The Real Group — ‘Nature Boy’
A cause for celebration
The Real Group, 2013
Four Swedes and a Dane recently climbed up on bar stools in a living room with a few friends in Södermalm, Stockholm. What the big deal? They’re The Real Group, the best singing group in the world; they sang ‘Nature Boy’ breathtakingly, with an exquisite lead by Emma Nilsdotter in an inspired arrangement by Anders Edenroth; it was filmed with impeccable taste; and the result is just a little perfect.
The Real Group and Contemporary A Cappella
The Real Group honed their a cappella jazz skills in the late 1980s as five buddies doing their academy studies together in Stockholm. They invented their own academic program, and a whole new take on group jazz singing. Inspired more by Bobby McFerrin’s restrained virtuosity than by Manhattan Transfer’s brash, brassy showiness, they reworked Count Basie arrangements in a five-voice context and sparked an entire musical movement, Contemporary A Cappella, with luminaries such as Rajaton (Finland), Vocal Line (Denmark), The Swingle Singers in their current very hip incarnation (UK), The Idea of North (Australia), and even obliquely Take Six (US). Here’s a SoTW I wrote about The Real Group a while back, with lots of links to their music.
The Real Group, 2013
Contemporary a cappella may be a small movement compared to hip-hop or trance, but its devotees are passionate and growing in numbers. And we all know what passionate cults are capable of. I’m flying this week to my third congregation of cultists, the second this year, at the Aarhus Vocal Festival in Denmark. As unique an experience as Woodstock was (yes, I was there—the Forrest Gump of musical fests), we hippies tended to stare at each other in bewilderment. Here it’s all hugs and grins and a sincere sense of brotherhood in harmony.
Much of this warmth is due to The Real Group themselves, because they’re warm, personable, down-to-earth people. Remember how everyone copied The Beatles’ mop tops? TRG’s modesty has become the currency of our genre.
After twenty-eight years, The Real Group is still going strong (albeit with two changes from the original line-up). In recent years they’ve moved more towards original material – for example, ‘Pass Me the Jazz’ (the next clip to be released from the same session as ‘Nature Boy’); fine as it is, it’s a special pleasure to return to the Great American Songbook and one of its more unusual luminaries, ‘Nature Boy’.
Nat ‘King’ Cole
Nat ‘King’ Cole, eden ahbez
In 1947, a short, barefoot man with shoulder-length hair on a bicycle pushed a tattered score into the hand of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s manager, Mort Ruby, backstage at a theater in LA. Cole liked the Yiddish flavor and intriguing lyrics of the little song and began playing it in his shows. It went over very well, so he wanted to record it. Go find the composer in order to get the rights to the song.
Nat Cole (1919-1965) led a very successful jazz trio in the 1930s and 1940s as the pianist. The apocryphal story is that one night a rowdy drunk insisted that Nat sing ‘Sweet Lorraine’, it caught on, and he began singing more and more. His first hit was in 1943, ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’, which Bo Diddley credited as being a precursor of rock and roll. And Bo Knows!!
In the late 1940s, Nat cemented his move from jazz piano to popular vocals – ‘The Christmas Song’ (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire), ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Unforgettable’, ‘Too Young’ and of course ‘Nature Boy’. But first we have to find that long-haired guy.
The Family ahbez
Alexander Aberle was born in Brooklyn in 1908 to a Jewish father and Scottish mother, grew up in a Jewish orphanage till he was adopted at age 9 by a couple from Chanute, Kansas, who changed his name to George McGrew.
He worked in obscurity as a pianist and dance band leader till he got his breakthrough gig in LA in 1941— playing at a small health food store and raw food restaurant owned by a couple of German immigrants, adherents to the Lebensreform lifestyle of health food/raw food/organic food, nudism, sexual liberation, alternative medicine, and abstention from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and vaccines.
Alexander/George renamed himself eden ahbez (‘only the words God and Infinity are worthy of capitalization’), but his friends called him ahbe. Together with wife Anna Jacobsen, their son Tatha Om and another dozen ‘tribesmen’, ahbe and The Nature Boys (recognize that name?) lived off the land in Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs, slept in caves and trees, and bathed in waterfalls. They prided themselves on subsisting on under $3 a week.
The Nature Boys
The Nature Boys are today widely perceived as the precursors of the Hippie movement. Except for the bathing part.
One of the other notable Nature Boys was Gypsy Boots, aka Robert Bootzin. His health food store “Health Hut” was the first of its kind in the world, a celebrity hangout in the early 1960s. He invented his own renowned garlic cheese, the natural smoothie and the organic energy bar, cheered wildly at all USC football games, marched in parades, and swung from a vine on network TV shows – Groucho Marx, Spike Jones, and (25 times) The Steve Allen Show. His non-nature buddies included Marlon Brando, Jay Leno, Paul Newman and Muhammad Ali.
Meanwhile, Nat Cole’s people finally tracked down the ahbez family, living underneath the first ‘L’ of the HOLLYWOOD sign, and acquired the rights to record the song. Nat Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ became a megahit, eight weeks at #1 on the charts, but it turned out that ahbe had given a half dozen people different shares of the publishing rights, and he ended up with virtually nothing. (After Cole died, his wife eventually gave the rights back to ahbe in toto.)
Here’s a fascinating clip from a 1948 TV show, in which ahbe explains how he came to write ‘Nature Boy’ and then meets Nat Cole for the first time, live before the cameras. Well, kind of.
ahbe lived in relative obscurity (I guess under that “L”), eating nuts and being healthy. Incredibly (or maybe not, when you think about it), he’s shown in this photo with Brian Wilson during the recording of “SMiLE”, just before Brian’s breakdown. ahbe recorded a couple of albums including songs like Eden’s Cove, which is somewhere between Martin Denny and Wild Man Fisher. If you listen to the break at 1’10” you may really grasp the key to Brian Wilson’s mind and the meaning of the universe. As well as the taste of the garlic smoothie.
He died in 1995 at the age of 86 in a car accident.
‘Nature Boy’—The Song
The structure of ‘Nature Boy’ is quite unusual—AB:
There was a boy,
A very strange, enchanted boy.
They say he wandered very far,
Very far, over land
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he.
And then one day,
One magic day he passed my way
While we spoke of many things
Fools and kings, this he said to me:
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.”
It’s really not much more than an extended introduction. To tell you the truth, it’s hard for me to explain its tremendous appeal.
Is it the melody? Anders Edenroth, tenor extraordinaire of The Real Group and arranger of their stunning version, says “I like to see it as a hybrid between jazz and the elastic approach of the Yiddish tradition.”
When those icy Swedes start talking about that Yiddish kvetch, I just melt. In Anders’ arrangement, after the initial AB, at 2’26”, the group opens the song into a Nordic expedition into the Heart of Yiddishism, an immaculate union of the pristine and the passionate.
Another Nature Boy
Bernard Malamud, one of my favorite authors, said “All men are Jews, though few men know it.” He explained this famous statement as “a metaphoric way of indicating how history, sooner or later, treats all men,” meaning I think that the default experience of Jews is suffering, that all individuals at some point in their lives are touched by the same suffering that has been the fabric of Jewish history. This is the background that informs Yiddish melodies.
When ‘Nature Boy’ became a hit, a Yiddish musical composer, Herman Yablokoff claimed that the melody to “Nature Boy” came from one of his songs, “Shvayg mayn harts” (“Be Still My Heart”). ahbe retorted that he “heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains.” They settled out of court for $25,000. No recording of Yablokoff’s song is known, but here’s another Yiddish song with the same title, about a blind Jewish orphan boy selling cigarettes and matches in the ghetto of Grodno during WWII to stay alive. If you look at a map, Grodno in Belarus really isn’t that far from Sweden.
ahbez et Wilson, January 1967
Or perhaps, as Anders suggests, “the enigmatic meaning of the lyrics has puzzled and attracted quite a few listeners.”
There’s something riveting about “The Little Prince”, that small, unblemished, all-knowing innocent, imparting the wisdom of the world to the rest of us. Ironically, ahbe himself later had some reservations about his own lyric: “To be loved in return is too much of a deal, and that has nothing to do with love.” He wanted to correct it to: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love, just to love, and be loved.”
It’s also interesting to note that the first two measures of the melody of ‘Nature Boy’ parallel the melody of the second movement of Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Op. 81 (1887). What do you have to say about that, Mr Yablokoff? Are you going to sue Dvořák?
‘Nature Boy’ – Recordings
‘Nature Boy’ clearly strikes a resonant chord. Following Nat Cole’s hit, it immediately became a fallback vehicle for unbridled emotion in the Great American Songbook.
Here’s Nat Cole’s hit version of the song, but the orchestra gets a bit carried away, and I’d recommend this live version from 1948.
Some of the notable early treatments of the song from the 1950s are those by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan (in a rare dud) and Miles Davis.
The Real Group, 2013
But the song has proven to be immensely popular in a wide variety of settings, sometimes more successfully, sometimes less so. Interesting versions that I recommend skipping are those by David Bowie (bombastic), James Brown (unfortunately I could only find an audio version), Grace Slick (in her pre-Airplane incarnation, The Great Society), and Lisa Ekdahl (no Yiddish pathos there). The great jazz singer Mark Murphy starts out great but inexplicably chooses to take the song to Trinidad (no Yiddish pathos there, either).
Two excellent vocal groups, Singers Unlimited (1975) and Pentatonix (2012), show by contrast just how fine an accomplishment is that of The Real Group.
A few versions that are worth checking out for their own distinctive merits are that by Nataly Dawn, a very talented young indie artist; and Radka Toneff, who’s always fine, but who doesn’t squeeze the song the way The Real Group’s Emma does. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise I discovered is Lizz Wright, a singer I’ve long admired, in a drum duet. I don’t know how much it has to do with the essence of the song, but it’s one fine, intense piece of music.
Two singers get special mention. Surprisingly, Cher. She sang it in a 1998 TV tribute to her late husband Sonny Bono, calling her grief “something I never plan to get over.” She’s clearly singing from the heart of her heart, and ‘Nature Boy’ is clearly a chillingly apt tribute to him.
And, unsurprisingly, the great Kurt Elling. ‘Nature Boy’ is a signature song of his. He goes through the song once in a traditional take, then flies off into spheres of unparalleled scatting virtuosity, egged onwards and upwards by pianist Laurence Hobgood, an utter tour de force. Here’s his studio version, and you can find many fine live versions here.
And just in case you’d like to join the list, here’s a karaoke version. Send in your recordings to SoTW, we’ll be glad to post them.
For my money, with all the credit to all the fine artists who’ve recorded the song over the years, I’m going to stick with The Real Group. This is what our contemporary a cappella can be: just a little perfect.
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Posted by jeff on Apr 19, 2013 in Song Of the week
Barbra Streisand on The Ed Sullivan Show, 1962, ‘My Coloring Book’ and ‘Lover Come Back to Me’
Barbra Streisand on The Ed Sullivan Show, 1962, ‘My Coloring Book’ and ‘Lover Come Back to Me’
This week we’re going to look at the tragically short career of one of the finest vocal stylists in the history of popular music.
Barbra Streisand was born in 1942, and earned a reputation as a “crazy” in high school, where she was friends with Neil Diamond and Bobby Fischer. At 18 she was already singing in night clubs, at 19 she was appearing regularly as a curiosity on The Tonight Show, at 20 she landed a ‘small but star-making’ role in a Broadway musical. She had recorded two Top 10 albums for Columbia before her 21st birthday.
No one recognized it at the time, but she had contracted an artistically fatal disease.
She was born homely. Her mother told her she wasn’t pretty enough to be an entertainer, and urged her to learn typing. Her young persona confronted that image directly—joking about her very large nose, her Brooklyn demeanor, her awkward deportment, her horrifying empire-waist dresses.
At 22 she left her nightclub career for the starring role in a smash Broadway musical hit. She played the role of a talented loser, became a megastar, and turned herself into a loser of a talent. The Broadway show launched her to the peak of her profession, perhaps the most successful singer/actress in the past couple of generations. From that point on, it has been a long slide down the slippery slope of inflated ego and glitz posing as guts.
Yawn. If you loved Yentl, please close this immediately and go watch it. If you think ‘People’ is a moving song, press Escape real fast and go listen to it. In my very humble opinion, they’re mawkish, embarrassing pablum.
In Funny Girl, she this number, ‘I’m the Greatest Star’. A tour de force of kosher ham. It’s very funny–because it’s ironic. Because she presents herself as the ugly duckling ludicrously pretending to be A Star. But within a very short time, she started coming on with the décolletage and poils and filmed through a misty haze–it ain’t funny, girl.
If you’re still here, I guess you’re with me in that persecuted minority who wish The Queen would put on some clothes, cover her bodice, and stop trying to convince us that she’s glamorous. She can consort with all the Ryan O’Neals and Robert Redfords in the world, and she’s still going to be that liddle Yiddle from Flatbush. But I’ll betcha there are very few among us here, the non-BS fans, the heretics, who have really given her a fair break as a serious artist.
With then-husband Elliot Gould
Gasp. He called her an artist???
Yup. Her first two albums, “The Barbra Streisand Album” and “The Second Barbra Streisand Album,” are as unpretentious as their titles. They come from that 1962 loft down in the Village, when she was married to Elliot Gould. The singing is genuinely ballsy, overflowing with young and innocent love for the world, whether it’s newfound independence or the most purely broken heart a young girl could have. Her voice is the pure heady optimism of Kennedy-era optimism. The songs, many of them standards from the 1940s, are dead-on examples of the political and sexual awakening of the 1962 New Frontier – post-beatnik hip, cynical and funny, intense and emotionally committed. Her signature song was ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’, the theme song of FDR’s 1932 campaign, eventually the buoyant and optimistic theme song of the Democratic Party. Except that Babs gives it a somber treatment, at a deliberate tempo, with harrowing, gut-wrenching commitment.
We’ve always known she had the greatest chops this side of La Scala before they were sacrificed on the altar of auto-adulation. She can still flit in one breath from a Gorgeous George Gorilla Press to the butterfly caress of a brain surgeon. But in these two albums she’s funny and clever and impassioned, and, for me, utterly convincing. She moves me.
Then she became a star.
She performed two songs on The Ed Sullivan Show in December, 1962. One is a pretty fine ballad, ‘My Coloring Book’.
With then-president Jack Kennedy
But the song we’ve chosen for our Song of The Week is Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II’s standard ‘Lover, Come Back to Me.’ This recording was made two months before the release of her first album, a year before the second. It’s over the top, it’s extravagantly demonstrative, and I love it.
The structure is standard, AABABA, with the verse culminating in some variant of the name of the song. Listen to just that, the imperative: “Lover, come back to me”. She sings it four times. Follow how it grows from a polite request to an ardent plea to an unveiled threat to a cavewoman’s club over the poor guy’s noggin. And that grounch at the end, when she’s dragging him back into the home cave by his hair. This ain’t glitz. This is fine, inventive, honest vocal artistry. No worrying about at what angle the camera is going to catch her schnozz. Just her and that absentee lover.
She’s 20 years old when she sings this.
It seems the ugly duckling is a whole lot more interesting than the swan.
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Posted by jeff on Mar 29, 2013 in Song Of the week
The Mills Brothers – Jungle Fever
The Mills Brothers – Sleepy Head
The Mills Brothers – Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet
The Mills Brothers – Tiger Rag
The Mills Brothers – St. Louis Blues
The Mills Brothers – Rocking Chair
Four Boys and a Guitar
Ever here of Piqua, Ohio? It’s 25 miles north of Dayton, The name comes from the Shawnee “Othath-He-Waugh-Pe-Qua”, roughly translated as “He has risen from the ashes!” In 1749 it was called Fort Pickawillany, and by 1800 Upper and Lower Piqua merged into—you guessed it, Piqua. In 1833, John Randolph passed away and freed his slaves. Rossville, which he founded, also joined the burgeoning metropolis. By 1910 it had a population of 13,388, including John and Eathel Mills. John owned a barber shop on Public Square, so he and Eathel appropriately formed a barbershop quartet.
Four Boys and their Big Momma
Their four boys would sing and play kazoo for passersby (we’re guessing there wasn’t a whole lot else to do in 1925 Piqua). They entered an amateur contest at Piqua’s Mays Opera House (a movie theater in reality), John Jr (b. 1910) on guitar, all four singing tight harmonies. But alas, while on stage, Harry (b. 1913) discovered he had left his kazoo at the barber shop, so he cupped his hands to his mouth and imitated a trumpet. They won the contest, and began imitating popular orchestras from the radio. John sang tuba; Harry, trumpet; Herbert (b. 1912) second trumpet; and Donald (b. 1915) the trombone. By 1928, they had graduated to playing between Rin Tin Tin features at May’s Opera House. They got an audition at WLW Cincinnati, the biggest radio station in the Midwest, and became local stars. Duke Ellington heard them and arranged an audition at CBS radio, which William Paley heard over a loudspeaker. He walked downstairs and put them right on the air. Billed as Four Boys and a Guitar, they became the first African-Americans to have a network radio show. It was a giant hit. They even co-starred on The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour hosted by Rudy Vallee and were featured in several movies.
Their very first recording, ‘Tiger Rag’ (from The Big Broadcast), hit #1 in 1931 (remember, the boys were 21,19, 18 and 16 at the time), quickly followed by classics such as ‘St Louis Blues’, ‘Rocking Chair’, ‘I Heard’ and ‘How’m I Doin’, Hey, Hey’, Swing It, Sister, the charming ‘Sleepy Head’ and ‘Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet’. Printed on all their records of this period was the disclaimer “No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other than one guitar.”
In 1934 they were invited to England to perform before the King (the first African-Americans to be so honored), but John Jr caught pneumonia there and died. The boys wanted to break up the band, but Eathel said John Jr would have wanted them to continue, so John Sr replaced him and they hired a guitarist from outside the family.
Jungle Fever 1934
The Andrews Sisters may have been the most popular tight-harmony tight-family group of that era, but The Mills Brothers and The Boswell Sisters (see SoTW 105) were the real innovative artists. The Boswells were mistresses of technique, wonderful harmonies and oodles of humor, with gravity-defying shifts in tempo and key. The Mills Brothers, the epitome of good taste and paragons of class, could scat nose-to-nose with Louis and Ella, invented both voices imitating instruments and vocal contrabass. Their materials are still lovable, charming and disarming after all these years. They collaborated with the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong (check out this trumpet duet!), Ella Fitzgerald, and Bing Crosby (here’s their giant hit ‘Dina’ from 1932, here they are with him in 1966). Bing calls them “the smoothest group of all time”, and Bing knows ‘smooth’.
Jungle Fever 1991
Their biggest hit was ‘Paper Doll’ in 1942, after which they stopped recording in the ‘Four Boys and a Guitar’ format in favor of more conventional accompaniment. The group was widely popular throughout the war years, and continued performing in the Dad and three sons format till 1957, when John Sr retired. They were still scoring numerous hits in the 1950s, even into the rock and roll era. They continue to appear today, including third generation Millses.
For our Song of The Week, we’ve picked a zinger which demonstrates all their vocal skills, ‘Jungle Fever’. Today the Urban Dictionary defines that as ‘when a non-black person is attracted sexually to black people’. In 1991 both Spike Lee (in a film) and Stevie Wonder (an album) employed the concept. Must have been something in the air. Here’s Stevie’s cut (“She’s gone black guy crazy, he’s gone white girl hazy/They got jungle fever”).
Four Men and a Guitar
But in 1934, when miscegeny was a crime? What in heaven’s name could they have been talking about? Well, you use your imagination and I’ll use mine. Our mores have certainly evolved since then. As have our sense of the exotic, the mysterious and the sexually dangerous. But not, I think, our sense of class.
Ever see the Congo when it’s steaming in the night?
Ever see the jungle with the animals in fright?
Put me in the Congo in the jungle and I’m right.
Got that fever that jungle fever,
Oh, you know the reason that I long to go.
Dusky maiden, dark-haired siren, Congo sweetheart,
I’m comin’ back to you.
Wild-eyed woman, native dreamgirl, jungle fever
Is in my blood for you.
Ever hear a kettle drum pounding out a beat?
Ever fight the silence and the madness and the heat?
That’s the thrill I’m cravin’ and the music is so sweet.
Oh, the congos callin’ and I long to go.
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Posted by jeff on Mar 15, 2013 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
Girl Talk – Neal Hefti
Girl Talk – Tony Bennett
Girl Talk – Holly Cole
Girl Talk, circa 1864
There’s a scene in “Lincoln” in which a black Union private quotes the Gettysburg Address by heart in a mellifluous baritone. Apparently, in Spielberg’s imagination, this gentleman was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and learned about the Address via the internet three weeks after it was delivered.
I found “Django Unchained” almost as offensive (at least Tarantino’s games with history aren’t shrouded in counterfeit verisimilitude). “Oh, I think things should have been different, let’s change them.” Go to your room, Steven.
Let me say up front, I am against slavery. I hereby declare that I have never owned a slave nor have I ever knowingly associated with a slave owner. But I think raping yesterday’s events to validate today’s biases is intellectually hypocritical and aesthetically offensive.
Hang on, folks: Things Change!
First A happens, and then after that B.
B is to some degree a result of A.
A is in no way a result of B.
Was that too fast for you, Quentin?
Yet I come not to bash Civil War recreationists, but to praise music.
Same thing with misogyny. I was raised by a feminist. I firmly believe that women are a superior breed to men, Homo sapiens rev. 2.0 (well, today it might be rev. 2.1). I believe that women are smarter than men in almost every conceivable way, more caring, more sensitive, more capable, more resourceful, more realistic. I have never beaten my wife (other than at Scrabble), my children, or my dog. For many years, I haven’t even beaten a rug.
But yet, I am a member of the male persuasion, and as such adhere to many of the traditional prejudices and biases of my ilk. Such as:
- Women enjoy shopping more than men (I recently learned the medical term for its salubrious curative affects: “Retail Therapy”)
- Women can be crueler to women than men can be to men or women or beasts of burden (see Genesis 21)
- Women ‘communicate’ more than men (i.e., talk when you’re trying to read the newspaper). See my man James Thurber, “Is Sex Necessary?”
Get to the music, Jeff.
Jean Harlow. Girl (don’t need to) Talk.
In 1965, Joe Levine produced the cinematic misterpiece “Harlow” for Paramount Pictures, a biopic of the prototypical ‘Blonde Bombshell”, the 1930s sex symbol Jean Harlow, starring Carroll Baker. ([Crying after a bad day at the studio:] “Oh, Mom, all they want is my body!”) For the theme song, he hired one of the best composer/arrangers around, Neal Hefti (1922-2008).
Hefti had in his CV decades of fine work in jazz, including Woody Herman’s First Herd, the first WWII swing band to begin to move to ‘The New Thing’ – bebop jazz (‘Wildroot’ and ‘The Good Earth’). Hefti married Herman’s singer Frances Wayne and then in 1950 began a 12-year collaboration with Count Basie.
One of the most memorable results is the album “Atomic Basie”, with joyous cuts such as ‘Flight of the Foo Birds’, ‘The Kid from Red Bank’ and ‘Whirlybird’. Miles Davis: “If it weren’t for Neal Hefti, the Basie band wouldn’t sound as good as it does. But Neal’s band can’t play those same arrangements nearly as well.”
Tangent: Twenty-five years later these cuts also inspired The Real Group, a Swedish vocal quintet, which in 1987 began recording a cappella versions of Basie/Hefti collaborations and thereby created the foundation of Contemporary AC, a genre I love dearly. Here’s The Real Group in a wonderful medley from 2004, and here’s the Danish group Touché with another from 2011. I’ve written about this music in the past, and plan to continue in the near future.
Julie London. Girl, just don’t Talk.
In the 1960s, Hefti moved to California to compose and arrange for films, TV and stars (including “Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass”), winning lots of Grammies along the way. Some of his biggest hits included the themes for ‘Batman’, ‘The Odd Couple’, and our sometimes maligned Song of The Week, ‘Girl Talk’, the theme from the movie “Harlow”. In the movie, the theme was instrumental. Call Bobby Troup.
You might know Bobby for his compositions ‘Route 66’ (originally a hit for Nat ‘King’ Cole, but covered by everyone from The Rolling Stones to The Cramps) or ‘The Meaning of the Blues’ from the great Miles Davis/Gil Evans album “Miles Ahead”. But I remember him most for his second wife, the pin-up jazz singer Julie London. Troup wrote lyrics for ‘Girl Talk’, and made the first recording of the vocal version in 1965 in this video directed by no less than Robert Altman! Bobby’s not much of a singer (or actor), and the video is indeed pretty cheesy and objectionable. Hey, blame Altman.
Girl Talk about shopping
Bobby then gave it to Julie with lyrics altered to suit her gender, but it’s really a guy’s song. It’s a ‘can’t live with ‘em can’t live without ‘em’ anthem. That doesn’t fly today, I know, at least not in public. I talked all about this concept in SoTW 150 in its Biblical context and what my granddaddy had to say to me about it. I know what Guys Talk about when their spouses (spice?) ain’t listening.
If you want a definitive version of ‘Girl Talk’, I guess it would be Tony Bennett’s from 1966, backed by Neil Hefti’s band. (Here’s the same arrangement nicely done live.) ‘Girl Talk’ has been recorded a million times since then, mostly by female jazz singers. Here are recent versions by Kate McGarry and by Cheryl Bentyne, both fine versions by fine singers. My favorite is this great treatment by Holly Cole. During the course of this video, she says the song is sexist and that she performs it as a parody.
James Thurber. Girl Talk, man listen.
‘Girl Talk’ is sexist? Demeaning? Misogynist? You turn on a gangsta rap radio station today, you hear ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ by Prodigy, ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit’ by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, and ‘99 Problems (but a bitch ain’t one)’ by Jay-Z. I guess ‘Run For Your Life’ by The Beatles is too tame for the playlist at WHIP.
I think those songs aren’t just offensive. I think they have no redeeming social value.
But when Holly Cole calls ‘Girl Talk’ sexist, I think she’s being disingenuous. I think she’s very feminine, and she’s playing up her femininity as female jazz singers so often do. As Julie London did, as Jean Harlow did, as women always have and always will. Yeah, social standards have changed and I do firmly believe that women should get the same pay as men for the same job. But plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, folks. And I personally wouldn’t have it any other way.
They like to chat about the dresses they will wear tonight
They chew the fat about their tresses and the neighbours’ fight
Inconsequential things that men don’t really care to know
Become essential things that women find so a propos
But that’s a dame, they’re all the same, it’s just a game,
They call it Girl Talk.
They all meow about the ups and downs of all their friends,
The who, the how, the why, they dish the dirt, it never ends.
The weaker sex, the speaker sex, we mortal males behold
But though we joke, we wouldn’t trade you for a ton of gold.
So baby stay and gab away but hear me say
That after girl talk – talk to me.
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