Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The NRR Project #28: 'Some of These Days'

‘Some of These Days’
Composed by Shelton Brooks
Performed by Sophie Tucker
Recorded 1911
She was a shouter, a moaner, the Last of the Red Hot Mamas. Sophie Tucker marketed herself as a force of nature, a ribald female Falstaff, whose belted sass, sex, and schmaltz paved the way for Mae West, Ethel Merman, Bette Midler and others.

She was Elvis before Elvis – a white singer who cribbed her style from African American culture. Her transformation from an Orthodox Jewish shtetl girl to a grand, big-hearted, bedecked pop idol is more extreme than Bob Dylan’s.

First she was Sonya Kalish, born on the run from Poland to America in the dead of winter, January 1887. A natural belter, she started singing in her family’s restaurant in Hartford as a kid. She eloped when she was 16, had her only child at 19, left her husband entirely and her son with her sister and began singing and telling jokes in New York wherever she could.

 Up until this time, lady singers were refined things, more suited to the parlor than the barroom. Women did not own up to sexual impulses unless they were fallen, or in the process of falling. Tucker really didn't give a damn about societal norms, and took her cue from the raw, bluesy kind of music that white culture wasn’t hip to yet. The minstrel show was still supreme, and she began as a blackface singer, as no one thought the crowd would buy her as anything but a novelty act. One night, she dropped the makeup and the Southern shtick, sang as herself, and began to catch on, singing rags, blues, novelty numbers, and ballads. (“Makin’ Wicky Wacky Down in Waikiki,” anyone?)

Tucker’s voice and temperament were perfectly suited to the new, lowdown boldness in music. In the pre-electric era, singers had to project over an orchestra into a house of indifferent acoustics. Vaudeville houses averaged 1,500 seats, so enunciation, tone, and sheer volume won the day. Singers such as Al Jolson and Nora Bayes were just loud. Tucker “got over” using a technique she learned from fellow performer Clarice Vance, another former “coon singer” turned popular performer. Vance’s half-talked, draggy style fed Tucker’s bantering, flirtatious persona. Tucker later befriended and learned from contemporary singers such as Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters -- two of the earliest popular black female recording artists.

More importantly, Tucker could transmit energy; she could “sell” any song. She didn’t hold back emotionally – she demanded your attention and got in your face. Her other surefire hit was the tearjerker “My Yiddishe Mama.” If she couldn’t get you with suggestiveness, she’d get you with the sentiment.

This, her signature song, was written by Shelton Brooks, the black composer who also penned “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone,” and many others. In the wake of W.C. Handy, Brooks and others were figuring out how to wrangle the new rhythms and harmonies of blues and proto-jazz into the more genteel, verse-chorus-verse conventions of the ballads of the period.

The version chosen for the Registry is her first recording of the work, although her best-remembered recording of it comes from 1926, backed by Ted Lewis and his orchestra. The 1926 version is more confident, and by this time she's strongly rooted in her stage persona. In contrast, the 1911 is a bit stiffer, but also more emotionally naked. Over a century later, there is still something undeniably sexy and powerful about the way she throws in a plaintive "ummm" before singing "You know honey/I let you have your way . . . "

The song is straightforward and effective, a simple blues lament. As delivered, it's also cathartic, the way that blues are meant to be sung, and a triumphal crow, the celebration of getting over something bad. It’s conceivable that somewhere, someone has sung it slowly and quietly, in the spirit of the hit “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” of the previous year – but the song and Tucker’s hip-shaking, scarf-waving seismic delivery are for me inseparable. She came back to it repeatedly throughout her career, as she changed from being regarded as a transgressor to an innovator to a star to a beloved, nostalgic figure.

 The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Lillian Russell and ‘Come Down Ma’ Evenin’ Star.’ 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The NRR Project #29: Cylinder recordings of Ishi

Cylinder recordings of Ishi
Recorded September 1911 – April 1914
148 cylinders; 5 hours, 41 minutes
These recordings represent, depending on your orientation, a) an astonishing, nearly textbook effort to preserve and extrapolate a vanishing culture in the form of a single individual or b) a pathetic tragedy in which the “last wild Indian” was discovered, brought to civilization, studied and recorded, kept on display in a museum, and dismembered after death for the sake of science.

Or both.

On August 19, 1911, a starving Ishi entered civilization, near Oroville, California, hard by the Lassen Peak wilderness. There Ishi had lived for 50 years, mostly alone, the last member of the Yahi tribe. His people had been hunted by whites, seen their food sources dwindle, succumbed to new diseases brought in by the immigrants.

He was taken in by UC-Berkeley professors, housed and employed by them as they studied him, sometimes demonstrating his woodcraft to touring schoolchildren. Ishi was perhaps the last Stone Age man on the continent, still making tools and weapons by hand. He communicated all he could of his Yahi language and culture. Susceptible to European diseases, he succumbed to tuberculosis on March 25, 1916.

Despite the efforts of his friends, Ishi was autopsied and cremated – save for his brain which was placed in a jar and sent to the Smithsonian Institution. Meanwhile, write-ups of Ishi’s life, both fictional and non-fictional, by the widow of the museum director who studied him, made the case popular in the early 1960s. Other books, and films and even a play, have followed.

Ironically, Ishi turned out not to be the “last of his tribe,’ as he was branded; eventually his brain was found and repatriated to his closest living relatives, the Yana. The recordings, of use to specialists, are housed at Berkeley. A 22-second excerpt of Ishi chanting can be found here.

The contact with Ishi undoubtedly extended his life as much as it endangered it. And who wouldn’t, if he or she were the last person in their left, try to set down everything about it that they could? Was it worth that to become a museum exhibit? He was asked thousands of questions about his people; I don’t see any evidence of anyone ever asking him what he thought of us.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Sophie Tucker and ‘Some of These Days.’ 

Monday, December 5, 2016

The NRR Project #27: '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

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Pop-era: songs lifted from opera – Part 1, The Hits

Elvis getting ready to sing a song written in 1784.
“So many of the melodies of well-known popular songs were actually written by the Great Masters,” intones actor John Williams (best known as the “second Mr. French” on the sitcom Family Affair) in the long-running 1971 TV ad flogging a cut-rate Columbia House collection of classical excerpts, “120 Music Masterpieces.” He cited such tunes as “Our Love,” “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” and “Tonight We Love.” None of which are particularly remembered today.

What’s so bad about being popular? Nothing, nothing really. Opera is often derided for being antiquated, irrelevant, and economically inaccessible – but I notice a lot of it in car commercials. In fact, there are about a dozen arias that need time-outs right now1.

Sometimes operas inspire reworkings. Rent is La Boheme, Elton John and Tim Rice wrote a new Aida in 1998, and a substantial part of the legacy of Andrew Lloyd Webber is recycled. Smokey Robinson’s lyrics for the 1970 hit “Tears of a Clown” mine the content of “Vesti la giubba,” but the music is original. Likewise, the standard “Poor Butterfly,” composed in 1916 by Raymond Hubbell and John Golden, outlines the plot of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, but doesn’t use its music save for a few bars in the instrumental bridge.

Few of the most familiar tunes from opera have been appropriated for modern songs. Of those few, fewer still ever cracked the charts. Here are four top pop-eratic numbers:

“Alabama Song,” Hauptmann/Weill, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1925/1930
 “(The Ballad of) Mack the Knife,” Brecht/Weill, AKA “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” The Threepenny Opera, 1928

The only opera songs to ever make the U.S. charts without substantial change were written by Kurt Weill, who could produce avant-garde work with one hand and pop hits (“September Song,” “Speak Low”) with the other. Elisabeth Hauptmann wrote the lyrics for “Alabama” for Bertolt Brecht, in English, in 1925; Brecht incorporated it into his Mahagonny five years later without crediting her. That the grim, sardonic lyrics appealed to post-WWII American listeners is surprising.

Both songs have accumulated lots of covers. The tragic and cynical “Alabama Song” received scorching interpretations by the Doors and David Bowie; the best version, very hard to find, is sung by Joe Frazier on the Chad Mitchell Trio’s 1964 Slightly Irreverent album.

The success of “Mack the Knife” is attributable to American composer Marc Blitzstein, who translated and staged Threepenny Opera in New York in 1954, a production which ran for years in the West Village. Weill’s wife Lottie Lenya covered it with Louis Armstrong in 1956, and so did many others. Bobby Darin’s 1959 hit version is modeled closely on Armstrong’s. The song is so popular it was hijacked for commercial purposes by McDonald’s in the 1980s.

“Can’t Help Falling in Love,” sung by Elvis Presley, written by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, George David Weiss, 1961; AKA “Plaisir d’amour,” Jean-Paul-Egide Martini, 1784

The tune (not from an opera, but by an operatic composer) is so appealing that it was covered by many artists before the King of Rock and Roll came along.

“Stranger in Paradise,” written by Robert Wright, George Forrest, 1953; AKA “The Gliding Dance of the Maidens” from the Polovtsian Dances, Prince Igor, Borodin, 1890

This song is from the hit 1953 musical Kismet, the songs of which are largely Borodin. Nonetheless, this song was a huge hit, covered most memorably by Tony Bennett – and even as a surf-rock instrumental by The Ventures, both as “The Stranger” and “Ten Seconds to Heaven.”

NEXT TIME: Al Jolson, Della Reese, Nancy Sinatra, Jackie Wilson . . . and the mystery of the Crew-Cuts

1.      FOOTNOTE: We need to give the following a rest – “Nessun dorma” from Turandot, “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi, “La donne e mobile” from Rigoletto, “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly, the Habanera AND the Toreador Song from Carmen, the Ride of the Valkyries from Die Valkyrie, the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore, “Vesti la giubba” from I pagliacci, “Voi che sapete” from Le nozze di Figaro, “Der Holle Rache” from Die Zauberflote, and the Flower Duet from Lakme. Of course, that they are easily remembered is all to the good – the goal is to be memorable, after all (if you’re scoring at home, Puccini wins with three mentions, and Verdi, Bizet, and Mozart tie for second). But we need to be strong and turn these off, go for the deep cuts.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Death to selfies

If you look at my banner photo on my Facebook page (that is, if you even go there anymore – isn’t FB for old and/or dead people?) you will see that it looks like a selfie. There’s my big old face dead center, scenic mountain backdrop, artful sunflare, and all.

Except I wasn’t trying to take my picture. I am technologically inept and was trying to take a picture of what was in front of me, in the other direction – a beautiful mountain panorama. Therefore, what you see is the most unpremeditated view of my face you are likely to get in this life.

Taking photographs was painful in the flashbulb and film days. We were always steered to “look into the light,” which resulted in many pictures of me cringing and clutching my face, albeit in good, solid lighting. I still have flash-flinch, and few photographers have captured me with my eyes open.

Now I bob amid selfie takers. The medium is the message. Everyone’s a star, and anything is permitted.

With the democratization of the media, everyone is now their own broadcaster and network. The gatekeepers have fallen. News and information can no longer be monetized, and in a capitalist society that means the communication apparatus is now for rent, with no public responsibilities (not that this hasn’t been always true to some extent). Initially liberating due to the ability of alternate voices to make themselves heard for the first time, the dissolution of the news industry means that there is no impetus to find out and tell the truth, to the best of one’s ability. And if truth is gone, all that remains is assertion.

Anti-intellectualism is on the rise. An overarching sense of being on the same page as a nation, no matter how awkwardly produced, is gone. Ironically, that consensual reality was a product of diversity. That mixture of opinion, fact, advertisements, propangadna, and as many viewpoints as could be crammed into a print publication at once forced the reader to be exposed to unfamiliar ideas, to be aware of other people’s problems, of trouble on the horizon. We self-select now. People do not want to know what’s going on (unless, seemingly, it’s upbeat stories about contemporary living for a savvy readership). We have ensiled ourselves.

We are almost post-literate. We quite literally express oursevles in images and video clips. We pose, we identify where we are, we say how we feel. We contextualize ourselves for our friends and followers, always foregrounded against a referent. We expel concussions of self-regard. We like things, we share things, we argue online, but it’s all little bush fires out on the grand savannah. That atomization of the media has fragmented the popular will, stunted its attention span. We are all chasing page views now, and anything goes, and goes by quickly.

We are exchanging the lasting for the ephemeral. The advent of “disposable” media services such as Snapchat means that the content vanishes after a time. With that the idea of generating something permanent is lost, and under that I find a fundamental, intolerable despair. It makes me fear that there are more people who think that there’s no reason to aim for something that lasts than there are otherwise. (Since I’ve taken it on myself to tell stories for a living, it’s of course in my own interest that I promote this concept. Have you Googled me lately? Online, in archives, my stuff’s still out there, and that’s the point.).

Instead of broadcasting to an unrestricted audience, the nature of social media is constricting us into a multitude of discrete sets of relationships – as numerous as cells in a beehive, each with a restricted, mediated point of view. With no new paradigm of consensual reality emerging, everyone is more easily entranced by their own illusions. Instead of the digital revolution pulling us all out together into the light, it has merely helped us build better bunkers.

So what’s the answer? Take otheries, I think. The obvious metaphor from my tale of my photograph, that I obtain the most accurate self-portrait when I focus outside myself, is trite, obvious, and ridiculously sentimental, even for me. But it is true.

When we turn the camera around, when we really look around us and transmit that, we’re on the right track back being human. All the old media can dry up and blow away, and the new ones can assume their rude shapes. The value in telling stories persist. We still need them. And when we tell them, we do wind up asserting ourselves in the most powerful fashion.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The NRR Project #26: ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’

From left: King, Myers, Ryder, Work of the Fisk Jubilee Quartet
‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’
Fisk Jubilee Quartet
Recorded December 1, 1909

The intersection of black and white music in American culture continues here. In this case, instead of white culture misappropriating and distorting black identity via the minstrel show and the “darkie” stereotypes, this is a genuine impulse from black culture phrased in a way that penetrated and permeated white identity forever.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers first concertized in 1871, to raise funds for their namesake university in Nashville, Tennessee. This early history is best studied via Andrew Ward’s excellent Dark Midnight When I Rise, discussed by me here in an earlier essay. Their combination of beautiful, deeply felt original material and precise, part-sung, a capella Western-art-music style was intoxicating. (To get a sense of how powerful this kind of singing is, listen to Fisk’s 2003 album In Bright Mansions.)

The Singers’ original ensemble disbanded in 1878, but the tradition continued through the auspices of the institution. This quartet is a breakout from the larger group, consisting of John Wesley Work II, James Andrew Myers, Alfred Garfield King, and Noah Ryder. It’s typical of the Fisk style – deliberate, precise, voluptuously voiced but blended dynamically, and filled with rectitude. It does anything but swing.

And perhaps the starch had to be taken out of it to make it palatable to Caucasian tastes, “churchy” enough. They introduced not only this song but also “Steal Away,” “Balm in Gilead,” “Wade in the Water,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and many more inextricably woven into our collective cultural DNA, black and white, Christian and non-, alike. As soon as the Fisk repertoire was out there, it spread madly – everyone sang these songs. They are vehicles of transportation, compelling in themselves as embodiments of faith forged into musical phrases.

Recordings like these pave the wave for the explosion of gospel music, one of the few things black and white culture could share without discomfort for decades. That would give birth in turn to many more American musics.

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

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The NRR Project #25: 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game'

‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’
Edward Meeker
Recorded September, 1908

Why is this song so popular? It’s a straight-up novelty waltz, Tin Pan Alley-style, in the trend of songs of the period such as “Come, Josephine, In My Flying Machine” and “Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven.” Neither of its composers, Jack Norworth and Albert von Tilzer, had ever seen a baseball game, or would until decades later. It wasn’t even played in a ballpark until 1934; it really wasn’t sung consistently during the seventh-inning stretch of major-league baseball games until Harry Caray popularized it during his time broadcasting for the Chicago White Sox during the 1976 season.

Here it’s essayed by the redoubtable Edward Meeker, a long-time Edison employee. We are still nearly 20 years away from the advances of electrical recording techniques, but the analog systems are getting better -- the sound here is less muddy, and the background instruments are balanced and differentiated.

The lyrics don’t contain a ton of inside data – the writers know that three strikes make an out, and that you’re expected to argue with the umpire. That’s about it. But, being good craftsmen, Norworth and von Tilzer came up with a nifty ditty – singable, easy to remember, jaunty, upbeat. The best songs seem to grab and hold an indefinable essence of their subject, and in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” there is something genial and sunny and optimistic, like a baseball game on a summer afternoon. To date, it’s the only non-religious or –patriotic song to be ritually sung by the general American public.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The NRR Project #24: 'No News; or, What Killed the Dog?'

Nat Wills, in tramp costume.
‘No News; or, What Killed the Dog’
Nat Wills
Recorded October 14, 1908

Nat Wills was the prototype of the modern standup comic. He used personas, most notably his tramp character, the visual of which became the template for the stereotype until Chaplin came along. He told funny stories and sang parodies of songs of the day. On Broadway, he appeared in sketches in variety shows such as the Ziegfeld Follies.

He was a natural for the recording studio. His strong delivery and diction, developed in theaters across the country, came through loud and clear. This routine, his most familiar, is a bit that’s been traced back at least to 1817. In it, a master returns home and asks his servant for the news. “No news,” replies the servant, “except the dog died.” “How did he die?” asks the master, and thus unravels a long, escalating list of disasters that have engulfed the home while the master was gone.

The idea of the add-on story is as old as nursery rhymes such as “The House That Jack Built,” “The Old Lady That Swallowed a Fly,” and others. The repetition, combined with the surprise of each added piece of the story, is an essential lesson about the power of narrative. This routine is hilarious the first time, mildly amusing the second, and annoying from thenceforth. Let us move on.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’

Friday, September 23, 2016

The NRR Project #22: Caruso sings ‘Vesti la giubba’

‘Vesti la giubba’ aria from Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci”
Enrico Caruso
Recorded March 17, 1907
‘Caruso’ is a bit of an eponym, and that requires effort, good or bad. To call someone a Caruso, or an Einstein, or a Brando, ironically or not, is to refer to someone as an exemplar of a quality. Enrico Caruso, for better or worse, is the Western-art-culture epitome of the fancy “singer” – a human songbird, warm-hearted, outgoing, flamboyant, and dynamic; Italian, therefore somewhat exotic to many, loving fine dress and good food and beautiful women, belting into the analog recording horn more than 260 times between 1902 and 1920, selling millions of records.

Why? Was he that extraordinary? I can’t say that I am an expert. I first knew Caruso through the persona of his mid-century equivalent, Mario Lanza, in the 1951 film “The Great Caruso.”

Now, a half-century of learning about, listening to, and seeing opera, I can say the fame is justified. There are many hurdles to be gotten over to hear this great piece of recorded performance, however. “Vesti la giubba” is instantly recognizable, the go-to image and sound of opera, quoted, adapted, monetized, parodied.

You hear it, your eyes cross, the stereotype leaps into your brain, and you’re done – turned off if you hate opera, numb if you’re a fan because you’ve heard it A THOUSAND TIMES. It’ a sad clown, he’s laughing, he’s crying. It’s Smokey Robinson’s inspiration.

Here’s the story: it comes from Ruggero Levoncavallo’s 1892 Pagliacci, written in the wake of the creation of the nitty-gritty, proto-Neorealist verismo genre, all about peasants getting stabbed, and such – triggered by the success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana two years before.

In this case, the stabber is Canio, a professional clown (don’t have him work your kids’ birthday parties!) whose wife Nedda is a little loose. This drives Canio nuts, and at the end of Act 1, he sings these words:
Recitar! Mentre preso dal delirio,
non so più quel che dico,
e quel che faccio!
Eppur è d'uopo, sforzati!
Bah! Sei tu forse un uom?
Tu se' Pagliaccio!

Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina.
La gente paga, e rider vuole qua.
E se Arlecchin t'invola Colombina,
ridi, Pagliaccio, e ognun applaudirà!
Tramuta in lazzi lo spasmo ed il pianto
in una smorfia il singhiozzo e 'l dolor, Ah!

Ridi, Pagliaccio,
sul tuo amore infranto!
Ridi del duol, che t'avvelena il cor!
Act! While in delirium,
I no longer know what I say,
or what I do!
And yet it's necessary... make an effort!
Bah! Are you not a man?
You are a clown!

Put on your costume, powder your face.
The people pay to be here, and they want to laugh.
And if Harlequin shall steal your Columbina,
laugh, clown, so the crowd will cheer!
Turn your distress and tears into jest,
your pain and sobbing into a funny face – Ah!

Laugh, clown,
at your broken love!
Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart!

It’s a powerful, effective aria in a fast-paced, muscular, expressive opera, Levoncavallo’s only hit but one of the most frequently performed operas in the world to this day. (Spoiler alert: everybody has a really bad show that evening, in Act 2. Like, worst show ever.) Like other signature tenor arias such as “Una furtiva lagrima” or “E lucevan e stele,” it’s lament, a tear-jerking self-pity party. And who doesn’t love that?

The piece is strong, but its ubiquity is due entirely to Caruso’s vocal prowess. (Louis Armstrong would listen to Caruso records, and they influenced his approach as a soloist.) He came along at precisely the right time for the recording industry. He seemed made for the recording studio. The process read his voice well – listen to a few opera recordings from the same period. They are stiff and stilted. Caruso transmits excitement.

 The first of Caruso’s three recordings of the aria in 1902, made only with piano accompaniment, made him a star. Yet he pushes hard in that release. He’s working at full volume, almost bellowing, certainly losing breath too soon during the final phrase. In 1904, he is much more relaxed and expressive, but still wobbly towards the end. By the time we get to this recording in 1907, the one selected for the Registry, Victor Records has sprung for orchestral accompaniment, the space Caruso in singing in is more resonant, and Caruso is more proficient and expressive than before.

It’s not just Caruso’s power – everyone had to project into large, echoing houses before the age of microphones. There is a kind of macho, competitive aspect to opera; Caruso ends up in many minds as the arts equivalent of Babe Ruth. It’s not his charisma, though he certainly had it. He is gifted with natural ability, but it’s the hard, highly skilled work he does with it that makes him memorable.

His voice is clear, ringing, with a quality of transparency as though he were singing THROUGH the note rather than on it. His diction is superb (at least in Italian; he essayed that and a couple of French roles; he sang Lohengrin in Italian, which must have been something.) He's smooth, turning lines into thoughts. Above all, his phrasing is rarely surpassed, because of his ability to make a deep emotional connection with his roles. Like Domingo, Chaliapin, and Callas, he can act as well as sing.

All these factors combine to make his singing still evokes a sense of immediacy, a “thereness” that is palpable. There’s a lot of thought going on in his performances; by serving the music, he elevates his work. And it stays fresh, through all the layers of association, that vitality comes through. And that, my friends, is the name of the game.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘No News, or What Killed the Dog?’

NRR Project: “Light’s Golden Jubilee Celebration”

  “Light’s Golden Jubilee Celebration” NBC Radio Oct. 21, 1929 In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb in Menlo Pa...