Tag Archives: Easy Listening

The 50 Guitars of Tommy Garrett: The Best Of

50GuitarsOfTommyGarrett_BestOfSpace-age bachelor pad guitar instrumentals from Snuff Garrett

Anyone who’s spent time shopping for vintage vinyl in thrift stores has come across one of Tommy Garrett’s two-dozen albums. What most of these shoppers never realize is that “Tommy Garrett” is better known as Snuff Garrett, famed producer of Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Cher and many others. As a sideline to his more renowned production work, Garrett assembled “an orchestra of guitars” to record dozens of instrumental albums, highlighted on the first two (South of the Border and South of the Border Volume 2) by the fretwork of Brazilian legend Laurindo Almeida, and in many of the remaining sessions by Wrecking Crew regular Tommy Tedesco.

These instrumentals are classic space age bachelor pad music, lushly arranged, wide-stereo productions of material drawn from the pop charts, bossa novas, sambas, exotica, film soundtracks, tin pan alley and Broadway. Although there is often a studio full of guitars strumming away, the promise of “an orchestra of guitars” is somewhat misleading, as the guitar-led arrangements also include percussion and horns. The Best of the 50 Guitars, clocking in at 33 minutes, was originally issued by Liberty in 1968, and focuses on Latin-influenced titles from 1961 (“Guadalajara”) through 1968 (“La Negra” and “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”).

50GuitarsOfTommyGarrett_BestOfVol2The Best of the 50 Guitars Volume 2, originally a double album (and clocking in at a generous 58 minutes), was also released by Liberty in 1968. But where the first volume stuck to Latin titles, volume two broadens its selections to include the ersatz “Mexican Shuffle,” the Three Suns’ (and later, Platters’) “Twilight Time,” Bacharach & David’s “This Guy’s in Love With You,” the 1930’s waltz “Fascination,” the pop hits “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” and the film titles “Lara’s Theme” and “Born Free.” All are rendered in the lush 50 Guitars style, with virtuosic lead guitars that favor Latin flavors.

Varese’s reissues include the original track lists (remastered by Steve Massie) and cover art, and new liners by Laurence Zwisohn. These are a good place to get a taste of the 50 Guitars, which will likely be enough guitar-based easy listening music for many. Completists (and you know you’re out there), will need to pick up resissues of original albums (e.g., 1 2 3 4) and head back to the thrift stores until Bear Family picks through all the outtakes, assembles a hundred page book and issues the Complete Sessions of the 50 Guitars. These two volumes will help you pleasantly while away the hours while you wait. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Johnny Mathis: Life is a Song Worth Singing – The Complete Thom Bell Sessions

JohnnyMathis_LifeIsASongCompleteThomBellRomantic lead meets Philly legend

Throughout the ‘50s and well into the ‘60s, Johnny Mathis was the answer to the question “Who do you make out to? Sinatra or Mathis?” Mathis’ distinctive voice and long, vibrato-laced notes created a romantic mood that flourished especially well at album length. By the time rock shoved adult contemporary music off of the radio, Mathis had begun to expand his stylistic palette, while still remaining true to his romantic roots. This two-disc set compiles Mathis’ mid-70s  work with Philly soul legend Thom Bell, collecting two full albums (1973’s I’m Coming Home and 1977’s Mathis Is…) alongside eight bonus selections that include mono and stereo singles, unreleased instrumentals and collaborations released elsewhere as album tracks.

It’s not particularly surprising that Mathis fit easily into Bell’s string-laden arrangements, but as the band heats up with deeper bass and horns, Mathis breaks free of his comfort zone.Writing with lyricist Linda Creed for the 1973 release, Bell fashioned material that both catered to and challenged Mathis. Bell kept Mathis in the middle of his vocal range, exploring the singer’s ability to build emotion without relying on high notes. The soft brass of “I’m Coming Home” shines a light on Bell’s fondness for Burt Bacharach, and rose to the top of the Easy Listening chart. But Bell also pushed Mathis, inviting the staccato delivery of “Life is a Song Worth Singing” that adds attitude to the performance. The six minute album version includes terrific instrumental work from Philly International’s house band, MFSB, that was cut from the three-minute single.

In addition to the newly written material, I’m Coming Home includes covers of the Stylistics’ “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)” and “I’m Stone in Love With You,” with fresh arrangements to suit Mathis and fit the album’s tone.  The latter won over the Soul Train dancers in a 1974 performance that also featured the Bell/Creed original “Foolish.” The first disc’s bonus tracks include the mono edit of “Life is a Song Worth Singing,” the stereo single of “I’m Coming Home,” and previously unreleased instrumental takes of “I’m Stone in Love With You” and “And I Think That’s What I’ll Do.” The latter pair shows off Bell’s deft touch as an arranger and producer, and the house band’s ability to flawlessly nail a song’s mood.

Mathis and Bell reunited in 1977 to record a second album at Seattle’s Kaye-Smith (later Heart’s Bad Animals) studio. Surprisingly, though waxed on the West Coast amid the rising tide of disco, the album picks up where their previous collaboration left off. Bell wrote many of the album’s originals with his nephew LeRoy, and combined Philly and West Coast studio aces and orchestral players to build a sound that’s remarkably free of disco’s tropes. Mathis luxuriates in the long notes of  “Lullaby of Love” and soaring strings of “Heaven Must Have Made You Just For Me.” Bell comes right back with the upbeat “Loving You-Losing You,” and his love of Bacharach-styled bounce is heard in “I’ll Make You Happy.”

Mathis Is… closes with a cover of the Spinners’ “Sweet Love of Mine,” whose faster tempo strengthens the song’s hopefulness. The second disc’s bonus tracks show that these albums weren’t Mathis’ first meeting with Bell’s material, nor his last. Mathis recorded the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow” in 1972 and “Break Up to Make Up” in 1973, and “You’re as Right as Rain” in 1975. He re-teamed with Bell in the studio for the 1991 Patti Austin duet “You Brought Me Love,” and cut a strong 2008 cover of “You Make Me Feel Brand New” with Yolanda Adams. Joe Marchese’s liner notes complement a 16-page booklet whose album cover reproductions will have you scrambling for a magnifying glass to read the credits. This is a great set for Mathis’ fans, as well as those who might enjoy a unique twist on the Philly soul sound. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Johnny Mathis’ Home Page

Jackie Gleason: Music for Lovers Only

Jackie Gleason’s moody mood music

Jackie Gleason was a man of many talents, not the least of which was his ear for music. Gleason didn’t write a great deal, nor play any instruments, but as a musical director he picked the songs and arrangers, and conducted the orchestra in creating a lush body of romantic  mood music. For this first album, originally released as an eight-song 10” in 1952, he featured the cornet playing of Bobby Hackett. Hackett became a regular on Gleason’s recordings (see the 4-CD The Complete Sessions for more), and here he helps establish the intimate, forlorn feel of Gleason’s recordings. These are neither the syrupy sounds of the ‘50s, though they include lush string scores, nor the swinging sounds of the ‘60s. The mood, particularly in the searching tone of Hackett’s lonely horn, blends dreamy seduction, the tears of Sinatra’s Where Are You? and the fatalism of film noir. The song list draws from the great American songbook, including titles by Rodgers & Hart, George & Ira Gershwhin and Mel Torme; Gleason’s original “My Love for Carmen” closes the set. The original eight-song LP was expanded to sixteen tracks in 1955, all in mono; a 12-track stereo re-recording was issued in 1958. Real Gone reaches back to the 16-song lineup, expanding on Collectors’ Choice’s out-of-print two-fer. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

The Bumps: Playin’ Italian Cinedelics

Organ trio riffs on ‘60s and ‘70s Italian soundtracks

Given the obscurity of the titles, all but the most devoted Italian cineastes will have to take this trio’s word that these organ-jazz arrangements are based on movie soundtracks. Their best-known inspirations, Ennio Morricone and Piero Umiliani, are augmented by Gianni Ferrio, Piero Piccioni, Luis Bacalov and others. The selections mix breezy sounds of mid-60s la dolce vita with a good measure of early-70s exploitation cinema. Vince Abbracciante’s Hammond, Farfisa and Rhodes range from jazz cool to psych-soul heat, and the rhythm section plays with sharp, percussive force. Wordless vocals add an Esquivelian touch to several tracks, and guest players add flute, sax, flugelhorn, guitar and a duet vocal on Armando Trovajoli’s “L’amore Dice Ciao.” This is a nice spin for Italian cinephiles and lovers of hot organ jazz and cool easy listening. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

The Bumps Home Page

Perry Como: Seattle

Easy listening vocalist rocks out, but only momentarily

Como’s 1969 LP opens with a number, “Happiness Comes, Happiness Goes,” that suggests the easy listening pop vocalist was late getting to a groovy party hosted by Esquivel. But after only one groovy concoction of fuzz guitars and organ, the album reverts to the light, warm pop that Mister C had been landing on the charts since the early 1940s. The album’s hit was a remake of “Seattle,” the theme to television’s Here Come the Brides. It’s upbeat harpsichord, organ and horns cracked the Top 40 and reached #2 on the adult contemporary chart. The album’s other period piece is “That’s All This Old World Needs,” whose optimism was a better fit for August’s Woodstock than December’s Altamont. Working with RCA staff producers Andy Wiswell and Chet Atkins, Como selected a range of material, including the Brothers Four’s melancholy hit, “Turnaround,” the cheery, Mitch Miller-y “Deep in Your Heart,” and the bluesy “Beady Eyed Buzzard.” Como also recorded a pair of tunes from the legendary Cindy Walker, and his work with Atkins in the famed “Nashville Sound” studio gives several tracks a pop-country feel. Como was perhaps the very easiest of easy listening vocalists, but the lack of pyrotechnics in his vocal style made records recorded in his late ‘50s as smoothly ingratiating as those waxed in his younger years. Don’t be fooled by the opening track, this is a solid easy-pop album with ‘60s pop-country colors. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Perry Como Discography

Barney Kessel: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Kessel reinterprets Mancini’s film soundtrack

Those seeking Barney Kessel’s legendary jazz stylings should look elsewhere. As a guitarist in the ‘50s, Kessel was renowned for his cool, bop-inspired playing in small quartets on sessions with the Contemporary label. But in the early ‘60s he signed with Reprise and embarked on a series of pop records. This was hardly new territory for Kessel, as he’d been backing pop musicians for years, and was a first-call guitarist for pop titans like Phil Spector; but as a front-man, this was a break from the jazz sessions he’d previously led. On his debut for Reprise, Kessel reinterpreted Henry Mancini’s soundtrack for Breakfast at Tiffany’s with a septet that included the superb playing of Paul Horn on saxophone and flute. This is a fair distance from the harder jazz Kessel had been recording, but not nearly as out-and-out pop as his next album, Bossa Nova. Here he leans on the jazz roots of Mancini’s compositions and swings some original solos on “The Big Blow Out” and “Loose Caboose.” Surprisingly, the soundtrack’s centerpiece, “Moon River,” is rendered pedestrian here, as if Kessel couldn’t find anything new to say with it. This album is likely to disappoint those seeking hard-bop, in line with the guitarist’s earlier works, but if you seek a variation on the original soundtrack, this is worth hearing. This album is also available on CD as a 3-fer with Bossa Nova and Contemporary Latin Rhythms. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Barney Kessel: Bossa Nova

Swinging easy with a twangy guitar and a Latin beat

Those seeking Barney Kessel’s legendary jazz stylings should look elsewhere. As a guitarist in the ‘50s, Kessel was renowned for his cool, bop-inspired playing in small quartets on sessions with the Contemporary label. But in the early ‘60s he signed with Reprise and embarked on a series of pop records. This was hardly new territory for Kessel, as he’d been backing pop musicians for years, and was a first-call guitarist for pop titans like Phil Spector; but as a front-man, this was a break from the jazz sessions he’d previously led. This bossa nova inspired entry from 1962 finds Kessel mostly taking a back seat to sharp, lounge-inspired band orchestrations. His guitar playing here is twangy pop, with no jazz inflections or blue notes, and the repertoire of standards is given Brazilian beats. The horn charts are tight, and when Kessel does pick, he sounds great – but this isn’t a jazz album, or even a guitar album; it’s a pop instrumental album in league with contemporaneous works by Neal Hefti, Billy Strange, Lalo Schifrin, John Barry and others. This is a sizzling, swinging treat if you approach it on its merits, rather than as a lesser entry in Barney Kessel’s catalog of guitar recordings. This is also available on CD as a 3-fer with Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Contemporary Latin Rhythms. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

The Anita Kerr Singers: All You Need is Love

Soft-pop vocal arrangements of ‘60s hits

The Anita Kerr singers are among the most heard, and least known-by-name, vocal group in the history of recording. That’s because Kerr’s group was the go-to backing group (along with the Jordanaires) for hundreds of sessions during the Nashville Sound era of the early ‘60s. They appeared almost constantly on the charts backing top country hits by Jim Reeves, Ernest Tubb, Faron Young, Brenda Lee, pop records by Pat Boone, Perry Como, Bobby Vinton and many, many others. Alongside their choral work, the group recorded several albums for RCA, including the Grammy winning We Dig Mancini. In the mid-60s Kerr disbanded the Nashville edition of her group, convened a new edition in Los Angeles, and commenced recording for Warner Brothers. This is the group’s fourth, and last album for the label, and was originally issued in the flower-power year of 1967.

Kerr picked her material with an arranger’s ear for possibilities, finding new vocal interplay even in songs as originally complex as the Association’s “Never My Love.” The songs are drawn from pop, rock, folk, soul and easy listening, and Kerr’s arrangements and orchestrations always find something new, often with a vocal-jazz feel. She expands on the vocal work of the Mamas & Papas “No Salt on Her Tail” and turns the Bee Gees’ moody “Holiday” into something contemplative. Less successful are her transformations of the soul tunes, “A Natural Woman” and “How Can I Be Sure.” The album is more a period piece than the lasting art Kerr created with her hit background arrangements, but it remains a pleasant breeze that blew across the heavier rock and soul of the ‘60s. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Les Baxter: Space Escapade

Lush string scores from Les Baxter

This is indeed the sound of an escapade in space, if it were to be accompanied by sprightly melodies and lush, string-heavy arrangements whose vibrations somehow transcended the vacuum of outer space. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, arranger/conductor Les Baxter lent his touch to all manner of musical trends, including exotica, jazz, folk, show tunes and film soundtracks. This 1958 entry plays up the theme of outer space with its cover art and song titles, but musically it’s akin to Baxter’s intricate orchestral music rather than the space age pop of Esquivel or the piano early experimentation of Ferrante & Teicher. The percussion and the pizzicato of “The Commuter” sound more like a busy day in New York than a Mars fly by, and “Saturday Night on Saturn” suggests the oppressive, syncopated work of Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” rather than the idle living of a modern society. Like many of Baxter’s albums, this is perched on the edge of kitsch; but also like many of Baxter’s albums, the listener’s ears are rewarded by the quality of the maestro’s orchestrations. Those who picked up El’s 2009 mono CD will be happy to learn that this MP3 collection is in full-spectrum, space-age stereo. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Liberace: A Brand New Me

Liberace tackles pop hits of the late ‘60s

Despite the graphics of the album’s cover, Liberace’s 1969 album of  then-contemporary covers remains truer to his theatrical piano style than the flower-power of his material. While these orchestrated tracks may not have garnered a younger audience, it was a canny idea to forage for new material among modern songs. Many of the tunes, such as B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park,” and the Classics IV’s “Traces” were already crossover hits, and thus familiar to older listeners; hipper selections, such as CS&N’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” provided an interesting challenge for Liberace, and the suite form fit his classical background. The arrangements mix classical orchestration with soulful strings and fuzz-rock backings, often overshadowing Liberace’s piano. Still, his trademark cascades can be heard paying out Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” and things almost get crazy on the title track. When Liberace does step to the fore, such as on the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Something,” his style is terrifically florid. A larger dose of piano would have elevated this further above the era’s generic easy listening collections, but even in limited quantities, Liberace’s playing adds his unique signature. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]