March 21, 2017
When we saw Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall in November, he recalled—again—how he was having a beer after a gig in Chicago when he was approached by a young man who wanted Arlo to listen to a song. Arlo grudgingly agreed. The young man was Steve Goodman, the song was “City of New Orleans,” and rest is—well, never mind the cliche.
It’s one of those “near miss” stories. If Arlo had told Goodman to buzz off, who knows how history would have been altered?
The same goes for Jack Lawrence—or so it seems. There are differing accounts of this event, but according to Marv Goldberg in his book More Than Words Can Say: The Music of the Ink Spots, Lawrence made a cold-call visit on January 12, 1939 to the Decca Records recording studio in Manhattan where The Ink Spots were about to cut “Knock Kneed Sal,” and offered his own composition, “If I Didn’t Care.”
The Ink Spots, whose membership evolved over the years, had been around since the early 1930s and by the middle of the decade were popular in the United States and abroad. They continued performing into the mid 1950s, although other groups peddled themselves as the originals for many years after that.
“If I Didn’t Care” was the first studio recording in which The Ink Spots used a style that would become the group’s trade mark. The lead vocal was sung by tenor Bill Kenny, and a spoken bridge was provided by bass Hoppy Jones.
Kenny, who is often cited as a forerunner of Johnny Mathis, sang with a precise, elegant diction and a remarkable high register. Jones would recite the bridge in a colloquial drawl, improvising on the original lyrics and peppering them with terms such as “darlin,” “honey chile,” “doggone,” and “askaird.”
I recently bought a double-CD collection of 50 of The Ink Spots’ recordings, the preponderance of them delivered in this fashion. I was familiar with The Ink Spots because my parents were fans of theirs, and there were some of the group’s Decca records around our house. But until I listened to the collection I just bought, I didn’t appreciate the effect created by the contrast between Kenny’s refined phrasing and Jones’s down-home style.
Besides Kenny’s purported influence on Mathis, The Ink Spots are regarded as ancestors of the R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and doo-wop groups of later generations.
“If I Didn’t Care” never got higher than No. 2 on the pop charts, but it sold 19 million copies, making it the tenth best-selling single of all time. Their numerous other hits included “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” “My Prayer,” “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” and “Lovely Way to Spend an Evening.”
My favorite among their recordings is “Whispering Grass,” written in 1940 by Fred Fisher and his daughter, Doris Fisher. Perhaps it appeals to me because the lyric seems to have been inspired by Kahlil Gibran: “If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.” You can hear “Whispering Grass” by clicking HERE.
You can hear “If I Didn’t Care” by clicking HERE.
March 11, 2017
The season-ending episode of the British television series “Victoria” gave us a glimpse of Edward Oxford, the first of eight people who attempted to assassinate the British queen who reigned from 1837 to 1901. We last see the young man in a straitjacket, which is giving Oxford short shrift.
The incident occurred in 1840, substantially as it was presented in the television show. Victoria and her husband, Albert, were taking their customary carriage outing, accompanied only by two outriders, when Oxford, who was 18 years old, fired a pistol at them. Neither royal was injured, and it turned out that there was only powder in the weapon.
Oxford, who later said he fired at the queen only to draw attention to himself, had been accumulating weapons and ammunition and noodling around with a fictional military society. He was adjudged insane and sent first to the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Bethlem, Southwark, and then to Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire. Victoria was portrayed in the television program as accepting the decision of the jury, but in actual fact she maintained that if Oxford had hanged, the later attempts on her life might not have happened. The series has been renewed for a second season, so maybe that aspect of the story will come out.
Oxford made the most of his time within the walls. He learned to draw, play the violin, and speak several languages, and he made himself useful as a painter and decorator. He was also known for his exceptional skill at chess and checkers. He was eventually declared sane and released on the condition that he live somewhere in the British Empire other than England.
Oxford went to Melbourne in southern Australia, where he adopted the name John Freeman, found employment as a house painter, and joined the West Melbourne Mutual Improvement Society.
In 1881, he got married to a widow who had two children. He became a lay official at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, and he wrote articles for a newspaper, The Argus, about the city’s slums, markets, and racetracks. These articles provided the material for a book published in 1888, Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life. John Freeman, or John Oxford–both, really–died in 1900.