.

It could be argued that since many of the rockers sound similar some change of pace was simply necessary to preserve the dynamic. Yes, ‘Your Baby Blue Eyes’ does start in an identical fashion to ‘Sweet Love on My Mind’ but it’s about equally good so why mess with a formula that delivers results? They could never compete with the real ladies’ men for romantic appeal and it was foolish to try when they had their own sound that no one else was enough of a caveman to take on. And it isn’t like the ballads won the Burnette brothers any short-term publicity – the record and singles buying public were just not interested in anything they did.

Luckily, this lackluster closing chapter ends with ‘Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,’ a final classic in which Johnny does a perfect impression of a rough and ready hellraiser, drawing the album to a perfect finish and letting me (mostly) forget their momentary lapse of taste and reason, probably brought on by the band trying to be tasteful and reasonable. That just isn’t their strong suit. When you listen, feel free to skip the slow songs and go for the undying classics. “Pass that bottle to meeee!!!”

Best Track: ‘Train Kept a Rollin.’

Worst Track: ‘I Love You So’ or ‘I Just Found Out.’

Rating: Four and a half stars.