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147: Frank Sinatra, ‘It Was a Very Good Year’

Posted by jeff on Oct 1, 2016 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

Frank Sinatra — ‘It Was a Very Good Year’

It’s early October, the leaves and the pages of the calendar are turning. Here in our little corner of the world it’s the New Year, a time for some sober and somber thoughts about whither we are tending. April may be the cruelest month, but September is hands-down the most reflective one.

My wife, my best friend and severest critic, is my first reader of these blogs. She catches my spelling errors, my typos and my incomprehenibilities. She doesn’t care too much for most of my kinds of music, but over these many years she’s learned to put up with it (at reasonable volumes).  She often asks me why I can’t every write about a nice song.

Here goes, Sports Fans – a great nice song about September and life and reflection, Frank Sinatra’s ‘It Was a Very Good Year’.

I’m not going to try to analyze Old Blue Eyes’ career. I have neither the tools nor the inclination. To tell you the truth, I’ve never been a great fan. I’ve always felt he was a very good singer of standards, even an excellent one, but with really nothing of significance to add artistically. Perhaps some of that negative bias is an arrested-adolescent reaction to my mother’s bobby-sox utter flutteration about him.

Ervin Drake

Sinatra’s contribution to our music can’t be overstated. He took the work of great theater composers of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s –Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers – and recreated their songs in the 1950s and ‘60s as The Great American Songbook.

But us jazz snobs like to maintain that he’s not a jazz singer, certainly not in the sense that Ella and Louis were. He certainly swung, but improvisation wasn’t part of his musical vocabulary. The jazz singers I most admire praise him without reservation for being The Master of breath, phrasing, repertoire and attitude, but that sounds like damning with faint praise if you’re arguing that he’s an artist.

But I’m thinking that maybe I’m letting some old prejudices unfairly color my listening habits over the years. Not that Frankie needs my approbation. But maybe I have been missing some very obvious qualities that trillions of other people have been enjoying since 1939.

Mallard Drake

I have indeed always been a fan of ‘It Was a Very Good Year’. Yeah, the strings are a bit over the top, but what the heck, it’s September, life is passing by, one wants to indulge in a bit of gooey reflection.
I got very nervous when I saw that the song was written by one Ervin Drake, but a quick check showed that his parents were Max Druckman and Pearl Cohen, so I calmed down. He also penned classics such as ‘Perdido’ (great performances here by Duke Ellington and here by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie), Frankie Laine’s inspiring  ‘I Believe’ (recorded also by both Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley), and ‘I Wuv A Rabbit’ (you don’t want to miss this video).

Kingston Trio

In 1961, his agent asked him to write a song for the mega-popular Kingston Trio. He obliged by knocking out overnight ‘It Was a Very Good Year’, here in the original version, the lead sung by Bob Shane. A couple of years later Sinatra heard it on his car radio, and thought it would fit perfectly in the album of melancholy and introspective songs he was assembling at the time.

That album, “September of My Years”, thirteen songs on the theme of aging and reflection, won the Grammy in 1965 as Album of the Year. It beat out the soundtracks for “Mary Poppins“, “My Fair Lady“, “Fiddler on the Roof“, “The Sound of Music“ and “Hello, Dolly“ – talk about a bumper crop!; as well as Barbra Streisand’s “People”, The Tijuana Brass’s “Whipped Cream & Other Delights”,  Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home”, and “Beatles ‘65’, “Hard Day’s Night” and ‘Beatles VI”. The song ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ won the Grammy as Best Male Vocal Performance.

The speaker recalls his life in terms of his loves, at the ages of 17, 21 and 35. Now (at 50, in Sinatra’s case), he remembers it all as sweet and clear vintage wine. I suppose many of us would like to reflect back on our lives in similar terms. The Turtles, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, William Shatner, Boris Karloff, Michael Jackson, Statler & Waldorf (the two old geezers in the opera box in The Muppets), Robbie Williams (dueting posthumously with Old Blue Eyes), Homer Simpson, Ray Charles with Willie Nelson – they all did so, some reverent, some as parodies.

I never had a very high opinion of Sinatra as a person. I recently rewatched “The Godfather” (the First), in which ‘they say’ the singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) was modeled on Sinatra. If you remember, Johnny’s floundering career was resurrected by a horse’s head getting him cast in a major Hollywood role. In 1952, Sinatra’s floundering career recharged was by his performance in “From Here to Eternity”. I wasn’t there personally, so I don’t know how he really got the part.

Gordon Jenkins, Frank Sinatra

But there is a fascinating video of Sinatra recording ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ in the studio, under the baton of Gordon Jenkins. Sinatra often hosted a few cronies at his recording sessions, but allowing in cameras was a rarity. The clip is worth watching closely.

I would have expected Sinatra in the studio to be glib, self-satisfied, strutting and vain. The truth is very far from that. He’s all business, deadly serious, and palpably engaged in the very evocative material. Just at the end of the ‘When I was 21’ verse, you see a thought pass across his face, a very serious memory I suppose, and he’s visibly moved by it. He turns to the page, checking the score.
As anyone who’s been on stage knows, there’s no alternative to emotional commitment.  You want to convey an emotion, you gotta experience the emotion. It’s gotta be real. What’s going on in Frank’s mind seems very, very real to me, thoroughly convincing. He’s thinking about the passage of his life. Every one of us thinks about that in September. Every one of us is mortal, every one of us has one year less left in his life. That’s pretty harrowing.

Then check out his face on ‘When I was 35, it was a very good year’ and on ‘When I was 35’ at the beginning and at the end of the third verse. He smiles slyly. It’s not a glib smile, it’s the smile someone who had a memorable experience years ago and has just relived it in his mind. I don’t know what Frank was doing when he was 35, but it looks like he is viscerally recollecting a very good time indeed.

And then in the final bars, after he’s finished singing, he’s listening to that army of violins conclude the story, he’s visibly moved. It’s over, and boom, “What was the time on that?” He just won my heart, Frank did. 100% passion, 100% technique. 200% artistry.

Sinatra died in 1998 at the age of 82. Gordon Jenkins died in 1984 at the age of 74. Ervin Drake turned 93 in April. We’d like to take this opportunity to wish Ervin, and all of you, A Very Good Year.

When I was seventeen, it was a very good year.
It was a very good year for small town girls and soft summer nights.
We’d hide from the lights on the village green when I was seventeen.

When I was twenty one, it was a very good year.
It was a very good year for city girls who lived up the stairs,
With all that perfumed hair and it came undone when I was twenty one

Then I was thirty five it was a very good year.
It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls of independent means.
We’d ride in limousines, their chauffeurs would drive when I was thirty five.

But now the days grow short, I’m in the autumn of the year.
And now I think of my life as vintage wine from fine old kegs.
From the brim to the dregs, it poured sweet and clear, it was a very good year.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

009: Barbra Streisand, ‘Lover Come Back to Me’
065: Ella Fitzgerald, ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’
101: Kurt Elling, “Li’l Darlin’”

 

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080: Tim Ries w. Norah Jones, ‘Wild Horses’

Posted by jeff on Sep 14, 2016 in Jazz, Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

We here at SoTW love getting readers’ letters. Well, usually we do. Last week we received one which we didn’t make us feel too good:

“Dear SoTW, Jeez, you know dude, you can really be a pain in the butt with all your talk and ideas and analyzing and history and shit. I mean, you know a lot of stuff and all, and it can even be a little interesting on occasion, but what happened to the music? You’re so heavy, man. Can’t you ever just kick off your shoes, lean back, and enjoy some music? And your choices? Where do you live? Don’t you get it that not everyone is into Bulgarian women’s choirs or albino Brazilian mystics or WWII contortionists? How about some NICE music for a change? Just something PLEASANT? Do you even know those words? How the hell do the people around you put up with you? Yours truly, F.Y.”

Ok, granted, F.Y. has a point or two there, although I don’t think he really needed to get that abusive or personal. But we really do take seriously what our loyal readers have to say, and F.Y. seems to be one of them. So, F. (you don’t mind if I call you that?), this week we’re going for NICE.

And there’s nothing NICEr than a pretty girl singing a pretty song, right? And there’s definitely no one prettier than the very lovely Miss Norah Jones (b. 1979).

Everyone says so. She’s a really big star, and justifiably so. Her first album, 2001’s “Come Away With Me” won all the Grammies in the world and remains the Blue Note label’s biggest-selling album. It includes the megahit ‘Don’t Know Why‘, as well as a whole bunch of other fine songs, and is probably the best ultrapopular and most listenable album by an intelligent female artist since Carol King’s “Tapestry”.

Norah Jones often sounds familiar, a refugee of the 70s, but she’s only 31, and her style really is her own—country jazz, with a twist of blues and an ample dose of pop hooks. Ear candy that doesn’t insult the brain. Not to mention a pair of lips and a pair of eyes and a figure and an attitude that can make a man lose sleep at night. A fetching beauty with a catchy song. What more could one ask for?

Here’s a video clip of the song ‘Sunrise’ that I for one would certainly prefer watching a whole lot more than reading what I have to say about her. I think it’s witty and charming and she’s breathtakingly sexy. It’s from her second album, “Feels Like Home,” which was just as successful as the first.

Who is this Norah Jones? Well, surprisingly, she’s not just a pretty face. For one, she was raised in Texas by her dancer/nurse/concert promoter mother, Sue, who had had a nine-year relationship with Ravi Shankar, towards the end of which Norah was born.

Ravi Shankar (b. 1920), of course, introduced classical Indian sitar music to Yehudi Menuhin, John Coltrane, George Harrison, and the rest of the Western world. He was one of the stars of the Woodstock Festival (I’m not imagining that, I saw him there). Norah was born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar (or in the original Bengali: গীথালি নরাহ জন্স শঙ্কর)). She only saw her father a few times a year until she was nine, and then not until she was 18, when he introduced her to her 16-year-old half-sister Anoushka, now a successful Shankar-trained sitar player.

Norah plays down the father connection, but she has pursued lots of other musical directions. She recorded “The Fall” at home in 2009, a darker, more personal, laid-back album, including ‘Chasing Pirates‘. Last month (Nov 2010) she released ” …Featuring Norah Jones,” a collection of 18 duets she’s made over the last few years with artists such as Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, Herbie Hancock, Foo Fighters and Q-Tip. That’s one eclectic broad.

She’s even starred in a very respectable movie, “My Blueberry Nights,” directed by Wong Kar-Wai with supporting roles from Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz. And with all of that, Norah Jones seems determined to avoid the pitfalls of celebrity and stardom. In spite of her incredible box office and cash register appeal, she consistently involves herself in small, personal, quality projects. Well, more power to you Norah. Not only an eclectic broad, but apparently a very spiffy and tasteful one.

For our SoTW, we’re going to a pretty obscure cut of hers, a collaboration that didn’t even make it onto her collaboration CD. But to get there, we’re going to have to go on a little detour (okay, FY, F.Y.).

Tim Ries (b. circa 1959) is a very respectable jazz soprano saxophonist who’s studied under Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman and Bob Brookmeyer. He’s played with everyone from Steely Dan to Stevie Wonder to Paul Simon, as well as one of my very favorite musicians, Maria Schneider. He’s currently a professor of jazz at the University of Toronto. In 1999 he gigged in the horn section (and occasional keyboards) on The Rolling Stones No Security tour. After the tour, he recorded three Stones’ songs to see how they’d sound in a jazz context.  He gave them the demo. Keith Richards:

I thought what Tim recorded was amazing, and I’m sort of jealous of him. When we wrote those songs, there was a lot of pressure on us to keep them as short as possible for the singles market. With what Tim does, he has the luxury to stretch out the melodies and play with the different chords and harmonies. Instead of the sketches that we basically recorded, Tim’s versions are more like fully finished things. The playing is beautiful too. Tim always has such a beautiful sound.

The Stones enthusiastically supported the project, which gave birth to 2 CDs, “The Rolling Stones Project” (2005) and the double-CD “Stones World” (2008). Pitching in were Bill Frisell, Milton Nascimento, Eddie Palmieri, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Frisell, Bernard Fowler, the divine Luciana Souza, Sheryl Crow, John Scofield, and Wayne Shorter’s bass-drum team John Patitucci and Brian Blade. Oh, and The Rolling Stones themselves. Here’s Watts/Wood/Richards and Sheryl Crow helping Tim Ries out on ‘Slipping Away.’

And here’s Bernard Fowler singing ‘Wild Horses’ live on a Tim Ries tour, a bit overdone for my tastes. Here’s a better clip, Tim Ries talking about the project and the recording session from the studio of a flamenco-informed ‘Jumping Jack Flash’. Fellas, if you’ve ever taken my advice about anything, watch this clip. If it doesn’t make your blood boil, you’re probably dead. And here’s Tim Ries recorded version of ‘Paint It Black’, and you’ll find lots more live performances from the project on YouTube. Here’s ‘Salt of the Earth’, sung in a number of languages and styles by a number of singers, one of whom is Ahinoam Nini’s sister Odeya doing Stones in Hebrew!

And here’s my pick of the lot, Norah Jones singing ‘Wild Horses’, backed by Bill Frisell and the whole Tim Ries crew. It’s not the best cut from Tim Ries’ Rolling Stones Project, and it’s not Norah Jones’ best cut. But it’s a really, really NICE cut, and I hope F.Y. and everyone else out there enjoys it as much as I do. So there!

Childhood living is easy to do
The things you want

ed I bought them for you
Graceless lady, you know who I am
You know I can’t let you slide through my hands
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.

I watched you suffer a dull aching pain
Now you’ve decided to show me the same
But no sweet, vain exits or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind

Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.

I know I dreamed you a sin and a lie
I have my freedom, but I don’t have much time
Faith has been broken, tears must be cried
Let’s do some living after love dies
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.

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245: Johnny Mathis, ‘Misty’

Posted by jeff on Sep 9, 2016 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

heavenlyalbumcovertrim-jpg-w300h454Johnny Mathis, ‘Misty’ (1959 video, 55″)

Johnny Mathis – ‘It’s Not For Me To Say’, ‘Twelfth Of Never’, ‘Wild Is The Wind’, ‘When Sunny Gets Blue’, ‘Chances Are’, ‘Wonderful,Wonderful’ (video medley, 1965)

It’s that month. Time to repent. Some people get up before before dawn to fervently recite indecipherable poetry written in a long-dead language in the Middle Ages.

Me, I’ll just recite a litany of all the music I’ve ever been enthralled with and am now embarrassed to have done so.

A high school buddy, AB, sent me a couple of record reviews I wrote for the Bulldog Barks in 1965. “Rubber Soul” and Barbra Streisand. I blushed a bit at the callowness of the style, but the musical observations themselves? Spot on.

I think back primarily to the pre-Beatles era. After they Sullivaned into our lives, we had great stuff to listen to, and our tastes evolved as we grew into college. So what if there was an occasional rave to Sam & Dave’s ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’? I’d had a couple of pre-legal beers, and Sam & Dave are nothing to be ashamed of.

johnny_mathis___iconic_by_iconcollectiblesBack in junior high, the radio was playing Rex Allen’s “Son Don’t Go Near the Indians” and Lawrence Welk’s ‘Calcutta’, but we got that they were crap. We even knew how to take Chubby Checker’s ‘Let’s Twist Again’ and Connie Francis’s ‘Where the Boys Are’ with a grain of salt; and were even then aware of the difference between all of them and The Shirelles’ ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ and Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’.

So I’m surprisingly comfortable with what enraptured me back then. My perspicaciousness, in retrospect, stands me in good stead.

But we’re here to talk about the trespasses. That stuff I’m embarrassed to admit that I loved once upon a pimply time.

C’mon, Jeff. You want expiation? Give ‘em up.
Okay, okay. Here goes:

541_2Eddie Fisher, ‘Around the World’ b/w ‘Cindy, Oh Cindy’.
My defence? I was 11, it (they) were the first 45 I ever listened to (when my sister wasn’t in her room). The fact that the second 45 I stole a listen to was Sam Cooke’s ‘You Send Me’ is apparently no defense. Mea culpa. x2.

Martin Denny, ‘The Enchanted Sea’.
Okay, okay, full disclosure: and a half dozen LPs of same.
But I had this discussion one night with a cool jazz pianist (with a pencil moustache), and he concurred that those were indeed the most exotic sounds around. Well, for 13 year-olds. Coltrane’s sheets of sound were from another universe.

Simon and Garfunkel, ‘For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her’.
I’m just too embarrassed to reveal what that song did to me back then. I don’t care, let me rot in hell. You’re not going to hear about it.

johnny-mathis-johnnys-greatest-390393But the Ultimate Tresspass?
Johnny Mathis.
And oh, what a sin it was.
“Johnny’s Greatest Hits”. “Johnny’s Greatest Hits Vol II”. Heavenly”. “Faithfully”. “Wonderful, Wonderful.” “I’ll Buy You a Star”. It was 1957-1961 by the Gregorian calendar, 8th-10th grade by mine.

I squirm to think of those albums. I squirm to think of how those albums made me squirm.
There are skeletons banging on that closet door. Let ‘em out, Jeff.

Johnny Mathis was a distinctive crooner. All the traditional MOR crooners of the late 50s/early 60s — the Sinatras and Ecksteins and Martins and Bennets and King Coles and Belafontes  – were real, ordinary male Homo sapiens. Johnny Mathis was, is, will always be – how shall I put this when I no longer talk the talk of PC nuance? – other.

His voice is freakishly sensuous and gooey. A vibrato that can whip cream. That did, actually.

37847d350daf5bf9c6c4d63a065fcb63Tons of tomes have been written about prepubescent girls and androgynous pop idols. Tweenie boys have been markedly neglected. Perhaps it’s better that way.

Getting ready do my homework, my finger reaches to click on ‘Chances Are’, the first and quintessential track on the ultimate album, “Johnny’s Greatest Hits”. The album spent 491 consecutive weeks (nine-and-a-half fucking years!!) in the Billboard top 100.

I reach to click on the track, but there’s no need. It’s hardwired. That red button is a permanent nodule in the juke box of my mind. Columbia 1133. Just as much as Capitol 2047 (“Meet The Beatles!” for you Martians).

I can play ‘Chances Are’ in my mind at the flick of a synapse. But I can’t really hear it any more than I can hear ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ today. The groove is worn out.

Photo by Richard Avedon

Photo by Richard Avedon

I’m not going to make excuses, even though it was 1961 and I was 13. Know what it was? It was makeout music, perfected. It was the soundtrack of my hormonal life; i.e., my life. Every time I was alone with a girl in high school in reality or in my imagination, it was playing on my Victrola or in the heavens.

I’m guessing there were a lot more misses than hits there, but I wouldn’t count on the accuracy of that memory—in either direction. That groove is worn out as well.

But now, threescore years on, the setting has changed. Or has it?  “What shall I do with this absurdity—/O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,/Decrepit age that has been tied to me/As to a dog’s tail?”

Enough. I come to bury Johnny, not to praise him. Let’s just SoTW him and be done with it.

460x1240John Royce Mathis (b. 1935) was a high school high jump and hurdles star (he was asked to try out for the US Olympic team) who studied voice, including opera, for years before becoming a professional singer. He was one of the first musicians to focus on selling albums rather than singles. He’s sold well over 350 million of them, and still lives in a house built by Howard Hughes.

The songs on his early albums were garnered from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and the Brill Building (‘Heavenly’ and ‘Faithfully’ were written by pre-Hal David Burt Bacharach!). A very surprising portion of them were penned for Johnny, including from the “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” album alone ‘Chances Are’, ‘The Twelfth of Never’, ‘When Sunny Gets Blue’ (a truly beautiful and indelible song, covered by everyone), ‘Wonderful, Wonderful’, ‘It’s Not for Me to Say’, and ‘Wild is the Wind’ (yes, the one covered by David Bowie and Esperanza Spalding).

kitten_tree_climbSong of The Week? ‘Misty’, hands-down.

The song was written and recorded by pianist Erroll Garner in 1954, but remained unknown. Johnny: “I heard Erroll Garner play it when I was in my teens. I was frequenting the Black Hawk, where Erroll played three or four times a year. One night, he played the tune. There were no lyrics yet. I liked it a lot. I blurted out, ‘Mr. Garner, I am going to record your song if I ever make a record.’ Several years later, Johnny Burke [ ‘Here’s That Rainy Day’, ‘Imagination’, ‘It Could Happen to You’, ‘Like Someone in Love’, ‘Moonlight Becomes You’, ‘Pennies from Heaven’, ‘Polka dots and Moonbeams’, almost all with Jimmy Van Heusen–JM] had written lyrics to it, and I had fallen in love with Sarah Vaughan’s version.”

Mathis, Garner

Mathis, Garner

It’s been covered hundreds of times since, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. Here’s some cool background reading about the recording of ‘Misty’ by blogger Joe Manning. Nice job, Joe!

It might just be the most romantic recording ever. Johnny’s ‘on my own’ falsetto fade-in entry after the instrumental break (a B-flat) might just be the single most romantic moment ever put to tape.

I don’t know how many back-seat assignations were played out to its strains. Let’s tryst again, like we did last summer. But most of the couples we know owe a very certain debt to that singer and that song. And for that – thanks, Johnny.

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065: Ella Fitzgerald, ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’

Posted by jeff on May 25, 2016 in Jazz, Personal, Song Of the week, Vocalists

This week’s Song of The Week is about beatniks, high school nostalgia, and the convoluted paths we take to visit our past. Oh, yeah, and about a terrific if somewhat obscure jazz standard. If that sounds oxymoronic, it’s because the unique charm of jazz lies in the fact that a song can be both obscure and yet a standard. But we’ll get to that.

Ella Fitzgerald, ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’

The best part of my youth was spending junior and senior years in Ensemble, a select 36-voice group, top of the heap of the half-dozen choirs at Woodward HS in Grover’s Corner, Midwest. I’ve been singing ever since, and still attribute my basic good habits to the training from those years, third period, right before lunch, five days a week, not counting summer rehearsals. Heaven only knows how the level of the group was so high at a regular public high school. I remember distinctly being no higher than the middle of the pecking order of the eight basses in terms of vocal abilities (range, quality, reading, memory). Don Howells was the best. He sang ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ with more resonance, depth, and soul than Bill Medley. Don was a pretty nice guy, even if he wasn’t stellar academically, and I hope his significant vocal abilities stood him in good stead wherever he wound up. My guess would be either pumping gas or in a correctional institution. But, my, that boy could sing.

I’m talking about Ensemble because I think it was really fine musically. If this were nothing but a self-indulgent nostalgia trip, I’d be talking about that legendary garage band The Dropouts, and their groundbreaking performance of Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’, which introduced electric music to my high school’s halls.

Anyway, in my memory, Ensemble was the finest amateur group I’ve ever sung in, and there have been many. But one wonders about the veracity of one’s memories, especially concerning the romantic days of one’s youth, right? So thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the luxury time on the hands of lots of bored baby-boomers, I was able to listen to Ensemble singing the standard ‘The Second Time Around’.

I’ll be the first to admit, it sounds pretty unspecial. It sounds VERY unspecial. Is my memory that askew? Well, it just so happens that in recent years I’ve had some degree of contact with four members of the group– Marc, Mark, Aaron, and Kathie. And it turns out that four of the five of us have been seriously involved with singing over the course of our lives, three professionally. They all corroborate my memory. It was an excellent, stringent training ground for precise, high-level choral singing.

Our director was named Frank Lang. He was a bachelor, a mamma’s boy according to rumor. Probably in his mid-30s when he taught us. He was petulant but professional. A good-humored guy, but he worked intensively with us for so long that there were plenty of conflicts along the way. I’m not idealizing that. We didn’t idolize Mr Lang. My memory tells me that even then, as obnoxious high-schoolers, we respected his professional talents. I was a particularly obnoxious teenager, universally disliked by my teachers. A pain in the neck, a wiseass with a big mouth, a chronic disrupter of classroom decorum. Except for Ensemble. At the bell, I’d be sitting in my chair. Actually, at the edge of my chair. That’s what Drill Sergeant Lang forced into our hormone-choked brains. When you sing, your back is straight, your butt is at the edge of your chair, and your body is fully engaged to support your voice production. Even today, no matter how tired, no matter how bored, that’s how I sit in rehearsal.

All five of us remember a lot of the repertoire. We could sing a lot of the songs today. We all would be happy to have the opportunity, which of course we won’t. But there’s one particular arrangement that Mr Lang brought us that I’ve had a dynamic relationship with for these 44 years since I last saw him. I remember the score, written in his hand. It was his arrangement of a difficult, beautiful, challenging jazz song, ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’.

The lyrics of the song were written by Fran Landesman in 1952, who with her husband Jay and pianist buddy Tommy Wolf, wrote a beatnik musical (sic), “The Nervous Set”, poster by Jules Feiffer, which actually made it to Broadway. Here’s a fascinating clip describing Fran as an impresario and hostess of no small renown, a central figure in the bohemian scene of the late 50s/early 60s in St Louis (where she was central in promoting the nascent careers of Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand, among many others), later in London. According to friends, Fran was inspired to write ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’ by TS Eliot’s poem, ‘The Wasteland’. (I wrote my master’s thesis on TS Eliot. In retrospect, I wish I’d written it on Fran Landesman.)

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

 

I sure wish I could talk a bit about the beatnik scene of the 1950s, but another time. Perhaps I’ll take that opportunity when I talk about the companion piece from the same musical, another obscure standard, ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’, a very, very beautiful song itself.

Ms Landesman wrote more versions of lyrics for this song than Dylan did for his masterpieces of the mid-1970s. At the end of the post you can see the version I know best, the lyrics Mr Lang incorporated into his choral arrangement for Ensemble.

I don’t know what version of the song inspired Mr Lang. All the 1950s cool chick singers recorded it – June Christy, Chris Conner, Blossom Dearie, Julie London, Helen Merrill, Irene Kral – as well as many non-cool ones (Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan). Although the song has never really penetrated the wider audience’s consciousness, in recent years both diva vamps (Jane Monheit, Holly Cole) and rock/pop singers (Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler) have had their go at it, a credit to the song’s staying power (as one critic said, the song “grows every year”). Barbra Streisand sang it at the very beginning of her career (1962) and again towards the end (2009), a distant parallel to Glenn Gould’s ‘Goldberg Variations’.  One of my very favorites versions is that by Norwegian Radke Toneff (who is always wonderful, with her glacial purity), to whom I paid tribute at some length in SoTW 033. The song has also been given innumerable instrumental treatments over the years.

As I’ve mentioned, ‘SCRHYUTM’ (sounds suspiciously like…) is an inordinately challenging song technically. Despite the catchy hook of the title (with the roller-coaster stomach-in-your-throat plunge on ‘hang you up’, the melody is slithery, slippery, abstract, bordering on unsingable. From experience, let me tell you that this isn’t one that you want to try to perform unaccompanied. I’ve been listening to the many attempts, and have heard some very fine singers struggle with the song. So why do so many keep trying their hand at it? Because it’s so enticing and elusive and seductive, because it’s so precise and affective in its evocation of the spring blues. April can indeed be the cruelest month.

Interestingly, very few men have sung the song, although there’s nothing gender-specific about it.

So which version are we going to go for with our Song of The Week? I wish it could have been Ensemble’s but that one’s gone. It could easily have been Radke’s, or either of Barbra’s. But we’ll go with the best-known version of a too-little-known song, that of Ella Fitzgerald’s from the album “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!” (1961). We’ve been carrying on far to long to give fair space to the impeccable, inimitable Ms Fitzgerald. Let’s just say that she more than anyone has the technical skill to deliver the song effortlessly, focusing purely and sweetly-sadly on the oh-so-melancholy music itself.

I don’t know what musical path led Mr Lang to ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’. I don’t know what his tastes were. But my guess is that this is what he really loved, and that we performed ‘The Second Time Around’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ a lot more for obvious reasons. I remember his arrangement of ‘SCRHYUTM’, albeit sketchily, because it was (and still is) a very difficult song. I would give an awful lot to hear his version today.

Choral jazz is a sub-sub-sub-genre I’ve gotten very interested in in recent years, especially as it’s being taken to new levels in Scandinavia today. I won’t call myself an expert, but I probably have exposed myself to more of it than most of my neighbors. And I believe very firmly that Mr Lang’s arrangement was half a century ahead of its time. Probably more, because the field still hasn’t gotten there. I thought it was intriguing when I encountered it at 17. Today, in retro-retrospect, it looks all that much more brilliant.

And I sure wish I could tell him how much it’s been a part of my musical soul after all these years. I’m guessing it would give him some satisfaction, to know that he planted some musical seeds inside those pimpled skulls, seeds that actually took root. I was 20 years younger than the Frank Lang in the picture, and I’m 20 years older than that man now. A few years ago one of my old high-school friends sent me Mr Lang’s obituary from the Grover’s Corner News. I’m not going to have the chance to thank him face-to-face. So I’ll do it here, second best but still somewhat gratifying. Thanks, Mr Lang.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

SoTW 033: Radke Toneff, ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’

SoTW 057: Anita O’Day, ‘Tea for Two’

SoTW 045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

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