Posts Tagged ‘Vocal Pop’

Tony Bennett: The Best of the Improv Recordings

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

Sampling of a master vocalist’s indie sides from the mid-70s

At the turn from the ‘60s into the ‘70s, Tony Bennett – the vocalist’s vocalist – parted ways with his longtime label, Columbia. The parting dissolved their business contract, but also served as a declaration that having fruitfully co-existed with the commercial dominance of youth-oriented rock ‘n’ roll, he would not compromise his artistry by covering lightweight, contemporary pop tunes. He wasn’t alone, as Barbra Streisand, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis and others were each having their arms twisted in the same direction. Bennett’s concert draw was increasing, and in his mid-40s, his voice offered a maturity and richness that may have been the best of his long and distinguished career. So rather than giving in to Columbia’s demands, and accepting other slights, he fled to MGM, and after failing to find success there, spent a few years without a recording contract.

His commercial fortunes wouldn’t be revived until his son Danny rebuilt his career in the 1980s, reuniting him with musical director Ralph Sharon, and, ironically, Columbia. But in the interim, Bennett founded his own label, Improv, and laid down some of the most artistically satisfying sides of his entire catalog. The label failed after only a few years (due to a lack of distribution, rather than a lack of quality goods), but without the major label bean counters breathing down his neck, Bennett was able to surround himself with the talents of Bill Evans, Charlie Byrd, Jimmy McPartland, Marian McPartland and others, and deeply explore jazz-inflections of the great American songbook. His five albums for Improv, along with a wealth of previously unreleased session tracks, were anthologized on the 2004 4-CD set, The Complete Improv Recordings; this single disc surveys many of the larger set’s highlights.

The selected tracks essay Bennett’s mastery in several different settings, including orchestral arrangements, duets with pianist Bill Evans, and a collection of Rodgers & Hart tunes recorded with a quartet led by cornetist Ruby Braff. The latter tracks show the jazziest edges of Bennett’s vocals as he dances atop John Guiffrida’s string bass and trades phrases with Braff and guitarist George Barnes. The duets are deeply thoughtful, as Bennett and Evans speak to each other through their music as much as to the listener, and the orchestral pieces have refined arrangements by Torrie Zito, including lovely bass and strings on “Reflections,” that winningly frame Bennett’s voice. Bennett vocalizes novel interpretations of several well-trod chestnuts, including “Blue Moon,” “The Lady is a Tramp” and “I Could Write a Book.”

The set ends with a pair of live tracks that includes a rousing take on Bennett’s trademark “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” From the thrill heard in Bennett’s voice, the enthusiastic playing of his all-star band and the crowd’s fevered response, you’d guess they were at the Fairmont atop Nob Hill, but in fact the recording was made at his record label partner’s Statler Hilton hotel in Buffalo, New York. It’s a thrilling end to a terrific set that gives listeners a taste of an artistic giant’s most independent statement of art. At just a little over twice the price for four-times the music, it’s hard not to recommend the full 4-CD set, but if a taste will satisfy you, this is a rich one. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Tony Bennett’s Home Page

Frank Sinatra: Ring-A-Ding-Ding

Saturday, June 18th, 2011

It was Frank’s world, and we were lucky to live in it

Sinatra’s 1961 debut for his own record label, Reprise, is the product of a man who was on top of the world, with records, films, concerts and a fraternal social life each running flat out. It wasn’t, however, the sort of artistic reinvention he created on his late ‘50s albums for Capitol, nor the middle-aged discoveries he’d make on September of My Years or with Antonio Carlos Jobim. Still, Sinatra was in the pocket, and the self-confident swagger of his performances made up for the lack of a new artistic leap. Together with arranger Johnny Mandel, Sinatra pushed hard on the swing side of these tunes, eschewing balladry, and spurring his band of West Coast musicians to some sizzling performances. Mandel gained the arranger’s slot when Sinatra’s previous partners, Nelson Riddle and Billy May, were found to be exclusively contracted to Capitol. Mandel brought both jazz and film scoring experience, along with connections to some of Los Angeles’ finest players.

The song list includes a title track written expressly for Sinatra by Cahn and Van Heusen, along with standards both new to and revisited in the Sinatra catalog. Those who enjoy Sinatra’s swing records will love the unbridled verve with which he and Mandel attacked these tunes. Concord’s 2011 reissue adds insightful liner and song note from Frank Sinatra Jr. and a ten-minute session track as a bonus. On the latter, Sinatra is spied working on Rodgers & Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones,” dissecting Mandel’s arrangement in the process, digging out notes that disagreed with his knowledge of the song, and eventually discarding the tune altogether. As a ballad, it wouldn’t have fit the hard-swinging album, but as a bonus track it provides a fascinating peek into Sinatra’s intense work ethic, his leadership in the studio, the response he provokes from fellow musicians, arrangers and producers, and his tremendous ear as an artist. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Frank Sinatra: Best of Vegas

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Single disc excerpt from the Sinatra: Vegas box set

Frank Sinatra and Las Vegas had a uniquely symbiotic relationship. Las Vegas helped resurrect Sinatra’s career and turned him from a big band singer into a polished entertainer, and Sinatra turned Las Vegas into ground zero for sophisticated adult entertainment. The brilliant vocal phrasings that became his trademark on his Capitol recordings of the 1950s and the ring-a-ding-ding attitude that took him into the 1960s were given their road tests on the stages of Las Vegas. The development of live sets in which every song fit into a compelling arc, also influenced his albums, which became more holistic, and in a few cases, thematic. The stage banter, and the ease with which it was dispensed, became the backbone of his film and television personality.

Sinatra played Vegas off and on for forty-four years, starting out at the Desert Inn in 1951 and bowing goodbye at the MGM Grand in 1994. In between he reigned over the Copa room at the Sands through much of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, and afterwards continued to sell out shows at Caesar’s, Bally’s, the Golden Nugget and Riviera. A number of Sinatra’s Vegas performances have been issued before, including the superb Sinatra at the Sands, the Sinatra/Martin/Davis Rat Pack: Live at the Sands, and the multidisc box set Sinatra: Vegas. This single CD is excerpted from the latter, selecting tracks from 1961 and 1966 shows at the Sands, a 1982 date at Caesar’s and a 1987 date at the Golden Nugget.

The Sands recordings are some of Sinatra’s very best. The earlier date finds him capitalizing on the success he’d found throughout the 1950s, and the later date finds him backed by the ferocious swing of Count Basie’s band. The confidence with which Sinatra sings is completely mesmerizing, whether he’s contemplating the ballad “Moonlight in Vermont,” inserting hipster lingo into “The Lady is a Tramp” or blowing away the room with “Luck Be a Lady.” These appear to be alternate performances from the takes on the 1966 live album, giving fans an opportunity to hear how Sinatra kept his act fresh every night. The set includes some of Sinatra’s stage patter and story telling, including a lengthy monologue that shows how complete an entertainer he’d become.

By the 1980s Sinatra’s voice had begun to show signs of age. But while his tone was perfect and his notes weren’t always tightly held, his artistry was intact and his ability to entertain still on full display. The jazz combo on “I Can’t Get Started” provides an intimate backing that perfectly matches the introspective tone Sinatra struck in his sixties, and the set stretches from early standards (“All of Nothing at All” in a then-new arrangement by Nelson Riddle) to latest successes (“Theme from New York, New York”). The sound quality throughout this disc is terrific, and though you don’t get the thrill of a single night’s full performance, the songs are well sequenced. Charles Pignone’s liner notes from the box set are excerpted for the 20-page booklet. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

The Anita Kerr Singers: All You Need is Love

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

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]

Various Artists: Remember Me Baby- Cameo Parkway Vocal Groups Vol. 1

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Terrific vocal group tracks from the Cameo Parkway vaults

Cameo Records, and its subsidiary Parkway label, were Philadelphia powerhouses from the mid-50s through the mid-60s. Parkway is best remembered for unleashing Chubby Checker and the Twist dance craze, first in 1960 and again in 1962, making “The Twist” the only recording to gain the #1 spot on the Billboard chart twice! The labels hit with other memorable Philly-area artists in the early ‘60s, including the Dovells, Orlons, Bobby Rydell and Dee Dee Sharp, and it’s on these formerly out-of-print hits (finally reissued in box set, best-of, and original album form over the past five years) that Cameo-Parkway’s considerable reputation rests. But there’s more to the Cameo story, both before and after novelty dance hits brought the labels’ releases to worldwide acclaim.

Alongside four artist-centric two-fer reissues by Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, the Orlons, and Terry Knight and the Pack, Collectors’ Choice and ABKCO (the latter of whom  purchased the Cameo catalog in the late ‘60s) have put together this collection of doo-wop styled vocal group singles. There are some well known names here, including the Skyliners, Dovells, Tymes, Turbans, Rays, and Lee Andrews, but – winningly – the tracks collected here are generally obscure. Rather than including the groups’ hits (a few of which were waxed for or reissued nationally on Cameo, many of which were recorded before or after the groups’ time with Cameo), this anthology digs deeply into the vaults, unearthing little known gems that haven’t been available in legitimate issue for many decades.

By the time many of these singles were recorded, the sun was setting on doo-wop styled vocal groups. But you can bet American Graffitti’s John Milner would’ve dug these sides, and with good reason, as many of them match up in every way to the brilliance of doo-wop’s earlier years. Highlights include the calypso flavor, falsetto vocal reaches and energetic strings of the Turbans’ “When You Dance,” the Tymes’ superb, Drifters-styled “Did You Ever Get My Letter?,” and the impeccably soulful and inconsolable vocal of The Anglos’ “Raining Teardrops.” Inexplicably, the latter never made it past a test-pressing, making this track one of this set’s most exciting discoveries for all but the doo-wop fanatic.

Other highlights are Rick and the Masters’ hand-clapping “I Don’t Want Your Love,” the duet lead of the Gleems’ ballad “Sandra Baby,” the Buddy Holly vocal flourishes of The Impacs’ “Tears in My Heart,” and The Dovells’ mixture of “Shortin’ Bread” and “You Can’t Sit Down” on their 1963 side “Short on Bread.” Ed Osborne’s liner notes document the itinerant nature of these groups, showing how many alighted at Cameo for only one or two releases. Still, when they did stop in, they often had plenty of gas left in their tanks. All sides mono, with recording and production details for most listed in the liner notes. All that remains is to ask: where’s volume two? [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Bobby Rydell: Salutes the Great Ones / Rydell at the Copa

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

A young pop crooner struts his stuff in 1960-61

Along with Fabian and Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell was one of the “Boys of Bandstand,” a trio of Philadelphia-based pop singers whose appearances on the original American Bandstand rocketed each to teen idoldom in the lull between Elvis and the Beatles. It’s no accident that the students in Grease attend Rydell High. Like Fabian and Avalon, Rydell was a pop singer whose hits crossed over to mingle with rock ‘n’ roll tunes on Billboard’s Top 100. His biggest hit, “Wild One,” feints towards the pop-rock with which Bobby Darin began his hit-making, and Rydell’s second big hit, “Volare,” was a finger-snapping nightclub gem in league with Darin’s “Mack the Knife. Rydell and Darin’s paths often crossed in the middle of the Great American Songbook, which both vocalists covered extensively.

This pair of albums from 1961 (Rydell’s third and fourth original releases) fully indulges the vocalist’s love of (and talent for) singing classic American songs. Among the material are Tin Pan Alley and Broadway chestnuts by Arlen & Mercer, George & Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim, and the jazz standards “Frenesi,” “So Rare” and “The Birth of the Blues.” Rydell also found a strong attraction to material made famous by Al Jolson, including “Mammy,” “April Showers” and “There’s a Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder.” The arrangements swing nicely and Rydell is an enticing singer. He hasn’t the gravitas of the previous generation (Sinatra, Bennett, et al.), but the drama in his Broadway style give these songs some real verve.

In the summer of 1960, at the tender age of 19, Rydell launched a two-week stand at the Copacabana, a New York City it-club that had hosted the legends of nightclub entertainment. Greeted on the stage by a powerful horn chart, Rydell launched into a zesty take on “A Lot of Living to Do,” the swinging mambo of “Sway,” and a bouncy rendition of “That Old Black Magic.” He sounds confident and comfortable, and though every note isn’t pitch perfect, he more than makes up for it in joie de vivre. A fifteen-minute, thirteen-song medley fills the middle of the set, showing off Rydell’s range (both “Wild One” and “Volare” are worked into the mix) and his preternatural maturity as a showman.

The set’s hidden gem is “Don’t Be Afraid (To Fall in Love),” a ballad written by Cameo co-founder Kal Mann, and orchestrated with a terrifically moody horn chart by Joe Zito. Collectors’ Choice reproduces the original track lineups in stereo, reprints both front and back album covers, and adds liner notes by James Ritz with fresh remembrances from Bobby Rydell. It may strike some as odd to begin the reissue of Rydell’s catalog with his third and fourth albums, but as noted earlier, these songs cut deep into the heart of his artistic direction. For a tighter view of his popular chart hits, check out 2005’s Best Of, but for the seeds that would bloom into his long-term career as an entertainer, this is a great place to start. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Bobby Rydell’s Home Page

The Orlons: The Wah-Watusi / South Street

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Terrific early-60s Philadelphia vocal pop

The Orlons were a Philadelphia high school singing group who came to Cameo-Parkway Records on a recommendation from Len Barry of the Dovells. After a couple of flop singles they hit it big with the Kal Mann and Dave Appel’s dance tune, “The Wah-Watusi” in 1962. The single and debut album of the same name are highlighted by the terrific lead vocals of Rosetta Hightower, starting with the group’s excellent cover of “Dedicated to the One I Love.” Hightower doesn’t sing it with the power of the Shirelles’ Shirley Owen, but invests just as much heart and soul into the lyrics. Hightower also shines on the group’s cover of Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time,” and its reprise, “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes),” each of which the group had backed on the original hits.

The group’s lone male vocalist, Stephen Caldwell, steps up front for “Tonight,” taking the group closer to doo-wop, as does Hightower’s pleading cover of the Chantels’ “The Plea” and the crooning “I’ll Be True.” Caldwell adds some wonderful bass singing behind the female duet cover of Johnnie and Joe’s “Over the Mountain, Across the Sea.” The backing harmonies are brought forward to introduce a heartbroken cover of the Chantels’ “He’s Gone,” and the Shirelles’ “I Met Him on a Sunday” is given a zesty, Latin twist by the drummer.  Like all of the Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway acts, the vocal group’s ace-in-the-hole was the house band, which provided incredible rhythm backing and fat-toned sax solos.

The group’s third long-player (their second All the Hits is still awaiting reissue), named for their third top-10 hit “South Street,” sounds more like a Coasters album, with honking sax and a slate full of novelties that includes the Rooftop Singers’ “Walk Right In,” John D. Loudermilk’s “Big Daddy,” Slim Gaillard’s “Cement Mixer” and the Coasters’ own “Charlie Brown.” Ironically, the latter is among the most soulful of the lot, with great harmonies and hypnotically rising piano figures. The album has a throwback feel amplified by covers of the band band-era “Between 18th and 19th on Chestnut Street” and Kid Ory’s jazz-age “Muskrat Ramble.” Stephen Caldwell is heard mostly in his low, growling “frog voice,” which feels tired by album end.

The group hits a gospel soul groove for Mann and Appell’s “Gather ‘Round” and introduces another dance with the R&B “Pokey Lou.” Those looking for an overview of the Orlons time at Cameo-Parkway are directed to the 2005 Best Of, which includes all eight of their charting singles (including their second Top 10 “Don’t Hang Up,” which is missing here) and a dozen more tracks. Fans who want to listen more deeply will truly enjoy this two-fer, particularly for the terrific material on the debut. Collectors’ Choice reproduces the original 24 tracks in radio-ready mono, both front and back album covers, and adds new liner notes by Gene Sculatti. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Tina Mason: Is Something Wonderful

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

Little known Capitol vocalist’s 1967 LP

Tina Mason’s lone album for Capitol, recorded under the direction of David Axelrod and featuring arrangements by HB Barnum, was mostly overlooked at the time of its 1967 release. Mason started singing at Disneyland with Tina and the Mustangs, and had a regular gig on TV’s Where the Action Is. She fit into the groove cut by singers like Dusty Springfield, Jackie DeShannon, Nancy Wilson and Dionne Warwick, and the Axelrod/Barnum team created sophisticated pop-soul backings for her. Mason draws from a variety of sources, including the dramatic spoken delivery of the Shangri-Las’ Mary Weiss, breezy blue-eyed soul and stagey pop. She covers “Cry Me a River” with more attitude and less tears than Julie London’s earlier hit, with the band pushing the tempo and the background singers adding verbal accents. The rising arrangement of “You Can Have Him,” reworking Roy Hamilton’s “You Can Have Her,” yields a stirring climax, and the closing cover of Kathy Kirby’s “The Way of Love” adds a spark that Cher would remove in her 1971 hit. The album’s eleven tracks are fleshed out on this reissue with two pre-LP singles, including the Motown-styled “Smokey Joe’s” and a take on Chip Taylor’s “Any Way That You Want me” that’s similar to Evie Sands’ better known recording. Also included are a mono single mix of “Are You There” and a vintage interview segment. This isn’t quite a lost classic, but it’s a nice time capsule. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

The Phil Volk and Tina Mason Band Home Page

The Friends of Distinction: Grazin’

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

The easy soul album behind the stellar funky hit

The Friends of Distinction were a Los Angeles vocal quartet, two men and two women, whose funky hit single, “Grazing in the Grass,” belied the smoother, easy soul of this debut album. Produced by John Florez, the group picked a lead vocalist from among the four to match each track, and then surrounded them with fetching harmonies. Their material ranged from Hugh Masekela’s title song (to which group founder/vocalist Harry Elston added lyrics) to a slow and sensual cover of Lennon & McCartney’s “And I Love Her.” They created a vocal jazz arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Lonesome Mood” that suggests Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, as does the waltz time “Baby I Could Be So Good at Loving You.” The parallel with the Fifth Dimension is reinforced by the group’s stellar cover of Laura Nyro’s “Eli’s Coming,” featuring a supercharged falsetto lead by Jessica Cleaves against intricate backing vocals and an arrangement that alternates between slow soul and fervent revival. The album’s second single “Going in Circles” charted into the Top 20 with a superb arrangement that combines strings, horns and woodwinds behind a feeling lead vocal and soulful harmonies. It’s a shame that the group’s follow-up album Highly Distinct was rushed out by the label, as given time to create, this debut shows how brilliantly they could select and sing light soul. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Various Artists: Radio Hits of the 60s

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Terrific collection of AM radio’s highly varied legacy

Rather than picking an artist or label or scene or sound, Legacy’s pulled together thirteen original hit recordings that show the range of music that AM radio brought to its listeners. Collected here is New Orleans R&B (“Ya Ya,” 1961 and “Working in the Coal Mine,” 1966), Dixieland Jazz (“Washington Square,” 1963), Easy Listening (“A Fool Never Learns,” 1964), Folk Pop and Rock (“We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” 1964 and “In the Year 2525,” 1969), Garage Punk (“Little Girl,” 1966), Soul (“I’m Your Puppet,” 1966 and “Cherry Hill Park,” 1969), Bubblegum (“Simon Says,” 1968), Trad Jazz Vocal (“The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” 1968), and Vocal Pop (“Worst That Could Happen,” 1969).

Even within these individual songs you can often hear more than one genre exerting its influence, such as the steel guitar and horns that provide accents to the superb pop production of Merrilee Rush’s “Angel of the Morning.” In this day of highly balkanized music channels and individually programmed MP3 playlists, it’s hard to imagine such variety inhabiting a single mass-market playlist, but that was part of AM radio’s power to attract and keep a broad swath of listeners. Playing this collection will remind you how good record and radio people were at picking and making hits – the winnowing process disenfranchised many, but what got through the sieves, particularly what got to the top of the charts, was often highly memorable.

Legacy’s disc clocks in at a slim 35 minutes, but what’s here is a terrifically nostalgic spin whose songs stand up to repeated listening forty-plus years later. True, Andy Williams’ “A Fool Never Learns” might wear out its welcome before the other tracks, but it’s part and parcel of the ebb and flow of 1960s AM radio. This set isn’t meant to be an all-inclusive compilation of any one thing in particular, but a reminder of the breadth that once graced individual radio stations across the land. There was a unity to AM radio’s audience that’s been replace by the free choice of the empowered individual. That personalization carries with it many benefits, but the range of this set may remind you of what’s also been lost. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]