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.
February 9, 2017
I came across an audio file on YouTube that identified the contents as “a very funky version of ‘Water Boy’ by an unknown artist named Valentine Pringle.” Well, unknown to the writer, maybe, but not unknown to me. I spotted Valentine Pringle in 1962 when Harry Belafonte introduced him on “Talent Scouts,” a short-lived television show with a premise that still has traction. Pringle’s voice, which ranged from tenor to basso profundo, was startling in its beauty and its power.
I remembered his name and did everything I could in those pre-internet days to find another opportunity to hear him sing. I was a big consumer of vinyl in those days, and on most Friday nights I would visit Dumont Records in Paterson, New Jersey. Eventually, Val Pringle did show up at Dumont in two RCA LPs–“I Hear America Singing” (1963) and “Powerhouse” (1964). I still have the vinyl, and “Powerhouse” is now available on CD and iTunes.
Pringle made a couple of other recordings; wrote some songs, including “Louise” which he wrote for Belafonte; and had some kind of a career in television and film, but nothing worthy of that voice. The entertainment industry frequently makes no sense to me.
In the 1980s Val Pringle and his wife, Thea van Maastrich, moved to Lesotho, a tiny kingdom that is surrounded by South Africa. Pringle had appeared in Lesotho on a cultural exchange tour sponsored by the United States Information Service, and I guess it appealed to him. He ran a nightclub and the Lancer’s Inn, a hotel and restaurant in Maseru.
On the night of December 13, 1999, two burglars broke into Pringle’s house. Pringle confronted the men with a pistol, but he was stabbed to death. Two men were caught and convicted of the crime.
Pringle had served in the United States Army as a specialist third-class. His ashes are buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.
August 14, 2016
When my son, Christian, told me last July that Meryl Streep would play Florence Foster Jenkins in a movie, my first hope was that the filmmakers would not ridicule Mrs. Jenkins, who would be an easy mark.
I first learned about Florence Foster Jenkins when I reviewed a regional production of Steven Temperley’s play, Souvenir, which recounts the unorthodox singer’s career.
Mrs. Jenkins, who had had several disappointments in her life, inherited a fortune and used her wealth to break into New York society as a significant patron of the arts. She thought of herself as a talented classical singer—whereas in reality she had no sense of tone or pitch—and gave private recitals to controlled audiences that would not tell her the truth. Her ambition exceeded her grasp, however, when she decided to give a public performance at Carnegie Hall.
Some dismiss Mrs. Jenkins as a fool, but others see in her a certain heroism, and her belief in herself may rise to that level when it is viewed in the whole context of her life, including her seriously compromised health.
Anyway, Pat and I saw the Meryl Streep film and found that there was no need to worry. While the filmmakers depart from the facts in that compulsive way that they have, the movie is a fair representation of the woman’s life and, most important, it treats her kindly.
My earlier blog about Florence Foster Jenkins is at THIS LINK.
May 22, 2016
We recently attended a concert by Johnny Mathis and he, of course, sang “the holy trinity.”
Those who have followed this singer’s career know that he applies this sobriquet to three songs—”Chances Are,” “The Twelfth of Never,” and “Misty”—that he sings at virtually every appearance, whether he wants to or not.
These songs are identified with Mathis, and his fans expect to hear them.
In fact, from my point of view, they are so identified with Mathis, that no one else need bother to sing them. When the psychotic fan calls Clint Eastwood’s disk-jockey character in that 1971 thriller and whispers, “Play ‘Misty’ for me,” she doesn’t have to say which version she means, although by that time the Errol Garner-Johnny Burke song had also been recorded by stars that included Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Della Reese.
And not long after Johnny Mathis first recorded “Misty” for an album released in 1959, Billy Eckstine set down his version, which you can hear by clicking HERE.
Eckstine, who died in 1993, is largely forgotten, but he was an influential jazz musician and bandleader, a pioneer in be-bop, and a very successful singer. His vocal hits included “Blue Moon,” “Everything I Have is Yours,” “Caravan,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “I Apologize.” His recordings of “Cottage for Sale” and “Prisoner of Love” were million-sellers. He released more than forty-four albums. He had a rich bass-baritone voice with both subtlety and power, and a distinctive vibrato. A lot of his work, including his recordings with Sarah Vaughan and Dizzie Gillespie, is available on CD or MP3.
In 1950, LIFE magazine published a three-page feature on Eckstine that included photographs by Martha Holmes. One of the photos showed Eckstine, who was one of the first “cross-over” black musical performers, with a group of female fans, all of them white. The whole group is laughing over something, and one of the women has her hand on Eckstine’s right shoulder and her face against the lapel of his jacket as she laughs. Because of the mores—or, I should say, prejudices—of that era, LIFE published the photo only with the approval of its publisher, Henry Luce. LIFE received many letters objecting to the picture, and many people turned against Eckstine. TIME magazine reproduced the photo to mark the centenary of Ekstine’s birth. You can see it by clicking HERE.
Eckstine, whose life included its share of personal turmoil, was a civil rights activist and a close friend of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
January 25, 2016
My recent post about Dave Somerville—among other things, lead singer with The Diamonds—reminded me that that group’s most enduring hit, “Little Darlin,’ ” was introduced, with far less success, by a different group.
The song was written by Maurice Williams, and it was first recorded in 1957 by Williams’ rhythm-and-blues group, The Gladiolas. That original version was recorded on the Louisiana-based Excello label; the song reached No. 11 on the R&B charts.
Shortly after The Gladiolas introduced the song, The Diamonds covered it, cutting a single for RCA Records that was released on July 19, 1957. That version reached No. 2 in sales in the Billboard Hot 100; Billboard ranked it the No. 3 song for 1957 after Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” and Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand.”
The Diamonds’ rendering of this song has been described by some commentators as self-parody, and the group’s body language in THIS VIDEO might be admitted as evidence.
In any event, the impression The Diamonds made has kept the song popular for almost sixty years, and it has been covered or performed by a wide variety of artists, including Presley, Joan Baez, Sha Na Na, The Chevrons, The Four Seasons, and The Monkees. The song also surfaced, in a hilarious fashion, in the Columbia Pictures film Ishtar, which Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel jointly described as the worst movie of 1987. However that may be, THIS VERSION of “Little Darlin’,” performed by Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, is worth the click.
Don’t shed any tears for The Gladiolas, by the way. That group morphed into Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. Under that name, the group recorded “Stay” in 1960; Williams had written the song in 1953 when he was 15 years old, putting to words and music, according to him, an actual experience in which he unsuccessfully tried to convince a girl he was dating to stay out a little longer. The song was released on Herald Records and reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The recording–one minute and thirty-six seconds long– has the distinction of being the shortest single to reach the top of record charts in the United States. To date, an estimated ten million copies have been sold.
The Beatles performed “Stay” during their live appearances from 1960 to 1962, and the song has been covered by, among others, The Dave Clark 5, The Four Seasons, Cyndi Lauper, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
The Gladiolas’ version of “Little Darlin’ ” is HERE.
To hear The Zodiacs sing “Stay,” click HERE.
January 18, 2016
Tom Hanks’ father was not the lead singer with The Diamonds. He was not. That idea concerning Hanks’ parentage was presented the other day in one of those e-mail messages with the screaming warning sign in the subject line, namely “Fwd.” There are a couple of people, who have too much time on their hands, who circulate such nonsense to us and a long list of other addressees. We usually ignore them, but this one caught our attention because it was so far-fetched. How did such a notion originate, we wondered: was it concocted deliberately (and, if so, to what end?) or did it begin as a misunderstanding? Probably, we’ll never know; still, the false story led us to the true story, which was worth learning.
For the record, Tom Hanks’ father, Amos Mefford Hanks, was a cook. The lead singer with The Diamonds was Dave Somerville. I was familiar with The Diamonds because they became popular in the 1950s when I was in my teens. Their biggest hits, “Little Darlin'” and “The Stroll” were released in 1957. However, I didn’t know until the scurrilous e-mail piqued my curiosity what a varied and productive career Dave Somerville had.
Somerville, who was–as were all of The Diamonds–born in Canada, studied voice at the Royal Conservatory of Music at the University of Toronto. In 1953, he met Stan Fisher, Ted Kowalski, Phil Levitt, and Bill Reed, at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The four had formed a quartet, and Somerville coached them; when Fisher dropped out, Somerville became the lead singer. That group became The Diamonds.
In 1955, The Diamonds tied for first place on an installment of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a radio and television show that originated in New York. In 1956, they signed a contract with Mercury Records. The group had sixteen songs on the Billboard charts over the next eight years.
After leaving the Diamonds, Somerville worked for six years as a folk singer, using the name David Troy–Troy being his middle name. He also studied acting with Leonard Nimoy; his television acting appearances included The Fall Guy, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, Quincy ME, McCloud, Gomer Pyle USMC, and Star Trek.
Somerville and Gail Jensen wrote a song, “The (Ballad of the) Unknown Stuntman,” that prompted Glen Larson, the original baritone with the Four Preps, to conceive of the characters and format for what became the television series The Fall Guy, which ran for 112 episodes with Lee Majors in the title role. “The Unknown Stuntman,” which Larson embellished with added lyrics, was the theme.
Somerville also did voice-over for hundreds of radio, television, and cable TV ads.
In 1967, Somerville joined The Four Preps as a replacement for Ed Cobb. In 1969, he and Bruce Belland, the original lead singer with the Four Preps formed a folk music and comedy act and appeared in concert with Henry Mancini and Johnny Mathis. They were also regulars on The Tim Conway Show. Somerville and Belland wrote “The Troublemaker,” which was the title track of two Willie Nelson albums. Somerville and Belland also sang with a later iteration of the Four Preps.
In 1972, Somerville formed a group called WW Fancy; in the 1980s he sang with the original members of The Diamonds and also returned to The Four Preps.
He made a children’s album, The Cosmic Adventures of Diamond Dave, that comprised many of his original songs.
He also appeared in a stage show, On The 1957 Rock & Roll Greyhound Bus, that was based on a tour in which The Diamonds traveled with Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Paul Anka, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and others.
Dave Somerville died in 2015 at the age of 81. He hadn’t sired Tom Hanks, but he had made his own mark on American entertainment.
January 14, 2016
Among the ads that are “trending” on Facebook lately, on my account at least, is one that is shilling a little pendant with the inscription “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” with a suggestion that this would be a good gift for one’s grandchildren. I don’t believe I’ll try it on my grandchildren, but the ad reminded me that we used to sing that song when I was in elementary school, and I used to wonder why.
I was puzzled about that because the song is about an adult theme and is rather morbid.
The chorus is a set-up; the first three lines sound cheerful enough, but the last line implies that something is going on that we are not aware of:
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. / You make me happy when skies are grey. / You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
So far, so good, but then the hammer drops:
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
“Whoa,” I used to think when we sang that song. “Where did that come from? What did the songwriter know that we don’t know?”
The combination of the plaintive melody and the sudden implication that catastrophe looms ahead seemed out of place in my Howdy Doody, Lincoln Logs world.
The verses were even more disturbing.
In the first one, we found ourselves singing in our flutey little voices about someone fantasizing about sleeping with a lover.
The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping / I dreamt I held you in my arms.
But any stimulation our young psyches derived from this image was quickly dispelled:
When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken / so I hung my head and cried.
Clearly, we were not dealing with “April Showers” or “Yankee Doodle.” We knew that before we got to the second verse, it’s dark threat:
I will always love you and make you happy / if you will only say the same. / But if you leave me to love another / you will regret it all one day.
It sounds like the last scene of I Pagliacci. The only thing missing is the knife.
The denouement comes in the third verse, and it isn’t pretty:
You told me once dear, you really loved me / and no one else dear, could come between. / But now you’ve left me and love another. / You have shattered all my dreams.
“You Are My Sunshine” was recorded on February 5, 1940 by Jimmy Davis and Charles Mitchell. It is, in fact, the most recent state song of Louisiana, so designated in 1977 by a legislature that apparently hadn’t read the lyrics. I say “the most recent state song” because Louisiana adopted two “official state songs” before this one, and it has at least three other “official songs” for specific purposes. The action in 1977 was based largely on the fact that Jimmy Davis had served as governor of Louisiana from 1960 to 1964.
But before the Davis-Mitchell recording, two other versions of the song were cut in 1939—one by the Pine Ridge Boys (Marvin Taylor and Doug Spivey) on August 22 and one by The Rice Brothers Gang on September 13.
When Davis ran for governor in 1944, he often appeared during his campaign riding on a horse named Sunshine and singing this song.
Although Davis or Davis and Mitchell together are usually given credit for writing the song, it appears that Davis actually bought the rights to it from Paul Rice (of the Rice Brothers). Davis took credit for the tune, but never claimed to have written it.
Although it was an odd choice for us kids, “You Are My Sunshine” played an important in the evolution of American popular music. The Jimmy Davis version was popular enough that it made the country sound attractive to people who normally would have ignored it. In 1940, the song was covered four times, including by cowboy singer Gene Autry, but also by Bing Crosby and Lawrence Welk, so that the crossover occurred almost immediately. Among those who have covered it since then are Nat “King ” Cole, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and Mtume.
July 24, 2015
Sammy Cahn and Julie Stein wrote six songs for the 1947 movie It Happened in Brooklyn,including “The Song’s Gotta Come from the Heart,” which was performed as a duet by Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante. Durante later recorded the song on the RCA Red Seal label with the dramatic soprano Helen Traubel as his partner.
It doesn’t have to be classic or rock / Just as long as it comes from the heart / Just put more heart into you voice / And you’ll become the people’s choice
I thought of that song the other day when my son, Christian, pointed out that Meryl Streep is to star in a movie about Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). Chris wasn’t aware of this, but in 2007 I reviewed a play, Souvenir, by Stephen Temperley, in which Liz McCartney played Mrs. Jenkins and Jim Walton played her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. There are at least three other plays about her.
Before I saw Souvenir, I had never heard of Mrs. Jenkins, who was born to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre and became an accomplished pianist while still a child, even playing at the White House during the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes. When her father refused to finance a European musical education, she eloped and moved to Philadelphia where she taught piano until she injured her arm and, her marriage having ended, was reduced to poverty until her mother came to her assistance.
Around 1900 she and her mother moved to New York City together, and there Mrs. Jenkins entered into another marriage that would last until she died. When her father died in 1908, she inherited enough money to become a prominent Manhattan socialite and to undertake voice lessons. She became even wealthier when her mother died in 1912.
Mrs. Jenkins was under the impression that she was a talented soprano, but the fact was that she couldn’t sing at all. She had no command of tone, pitch, rhythm, or diction. But she continued to study voice, and she gave periodic invitation-only recitals attended by friends who would not have told her the truth. She dressed in elaborate costumes that she had designed herself and engaged in such melodramatic gestures as throwing flower petals to the audience. Because these recitals were private, there were usually no professional critics present. Mrs. Jenkins, who was widely ridiculed, would at times detect laughter during her performance, but she attributed that to the agents of rivals who wanted to discredit her.
When she was 76 years old, Florence Foster Jenkins finally gave a public concert at Carnegie Hall, and tickets sold out weeks in advance. Because it was a public event, critics attended, and they were merciless in their accounts of the performance. Mrs. Jenkins was badly shaken by what was written and said about her; she died of a heart attack two days later, appropriately while shopping for sheet music at G. Schirmer’s music store.
One of the consequences of Mrs. Jenkins’ first marriage was that she contracted syphilis from her husband, a disease for which there was no effective treatment before the discovery of penicillin. The disease itself and the treatments, which commonly employed mercury and arsenic, gradually ravaged her brain and her auditory and central nervous systems.
Temperley’s play, which does not broach the subject of venereal disease, is, on balance, gentle with Mrs. Jenkins. I suspect a movie treatment will more deeply explore the woman’s background. Still, I find myself hoping that the filmmaker will find something sympathetic, if not admirable, about a woman who so doggedly pursued her ambition and didn’t have to die with the regret that comes with never having tried.
Mrs. Jenkins herself summed up what I’m feeling: “People can say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”
February 27, 2015
I was happy to see that the Metropolitan Opera’s lineup for the 2015-2016 season includes Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) which has not been seen at the Met since Enrico Caruso, Giuseppe De Luca, and Frieda Hempl sang it in 1916. Most opera buffs I know have never seen this opera performed, and I have seen it only once—at the late and lamented New York City Opera. This was a relatively early composition of Georges Bizet who ten years later made his indelible mark with Carmen. I’m in the “I know what I like” category of opera fans and no expert. What I read is that the music in The Pearl Fishers betrays the uncertainty of Bizet’s youth (he was 25 years old at the time), but that the libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré was so poor as to be laughable. Apparently, even they thought so.
The work was introduced in Paris with 18 performances in 1863; the public loved it, but the critics didn’t. Some of Bizet’s contemporaries in music did find some merit in the score. The Pearl Fishers wasn’t mounted again until after Bizet’s untimely death in 1875, but it eventually became a popular piece, mostly because—whatever its shortcomings—the melodies and orchestrations are infectious. In fact, the tenor and baritone have a duet in the first act that is one of the most popular pieces of operatic music. This duet is called “Au fond du temple saint”—in Italian, “Del tempio al limitar.” The story involves two men, Nadir and Zurga who reunite in Ceylon after Nadir had been absent for some time. These men had once been in love with the same woman, but had promised each other that they both would renounce her so as to preserve their own friendship. In this duet, the men speak dreamily about the beauty of this woman, but then they reaffirm the promise they had made. This is in the first act, so the reader can imagine what comes next.
I never get tired of this duet, which I had heard many times before I ever saw the opera. The beauty of the melody and the blending of the voices reach some sublime level of artistry. I once gave a recording of the Italian version of this duet to the artistic director of a major theater here in New Jersey, and he later told me that he wept when he first listened to it. That had never happened to me, but I understood.
My favorite recording of this duet is by Beniamino Gigli and Giuseppe De Luca. You can hear it by clicking HERE.
You can hear Count John McCormack and the baritone Mario Sammarco sing it by clicking HERE.
A somewhat more contemporary performance, sung in the original French by Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes, is HERE.
February 10, 2015
Pete Seeger said during a concert at Carnegie Hall that when he was thrashing around for a melody for “Sailing Down My Golden River” he got started by using the first eight notes of “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” He wasn’t taking too much of a chance. The melody belongs to a sixteenth-century Welsh carol, “Nos Galan,” and has long since passed into the public domain. The popular Christmas song that uses the same music first appeared in 1862.
I recalled Pete’s remark the other day when some folks were getting on Sam Smith’s case for not acknowledging Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne while accepting a Grammy for “Stay With Me,” the “song of the year.” When that song was released last April, many people noticed a similarity to “I Won’t Back Down,” which was huge for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1989. Petty’s people saw Smith’s people and the parties settled out of court last October. Petty and Lynne are both to get writing credit, along with Smith and Jimmy Napes.
It seems that no one thinks Smith deliberately plagiarized Petty’s song; with so many people listening to so much music, some subliminal appropriation is almost bound to happen. Even the court thought that was the case when George Harrison’s 1971 hit “My Sweet Lord” drew immediate comparisons to Ronnie Mack’s “He’s So Fine,” which was a hit for The Chiffons in 1963.The similarity resulted in complicated litigation that lasted from 1971 to 1998. Harrison was eventually directed to pay damages of $587,000—half of an earlier award—and he received rights to the song. As for the notion of unconscious plagiarism, there were some skeptics, including John Lennon, who told a Playboy interviewer: “He must have known, you know. He’s smarter than that … He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off.”
My favorite incident of this kind—because of the strange juxtaposition of genres—involved the operatic composer Giacomo Puccini and the American entertainer Al Jolson. The trouble started with the 1920 publication of the popular song “(I Found My Love in) Avalon,” which was written by Al Jolson, Buddy DeSylva, and Vincent Rose. The lyric referred to the city of Avalon, which is located on Catalina Island in California. The following year, Puccini’s publishers sued Jolson and his collaborators on the grounds that the first few chords of “Avalon” were virtually identical to the first few chords of “E lucevan le stelle,” an aria from Puccini’s opera Tosca. I’m very familiar with both compositions, and I never noticed the similarity until I read about the lawsuit. But a judge with a more sensitive ear awarded Puccini $25,000 in damages and all subsequent royalties from “Avalon,” which has been recorded dozens of times.