Saturday, August 16, 2014

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 4: Skinnay Ennis

The story of vocalist and bandleader Skinnay Ennis is that of an artist who attained nationwide popularity during a large part of a career that spanned more than three decades but who is nowadays sadly forgotten, to such an extent that most of the recordings that he made as a leader have not been reissued on CD at the time of this writing. Ennis, who also had quite a flair for comedy, developed his own unique singing style and played an important role in the success of the Hal Kemp Orchestra, one of the most celebrated sweet bands of the 1930s, before striking out on his own as a bandleader and being featured prominently on radio, both before and after World War II. His radio appearances would in time lead to some sporadic movie roles, but for the most part, in the 1940s and 1950s Ennis was content to tour the Western states with his band, which was based out of Los Angeles.

Ennis was born in Salisbury, North Carolina, and some sources list his name as Robert, while others claim that it was Edgar Clyde. This indeterminacy about his given name, by the way, was apparently encouraged by Ennis himself and was often cause for comedy on many of his radio shows. What is definitely sure is that he came into contact with Hal Kemp as a student at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, where he began to play drums and sing with Kemp's band. In his book, The Big Bands, jazz writer and big band expert George T. Simon describes Ennis as sounding "as if he never had enough breath in him to sustain his alarmingly slim body, let alone more than two successive notes" (488). Of course, aural evidence from Kemp's thirties recordings supports such a description, but Ennis was able to turn what might otherwise seem like a weakness into a stylistic trademark, and he was featured on many of Kemp's classic sides, such as "Ah! But I've Learned," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "Forty-Second Street," "Moonlight Saving Time," and the tune that would forever be associated with Ennis—"Got a Date with an Angel." In hindsight, it seems that Ennis's approach to the vocal art may have, at least initially, influenced by the style of Whispering Jack Smith, a 1920s crooner who was very popular around the time that Ennis began to step up to the microphone.

Bandleader Hal Kemp
Known for its staccato rhythm and highly accomplished musicianship, the Kemp band benefited from arrangements by a young John Scott Trotter, who was soon to begin a long-lasting relationship with Bing Crosby as musical director. The orchestra was very much in demand throughout the 1930s, touring the high-class dance spots all over the country and even getting to take occasional trips overseas. Skinnay Ennis was one of its main attractions and remained so until 1938, when he decided to take up the baton and form his own band, which would soon join the Bob Hope radio show, where Ennis got yet another chance to develop his talent for comedy. Listening to the recordings that he made in these years, it becomes quite obvious that Ennis is trying to emphasize his breathless singing style even more than he had with Kemp, and his breathlessness is now more prominent than ever before. Inevitably, the sound of his orchestra is heavily influenced by Kemp's staccato lines, which is made more obvious by the fact that he even chose his big hit tune with his old boss, "Got a Date with an Angel," as his theme song. These are among the most glorious years of Ennis's career, with the band scoring some minor hits ("Garden of the Moon," "Deep in a Dream") and a young Gil Evans writing some of the charts. Ennis also appeared in the 1943 movie Follow the Band, along with other stars of the day, such as Frances Langford, Ray Eberle, and Alvino Rey, and appeared with his orchestra in at least one Warner Brothers short directed by Jean Negulesco.

During World War II, Ennis briefly led his own military orchestra, and in 1946, upon re-entering civilian life, he put his band back together and rejoined Bob Hope on the radio, appearing also on the Abbott & Costello show. In his Big Band Almanac, Leo Walker notes that the postwar years were considerably less hectic for Ennis: "During the next several years [following WWII] he toured the nation, playing the leading hotels but maintaining his home in the Hollywood area, where he had substantial real estate holdings" (122). It was precisely at a Hollywood restaurant that Ennis ended his days, in a way that was as tragic as it was absurd, when he choked to death on his food. The only compilation of his work as a singing bandleader that is currently available on CD is 1956-57 Live in Stereo (Jazz Hour, 1992). Subtitled Hal Kemp Remembered, it includes an appearance by Ennis on a broadcast from the NBC Bandstand show on October 26, 1956, as well as eleven studio tracks from the album Skinnay Ennis Salutes Hal Kemp, which Ennis cut for the Phillips label, according to Walker's Almanac, "using some of the musicians who had been in the original Kemp band" (123). Other than on this album, we can hear Ennis's vocals on several Hal Kemp compilations, such as Hot Sides 1926-1931 (Retrieval Records), Remember Me? (Jasmine Records), Best of Big Bands (Sony / Columbia; this one is currently out of print), and Hal Kemp and His Orchestra 1934 & 1936 (Circle Records). Though the music on the Jazz Hour release is pleasant enough, and the NBC broadcast shows that Ennis was a consummate entertainer, that album does not take the place of his late-'30s and early '40s recordings, which are unfortunately unreleased on CD as of yet.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Interview with Swedish Jazz Pianist Jan Lundgren: "There's a certain sort of melancholia in Swedish folk music that can work well as jazz or blues"

One of the best and most sought-after jazz musicians in Europe today, Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren has an incomparable sense of swing and an irresistible flair for improvisation. Throughout his career he has played alongside some great names such as Arne Domnerus, Benny Golson, and Johnny Griffin, and his impressive recording output includes solo albums, many projects as a leader, and even an outstanding collaboration with Bengt Hallberg, one of the greats of Swedish piano jazz—the very recommendable 2011 CD Back to Back. He has also successfully infused Swedish folk music with jazz rhythms on his album Swedish Standards, and this year he has released two new discs: Flowers of Sendai, a new trio project on the Beejazz label, with Mattias Svensson on bass and Zoltan Csorsz, Jr., on drums, and All By Myself, a piano solo outing on the Spanish Fresh Sound label, the latter just out a few days ago. Lundgren is also one of the co-founders of the Ystad Jazz Festival, held every year in Ystad, a city in the region of Skane, in the south of Sweden.


Lundgren with legendary pianist Bengt Hallberg
Born in the southern Swedish town of Kristianstad in 1966, Lundgren is a classically trained pianist whose mother and father encouraged his early interest in music. In fact, his father used to sing and accompany himself on the piano, and it was his mother's idea to arrange piano lessons for the five-year-old Jan. His formal training continued at the local music school in Ronneby from the time he was eight, and several years later, when his piano teacher and mentor took a year off to raise her newborn child, an older piano teacher introduced him to jazz. In a recent interview, Lundgren eloquently recalls the life-changing experience of listening for the first time to Oscar Peterson's Night Train album, which this new teacher had almost ordered him to purchase:


"How could this music be kept from me for fifteen years? I'd never heard anything like it, and was happy and angry at the same time. It was like falling in love. A bit like going on a school trip to somewhere like Turkey and meeting a Turkish girl who can't speak English. You don't understand a word she says; you just know you have to learn Turkish. . . . I was fifteen and had played the piano for ten years, but this was a whole new language for me. When I listened to Oscar Peterson for the first time I got the urge to learn this new language. It was then I realized that improvisation was a language—it gave my fingers wings."


And improvisation is definitely one of the most important parts of Lundgren's approach to making music, an aspect which is instantly apparent in my favorite among his many CDs, a tribute to pianist, singer, and songwriter Matt Dennis entitled Celebrating the Music of Matt Dennis: Will You Still Be Mine (Fresh Sound Records, 2003). Produced by Dick Bank, the album finds Lundgren in the company of bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe LaBarbera, and together they celebrate Dennis's impressive songbook by recreating and reinventing some of his most enduring melodies, from the bigger hits ("Let's Get Away from It All," "The Night We Called It a Day," "Everything Happens to Me," "Angel Eyes") to the lesser-known gems such as the track that closes the disc, "Spring Isn't Spring Anymore," a wistful melody that in Lundgren's hands sounds more like a Chopin etude than a jazz number. These are all tunes that were originally written to go along with lyrics (most of them penned by Tom Adair, arguably one of the most underrated lyricists of the twentieth century) and thus they present quite a challenge for Lundgren as he turns them into instrumentals. Yet faced with such a difficult task he comes through brilliantly because of his mastery of improvisation, which makes all the tunes sound as fresh as though we were listening to them for the first time. In the same interview mentioned above, Lundgren elaborates on his personal view regarding improvisation in jazz:


"Improvisation is like us sitting here talking. It's impulsive without reflection. We just let it spin. It's like speaking straight from the heart. But to improvise you need to know the language. . . . You have to have a language that you master. If you don't, then you can't improvise all the way. It's about nuances and their shifts. A word can have so many different meanings."


Lundgren at the piano
Through the kind mediation of Mr. Guy Jones, the secretary of Lundgren's fan club, Friends of Jan Lundgren, The Vintage Bandstand has recently had the chance to converse with Jan Lundgren about his Matt Dennis tribute album, as well as about his life, career, and views on jazz and music in general.

Anton Garcia-Fernandez (for The Vintage Bandstand): You are a classically trained pianist, which is apparent on some of your recordings. Did this help you as a jazz performer or was it ever an obstacle in your development as a jazz pianist?

Mr. Jan Lundgren: It helped enormously. You have to know your instrument and develop a good technique early, and that's exactly what a classical training provides.


Arne Domnerus
TVB: At the beginning of your career in jazz, you played with Arne Domnerus, one of the foremost figures of Swedish jazz. What was Mr. Domnerus like as a person and as a musician? What was it like to play with him?

Mr. Lundgren: Arne was one of the finest musicians I worked with and was extremely supportive. As a man, he had a big personality, strong opinions and a lot of emotion. These attributes came through not just in his personal life, but also in his music. To play with him was wonderful. He gave me space and room, and he trusted me: he gave me a lot of responsibility in our work together, which was very developing for a young guy in his twenties.

TVB: Among the great names in jazz with whom you have performed are Johnny Griffin and Benny Golson. How and when did this come about? What memories do you have of working with Griffin and Golson?

Mr. Lundgren: I have great memories of both of them. I first met Griffin in the early ‘90s, having just graduated from the Malmö Academy of Music. The meeting came about because the local jazz society called me up and asked whether I’d like to perform with Griffin as part of a local rhythm section. It was an unbelievable question… did I want to play with one of the legendary figures of jazz?!

I arranged a rehearsal in a room at the Academy the day before the gig. I’ll never forget it: Griffin walks in, takes his sax out of the case, and looks very seriously at me and my fellow Trio members [Lars Lundström on bass and Anders Lagerlöf on drums]. "Can you guys play fast?" he asks sternly. "Er, yes," I nervously reply. Then he counts off an extremely fast-tempo "All Through the Night," by Cole Porter, and when we’ve finished, he laughs and says, "We’re gonna have a great time together!" A while afterwards, someone – I forget who – told me, "Griffin calls you the greatest blues pianist in Europe." What?!

Meeting Golson came later. He was probably the first really big jazz star to perform at the Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival, of which I’m the co-founder, when we started it in 2010. Getting him there was a fantastic coup for us.


Johnny Griffin

TVB: In some of your albums, particularly Swedish Standards, you play a very interesting mixture of Swedish folk music and jazz. This is something that other Scandinavian musicians (Domnerus, for instance) have tried before. In your opinion, what do Swedish folk music and jazz have in common?

Mr. Lundgren: The tones and melodies help, and there’s a certain sort of melancholia in Swedish folk music that can work well as jazz or blues, too. The minor mood of some of these songs is also connected to jazz. But my personal view is that you can adapt and transform any kind of music, from any place in the world. Whether that transformation becomes jazz depends on the individual artist.


TVB: Let's talk a little about your Matt Dennis tribute album. Although Dennis wrote songs that were performed by all-time greats such as Frank Sinatra, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker, to name but three, he is not as well known as some of his contemporaries. What attracted you to his work?

Mr. Lundgren: The Matt Dennis CD was my idea. I’d been digging around into the music of various songwriters, like Jule Styne and Victor Young, looking for material that hadn’t been widely exposed to a jazz audience. Then I realized that hardly anyone had recorded whole albums dedicated to their work – something that also applied to Matt Dennis. So I contacted Matt and we had a long talk on the phone. He died before the recording took place, but he was kind enough after we spoke to send me dozens of his compositions – songs that practically no-one was aware of. We then included a couple of these tunes on the album.

TVB: Besides this project, if you had to single out one of your own albums as your favorite, which one would it be and why?

Mr. Lundgren: An impossible question… Most artists will tell you that their latest album is the one they’re most proud of because, as musicians, they’re developing all the time. That’s also my answer to this question!


Bassist Tom Warrington
TVB: Scandinavian countries have always had an extremely active jazz scene, and American jazz musicians have always felt very much at home in Sweden. Why do you think that is?

Mr. Lundgren: Sweden had a very strong jazz scene in the 1950s, with a dominant position in youth culture. So it was easy for Americans to come here: people knew about them and their music, they gave them a lot of respect, and they treated them like real stars. Who wouldn’t love that?! They probably got paid pretty well too.

TVB: Could you recommend another Swedish jazz musician that you particularly enjoy to our readers in the United States?

Mr. Lundgren: If your readers aren't already familiar with his work, I’d recommend they listen to Bengt Hallberg. Start with this pianist’s early recordings from the ‘50s, and then see how he develops over the following decades. [Hallberg died, aged 79, in 2013.]


Drummer Joe LaBarbera
TVB: Finally, you will be appearing at the Ystad Jazz Festival in August this year. Could you tell us a little about your future projects?

Mr. Lundgren: In terms of post-Ystad projects, I’ve got a new solo album coming out very soon. It’s called All By Myself, it’s produced by Dick Bank, and it’s on the Fresh Sound label. I recorded it in Los Angeles in January this year. Just last week, I was recording in Copenhagen for another new album due to be released in November. It’s a collection of Johnny Mandel songs, performed with American tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, Hans Backenroth [Sweden] on bass, and Kristian Leth [Denmark] on drums. It’s on Stunt Records, who also released the 2013 album I did with Scott Hamilton – another great sax player from the United States! – called Swedish Ballads… & More.

I’m working right now on a series of concerts with the veteran Swedish trumpeter, Bengt-Arne Wallin. The lineup also includes the other members of my Trio [Mattias Svensson and Sweden-based, Hungary-born drummer Zoltan Csörsz], as well as the Bohuslän Big Band. The project’s called Swedish Folklore NOW! Aged 88, Bengt-Arne is arguably the most innovative and important jazz interpreter of Sweden’s folk music that we’ve ever had.




Links

For more information on Jan Lundgren, please visit his homepage and the website of his fan club, Friends of Jan Lundgren, the latter coordinated by Mr. Guy Jones, for whose help with  this interview we are extremely grateful.

Jan Lundgren's tribute to Matt Dennis, as well as many of his other albums, is available from the U.S. Amazon website here.



Thursday, July 24, 2014

New Reissues: Gene Austin, Barbara Dane & Earl Hines, Nancy Harrow, Laurindo Almeida & Bud Shank

We discuss today four of the latest CD reissues of which we have had notice. We begin with a recent two-fer that includes two Gene Austin albums from late in his career. Then, there is an outstanding album that the always exciting Barbara Dane cut with Earl Hines in the 1950s and that has been re-released in a Hines 4-CD set, although it was already previously available on a better release. Also, he Spanish label Fresh Sounds has recently put two albums by the vastly underrated vocalist Nancy Harrow together on one CD, and finally, Jasmine Records has made available Laurindo Almeida and Bud Shank's pioneering collaborations from the 1950s on an essential single CD. Let us look at these reissues a little more in depth!

Helped enormously by the introduction of the microphone, sweet-voiced crooner Gene Austin enjoyed spectacular success in the twenties and thirties with his sentimental ballads sung in a rather high-pitched voice, which turned him into a star on records and radio. Born in Gainesville, Texas, in 1900, Austin was steeped in jazz, blues, and cowboy music, and he was also an adept songwriter and later in his life would publish a very interesting autobiography, Gene Austin's Ol' Buddy. Although his recording output is rather meager throughout the forties and fifties, in 1957 NBC broadcast The Gene Austin Story, a TV movie based on his life, and this briefly revived interest in his music. Thus, Austin went into the RCA studios to cut a new album, Restless Heart, made out of both old songs, such as "Memories of You," "Where the Shy Little Violets Grow," and "Sharecroppin' Blues," and new tunes, such as Rodgers and Hart's "I Could Write a Book." The disc also aimed to showcase Austin's songwriting, and many of the tracks are self-penned"My Restless Heart," "The More I See of Somebody Else," "Take Your Shoes Off Baby," and "There's a New Blue Heaven in the Sky," among others. He also attempts some pseudo-blues ("Wise Guys") and purposefully does not overlook his country side, and the result is a very pleasant album that finds Austin's voice sounding much lower and mellow that on his records from the twenties.

A younger Gene Austin
Austin's recording career was not over with this RCA album, though, and three years later he cut yet another one, this time for Dot Records. Entitled Gene Austin's Great Hits in Stereo, it delivers on its title's promise, offering new readings of twelve of his old classics in stereo with backing from an orchestra conducted by Billy Vaughn. The only song written by Austin here is "Lonesome Road," the focus not being on his songwriting but on his vintage hits, such as "Ramona," "Girl of My Dreams," "How Am I to Know," and of course, his career-defining "My Blue Heaven." The British label Sepia Records has joined these two albums on a single CD that is up to Sepia's usual high standards of sound and packaging, although we would have liked some background information on the recordings rather than just an excerpt from the liner notes of the Dot set. The CD also offers four medleys made in 1954 for RCA that, according to Michael Pitts and Frank Hoffman in the book The Rise of the Crooners, feature Austin himself on piano backed by George Barnes on guitar and Frank Carroll on bass. These include such classics as "She's Funny That Way," "How Come You Do Me Like You Do," "One Sweet Letter from You," and "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi," among others, and find Austin exploring his jazzier side aided by Barnes's stellar guitar playing, and proving that he could also swing when he wanted to. The medleys are definitely the gems of the set, and while this Sepia CD does not replace collections of Austin's twenties and thirties recordings such as Take Two's A Time to Relax, it does work well as a companion release.


When Leonard Feather said that Barbara Dane was "Bessie Smith in stereo," he was not exaggerating in the least; if anything, such an assessment of Dane's artistry sounds rather reductionist, considering that Dane is comfortable singing not only the blues, but also jazz and folk music. Her family roots lay in Arkansas, but Dane was raised in Detroit and by the late forties had moved to San Francisco, where she sang with Turk Murphy and Kid Ory, among many others. Throughout her long career, Dane has performed with some of the greatest names in jazz and blues, including Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Lightnin' Hopkins, Jack Teagarden, Art Hodes, and Louis Armstrong, to name but a few. Though all her recordings are worth a listen, the best of them all may well be Livin' with the Blues, the album she cut with Earl Hines in 1959 for Dot Records. It showcases her gift for singing jazz on well-known tunes such as "If I Could Be with You," "Why Don't You Do Right," and "Bye Bye Blackbird," and even attempts ballads like the Jack Teagarden-associated "A Hundred Years from Today" and Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy." But most of all, she offers masterful interpretations of blues-inflected jazz classics such as the title track, "How Long, How Long Blues," and "In the Evenin'," ably supported by an orchestra led by the Fatha. This Dane-Hines collaboration ranks as one of the best vocal jazz albums of the 1950s and has been reissued by the European budget label Real Gone Jazz on a 4-CD set of Seven Classic Albums by Earl Hines that is very recommendable. However, it had already been made available last year on a much better Fresh Sounds release that pairs up Dane's Livin' with the Blues and On My Way, a 1962 effort for Capitol that is a more eclectic mix of folk, blues, and even gospel, but that includes some jazzier tracks such as "Crazy Blues" and "Good Old Wagon," with Kenny Whitson on cornet. Though the rest of the albums by the Fatha on the Real Gone set are also very interesting, the sound and packaging of the Fresh Sounds CD are superior. For more information on Barbara Dane, we refer you to her extremely interesting homepage.





Barely a year after Barbara Dane's collaboration with Earl Hines, Nancy Harrow went into the recording studio at Nat Hentoff's behest to cut an album for Candid Records. She was backed by Buck Clayton's Jazz Stars, a studio group that featured Clayton on trumpet, Dickie Wells on trombone, Tom Gwaltney on clarinet and alto sax, Buddy Tate on tenor sax, Danny Bank on baritone sax, Dick Wellstood on piano, Kenny Burrell on guitar, Milt Hinton on bass, and Oliver Jackson on drums. With such an array of talent, it is no surprise that the band is offered plenty of room to shine, and Harrow is inspired by the company she keeps to offer her best blues-inflected jazz singing with more than a touch of Mildred Bailey. The eight tracks recorded by Harrow and the Clayton group resulted in her debut album, the excellent Wild Women Don't Have the Blues, which appropriately mixes blues numbers such as the title track, "Take Me Back Baby," "I Don't Know What Kind of Blues I've Got," and "Blues for Yesterday" with bluesy ballads ("All Too Soon") and more straight-ahead jazz tunes like "Can't We Be Friends," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and "I've Got the World on a String." Fresh Sounds Records has recently paired this masterpiece that every jazz aficionado should own with Harrow's second album, cut for Atlantic in 1962, You Never Know. Though quite different from her debut, this is an equally outstanding LP that grows more interesting the more one listens to it. Most of the tracks were thoughtfully arranged by pianist John Lewis, who plays piano on all of them, along with Jim Hall on guitar, Richard Davis on bass, and Connie Kay on drums, with the occasional addition of Phil Woods on alto and a string orchestra. Of course, blues material is still at the heart of the album ("Confessin' the Blues," "Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do") but Lewis's beautifully sparse arangements ensure that the focus is entirely on Harrow's unaffected, expressive voice. Overall, this is yet another of the many outstanding reissues, complete with excellent sound and notes, to which the people at Fresh Sounds have accustomed us—and hopefully they will keep them coming! For more information about Nancy Harrow, it is a good idea to visit her homepage.


The fusion of jazz and bossa nova is usually credited to Stan Getz and João Gilberto's albums from the early 1960s, which introduced these new, exciting Brazilian rhythms to American audiences at large. However, in 1953 and 1954, alto saxophonist Bud Shank and Brazilian guitarist and composer Laurindo Almeida recorded a series of tracks in a quartet setting (with Harry Babasin on bass and Roy Harte on drums) that already foreshadow the innovations that would come in full force some seven years later. Almeida had arrived in Los Angeles from his native Rio de Janeiro in 1947, instantly finding a place within the Stan Kenton orchestra. The results of his collaboration with Shank were released by World Pacific on a ten-inch album entitled Brazilliance—and brazilliant it was indeed, a very appealing mixture of Brazilian folk rhythms and jazz improvisation, mostly on original tunes by Almeida and other Brazilian composers, but also on Latin American songs such as "Acércate Más" and standards, as in the case of "Speak Low" and "Stairway to the Stars." Shank himself does not consider these recordings as strictly bossa nova, yet what Getz, Gilberto, and others would develop in the sixties is somehow already present here, albeit in embryonic form. This music is not important merely for historical reasons; rather, it is the very enjoyable product of a group of musicians mixing all sorts of influences in a search for an innovative sound, and the occasional doubts and insecurities only add to the undeniable charm of what the rolling tape captured at these sessions.


Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida
Some years later, in 1958 and 1959, Almeida and Shank got together again to cut a few more tracks, accompanied this time by Gary Peacock on bass and Chuck Flores on percussion, which were subsequently released by World Pacific as Holiday in Brazil or Brazilliance, vol. 2. The concept for these sessions was not substantially different from those held in 1953-54, though the group concentrates more on Almeida and Shank compositions, and the latter's solos (on alto and flute) are noticeably longer and jazzier. "Little Girl Blue" and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" provide the more familiar tracks on here, but the true gems are originals such as "Nocturno," "Mood Antigua," and "Lonely." Jasmine Records has reissued both volumes of Brazilliance on a single CD, and though the sound is fantastic, there is almost no background information on the recordings, and the booklet only includes a brief adaptation of the original liner notes, which is not very comprehensive. The same material is also available on a single disc on the Poll Winners label released in 2012 with considerably more attractive packaging. Back in 2008, Bud Shank spoke to jazz writer Marc Myers about these groundbreaking, evocative recordings and the close relationship between jazz and bossa nova in a fascinating three-part interview that was published in Myers's JazzWax website. For anyone interested, here are the links to Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.



Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Conversations with Donald Clarke (I) - Clarke's Biography of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby's Influence on Sinatra

Author Donald Clarke
As I already mentioned in a previous article, Donald Clarke's All or Nothing at All: A Life of Frank Sinatra has always been one of my favorite biographies ever written on Ol' Blue Eyes, not only because of its very direct, dynamic style, but also because Mr. Clarke attempts to reconcile Sinatra the man and Sinatra the musician. Although I have read other Sinatra biographies and studies (some excellent, some good, and some plainly trashy) I often come back to Mr. Clarke's book (and to Will Friedwald's Sinatra! The Song Is You as well) and reread passages or whole chapters that invariably offer new perspectives on Sinatra's life and work. Some months ago I contacted Mr. Clarke asking him for an interview for The Vintage Bandstand, and he kindly agreed. But each question that I asked him promptly elicited many more, and so we have been corresponding via e-mail intermittently for the past several months, and I have so much interesting material that I have decided to begin a series of articles culled from our e-mail exchanges. As long as Mr. Clarke finds our correspondence stimulating enough, these Conversations with Donald Clarke will be an ongoing series, and I hope the readers consider his perspectives on Sinatra and jazz in general as enlightening as I do. In this first installment of the series, Mr. Clarke and I discuss his book on Frank Sinatra, as well as the influence that Bing Crosby exerted on The Voice in the formative period when he was still Young Blue Eyes.

Donald Clarke, who has also published a biography of Billie Holiday and the study The Rise and Fall of Popular Music, has edited the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and runs the very recommendable website Donald Clarke's Music Box (where you can find the Encyclopedia in its entirety for free), was born in 1940 and grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a place "where there is no there," as he himself puts it. After working in a car factory for ten years and then attending college, he decided to travel to Great Britain to teach in a primary school. At first it was going to be just ten weeks, but he wound up staying in Britain for twenty-five years! He returned to the United States in 1998 and now lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with his wife of 34 years, "a very successful magazine editor-in-chief" who works for Organic Garden magazine. He has three children, four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren and considers himself now "the luckiest man in the world." Music has always been his great passion, which is something that we both share, and so without further ado, let us turn now to the beginning of our first conversation, made out of excerpts of our recent electronic correspondence.

Anton Garcia-Fernandez (for The Vintage Bandstand): When I first saw your book on Sinatra, All or Nothing at All, on the shelves of the bookstore Shakespeare & Co., in Paris, France, I was struck by its subtitle, "A Life of Frank Sinatra." This seemed to imply that this was a fresh, personal take on Sinatra's life, about which so much had been written over the years. It was, so to speak, your life of Frank Sinatra. Was that your intention as you sat down to write the book? In other words, with so much in print about Sinatra, what new perspective on his life were you hoping to bring to the fore with your book?

Mr. Clarke: Yes, the title was chosen carefully. Somebody once wrote that "There is no such thing as an autobiography, not even an autobiography," meaning, I take it, that in order to tell you my life story, I would also have to tell you the life stories of all of my ancestors, everybody I have ever known, etc. Similarly, there will be as many biographies of Sinatra as people willing to write them. The last one I looked at had the author pretending to be a fly inside the limousine quoting Frank and Barbara having a squabble, as though he had been there with a notebook. I didn't have a new perspective, but I've read enough lousy biographies so that what I wanted to write was the book that I would want to read if I were looking for a book about Sinatra, covering both the life and the music. I think I have a knack for telling the reader what he or she wants to know without patronizing anybody. So, yes, it is my life of Sinatra, and I wasn't afraid to put myself in it.

Another aspect is that if Sinatra hadn't been a singer, as I wrote in the book, he might have been a New Jersey plumbing contractor, and we never would have heard of him unless he got arrested. In other words, at some level he must have been an ordinary guy. This was after I had written the Billie Holiday book and I realized that what I was really writing about was the problem of being an American in the twentieth century.

Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby
TVB: At some point in the book, you mention that Sinatra became an incredibly popular, if often controversial, public figure, when all he had originally set out to do was to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Bing Crosby. Bing was certainly an innovator in many ways, not only as a vocalist but also as a businessman. In what ways do you think Sinatra was an innovator as well, both in music and in business? Or, in other words, in what ways did he improve upon Crosby's foundation?

Mr. Clarke: I enjoyed Crosby's work, but I was never that big a fan. I heard him in the late 1940s and onward, and was surprised many years later to hear some of his earlier records, when he wasn't so relaxed, or maybe the white pop music style was different in the 1930s. I believe that whites were learning from blacks in the jazz era, but that they didn't really master the idiom until after WWII. There are more of Crosby's recordings I would like to hear -- there's a big compilation of radio broadcasts on Mosaic that he made in the 1950s with a small jazz group. But for me his innovation was not so much interpreting songs as the fact that he was influenced by jazz, and also knew how to use a microphone, so that he became the first modern recording vocalist, with Louis Armstrong. So Crosby was good for Sinatra to learn from, but there was an immediate difference: Crosby wanted to be your boyfriend; Sinatra wanted to be your lover.

Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald
TVB: What was it exactly about Sinatra's sound that attracted you upon first hearing? I have been trying to define what it was for me for years now, and every time I try, for some reason, I can't quite put my finger on it... As a matter of fact, his biggest hits as Young Blue Eyes on Columbia were ballads, weren't they? What do you think about that? To what extent can we say that Sinatra was a jazz singer?

Mr. Clarke: A combination of things. First of all, the sound of his voice was attractive. Then there was the honesty he bragged about. When he was singing, there was no artifice. Also, he sang ballads or uptempo, and it doesn't matter if he was a jazz singer. I think I said in the book that he was not, but I would say now that we can call him a jazz singer, "if the essence of jazz singing is to make the familiar sound fresh, and to make a lyric come alive with personal meaning," which is something I wrote about Billie Holiday. The other day I happened to hear Ella Fitzgerald singing "This Year's Kisses," and it wasn't a patch on Holiday's version. Then I recalled that Ella had said that singing a song was like telling a beautiful story that happened to somebody else. Much as I admire Ella, when you heard Holiday or Sinatra singing a song, you knew they were telling you something about themselves. And that's what a great jazz musician does.




TVB: And to finish with Crosby's influence on Sinatra, there is a passage of your book where you say that at some point Crosby allegedly advised Sinatra not to rely too heavily on just one arranger, a piece of advice that, from your point of view, was a mistake. However, couldn't we say that if Sinatra were to rely on one arranger alone, that would inevitably lend an air of sameness to his recordings? For example, I feel that George Siravo's arrangements for Sinatra toward the end of his tenure with Columbia are a breath of fresh air after several years of Axel Stordahl's string arrangements, as beautifully lyrical as Stordahl's work is. What do you think about that?


Mr. Clarke: If I disagreed with Crosby, I was wrong. I was probably wishing that Sinatra had made all his records after 1953 with Nelson Riddle. The Siravo records were a welcome change from Stordahl, but I find them studio-bound. This question has partly to do with the playing of white bands as opposed to the black masters of jazz. The white studio arrangers and musicians had improved immeasurably by the mid-1950s, in my opinion. Also, bands which were on the road, like Tommy Dorsey's around 1940, learned how to breathe and think together, as opposed to ad hoc studio groups, which also improved post WWII.


And that is it for the first installment. I would like to thank Mr. Clarke for his kindness in addressing all these questions, as well as for his giving freely of his time. More installments in this series of Conversations with Donald Clarke will be forthcoming!


'Swing and Dance with Frank Sinatra,' a Columbia LP arranged by George Siravo

Friday, June 20, 2014

Mr. Teardrop Takes the Stage: Johnnie Ray Live in 1954 & 1958

Johnnie Ray's all-too-brief hit-making days provided, as many critics have already pointed out, a link between classic pop and rock'n'roll. Born in Oregon in 1927, Ray soon became fascinated with black music, and in fact, in his own, instantly recognizable style we can easily hear echoes of jazz, rhythm & blues, and gospel. Although he will forever be associated with his 1951 blockbuster "Cry," which inaugurated the genre of the so-called "sob ballad," Ray successfully recorded quite a bit of rhythm & blues and always included one or two religious songs in his supper-club act, something that was rather unusual in such a context. All of these influences, together with his stage histrionics, combined to produce a very exciting style that was unmistakably Ray's own: as exaggerated, dramatic, and frenzied as it all often was, there is no doubt that Ray was doing something that no white popular singer had done before, and that earned him adulation and criticism in almost equal parts. Among his admirers was a very young Bob Dylan, who in his autobiography singles him out as one of the very first performers to whom he was drawn. Even early rock critic Nik Cohn, who usually does not lavish praise on any pop singers prior to Elvis Presley and who claims that Ray could not sing, states in his pioneering study Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock (1970) that "he generated more intensity than any other performer I ever saw in my life, Judy Garland excepted, and it was impossible not to feel involved with him" (13). In that same book, Cohn vividly describes a Johnnie Ray stage show:

He'd hunch up tight into himself, choke on his words, gasp, stagger, beat his fist against his breast, squirm, fall forward on to his knees and, finally, burst into tears. He'd gag, tremble, half strangle himself. He'd pull out every last outrageous ham trick in the book and he would be comic, embarrassing, painful, but still he worked because, under the crap, he was in real agony, he was burning, and it was traumatic to watch him. He'd spew himself up in front of you and you'd freeze, you'd sweat, you'd be hurt yourself. You'd want to look away and you couldn't. (13-14)



Of course, many black entertainers had been putting on this kind of act for years before Ray, but he was one of the first to bring this type of antics into the mainstream of pop. And as good as many of his studio records are (his catalog has been reissued by the German label Bear Family on two five-CD box sets entitled Cry and Yes, Tonight, Josephine), the art of Johnnie Ray is best appreciated live on stage, when he is working in front of an audience. Perhaps he or his label, Columbia Records, sensed this, because two excellent live albums by Ray were released in the 1950s, his period of major stardom—Live at the London Palladium came out in 1954, and Johnnie Ray in Las Vegas appeared in 1958.

The former, reissued by Bear Family in 1999, captures Ray in his heyday, performing at the prestigious London Palladium on April 5, 1954, before a very appreciative audience of screaming fans. Though very short, at only 11 songs and a mere 32 minutes, this is a fantastic document of the singer at the peak of his career, singing some of his recent hits, such as "Cry," the self-penned "The Little White Cloud that Cried," and "Walkin' My Baby Back Home." He also reaches back for older tunes with which he always did very well (the rousing opener, "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," "Glad Rag Doll," "Somebody Stole My Gal") and handles intimate ballads like "As Time Goes By" and "A Hundred Years from Today" very adroitly. By the time he attempts the Drifters' "Such a Night" (covered by Elvis on his 1960 album Elvis Is Back), I cannot help but wonder whether Belgian chanteur Jacques Brel knew of Ray and was influenced by his powerful stage persona. As he often did, Ray closes his Palladium set with a gospel song, "I'm Gonna Walk and Talk with My Lord," and has everyone in the house on their feet and clapping along. Though the inclusion of a newly written essay on the concert would have been desirable, the CD reissue is up to Bear Family's usual high standards, with a 20-page booklet featuring photos, newspaper clippings, and even an article written by Ray himself and published in the New Musical Express at the time of his Palladium appearance.

Four years later, Columbia released Johnnie Ray in Las Vegas, a 12-song live set recorded at the Desert Inn. By this time his career had fizzled somewhat due in part to the advent of rock'n'roll, although he had scored a couple more hits, "Yes Tonight, Josephine" and the Prisonaires' "Just Walking in the Rain," which he performs during this Vegas engagement. Inevitably, some of the tracks on this album overlap with those he had done on the Palladium set, including "Cry" and "Little White Cloud" (done here as a medley) and also "As Time Goes By" and "Talk with My Lord," which he again uses as the closer. The set list includes yet another spiritual, Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Up Above My Head," which he had cut as a duet with Frankie Laine and which he sings here with the usual abandon in which he indulged when handling this sort of material. A combination of evergreens ("Ain't Misbehavin'," "Coquette") and ballads ("Yesterdays") rounds out the show, and his most intimate side comes to the fore in his beautiful rendition of Ted Koehler and Rube Bloom's "Don't Worry 'Bout Me." Like the recording from the Palladium, this LP catches Ray during a very inspired live appearance, but here he somehow sounds like a more seasoned performer. As the anonymous liner notes claim, "he catches the mood and temper of the assembled crowd and plays with it and to it, building from his opening number to a tingling pitch of excitement." The album was reissued on CD by Collectables Records in 2002 together with 1959's 'Til Morning, a jazzy collection of standards on which he is accompanied by the Billy Taylor Trio, which was apparently a quartet.


As a kid I heard Johnnie Ray singing "Cry" on the radio and was immediately mesmerized. By that time it was too late for me to get to see him perform live, since he had long quit touring. There is no doubt that Ray's natural habitat was the stage, though, where he could sing and shout and wail and fall down on his knees, where he could single-handedly electrify any audience. Unfortunately, these days not too many people seem to even remember Johnnie Ray at all, but these two live albums are ample proof of the uniqueness of the man's artistry in the perfect context for any listener to enjoy it.

Here is Johnnie Ray himself on television in 1957 singing his signature tune, Churchill Kohlman's "Cry," followed by one of his then-recent recordings, "Soliloquy of a Fool":