Amateur night

September 21, 2010


I stepped into the room the other night long enough to hear Jackie Evancho sing a duet with Sarah Brightman a half hour or so before coming in second on “America’s Got Talent.” I don’t follow the show, so I don’t  know anything about the grown-up male singer who came in first — in fact, I don’t know his name. Whoever he is, I’m glad he won, because I found Evancho’s involvement on that show disconcerting. I worry about the impact all that excitement has on a 10-year-old psyche. When the winner was announced and the child didn’t seem the least bothered by it, I even found that unsettling.

Also, people around me who have formal training in voice tell me that it isn’t a good idea for a child that age to be singing such demanding music. It has something to do with the need for vocal cords to develop gradually. I wondered if Brightman was alluding to that when she remarked that she hoped Evancho would “preserve” her voice.


Since I so often use this blog to date myself — should I say, place myself in historical context — I might mention that I was a fan of broadcast talent shows before they became such extravaganzas. I was a loyal follower, for instance, of Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts” show, which began on radio and continued on television. I believe it was “simulcast” for a while — broadcast life on radio and television at the same time. In a way, that technique has made sort of a comeback in the form of radio shows that are simultaneously webcast with video. WNYC radio in New York does that from time to time. Godfrey was preceded in the genre by Major Bowes and Ted Mack, who called his radio and later TV show “The Original Amateur Hour.” Ted Mack graduates included Gladys Knight, Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, and Raul Julia. Major Bowes best-known alumnus has to be Frank Sinatra.


A later attempt to exploit the same concept was “Talent Scouts,” a show on which celebrities brought unknown performers to the public’s attention. Jim Backus was the host of that show, which ran only in 1962. I remember that one of the celebrities was Harry Belafonte, who brought a singer named Valentine Pringle. If I remember correctly, Pringle sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with a bass voice that gave me the shivers. He later made two vinyl albums, and they are among my favorites to this day.

It always surprised me that Val Pringle didn’t become more widely known as a singer. He had an interesting career, though, writing songs — including “Louise” for Belafonte — acting on television and in films, and performing with folks like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and Eartha Kitt. He sang the role of Porgy in a recording of George and Ira Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” produced by Readers Digest.


Eventually, Pringle and his wife moved to Maseru in South Africa where he was murdered in 1999 by burglars whom he confronted after they had entered his home. Pringle was a U.S. Army war veteran. His ashes are interred at Arlington National Cemetery.


A couple of years ago, I stumbled across an anonymous post on a blog in which the writer was talking about — of all people — me. The writer was musing over the fact that I had been laid off from my newspaper after 43 years. That’s neither here nor there, but I was interested in his description of me as a “raspy-voiced guy with a North Jersey accent.” I was not aware that I had an accent — North Jersey or otherwise. In fact, I’m not sure there is such a thing as one North Jersey accent, and I don’t hail from the Hudson River towns that are usually associated with “joisey” talk.

This came to mind yesterday when I was listening to a presentation on WNYC radio about the accents in New York. There was a segment on the Brian Lehrer Show — absent Brian Lehrer who, I suppose, was on vacation — featuring Heather Quinlan, a TV producer who is producing a documentary called “If These Knishes Could Talk” and Sam Chwat, a speech therapist or pathologist who, among other things, helps actors who need to alter their speech for specific roles.

For my money, this discussion didn’t live up to its promise. Perhaps one of the reasons was that — as one listener commented on the show’s web site — neither of the guests is a linguist. I was disappointed, because this subject has always interested me, and I listen very carefully to how people speak. I like National Public Radio, in fact, not only because of all the information it provides but because of the many accents. I like listening to the accents of speakers whose first language was something other than English, but I have a special fascination with the many ways in which native speakers use English.

There are two aspects of speech variations: pronunciations and choice of words. Word choice , I understand, can vary not only from one region of the country to another but within a single state. For example, the pasta known as penne is known in the Chambersburg section of Trenton, here in New Jersey, as “pencil points.” And I read a magazine article many years ago in which the writer claimed to demonstrate that submarine sandwiches are called by different names — subs, hoagies, grinders, or heroes — in different sections of this state.

I’m more interested in pronunciation. When I lived for a year at Penn State in central Pennsylvania, it was a regular smörgåsbord of accents, because the tens of thousands of students and hundreds of faculty came from all over the world to mix in with folks who lived in what was then an otherwise isolated area. My immediate neighbors were from Iran and North Carolina.

There’s no beating New York City, though, for feasting your ears on varieties of speech. One of my favorite moments in that respect occurred in an Italian bakery in lower Manhattan. While a friend and I were talking to the woman behind the counter, a man — evidently her husband — came from a back room and headed for the front door while pulling on his jacket. “Ungo empee stur,” he said to her over his shoulder. “Wonting?” (“I’m going to the A&P store. Want anything?”)

PBS has a fun exercise on its web site in which you can listen to various voices and try to place them by region on a map of the United States. To see it, click HERE.

Sheet music to "So Long, Oolong"

When Patricia T. O’Conner, author of popular books on English usage, visited the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC this week, the segment was introduced by a vocal of the song “Three Little Words,” which made me think of Harry Ruby. Ruby and his longtime colleague, Bert Kalmar, wrote that song in 1930 for what would now be considered an offensive movie.

The film was “Check and Double Check” — the only movie made by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll in their blackface roles as Amos Jones and Andrew H. Brown — characters they made famous with their long-running radio series, “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” The song didn’t get small-time treatment in the film; it was performed by Bing Crosby and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

The song also lent its name to the title of the 1950 film biography of  Ruby and Kalman.


Harry Ruby first came to my attention when  I was a kid, and he made a guest appearance on the Danny Thomas television show, “Make Room for Daddy.” Ruby sang another song he had written with Kalman, one that — some might say mercifully — is not as well known as “Three Little Words.” The 1920 tune was “So Long, Oolong. How Long Ya’ Gonna be Gone,” which had racist overtones, as did so many Tin Pan Alley songs written in that era.

The song is about a Japanese girl named Ming Toy, whose boyfriend left for what was supposed to be a short spell but turned into a long spell. Hence the chorus: So long, Oolong, how long ya’ gonna be gone?”


Ruby and Kalman were prolific, and some of their work was much more sophisticated than the Oolong affair. For example, they wrote “My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms,” which got a signature performance many years later in “The Barbra Streisand Album.” The pair also wrote “Who’s Sorry Now?” “Nevertheless (I’m in Love with You),” “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” and the Betty Boop theme, “I Wanna be Loved by You,” among others.

As talented and productive as Ruby was as a songwriter, though, what I like best about him is that he always  wanted to be a baseball player. He tried, unsuccessfully to make it into the pros, and he never missed a chance in later life to get close to the game. His devotion to the sport is the source of one of the great baseball anecdotes.


Ruby seized an opportunity to appear in “Elmer the Great,” a sports movie starring the comedian Joe E. Brown, who was also a devotee of baseball. The movie was shot at the old Wrigley Field, a minor league park in Los Angeles. One of the scenes called for an player, to be portrayed by Ruby, to drop a ball hit to him in the outfield. Ruby walked off the set, insisting that he wouldn’t drop a ball on purpose for any amount of money. Later, when Brown and Ruby happened to be in the company of Lou Gehrig, Brown told that story, figuring that Ruby would be embarrassed. Gehrig, with a straight face, said it was the greatest baseball story he had ever heard


You’ve got to love Graham Parker. Well, I do, anyway. He was on “Soundcheck” on WNYC today, talking about his new album and about  his on-line project, “Sunglass(es): The Graham Parker Show.” The combination of music and wit is irresistible. “Well, irresistible to me,” anyway.

According to Parker, the album was prompted by his two fruitless forays into writing TV themes. Both songs  that he wrote and recorded and submitted to TV producers who were soliciting themes were rejected. His idea of revenge, or maybe only justice, was to write an album’s worth  of themes to non-existent shows. The album notes consist of descriptions of each of these shows.


The clip from the album that was played on “Sound Check” was from the theme for a show about an agoraphobic guy whose well-to-do parents put him up in an apartment in a busy downtown area. Since the guy never goes outside, he sees and understands the world only from the vantage point of his apartment window. In the lyric, he wonders out loud where all these people are going, what they’re carrying with them, and why, as Graham sort of put it, “they would be scared off by a forecast of occasional showers.” The album, “Imaginary Television,” is aptly named; it’s the product of a fertile imagination.


Like a lot of people in music, Parker is tuned into the radical changes that have affected the recording industry, and he, too, is trying to make his mark in the new media. So the imagination that never sleeps, at times with the help of his 14-year-old son, produced “Sunglass(es).” Has it caught on? Parker says it hasn’t gone viral — that it’s more on the order of “bacterial.” So far, he has posted only Episode 1, which is available at THIS LINK. Like Parker himself, it’s a stitch, and we do get to hear him sing.

In the interview with “Soundcheck” host John Schaefer, incidentally, Parker made some interesting comments about the career of Johnny Nash — the unlikely reggae artist from Texas. You can hear the interview at THIS LINK.

I was listening to Jonathan Schwartz on WNYC a week ago today, and he played a recording by Frank Sinatra of one of my favorite songs from the 1930s — “When Your Lover Has Gone.” Schwartz is such an aficionado of recorded popular songs that he often dwells on minor points about such things as the arrangement or the instrumentation or even — as he did in one case that day — on the matter of which cut on a vinyl disk a song might have occupied.

I was surprised, then, that he didn’t discuss the fact that Sinatra didn’t sing my preferred introduction to Einar Swan’s song — which, by the way, was written in 1931 and featured in the film “Blonde Crazy” with James Cagney and Joan Blondell.


On my favorite recording of that song, for instance — the one from Kate Smith’s concert at Carnegie Hall — Kate Smith sings this intro: “From ages to ages, the poets and sages, of love — wond’rous love — always sing ….” But Sinatra’s recording began with the second verse: “What good is the scheming, the planning, the dreaming, that come with each new love affair ….”

Swan, who died at 37, had only one hit song, but it did it right that one time. “When Your Lover Has Gone” has always  been a favorite of vocalists and instrumentalists and it has been covered by Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, and Ethel Waters, among others. It turns out that most artists prefer the introduction that Sinatra chose, and they drop the first verse altogether. I would try to make an argument for my preference, but considering the talent arrayed against me, what would be the point?

Einar Aaron Swan in a photo, circa 1927, published in the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram

There is an interesting article about “When Your Lover Has Gone” with some samples of recording of the song at Follow THIS LINK.

There is also an extensive article about Swan at, and you can reach it at THIS LINK.