169: The Mills Brothers, ‘Jungle Fever’

Posted by jeff on Jun 13, 2019 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

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.

Go, Fleischmanns!

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.

Mills Brothers Jungle Fever

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 miscegenation 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.

Jungle Fever

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.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

032: Duke Ellington, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn)
051: The Ross Sisters, ‘Solid Potato Salad’
105: The Boswell Sisters, ‘Crazy People’


148: Andy Williams, ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’

Posted by jeff on Jan 31, 2019 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

Andy Williams — Days Of Wine And Roses
Andy Williams – Moon River
Henry Mancini — Days of Wines and Roses
Henry Mancini — Moon River

Remember good old Andy Williams? What does he conjure up for you? For me it’s:

He was a cool, suave nightclub entertainer. No one would confuse him with an artist, but he sold about three bejillion albums, had a weekly network variety show for nine years, hosted the Grammies, starred in Las Vegas, and stood by his ex-wife Claudine Longet after she shot and killed a ski racing champion in Aspen.

He’s of course best known for singing the emblematic (but not the original) version of ‘Moon River’, written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer for the Blake Edwards film ““Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961). Audrey Hepburn herself sang the original version in the movie, playing the guitar on the fire escape. It was quickly covered (in order) by Danny Williams (#1 in England), Jerry Butler (#11 in the US), Mancini himself (#11 in the US), and half a dozen others before Andy got to it a year later, releasing it not as a single but on his megahit album “Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes.” After he sang it at the 1962 Academy Awards, “Moon River” and Andy Williams became inextricably identified with each other.

I don’t care who likes it, and I don’t care how much of a snob you accuse me of being, it is a beautiful song.

LtoR: Holly Golightly, Guitar

Lyricist Johnny Mercer (1909-1976), great-grandson of a Confederate general, grew up in Savannah playing with the children of the family’s black servants and listening to their music and dialect. He collaborated with Hoagy Carmichael in Hollywood, married a Jewish chorus girl over his family’s objections, had a couple of intense affairs with Judy Garland, couldn’t handle his liquor in the Bing Crosby crowd, co-founded Capitol Records, and along the way wrote lyrics for 1500 songs including ‘I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande’, ‘Too Marvelous for Words’, ‘You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby’, ‘Day In, Day Out’, ’Fools Rush In’, ‘Jeepers Creepers’, ’That Old Black Magic’, ’Come Rain Or Come Shine’, ’Skylark ’, ’Laura ’, ’Satin Doll’, and ’Autumn Leaves’. Gosh.

Composer/arranger Henry Mancini (1924-1994) started out as a pianist/arranger for the Glen Miller orchestra, then moved to Hollywood to compose scores for epics such as “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, “It Came from Outer Space”, “Tarantula”, “This Island Earth”, and “The Glenn Miller Story” (for which he received his first Academy Award nomination.

LtoR: Mancini, Mercer, Oscar

He hit his creative peak in the late 1950s/early 1960s in both television and films, with a series of indelible hits:  the theme from Blake Edwards’ series “Peter Gunn”, with a riff as iconic as ‘Satisfaction’; ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ from the Howard Hawks/John Wayne film “Hatari!”; and of course the ‘Theme from The Pink Panther’.

But it’s not ‘Moon River’ for which I’d like to remember Andy Williams (and Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer). That would be too obvious, right? It’s the theme song from another Blake Edwards’ 1962 movie, “The Days of Wine and Roses”. Mancini’s version from the soundtrack was the original version (#33), followed by Perry Como and a host of others before Andy got to it a year later (#26, #1 album).

Baby Elephant Walk

Here’s Mancini paying tribute to Johnny Mercer in 1987, accompanying Andy Williams on ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’ and on ‘Moon River’.

The movie is a drama in black and white, but very grey throughout, about an attractive young middle class couple’s descent into alcoholism. Both Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick were nominated for Oscars. It’s an excellent, profoundly depressing movie, and the theme song never fails to evoke in me an acute sense of waste and loss.

The title of the movie is taken from a poem by British poet Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), an early cohort of W.B. Yeats. When he was 23, he fell hopelessly in love with the 11-year old daughter of a Polish restaurant owner.

Wino Poet Dowson

When she married a tailor tenant of her father’s (8 years later), Dowson wrote these lines: “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,/Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,/Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind”. Brokenhearted, he drowned himself in the bottle and died at 32, a penniless wino. His poem “Vitae Summa Brevis” contains the lines “They are not long, the days of wine and roses:/Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream.”

Johnny Mercer reworked that into the lyric Andy Williams sings so simply and convincingly:

The days of wine and roses laugh and run away like a child at play
Through a meadow land toward a closing door
A door marked “nevermore” that wasn’t there before

The lonely night discloses just a passing breeze filled with memories
Of the golden smile that introduced me to
The days of wine and roses and you.

LtoR: Rose, Wine

Bill Evans, no stranger to addictions himself, played the song frequently with his last trio in the final year of his life, when he was acutely aware of his approaching demise. Strangely, he treats the song lightly, upbeat and jaunty. I’ll be darned if I understand the logic there. Bill made some strange repertoire choices throughout his career – ‘The Theme from Spartacus’, ‘Theme from the Carpetbaggers’, ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’. He employs ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ as an extended show-piece, including bass and drum solos. With all the passion in that song, he tosses it off. Go figure.

Well, I guess addiction eventually takes its toll even on great artists. Inspiration and perspiration. No one’s accusing Andy Williams (or Henry Mancini or even Johnny Mercer) of being great artists. But you’ll have look far and wide to find a song as touching as Andy Williams’ rendition of ‘The Days of Wine and Roses.’

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138: Eliane Elias, ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads’

Posted by jeff on Jan 2, 2019 in Brazilian, Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Eliane Elias, ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads’ (studio recording)

Eliane Elias, ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads‘ (video, poor quality)

Eliane Elias, ‘Falsa Baiana’ (video, excellent quality)

I’m like other people in many ways: I like to be entertained, I like listening to a pretty song, I like looking at a pretty girl. But where normal folk seem to be able to just turn it off and relax, my critical devils just never rest. I can enjoy Mel Brooks as well as Ingmar Bergman, ER as well as John from Cincinnati, Linda Ronstadt as well as Joni Mitchell, but I don’t tolerate insults to my intelligence. And that’s why I listen so much to the mostly-jazz Brazilian-American pianist-singer Eliane Elias – because she is interesting, intelligent, and uncommonly pleasing to look at.

I can’t think of a single reason why Eliane Elias isn’t a household name (in contrast to, for example, Astrud Gilberto, who was asked to sing ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ because she was the only Brazilian in the studio at the moment who knew enough English). EE is outstandingly talented, accessible, commercially savvy, stunningly beautiful, highly esteemed professionally, thoroughly networked. Not that she’s done poorly in her 30-year professional career – she’s recorded with innumerable jazz heavyweights, won a couple of Grammies, recorded 25 albums for major labels in a whole bunch of styles. But you’ve never heard of her, right?

She’s a blond bombshell who plays piano nose-to-nose with Herbie Hancock, wears LBDs memorably, and sings in a sultry alto that pales Diana Krall. The comparison is telling. Eliane Elias isn’t a star, but she’s a natural blond, a serious jazz pianist, and she stays focused on the keyboard rather than the cameras.

Born in 1960 in Sao Paolo, Brazil, she grew up on classical piano. At 21 she began touring as a jazz pianist in South America and Europe. There she met Eddie Gomez, long-time bassist of EE’s guiding light Bill Evans. Gomez brought her to New York, where she became pianist for the jazz/fusion supergroup Steps Ahead, with Gomez and Michael Brecker. After leaving the group, she hooked up with trumpeter Randy Brecker, a collaboration which produced an album and a daughter, both named Amanda (1986).

Eliane Elias (r) with ex-husband, trumpeter Randy Brecker

Since then, EE has called her own shots. She’s had notable collaborations with Bob Brookmeyer and Herbie Hancock (both Grammy-winners), Toots Thieleman and Gilberto Gil. She’s played and recorded extensively with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassists Gomez and Marc Johnson, all former Evans sidemen. She recorded an album of Evans material, including a posthumous duet. She married Marc Johnson. Now, that’s a dedicated fan.

In the earlier years, she began with fusion-oriented jazz (especially with Steps Ahead), then moved to straight-ahead jazz trios (without singing), but then returned more to her Brazilian roots. She’s been singing more in recent years, from bossa nova classics to Great American Songbook standards, to contemporary pop. Throughout, she maintains her very distinctive style on both piano and vocals.

We had to pick one song for our SoTW, so we went for a favorite Eliane Elias live performance, ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads’. It doesn’t present the whole picture, but I suppose it’s pretty typical, with her showing off her pianism, her singing, her fine taste, and a couple of other talents.

The song is a charmer of a standard, ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads’, from the 1953 musical “Kismet”, which presents a Broadway reworking of Borodin’s music. The story is about a wily poet who talks his way out of trouble while his beautiful daughter is busy falling in love with the young Caliph. ‘Kismet’ is a Persian/Turkish word, meaning ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.  The musical contains a number of very beautiful classic standards, including ‘Stranger in Paradise’ (here in the version I originally encountered by good old Johnny Mathis), ‘And This Is My Beloved’ (here the 1956 hit by Mario Lanza; I wonder how he’d do on American Idol), and ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads’ (here for contrast by Peggy Lee, no slouch of a sultry chanteuse in her own right). BB&B is based on the second movement of Borodin’s String Quartet No 2 (Scherzo), here played by my favorites, the Emerson Quartet.

I don’t have anything very profound or revelatory to say about Eliane Elias. She’s not a life-changing artist. She’s just intelligent and tasteful and always a pleasure to listen to and look at. No mean feat, huh? I own twenty of her CDs, and I listen to them often. So I think I’ll just shut up now, give you a bunch of links to recordings and videos and photos and hope you enjoy her as much as I do.

‘Light My Fire‘ – She does. It’s the title track of her most recent CD. This must have been what Jim Morrison was thinking.

Waltz for Debby‘ – from “Something for You”, the Bill Evans tribute album. A marriage made in heaven.

Two from “Bossa Nova Stories” (2008) – Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superwoman’, with harmonica by Toots; and a definitive treatment of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, the bossa nova song that first captivated America.

Peggy’s Blue Skylight‘, a favorite Mingus tune of mine

And here’s the best part, the clips:

Falsa Baiana, 2014. I give it a 100. It’s perfect entertainment.

Having a lot of fun with hubby Marc Johson (bass) on Chega de Saudade (2009), a Jobim song to which I once dedicated an entire SoTW

A little taste of heaven–the sultry ‘Call Me’, which was written by Tony Hatch for Petula Clark and covered by Chris Montez, but has somehow become a bossa nova standard.

A playful bossa tune, ‘Doralice’; I don’t know what she’s saying, but I could listen to her talk all day.

From 1991, in her non-vocal, non-bossa mode; 10 minutes of fine, unadorned jazz piano trio

From 1996, in her most Bill Evansian mode, with Johnson and DeJohnette

And for dessert, a live version of ‘Waltz for Debby’


If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

Bill Evans SoTWs

108: Michael McDonald/Luciana Souza, ‘I Can Let Go Now’

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


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033: Radka Toneff, ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’ (Jimmy Webb)

Posted by jeff on Oct 11, 2018 in Nordic, Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Everybody goes for a love story. Okay, here’s one. I’m in love. Love at first sight.
Well, maybe not love. But real, true, deep infatuation that will last at least until I open my eyes.

The biggest problem right now is that I have a lot of trouble remembering her name. Radka Toneff. You have to admit, that’s objectively a hard name to remember, even if you’re in love with her. Just as lovers revel in reconstructing how they first met, I’m trying to remember how I stumbled on her. I guess I was looking at all the YouTube hits for ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘ or – hey, Jeff, the music?

Radka Toneff (1952-1982) was a Norwegian singer “of legendary stature”. Well, in knowledgeable jazz circles in Oslo, perhaps. For me she was new. But I’ve been listening to a lot of Scandinavian music over the last couple of years, and I’m working hard at cultivating that taste and broadening my knowledge.

I admit a certain bias towards Nordic singing. At its best, it’s flawless, perfect, precise, technically refined on a level we just don’t encounter in our more familiar neighborhoods. With female singers, that can be intoxicating.

It all depends on the material. When my new love Radka (I need to practice using her name) hits on the right material–which she does sometimes, not too regularly–it can really be breathtaking.

For convenience’s sake, we’ll call Radka Toneff a jazz singer, though that’s not really accurate. She recorded a wide range of material – from rarified jazz to hackneyed pop, a pinch of Bulgarian folk (her father was a Bulgarian folk singer), with a little bit of soul thrown in, paying her Nordic dues to the mothers of her music.

If you did the math above, you got that she died at the age of 30. It’s usually called a suicide, but the fullest version I found (in English) says: “Her sudden death was described by newspapers as a suicide, but friends said that although she brought it on herself, it was an accident.”

A while back I wrote about Eva Cassidy, in Song of The Week 29. The similarities between Eva and Radka are rather uncanny. Eva died from cancer at 36, a restrained and tasteful singer of an unclassifiably wide range of material. If you remember Eva’s “Over the Rainbow“, especially as compared to the other versions we compared it to, it’s a model of good taste and restraint, of the tension created by strongly felt passion being expressed without histrionics—a fan dance of the heart.

Eva had no career whatsoever. Radka recorded 3 albums–”Angel Heart”, “Fairy Tales”, and the posthumously released “Live in Hamburg”. There are also 2 compilations of other cuts, and a lot of live videos in all kinds of settings–small combo, big band, orchestra, many with material not found on the CDs.

Radka’s material includes classic jazz. One of my favorites is her treatment of ‘My Funny Valentine‘. I have a lot of respect for that song, and I’ve heard it butchered and demeaned more often than I care to remember. Her version is heart-rending. (Ever wonder why singers always make the song mournful? The lyric is quite loving. Hmm.) There’s also ‘Nature Boy‘, sung pretty much perfectly, but a song I’ve never warmed up to [written before The Real Group’s magical treatment]; a Nina Simone; one by Kurt Weil and Maxwell Anderson!; two personal beatnik favorites of mine by Frances Landesman and Thomas Wolf, ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men‘ and ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘.

But there’s also a lot of ‘pop’ (ouch): Michael Franks, Kenny Loggins, an unfortunate Bob Dylan, 2 surprising Paul Simon selections (a lovely live ‘Something So Right‘ and the rightfully minor ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Day’), Elton John, Jerry Jeff Walker, our Song of The Week, Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’.

Her upbeat songs, and the ones that try to be black, are uniformly unsuccessful. Oh, but when she hits the bulls-eye, it’s right to the heart of your heart.

Jimmy Webb is a story to himself. Excepting Burt Bacharach, the only ‘non-performing’ (we wish) songwriter of our time to get his name above the title. He’s the auteur of hits such as ‘Up, Up and Away’ (5th Dimension), Glenn Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Galveston’ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, and the Richard Harris epic ‘MacArthur Park’. That’s some very, very fine music there.

But there are a couple of problems with Mr Webb. First of all, he kept trying to become a singer, which only damaged his reputation. But more significantly, he was so talent-inebriated that he couldn’t walk a straight line, constantly teetering from the poignant to the maudlin, from the sublime to the grotesque. ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’? C’mon. If that’s not bad enough, he (or someone) chose that as the name for one of the compilations of his greatest hits. Jimmy Webb, haunting at his best, embarrassing at his worst.

I don’t want to detract from those Glenn Campbell songs. Glenn Campbell is also a story in and of himself. (Why do people say I ramble?) He was a studio guitarist on Blonde on Blonde!!! He has the God-given voice of a cowboy angel, and the good sense and taste and intelligence of a Texas Longhorn steer.

Glenn Campbell had the initial hit of ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’. Judy Collins also got a hit out of it (you’re lucky I couldn’t find that on YouTube—it’s a pretty horrifying experience), as did Joe Cocker (well, Joe, you know). It got a lovely, respectful treatment by  Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny on “Beyond The Missouri Sky”. Versions such as Jimmy Webb’s own and that of Joan Baez, believe me, you don’t want to hear.

It’s not hard to get why so many people want to do this song. The title, by the way, is that of a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, “about a lunar colony‘s revolt against rule from Earth. The novel expresses and discusses libertarian ideals in a speculative context.” (Thanks, Mr Wikipedia). What that has to do with this lovely song is beyond me. Listen to the mean modulation at “I fell out of her eyes,” right at the shift in the lyric from the outer to the inner.

The one other version I do recommend you take a listen to is that of Linda Ronstadt. We Americans think of Linda as having a pure, gimmick-free voice. Well, listen to her version. Then listen to that of Radka Toneff. I’m sure you’ll hear how precise, fine, dignified, and moving a singer she is. And maybe you’ll see why I used to be in love with Linda, but now it’s Radka who holds my heart.

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
It’s so hard to love her well

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I — I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

029: Eva Cassidy, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’

045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

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



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