3

245: Johnny Mathis, ‘Misty’

Posted by jeff on Sep 9, 2016 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

heavenlyalbumcovertrim-jpg-w300h454Johnny Mathis, ‘Misty’ (1959 video, 55″)

Johnny Mathis – ‘It’s Not For Me To Say’, ‘Twelfth Of Never’, ‘Wild Is The Wind’, ‘When Sunny Gets Blue’, ‘Chances Are’, ‘Wonderful,Wonderful’ (video medley, 1965)

It’s that month. Time to repent. Some people get up before before dawn to fervently recite indecipherable poetry written in a long-dead language in the Middle Ages.

Me, I’ll just recite a litany of all the music I’ve ever been enthralled with and am now embarrassed to have done so.

A high school buddy, AB, sent me a couple of record reviews I wrote for the Bulldog Barks in 1965. “Rubber Soul” and Barbra Streisand. I blushed a bit at the callowness of the style, but the musical observations themselves? Spot on.

I think back primarily to the pre-Beatles era. After they Sullivaned into our lives, we had great stuff to listen to, and our tastes evolved as we grew into college. So what if there was an occasional rave to Sam & Dave’s ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’? I’d had a couple of pre-legal beers, and Sam & Dave are nothing to be ashamed of.

johnny_mathis___iconic_by_iconcollectiblesBack in junior high, the radio was playing Rex Allen’s “Son Don’t Go Near the Indians” and Lawrence Welk’s ‘Calcutta’, but we got that they were crap. We even knew how to take Chubby Checker’s ‘Let’s Twist Again’ and Connie Francis’s ‘Where the Boys Are’ with a grain of salt; and were even then aware of the difference between all of them and The Shirelles’ ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ and Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’.

So I’m surprisingly comfortable with what enraptured me back then. My perspicaciousness, in retrospect, stands me in good stead.

But we’re here to talk about the trespasses. That stuff I’m embarrassed to admit that I loved once upon a pimply time.

C’mon, Jeff. You want expiation? Give ‘em up.
Okay, okay. Here goes:

541_2Eddie Fisher, ‘Around the World’ b/w ‘Cindy, Oh Cindy’.
My defence? I was 11, it (they) were the first 45 I ever listened to (when my sister wasn’t in her room). The fact that the second 45 I stole a listen to was Sam Cooke’s ‘You Send Me’ is apparently no defense. Mea culpa. x2.

Martin Denny, ‘The Enchanted Sea’.
Okay, okay, full disclosure: and a half dozen LPs of same.
But I had this discussion one night with a cool jazz pianist (with a pencil moustache), and he concurred that those were indeed the most exotic sounds around. Well, for 13 year-olds. Coltrane’s sheets of sound were from another universe.

Simon and Garfunkel, ‘For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her’.
I’m just too embarrassed to reveal what that song did to me back then. I don’t care, let me rot in hell. You’re not going to hear about it.

johnny-mathis-johnnys-greatest-390393But the Ultimate Tresspass?
Johnny Mathis.
And oh, what a sin it was.
“Johnny’s Greatest Hits”. “Johnny’s Greatest Hits Vol II”. Heavenly”. “Faithfully”. “Wonderful, Wonderful.” “I’ll Buy You a Star”. It was 1957-1961 by the Gregorian calendar, 8th-10th grade by mine.

I squirm to think of those albums. I squirm to think of how those albums made me squirm.
There are skeletons banging on that closet door. Let ‘em out, Jeff.

Johnny Mathis was a distinctive crooner. All the traditional MOR crooners of the late 50s/early 60s — the Sinatras and Ecksteins and Martins and Bennets and King Coles and Belafontes  – were real, ordinary male Homo sapiens. Johnny Mathis was, is, will always be – how shall I put this when I no longer talk the talk of PC nuance? – other.

His voice is freakishly sensuous and gooey. A vibrato that can whip cream. That did, actually.

37847d350daf5bf9c6c4d63a065fcb63Tons of tomes have been written about prepubescent girls and androgynous pop idols. Tweenie boys have been markedly neglected. Perhaps it’s better that way.

Getting ready do my homework, my finger reaches to click on ‘Chances Are’, the first and quintessential track on the ultimate album, “Johnny’s Greatest Hits”. The album spent 491 consecutive weeks (nine-and-a-half fucking years!!) in the Billboard top 100.

I reach to click on the track, but there’s no need. It’s hardwired. That red button is a permanent nodule in the juke box of my mind. Columbia 1133. Just as much as Capitol 2047 (“Meet The Beatles!” for you Martians).

I can play ‘Chances Are’ in my mind at the flick of a synapse. But I can’t really hear it any more than I can hear ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ today. The groove is worn out.

Photo by Richard Avedon

Photo by Richard Avedon

I’m not going to make excuses, even though it was 1961 and I was 13. Know what it was? It was makeout music, perfected. It was the soundtrack of my hormonal life; i.e., my life. Every time I was alone with a girl in high school in reality or in my imagination, it was playing on my Victrola or in the heavens.

I’m guessing there were a lot more misses than hits there, but I wouldn’t count on the accuracy of that memory—in either direction. That groove is worn out as well.

But now, threescore years on, the setting has changed. Or has it?  “What shall I do with this absurdity—/O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,/Decrepit age that has been tied to me/As to a dog’s tail?”

Enough. I come to bury Johnny, not to praise him. Let’s just SoTW him and be done with it.

460x1240John Royce Mathis (b. 1935) was a high school high jump and hurdles star (he was asked to try out for the US Olympic team) who studied voice, including opera, for years before becoming a professional singer. He was one of the first musicians to focus on selling albums rather than singles. He’s sold well over 350 million of them, and still lives in a house built by Howard Hughes.

The songs on his early albums were garnered from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and the Brill Building (‘Heavenly’ and ‘Faithfully’ were written by pre-Hal David Burt Bacharach!). A very surprising portion of them were penned for Johnny, including from the “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” album alone ‘Chances Are’, ‘The Twelfth of Never’, ‘When Sunny Gets Blue’ (a truly beautiful and indelible song, covered by everyone), ‘Wonderful, Wonderful’, ‘It’s Not for Me to Say’, and ‘Wild is the Wind’ (yes, the one covered by David Bowie and Esperanza Spalding).

kitten_tree_climbSong of The Week? ‘Misty’, hands-down.

The song was written and recorded by pianist Erroll Garner in 1954, but remained unknown. Johnny: “I heard Erroll Garner play it when I was in my teens. I was frequenting the Black Hawk, where Erroll played three or four times a year. One night, he played the tune. There were no lyrics yet. I liked it a lot. I blurted out, ‘Mr. Garner, I am going to record your song if I ever make a record.’ Several years later, Johnny Burke [ ‘Here’s That Rainy Day’, ‘Imagination’, ‘It Could Happen to You’, ‘Like Someone in Love’, ‘Moonlight Becomes You’, ‘Pennies from Heaven’, ‘Polka dots and Moonbeams’, almost all with Jimmy Van Heusen–JM] had written lyrics to it, and I had fallen in love with Sarah Vaughan’s version.”

Mathis, Garner

Mathis, Garner

It’s been covered hundreds of times since, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. Here’s some cool background reading about the recording of ‘Misty’ by blogger Joe Manning. Nice job, Joe!

It might just be the most romantic recording ever. Johnny’s ‘on my own’ falsetto fade-in entry after the instrumental break (a B-flat) might just be the single most romantic moment ever put to tape.

I don’t know how many back-seat assignations were played out to its strains. Let’s tryst again, like we did last summer. But most of the couples we know owe a very certain debt to that singer and that song. And for that – thanks, Johnny.

Tags: , ,

 
4

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’

Tags: , , ,

 
11

069: Catherine Russell, ‘New Speedway Boogie’

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

This week’s SoTW shouldn’t have even made it to our turntable. The song is a toss-off by The Grateful Dead, a band more successful in leading acid-drenched mobs on long, aimless trips than in providing fodder for covers. The singer is a first-timer backup singer steeped in string jazz-blues from the 1920-30s, not exactly a favorite of mine. The band features a banjo and trombone. Need I continue?

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Catherine (Cat) Russell. She’s a musically pedigreed NYer whose father was Louis Armstrong’s long-time musical director, and whose mother holds degrees from both Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music. Cat has sung backing vocals for the likes of David Bowie, Jackson Browne, Steely Dan, Levon Helm, Madonna, Diana Ross, and Paul Simon.

Her debut album, “Cat” (2006), like its successors “Sentimental Streak” (2008) and “Inside This Heart of Mine” (2010), is steeped in Fats Waller-era tunes, where the line between blues and jazz wasn’t yet drawn. My friend JE likes that stuff. My friend EM likes that stuff. Guess what? JM doesn’t, not ordinarily. But this Cat Russell is just full of surprises. There’s not a bad note, not a bad decision, not a single boring passage. She’s refreshing, charming, sexy, wry and tasteful.

Cat with Satchmo

She charms all her material, nary a dud song in the bunch. She even takes Darn that Dream, a song I’ve encountered only about 300 cloying versions of, and makes it swing.

Her phrasing is reminiscent of Billie Holiday, but where Lady Day pulled phrases way beyond the beat out of pain or world-weariness or a drug cloud, Cat does so with a twinkle in her eye, for the calculated effect of dramatic irony. But if the material is often 1920s, and the frame of reference 1950s, the particular song here quintessential 1960s, the sound here is sparkling fresh.

Lots of Cat’s music is available on YouTube. But what I find so surprising is how much my listening pleasure is enhanced by the terrific sound of her recordings. I’m surprised to hear myself saying that. In my anal, obsessive pursuit of musical minutiae, I often avail myself of “The Penguin Guide” to jazz, to classical music. They like writing things like, “The Strinenphfuffen AC-327 microphone is unfortunately placed several millimeters above the 1926 Gringenhofger instrument’s D-string, flaunting the more respectful tradition of a restrained approach. The playing, however, is faultless and the music as perspicacious as is usually found in Count Wxyzerhofsky’s middle period.” But here on “Cat”, what can I tell you? I actually revel in the sound itself. The videos made in the studio are fun to watch, but I greatly prefer the glow of the higher-quality recordings.

This stands in marked contrast to The Grateful Dead’s studio incompetence. I guess if they were sober enough to find the studio, they were too straight to play. “Workingman’s Dead” is one of only two or three exceptions, an album I’ve known and loved since its release in 1970. Its success is in its tight, acoustic, close-harmony sound, much influenced by Crosby, Stills and Young, in great songs such as ‘Uncle John’s Band’ and ‘High Time’. To tell you the truth, I’d skip over ‘New Speedway Boogie‘ as often as I’d listen to it. I always had the impression that Jerry Garcia didn’t choose to write the song in a modal mode; he was just too stoned to change chords. I always dismissed the lyrics as typical Robert Hunter psychedelic babble. Till Cat Russell kicked the song in the butt and made me listen.

The song describes the infamous Altamont Free Concert, which took place in December 1969, a few months after Woodstock, at the Altamont Raceway. The Dead organized the gig, which was supposed to be Woodstock West. But while the Rolling Stones were singing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, an innocent listener was beaten to death by Hell’s Angels, who were inexplicably and bizarrely hired to ‘keep order’, an oxymoron if there ever was one. The beating took place right under Jagger’s nose, was captured on film, and together with the Kent State shootings put an end to the Age of Aquarius. Here’s a nice video of The Dead singing ‘New Speedway Boogie’ live, a pretty typically spacey performance.

Hunter’s lyrics, as usual, defy simple explication, but now that I look at them, they make a whole lot of sense. And they certainly do reflect The Dead’s disillusionment –and ours – with what went down at that racetrack. They organized the festival, and never got to play.

So here’s Cat Russell’s take on the song. The band is comprised of a mandolin, a stand-up knock-down bass, and a tambourine. Oh, and one fine, fine singer.

Recommended Listening:

Cat Russell on record (can you still say that?):

Just Because You Can

We The People

My Man’s an Undertaker

Inside This Heart of Mine

Long, Strong and Consecutive

Close Your Eyes

New Speedway Boogie (live)

‘New Speedway Boogie’ — Music Jerry Garcia, Lyrics Robert Hunter

Please don’t dominate the rap, jack, if you’ve got nothing new to say.
If you please, don’t back up the track; this train’s got to run today.
I spent a little time on the mountain, I spent a little time on the hill.
I heard someone say “Better run away”, others say “better stand still”.

Now I don’t know, but I been told it’s hard to run with the weight of gold.
Other hand I have heard it said, it’s just as hard with the weight of lead.

Who can deny, who can deny, it’s not just a change in style?
One step done and another begun and I wonder how many miles.
I spent a little time on the mountain, I spent a little time on the hill.
Things went down we don’t understand, but I think in time we will.
Now, I don’t know but I was told in the heat of the sun a man died of cold.
Keep on coming or stand and wait, with the sun so dark and the hour so late.
You can’t overlook the lack, jack, of any other highway to ride.
It’s got no signs or dividing lines and very few rules to guide.

I spent a little time on the mountain, I spent a little time on the hill.
I saw things getting out of hand, I guess they always will.
Now I don’t know but I been told
If the horse don’t pull you got to carry the load.
I don’t know whose back’s that strong, maybe find out before too long.

One way or another, one way or another,
One way or another, this darkness got to give.

Tags: , , ,

 
6

029: Eva Cassidy, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’

Posted by jeff on Jul 15, 2015 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

I made a discovery this week, and I’d like to share it with you – you can learn something about life from music. If you choose to quote or reprint that pearl of wisdom, please make sure you give me due credit for having coined it.

But, like all truisms, it is in fact true. You see, there’s this song we all know, “Over the Rainbow”. There are a number of remarkable things about it.

For one, in their list of Songs of the Century, the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts ranked it Number One, surpassing both ‘My Way’ and ‘Ballad of the Green Berets’. Not bad. Secondly, the musical database I know and love and live inside, AllMusic (God bless their souls), lists over 4000 renditions of the song. Thirdly, by my accounting, it is the runaway record holder for Most Artists’ Signature Song. By my accounting, and I probably missed a couple, ‘Over the Rainbow’ is/was considered to be My Signature Song by no less than Judy Garland, The United States Army, Art Pepper, Livingston Taylor, Willie Nelson, Rufus Wainwright, Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole, “American Idol” television show contestants, and Eva Cassidy.

If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to share with you why I chose Eva’s version as our Song of The Week. Hands-down.

‘Over the Rainbow’ was of course written for the movie “The Wizard of Oz” in 1938, and sung by Judy Garland. Judy Garland’s Dorothy sings Over the Rainbow 20 minutes into the movie after unsuccessfully trying to get her aunt and uncle to listen to her regarding an unpleasant incident involving her dog Toto and the nasty spinster Miss Gulch, whom Toto bit after she struck him with a rake. Now, that’s heavy stuff, but I’m not sure it’s a seminal enough event to inspire the #1 song of the century.

The brilliant 1998 documentary film “An Empire of Their Own”, based upon Neal Gabler’s book, presents the song, very convincingly in my eyes, as an emblem of the fears of Jews in America of what Hitler was might do to the family they had left behind. Sounds far-fetched? The song was written by Harold Arlen (music), E.Y. (Edgar) Harburg (lyrics). As kids, they were named Chaim Arlook and Yipsel Harburg. Look at original movie version of the song, think 1938, remember where Harold and Yip’s families were, and you tell me what was on their minds when their heads hit the pillow at night.

The American fighting troops in WWII adopted it as ‘their song’, but I don’t have any recordings of that to share with you. Fortunately, perhaps.

Art Pepper (1925-1982) was a white alto saxophonist who led a life tormented by his heroin addiction, as harrowingly described in his autobiography, Straight Life. He certainly went through a lot of pain, which he expressed through his rendition of the song. I’ve read the book, I’ve listened to over a dozen albums carefully, and I admire his playing, but he doesn’t grab me viscerally. I don’t warm up to him. I don’t want to say that he brought his addiction on himself, and shouldn’t be pitied for it. Well, maybe I do. I have boundless admiration and affection for Bill Evans, a contemporary of his, also a white junkie. But I don’t pity him. If the junk informs the music, fine. But I want to listen to the music, not the junk.

Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole (you can call him Iz) also brought a whole pile of tsuris on himself. He was a 350 kilogram (that’s 770 pounds, Virginia) ukulele-strumming Hawaiian tenor whose version was a big hit a few years ago. Before you watch the clip (8 million hits on YouTube), I should warn you that he sings part of the song topless. That’s ok, he’s male (I think he is–it’s a bit hard to tell at that weight). Even though he botches the lyrics throughout, you do get to see both a Photoshopped rainbow (to illustrate the lyrics, in case you didn’t understand them) and shots of a local shindig scattering all the ashes (it’s a big urn) of the 38-year old into the Wakiki surf. What can I tell you? Not my cup of tea.

Livingston Taylor is James’ younger brother. Liv looks like him, sounds like him, wrote some songs that are indistinguishable from James’, went through similar psychiatric issues. But if you listen to this version, and I’ve heard a couple of others at least as bad, I think you’ll see just where the watershed line lies—Liv’s version is hokey where it should be heartfelt, has lightness at the core where James’ would invest the same material with the heaviness of uranium. Think of his ‘Oh, Susannah’, for example.

Willie Nelson’s a great performer, but he’s not a life-changer.

Rufus Wainwright is the ultra-gay son of singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. I really enjoy some of his extravagant music. But his version of ‘Over the Rainbow’ as part of his tribute to Judy Garland – sorry, I find it just too self-conscious and affected. And in this song he hasn’t yet come on stage in black fishnet stockings (yes, he really does). But this straightforward version works better—it starts just him accompanied on piano by his mother. But then, I knew it, these extravagants just can’t resist it, the cloying violins come in, and then towards the end the song explodes in a diarrhea of kitsch, kettledrums and harps and kitchen sinks. You live by your excesses, you die by your excesses.

But then there’s Eva Cassidy, born in 1963. She did some singing and recording around her native Washington, D.C. But her career never took off, hampered by her acute shyness and her unwillingness to be marketed by record companies in the niche of folk or blues or pop or jazz or R&B or gospel. She sang them all. You know, ‘music’.

She recorded 3 albums—one by herself for a rinky-dink label, one collaboration with the king of DC go-go (including her studio version of the song, with a synthesizer accompanying her and her acoustic guitar), and ‘Live at Blues Alley’.

I don’t know why the live album doesn’t contain ‘Over the Rainbow’ – her live version is from the show at which the album was recorded – but someone luckily had a hand-held camcorder at the show, and here is the result you should listen to and watch. The former is a bit cleaner technically. But the latter has an affective strength you don’t come across every day.

This is what interpretive music should be. It’s all about the experience of the song. Eva Cassidy had incredible chops, technical vocal prowess. But she holds back. She restrains herself, because she’s too dignified to score cheap points out of mawkishness. And she plays a lovely guitar, and the phrasing couldn’t be better, and God bless, thanks for this clip.

In 1993, Cassidy had a mole removed from her back, and was told it was malignant. In January, 1996, she recorded the show at Blues Alley. In July, during a promotional event for the album, she felt an ache in her hips, which she attributed to her day job, painting murals at elementary schools while perched atop a stepladder. A few weeks later, she learned that the melanoma had spread to her lungs and bones. In four months, she was dead, unknown outside local D.C. circles.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Three years after that, a British DJ started playing ‘Over the Rainbow’. By Christmas, 2000, her compilation CD ‘Songbird’ was platinum in England and a hit throughout Europe. The black-and-white video became the most requested video ever shown on Top Of The Pops 2. “There’s an undeniable emotional appeal in hearing an artist who you know died in obscurity singing a song about hope and a mystical world beyond everyday life”, wrote “The Guardian“.

Only a year later did she start to catch on in the US. Eventually, everything she ever recorded, including all the demos, was released. In 2005, Eva Cassidy was the 5th best-selling artist on Amazon. Her songs have appeared in numerous movies, a book of interviews with her friends and family has sold 100,000 copies, her life story has been adapted to a musical, a bio-flick is in the works.

My enthusiasm over Eva Cassidy’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ cannot be attributed to her personal story, tear-jerking as it is. I think her tear-jerking personal story informed her with an understanding and passion that she, with her great talent, could invest in a song that was a proper vehicle. That’s the necessary condition for a great performance.

See, I told you so. You really can learn something about life from music.

Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high.
There’s a land that I heard of Once in a lullaby.
Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue.
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.
Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far Behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops, Away above the chimney tops.
That’s where you’ll find me.
Somewhere, over the rainbow, bluebirds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow,
Why then – oh, why can’t I?
If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow,
Why, oh, why can’t I?

Tags: ,

Copyright © 2019 Jeff Meshel's World. All Rights Reserved.