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 Radka 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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238: Marvin Gaye, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’

Posted by jeff on May 20, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week


Hah! I fooled you!!
I dangled this Grammy Hall of Fame song in front of you and you bit. Sucker!

This week we’re not going to occupy half your day jabbering on about what color socks the tambourine player was wearing. This time we’re going to foist upon you our very own cockamamie theory about how baby-boomers cum yuppies get manipulated by media suits to falsely believe that they still have friends.

But, okay, you paid your admission, so here goes: the shortest treatment of a SoTW ever.

marvin-gayeHistory: ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ was written by Barrett ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ Strong and Norman Whitfield, first hit for the team (‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’, ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’) that fathered Motown’s psychedelic soul; recorded (in order) by:

and released (in order) by:

  • Ms Pips (September 1967, #2)
  • Mr Gaye (October, 1968, #1)
  • Messrs Miracles only in 1998.


Appraisal: It’s a pretty fine song, with appropriate Motownic infectious melodic hooks, a memorable verbal cue, a great vocal, and one frigging incredible Motown production, with strings supplied by the Detroit Symphony. The metaphor of spreading rumors by word of mouth as a human grapevine is attributed to the mode of communication employed by black slaves in America. In the song, the narrator discovers through the grapevine that he’s being cheated upon.

Legacy: The longest running Motown #1 (7 weeks), it’s been covered innumerable times, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Roger Troutman (R&B #1), and Tina Turner (highly recommended, just have a bucket of ice water ready); and in two famous commercials, Levi’s 501 Laundrette commercial with Nick Kamen (1985) and California Raisins (1988).



But what we really want to talk about today is Lawrence Kasdan’s brilliant extradiegetic (I also had to look it up) use of Marvin’s ‘Grapevine’ for the opening sequence of “The Big Chill” (1983), showing each of the main characters learning (through the ‘grapevine’) about the death of their college friend and reunioning at his funeral – sans dialog. Put me on hold for four minutes. It’s a fine piece of cinematic exposition.

What was so resonant about “The Big Chill”? It portrays a group of baby-boomer college buddies, 15-20 years after graduation, mired in their various adultish lives – wishing they had a partner, wishing they didn’t, or just bored flaccid. We all left our hearts in college, didn’t we? When every day was an adventure, when we were all handsome and hot and sexy and adventurous and witty and optimistic. And now in our 40s, we’re just plain numbed and on a fast track to old age. Who doesn’t identify?

imagesWilliam Hurt (b. 1950), angrily: “It was easy back then, no one had a cushier birth than we did, it’s not surprising our friendship could survive that.”

Glenn Close (b. 1947), tearfully: “I feel like I was at my best when I was with you people.”

Jeff Goldblum (b. 1950): “It’s about everything, suicide, despair, where did our hope go?— ‘Lost Hope’, that’s it, ‘Lost Hope’.”

In 1983, writer-director Lawrence Kasden (b. 1949) killed (and then cutting-room floored) poor Kevin Costner in order to bring the old college gang together to seek some solace in each other’s company, a wake of a homecoming weekend. In reality, we were mired in our jobs and diapers and car insurance. But at night, we could potato up on the couch and in our minds bop to ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’ in the kitchen with our ex-besties.
For at least one weekend, we’re back in college.

dbf0e17e60d747a36bfb35288120997aIn 1984, Madison Avenue sensed the appeal of a row of very handsome young adults (sometimes peppered with cute kids) all standing in a row looking cool and relaxed, a rainbow of individuals, shades in a collective spectrum. The buddyhood meme has arrived.
Want to belong? Want lots of cool friends? Just buy our product.

In 1987, the very talented and sincere team of Marshall Herskovitz (b. 1952) and Edward Zwick (b. 1952) refined the formula. What if the gang got togeThirtysomething_at_25__where_are_the_cast_now_ther not for one weekend, not to sell sweaters, but for a 4-season run? So they created ‘thirtysomething‘, a gang of seven, replete with jobs and kids and singledom and endless naval-contemplating yuppie angst cohered not by mortem ex machina, but by personal individual commitment to the septangle itself.
What if we could live our real lives, but with friends?

SEINFELD -- Season 6 -- Pictured: (l-r) Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry Seinfeld (Photo by George Lange/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

In 1989, Jerry Seinfeld (b. 1954) and Larry David (b. 1947) figured out that Real Life was an obstacle to humor, so they jauntily dispensed of it. Re-enter post-adolescent group nihilism.  We don’t have jobs, we don’t even have exams, but we sure do have friends.
Buddy-hood sans reality. So much easier that way.

FRIENDS -- Season 4 -- Pictured: (back l-r) Matt LeBlanc as Joey Tribbiani, David Schwimmer as Ross Geller, Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, (front l-r) Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, Courteney Cox as Monica Geller, Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay -- Photo by: Gerald Weinman/NBCU Photo Bank

Then in 1994, three young suits (b. 1953, 1954, 1957) married 30something-ish Life Lite with Seinfeld vacuity in a 22-minute sitcom package, complete with laugh track. Six Peter Pans subsisting on coffee and sex. Jump back into the fountain of youth (arrested development) with us, right after this word from our sponsor.
Getting older without growing up – what more could an aging baby-boomer ask for?

Just to get the record straight—IMHO (in my haughty opinion):

  • “The Big Chill” is a pretty good Hollywood movie that struck a very timely chord.
  • “thirtysomething” is one of the finest and rarest of TV dramas ever (flanked by its teensomething ‘My So-Called Life’ and fortysomething ‘Once & Again’). Why rare? It made me both think and feel.
  • “Seinfeld” is an exercise in vacuity foreign to me. I was at Woodstock. I lived through Kent State. Can’t watch it.
  • “Friends” was to “thirtysomething” as “The Monkees” was to The Beatles.
  • I don’t buy brand clothing. Haven’t since the 9th

Not that I’m so grown-up. I’m willing to pitch my immaturity against anyone’s. Just ask my wife. I find regular attendance at the house of worship of my choice a venue preferable to Central Perk or even Michael and Hope’s living room for nurturing buddy-ship. I really do meet real friends there, in real life, on a weekly basis (same time, same station).

I’m a social animal, compulsively gregarious, a snob who watches as much TV as I did when I was chronologically still a Jung ‘un. I won’t grow up! I don’t have to!! Know how I know? I heard it through the grapevine.


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097: Mstislav Rostropovich, ‘Cello Concerto Opus 43, Adagio’ (Mieczyslaw Weinberg)

Posted by jeff on May 4, 2016 in Classical, Song Of the week

I try to confine myself in SoTW to music I enjoy and admire. I figure there’s so much great music waiting to be praised, why occupy ourselves with anything else? But I admit that this week, it’s not the music but the story behind it that moves me. Holocaust Day just ended, and here’s the stranger-than-fiction story of a Jewish composer from Eastern Europe.

Moishe Weinberg

The personal odyssey of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919–1996) is emblematic of that of the Jewish people in the 20th century, not only for the trials and tribulations he underwent (although there were more of them than can be grasped), but because of the wholly bizarre, tortuous and miraculous course of events.

Before we get started with this tragic saga, a word about the man’s names. In Polish (i.e. prior to his move to the USSR), his name was rendered as ‘Mieczysław Wajnberg’. In the Russian it became ‘Моисей Самуилович Вайнберг’ (Moisey Samuilovich Vaynberg). In the Yiddish theater of antebellum Warsaw he was known as Moishe Weinberg (Yiddish: משה װײַנבערג). Among close friends he would also go by his Polish diminutive ‘Metek’. Re-transliteration of his surname from the Cyrillic alphabet (Вайнберг) back into the Latin alphabet produced a variety of spellings, including ‘Weinberg’, ‘Vainberg’, and ‘Vaynberg’. The form ‘Weinberg’, an English-language rendition of this common Jewish surname, is now the most frequently used form.

Weinberg’s father Shmuel (Shmil) left his home in the Moldavian town of Kishinev after the pogroms of 1903 and 1905 in which both his father and grandfather were killed (fired by a blood libel, in which The Jews were accused of murdering a Christian boy to use his blood in the baking of matzos for Passover). In Warsaw the Weinbergs joined the Yiddish theater, Shmil as a violinist and conductor, Sonia as an actress. The father gave his prodigy son his initial practical experience, exposing him to the traditional and liturgical Jewish music that was to inform his work for the rest of his life – a life already impacted by family history such as Moishe’s cousin Isay Abramovich Mishne, the secretary of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Baku Soviet commune who was executed in 1918 along with the other 26 Baku commissars.

Kishinev Pogrom

Moishe made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of ten, and two years later, in 1931, he became a student at the Warsaw Academy of Music. Moishe, or ‘Metek’, had time to compose a number of works (while working to support the family after the Yiddish theater had closed) before he graduated in 1939. Soon after the German invasion in September, his parents and sister were interned in the Lodz ghetto and murdered in the Trawniki concentration camp. Mieczysław managed to flee. He was stopped by a border guard who insisted on registering his name as “Moisey”, to mark him as a Jew, to which Weinberg replied: “Moisey, Abram, whatever you want, if I can only enter the Soviet Union!”

Jewish Life, Ukraine, 1903

In Minsk, Belarus, he studied composition in the conservatory for two years. On the day after his final examinations in June, 1941, Germany invaded the USSR, and Weinberg again fled eastwards, this time finding work as a coach in the opera house in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

There he met Solomon Mikhoels (and married his daughter Natalia Vovsi), who served Stalin first as the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, and then during the war as the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. In this capacity he travelled around the world, meeting with Jewish communities to encourage them to support the Soviet Union in its war against Nazi Germany. After the war, Stalin became virulently anti-Semitic. Mikhoels was the most visible and respected Jewish intellectual in the USSR, so instead of receiving a show trial for his service to the state, in 1948 Stalin had him bludgeoned to death and his body run over by a truck as a thinly-veiled hit-and-run accident. Mikhoels received a state funeral.

Solomon Mikhoels

Meanwhile, back in Tashkent in 1943, Mikhoels encouraged his new son-in-law to send the score of his First Symphony to Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975), who was so impressed that he arranged for Weinberg to be officially invited to Moscow (an extremely rare occurrence), where he would remain for the rest of his life. Life in Moscow in 1943 seems to have had a lot of advantages over that in Uzbekistan. Like food. Shostakovich was a cultural icon with a complex relationship with the establishment. He had already been denounced in 1936 (and subsequently rehabilitated). But he was to have many more ups and downs with the authorities over the years. Shostakovich (a philo-Semite) was a man of great personal courage, and had a great admiration for the younger Jew. Over the decades, Shostakovich used Weinberg as his first reader. He would bring him all his new compositions, discuss them. He greatly valued Weinberg as a musician, as a composer (much more so than did the critics and the public, who often dismissed him musically as a Shostakovich clone), and as a friend.

Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich was denounced again in 1948 for Formalism. Most of his works were banned, he was forced to publicly repent, and his family had privileges withdrawn. He waited for his arrest at night on the landing by the lift, so that his family wouldn’t be disturbed.

At the time, although Weinberg refused to join the Communist Party, his music was officially praised “for depicting the shining, free working life of the Jewish people in the land of Socialism.” But even that didn’t help. He was arrested in January 1953 and charged with conspiring to establish a Jewish republic in the Crimea — a concoction that although absurd, was still accompanied by a death sentence.  The real reason for his arrest was the fact that his wife was the niece of Miron Vovsi, the main defendant at Stalin’s anti-Semitic ‘Doctors Plot’ trial. It was assumed that the sickly Weinberg, incarcerated in sub-zero temperatures and deprived of sleep and clothing, would not return. It was likewise assumed that Weinberg’s wife would be arrested. Shostakovich and his wife agreed to accept power-of-attorney for the Weinbergs’ seven-year-old daughter Vitosha.

Shostakovich and Weinberg

Then, in an act of incomprehensible courage, the out-of-favor Shostakovich wrote to Stalin and to NKVD security chief, Lavrenti Beria, protesting Weinberg’s arrest. A month later Stalin died, and many intellectuals and artists were released from prison, including Weinberg. He was officially rehabilitated shortly afterwards. Weinberg’s wife:

“Soon after this Shostakovich and his wife went to the south on holiday, making me promise to send a telegram as soon as Weinberg was released. And shortly we were able to send them this telegram: ’Enjoy your holiday. We embrace you, Tala and Metak.’ Two days later the Shostakoviches were back in Moscow. That evening we celebrated. At the table, festively decked out with candles in antique candlesticks, Nina Vasilyevna read out the power of attorney that I had written. Then Dmitri Dmitriyevich got up and solemnly pronounced, ’Now we will consign this document to the flames,’ and proposed that I should burn it over the candles. After the destruction of the ’document’, we drank vodka and sat down to supper. I rarely saw Dmitri Dmitriyevich as calm, and even merry, as he was that evening. We sat up till the early hours of the morning. Nina Vasilyevna laughingly recounted how I was worried that Vitosha would get a bad upbringing in the orphanage; it was then that I discovered that they had decided to take her into their own home.”

“Die Passagierin”

But Weinberg’s personal response to the attacks on himself and those close to him remained stoic and positive. Among his prolific output in almost every musical genre are 17 string quartets and 26 complete symphonies, the last of which, “Kaddish”, was written in memory of the Jews who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Weinberg donated the manuscript score to the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel. In 1968 he wrote “Die Passagierin“, a ‘shatteringly intense’ opera with a libretto based on the novel of the same name by Zofia Posmysz, a native of Krakow who survived three years in the Nazi horror factories of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrück. Weinstein considered it to be the most significant of his compositions, although he never heard it performed. The opera was only premiered in 2010; Director David Pountney brought Posmysz on stage.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg

Two months before his death in 1996, dispirited by Russia’s disregard for him and weakened by a long battle with Crohn’s disease, Weinberg converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. Weinberg: “Many of my works are related to the theme of war. This, alas, was not my own choice. It was dictated by my fate, by the tragic fate of my relatives. I regard it as my moral duty to write about the war, about the horrors that befell mankind in our century.”

While I can’t say I identify with his response to the life forced upon him, I can’t help but be moved by the life itself.

Mstislav Rostropovich

Here’s the first movement (Adagio) of his Cello Concerto Opus 43, as performed by the masterful and muscular Mstislav Rostropovich.

String Quartet #16 in Ab Minor, Op. 130 – I Allegro

String Quartet #7 in C Major, Op. 59 – I Adagio

Piano Sonata Op. 46 I Allegretto

If you liked this post, you may also like:

084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)

086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)

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237: Wilbert Harrison, ‘Kansas City’

Posted by jeff on Apr 28, 2016 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

coolWhat’s the coolest song you know?

I’m talking profoundly cool, street-smart, zoot suit, cigarette hanging out of the mouth, fedora rakishly tipped over the brow, dark shades keeping that ol’ world outside outside.

I’m talking so cool that there ain’t a need in the world gonna get you to work up a sweat. Not a wad of bills, not a plate of ribs, not even a loveseat full of your sweetie.

I got one for you.

In 1952, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were two 19-year old Jewish boys trying to write black songs for the black audience in LA. Their first song to hit the charts was Charles Brown’s ‘Hard Times’, which hit #8 on the R&B charts (there were segregated hit charts in those days, Virginia). Not bad, but not enough to put kosher grits on the table.

They set out to write a geographically specific but musically traditional blues for Little Willie Littlefield. Believe it or not, for LA circa 1952, Kansas City, with its bars and bordellos (not to mention Count Basie and Charlie Parker) was the epicenter of cool.

Little Willie Littlefield

Little Willie Littlefield

Little Willie (b. 1931) was a teenage wonder in LA, bridging boogie-woogie and R&B and even rock and roll, with his 1949 his ‘It’s Midnight’ popularizing the right-hand triplets which would inspire pianists such as Fats Domino. For 50 years he toured the chitlin circuit and played clubs in the San Francisco area. In 2000 he took a 5-year break to fish in Holland (“I know every herring in Holland by name”), but then went back to the ivories.

Lyricist Leiber played a standard 12-bar blues for melodist Stoller:

Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come.
Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come.
They got a crazy way of loving there and I’m gonna get me some.

Gonna be standing on the corner of 12th Street and Vine
Gonna be standing on the corner of 12th Street and Vine
With my Kansas City baby and my bottle of Kansas City wine.

I’m gonna pack my troubles, leave at the crack of dawn.
I’m gonna pack my troubles, leave at the crack of dawn.
My old lady will be sleeping and she won’t know where I’ve gone.

Well, I might take a plane, I might take a train,
But if I have to walk, I’m going just the same.

Mike-Stoller-Elvis-Presle-007The third verse was quickly dropped, and ‘crazy way of loving’ became ‘some crazy little women’. Oh, yeah!

Mike Stoller: I wanted a melody that you could recognize if it were played instrumentally. “No”, said Jerry, “It’s inauthentic.”
“The feeling is still authentic,” I argued. “And that’s all that counts.”

The hip melody stayed, the title got jazzed up to “K.C. Lovin’”. They taught the song to Little Willie, and it went nowhere.

They were a bit more successful with ‘Hound Dog’ for Big Mama Thornton (1953), ‘Love Me’ for Willy & Ruth (1954), and ‘Ruby Baby’ for the unknown young Drifters (1956), but only in ‘the race market’. The big money was of course in the suburbs, where the white kids were just starting to dabble in that black music. These early flops soon became a gold mine: Elvis’ ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Love Me’ (1956), and Dion’s ‘Ruby Baby’ (1963).

It wouldn’t be long before they began their string of hits made directly for the pop chart without the detour into authenticity: ‘Searchin’ and ‘Young Blood’ for the Coasters and ‘Jailhouse Rock’ for Elvis (1956-7). We had the pleasure of walking through Leiber and Stoller’s brilliant career of songwriting and producing back in SoTW 042, with The Coasters’ great ‘Yakety Yak’.

Wilbert Harrison

Wilbert Harrison

And then in 1959, at the height of their creative powers and commercial success (4 songs in the Top 10), what should resurface but a remake of Little Willie’s song by Wilbert Harrison (b. 1929)?

A Harlem entrepreneur named Bobby Robinson spent $40 on a recording session for the obscure sometimes-bluesman, sometimes calypsomon pianist-vocalist Wilbert, with Wild Jimmy Spruill backing him on guitar.

Wilbert pretty much copied Little Willie’s reading of the tune, and it went to #1 on both the Pop and R&B charts.

Wilbert had a minor hit in 1969 with his own ‘Let’s Work Together’, which was later a hit for Canned Heat, and later as ‘Let’s Stick Together’ for Bryan Ferry. So I guess we could call Wilbert a ‘One-and-a-half Hit Wonder’, and there the story ends.

Beatles, Little Richard

Beatles, Little Richard

Except it don’t.

In November, 1955, Little Richard recorded ‘Kansas City’ twice. Take 1 (released only in 1970) rather followed Little Willie’s reading of the song, albeit speeded up and Little Richardized to a restrained degree. Take 2 was all Mr Penniman, complete with hey-hey-hey’s and call-and-response backing vocals. It reached only #95 in the US, but a respectable #26 in the UK. This version just might ring a few familiar bells for many of you. Then in 1956, the right Reverend Penniman recorded ‘Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey’, basically an amplification of his (second) treatment of ‘Kansas City’.

4 Cool Cats

4 Cool Cats

Young John and Paul picked up the Little Richard version, married it with his ‘Hey-Hey’, and gave The Beatles one of their most highly-charged early covers (here’s their version from 1962, Hamburg). Check out this video from the very height of Beatlemania (Shindig, 1964) singing ‘Kansas City / Hey-Hey-Hey!’ live, with Beatle Paul at his very cutest. But if it’s bombast and wrinkles you need, here’s Sir Paul employing ‘Kansas City / Hey-Hey-Hey!’ as an encore in 1997 with a little help from his friends Phil Collins, Carl Perkins, Mark Knopfler, Sting, Elton John, and Eric Clapton.

dexter-p1139-750pxThe song’s been covered literally hundreds of times, by everyone from Jimmie Witherspoon and Little Milton to Ann-Margret and Pat Boone.

We were talking about cool. About not needin’ nuttin’. Well, Wilbert’s treatment is about as self-sufficient as anything I can think of. Oh, yeah, there’s this big, burning need to get back to his KC lover. He might take a train or a plane, but if he has to, he’ll walk all the way to Kansas City.

The only problem is that that Wibert’s song’s really a very cool shuffle; and at that rate, it’s going to take him a very long time to get there. Well, no hurry. Wilbert’s not running anywhere. Heck, Leiber and Stoller never made it there till 34 years after they wrote the song.

So if anyone says, “C’mon, Wilbert, pick up them feet, you shiftless shuffler you! The lady’s a-waiting!”, you just answer, “Hey, I ain’t sweating or fretting or agitating for no woman.”

Not even one from Kansas City.

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