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082: Dion DiMucci, ‘Sit Down Old Friend’

Posted by jeff on Feb 1, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Dion DiMucci was born in 1939 in the Bronx, where he grew up singing on street corners (literally) with his pimply Italian cronies. At 17 he signed a record contract, and as leader of Dion & the Belmonts had a string of major hits including Teenager in Love and I Wonder Why (trust me, you want to watch this clip). He was a big enough star to share the bill with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper on their fateful winter tour of 1959. Living a life of stardom and dissolution at 20, Dion was already deep into heroin and alchohol addiction. The other three grabbed a ride on a plane to the next show in Iowa, but the $36 ticket cost as much as Dion’s parents’ monthly rent, so he chose to shlep on the bus. Shocked by their deaths, he tried rehab. He broke up the Belmonts, and his solo career continued to climb, with iconic hits such as Runaround Sue and The Wanderer, in which the lyrics were no longer the self-pity of a broken acned heart, but the racy bravado of an ego-driven superstar:

Oh well I’m the type of guy who will never settle down
Where pretty girls are well, you know that I’m around
I kiss ’em and I love’em ’cause to me they’re all the same
I hug ’em and I squeeze ’em they don’t even know my name
They call me the wanderer yeah the wanderer
I roam around around around…

That lyric was far from standard fare for 1960. He moved to a major label (Columbia), continued making hits such as Ruby Baby (in this clip from 1963 Dion is playing guitar, and is clearly an emerging artist, not just another Corner Boy punk). The song is written by Leiber and Stoller, see SoTW 042.

In the coming years he was influenced musically by such luminaries as producer Tom Wilson, executive John Hammond (the men behind Bob Dylan at the time) and keyboard legend Al Kooper, but his addictions led him astray, and he recorded nothing of significance. In 1968, clean of substances and a born-again evangelical, he returned to his original label. They insisted that he record Abraham, Martin and John (written Dick Holler, who also wrote The Royal Guardsmen’s ‘Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron’–I bet you didn’t know that!) He moved to Warner Brothers, the most successful label

of the late 1960s to record a series of singer-songwriter albums which were all commercial failures. We’ll come back to this period in a moment.

In 1975 he was joined up with Phil Spector for a project that was supposed to reboot the careers of both. Spector outdid himself in terms of grandiosity—more than 40 musicians, including a dozen guitarists, seven percussionists, and five pianists.

Only half a dozen tracks were recorded, dark, bizarre, even by Spector standards. Spector couldn’t get the resulting “Born to Be With You” released in the US. Dion disassociated himself from it. Its reputation today is mixed; some (including myself) dismiss it as a megalomaniacal bummer; others, including Stones mentor Andrew Loog Oldham and Who Pete Townshend, call it one of the finest albums ever made.

Over the past 35 years, Dion has continued recording, most frequently in an acoustic blues mode. He’s made many fine albums–modest, mature, honest, well-crafted, serious. In 1990, visiting the Bronx parish of his childhood, he experienced an epiphany and returned to Catholicism. He continues to record and perform, and works as a Renewal Ministry activist. Well, okay.

But let’s go back for a moment to 1969, to a wholly obscure Warner Brothers singer-songwriter effort, the album “Sit Down Old Friend”. I discovered the album back then when I was listening to every single major release, and quite a lot of minor ones. It’s easy to see how Dion’s album went unnoticed in that landmark year of singer-songwriter releases: Dylan’s “New Morning”, James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”, Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon”, Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush”, Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Cat Stevens’ “Tea for the Tillerman”, and the first albums by Elton John, Stephen Stills, George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

But “Sit Down Old Friend” always shined for me, even in that heady company. It’s almost a demo—just Dion playing classical and steel-stringed guitar on a dozen gems, mostly self-penned. The lyrics of the title song, our Song of The Week, seem more than a bit callow. Unguardedly ingenuous, too good-hearted and sincere and embarrassingly loving. The way I’d probably feel at a spiritual retreat. But when I listen to the song, it becomes something else. Its utter sincerity overcomes all my cynicism. It forces me to remember that truisms are true. Really, what is there for us to do on this earth other than love our fellow man? So, Dion, thanks for ‘Runaround Sue’ and ‘Teenager in Love’. But ‘Sit Down Old Friend’ has never left me over the 40 years since I first made its acquaintance, and it has never failed to affect me. It’s been in my mind and my heart and my ears during not a few rough patches, and it’s lent me a steady and trustworthy arm to lean on. I’d like to give it my ultimate compliment—for me, this is life-changing music. It really does make me want to be a better person.

Sit down old friend, there’s something in my heart that I must tell you.

In the end, there is nothing but love.

Could the world be needing more than love that makes the world go round?

If everybody had it in their heart today, I’d say, to keep love in your heart you gotta give it away.

Then the world would be some great big beautiful loving smiling place,

Hey, love is really all you need to carry around.

To keep love in your heart you gotta spread it around.

I’m changing in myself and I’ve found that I don’t have to be so smart.

The last thing in the world I’d want to do is break somebody’s heart.

If it was up to me I’d gather everybody round and we’d all hold hands.

And we’d say a prayer just for today, we’d pray.

To keep love in our hearts and never let it stray, never let it slip away.

Don’t let it pass you by.

Could the world be needing more than love that makes the world go round?

Sit down old friend, there’s something in my heart that I must tell you.

In the end, there is nothing but love.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 070, Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’

SoTW 076: Roy Orbison, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’

SoTW 078, Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’

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1

255: Simon & Garfunkel, ‘Mrs Robinson’

Posted by jeff on Jan 27, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

 

Joltin' Joe

Joltin’ Joe

Simon & Garfunkel, ‘Mrs Robinson’

Dee de dee dee dee dee…

My little band Vocalocity is doing really well (thanks for asking). We’ve just released a couple of live clips (Ariana Grande’s ‘Problem’, George Harrison’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’–that’s me in black). Now in our fourth year, we perform only custom-written arrangements, which we commission from the very best a cappella arrangers in the world.

Like Ed Randell, the very funky bass of The Swingles. Vocalocity is already enjoying one arrangement of his (Lianne La Havas’s ‘Is Your Love Big Enough?’), so we were negotiating a follow-up. “How about ‘Mrs Robinson’ in a slow funk treatment?” he asked. “Could you hum a few bars,” I asked in half-jest. Two hours later, he sent me a mouth-watering teaser of what’s to come.

After we picked ourselves up off the floor, we started thinking about how to present it to the group. We’re a serious group – they sit and squirm quietly while I explain the lyrics and background to what they’re going to interpret. They all know and love the song, but they’re millenials (it’s not their fault, I keep reminding myself), and I can’t take for granted that they know the song’s context.

And somehow Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’ has become more symbol than song. Its connotations outweigh its content. Ask any earthling over the age of 30 about ‘Mrs Robinson’, and they’ll answer, “Oh, yeah, sure, Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman, Joe DiMaggio, “The Graduate”, ‘Dee de dee dee dee dee…’.

And the song. Do you realize what a strange composition ‘Mrs R’ is? It goes like this:
Verse           (wordless)
Chorus        (And here’s to you…)
Verse           (We’d like to know…’)
Chorus        (And here’s to you…)
Verse           (‘Hide it in a hiding place…)
Chorus        (Coo-coo-ka-choo…)
Verse           (‘Sitting on a sofa…’)
Chorus        (‘Where have you gone…’).

4-12If you’ve ever thought about the structure of a pop song—it ain’t nothing like that.
And the music. It’s all rootless and shifting and discomfiting. So I went to my Genius-in-Residence, OG, and asked him to explain the song to me. I remember him saying “It’s in the Mixolydian mode.” Then there was something about the chorus being in A but ending on F#, because the tonic makes its way down by fifths to B, then E, then A. But I was snoring deeply by then.

And the lyrics? Paul Simon was the guy you’d bring into your high school English class to show the teacher that M-M-M-My Generation could write poetry. To tell the truth, the three verses are pretty choppy and unfocused. No one remembers them.

Where did the song come from? Well, S&G were flying high on the coattails of ‘Sounds of Silence’ and ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’. They were a little intellectual but yet accessible, seriously fun, the perfect meld of sweet folk with a dash of rock edginess. They were playing in the big leagues, right up there with The Beatles and Dylan.

MI0001415244Mike Nichols caught the S&G bug while he was filming “The Graduate”, a coming-of-age story about (just in case you grew up on Mars) a disaffected and confused college graduate seduced into a summer affair by his father’s partner’s wife, Mrs Robinson. Some went so far as to say it was the story of a Jewish kid with gentile parents.

Nichols (b. Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, fleeing Nazi Germany at seven with his three year-old brother) first made a name in the improvisational comedy duo Nichols and (Elaine) May, followed by success as a director on Broadway. “The Graduate” was his second Hollywood movie, following Burton/Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”.

Hollywood in 1967 was very much the provenance of white boxer shorts Republican America. You had your “Beach Blanket Bingo” teen exploitation movies. If you had an art theater in town you might catch an underground indie flick like “You’re a Big Boy Now” or the Maysles brothers or John Cassavetes. But the burgeoning counter-culture was off-limits.

So easy on the ear (and brain) were S&G that The Suits bought Mike Nichols the rights to three new Simon songs for his movie. Paul came up with ‘Punky’s Dilemma’ and ‘Overs’, but neither of them fit the bill.  “What about that thing you were working on about Mrs Roosevelt?” Garfunkel asked. “What??” said Nichols. Simon played a scrap, Nichols said, “The song is now called ‘Mrs Robinson’, go finish it.”

mickey-mantle-6-posed-with-bat2The song was only released three months after the movie, and went to #1.

The song is today inextricably entwined with the movie in the minds of everyone familiar with the era. Together, they gave the most perfect expression to the youth revolution sweeping the US and the world. “Plastics.” Nouveau riche-ness. Hypocrisy. The Establishment and The Meaning(lessness) of Life. Initiation into the delicious, irresistible sins of the flesh. Convention and the deconstruction thereof.

But what the hell does the song mean?

It’s clearly excoriating Mrs Robinson, censuring her and reproving her in a way the film doesn’t. Anne Bancroft’s Mrs R is desperate and dislikable, but we’re never far from pitying her. The lyrics of the song, prima facie, have little to do with her. She doesn’t pray, has no spiritual pretentions whatsoever. She couldn’t care less about politics, and she no more belongs in an asylum than any other of the adults in the movie.

But then there’s that last verse, the DiMaggio one. Simon has mythicized America successfully elsewhere – in ‘America’ (from the “Bookends” album which was being composed at the time of “The Graduate”) and in ‘American Tune’ (several years later). [Speaking of which, here’s another fine Ed Randell arrangement for The Swingles.] In the former, he speaks in the voice of a diminutive, lost individual juxtaposed against the vastness of the country. In the latter, he attempts to don the mantle of a spokesman for The American People. With music by Johnny Bach, it borders on the pretentious. I’ll let you decide if it crosses the line.

54d4543232970_-_esq-graduate-highSpeaking of mantles, Paul Simon is a well-known fan of the New York Yankees baseball team. Simon (b. 1941) grew up idolizing Yankee icon Mickey Mantle (played 1951-1968), as did I.  Mantle was portrayed as a sort of John F. Kennedy – copiously gifted, plagued by injuries, his talent struggling to perform in a pain-wracked body; while in reality, he was a dissolute farmboy. Nonetheless, he was The Golden Boy of the 1950s/early 60s.  In his rookie year of 1951, Mantle replaced the great Joe DiMaggio (1936-1951) in centerfield, a truly mythic passing of – sorry, but that’s the word, folks – the mantle.

515572086Joe DiMaggio began his major league career the year after Babe Ruth retired, and played alongside Lou Gehrig for four years. That alone gave him mythic stature, a flesh-and-bone hero who had stood with the ancients and was replaced by a man who retired the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

But Joe DiMaggio was so much more. He was the very essence of grace and dignity, a paragon of the nobility of restraint. Joe wasn’t taciturn. He had no more need to speak than does a mountain. Or a god.

Yet it was Mantle that Paul Simon grew up idolizing. Mantle asked Paul why he wasn’t mentioned in the song instead of DiMaggio. Simon replied, “It’s about syllables, Mick. It’s about how many beats there are.” And in Simon’s obituary for DiMaggio in the New York Times, he recounts his conversation with Joe about the song (“The only subject we had in common.) DiMaggio complained that he hadn’t gone away, he was still active. “I said that I didn’t mean the lines literally, that I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply..”) Implant video with caption

Well, literal or not, a Jewish kid from Queens standing in centerfield at Yankee Stadium, singing a pop song that has the depth and power of an ageless hymn – that’s mortals mixing with the gods, a page out of the book of Genesis or the Iliad. And then you see Alex Rodriguez – watching Simon singing his paean to a true hero, the Yankee Clipper himself – demeaning those same pinstripes. Ah, what’s become of the world? Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Longing for that time when the world valued morality, when the world made sense. How should I explain that to the millenials in my band? They’re so far removed from the 1950s (and everything that went before) that I might as well be speaking Akkadian. I guess you just had to be there. Dee de dee dee dee dee…

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

SoTW 078, Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’

SoTW 197, Paul Simon, ‘Hearts and Bones’

SoTW 165, Paul Simon, ‘Jonah’

SoTW 158, Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

SoTW 136, Simon, Garfunkel, James Taylor, ‘Wonderful World’

SoTW 090, The Cyrkle, ‘Red Rubber Ball’

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6

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

Posted by jeff on Jan 18, 2017 in Classical, Personal, Song Of the week

Shostakovich, Prelude in B-Flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva)   (1987 version, if you want to be really anal about this)

Shostakovich, Fugue in B-Flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva)   (1992 version, what the hell, take a walk on the wild side and mix them)

Bach, Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva)

In the late 1990s I went through a musical transmogrification. Prior to it, I knew American/British pop/rock music pretty thoroughly, from 1956 on up into the 1980s and 1990s, when I found precious little new music of interest. I found myself haunting Used LP stores, lying on the musty carpet, crawling back under the stacks into the dusty bins of throwaways, looking for unfamiliar vinyl gems of oblique interest, such as Post-Peter Noone Herman’s Hermits or ‘The Fleetwoods Live at the Pink Lady’ or ‘Pete Best’s Greatest Hits Vol III or ‘Petula Clark Sings Robert Johnson’. I said to myself, “Perhaps this seam is mined out, Jeff, and it’s time to broaden your horizons.”

To tell the truth, I was going through some other mid-life bumps, changing jobs and a lot more. I needed an aural detoxification program. Who does one turn to? Johann Sebastian Bach (1665-1750), of course. I spent over a year listening almost solely to ‘Art of the Fugue‘, ‘Musical Offering’, the Cello Suites, the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, and the solo ‘piano’ repertoire: the English Suites, the French Suites, the Partitas, the Toccatas, the 2-Part Inventions and 3-Part Sinfonias, the Goldberg Variations, a great CD of atypical flashy virtuoso pieces called “Brendel Plays Bach”, and of course, ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’.

In Bach’s time, keyboard instruments (harpsichords and klavichords) were tuned to a specific scale (key)–C, F#, whatever.  Theorists had come up with a scheme in which the keyboard would be tuned in equal intervals, a compromise solution which enabled playing in any key on a single instrument. Bach tried out such instruments, and composed two works to demonstrate their chops, “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier” Volumes I (1722) and II (1744). Each one consisted of a cycle of 24 pieces, each one with a prelude and fugue, written in ascending order, major/minor. Together, they’re known as “The 48” (2×24). In other words, each one is constructed thus: C major prelude and fugue, C minor prelude and fugue; C# major prelude and fugue, C# minor prelude and fugue, etc.

Sounds pretty dry, I admit, but artists have been employing artificial conventions as vessels for their inspiration since time immemorial (“Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net”–Robert Frost), and Bach is Bach, and The 48 is one of the greatest works of art made by man.

So back in the late 1990s I listened to The 48 several trillion times, and was duly moved and transported and spiritually consoled. I used to view Bach as imposing arbitrary order on a chaotic world, eliciting sense out of disorder. I still do, actually. And then one day I happened upon an homage to The 48 written in the early 1950s by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).

Shostakovich was a thoroughly modernist composer who maintained a rocky relationship with the oppressive Soviet regime under which he lived. He was Russia’s most prominent composer, too well-known and respected to be sent to the Gulag or to be disappeared, although a friend testified in 1948 that “he waited for his arrest at night out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn’t be disturbed.” He was twice denounced for anti-Socialist ‘formalism’ (in 1936 and 1948). He sometimes wrote personal pieces he knew could not be performed, sought professional refuge in teaching or writing for films or politically proper venues. For example, in 1939, Leningrad Party Secretary Andrei Zhdanov commissioned from him a “Suite on Finnish Themes” to be performed by the marching bands of the Red Army as they entered the conquered Helsinki. Shostakovich never claimed the composition as his own.

Siege of Leningrad

This same Zhdanov, who decided during the siege of Leningrad to give food to the defending army rather than to the starving populace, became Minister of Culture, Stalin’s right-hand man, and masterminded the post-war cultural purge. In 1950 he rehabilitated Shostakovich in order to humiliate him by sending him abroad as official representative of the Soviet Union. The event was a festival in Leipzig marking the bicentennial of Bach’s death, where Dmitri was a judge for the first International Bach competition. One of the competitors was a 26-year old pianist Shostakovich had met in Moscow, Tatiana Nikolayeva. She performed pieces from the Well-Tempered Clavier (which Shostakovich had played as a young piano student, although they had nothing of the stature they were to gain from the 1950s onwards) and won the gold medal.

Back in the USSR (ouch!), Shostakovich was inspired to compose his own cycle of 24 preludes and fugues. These were dangerously personal pieces, but he was protected by the fact that Bach was perceived by the Evil Empire as a champion of the proletariat! According to the lengthy article on Bach published in 1973 in the Soviet Musical Encyclopedia, “The national and democratic tendencies of Bach’s creativity find their source in the protestant chorale. It was Friedrich Engels who described one of the most famous examples, Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) as ‘the Marseillaise of the 17th century.’”

Shostakovich worked quickly, averaging only three days for each piece. As each was completed he would invite Nikolayeva to his Moscow apartment to show off his work. The complete work was written between October 10, 1950 and February 25, 1951. He dedicated it to her, and she premiered it in Leningrad December 23, 1952.

On a formal level, Shostakovich’s Opus 87 (not to be confused from his ’24 Preludes’ Op. 34) has significant differences from Bach’s 48. The compositions don’t move upwards in chromatic steps, but rather in relative major/minor pairs around the circle of fifths: C major, A minor, G major, E minor, D major, B minor, and so on – the same organization as Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s set of 24 preludes (1815) and Chopin’s and Joseph Christoph Kessler’s sets (both 1839, apparently a very good year for such cycles).

“In his Preludes and Fugues, Shostakovich never loses sight of the Bach model that inspired him, but still employs all the harmonic and other possibilities available to a mid-20th-century composer. Many of the pieces in the cycle possess an improvisatory, unfettered character; they are aware of tradition without being paralyzed by it. Shostakovich does not make obvious direct references to the Bach cycle. The preludes and fugues in each pair are more closely linked thematically and harmonically than is the case in Bach, and there is no pause between them in performance.” (Harlow Robinson).

From the piece’s premiere till the 1990s–the same years I was listening to rock music–the only three recordings of real note were by Tatiana Nikolaeva, 1962 and 1987 (Melodiya) and 1991 (Hyperion). But since then the cycle has been widely recorded, perhaps two dozen versions, a very popular one by Keith Jarrett (which I feel lacks the gravitas of the Russian’s) and an audacious one by Finnish Olli Mustonen, who coupled Bach’s and Shostakovich’s pieces, interspersing them in order.

It’s Ms Nikolaeva’s 1987 version that I’ve listened to all the years, and the one that remains my point of reference. Our Song of The Week, then, is Prelude & Fugue No. 16 in B-flat minor.

Here’s Tatiana Nikolaeva’s 1987 version, prelude and fugue, playing along with the score. And here’s her 1992 version.

And here’s Keith Jarrett’s very legitimate take on the same piece.

Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues is not music for the light of heart, lazy of mind, or facile of spirit, and No 16 is one of the darker pieces in the cycle. But we do have the benefit of the composer, a fine pianist in his own right, offering us his own interpretation. Here’s the prelude and fugue.

Here’s a video clip of Tatiana Nikolaeva playing Prelude No. 17.

Like Bach, like all great artists, like all great tennis players–the formal constraints provide rules and boundaries; but it is what is expressed in them–the living, breathing, personal, unique expression–that leaves its mark.

I’m still in a pretty dark place. An inconsolable place. Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues provide no facile answers. But they do formulate the questions in a way that makes my heart understand that it’s not alone in this universe in visiting the darker side of the human experience.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 005:  Toccata in Cm, JS Bach (Glenn Gould)

SoTW 077: ‘The Art of the Fugue’, JS Bach (The Emerson Quartet)

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4

254: Vince Guaraldi/We Five, ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’

Posted by jeff on Jan 13, 2017 in Jazz, Rock, Song Of the week

img_5183Vince Guaraldi — ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’

We Five — ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’`

Vince Guaraldi — ‘Samba de Orfeo’

Vince Guaraldi — ‘Manha de Carnaval’

Vince Guaraldi — ‘Moon River’

Vince Guaraldi — ‘Since I Fell for You’

We Five — ‘You Were On My Mind’

We Five — ‘Make Someone Happy’Let’s Get Together

Life, as you may have noticed, can be quirky. For example, have you ever noticed that phenomenon where a small detail in your distant past becomes a crucial focal point many years on?

funny-wind-umbrellaMy wife and I figured out we were at the same local fair in the city where she lived, the day the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan – years before we met.

N.R. was a girl in my 8th grade home room class whom I never spoke to, never thought of speaking to. Years later, on the other side of the physical, mental and spiritual world, her older brother became my guru and close friend.

That lady I worked with for a year or two way back when? Thirty years later, in a whole different place, my son would house-sit for her and write his dissertation there.

They say “What goes around comes around”, which I’ve never really understood beyond “Watch out for pigeons shitting on you when you walk under a ladder to avoid being crossed by a black cat.”

I was once shat upon three times in a single day. Some say that’s very good luck. Some say I should have figured out more quickly not to sit under a ledge where pigeons were roosting.

fateBut what I did figure out is that you’d better let that girl next to you go ahead of you to throw the baseball at the bowling pins, because you just might wind up married to her, and if you didn’t let her cut in, you’re going to hear about it from here to eternity.

I admit, those are fairly feeble phenomena for flouting the fickle finger of fate. But they’re taken from real life, where I’m always on shaky ground. I do much better within the confines of my record collection.

It’s the late 1960s, I’m a college student, and I’ve got the best record collection in the Midwest, I think. It started with me beg-borrow-and-stealing every nickel I could get my hands on as a tweenie to stockpile 45s, and then LPs from the cutout bin. If you looked hard enough, among the “101 Strings Plays Liberace” and “Lawrence Welk Goes All Bubbly” you could find an early Roy Orbison or “Bobby Rydell’s Greatest Hits Vol. 6”.

Enugu-Nigeria-voodoofunk-recordsFor four summers I worked in a Pepsi Cola factory. On Friday I’d get my paycheck ($35, a kingly sum for me) and head straight for this one K-Mart out in the boondocks that for some reason kept getting the most extensive stock of new records in the entire metropolitan area. There was no love among the stockboys for the LPs. They’d just stuff ‘em into whatever bin had room. Which necessitated me lying on the floor for half an hour every week to finger through the nether recesses of the back bins on the bottom (floor) level.

LPs cost $2.99 a piece back then. Most weeks I’d buy two or three or four, digging, dusting, exploring and piecing together shards of information. I should have become a musical archaeologist. Or maybe I did.

sleeping-with-headphoneThen I started writing record reviews for the college paper. There were over 20,000 students, a record-buying public, and I soon learned that the record distributors were more than happy to ply me with their goods and their goodies (prime tickets for shows of visiting artists, interviews). So I accumulated one heck of a record collection. It took up about 20% of the floor space of my little pad and about 80% of my waking hours (hey, a guy’s got to eat, doesn’t he?).

I used to spend two to three rigorous hours a day reclining on my bed with headphones a-set, eyes a-closed, and mind a-focused, rotating my position between prone, prostrate, recumbent and supine. I didn’t believe in stacking records, so I would actually stand up once every twenty minutes or so to flip the disc or engage in some other necessary technical task.

9316773jpgAt first glance, you (and my parents) might ask, “Exactly how did this prepare you for life, Jeff?”
Well, here we are, almost half a century later, mining that very same compressed coal seam. If I ran into my wife at that fair, I sure hope I was polite.

I ostensibly listened to rock, rock and roll. Certainly not jazz. Yet it happens that I occasionally trip over a piece of music that I knew from my record collection of back then, something so obscure, so off-my-beaten path, that I ask myself how in the world I had the fortune, prescience or just plain dumb blind circumstantiality to have gotten exposed to it.

I just tripped over a lovely clip of my main man Bill Evans playing with guitarist Kenny Burrell. Had a Kenny Burrell album. I knew “Kind of Blue.” I listened to Ravi Shankar even before I knew who his daughter would be. I had stolen two Israeli albums (the Dudaim and Yaffa Yarkoni) from my sister which I still remember well and have served me in good stead over the years. Hell, I even listened to the soundtrack from “Orpheu Negro”.

vinceAnd I guess that all started from Vince Guaraldi’s album, “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus”, later retitled “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” (1962).

In 1959, French director Marcel Camus made a Brazilian film called “Black Orpheus” (“Orfeu Negro“), an allegorical treatment of the Orpheus myth set during Carnival in a shanty town. The film featured music that ranged from samba to bossa nova, written partly by Antonio Carlos Jobim, and included a couple of songs by Luiz Bonfá, including the famous ‘Manhã de Carnaval’.

MTM0MjU0NTg1Nzk4NzMyNDE5The movie was a big hit in Brazil, and even made some impact in North America. But the big impact occurred with two bossa-inspired American jazz LPs. The first was “Jazz Samba” (1962) by saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd. Its most famous tracks are ‘Desafinado’ (‘Slightly Out of Tune’) and ‘Samba de Uma Nota Só‘ (‘One Note Samba’). Then the LP that really took the world by storm, and still maintains a central role as progenitor of a legitimate, fruitful style half a century later, “Getz/Gilberto”. The music was Getz on sax, João Gilberto on guitar and vocals, and Tom Jobim (piano and composition of almost all the songs), with help on vocals on a couple of songs (‘The Girl from Ipanema’, ‘Corcovado’) by Gilberto’s wife Astrud, who wasn’t really a singer but was the only one of the Brazilians present who knew enough English to get through the songs. Her recording sold several trillion records, and inspired her to have an affair with Stan and divorce João. Boy, what goes on behind that laid-back music!

IMG_4217At the time I was of course aware of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and probably the whole “Getz/Gilberto” album. But the really quirky part was the Vince Guaraldi connection. Vince (1922-76) was a well-respected jazz pianist from San Francisco whose earliest claim to very modest fame was as a collaborator of vibraphonist Cal Tjader. His maternal uncle was whistler Muzzy Marcellino, just in case you were wondering. In 1962, Vince recorded one side of “jazz impressions of Black Orhpeus”, a very tasteful attempt to hop on the bossa bandwagon, contemporary with Mr Getz and everyone else in the world.

Vince Guaraldi — ‘Samba de Orfeo’

Vince Guaraldi — ‘Manha de Carnaval’

Those four cuts eventually made such a deep impression on me that I delved into the soundtrack the “Orpheu Negro” soundtrack when I was a mere lad of about 15. Sometimes I impress myself in retrospect.

fate2But how did I get to that Vince Guaraldi album? you may ask (I am aware of the fact that you may not actually be asking that question, but I’m going to tell you anyway, just in case).

Vince had one side of “Black Orpheus”, and filled out Side B with lovely covers of Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ and Buddy Johnson’s 1945 blues ballad ‘Since I Fell for You’ (soon to be a #4 pop hit in 1963 for Lenny Welch), subsequently covered by the likes of Van Morrison, B.B. King, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Barbra Streisand, Tom Waits,Brad Mehldau!, Dinah Washington, Etta James and many others.

But Vince was still lacking a filler, so he composed “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”, released as the B-side of ‘Samba de Orpheus’, inexplicably becoming a jazz song on the pop charts (#10) and a Grammy winner as Best Original Jazz Composition, beating out stellar works that year by Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Andrew Hill, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk.

I admit it might not rightfully replace ‘Take the A-Train’ or ‘Giant Steps’ in the jazz pantheon, but it was a lovely tune back then, and still is today. Unlike many songwriters who grow weary of their biggest hits, Guaraldi never minded taking requests to play it when he appeared live. “It’s like signing the back of a check”.

Of course, Vince went on to sign a lot more checks from his Charlie Brown projects. They’re charming, inoffensive, but we’re going to be taking a road ‘less traveled by’, which of course makes all the difference.

pic_27-Red-RebelI’d like to take this opportunity to note that my copy of “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus”/”Cast Your Fate to the Wind” was a transparent red vinyl LP, the only one in my record collection (I can’t remember where my passport is, but I do remember that). I’m not sure what the significance of that is, but if I every have that 0.9-second “my life flashed before my eyes” experience, that record may well have its very own frame there.

‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’ has had a few covers—a diluted pop success by Sounds Orchestral, a clunky closer for Scorcese’s “Wolf of Wall Street” as covered by Allan Toussaint, a decent if uninspired one by Quincy Jones, and a vocal (with lyrics by Carel Werber) by Mel Torme with a pretty embarrassing arrangement by Marty Paich, who should have known better.

But there was one which made an indelible impression on me, that by We Five. They have been called the first electric group from San Francisco. They were five young folkies led by excellent vocalist Beverly Bivens and  singer/guitarist/banjoist Mike Stewart, brother of Kingston Trio member John Stewart (‘Gold’, ‘Daydream Believer’ for the Monkees). We Five’s big hit, ‘You Were On My Mind’, was written by Sylvia Fricker of (husband and wife Canadians) Ian (Tyson) & Sylvia, early stalwarts of the folk movement of the early ‘60s. Here’s their original. And here’s We Five’s version.

We_FiveWe Five began to juice up folk music—precursors of what would become folk-rock – just like contemporaries The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and the Papas, and Spanky and Our Gang.

We Five’s first album (1966) was a seminal one for me. In addition to ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’, it included covers of ‘My Favorite Things’ (associated in my mind with “The Sound of Music” more than with Coltrane), ‘Small World’ (Johnny Mathis in 5/4), ‘Let’s Get Together’ (to become a hippie anthem by Jefferson Airplane and The Youngbloods), ‘High Flying Bird’ (good old Richie Havens) and a really lovely ‘Make Someone Happy’.

They were cast in an electric, eclectic folk setting with a beat, with focus on the vocals. I’ve remembered the album fondly for many years. I recently took a relisten to it. What can I tell you? It hasn’t aged all that well; finer stuff was done by others (look no further than the Mamas and the Papas). But credit where credit is due—a mix of jazz and pop covers recast in a vocal setting, with a pinch of a rock sensibility—this became the sonic world from which my current passion of modern a cappella drew no little inspiration.

What’s the moral of this very strange narrative? Beats me. Cast your listening habits to the wind, because you never know who’s going to turn up decades later to bite you on the ankle. Or kiss you on the neck.

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