Sunday, January 25, 2015

Hot & Jazzy Western Swing: Noel Boggs Trio and Quintet

Any big band enthusiast should naturally have more than just a passing interest in western swing, the jazz-derived dance music that developed mainly in the Southwest in the 1930s and that was a mixture of traditional fiddle music, jazz, blues, and pop. Western swing was mainly played by large bands that, like those of Bob Wills and Spade Cooley, featured fiddles, steel guitars, electric guitars and electric mandolins, pianos, and very often a whole brass section. Their popularity throughout the '30s and '40s (and, in some cases, into the '50s and beyond) was such that it was not uncommon for Wills and Cooley, for instance, to draw bigger crowds in some spots of the Southwest than established name swing bands such as those led by Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey. The style is nowadays mostly considered a subgenre of country music, but it would be just as pertinent to view it as a subgenre of jazz and swing. After all, as Jon Guyot Smith points out in the liner notes of the CD that we are reviewing today, "although the western swing musicians often wore cowboy attire, featured fiddles alongside pianos, brass and woodwinds, and occasionally performed songs with lyrics more reminiscent of rural country than Tin Pan Alley, western swing was heavily influenced by Dixieland jazz, blues and mainstream '30s pop music."

Charlie Christian had a big influence on Boggs
What is more, among the ranks of western swing bands, one could find excellent musicians who were steeped in jazz, whose playing styles were decisively influenced by contemporary jazz musicians, and who could play decidedly hot solos. Also, some of the featured vocalists with these orchestras, such as Tommy Duncan and Tex Williams, often sounded like hip country cousins of Bing Crosby and other pop and jazz singers of the day. A whole host of western swing performers were virtuosos on their chosen instruments, which is definitely true of the man whom we are introducing today: steel guitarist Noel Boggs. The steel guitar was prominently featured in western swing orchestras, and so there soon emerged a group of very accomplished steel players, such as Leon McAuliffe, Joaquin Murphey, and Boggs himself, among others. Born in Oklahoma City in 1917, Boggs grew up enthralled by the sound of the steel guitar and was exposed to the strains of Western, Hawaiian, blues, and jazz music. He was heavily influenced by the style of legendary jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, with whom he was reportedly good friends, and throughout his long career, he played for some of the most renowned western swing bandleaders, namely Hank Penny, Bob Wills, and Spade Cooley. He contributed highly inventive hot solos to hit records by Wills's Texas Playboys ("Roly Poly," "Texas Playboy Rag") and by Cooley's band, whose arrangements were often incredibly elaborate. Besides building a reputation as a top sideman, Boggs was also an extremely sought-after session musician who worked numerous studio dates with a wide range of vocalists, from his friend Jimmy Wakely to pop singer Jo Stafford.

However, Boggs did not take part in too many dates as a leader, although those that he did get to record produced some music of consistently high quality. Fortunately, two sessions that he cut in 1958 and 1964 for Shasta Records, an independent label founded by Jimmy Wakely, are currently available on a CD entitled The Very Best of Noel Boggs: The Shasta Masters (Varese Sarabande, 2000). By the late 1950s, Boggs had stopped touring with large western swing bands and had been performing strictly in a small-group jazz setting, which is what both sessions capture. The 1958 recordings find Boggs leading a quintet that also features Paul Smith on piano, Ivan Ditmars on organ, and Neil Levang on guitar. Besides some classic western swing instrumentals ("Steel Guitar Rag," his own "Steelin' Home") and a few songs that pay tribute to the Hawaiian influence on his music ("Paradise Isle," "Magic Isle"), Boggs concentrates mostly on jazz and pop standards, such as "Caravan," "Perdido," "Coquette," "Tenderly," and "The Birth of the Blues," which the quintet performs with gusto, allowing Boggs ample space to demonstrate his mastery of his instrument. They even have time to rework the Andrews Sisters hit "Beer Barrel Polka," reminding us that polka music had long been a staple of many western swing bands, especially those that appeared in Texas. Their haunting, Hawaiian-style take on Kurt Weill's "September Song" is one of the highlights of this highly satisfying date.

Noel Boggs (left) and Spade Cooley (center)
The 1964 four-song session has Boggs leading a trio this time, featuring Paul Smith and the under-recorded accordionist Leroy Krubl. The song selection once again leans heavily toward jazz and pop standards, including a reading of Ray Noble's "Cherokee" introduced by bongos, and versions of "Wabash Blues," "Lover Come Back to Me" (not Rodgers and Hart's "Lover," as the CD incorrectly states) and "Dardanella." The trio sounds modern and very inspired throughout, with Krubl showing that he has definitely been listening closely to jazz accordion whiz Art Van Damme, and it is really a pity that Boggs did not make more recordings in this very agreeable setting. Sadly, about ten years after cutting these sides, in the summer of 1974, Boggs unexpectedly passed away at age 56. His friend Wakely reissued his trio and quintet recordings in the late 1970s, and we are fortunate to have them available on this fine CD, with perfect sound, a knowledgeable biographical essay, and a few pictures. These compelling, jazzy recordings are good proof of the talent of Noel Boggs on the steel guitar, an instrument that, outside of western swing, is seldom used in a jazz environment.

Further reading

For more information on Noel Boggs, you can read this short biographical piece on the Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys website.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Songwriter Spotlight: Ervin Drake Passes Away at 95

In 1965 Frank Sinatra was turning fifty and decided to celebrate that landmark year in his life by recording September of My Years, an album revolving around the concepts of memory, experience, and a melancholy viewpoint on life brought about by the inevitability of aging. The gloomy, evocative LP would turn out to be one of the best from his tenure with Reprise and one of the last truly great concept albums of his career. Thoughtfully arranged by Gordon Jenkins, September of My Years included compositions by Alec Wilder, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Yip Harburg, and Gordon Jenkins himself. But one of them stood out and went on to win a Grammy. The song was "It Was a Very Good Year"; the songwriter, Ervin Drake.

As popular songs went in the 1960s, "It Was a Very Good Year" was a little bit of an anomaly. For starters, it was rather long, and its lyrics had a depth that was rare in the mid-1960s, songwriters like Bob Dylan excepted. The tune was haunting, and the words presented the memories of an aging man who is "in the autumn of [his] years" and who reminisces about different stages of his past. With one stanza devoted to a specific snapshot of the character's life experiences, the passing of time is cleverly suggested by the chronological jumps that occur from one stanza to the next. We move from age seventeen, to twenty-one, to thirty-five, until we end up in the present time, described as "the autumn," in a fashion that unequivocally reminds us of the lyrics of the Belgian chanteur Jacques Brel, whose hit "Ne Me Quitte Pas" Sinatra would cover as "If You Go Away" for his 1969 album My Way. In the last stanza of "It Was a Very Good Year," Drake seems to succeed in encapsulating the whole concept of September of My Years:

But now the days are short
I'm in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life
As vintage wine from fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs
It poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year.

Surprisingly, however, Drake did not write "It Was a Very Good Year" for Sinatra. The song dates back to 1961, when it was recorded by the Kingston Trio, but after the definitive September of My Years version, it would become forever associated with Ol' Blue Eyes, to such an extent that few artists would record it thereafter. But, of course, "It Was a Very Good Year" was not the only memorable tune written by Drake. Born Ervin Maurice Druckman in New York City in 1919 (less than four years after Sinatra) he began writing songs at a very early age, and one of his first notable assignments was writing lyrics for the Juan Tizol-penned Duke Ellington classic, "Perdido." Over the years he would write several standards, such as "I Believe," sung by Frankie Laine (which Elvis Presley also recorded for a gospel EP), and Billie Holiday's mournful "Good Morning Heartache," and would even go on to write successful Broadway shows like 1964's What Makes Sammy Run?

Ervin Drake at the piano (Photo by Maxine Hicks)

Ervin Drake passed away two days ago, on January 15, at his home in Great Neck, NY, as you can read in his New York Times obituary. Though definitely not as important as classic songwriters such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, or the Gershwins, he will be remembered as a witty, learned contributor to the legacy of the Great American Songbook. Discussing "It Was a Very Good Year" in his book All or Nothing at All, Sinatra biographer Donald Clarke has noted that with this song Drake "outdid himself and received one of Jenkins's best symphonic-style arrangements. . . . The song is about memories of love, not sex; it is about happiness that ran through his [Sinatra's] fingers like sand. The longest track on the album, it is also an example of the singing actor at the heart of Sinatra's work: you can't dance to it; you can only listen" (227-28). And, indeed, Sinatra's interpretation of Drake's powerfully poetic lyrics becomes more haunting and more meaningful each time we listen to it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Vintage Records Review Desk 6: Frank D'Rone, Patti Page, Frankie Laine & Buck Clayton, Lucy Reed

For this new installment of the Vintage Records Review Desk, we are taking a trip back to the 1950s and early 1960s and looking at four outstanding vocal jazz albums among the many remarkable ones that were produced in that time period. Two are by male singers (Frank D'Rone and Frankie Laine) and two are by female vocalists (Patti Page and Lucy Reed) and the four records in the lot are linked by their swinging, jazzy atmosphere, as well as by their undeniable musical quality.

When singer/guitarist Frank D'Rone passed away in 2013 at age 81, his obituary in the Chicago Tribune noted that on the day that he gave his last concert, he "didn't know whether he should go to the emergency room or the concert hall." Such was indeed D'Rone's devotion to music. Born in Massachusetts in 1932 but raised in Rhode Island, D'Rone developed an early interest in the guitar, and by the 1950s, he was making a name for himself in jazz clubs around Chicago, both as a singer and as a guitarist. Nat King Cole was particularly impressed by D'Rone's musicianship, to such an extent that he took the younger singer under his wing and helped him get a record contract with Mercury.

Frank D'Rone
In his book Jazz Singing, Will Friedwald observes that "D'Rone has a forties-type voice . . . in a fifties Capitol F[rank] S[inatra] setting . . . and generates genuine warmth" (331). This Sinatra connection is particularly evident in his album After the Ball, recorded in 1960, partly because the vivacious arrangements are by Billy May. The twelve songs on the LP are loosely tied by the concept of an imaginary conversation between two lovers who have just attended a dance. Perhaps not enough to speak strictly of a concept album, but the set works well because both the songs and the arrangements are top notch, and the tracks range from a high-octane swinging reading of an old chestnut like Charles K. Harris's "After the Ball" to versions of well-known standards such as "My Melancholy Baby" and "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to" and even more contemporary tunes such as Bart Howard's "Let Me Love You" and Matt Dennis's "Will You Still Be Mine." Whether it is an all-out swinger or a longing ballad, the warmth of D'Rone's voice shines through as he, according to the anonymous liner notes, "re-lives the whole early-morning romance vocally."

Also from the Mercury Records catalog comes the next album. Though known primarily for her pop versions of country hits like "Tennessee Waltz" and for bland novelty tunes such as "Doggie in the Window," as well as for her tendency to harmonize with herself through overdubbing, Oklahoma-born Patti Page was a credible jazz singer whenever she set her mind to it. Too bad that she did not record in that type of setting more often. One such session took place in Hollywood in May 1956, when she cut the album In the Land of Hi-Fi, arranged by Pete Rugolo, who surrounded her with a band that was full of West Coast jazz luminaries such as Pete Candoli, J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Bud Shank, and Georgie Auld, to name but a few. The whole LP has a brassy feel about it, and the band swings easily even on slower numbers like "The Thrill Is Gone" and "A Foggy Day." Rugolo's clever, modern-sounding arrangements are a welcome change from Page's fifties hit singles, and she tackles every song in a joyful, effortless manner, proving that she can hold her own in a jazz setting. Her nonchalant reading of "Mountain Greenery" is magnificent, and so are her percussion-laden versions of "Love for Sale" and "Nevertheless." With perfect sound and a bonus track, the CD reissue of this set (Verve, 1999) should make everyone wish that Page had made many more records in this vein.

Another singer who was known for novelties and pop adaptations of country material is Frankie Laine. But his album Jazz Spectacular (Columbia, 1956), which pairs him up with trumpeter Buck Clayton and an orchestra featuring, once again, Johnson and Winding, along with Urbie Green, Dickie Wells, Sir Charles Thompson, and Jo Jones, shows that jazz was clearly Laine's first love. Many of Laine's Mercury recordings, as well as his late-forties series of Standard transcriptions, already have a jazzy feel to them, but it is particularly this mid-fifties Columbia LP that best illustrates his abilities as a jazz singer. Loosely structured as a sort of jam session, with plenty of room for hot and cool solos from the musicians in the band, the album often reminds us of Billie Holiday's 1930s sessions with the likes of Teddy Wilson and Lester Young, because Laine's vocals are usually brief and underscore the fact that he should be seen merely as another soloist in the combo. In fact, Buck and the guys do "My Old Flame" as an instrumental, without the participation of Laine, who felt that this "was more of a girl's song." If the album lives up to its title, it is both because of the fantastic contributions from all these great jazzmen and because of Laine's sprightly vocals, which prove that he is perfectly at ease in this small-group context. Though there is not a single forgettable song here, high points of the set are "You Can Depend on Me," "That Old Feeling," "Stars Fell on Alabama," and "Baby, Baby All the Time." The 1999 Columbia/Legacy reissue is splendid and includes new liner notes, photos, personnel information, and a bonus track from the sessions—an instrumental version of Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to." As in Patti Page's case, it is really a pity that Frankie Laine did not make more records in this mold.

Like Frank D'Rone, Midwesterner Lucy Reed did not record extensively and never became a household name, which is unfortunate judging by the quality of the recordings she did make. Born in Wisconsin in 1921, Reed sang briefly with orchestras led by Woody Herman and Charlie Ventura in the early stages of her career, and the 1950s found her in Chicago, where she began to make the rounds of the clubs. She cut two albums for Fantasy in 1957, both of them excellent and fortunately available on CD at the time of this writing. Recorded between New York and Chicago in January of that year, This Is Lucy Reed, with its strangely somber cover, is the second of these and showcases her beautiful voice, at times powerful and at times delicate, in a small-group setting. The New York sessions have a collective personnel that features Gil Evans on piano, George Russell on drums, Art Farmer on trumpet, Milt Hinton on bass, and Barry Galbraith on guitar.  Some of the arrangements include a flute, a bassoon, a tenor violin, and an English horn, which add warmth and intimacy to ballads such as "There He Goes" and "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." At the session held in Chicago, Reed is backed by a quintet led by pianist Eddie Higgins, and the repertoire is split between extremely slow ballads ("You Don't Know What Love Is," "Easy Come, Easy Go") and more uptempo numbers ("Lucky to Be Me," "St. Louis Blues"). Finally, Reed's moving readings of "Love for Sale" and "No Moon at All" are undoubtedly among the highlights of a remarkable album that should have marked the beginning of a long, successful career for a vocalist that, in the words of critic Nat Hentoff, was "a fine-grained, intelligent, and sensitive (without a capital S) singer."

Pianist Gil Evans provided some sensitive arrangements for Lucy Reed's second album

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Darin at the Copa: A Portrait of Bobby Darin as a Live Entertainer

After a month-long period of silence during the holiday season, I return to The Vintage Bandstand to start the New Year right, as Irving Berlin advises us to do, by dusting off my copy of Darin at the Copa, a live album that Bobby Darin cut in the summer of 1960 and that shows that by that time he had become a consummate lounge act that worked perfectly well in a nightclub setting. Let's begin 2015 in style by rediscovering a record that is a lot of fun from beginning to end. And, paraphrasing one of Frank Sinatra's Columbia recordings, let's meet Bobby Darin at the Copa tonight.

By 1960, multi-talented vocalist Bobby Darin had made a successful transition from teen idol rock'n'roller to swinging crooner. He had changed "Splish Splash" and "Queen of the Hop" for "Mack the Knife" and "Beyond the Sea," and even though the rock records he made in the mid-'50s are valuable examples of the early stage of his career, the switch arguably meant that he was growing up musically and artistically. In the summer of 1960, Darin began an engagement at the Copacabana in New York, and so Atlantic Records decided to tape some of his concerts there and issue a live album, Darin at the Copa, documenting his much-publicized Copa appearances. It would not be, by any means, Darin's only live recording, but in my opinion, it is undoubtedly his best because it captures the singer at his swinging peak, having fun with the musicians and the audience and mixing hits like "Mack" and "Dream Lover" with standards like "Some of These Days," blues-inflected tunes such as "Alright, O.K., You Win," and even ballads like "I Have Dreamed." The musical variety is astounding (Darin even has time to sit at the piano and do Ray Charles's "I Got a Woman") and Darin's fun-loving attitude on stage is simply infectious throughout.

Bobby Darin on stage in Vegas, early 1960s
Some critics feel that perhaps Darin should have taken the Copa engagement a little bit more seriously (in this respect, you can read, for instance, John Bush's review on Allmusic here) and refrain from horsing around with the lyrics and joking with the audience so much. I disagree, however, because I feel that the idea behind this album was to document Bobby Darin as a nightclub act entertaining a standing-room-only audience—and he totally succeeds at that, and the listener, even almost 55 years later, benefits from Darin's playful attitude as he interacts with the public in attendance. Thus, during his rendition of "Dream Lover," he chats with a little girl, and upon learning that she is eight years old, he jokingly inquires, "Are you married?" Darin also enjoys playing around with the words to almost every song on the set list, and he even does an impromptu imitation of Louis Prima, seemingly because singer Keely Smith, who was married to Prima at the time, was among the audience that night. He also makes constant asides to the band, proving that he is really enjoying himself on stage, inspiring the musicians to swing harder here and there, and in turn feeding off the band's energy himself. The result is sheer fun precisely because Darin is having fun performing these songs and entertaining the nightclub crowd.

Darin os stage in Vegas, 1960
The repertoire is classic Darin from before he decided to try his hand at folk music in the mid-'60s, and so we find him tapping into the Cole Porter songbook (a beautiful rendition of "Love for Sale" and an all-out swinging treatment of "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to") and offering his own readings of classics such as "Some of These Days," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," and "Bill Bailey." The album starts off with a medley of the traditional "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and Gene Austin's "The Lonesome Road," two songs loosely linked by their common religious theme, and toward the end of the LP, Darin essays a medley of "By Myself" and "When Your Lover Has Gone," two ballads that are hardly ever sung together, which is a shame in view of the thoughtful treatment that Darin affords them. This medley in particular—together with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's "I Have Dreamed"—shows that not all is unrestrained fun on these dates but that Darin can be a fine balladeer when he so chooses. Of course, there are songs closely associated with Darin, such as "Dream Lover," "Clementine," and "Mack," which he mockingly introduces as a "very beautiful Bolivian folk song." Perhaps a foreshadowing of his future involvement with folk music? No, probably not! The album closes with an uptempo version of "That's All," the outstanding ballad written by Dick Haymes's brother, Bob, which reminds me how good a ballad it really is and makes me wish that Darin had kept it at its original slow tempo.

Poster for a Darin engagement at the Copa in 1967
The orchestra that supports Darin throughout this Copa engagement is billed as Paul Shelley's Copacabana Orchestra but is conducted by pianist Richard Behrke, who wrote some of the arrangements, although charts by others, including Buddy Bregman and Richard Wess, were also used. The drummer that keeps a steady beat throughout the record is Ronnie Zito. Fortunately, Atlantic Records reissued the album on CD in 1994, without any notes or bonus tracks, but with a reproduction of the original back cover, which includes snippets of reviews of Darin's Copa act by famed columnists such as Lee Mortimer, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Walter Winchell, who also writes a witty "Sonnet for Bobby Darin." Here is what Ms. Kilgallen had to say about Darin's opening night: "Bobby Darin's debut at the Copacabana last night was a triumph—he has a good voice, fine arrangements, an almost completely tasteful selection of songs, and the nerve of a bank robber. The Copa isn't apt to have any empty tables showing during his engagement." Listening to the LP, it is hard not to agree with her assessment, although it remains unclear why she describes the song choices as "almost completely tasteful." Overall, the album is absolutely recommendable, and one even wishes that it were a little longer, or at least that Atlantic had reissued it on CD with bonus tracks.

Bobby Darin with Richard Behrke (sitting) and Johnny Mercer (far right)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Bandstand Christmas Essentials 3: Jo Stafford's Christmas Recordings

It is that time of year again, and as usual in the month of December, The Vintage Bandstand features a few articles about Christmas music. This third installment of the Bandstand Christmas Essentials concentrates on two very enjoyable albums by Jo Stafford—the compilation of 1950s recordings Happy Holidays: I Love the Winter Weather and her Capitol album The Joyful Season, originally released in 1964. Just like pretty much anything ever sung by Stafford, these are two worthwhile additions to any Christmas music collection.

Known for her perfect pitch and for being one of the favorite singers of servicemen during World War II, Jo Stafford is also one of the most interesting postwar pop vocalists, undoubtedly because of a singing style that mixed sweetness and sentiment with jazzy nuances. This is already apparent in her early 1940s recordings with Tommy Dorsey, both as a featured "girl singer" and as a member of the hugely popular vocal group The Pied Pipers. And for anyone who still may doubt her stature as a jazz vocalist, there is also Jo + Jazz, her outstanding jazz-inflected LP cut in 1960. But the objective of today's post is not to make a case for Stafford as a jazz singer, but rather to take a look at the exceptional Yuletide recordings that she made in the 1950s and '60s, which are readily available on two CDs that any serious classic pop aficionado should own.

The first of them is Happy Holidays (Corinthian Records, 1999), a collection of twenty-two songs that are loosely linked by their wintry theme. While some of them ("June in January," "Hanover Winter Song," "Let It Snow") explicitly mention the winter season, others simply evoke a setting that suggests the need to stay cozily indoors enjoying the warmth of a crackling fireplace (like Jo herself on the cover of this release), as is the case with "By the Fireside," "The Nearness of You," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," and "Moonlight in Vermont." This is possibly the main reason for the subtitle of the CD, I Love the Winter Weather, which is also a reference to Stafford's outstanding version of the tune "Winter Weather," which is also included. And then, of course, there are also plenty of Christmas songs, both traditional and more modern, such as "Sleigh Ride," "The Christmas Song," "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Silent Night," to name but four. One of the gems in the collection is the old traditional hymn "I Wonder as I Wander," which Stafford sings in a highly melancholy way that befits the song perfectly. Most of the tracks were recorded in the mid 1950s, and the arrangements by Paul Weston, Stafford's husband and lifelong musical partner, are as classy and thoughtful as usual. Weston's studio orchestra includes fine musicians such as Ted Nash, Babe Russin, and Ziggy Elman, and both The Starlighters and the Norman Luboff Choir lend choral support to the proceedings.

Almost a decade later, in 1964, when Stafford was slowly retiring from the music business, she entered the Capitol studios to cut The Joyful Season (DRG Records, 2005), a delightful classic that would become one of the last albums of her career. This time the idea was that Stafford would overdub her own voice several times, in the manner of the Les Paul and Mary Ford hit records of the 1950s, in order to create the illusion that she was singing as part of a vocal group. And, as Will Friedwald observes in the liner notes to the CD reissue, the idea was successful:

The overall result is a unique sound that combines the passion and the power of the sacred with the excitement and the energy of the secular—and a mighty welcome stocking-stuffer indeed.

Weston is again handling the arrangements, which are rather subdued so that Stafford's multi-tracked voice shines brightly on absolutely every song, and the tunes cover a wide range of Christmas music, from sacred hymns to modern Christmas pop songs to two songs newly written by Weston with Alan and Marilyn Bergman—the lovely "Merry Christmas" and "Christmas Is the Season." The CD release includes two tracks not on the original album ("Gesu Bambino" and "Ave Maria"), as well as two marvelous Christmas medleys on which Stafford teams up with Gordon MacRae. The disc closes with "Toys for Tots," which Stafford recorded for the Marine Corps, and the whole collection stands as G.I. Jo's most enduring contribution to the Christmas pop canon.

Jo Stafford and her husband, arranger Paul Weston, in the early 1950s