Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Ernst Van 't Hoff and His Hot Wartime Dance Band

Dutch pianist and trumpeter Ernst Van 't Hoff (the last name is also sometimes spelled Van't Hoff and Van t'Hoff) led one of the most exciting and swinging German dance bands (Tanzorchester, in German) of the 1940s, which would ultimately cause him quite a bit of trouble during the years of WWII. Born in Zandvoort, Holland, in 1908, Van 't Hoff had been playing professionally since the 1920s, mostly in the Netherlands and Belgium, working with popular bandleaders such as Robert de Kers, among others. In the mid-1930s, Van 't Hoff decided it was time to lead his own band, but success eluded his organization in these initial years, and he was forced to work as a sideman off and on with de Kers's Cabaret Kings and various radio orchestras.

By the time the war broke out, Van 't Hoff was leading his own band again, and in 1940 he even signed a recording contract with the prestigious German label Deutsche Grammophon. At that point, Holland was occupied by Nazi forces, who sent Van 't Hoff to Dresden and then to Berlin, where the band appeared at the Delphi Filmpalast, and its music was soon met with public acclaim. Though the Nazis often used jazz and swing as a vehicle for propaganda (the infamous recordings by Charlie & His Orchestra included in the Proper Records box set Swing Tanzen Verboten are prime examples of this), they considered the style as "undesirable music" (unerwünschte Musik, in German) and as such, it was banned in all Nazi-occupied territories. The sound of Van 't Hoff's band, with its rousing versions of American tunes (Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" and "Pennsylvania 6-5000," for example) and its swinging original compositions, was strongly influenced by jazz, and this would eventually bring the bandleader to the attention of the Gestapo. This in turn led to Van 't Hoff's being sent back to the Netherlands in 1943, where he would keep working with radio orchestras until 1944, when he relocated to Belgium.

After the war, Van 't Hoff restricted his musical activity to Belgium and Holland, leading orchestras with varying degrees of success. By the early '50s he was living in Brussels, where his band had an engagement at the celebrated Ancienne Belgique concert hall, and where he would die from a heart attack in 1955, aged only 46. Though some of Van 't Hoff's recordings are available on YouTube and elsewhere on the internet, they are not easy to find on CD. Though the Nederlands Jazz Archief offers two compilations of his '40s sides, the most affordable collection of Van 't Hoff's music currently on the U.S. market is a volume of the series Die Grossen Deutschen Tanzorchester (Membran, 2005), which is woefully short at only thirteen tracks, all of them recorded in 1941-42. This was the heyday of Van 't Hoff's orchestra, a tightly-knit unit that played excellent arrangements full of hot passages and some very exciting solos. There are a couple of covers of American tunes ("Ciribiribin" and the Johnny Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael collaboration "Oh, What You Said") but also some fine original compositions credited to the bandleader, such as "Fünfuhrtee bei Rüthli" and "Tanz im Carlton." The band sounds powerful and swinging on these sides, which pleased dancers greatly at the time, and two of the songs spotlight Van 't Hoff's most talented vocalist, Jan de Vries, who sings "Day by Day" and "I Never Dream" in very good English. All but forgotten nowadays, Ernst Van 't Hoff remains one of the most interesting of all Tanzorchester leaders, and as these recordings clearly show, his lively, jazzy music should appeal to the most demanding of big band swing aficionados.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Julie London in Her Living Room, 1959

After a hiatus of about a year, during which I have been working on my other jazz blog, Jazz Flashes, I return to The Vintage Bandstand with a brief article about Julie... at Home, an album by Julie London that sounds so intimate, among other things, because it was recorded in her own living room!

The first time I ever saw and heard Julie London was in the 1956 movie The Girl Can't Help It, in which she appears as herself and sings her massive hit "Cry Me a River." As much as I liked the early rock'n'roll stars that are also featured in that rather inane film, I must admit that it was London that immediately caught my ear and my eye, to such an extent that I actually had to go out and find as many records by her as I could. And there were plenty of them to be had. From her first one, Julie Is Her Name (1955), many of them have at least a couple of things in common: though she has also recorded with lush string orchestras, London's voice is usually set against a sparse musical background, and the covers take advantage of her very attractive looks. But that is not all—her albums are invariably satisfying musically, and I always find myself playing them over and over again. This concept of intimacy was taken as far as possible on Julie... at Home (1959), not really because of the accompaniment (on earlier albums she was backed by guitar and bass only, and there are more instruments here) but because the album was taped in Julie's own living room. She was, then, truly at home.

Before her appearance in The Girl Can't Help It, London, who was born in 1926 in Santa Rosa, California, had worked in movies as early as the mid-1940s. But after the collapse of her first marriage (to actor Jack Webb) she met and later married singer-songwriter Bobby Troup and began concentrating on her singing career, aided by a recognizable, smoky voice and a very personal, wee-small-hours approach to the vocal art that was at once intimate, jazzy, and sexy. Besides the aforementioned mega-hit "Cry Me a River," London never enjoyed too much success as a singles artist. Her type of singing was better suited to the then-new medium of the LP, and virtually every album she cut in the 1950s and early '60s (Calendar Girl, Julie, About the Blues, London by Night) is a prime example of the jazz-inflected adult-oriented pop of the era.

Guitarist Al Viola

For 1959's Julie... at Home, with its cover picture of London lounging in the comfort of her own home, someone at Liberty came up with the idea of bringing some equipment into her living room and recording the sessions right there. London appears here in a small-group jazz setting, in a quintet that includes Al Viola on guitar, Don Bagley on bass, Emil Richards on vibraphone, and Earl Palmer on drums. It is Viola and Richards that provide most of the brief solos heard throughout, with a couple of appearances by trombonist Bob Flanagan, who, according to the liner notes written by pianist Jimmy Rowles, simply "dropped by to pay a social call." Rowles himself, who was collaborating occasionally with London in this particular period of her career, is responsible for the arrangements, creating a sound that inevitably reminds us of George Shearing. But of course, London is the star here, and she sounds decidedly at ease and relaxed in this company. As one would expect, the set list is comprised of twelve well-known standards and is as heavy on the ballads ("You've Changed," "Goodbye," "Everything Happens to Me") as it is on the more uptempo numbers ("Give Me the Simple Life," "Let There Be Love," "By Myself"). In both cases, however, London's approach is as easy-going as ever; she makes it all sound cool and easy with the help of a combo that blends in perfectly with her idiosyncratic singing. Bearing in mind the album's concept, Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to" is the right choice as an opener. "The Thrill Is Gone," highlighted by Viola's excellent work on guitar, is simply lovely, and London even prefaces it with the verse. Overall, Julie... at Home is one of London's most memorable outings, yet another example of the singer at her best in an intimate, jazzy atmosphere.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Mr. C's Formative Years: Perry Como with Ted Weems, 1936-41

In his heyday of the 1940s and '50s, particularly after he became a mainstay on the new medium of television, Perry Como became known for his relaxed, soothing approach to the vocal art. No wonder that one of his LPs was titled So Smooth, since Como was simply one of the smoothest singer who ever stood before a microphone. He was one of many Italian-Americans who found fame and fortune thanks to their crooning abilities, others being Russ Columbo, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Vic Damone, to cite just a few. Yet Como's style has a great deal more in common with Bing Crosby than it does with Sinatra, and in fact, his recording career began three years after that of Young Blue Eyes. In 1936, Como, who had been born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1912, had been singing for a while with an orchestra led by local musician Freddie Carlone, although he never made any records with that outfit. Therefore, when Ted Weems came calling, it only made sense that Como would accept a featured vocalist spot with the more popular band.

Bandleader Ted Weems
Weems, also a Pennsylvanian, had been fronting a band professionally for over a decade and was based in Chicago. Moreover, he was looking for a "boy singer," as male vocalists were often called in those days. Como was the perfect fit, especially for singing the slower, more romantic ballads, and so he was featured with the orchestra both on radio and on records. The Weems band had a Decca recording contract, and in a span of five years, Como cut two dozen sides, none of which charted, though "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now" would become a million seller when it was reissued in 1947, by which time Como was already an established star. Back in 1999, Jasmine Records, of England, collected Como's recordings with Weems on a CD appropriately titled Class Will Tell. And class is definitely something that the Weems band had plenty of, no doubt. In the liner notes, Michael Dunnington echoes Mr. C's complaints that "the good songs went to the other members of the band, and he got the ones that nobody else wanted." However, even the most cursory listen to this CD reveals that this is not always so. Though not all the songs are winners—what big band vocalist of the era can claim such a thing anyway?—there are some lovely songs here, including "Lazy Weather," "Class Will Tell," "You Can't Pull the Wool over My Eyes," and "In My Little Red Book," this last one also recorded by Guy Lombardo and country singer T. Texas Tyler.

The Weems orchestra was a tightly-knit dance band that sounds professional and at times quite exciting, particularly on ensemble passages, since the arrangements do not seem to leave too much room for solos. Vocally, Como shows a noticeable debt to Bing Crosby, especially to the sound we hear on Der Bingle's records of the 1920s and early '30s, when Bing was singing in a higher register and had not yet totally refined his smooth baritone as he would from the '40s on. Como sounds a great deal like Crosby here—which apparently prompted Dave Kapp at Decca to wonder why the label needed another Bing—but as times goes on, he gradually starts to find his own style, as we can hear on "That Old Gang of Mine," "It All Comes Back to Me Now," and "Angeline." Yet even then his style is still heavily influenced by Crosby, something that can also be said of several other singers of his generation, such as Buddy Clark or Dick Haymes. After leaving Weems, Como would go on to bigger and better things, including smash hits like "Till the End of Time" and "Prisoner of Love," to name just two from 1945-46. But the recordings on this Jasmine release are very enjoyable and interesting because they illustrate the formative years of a great crooner.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

This Love of Mine: Jack Jones's Tribute to Songwriting Singers

Despite the fact that he has enjoyed a long and productive career, Jack Jones is one of the 1960s crooners about whom we do not seem to hear too much these days. In his heyday, Jones scored big hits such as "Lollipops and Roses," "Wives and Lovers," and "My Best Girl," and many of his albums—especially the ones he cut during the sixties—are fantastic and, to my mind, constitute great examples of classic pop singing at its very best. In the 1970s, though, some of his records became rather erratic, as he attempted to sing contemporary songs that were ill-suited for his voice and style. Had he concentrated on singing standards with jazz-inflected backing, the way that, say, Rosemary Clooney did for Concord in the seventies and eighties, his output would have been perhaps more satisfying. Yet it is easy—and clearly unfair—to make this kind of judgment with the benefit of hindsight. As it stands, Jones's recorded legacy, its ups and downs notwithstanding, is impressive and includes some very enjoyable titles.

Noted jazz critic Will Friedwald has always had a soft spot for Jones's singing. In his excellent Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, he gives the vocalist a great deal of credit for the many LPs he cut for Kapp Records in the sixties, stating that "he was precisely right for that decade—and all of those that have come since—and the classic albums he made back then will probably be prized and listened to longer than nearly all of the so-called in-the-moment pop acts of the time" (255). In the face of titles such as Call Me Irresponsible, Where Love Has Gone, and There's Love & There's Love & There's Love (a superb collaboration with arranger Nelson Riddle), among several others, it is hard to disagree with Friedwald. But the album that usually slips through the cracks whenever Jones's career is discussed is a pre-Kapp effort that he made in 1959 for Capitol entitled This Love of Mine.

Jack's father, actor Allan Jones
The son of actor and singer Allan Jones and actress Irene Hervey, Jack Jones had been born in Los Angeles in 1938 and had enjoyed the benefits of belonging to a showbiz family. He had always been fascinated with pop music, particularly with singers like Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé, and by the 1950s he was appearing in nightclubs with his father, which led to a promising recording contract with Capitol. But the company, showing really poor judgment, had him record a slew of teenage pop singles that went nowhere mostly because Jones's heart was not in that kind of music. What he wanted to record was adult pop, the type of material that had made Bobby Darin a household name. Unfortunately, Jones only got one opportunity to do this at Capitol, when he recorded the Voyle Gilmore-produced This Love of Mine. This was an unusual concept album in that the underlying theme that held the eleven songs together was that they were tunes penned by songwriters who were better known as singers, or whom the public in general did not associate with the songwriting craft.

One might think that such a concept would make for a weak album, but it is not the case, as the repertoire is very well chosen. There are two songs co-written by Sinatra, the title track and "I'm a Fool to Want You." The former dates back to Sinatra's tenure with Tommy Dorsey, while the latter is supposed to chronicle the difficulties that he underwent during his tempestuous relationship with Ava Gardner. Jones decides to take both at a noticeably faster tempo than Sinatra, which is most surprising in the case of "I'm a Fool to Want You" given the highly dramatic nature of its theme. On "This Love of Mine" there is an unexpected guitar solo that fits the mood of the tune nicely. From the songbook of comedian Steve Allen come "Impossible," an agreeable ballad, and the classic "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," which shows Jones's confident approach whenever he is called upon to swing. The album also includes two songs by Nat King Cole ("With You on My Mind" and "To Whom It May Concern," both originally recorded by Cole for Capitol) and two by the outstanding pianist-singer-songwriter Matt Dennis—the lesser-known "Show Me the Way to Get Out of This World," sung in a laid-back swinging style and featuring an interesting trumpet solo, and "Angel Eyes," the famous saloon song that Sinatra had just included in his album Only the Lonely and undoubtedly one of the highlights of Jones's debut LP.

Arranger Bobby Hammack
Jones approaches the witty "I Don't Know Enough About You," penned by Peggy Lee and her then-husband Dave Barbour, with gusto, in an easy-swinging sort of way, and perhaps to show that he can also join the ranks of those singers who also dabble in songwriting, he offers a composition of his own, "What Would I Do," which actually turns out to be quite a respectable effort. The album closes appropriately with the beautiful Frankie Laine ballad "We'll Be Together Again," another one that Sinatra also recorded for Capitol (on Songs for Swingin' Lovers). Released toward the end of 1959, This Love of Mine earned a rather positive review from Billboard (November 30, 1959):

After a few efforts, this is the initial LP by a lad whose work augurs a strong potential. Jack Jones is the son of former stars Allan Jones and Irene Hervey, and he has been playing nitery dates with his dad in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. He shows a feeling for a swinging rhythm, an ability to project his personality and a pleasing way of styling a ballad. Strong backing by Bobby Hammack's ork.

The reviewer is certainly right about Jones's way with both swingers and ballads, as well as about the assessment of Bobby Hammack's arrangements, which are strong without ever getting in the way and feature some interesting touches such as the brief organ solos on "Angel Eyes" and "We'll Be Together Again." The cover is a different matter altogether—it is anyone's guess why the powers that be at Capitol thought that it was appropriate to have Jones photographed in full caveman attire, wielding a big club, and stepping on a scantily clad woman lying in the foreground, while some kind of dinosaur observes the scene in the background. Looking at it almost sixty years later, one wonders how the cover can be in any way related to the theme of the album, what kind of audience the producers were trying to target, and simply what was going through the heads of whoever decided to approve such a horrifying cover. It is, indeed, one of the strangest, most mystifying pieces of LP artwork I have ever seen. Whatever the case, in spite of the favorable review from Billboard, the album was not much of a hit, and it was not until he signed with Kapp two years later that Jones's career would actually take off. Yet This Love of Mine—which may be easily found on CD these days as part of the European reissue Jack Jones: Six Classic Albums, from Real Gone Music—remains one of my favorite albums by Jones and a very enjoyable early effort that in many ways already indicates greater things to come.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 7: Johnny Marvin

Calling Johnny Marvin an unsung vocalist may seem like a little bit of a stretch. After all, he was one of the most popular singers in the country during his brief heyday of the late 1920s and early '30s, a couple of CD reissues of his work are currently available, and authors Michael Pitts and Frank Hoffman have devoted a whole chapter of their excellent book The Rise of the Crooners (Scarecrow Press, 2002) to discussing his life and career. And yet, Johnny Marvin is almost totally forgotten today, to such an extent that it is difficult not to agree with Pitts and Hoffman when they state that he "is a crooner waiting rediscovery" (184). Born in Butler, Oklahoma, in 1897, Marvin grew up around music because both his parents could play, though they never played professionally. His complete name was John Senator Marvin, and it was as Senator that he began playing informally with his father while still barely a teenager. A barber by trade, Marvin had a brief stint as a Navy barber during WWI, but at the end of the conflict, he decided that the life of an entertainer was for him, and so he started appearing on the vaudeville circuit, often as a solo act but also as part of Sargent, Marvin, and the Four Camerons, a group he formed with baritone Charles Sargent.

By this time, Marvin was already proficient on the mouth harp, the musical saw, and a number of string instruments, including the guitar, the fiddle, the steel guitar, and particularly the ukulele, which ranked high in the preferences of the public due to the enormous success of Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards. Though he had cut some records around 1924 with Sargent, Marvin began to make his mark on the record business with his solo records in the style of Edwards, some of which even featured Ukulele Ike's proto-scat routine known as "eefin'." Marvin's recording contract with Columbia, however, was not exclusive, so he was at liberty to make records for other companies, and his output was very prolific throughout the late 1920s, both on major and dimestore labels. Pitts and Hoffman report that, at the highest point in his career, "over ten million homes throughout the country owned Johnny Marvin records" (171), which, together with his successful vaudeville appearances, meant that he was a major force in two of the mainstream entertainment media of the day: records and vaudeville. And yet, despite the success of his performances of songs such as "Breezin' Along with the Breeze," "Half a Moon," and "All Alone Monday," Marvin has not remained associated with one particular tune, which may be one of the reasons for his current obscurity.

His popularity with the record-buying public opened the doors to Hollywood, and Marvin made several early short sound films for MGM and Vitaphone to promote some of his songs. While these shorts were praised by trade publications such Billboard and Variety, Marvin never got around to starring in a feature film like some of his contemporaries (Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, to name but three) and so his main claim to fame in the cinematic medium lies in having been one of the main stars of short-subject sound films. In 1926, Marvin appeared, as Honey Duke (one of several pseudonyms under which he cut records) in the hit Broadway show Honeymoon Lane, recording several of the songs he sang on stage for different labels with a great deal of success. Around this time, he was in high demand as a provider of vocal refrains for dance-band records, often working with studio orchestras led by Nat Shilkret, Roger Wolfe Kahn, and Johnny Hamp, among others. A measure of his popularity is the fact that the Harmony company began selling an ukulele known as the Johnny Marvin ukulele, and his records were successful enough in England that in 1928 he signed a contract to appear at London's Kit Kat Club, an establishment that was popular with the cream of English society. By all accounts, Marvin was a big hit in England, though his London engagement was unfortunately cut short due to some throat problems that he developed while in the British Isles.

Frankie and Johnny Marvin
Back home in the United States in the summer of 1928, and completely recovered from his health issues, Marvin maintained a heavy recording schedule, and both his discs and his theater gigs were met with great acclaim. By this time, he began appearing with his younger brother, Frankie Marvin, who was at least as gifted a musician as Johnny, and who would also enjoy a solo career. The Depression still lay ahead, however, and Marvin's career would be dramatically affected by it, particularly because the new economic climate would have a very negative impact on the record industry and would effectively wipe off vaudeville. Even though at first it seemed that Marvin would survive the onset of the Depression, he would soon start feeling its effects and, in fact, his career as a performer would never fully recover. By the early 1930s, Marvin began concentrating primarily on radio work and on songwriting. In the latter capacity, he specialized in Western songs, many of which were sung by his friend Gene Autry in the many movies he made for Republic Pictures. Marvin had been instrumental in getting Autry's career off the ground—both Johnny and Frankie Marvin had even played on the singing cowboy's early sessions—and the two men remained very close until Johnny's death.

An ad for the Johnny Marvin ukulele model

As a radio personality, Marvin appeared in several shows, starring in one of them as Dr. Cheer for the NBC network in 1931. The concept behind the program was that he would sing songs inspired by problems described by listeners in their letters. Fortunately, some recordings of the show survive, and they can be found on the CD compilation A Voice of the 20s (Take Two). He also made some radio transcriptions for MacGregor in the late 1930s, but by that time he had mostly abandoned his recording activities to concentrate on songwriting. According to Pitts and Hoffman, his last commercial recording session (for Decca) took place sometime towards the end of the 1930s, but judging by some of the songs he cut ("Me and My Shadow" being one) he was mostly seen by then as a relic of what seemed like a distant past. During WWII, Marvin became involved with the USO, entertaining troops as far afield as the South Pacific, where he contracted malaria, and the disease would lead to his passing in December 1944, when he was merely 47 years old.

Anyone interested in getting acquainted with Johnny Marvin's melodious, smooth singing style and dazzling ukulele playing may seek out two CD releases. The aforementioned A Voice of the 20s features three tracks from the Dr. Cheer radio series (including a spoken commercial for Columbia Cleaners, the show's sponsor) as well as fine sides made between 1927-1930, like "I Still Get a Thrill," "Crazy Rhythm," "I'm in Seventh Heaven," and even the outstanding instrumental "12th Street Rag." Though now out of print, Breezin' Along with the Breeze (ASV / Living Era) is a rather comprehensive compilation of both solo recordings and dance-band sides for which Marvin provides vocal refrains, all cut between 1926-1930. Highlights include "Just Another Day Wasted Away," "Blue Skies" (a duet with Ed Smalle), "Ain't That a Grand a Glorious Feeling?," "Happy Days and Lonely Nights," and Al Jolson's "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," among many others. Those who still remember Johnny Marvin today often tend to think of him as a composer of Western tunes performed by Autry and Roy Rogers, but that is only a small part of his legacy. If we go back to the late 1920s and early '30s, we will discover the appealing work of a smooth crooner and an excellent ukulele player. And, as Pitts and Hoffman remind us, it is a body of work that is awaiting rediscovery.