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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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244: Bill Evans/Miles Davis, ‘On Green Dolphin Street’

Posted by jeff on Aug 26, 2016 in Jazz, Song Of the week

‘On Green Dolphin Street’, the Miles Davis quintet (1958), featuring Bill Evans

‘Alice in Wonderland’, the Bill Evans Trio, evening set 2

tumblr_m92nuqvor51r30xm8_1345496839_cover

I learned a new word this week. “Moledro”.

Well, it’s not really a word (apparently there’s a really cool guy who makes up these emotionally-laden situation-specific terms based on authentic etemologies) and I didn’t really learn it (keep mixing up the consonants), but it’s a zinger, especially when you’re in a Bill Evans state of mind:

n. a feeling of resonant connection with an author or artist you’ll never meet, who may have lived centuries ago and thousands of miles away but can still get inside your head and leave behind morsels of their experience, like the little piles of stones left by hikers that mark a hidden path through unfamiliar territory.

That sure resonates.
I was introduced to the word by M.E., a new reader who’s been sharing with me her experiences of digging deeper and deeper into Evans’ ouvre, into his soul. I sure appreciate her passion for Bill’s music, and it’s been a pleasure to have my own flame for him fanned.

daee8e3071147eb12bee08060aa663be

Young Bill with glasses and shadow.

Bill Evans is a stable staple of my musical diet, the soundtrack to the first couple of hours of most of my days. Those are the colors of the world I choose to inhabit (when life allows me the choice).

I find myself listening more and more exclusively to a small number of his works, from the very beginning and the very end of his career. I’m going to share a few somewhat disparate thoughts with you today:

  • 4 cuts Evans made as brand-new pianist for the Miles Davis quintet, 10 months before “Kind of Blue”
  • The background noise in “Live at the Village Vanguard”
  • A comparison of Evans last two bassists, Eddie Gomez (1966-77) and Marc Johnson (1978-80)
iphaobojdbamckpe

Adult Bill with glasses and shadow.

This ain’t the place for Evans beginners. I’ve blabbered on about him at length, covering all the basses:

Bill Evans was with Miles’ band from April till October, 1958, replacing Red Garland, the pianist of The First Quintet. He quit the band (tired of the racial prejudice against a white boy in a black environment and exhausted from his new junk habit), but was called back in March, 1959, for the “Kind of Blue” sessions. The working band recorded one live session at a Columbia records party, never intended for release (rightfully so).

200109_050So we have the Mile-Evans meeting of colossi, resulting in the indelible “Kind of Blue”, universally acclaimed as one of the most significant works of art of our time. Miles was at the top of his game, Bill was a virtual unknown, just beginning to make a name for himself in the New York jazz scene.

Many people have spent many hours and pages deliberating over that meeting of minds. The relatively well-known live session from September, 1958, “Jazz at the Plaza”, an exercise in gratuitous blowing, offers only frustration.

But then I recently rediscovered four tracks the same group had recorded in May, 1958, which I had previously glossed over. The tracks have been buried on a bunch of minor Miles compilation albums, so I’m guessing I’m not the only one to have overlooked them.

Stella By Starlight’ and ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ are stunning. ‘Love for Sale’ and ‘Fran-Dance’ ain’t bad. It’s tracks like this that feed our compulsive impulses, that give ‘trolling the trash’ a good name.

AACCBA62-3C09-49C2-9750-20319411A734_w610_r0_sFrom Peter Pettinger’s indespensible musical biography, “How My Heart Sings”:
“For all kinds of reasons the musicians coalesced in an extraordinary way. Evans’ burning message – lyrical, textural, sensual – had to be released; it had long been smoldering within him, the very core of his musicality. His first studio setup with Davis gave him the freedom to express himself with some refinement away from the rough and tumble of the bandstand, and this, along with a fresh repertoire of intriguing chord sequences, lent the atmosphere an air of untapped promise. Until this moment, the world did not know the magic that Evas was holding. Perhaps only Davis suspected.”

‘On Green Dolphin Street’ (from the 1947 film of almost the same name, here in Jimmy Dorsey’s original) was introduced to the jazz repertoire in this session.

Miles’ first quintet was a seminal band, creating a stunning corpus of standards written by Jews and Cole Porter, presented in a refined but innovatively soulful context. Listen to Red Garland’s piano on a similarly melancholy tune, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’. Now listen to Evans’ piano on ‘On Green Dolphin Street’. It’s the difference between dexterity and depth, goodness and greatness, professionalism and profundity.

Four cuts from an obscure session. This isn’t a trivial pursuit. It’s a diamond in the rough, precursor of an iconic visit to the divine. Now go listen to “Kind of Blue”

***

villagevanguardtrio1I’ve discussed Evans’ first trio’s “Live at the Village Vanguard” at some length. As have many other people. (Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, 2001; Michael Bailey in All About Jazz; Orrin Keepnews, producer of the recording, in a video interview).

If I could take one album to a desert island, it would be this one, hands down. I don’t have words to describe the solace, inspiration, utter astonishment at sheer beauty that I’ve gotten from these recordings.

Well, perhaps I do. Moledero.

downloadThroughout these recordings, two afternoon and three evening sets from June 25, 1961, you can hear the audience chatting, tittering, clinking martini glasses. Check out ‘Alice in Wonderland’, written by Sammy Fain for the 1951 Disney movie, introduced to jazz by Dave Brubeck in 1957.

Lots of great jazz was created spontaneously (duh). Both “Kind of Blue” and the Village Voice recordings were “just another date”. So I suppose it’s hard to blame that lady with the beehive hair, red nails and lips, for clinking and tittering, unaware of the momentousness of the moment. That’s nothing new.

XIR3675 Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69); 73.5x112 cm; Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium; (add.info.: Icarus seen with his legs thrashing in the sea;); Giraudon; Flemish, out of copyright

Icarus tried to fly, fashioning wings made of feathers and wax. But he flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and he drowned. The difference between Icarus and Bill Evans is that the former didn’t wear glasses.

In Bruegel’s famous painting (circa 1560), Icarus plunges into the sea unnoticed by the ploughman digging his earth with his horse, both equally unaware of anything beyond the current furrow, placid in their ignorance. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Evans’ music is so subtle, so restrained, so gentle and quiet – would I not have been drinking a martini on that evening? Would I not have shared a joke with my friends? Ah, Icarus.

***

84892698Eddie Gomez was Bill Evans’ bassist for 12 years, more than half of his career as a band leader. They were also the nadir of his career. Students of Evans have long asked who’s to blame. Did Gomez drag Evans down, a sin of commission? Did he fail to inspire him, a sin of omission? Or does the blame lie with Evans himself and his monkey? Perhaps Gomez deserves mountains of credit for keeping Evans going during those long years of self-abusive addiction?

I don’t know, and I certainly have no interesting in bashing Gomez’s sterling reputation. But the confluence of their association and Evans’ doldrums is a fact. As is Evans’ musical rejuvenation when Marc Johnson came in, with Joe LaBarbera forming The Last Trio.

I can’t help but mention here the very talented, very beautiful Brazilian/American pianist/singer Eliane Elias, who has had intimate relationships with both Gomez and Johnson and recorded a tribute album to Bill Evans. She gets my vote as Most Committed Evans Fan Ever.

I have written an exhaustive piece on Evans’ treatment of ‘Nardis’ throughout his career, especially as the showpiece of the last trio, beginning with Bill’s solo introductions (some of the most moving, harrowing music ever recorded), followed by a bass and then a drum solo.

I recently revisited this fine video of Evans, Gomez and Marty Morell in a home concert in Helsinki, 1970. It includes an extended ‘Nardis’ (after a great interview), complete with a somewhat extended solo piano intro, followed by a 3-minute bass solo, the earliest such treatment I’ve found.

maxresdefaultCompare Gomez’s solo there to Johnson’s here, also ‘Nardis’ in Helsinki, 1980. There’s a quantum difference. I don’t want to diss Eddie Gomez. You listen and judge.

Bass solos are tough. There’s never been a bassist who could fill a hall playing solo – not Jaco, not Ron Carter, not Mingus. (McCartney comes close here.) But Marc Johnson here? He’s got game. It’s worth listening to.

***

So, thanks to M.E. for inspiring me to a renewed turn around the dance floor with some of my favorite music in the world. Thanks to Bill Evans and associates for making the music. And thanks to the guy for putting a word to the experience.

Moledro.

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074: Donovan, ‘House of Jansch’

Posted by jeff on Aug 14, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

To my utter chagrin, a couple of my erstwhile acquaintances have recently been bad-mouthing Donovan, and them’s fighting words for me. Yeah, yeah, I know, hippie-dippie, limpid, Dylan wannabe, yadda-yadda. They know not of what they speak. Donovan Leitch is one fine artist, with an admirably muscular aesthetic that his maligners would easily recognize if they’d just lay aside their preconceptions for a moment and listen to the right music.

The “Rolling Stone Record Guide” says, “Listening to Donovan’s albums is like being consigned to relive the most insipid parts of the Sixties. Pretentious falderal.” Gee, he should listen to the music before he writes. And if he did, he should stop writing.

I wrote a very similar lament about the very widespread misapprehension of James Taylor, so many people judging him by his Greatest Hits. Why would anyone let the record companies choose what songs of an artist to listen to? Okay, I do so on occasion for initial exposure, but I certainly wouldn’t stop there, not with a serious artist. Donovan may not be an artist of JT’s breadth, depth or stature, but there’s some stunning stuff beyond the best-known dozen.

Donovan Leitch (b. 1946, Glasgow) broke onto the charts in 1965 as ‘the British Dylan’, with some very fine sensitive-soft acoustic neo-folk hits, ‘Catch the Wind’, ‘Colors’. But even on his first two LPs, the gems were hidden underneath these hits. Try ‘Sunny Goodge Street’, a dreamy jazz/folk amalgam years ahead of its time.

Then came the two big hits, ‘Sunshine Superman‘ and ‘Mellow Yellow’, each of them charming or annoying, depending on your mood (or State Of Mind, as it were). For me, the charm certainly wore off by the 3-millionth listen.

Not so with the LPs that spawned them. Each album contains ten songs, with nary a dud among them. Both are beautiful, intelligent, solid and memorable. Both are drug-inspired, but there’s not a vapid, self-indulgent note in either. Each song is finely crafted, with a hard core of intelligent artistry.

After these two albums Donovan went on to record more hits (‘There Is a Mountain’, ‘Lalena’, ‘Atlantis’), and then to wallow through decades consigned to the periphery. But he did some fine, fine work, and deserves to be remembered for that.

Wannabe and Is

Much of the credit for the sheer beauty of the sound “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow” must go to producer Mickie Most. I’m not usually one to rave about studioship, but the recording here is a work of art in itself. Every instrument, every sound, is a pleasure to listen to – especially Donovan’s acoustic guitar itself. The sitar is employed far more convincingly than any contemporary, including George Harrison. Strings and brass embellish the palette with the greatest of restraint and the finest of taste. The acoustic bass and brushed drums are often employed even on the grittier cuts, providing an utterly entrancing mix of jive and resonance. (Give a listen to how ‘Sunshine Superman’ mixes acoustic and electric sounds so effectively.) Admittedly, these are sounds created in and for a marijuana cloud. But they stand just as tall and proud in the clear light of day, almost half a century later.

And the songwriting is no less impressive. Need one list all the overblown, underthought, pompous and fluffy music to float out of other people’s trips? The themes here are paisley, no doubt. But they are also tough and funny. And for all their innocent veneer, there is much more than a tempering drop of cynicism distinguishing them from hippie bagatelles. In these two albums, Donovan is always limpid, never limp.

Take for example ‘House of Jansch’, a tribute to folk/jazz legend Bert Jansch (pronounced ‘Yansh’), partner of John Renbourne in Pentangle.

It’s based on a fun, off-beat acoustic guitar riff with a seventh jabbing you in the chest at the end of the sentence. The cast includes ye olde standup bass, percussion provided solely by brushes on cymbals, a flute or two and a saxophone, and what I think is a celeste, which is a keyboard version of the glockenspiel (but I’m not betting the family farm on that one.)

Don’t ask me what the song ‘means’, I have no idea. Just sit back, take a toke or not, and enjoy the trip.

 

Girl ain’t nothing but a willow tree
Swaying in a summer breeze,
You’ll never change what has to be.
Girl ain’t nothing but a willow tree.

 

Sometimes I don’t know what I said till I did,
I want to be the father of your kid.
Dragonfly he sleeps till dawn,
I knew I’d be here when love has gone.

 

Crystal ball is what I wish for you,
Get it straight, I love the both of you.
Someone’s goin’ through a cold turkey.
Girl ain’t nothing but a willow tree.

 

 

I give your baby a contact high
I love another is what I sigh -ha-
Looks like rain, I do declare,
Your baby wants to take my chocolate eclair.

 

I couldn’t cry, I could not laugh,
Incident about a silken scarf.
I know what a jealous trip can be.
Girl ain’t nothing but a willow tree.

 

For your further listening edification:

From the sitarish, trip-drenched “Sunshine Superman’: the seemingly carefree ‘Ferris Wheel‘ (with the warning “Take time and tie your pretty hair, the gypsy driver doesn’t care if you catch your hair in the ferris wheel’); the hippie-hipster ‘Bert’s Blues‘, ultra-cool but replete with baroque strings. Or even one of the weaker cuts, the soon-to-be standard (Kooper-Bloomfield-Stills Super Session, Vanilla Fudge, Brian Auger)  ‘Season of the Witch‘.

From the brassier and brasher “Mellow Yellow”: the allegory-laden ‘Three King Fishers‘ (the bongo/sitar/violin/acoustic guitar combination in the break is worth the price of admission); “, the naked, harrowing ‘Young Girl Blues‘; the recreation of a trip in minor in ‘Sand and Foam‘.

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243: Ricky Nelson, “I’m Walkin'”

Posted by jeff on Aug 5, 2016 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

hqdefaultRicky Nelson, ‘I’m Walkin’

Ricky Nelson, ‘I’m Walkin’ (from “The Ozzie and Harriet Show” episode “Ricky The Drummer” at 08:00)

Don’t hold your breath waiting for a Ricky Nelson revival. He ain’t Buddy Holly. He certainly ain’t Elvis Presley. Heck, he ain’t even Pat Boone (albeit arguably).

He was a mediocre musician who had 53 Top 100 hits between 1957 and 1973, 20 of them in the Top 20; an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and one of TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time. Ricky Nelson is one of the most important singers in the annals of popular culture.

More importantly, he’s a crucial element in understanding post WWII American (i.e. world) popular culture. I’ll take that a step further. You can’t understand popular culture without understanding the Ricky Nelson story.

rockwellRicky was born in 1940, second son of big-band leader Ozzie and singer Harriet Nelson. Ozzie’s orchestra was featured on the hit radio show “The Raleigh Cigarette Hour” from 1941 till host Red Skelton was drafted in 1944. The producers then crafted the sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (we’re still talking radio, folks) in its stead. It was a hit, with head writer Ozzie spinning tales of Rockwellian domestic bliss. In 1949, Rick and brother Dave (two years older) joined the show, replacing the actors who had portrayed them till then.

In 1952, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” debuted, running until 1966, one of the longest-running sitcoms in TV history. Many of the series’ story lines were taken from the Nelsons’ real life. When the real David and Rick got married, their partners were written into the series as their girlfriends and then wives.

Ozzie, Harriet, David, Ricky in 1952 Could The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet have really been like that? Could the show have lasted all those years - some 22 seasons from its debut in 1944 on radio to its cancellation - offering nothing more relevant than programs titled "David Has a Date with Miss Universe" and "A Picture in Rick's Notebook"?

As a tween, Rick fiddled around on clarinet, guitar and drums. At 16, he was dating a teenie-bop Elvis fan. On an impulse, he told her that he was going to make a record in order to impress her. He went home and said to Ozzie, “Dad, I want to make a record.” (Unfortunately, that didn’t make it as an episode on the show.)

Already a fan of Carl Perkins and Elvis, Rick went into the studio and covered Fats Domino’s ‘I’m Walking’ (it contained the only two chords he knew how to play). He was following the pattern set by the likes of Pat Boone, who carved a great career by bleaching raunchy, authentic Black music for the lily-white audiences of mainstream radio. The original versions were thought to be too sexually suggestive for the impressionable white audiences, and were confined to de facto segregated R&B radio stations and sales charts.

 

Here’s Fats’ original ‘Ain’t That a Shame’, and Pat Boone’s version (both 1955).

Here’s Fats live in 1956.

Here’s Fats’ original ‘I’m Walkin’’ and Ricky Nelson’s very first recording (both 1957).

Just for fun (hey, what’s it been up till now??), here are Fats and Ricky singing it together, years on.

83513-74037Ozzie knew a meal ticket when he saw one. In a 1957 episode titled “Ricky the Drummer”, the lad sits in on drums with a swing band (at around 06:00). He does a creditable job, though he’s no Sammy Davis, Jr. Then at 08:00, he sings ‘I’m Walkin’’ (live). Check out the girl in the audience squealing. It hit #4 on the charts. The flip side, ‘A Teenager’s Romance’, hit #2.

Shortly after, he made an unpaid public appearance (singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky”) with the Four Preps at a high school lunch hour assembly in Los Angeles. He was greeted by hordes of screaming teens who had seen the television episode.

Thunder on the horizon.

Here you have it folks. The very first bud of spring. The first step of youth culture across network television’s Rubicon. The beginning of the end of the coherent, conservative mom & dad and two kids in the suburbs America. The beginning of the beginning of the cultural revolution we’re still in the throes of.

hqdefault (1)If you’ve ever heard of “The Ozzie and Harriet Show”, it’s probably as the icon of 1950s America—the world of Eisenhower, mortgages and Fords and good clean family living. Then came James Dean and Elvis Presley and Lee Harvey Oswald and the Nixon Doctrine in Vietnam. For baby boomers–Bob Dylan, Steven Spielberg, Bill Clinton–the Nelsons symbolized the Age of Innocence.

When asked to explain ‘The 60s’, I often tell the story of how I (and my entire generation) waited for Ricky in the 1950s (which actually lasted until November 22, 1963). We were kids, and we watched a lot of TV. But none of it was real. It was Republicans in white boxer shorts peddling their idyllic version of suburban bliss which just didn’t convince us. We wanted some grit. If you need a refresher, go rewatch “Rebel Without a Cause.”

najlepszy-westernNetwork TV was the medium for America’s self-portraiture. In 1957, it was as bland as Wonder Bread with Oleo. But every two or three weeks, at the end of an episode of “Ozzie and Harriet”, they’d let Ricky sing a song. We’d sit and wait, impatiently subjecting ourselves to what even in our tweens we perceived as the inanities of the show.

As soon as his singing career began to take off, he had the good sense to jettison his older jazz and country session musicians (who were openly contemptuous of rock and roll) and sign a band with members closer to his age, including the 18-year-old James Burton. Elvis was in the army, and the market was thirsty for ‘A Teenage Idol’ (his not-so-convincing attempt at poorlittlerichboy angst). Six years later we’d get ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’. Ricky’s song contains the line ‘I guess I’ll always be just a rolling stone.’ Ah, the irony.

Even though it was the only game in town and despite its commercial success, Ricky’s music was nothing to write home about. Here are a few of his hits as performed on his parents’ TV show—arguably the very first musical video clips.

Traveling Man’ — Check out Ozzie’s snazzy editing! This has been called ‘the first video clip’.

ricky-nelson-james-burtonHello Mary Lou’ — Perhaps plagiarized by the fine Gene Pitney (who also wrote Bobby Vee’s ‘Rubber Ball‘ and The Crystals’ ‘He’s a Rebel‘ and was the first American champion of The Rolling Stones). After “Hello Mary Lou” became a hit, legal action was taken by one Cayet Mangiaracina, who was then listed as a co-writer along with Pitney. Mangiaracina became a priest and claimed to give royalties from the song to the Southern Dominican Province near New Orleans, where he served. Pitney never spoke of Mangiaracina or the lawsuit.

Gypsy Woman’, not to be confused with the sublime ‘Gypsy Woman’ by Curtis Mayfield’s Impressions.

Stood Up’ — co-written  by Sharon Sheeley, whose very first song, ‘Poor Little Fool‘, was Ricky’s first #1 hit. She survived the car wreck in which her boyfriend Eddie Cochran was killed.

In 1959 he starred next to John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Dean Martin in Howard Hawkes’ classic “Rio Bravo”.

In 1961, on his 21st birthday, he legally changed his name from ‘Ricky’ to ‘Rick’. Few were convinced.

After a few minor hits, failed marriages, and a very successful run on the oldies circuit, Ricky (sorry, he’ll always be Ricky for me) died when his private plane crashed near De Kalb, Texas, on December 31, 1985.

Some critics have tried to rehabilitate Ricky’s musical reputation in recent years. They’re confusing good will with good music. Give a listen to Buddy Holly, his contemporary and stylistic cousin in those years of 1957-59. The difference is as great as the distance from Hollywood to Mars.

But I remember Ricky fondly. He may not have been the best, but he was the first. He single-handedly opened television to young music. Yes, Elvis had appeared on the Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan shows in 1956, but only as a curiosity (some said an aberration, the devil incarnate). Ricky was the first widely acceptable rock and roll singer, the harbinger of the Woodstock generation, the first crack in The Wall, the prototype of the world we still live in today.

Thanks for being understanding parents, Harriet and Ozzie. Thanks for being such a good big brother, Dave. Thanks for doing what you did, Ricky. It was well worth that half-hour wait.

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