Tag Archives: Great American Songbook

Bobby Darin & Johnny Mercer: Two of a Kind

Swinging 1961 session reissued in 2017 with bonuses

From “Splish Splash” to “Mack the Knife” to “Simple Song of Freedom,” Bobby Darin showed off a restless artistic soul. In 1961 Darin teamed with songwriter (and Capitol Records co-founder) Johnny Mercer for a swinging set of Tin Pan Alley standards, arranged and executed with brassy sizzle by Billy May. The album’s joie de vivre is undeniable, sparked both by the principals’ chemistry and the band’s relentless push. Darin and Mercer seem to be unreeling these classics extemporaneously, with each inserting playful ad libs as the other sings. Imagine if Martin and Lewis, or Hope and Crosby, had both been vocalists first, rather than vocalist-comedian pairs, and you’ll get a sense of this duo’s playful power. Their 27-year age difference evaporates as they express their shared love of these songs, including a few of Mercer’s own titles.

The recordings, engineered by Bill Putnam, are crisp, fanning the orchestra out in stereo and leaving center stage for the vocalists. Omnivore’s reissue augments the album’s original thirteen tracks with seven bonuses, including five alternate takes and two songs that didn’t make the cut. The newly released songs are Dreyer and Herman’s mid-1920s “Cecilla” and Leslie Stuart’s late nineteenth-century British music hall tune “Lily of Laguna.” The latter had been shorn of its racial lyrics in the early-1940s, and it’s this swinging rewrite that Darin and Mercer tackle here. The CD release includes an eight-page booklet that features original cover art, Stanley Green’s original liners, and new notes by Cheryl Pawelski. Originally issued by ATCO, and reissued in 1990, this title’s been a hard-to-find gem in Darin’s catalog. Now, with bonuses, it has even more sparkle. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen: Death’s Dateless Night

paulkellycharlieowen_deathsdatelessnightFascinating set of songs requested for funerals

Having established himself as one of Australia’s premier singer-songwriters, Paul Kelly’s also established himself as one of the continent’s most creative musical artists. His recent releases include an album of Shakespeare sonnets set to song, a live collaboration and album with Neil Finn, and an A-Z tour and accompanying eight-CD anthology of his entire song catalog. His latest, a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Charlie Owen, collects songs the two musicians had been asked to perform at funerals. It’s a remarkable playlist of songs selected by the deceased and as salve for the souls of those left behind.

What’s most fascinating are the new layers of meaning these songs gain in a funereal frame, and the philosophical continuities exposed by their juxtaposition. Stephen Foster’s nineteenth century parlor song “Hard Times Come Again No More” moves from a plea to the fortunate to a consideration of everyone’s equality at life’s end, and Cole Porter’s western-themed “Don’t Fence Me In” points to freedoms that eventually accrue to all good souls. Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” essays earthly bonds that may be released in the hereafter, and Townes Van Zandt’s soaring “To Live is to Fly” provides a hopefully ironic twist.

Owen’s atmospheric and largely spare backings of piano, dobro and lap steel couple with Kelly’s guitar to provide contemplative spaces for the vocals. Everything from the turn-of-the-century “Pallet on the Floor” through the Beatles “Let It Be” fit easily together. Kelly adds two originals (“Nukkanya” and “Meet Me in the Middle of the Air”), the traditional Irish farewell “The Parting Glass,” and closes with Hank Williams’ “Angel of Death.” The latter’s cautionary note to the living suggests that the previously essayed rewards aren’t guaranteed. The album’s frame is a remarkable idea, and its execution superb. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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Doris Day: The Love Album

DorisDay_TheLoveAlbumReissue of terrific 1967 album of standards

Doris Day’s success as an actress in the 1960s has often eclipsed her earlier renown as a vocalist, but it was with the big bands of the 1940s that she first became a star. Though her films fell out of step with the social changes of the late 60s, she found renewed success on television, and it was amid this transition that she returned to the studio to record a set of standards, newly orchestrated by Sid Feller. Having just parted ways with her longtime label, Columbia, the independently produced album was shopped around without success, and shelved until the UK Vision label dug it out of the vault in 1994. A 2006 reissued added three bonus tracks recorded in 1970 for a 1971 television special, and it’s that fourteen-track lineup that’s reproduced here.

Even with rock and pop having been pushed Tin Pan Alley off the radio, it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t a market for these superb performances. Day takes the songs at pensive tempos that highlight her superb control and the sweet tone of her voice. Feller’s use of a rhythm section, string quartet and woodwind player may have been motivated by economics, but it also created a perfect pocket for the vocals. The sound is full, but doesn’t require Day to compete with the arrangements. Day’s selections drew heavily from the songs she heard as a child, and the bonus tracks rework two of her catalog icons “It’s Magic” and “Sentimental Journey.” Liner notes by Will Friedwald round out a great package. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Doris Day’s Home Page

Anne McCue: Blue Sky Thinkin’

AnneMcCue_BlueSkyThinkinAnne McCue swings

Anne McCue is better known for standing in front of guitars and drums than clarinets and brass. Her previous albums reached back to the gutsy sound of 1970s rock vocalists, as well as contemporaries like Sam Phillips and Lucinda Williams; her latest reaches back several more decades, to the sounds of the 1930s. There’s always been a bluesy edge to her singing, and here those notes consort with the roots of swing and gypsy jazz. McCue dials down the ferocity of her vocals to an era-appropriate slyness, picks terrific figures on her guitar, and perhaps most impressively of all, writes songs that bid to fill some blank pages in the great American songbook.

Drummer Dave Raven nails the era’s blood-pumping excitement with Krupa-styled tom-toms on the opening “Dig Two Graves,” Deanie Richardson’s fiddle provides a superb foil for McCue’s six string swing, and Jim Hoke’s clarinet and horn chart fills in the period detail. The song’s bouncy tempo camouflages lyrics of noirish revenge, with San Francisco fog cloaking fatalistic fortunes. McCue turns to folk-blues with the finger-picked renewal of “Spring Cleaning in the Wintertime” and the old-timey “Cowgirl Blues.” She turns into a charming, coquettish chanteuse for “Long Tall Story,” and gets slinky, ala Peggy Lee, on the double bass and finger-snapping “Save a Life.”

Within the realm of swinging beats, McCue’s songs are quite diverse, ranging from the rockabilly “Little White Cat” to the fiery tango “Uncanny Moon.” There’s a nostalgic jazz core to the album, but it’s embroidered with elements of New Orleans funk, New York sophistication, big band rhythms, sinuous blues, stage flair and lyric craft. Dave Alvin guests as vocalist on the Cab Calloway-styled “Devil in the Middle,” and the album’s lone-cover, Regis McNichols Jr.’s contemporary “Knock on Wood,” fits perfectly with the standards vibe. McCue’s virtuosity is no surprise, but the ease with which she’s absorbed and restated the beating heart of swing music is impressive and thrilling. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Anne McCue’s Home Page

Ray Price: A New Place to Begin

RayPrice_ANewPlaceToBeginCountry and pop from the mid-80s, with unreleased sides

These sixteen tracks date to Price’s mid-80s deal with Snuff Garrett’s short-lived Viva label. At the time, their collaboration resulted in the 1983 album Master of the Art, seven low charting singles and several tracks placed in the films of Viva’s co-owner, Clint Eastwood. This collection expands on the released material with seven tracks that were left in the vault when Garrett’s illness sidelined the label’s activity. Price is in good voice throughout (as is his trademark shuffle rhythm), and arrangements featuring the Cherokee Cowboys and Johnny Gimble that range from fiddle tunes to pop standards. The country songs, including the previously unreleased “Old Loves Never Die,” have withstood the years better than the pop productions, though Price’s vocal on the steel and vibe arrangement of “Stormy Weather” suggests it might have been a good idea to follow Willie Nelson’s lead in recording standards. Newbies should start with Price’s essential honky-tonk and countrypolitan catalogs, but fans will find these mid-career recordings worth hearing. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Various Artists: Canine Classics, Volume 1

Various_CanineClassicsVolume1Clever dog-themed remakes of pop hits

Bay Area music legends Dick Bright (Bammies, SRO, Dick Bright Orchestra) and Tommy Dunbar (Rubinoos, Vox Pop) have teamed up to produce an album of dog-themed treats. Each track re-imagines a popular song – including tin-pan alley classics, ’50s rock and doo-wop, ’60s pop, ’70s soul and ’80s new wave – as it should have been, written in the voice of, or about, a dog. There are a few Singing Dogs-styled barks, but mostly Bright and Dunbar draw upon their talented human friends for the vocals. For the most part, these songs retain their original mood, but with the subject shifted a dog’s perspective. The Irish ballad “Danny Boy” retains its sense of loss, longing and renewal as “Chewy Toy,” and the Vapors’ bouncy “Turning Japanese” is transformed into the equally catchy “Turning Pekingese.” The collection’s most clever trick is Maurice Williams & The Zodiac’s doo-wop “Stay,” a song whose title clearly anticipated this collection. Shirley Ellis’ “The Name Game” is just as dance-worthy when riffing on classic dog names  and the Champs’ “Tequila” stays South of the border as “Chihuahua.” Dunbar has previously dabbled in both covers and childen’s music with the Rubinoos, and Dick Bright etched his name in the mash-up cover song hall of fame with “Gilligan’s Island (Stairway).” Their combined humor and musicianship makes this collection fun for kids without wearing out its welcome with the elders. The CD is delivered in a Hugh Brown-designed, hard-bound 30-page book that features lyrics, photos and even a dog advice column. All in all, it’s a howl. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

James Booker: Classified – Remixed and Expanded

JamesBooker_ClassifiedThe last studio recordings of a New Orleans legend

Though often cited as one of three primary New Orleans piano legends, James Booker’s popular renown never grew to the size of Professor Longhair’s or Dr. John’s. Launching his career in the mid-50s, he was sidetracked by a late-60s drug bust and continuing brushes with the law. One of those brushes, apparently, was with legal counsel Harry Connick, Sr., whose son became one of Booker’s students. The mid-70s roots revival brought renewed opportunities for Booker, particularly in Europe, and upon returning to the U.S. he took up residency at the Maple Leaf Bar. At the end of this run, in 1982, he hurriedly recorded this last studio album, and the following year succumbed to the physical and mental ravages of his drug use. Rounder’s remixed and expanded 2013 reissue adds ten bonus tracks to the original dozen, including nine previously unissued performances.

Booker is heard here playing solo as well as with a quartet of Alvin “Red” Tyler, James Singleton and Johnny Vidacovich. Playing “with” the quartet may be an overstatement, as they often seem to be chasing songs that he selected on a whim. Still, his playing and singing both show a lot of verve in each setting. The material is drawn from an incredible array of sources, including R&B (Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue,” Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” and Titus Turner’s “All Around the World”), country (Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”), classical (Richard Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto”), jazz (“Angel Eyes”), film (Nino Rota’s “Theme from the Godfather”) and the great American songbook (“Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and “Baby Face”). Booker also drew from the New Orleans repertoire with Allen Toussaint’s “All These Things,” Fats Domino’s “One for the Highway” and a Professor Longhair medley; but even when he was playing outside material, the Crescent City was always in his fingers.

The fluency with which Booker plays this wide range of material is breathtaking. He’s equally adept at classical fingerings, florid jazz changes, blue R&B chords and the rolling arpeggios of New Orleans. There are many highlights among the original album tracks, including a lighthearted take on “Baby Face” that shows more finesse than Little Richard’s 1958 hit, with a vocal that maintains the spark of Al Jolson. The reading of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” added to this reissue is even funkier, with Booker on organ, a wicked second-line drum beat from Vidacovich and some fat sax from Tyler. There’s little hint of Eddie Cantor here (and perhaps a touch of Ricky Nelson‘s sax man), but the core emotion is swing. Booker’s classical training comes forward for dramatic readings of the Rachmaninoff inspired “Warsaw Concerto” and the title theme to the 1966 Lana Turner film Madame X. Note that “Madame X” was listed by its subtitle, “Swedish Rhapsody,” on previous reissues, but it’s the same track.

From the pop songbook, Booker tears into Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” The former is played with great percussiveness, the latter as a haggard ballad. Booker’s singing never really matched the easiness of his piano, but it serves both of these songs well, the former coy and sassy, the latter a bit shopworn. The bonus solo take of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” is speedier than the band version included on the original album, but each approach has its own merits. Booker’s originals include the album’s title song, the bonus track “I’m Not Sayin’,” and the original closer, “Three Keys.” The first two have edgy rhythms and unusual fingerings that bring to mind Thelonious Monk, the third weaves “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” into a rolling New Orleans’ piano solo.

Rounder’s reissue was remastered from the 24-track analog tapes, and includes Bunny Matthews’ 1983 liner notes alongside new notes by producer Scott Billington. The latter’s stories of Booker’s fragile and agitated state belies the remaining solidity of his musical mentality and ability to perform. The song list is all over the map, but Booker’s intellect and talent are enough to hold the album together. He pays homage to New Orleans in both song and style, giving traditional R&B tunes their due and pulling everything else into his Crescent City orbit. There are few who could so naturally give the “Theme from the Godfather” a helping of rhythmic soul and then add romantic flourishes to the jazz standard “Angel Eyes.” The album’s original lineup can be heard by programming 6, 20, 10, 9, 17, 19, 1, 12, 7, 14, 2, 21, but the expanded, rearranged track list plays as beautifully as Booker’s piano. This set makes a nice companion to Lily Keber’s documentary Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, and a good introduction to the breadth of Booker’s genius. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Various Artists: The Beautiful Old – Turn-of-the-Century Songs

Various_TheBeautifulOldTurn of the twentieth century songs revisited

The turn of the twentieth century was a tumultuous time for the music industry. The sheet music boom of the 1890s was giving way to the sale of phonograph records, and records would in turn be challenged by radio. But through these transitions, one thing remained constant: hit songs. But hit songs were becoming increasingly transitory idols, one replacing the next in a procession of quickly forgotten multi-platinum (that is, multi-million selling) favorites. A select few managed to stick in the public’s long-term memory, but many more remained extant only in printed form, waiting to be rediscovered by musical explorers. Such explorers are producers Paul Marsteller and Gabriel Rhodes, who have reanimated nineteen turn-of-the-century songs – both familiar and obscure – with a hand-picked crew of singers and instrumentalists.

Unlike a tribute that reconsiders a songwriter, performer, label or scene, this collection aims at framing an era of music making. It’s not a slavish reproduction – the vocals occasionally shade to phrasings that didn’t exist at the time these songs were written – but by limiting themselves to instruments in use at the time, the producers have created a general impression of the times in which these songs were originally heard. And by cherry-picking their vocalists, Marsteller and Rhodes have nicely matched voices to song. Richard Thompson and Christine Collister open with one of the collection’s most easily remembered tunes, “The Band Played On.” Listeners will quickly discover that while the title line flows easily from their memories, the lyrics seem brand new to their ears. Thompson’s theatrical vocal is a perfect fit for the circus-style melody, and Garth Hudson adds terrific accordion flourishes.

Other familiar songs, “The Flying Trapeze,” “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “Home Sweet Home” and “I Love You Truly,” will tickle your memory with their melodies and titles, and “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” will be especially familiar to fans of Young Frankenstein. Kimmie Rhodes adds a whispery fragility to three numbers, Jimmy LaFave draws deeply upon the wistfulness of “Long Time Ago,” and Kim Richey sings the original, nostalgic lyrics to “Beautiful Ohio.” The themes are genteel and timeless, with love discovered, courted and lost, risky adventures, faddish technology, and the longing of those far from home. The set’s 20-page booklet includes lyrics, and the accompanying website provides song histories, original sheet music covers and more. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

The Beautiful Old’s Home Page

Willie Nelson: Let’s Face the Music and Dance

WillieNelson_LetsFaceTheMusicAndDanceWillie and Family stroll through the Great American Songbook

Willie Nelson sang from the Great American Songbook as early as 1976’s The Sound in Your Mind, and with 1978’s Stardust he demonstrated a unique affinity for pop standards. He continued to draw on this material for decades to come, including 1981’s Over the Rainbow, 1983’s Without a Song and 1988’s What a Wonderful World. His latest collection of pop and country standards is a low-key affair without backing vocals or orchestrations, leaving Nelson’s voice isolated out front of his Family band. His idiosyncratic phrasing continues to serve this type of material wonderfully, but unlike the statement of Stardust, this set is more of a Saturday night jam than a staged performance. With his sister Bobbie and longtime compadres Mickey Raphael and Paul English on board, the sessions feel as if Nelson’s calling out favorites for the group to pick up. The players slide easily into familiar songs, and though the solos can be tentative, the warmth these musicians share, Nelson’s deep feeling for the material and his inimitable singing are all worth hearing.

Nelson’s recorded many of these songs before, a few several times over. He waxed “You’ll Never Know” in 1983 and again in 1994, but this third time he shares the stage more fully with the piano accompaniment. His original “Is the Better Part Over” is stripped of the strings heard on 1989’s A Horse Called Music, and though nominally about a relationship that’s run it’s course, at age 79, one can hear Nelson singing about his life. “Vous Et Moi” digs more deeply into the percussiveness of Nelson’s guitar strings than the 1999 version heard on Night and Day, and “Twilight Time” is sung in a lower, less-nasal register than his earlier version. Floyd Tillman’s oft-recorded “I’ll Keep on Loving You” provides a gentle western swing, and Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” which might seem an odd companion here, fits nicely as semi-acoustic, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll. Nelson greets these songs like old friends, but with renewed enthusiasm each time they meet. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Willie Nelson’s 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]