" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Monday, December 5, 2016

NRR Project 25: 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart'

‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’
Columbia Quartette (The Peerless Quartet)
Recorded July 28, 1911
American popular song became a going concern around the turn of last century, thanks to music publishers. Before recordings and radio came along, everyone had to make their own music, or listen to others make it live, and for that you needed the sheet music.

The only modes of transmission were social – you heard a new song at the minstrel show, vaudeville, via church or by word of mouth. Ethnic and alternative musics stayed firmly lodged inside their isolated groups of origin. Every home had a piano, organ, and/or a guitar; a jumble of instruments and music sheets took up the front room, or sitting room, or parlor, whatever it was termed.

A song had to be memorable, relatively easy to learn, and family-friendly. America was living in the shadow of the Victorian period culturally. Opera and operetta were the accepted models of singing and composition, and the sentimental ballads popular in the post-Civil War era reflect that. From the 1890s through the end of World War I, Tin Pan Alley in lower central Manhattan cranked out songs for popular consumption – songs that dealt almost entirely with sentiment, melodrama, nostalgia, the novelties of the day, or patriotism. The tone was optimistic – genteel, cheery, and decorous.

 These were all songs I learned growing up. My great-grandmother’s house still held a hulking old piano, and she played, expertly licking her right fingers and flipping the pages of the score just at the last moment, as we all stood around and sang. This was also the heyday of Sing Along with Mitch on television, and we gaily chirped with the Singalong Gang as they plowed in close harmony through the hits of the pre-WWI period.

The closest existing manifestation of this music is found in the barbershop quartet tradition, and most of the songs in the genre’s unofficial canon date from this period – “Down by the Old Mill Stream,” “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” “Sweet Adeline,” “In the Good Old Summertime,” and so on.

“Barbershop” singing of course has become a hoary cliché. The nightmare image of four men approaching in straw boaters and garish vests, bellowing close-harmony vocals, is enough to put the fear of God into any person. But there is thrill to be had in singing and hearing this kind of music, an emphasis on technique and showmanship that overrules other considerations. Since its 1940s revival, barbershop has grown and diversified into men’s and women’s ensembles and choruses, and remains a wholesome niche art.

“Let Me Call You Sweetheart” is a classic sentimental waltz, but like many of the era’s hit compositions, it’s an assembly-line job. Frequently, music publishers amassed reams of verses and lyrics and farmed them out of songwriters, hoping someone would set a hit or two. Beth Slater Whitson’s lyrics were set to music by Leo Friedman without the two ever meeting.

It was recorded by the Peerless Quartet, billed here as the Columbia Quartette. This group was arguably the most popular of its time, cutting hundreds of discs in various lineups for nearly 30 years. Their most successful incarnation was led by the prolific Henry Burr, whose clear nasal tenor would become the clichéd sound of the era.

Meanwhile, the sounds and jazz and blues were in development, and would soon percolate into pop music as well. For a while, though, America's music was easygoing, familiar, and bright, and it still sparkles sometimes when a hurdy-gurdy plays or a carousel goes around.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: recordings of Ishim the ‘last of his tribe.’

Monday, November 28, 2016

Pop-era: Best opera parodies on film

Eddra Gale as Frau Fassbender in What's New, Pussycat?
OK, freaks – I mean, folks. To be an opera lover means having an excellent sense of humor about the whole thing. For every sincere aficionado of music drama, there is a horde of unbelievers who flinch at the sound of an aria, and which equates opera with a refined and expensive form of torture.

That’s not to say that opera doesn’t deserve a little elbow to the diaphragm at times. As a high-risk, complex, expensive synthesis of several arts forms, it’s tough to produce well . . . and like the girl with the curl, when it’s bad, it’s horrid. It’s also been typed as an affectation of the rich – which makes disdaining its challenges a populist nose-thumbing delight.

And why not? The proposition of a sung story enacted is on its face absurd – it takes time to get used to the conventions and suspend your disbelief as never before. Opera neither requires nor desires internal logic, verisimilitude, or even believability. We need the plot to hurry up and get the hell out of the way so we can go completely, decadently emotional. Don’t you feel a little silly sometimes? Honestly?

When you do, put a few of these on. Get it out of your system.

The list of audio-only operatic prankings is long, beginning as early as vaudeville, judging by Cal Stewart's Uncle Josh character in the "Opera at Punkin Center" recording of 1909, and Willie and Eugene Howard’s “After the Opera” sketch, first recorded in 1925. It’s also worth mentioning and diving into the long and hilarious discographies of Anna Russell, Spike Jones and His City Slickers, Tom Lehrer, Victor Borge, and Peter Schickele for a start.

For Wagnerians, Charles Ludlam’s 1977 stage sendup Der Ring Gott Fablonjet is a priceless read, but a staging much less a recording is not on the horizon (though I’d love to). The cliche of the helmeted diva has been around almost since the Ring cycle was first performed, certainly because it’s easy and fun to mock. It can be found scattered across modern culture and media, morphing to fit the needs of ‘60s absurdism in Clive Donner’s 1965 What’s New, Pussycat? as well as the avant-garde sci-fi conceits of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element in 1997, when he hands ‘Il dolce suono mi colpi di sua voce’ from Lucia di Lammermoor to the giant blue Diva Plavalaguna.

So, here’s a nice selection of comic cadenzas from film and TV, ranging from the innocent and playful to the dark and NSFW.

A Night at the Opera/Dir: Sam Wood, Edmund Goulding/1935

Of course. The sendup of all things pompous in the opera world, culminating with Il Trovatore here, is merciless, a template for all future comic-disaster sequences in film.

Our Gang Follies of 1938/Dir: Gordon Douglas/1937

Alfalfa is “King of Crooners,” but he wants to be an opera star! “I’m the Barber of Seville, Figaro, Figaro!” he sings. Everyone hates him, and he ends up singing in the gutter as the snow cascades arund him. He relents. “I wanna croon!” he admits, before waking from his cautionary dream. Opera is clearly a ticket to the bottom.

Wonder Man/Dir: H. Bruce Humberstone/1945

Danny Kaye plays twins, one a shy scholar and the other a wacky nightclub entertainer. The comic witnesses a murder, gets killed himself, then inhabits his twin’s body as needed to solve said crime . . . and provide typical Danny Kaye bits. With me so far? At the climax, he must interweave testimony with an operatic duet.

Micro-Phonies/ Dir: Edward Bernds/1945
Squareheads of the Round Table/ Dir: Edward Bernds/1948

There are only two kinds of people in this world, so if you don’t like the Three Stooges, let your gaze lightly vault over this obnoxious entry. There now, for the rest of us what could be more fun than Curly impersonating the not-so-ravishing Senorita Cucaracha? The butchering of the Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor would be repeated with variation three years later in Squareheads.

Willie as Pagliacci.
The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met AKA Willie the Operatic Whale/Dir: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske/from Make Mine Music, 1946

This is the 10th and final sequence from the 1946 Disney anthology film Make Mine Music, one of a string of six short-subject collections the studio put out during the 1940s. This was in response to the loss of animators, and markets, to the war effort. This sequence is a wonderful little fantasy, with narration and voicings by Nelson Eddy (Disney uses multitrack recording here for one of the first times). It ends tragically, in line with operatic tradition – and I personally mark it as another soul-crushing moment in a long life of Disney-inspired trauma.

Show Business/Dir: Edward L. Marin/1945
If You Knew Susie/Dir: Gordon Douglas/1948

This takeoff on the Sextet from Lucia was first used in Show Business and repeated in Susie; Cantor and Davis had a comic affinity as well as an offscreen romance. Susie was Cantor’s last starring movie role.

Long-Haired Hare/Dir: Chuck Jones/1949
The Rabbit of Seville/Dir: Chuck Jones/1950
What’s Opera, Doc?/Dir. Chuck Jones/1957

Chuck Jones’ mastery of animated comedy was such that these are not only the funniest and most familiar opera parodies in our culture, but three of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons, period.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother/Dir: Gene Wilder/1975

I have no idea why Gene Wilder inserted a long parody of Un ballo in maschera here (it does forward the plot, much as in Wonder Man), but I’m awfully glad he did. Few actors could pull it off better than Dom DeLuise and Madeline Kahn. “Stop that, you’re such as tickle-tease/You know I’m super passionate . . .” Classic.

All the Great Operas in 10 Minutes/Dir: Kim Thompson/1992

It can be read either as a condemnation of opera’s bloody absurdities, or . . . no, actually, that’s the only way it can be read. However, the true aficionado will laugh wisely as the body count mounts.

The Abduction of Figaro/Dir: Peter Schickele/1998

Schickele’s comic alter ego P.D.Q. Bach has enjoyed recordings of his The Stoned Guest and A Little Nightmare Music previously, but The Abduction of Figaro is his “simply grand” masterpiece. Any opera that opens in “a town on the seacoast of Spain or Italy or somewhere” and includes the Dance of the Seven Pails is all right by me.

Television has played a lot with opera as well. The fastidious Felix Unger from The Odd Couple series was a notorious opera maven. Regular viewers of TV’s The Simpsons have been exposed to plenty of operatic put-downs. Sesame Street helped the operatic cause immensely by incorporating operatic visitors into its broadcasts, and performers such as Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey were happy to be silly for the sake of educating kids (not to mention the fabulous Placido Flamingo, the show’s muppet who sang for the Nestropolitan Opera!).

Here are some other highlights:

“Gallipacci”/”Caesar’s Hour”/Oct. 10, 1955, NBC

A worthy successor to the original Show of Shows, Caesar’s Hour had a great writing team and top-notch performers.

“The Producer”/”Gilligan’s Island”/Dir: George Cahan, Ida Lupino/Oct. 3, 1966

The most popular episode of the series guest-starred Phil Silvers as the scheming producer Harold Hecuba. The castaways perform a musical version of Hamlet, using tunes from Carmen and The Tales of Hoffmann (thank goodness someone brought records and a gramophone on that three-hour tour!).

“The O-U Song”/Written by Tom Lehrer, arranged by Joe Raposo/”The Electric Company” (1971-1977, PBS)

Tom Lehrer was a comedy sensation from 1953 through 1960. He left entertainment to pursue a distinguished career as a mathematics professor. Aside from a few pointed songs for the political satire show This Was the Week That Was and some nifty tunes, like this one, for educational TV.

“The Muppet Show”/Guest Beverly Sills/Nov. 8, 1979

Of course, Bubbles goes up against Miss Piggy in a mash-up of Traviata, Aida, and Wagner in something called, of course, Pigoletto.

“Kombat Opera Presents”/Created and composed by Richard Thomas/BBC, 2007

The most innovative and interesting use of opera in a non-opera context I’ve found. These five episodes, composed by Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer: The Opera) mock popular British TV shows of the time, contain very strong language and are NOT family-friendly or safe for work! However, they really leap forward in terms of marrying cinematic techniques to operatic structure . . . and are funny as hell.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Pop-era: modern songs lifted from operas – Part 2, The Interesting and Strange

Why? Why did these white doo-woppers cover four opera arias?
Here’s another project that’s snowballing into multiple parts, proving again that poking into obscure cultural corners is both a waste of one’s time and a provocation of delight.

In the first chapter of this investigation, I looked at hitsadapted from opera – “The Alabama Song,” “Mack the Knife,” “I Can’t HelpFalling in Love with You,” and “Stranger in Paradise.” In the commission of the first story, I found plenty of other examples of this syndrome. Here are 12. Interestingly, the bulk of these adaptations cropped up between the Big Band era and rock ‘n’ roll, when vocalists took center stage and “sweet singing” was the norm.

Some of these songs are sweet and some insufferable, but most, I think, are worth a listen by the curious opera fan.

“Avalon,” sung by Al Jolson, written by Vincent Rose, with additional credit taken by Jolson and Buddy De Sylva, 1920; AKA a transposed version of “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca, Puccini, 1900

Here’s a case in which copping credit leads to downfall. Vincent Rose wrote the song, but it was common at the time for people with leverage to claim co-authorship of the song in order to gain a piece of its royalties. Jolson and De Sylva did. (The practice has stayed with us down the decades, unfortunately.) A year after the song emerged and became a hit, the publisher of composer Giacomo Puccini’s music sued, claiming that the song was based on the famous aria from Tosca, “E lucevan le stelle,” written 20 years before – only transposed from its original minor to a major key! They won the suit, and $25,000, and all future royalties from the song.

“Here,” sung by Tony Martin, written by Harold Grant, Dorcas Cochran, 1954; AKA “Caro nome” from Rigoletto, Verdi, 1851

This decent little ditty rose to #7 on the charts, and was later covered by the Four Belles, the late Jimmy Young, and Robert Goulet.

“Don’t You Know,” sung by Della Reese, composed by Bobby Worth, 1959; AKA “Quando me’n vo’” from La Boheme, Puccini, 1896

The song that made Della Reese’s career. The up-and-coming singer had already charted with “And That Reminds Me” two years previously, but “Don’t You Know” earned her a Grammy nomination and a long contract performing in Las Vegas. (Songwriter Bobby Worth also co-wrote “Tonight We Love,” which borrows a theme from Tchaikovsky.)

“Carmen’s Boogie,” arranged by George Cates, lyrics by Mel Leven, 1952; AKA “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from Carmen, Bizet, 1875 – Andrews Sisters, Spade Cooley (both 1952), the Crew Cuts (1955)

The Mambo and You,” composer unknown, year unknown (from 7” “The Crew Cuts Go To the Opera.” 1959); AKA “La donna e mobile” from Rigoletto, Verdi, 1851

“Need (aka The Urge),” composer unknown, year unknown (from 7” “The Crew Cuts Go To the Opera.” 1959); AKA the tenor line from “Bella figlia dell amore” quartet from Act 4 of Rigoletto, Verdi, 1851

“Mostly Martha,” written by Ralph Sterling, Dorcas Cochran, year unknown (from 7” “The Crew Cuts Go To the Opera.” 1959); AKA “M’appari” from von Flotow, Martha, 1847 (who lifted it from an opera he wrote a year earlier)

The Crew Cuts are universally despised by music historians, as part of the huge wave of square white artists and groups who Caucasian-ized the bejeezus out of R & B hits during the 1950s, in a misbegotten effort to “translate” and make safe the transgressive energy of that music for white kids (who all preferred the originals anyway). The Crew Cuts’ biggest hit was a cover of The Chords’ “Sh-Boom” (their cringeworthy version of “Susie Q” bears little comparison to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s definitive 1968 cover.)

Now, here’s the remarkable thing. Their “Carmen’s Boogie” was originally written for the Andrews Sisters, then covered by Spade Cooley, but the Crew Cuts’ version was a hit. Somehow, this microniche of singing pop covers of opera led to their 1959 7-inch, four-song mini-LP, The Crew Cuts Go to the Opera, where they stick it to Verdi and Flotow as well1. The result is one of the oddest crossover pop-culture artifacts ever.

“Night,” sung by Jackie Wilson, lyrics by Johnny Lehmann, 1960; AKA “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” from Samson et Delila, Saint-Saens, 1877

Could this guy sing anything? It seems so. “Mr. Excitement” had a four-octave range, and killed it performing R&B, doo-wop, and pop. This very mayonnaise-ish take on “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” is a noble effort, and Wilson sells it hard. There’s enough strain in it, though, to make him an unlikely successor to Mario Lanza.

“Like I Do,” sung by Nancy Sinatra, written by Bob Manning, 1962; AKA The Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda, Ponichelli, 1876: also Maureen Evans, 1962; The Peanuts, as “Lemon No Kiss,” 1962; Theresa Brewer, as “She’ll Never, Never Love You,” 1963

These all predate the most famous reincarnation of the Dance of the Hours melody, listed just below, and probably helped trigger it. Four equally excruciating covers of this terrifyingly vapid adaptation must have crowded the airwaves of the time and inspired Allan Sherman. If you can get through them all, put a warm washcloth on your head and eat some ice cream.

“Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp),” sung by Allan Sherman, written by Sherman and Lou Busch, 1963; AKA The Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda, Ponichelli, 1876

This song came out in August 1963, and was pretty much the last laugh America had before Kennedy’s assassination. Sherman’s fame was brief, and this was his big hit, but he inspired a few future satirists.

“Please Don’t Go,” sung by Donald Peers, arranged by Les Reed and Jackie Rae, 1969; AKA the Bacarolle from Les contes de Hoffmann, Offenbach, 1881

The trend of harnessing opera melodies to pop songs petered out in the 1960s. The few entries are lugubrious, if not lachrymose.

“And You Smiled,” sung by Matt Munro, composed by Trombey and Taggart, 1973; AKA “Eye Level” by the Simon Park Orchestra, 1972; AKA “Non piu andrai” from Le nozze di Figaro, Mozart, 1786

This is the trifecta, the hat trick of adaptations. “And You Smiled” has lyrics slapped on by Melvin David Taggart; its inspiration, “Eye Level,” was an instrumental hit performed by the Simon Park Orchestra, was the theme for a popular BBC-TV detective series Van der Valk. That theme, written by Jack Trombey, swipes the underpinnings of Mozart’s “Non piu andrai” and puts a new top line on it. A paradise of plagiaries (or, these days, should we say recycling?).

NEXT TIME: Best opera spoofs, audio and video

Note for #1: This was one of the 45-rpm records in my childhood home; we memorized it as kids and sang it constantly. In its own bizarre way, it may have been the gateway drug that led to my love of opera. The lyrics of “Carmen’s Boogie” are worth recounting here.

Hate the opera, it’s too highbrow
But there’s one number I can dig right now
Just like shifting without a clutch,
I ride the boogie with the Carmen touch

You ain’t livin’ if you have missed
The long-hair music with the Crew Cut twist
Don’t love often and don’t love much
But love that boogie with the Carmen touch

It rips up floors, it knocks down walls
They tell me it’s the reason that Niagara Falls
It even made Gibraltar rock
It’s not the kind of thing a mockingbird can mock
The day it hit in old Bombay
A Hindu couldn’t charm a snake away
They say in French, in Greek and Dutch
The boogie wasn’t boogie ‘til it got the Carmen touch!

I can’t reveal
The way I feel
I love so much
The Carmen touch

Knew a fellow, a cat named Red
Played fine piano but they shot him dead
Red deserved it, the such and such
He bluffed off boogie with the Carmen touch

What brings saucers around from Mars?
And what makes Masons keep their Mason jars?
What makes babies cry out so much?

They want their boogie with the Carmen touch