105: The Boswell Sisters, ‘Crazy People’

Posted by jeff on Mar 20, 2018 in A Cappella, Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Whoopee, new discovery!! I returned from jaunt to the US with a treasure chest of CDs. I’ve been slogging through them slowly and methodically and thematically and chronologically (as is my compulsive wont). This week I got to the pile of Vocal Jazz Groups.

There have been remarkably few really important vocal jazz groups, and a couple of the more popular ones don’t speak much to me. I have touted here the a cappella jazz scene, (The Real Group, The Idea of North, Pust) especially the Scandinavians, but I’ve been trying to expand my horizons backwards. Among the CDs I’ve been studying are The Four Freshmen (1960s–snore) and The Mills Brothers (too tame).

Eureka! The Boswell Sisters!!

Raised in New Orleans, Martha Boswell (1905–58), Connee (1907–76), andHelvetia”Vet” (1911–88), they achieved local success in the mid/late 1920s. By 1929 they were appearing 5 nights a week on radio inLos Angeles. From 1930-35 they recorded in NYC with support of the leading jazz luminaries of the era (Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman), appeared in movies (The Marx Brothers, depression-era extravaganzas), had 20 hit records, and inspired a street kid named Ella (who made her stage debut at17 in1934 singing two of their songs).

In 1936, all three sisters got married. Martha and Vet retired from show biz, leaving wheelchair-bound (some sources say polio, some say childhood accident) lead singer Connee to follow a reasonably successful solo career for the next 25 years.

They have been called one of the very best vocal jazz groups ever, maybe THE best. I’ve been listening for a week now, and I’m of the mind that that’s no exaggeration. Their vocals were often so hot that the girls were assumed to be black. They scat with the best of them, and do some knock-out imitations of instruments or nonsense sounds. But most important, their 3-part harmonies are tighter than Aunt Bertha’s girdle. They make CS&N sound like YY&Y. Their arrangements are constantly chock full of unexpected shifts in tempo, major/minor mode, key, and tone, flipping cheekily from dead serious to insouciant comic and back. They have a wicked and sometimes rather racy sense of humor.

Here are the Mills Brothers, also early 1930s, ohsobland in comparison.

Here are The Andrews Sisters, who started their careers in the mid/late 1930s as Boswell Sister imitators. As charming as they are, and with all their stage presence, the Andrews Sisters’ music is unspectacular, predictable in comparison to our Boswells. Well, and while we’re on the Sister Act page, here are the incredible Ross Sisters, whose vocals are certainly respectable, but whose fame lies elsewhere. Check them out, a hair-raising experience is guaranteed.

Enough talk, let’s give you some fine music to listen to.

Here’s one of their most famous songs, ‘Crazy People’. It’s fun, it’s fine, it’s very, very impressive technically.

Crazy people, crazy people
Crazy people like me go crazy over people like you
Goofy people, daffy people
Daffy people like me go crazy over things you do.

The Boswell Sisters with Bing Crosby

First of all, it’s a very cheeky song. Using derogatories in a positive sense was, to my mind, an invention of the 1960s. There’s nothing ironic about ‘hip’ or ‘cool’. But ‘freaks’ and ‘bad’ are ironic. Our sisters here are praising a state of frenzy (in love). It seems to me that this is a loosening of corset restraints that only occurs in the 1920s, especially in dance and jazz music.

What else do we have here? The airtight harmonies. Connee’s solo at 17″. The vocal instrumentals at 30″. The syncopation at 45″. The cut-time section starting at 1’00″—if you listen closely, you’ll hear at least two more shifts in tempo within that section! Connee’s scat at 1’20”, leading into a magical shift on the chorus from major to minor. Some very dark, soulful harmony singing towards the end, then a precise wah-wah finish.

I want to tell you, sports fans, you listen to The Mills Brothers, Lambert Hendricks & Ross (admittedly a different bag, not close harmony), Manhattan Transfer and The Real Group (okay, they come close), you don’t find that kind of value for your money all in 2’01”.

Here’s another one of big hits of The Boswell Sisters, ‘Everybody Loves My Baby‘, cut from the same cloth as ‘Crazy People’. Try to count the number of different tempi they employ here. It’s like counting jellybeans in a jar.

Here’s another cut, ‘I Hate Myself (for Being Mean to You)‘. Note the bouncy opening, followed by the mock-tragic intro. Check the lyrics: “I slap my face for saying the things I do…”, “I’m gonna send myself a telegram and tell myself what a fool I am”, “If you stay away another day, I’ll kiss myself goodbye…” And the pastiche of wild, incongruous elements (instrumental and vocal) in the middle of the song, each one a gem in and of itself.

Here are a few more of my favorites, for your listening edification:

‘Shout, Sister, Shout

‘Was That the Human Thing to Do?

‘What’d You Do to Me?

We’re in the Money‘, a Great Depression anthem

‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo‘, with lyrics as subtly suggestive as an Ernst Lubitsch film

Here’s an interesting trailer for a yet-to-be released documentary about The Boswell Sisters.

Listen to what they do with a well-known standard, Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek‘. According to Wikipedia, “They were among the very few performers who were allowed to make changes to current popular tunes during this era, as music publishers and record companies pressured performers not to alter current popular song arrangements.” Change it they do. Not as adventurous as some of the other cuts here, it’s still an education in itself for vocal groups 80 years later. (By the way, HaBanot Nechama, a very talented young Israeli chick trio also with very tight harmony and lots of humor and lots of shifting gears, do sound to me like they’ve been doing their homework here.)

Here’s another one, albeit light, but we can’t not mention it, ‘Rock and Roll’. I admit I thought Alan Freed had coined the term in the early 1950s to describe the new music. But it turns out that early in twentieth century the phrase was used to describe the movement of a ship on the ocean, but it carried connotations of both sexual fervor and the spiritual fervor of black church rituals.

I assume a lot of very serious, politically conscious ladies and gents will find ‘Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night)‘ objectionable, but I think there were three tongues in three cheeks when The Boswells were singing this:

I’ve got a mission, it’s just a simple thing
I’ve only one ambition, to have the right to bring you
Your coffee in the morning
And kisses in the night

It’s my desire to do as I am told
To have what you require, and never have it cold, dear
Your coffee in the morning
And kisses in the night 

Though wedding bells sound sad and dirgy
Though wedding ties may spoil the fun
Without helping hand of clergy
Oh, I’m afraid it can’t be done

It isn’t formal, but with a wedding ring
It’s natural, it’s normal to give you everything from
From coffee in the morning
To kisses in the night

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

032: Duke Ellington, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn)

045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

057: Anita O’Day, ‘Tea for Two

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192: Les Double Six of Paris, “Moanin'”

Posted by jeff on Apr 4, 2014 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Les Double Six of Paris

Les Double Six of Paris, Moanin’

Quincy Jones, Moanin’

Oh, those French. Don’t you just love it when they try to outdo Americans in appreciating American jazz? Sometimes it’s great, as in Bernard Travernier’s touching 1986 film “’Round Midnight”, starring saxophone great Dexter Gordon as an amalgam of real expat Black musicians in Paris in the 1950s.

But there’s a special pleasure (for us Americans) when they fall on their froggy faces trying to imitate it, so that we can condescend from our culturocentric comfort zone, titting for tat that hard-coded snobbism that seems to be their veritable raison d’etre.

Les Double Six with Quincy Jones

Les Double Six with Quincy Jones

The vocal jazz groups of the 1930s and 1940s (The Boswell Sisters, The Ames Brothers, The Andrews Sisters) all sang in melodious, pleasing tight harmony, in the style of the Big Bands they often fronted. After WWII, Charlie Parker kicked jazz into the modern era with his be-bop – frenetic, witty, ironic, faster than the ear can hear. Vocal groups couldn’t keep up.

Les Double Six – ‘Boplicity’ (live video)

Only a decade later, in 1959, Mimi Perrin got together in Paris a sextet of jazz enthusiasts to recreate the au courant bop music in a vocal setting. They took recordings of Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, but mostly Count Basie and the young Quincy Jones, copied them note-for-note, including the improvised solos, all set to lyrics written by Perrin. Then they double-tracked it all (a new technology) for breadth – hence Les Double Six of Paris.

It was undeniably a remarkable achievement. To my mind, with apologies to Dr. Johnson: ‘Sir, six French singers attempting to replicate virtuoso American jazz is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’

Let’s take a listen to an original and its French cover.

Les Double Six of Paris

Les Double Six of Paris

Moanin’” was written by pianist Bobby Timmons for drummer Art Blakey’s star-breeding hard-bop group The Jazz Messengers. Hard Bop is jazz’s Motown – brash and Black, funky and fun, superficial and sexy. Blue Note was almost as dominant a label for hard bop (second half of the 1950s) as Motown was for its very own brand of pop-commercial rhythm and blues/soul (throughout the 1960s). Both were created by Blacks and bought by Whites. In the beginning, Motown was recorded in Berry Gordy’s Detroit garage, whereas hard bop was recorded in the Englewood, NJ, living room of dentist Rudy Van Gelder (whose wife is probably still complaining about it today).

“Moanin’” became a hard-bop hit, covered by artists as disparate as Charles Mingus, Ray Charles (arranged by Q. Jones), Lambert Hendricks & Ross (more about them below), British fingerpicker Davey Graham (remember Paul Simon’s cover of his ‘Anji’?) and two graven images from American Idol.

The source here isn’t Art Blakey’s original, but rather Quincy Jones’ cover. And here’s Les Double Six’s version, entitled ‘La complainte du bagnard’ (‘The Convict’s Lament’). And for all you French speakers, here are Mimi Perrin’s lyrics, including those for Clark Terry’s trumpet solo and Paul Chambers’ bass solo.

For all you serious students of this trivia out there, here’s a compendium of Les Six and the originals. There will be a quiz on the material next week.

Quincy Jones – Walkin’Quincy Jones – Moanin’

Quincy Jones – Boo’s Bloos

Miles Davis ­– Boplicity

John Coltrane – Naima

Charlie Parker – Scrapple from the Apple

Les Double Six – Walkin’Les Double Six – Moanin’

Les Double Six – Boo’s Bloos

Les Double Six – Boplicity

Les Double Six – Naima

Les Double Six – Scrapple from the Apple

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross

Les Double Six were one of the two prominent vocal jazz groups of the late 1950s/early 1960s, together with the aforementioned Lambert Hendricks & Ross (who also overdubbed themselves on occasion, making them The Double Trio of New York). Both groups were intelligent, sophisticated, artistically sincere. Both leave me pretty cold, as do LH&S’s successors, Manhattan Transfer. All three of these groups, to my ears, are collectives of soloists singing virtuosic music in tandem – just like the hard boppers that they were copying.

Les Double Six recorded four albums from 1959-1964; LH&R about 10 during more or less the same period; and Manhattan Transfer innumerable ones from 1971 till today. None of the three really appeal to me. I don’t know why, they should. I admire all three, the first two greatly. I just don’t enjoy their music.

The original Swingle Singers

The original Swingle Singers

This is in contrast to two other offshoots, both of which appeal to me greatly. First is The Swingle Singers, a French octet led by American Ward Swingle, who together with many other of the Swingles graduated from Mimi Perrin’s collective (which, by the way, had a rather floating membership which differed for each recording session).

Swingle’s singers were friends who got together to sing some JS Bach as a sight-reading exercise, and found it no less swingable (employing a string bass and brushed drums) than Basie or Jones. They recorded an album of this material as a present for friends which went viral and won two Grammies.

The Real Group

The Real Group

For the second offshoot, you have to jump ahead almost 20 years to Stockholm, where five young Swedish music students were scouring around for something new to sing. They listened to Les Double Six and to LH&R, but went back to the Count Basie originals with a new approach. They became The Real Group, copying neither the original nor the copiers of the original, but genuinely recreating Basie’s scores with five voices – a cappella, no rhythm section to lean on.

They weave a polyphonic tapestry that reimagines in five voices the original 16-19 instruments. It’s technically mind-boggling, it’s beautiful and it’s riveting.

Here’s a Basie original (1957), and here’s The Real Group’s recreation of it. And here’s a looong, detailed interview I did with Peder Karlsson, a founding member of the group, about just how The Real Group’s music came into being.

The Real Group has spawned a whole little world of young cappella groups throughout the world, especially in Scandinavia. Here’s a stunning performance by the 12-voice Danish group, Touche, with their leader Jesper Holm’s arrangement of Count Basie’s ‘Shiny Stockings’.

I don’t know what Count Basie would say, but I think the vocal interpretations of his music have made a quantum leap forward over the 60 years since he first created it.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
Miles Davis, ‘Boplicity’ (“Birth of the Cool”)
Swingle Singers, ‘Sinfonia’ (JS Bach)
Kurt Elling, ‘Li’l Darlin’’
The Real Group, ‘Joy Spring’

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The New A Cappella

Posted by jeff on Aug 24, 2012 in Writings

I’ve just returned from the inspiring The Real Group Festival in Stockholm, four days of workshops, lectures, concerts and hugging, a celebration of a music shared passionately by a small but growing number of adherent fanatics worldwide — The New A Cappella. Many of the participants expressed frustration at the difficulty in explaining just what this genre is. Here’s my attempt to provide an overview. Many thanks to Florian Städtler (the world’s leading NAC activist) and Tobias Hug (former Swingle Singer, premier repository of AC information) for their help in trying to impose order on this nebulous cloud of activity. All distortions, misrepresentations, factual errors, sins of omission and commission (and I’m sure there are many) are mine and mine alone. I welcome your comments and corrections, and hope that this overview will evolve to a higher degree of accuracy and objectivity. –Jeff Meshel

The Real Group Festival

Participants came from Åland (huh?), Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, The Netherlands, USA, and Venezuela. There was enough love and energy and excitement on the isle of Skeppsholmen to light all of Stockholm for those four days.

What is this New A Cappella that motivated almost 600 cultists to fly to immerse ourselves in? Read more…

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101: Kurt Elling, “Li’l Darlin'”

Posted by jeff on Jun 10, 2011 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Kurt Elling -- the best male jazz vocalist ever

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of taking my favorite singer in the world, Kurt Elling, to my favorite spot in the world, the underground tunnel that runs along the western wall of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, and talking music with him all along the way. The day is described in exhaustive detail in the article “Going Up to Jerusalem with Kurt Elling“. For our SoTW, I’d like to try to pin down just why I think Kurt is the finest male jazz singer ever. Well, who’s competing for the title? Kurt (b. 1967) and I discussed the leading lights in the field, and by general consensus the outstanding male jazz vocalist, at least since Louis Armstrong, is Mark Murphy (b. 1932). Here’s how Kurt describes Mark: Mark recreated songbook classics and hipped up bop through his phrasing, arranging and unique vocal ingenuity. Mark shows us all that the singers’ art is never done evolving. He showed how moving and dramatic an evening of Jazz singing could be. I also became aware of Kerouac and the whole Beat/Jazz connection through Mark. He has made a lifetime of innovative, truly great vocal Jazz records.

Mark Murphy

Read more…

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