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272: Vilray, ‘Do Friends Fall in Love?’ (with Rachael Price)

Posted by jeff on Oct 13, 2017 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

Vilray and Rachael Price, ‘Do Friends Fall in Love’

Vilray, ‘(I’d Like to Get You) On a Slow Boat to China’ (busking)

I’m a member of that dwindling species, the heterosexual male. I was raised (by a professional feminist) before the sexual revolution. I’ve never had the opportunity to really explore Mars (though I’ve looked at a lot of very beautiful pictures of Venus). I’ve never consciously cultivated my female aspect, painted my nails, or willingly ordered a “nice salad”.

I’m simply not wired to sense the attractiveness of males. I get that young Marlon Brando in a tight t-shirt can turn a head or two. But James Dean? I never wanted to coddle or cuddle him.

The female of the species—that’s another story. Take for example, Rachael Price, singer of the fine group Lake Street Dive, whose praises I have previously sung in somewhat hyperbolic terms. What can I say? She makes me a more than a little dizzy. She is, according to all five of my humble male senses, the epitome of what a woman can/should be. A chanteuse, a siren. A visage that demands my testostironical attention, a call of the wild to the fundaments of my DNA.

So when I see her dueting with this guy Vilray – how can I put this delicately? – whose abdomen looks more like a 40-pound bag of melting ice than a frosty 6-pack – I’m struck by the incongruity.  Not just struck. Floored. Astounded. And filled with hope.

Because physically, Vilray reminds me of myself in junior high. More girth than glam, more Bud than bod, more tummy than tone, more stagger than swagger. And here he is, harmonizing right up close with that most divine Ms Price.

And she’s smiling. Genuinely. She’s smiling at him. She likes him.

I’ve been told a million times that for the female of the species, the brain is an erogenous zone. I guess I believe it, in theory. But in practice, my mind can only believe that women are as shallow and superficial as us guys.

Vilray – in the strictly Chippendale sense (we’ll get to his fingers in a moment) – is a 5. Being generous, because I really admire the guy. Rachael Price is easily a 17. Seeing her harmonize intimately with him is for me a miracle of nature: the zaftig guy winning the hand (that’s a euphemistic synecdoche, folks) of the fairest of damsels.

Vilray, I’m telling you right here and now: You are my hero, the representative, the proxy of every male who has bewailed his less than Graecian physique and overcome. Go for it!

But Vilray is not just a symbol. He’s a flesh and blood young artist, a prodigiously talented one. And if there’s a guy from our sub-species who deserves to get the girl and sell a lot of records, it’s him

Vilray, born and raised in NYC, got his biggest exposure when he was filmed busking with bassist Damon Hankoff at the Metropolitan Lorimer station of the G train. The song is Frank Loesser’s ‘(I’d Like to Get You) On a Slow Boat to China’, originally recorded by Peggy Lee and Bing Crosby in 1948. You can hear Vilray’s warm, Sinatra-esque vocal, his 30s swing guitar picking, and his virtuoso whistling. But that’s just the tip of the aforementioned bag of ice.

Vilray is a man out of time, an anachronism. He is of the 30s, Tin Pan Alley and (fortunately) was somehow time-tunneled several generations forward. He sings pre-war songs (that’s WWII for the kids), writes pre-war songs, wears flamingo-hued jackets, sports a pencil moustache, and uses vintage gear “for the warmth”.

Check this out, Vilray’s ‘So This Is Love’, originally sung by Ilene Woods for the Disney film “Cinderella”.

I do what I can to be both original and evocative of the earlier time but you can only write what comes. I have been steeped in this music since I was 16 so it’s very instinctual now.”
I know, Vil, I know. At 16 I was collecting stamps and reading Sports Illustrated. At 16 Rachael Price was being taken to the drive-in by Brad Pitt.

Fats Waller is a particular touchstone for me. I play two tunes which I wrote for him to sing, ‘She Calls Me MacLeish’ and ‘Go On Shining’. The first is the kind of joke tune that he sometimes sings, ‘Pent Up In A Penthouse’ or ‘What’s Your Name’. The other one is one of his spacey mysterious songs like ‘Inside This Heart of Mine’ or Jitterbug Waltz. My approach to writing is usually to write for a singer or band from that 1925-1944 period of recording. That’s what the writers were doing then.”

Fats Waller (1904-1945) was an enormously popular and influential pianist, singer, songwriter and entertainer, a major figure of the pre-war Tin Pan Alley Western and Gypsy swing style, daddy of the stride piano. He’s pretty fabulous. And Lena Horne doesn’t look like she’s having a bad time here.

If you skimmed the quote from Vilray above, let me reiterate: He writes songs for Fats to sing. That’s my kind of guy.

I readily admit that Tin Pan Alley/pre-war swing aren’t my areas of expertise. So I’m listening to Vilray’s ouvre, boning up to write this, cramming as it were. Who are his predecessors? I get that the guitar is emanating from an earlier era, but I can’t put my finger on just who played that way.

Listening to new music, asking myself questions. Like I’ve done several trillion times in my life. Then I remembered Facebook. So I shot Vilray a note, late at night for me, late afternoon for him. And he responded. Hence ensued a short but fruitful Q&A chat, with the artist himself supplying the very information I’m interested in hearing. I think that’s the coolest thing in the world.

I once heard Jacob Collier say that he was fortunate to be of a generation which offered the tools for him to make whatever music/video was in his mind In His Room at the age of 18 (and what music it was!), then press a button and export it to the world (and become an internationally-recognized genius within months). Others would say that it’s this generation that’s fortunate to have a Jacob Collier to explore the potential that this digital revolution offers.

In any case, the next time I’m tempted to bitch about the internet’s effect on the way we don’t communicate, I’ll try to remember that I can sometimes engage an artist in real time. Amazing.

Anyway, Vilray told me that Les Paul was a major influence. I know he invented the multitrack mixer all by himself. I wasn’t aware that he invented the solid-body electric guitar and a whole bunch of other doodangles. And he’s a remarkable guitarist, a remarkable musician, as you can see here, with his charming and talented wife Mary Ford. Les Paul is only person to be included in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. I’m sure going to be listening to some more of him.

But of course Vilray isn’t just influenced by Fats Waller and Les Paul. He’s a throwback to that era (and Ms Price looks very happy to be joining him on that hayride), but he’s an original. He’s clever and suave and prodigiously talented.

“We share one 1930s Amperite ribbon microphone like the one Sinatra sang into when he was getting started and I use a Premier 76 tube amplifier from the 1950s (bought through Retrofret Vintage Guitars). Nothing sounds as warm and comforting as this old stuff.”

Vilray says that dim lights, both in concert and in his apartment, are part of the warm, vacuum-tube parlor-concert atmosphere he’s creating. I tried that line a couple of times. Luckily for us, when Vilray tries it on Rachael, it works.

Vilray looks and sounds like another time, but he is in fact a seriously creative young artist who right now deserves to be listened to and supported. He’s funny and sharp, a super singing stylist with a great voice, knockout chops on the guitar, and a wow-level whistler to boot. He’s got an interesting website, and lots of fine clips on YouTube and Bandcamp. I signed up on Patreon to help him record. Nu, for a few bucks you too can be a big shot patron of the arts.

A 1930s microphone, a real-time Q&A session, writing songs for a long-gone legend to sing, turning down the lights with Rachael Price. You gotta love this guy. So he’s not Brad Pitt. Who among us real people is? He really does deserve our respect, our attention, our money, and the hand and heart of that most amazing young lady. That’s the way the universe should work.

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267: Boz Scaggs, ‘Lowdown’ (“Fade Into Light”)

Posted by jeff on Jul 21, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

MI0003833635Lowdown‘ (“Fade into Light”, 1996)

Harbor Lights‘ (“Fade into Light”, 1996)

Just Go‘ (“Fade into Light”, 1996)

Sierra‘ (“Fade into Light”, 1996)

I Should Care’, (“But Beautiful”, 2003)

Ballad of the Sad Young Men‘ (“Speak Low”, 2007)

I’m really tickled to be writing SoTW today, because it takes me right back to where I once belonged – blathering on about music that has me so excited I just might pop.

It started almost ten years ago. I got tired of running around the neighborhood, accosting bewildered strangers to demand they listen to my rantings about The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (SoTW 030) or my meeting the rhythm guitarist of an almost forgotten Midwest roots band almost 50 years ago (SoTW 015).

So I started pontificating in a weekly email to a bunch of soon-to-be-ex friends.
After a year or two, I wearied of the task of licking the stamps for all those emails and migrated to the Web site you all know and love. Somehow, the word spread (well, if Ebola can do it, why can’t I?) and today, 267 posts later, there’s a loyal cadre of unsuspecting readers out there (I’m still waiting for P.T. Barnum’s dictum of “You can fool all the people some of the time…” to catch up with me.)

This is perhaps a suitable place to say that a) I’m always happy to read Comments here and try to respond to them all, and b) I’d really appreciate it if you’d pass on the word about the blog to a few ex-lovers/ former employers/noisy neighbors/unfavoritest cousins who might just be gullible enough to take a look.

But the point is that I’m popping with excitement, and I sure am glad I get to let it out.

Groupie Jeff, Boz, 1969

Groupie Jeff, Boz, 1969

Boz Scaggs. I last heard Boz (on break from Steve Miller) playing with Mother Earth in 1969 at the Ludlow Garage in Cincinnati. The band was great, a favorite. Tracy Nelson was a wonder. I remember being moved to tears at the sheer beauty of the music – only time live music’s ever done that to me.

Mike and Bill and I worked the gate at The Garage (and ran across the river to Newport to buy booze for the after-show bash). We got to hang out with luminaries such as Bo Diddley (tried to pick up my girlfriend), Neil Young (obnoxious), Leslie West (barely made it through the door) and Boz Scaggs–not exactly a household name, but he wore very cool Haight-Ashbury striped pants which were quite a rarity in good old Cincinnati and had great hair.

I could tell you that Boz and I got very close, dropped acid together, picked up some groupies together and discussed The Meaning of Life. There’s no one alive who could contradict me, not even photographer cum novelist Rod Pennington, who so graciously preserved this magic moment from another world.

The truth is, I was this affected, clueless, justifiably insecure, horny, poseur, preening, uninformed, unworldly, horny Jewish kid masquerading as, ahem, cool; and Boz was a bona fide Rock Star who deigned to give me the time of day.

2d767316c29ed5ed22e8c2c81e0d5e91I vaguely recollect Boz as a really sweet, articulate guy. The hazy impression that remains is that he was more than polite – warm and generous.

But then fate drew me to a corner of the world without radio reception, the decades passed, and our respective roads drifted apart – me to the wholly holey Holy Land, Boz to a long career of moderate success as a working musician. I had a vague impression of him as a blue-eyed soul guitarist/singer. Little did I know.

I’ve listened to no one else for near on a fortnight now, and it is my pleasure, my that’s-why-I’m-here duty, to inform you: Boz Scaggs is one fine, fine, fine musician. Run and listen to him. I can’t imagine anyone not deeply enjoying his music.

1965-75, Boz was playing electric blue-eyed blues, with critical but little commercial success. Here’s ‘Loan Me a Dime’ from 1969’s eponymous album, with Duane Allman and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section lending support. Not my cup of tea, but certainly admirable.

1975-80, he shifted to smooth, commercial R&B soul, hit the jackpot with his 5xPlatinum album “Silk Degree”, featuring hits such as ‘What Can I Say’, ‘Lido Shuffle’ and ‘Lowdown’, receiving 4 Grammy nominations including Album of the Year . A number of commercial hits followed (‘Breakdown Dead Ahead’, ‘Jojo’, ‘Look What You’ve Done to Me’ and ‘Miss Sun’).

Boz Scaggs 1982

Boz Scaggs 1982

He then went into a fallow period, resurfacing in 1988 with ‘Heart of Mine’ from “Other Roads”. In 1989 he did the first of a couple of tours (again in 2010 as the Dukes of September) with Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan) and Donald Fagen (Steely Dan). He has other gifts, but I’m not convinced by Mr Fagen as a soul persona. But the comparison with Mr McDonald is telling. MM is a great singer, with an incredibly muscular tenor. BS owns a pretty amazing vocal range, with control in the upper ranges that many a better-known vocalist should be highly envious of.

But what’s been filling my ears and mind and voice and heart for the last couple of weeks is the last 20 years of his career, in which he’s gradually morphed into an intelligent, soulful, gentlemanly, smooth-as-melted-butter R&Bster – looking commercial tastes right in the eye without flinching, without compromising one whit on the sincerity more commonly associated with his rawer bluesy days. It all started with 1998’s “Some Change”, with gentler materials such as ‘I’ll Be the One’, ‘Sierra’, ‘Lost It’, and ‘Time’.

But then in 1996 he recorded a laid-back, acoustic album which included new readings of a number of his later hits. It’s a 5-star album which I’ve been listening  to more or less non-stop recently, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Cut after cut, this is finely-honed, emotionally engaging, sincere, intelligent commercial music. Admittedly, it’s not “John Wesley Harding”. But – honestly now – when’s the last time you listened to JWH?

51GPE87J8BLLowdown’, ‘Just Go‘, ‘Love T.K.O.’, ‘Fade Into Light’, ‘Harbor Lights’, ‘Lost It’, ‘’Sierra‘, ‘I’ll Be the One’, really every single cut – this is as good as pop music gets. I think of Norah Jones’ “Come Away with Me”, Alison Krauss’s recent “Windy City”, Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel” years, perhaps even Carol King’s “Tapestry” – indelible, memorable commercial music that grabs you, pulls you irresistibly into its emotional territory, pleases you immeasurably and leaves you feeling those were 45 edifying minutes.

In 1997 and 2001 he released two fine R&B albums, “Come on Home” and “Dig” (‘King of El Paso’). In 1998, his 21-year old son OD’d.

Then in 2003 and 2008 (Boz now in his 60s), he recorded two albums of standards, “But Beautiful” and “Speak Low” which have absolutely nothing to do with the Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan forays into the genre. Boz is not a wrinkled pop idol looking for a new wrinkle to boost his record sales or grab at a bit of legitimacy.

There’s also a video from this period (2004) that I’ve been really enjoying, Boz with an excellent 9-piece band (bass, great lead guitar, two keyboards, two horns, two outstanding backup singers). The man at the very top of his game. Do yourself a favor, spend some time with it.

Boz Scaggs is a first-rate, knockout jazz singer. The impeccable choice of songs; the intimate, relaxed arrangements; the utterly convincing readings–he brings to life for me songs that decades of (you’ll pardon the blasphemy) unconvincing (for my ears) readings by a myriad of uninspired singers (the whole pantheon, all the Tony Bennetts and Mel Tormes) have deadened my ears to. Check out ‘I Should Care’. Or ‘For All We Know’. Or ‘Save Your Love for Me’. Or ‘Skylark’. (Hey, I wrote a posting about that song!) Or the killer ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’. It’s a remarkable song, and I also wrote a posting about its sister piece, ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’. The song is as daunting for a singer as Sonny Liston was in his prime for a pugilist. Listen to what he does to the last phrase. He hits that last note without taking a breath beforehand (equivalent to parachuting from a satellite in orbit), way at the top of a very high rising arpeggio–with utter calm, relaxed, confident, not a hint of strain, no sign of the enormous technical challenge in hitting it without a waver.

boz-scaggsHis voice is a wonder. Effortless, honest, expressive, technically the envy of many a crooner. It’s smooth and pure and controlled, at the service of what seems like a really nice, sincere guy reweaving well-known stories in a way that makes each and every one come to life.

But we’re not done. 2013’s “Memphis” (“a stunner. Scaggs is in full possession of that iconic voice; he delivers songs with an endemic empathy and intimacy that make them sound like living, breathing stories.”) and 2015’s “A Fool to Care” are finely crafted covers of Memphis music. Check out ‘Cadillac Walk’ or ‘A Rainy Night in Georgia’. As the excellent AllMusic pundit Thom Jurek says, “He delivers songs with an endemic empathy and intimacy that make them sound like living, breathing stories…He remains a song interpreter who has few — if any — peers.”

Yes, it’s commercial. Yes, it’s slick. And yes, I’ve been listening to it non-stop for two weeks. We need this music in our lives. It’s a rarity, intelligent entertainment. Not life-changing, not soul-scouring, but art that can inform and enlarge our souls.  Real music by a real person, a prodigiously talented musician singing to us with his own personal, human voice. Still going strong at 73. You’re my man, Boz.

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261: Kurt Elling/Sting, ‘Practical Arrangement’

Posted by jeff on Apr 28, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Kurt Elling, ‘Practical Arrangement’

Sting, ‘Practical Arrangement’

486226_actualSo I’m listening to Kurt Elling’s newest album (2016), “Upward Spiral”, a collaboration with the quartet of saxophonist Branford Marsalis. And the fourth track there stops me in my tracks. “Practical Arrangement”, a painfully slow, painfully needy, almost spoken monolog by a man proposing to a woman that she marry him, live with him, even though they both know she doesn’t love him. A practical arrangement. Gee, love songs ain’t what they used to be.

The song rivets me. I stop in my tracks and listen to every word, even though it’s so slow that it seems to stand still, just a guy struggling to get out some very difficult words, trying to maintain his poise with the façade of an objectified, logical, contractual proposal; whereas we understand that he’s actually bereft of all dignity, begging, offering her his all in return for virtually nothing.

content_Lucy_and_Ricky_This is new for me. Well, new and familiar. I’m fascinated by the new varieties of couplehood that have been evolving in Western society since I was a kid. I remember when Lucy and Desi slept in separate beds. I remember the first time I heard about a couple living together openly outside the sanctity of marriage. And now I watch a lot of Scandinavian television, where couplehood takes on more fluidity, more new preconceptions and expectations and expressions than dreamt of in my philosophy.

screen-shot-2016-06-24-at-10-00-41-pmBut a man (or woman) openly offering everything in return for nothing? We all know that extreme brand of desperate, unrequited need that trumps all propriety and sends our super-ego negotiating team into a tizzy.

A practical arrangement. A proposition with sex off the table, a proposal with love outside the deal. Wow. That’s new. Let me chew on that.

This song—it’s hardly a song. It has less forward movement than a Gregorian chant. There’s almost no melody, little more than the rise and fall of the spoken word. The word choice is NON-poeticBinding-Financial-Agreement (Am I asking for the moon? Is it really so implausible?/That you and I could soon come to some kind of arrangement?/I’m not asking for the moon, I’ve always been a realist,/When it’s really nothing more than a simple rearrangement.)

Who wrote this calculated, conversational negotiation?

Gulp. Sting. On that 2013 album of songs he wrote for a musical, “The Last Ship”.

Like many others, I stopped following closely Sting’s uneven, late career a long time ago. His previous album of original material was in 2003. “I thought: Maybe I’ve lost my mojo to write. There’s a lot of self-obsession involved in being a singer-songwriter. I’d gotten sick of navel-gazing. I’d gotten sick of putting myself on the couch.”

camerasAfter a hiatus of ten years, Sting rediscovered his mojo, writing a series of sea shanties in a Newcastle accent, vignettes of a gallery of local Northern characters in the small shipbuilding town where he was raised (‘The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance’). “Once I came up with these characters, the songs began to pour out. It was such a relief not to write about myself. I had to get myself out of the way.”

The songs are impressively crafted, I said after one listening, knowing I’d probably never go back to listen again.

It’s not happenstance that I’ve never written about Sting. I’d hardly know what to say. One moment you feel like he’s standing between Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon as one of the most talented musicians of our generation; the next, you’re just a little embarrassed by his self-conscious displays of earnestness, the pretence outweighing the presence (the presents?). You know he knows exactly where the cameras are positioned.

beg2I read that ‘Practical Arrangement’ is an outtake from the musical, appearing on the album but not on stage. Okay. Maybe that’s a good sign?

I have a bias, acquired during my formative years from Andrew Sarris’s introduction to his book “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968 (1968)”, an adherence to his ‘auteur’ theory, derived from the French Nouvelle Vague film critics and directors. It refers to the artist who controls all aspects of a collaborative creative work.  In film, it can be a star (if the movie is a vehicle), the head of the studio (if it’s an industry-generated flick), or a writer (if it’s a faithful adaptation of a play or novel). But if it’s true cinema, the auteur, the real creative mind, is the director. Film is a director’s medium. Think Alfred Hitchcock.

The term has gained a lot of currency in a wide range of fields. In music, it has been used to refer to a producer (think Phil Spector or Berry Gordy). I’m told that it can even refer to video games today, such as Hideo Kojima, the creator of the “Metal Gear” series. I’m hoping that you understand that that particular insight is based on hearsay.

sting-2013-650-430In music, this leads me to think a lot about the composer/performer dichotomy. Who is the creative artist here? In classical music, you gotta go for the composer, no matter what. Even if it’s Leonard Bernstein conducting Isaac Stern soloing with the New York Philharmonic in Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto in D Major op 61”– it’s Ludwig’s gig.

Frank Zappa’s ‘Louie, Louie’ notwithstanding, I adhere to that auteur business pretty stringently. My gut always tells me that by default, the writer is the creator. The performer is a tool.

So when it comes to Kurt Elling singing a song written and originally performed by Sting, I’m a bit befuddled. Even his harshest critics have to admit that Sting ain’t Richard Berry. Let’s give a listen. First, the original:

Yeah, it’s interesting. New, surprising. All those nice things I said above. But there’s also something cloying in the self-conscious earnestness of the presentation.

Then you listen to Kurt Elling’s version:

What’s the difference? Same melody, very minor (but crucial) changes in the lyrics, same harmonics, same key (Bm). Same story. But it isn’t.

6a011570bcfeed970b0128756b45b0970cKurt’s last ‘but I think you could learn to love me given time’ (the ‘I think’ is Kurt’s interpolation; his insecurity is so much more convincing than Sting’s self-confidence) – is he just walking through the song, saying to himself, “Ok, here comes the last line, let’s really milk it” while in the back of his mind all he’s really thinking about is the pepperoni pizza with extra cheese waiting for him in the dressing room?

Or is he living the moment, animating in his mind (and in ours) the loneliness in the narrator’s life, the desperation in his need to try to cajole her to begrudge him the merest modicum of warmth?

I can hear one lobe of Kurt’s brain saying, “You can’t perform it that slowly, man. The audience will either fall asleep or walk out.” But thankfully, that other lobe holds sway: “If I sing it with utter conviction, they’ll listen.”

And sing it with breathtaking passion and conviction, Kurt does. Because even though he’s just a singer, he’s a consummate artist. An auteur.

 

Am I asking for the moon? Is it really so implausible?
That you and I could soon come to some kind of arrangement?
I’m not asking for the moon, I’ve always been a realist,
When it’s really nothing more than a simple rearrangement.
With one roof above our heads, a warm house to return to,
We could start with separate beds, I could sleep alone – or learn to.
I’m not suggesting that we’d find some earthly paradise forever,
I mean how often does that happen now? The answer’s probably never.
But we could come to an arrangement, a practical arrangement,
And [perhaps] you could learn to love me given time.

I’m not promising the moon, I’m not promising a rainbow,
Just a practical solution to a solitary life.
I’d be a father to your boy, a shoulder you could lean on,
How bad could it be, to be my wife?
With one roof above our heads, a warm house to return to,
You wouldn’t have to cook for me, you wouldn’t have to learn to,
I’m not suggesting that this proposition here could last forever,
I’ve no intention of deceiving you, you’re far too clever.
But we could come to an arrangement, a practical arrangement,
And perhaps you’d [you could] learn to love me given time.
It may not be the romance that you had in mind,
But [I think] you could learn to love me given time.

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4

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

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

Frank Sinatra — ‘It Was a Very Good Year’

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

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

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

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

Ervin Drake

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

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

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

Mallard Drake

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

Kingston Trio

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

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

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

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

Gordon Jenkins, Frank Sinatra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

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

 

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