He played left-handed

When Otis Whitman was a young man, he worked in an abattoir, and lost part of a finger in an accident. He had to learn to play the guitar left-handed because of the injury. Taking the stage name Slim Whitman, he became successful as a country singer, especially in England. He toured there often, and one night in the early 1950s he played a gig in Liverpool. Among the audience was a teenage boy by the name of Paul McCartney, who was left-handed. Seeing that Slim could play the guitar that way … well, you can fill in the dots.

slim whitmanOne of Whitman’s hits from this period was “North Wind”.  It is a little hard for an Australian to identify with the chill blast described in the song. Here, a north wind comes from the inland deserts, dry and hot and feared because in the wrong conditions it is a recipe for a bushfire. The hot northerly, when it is 43 degrees Celsius and the bush is dry from a drought – that is what we fear. But I’m sure an arctic blast from the Canadian tundra is terrifying in its own way. North and south. Like being left or right handed.

  • Artist: Slim Whitman
  • Title: North Wind
  • Format: 10” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: London
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1954
Posted in LP.

An insult to cheese

Oh dear. There were some unfortunate fashions in the 1980s. Maybe it’s because I was there at the time, but when I see a picture like this, I shrink inside.

ricky-skaggs-live-in-london-2-ab

This is Ricky Skaggs, one of the greats of country music, on the back of his 1985 LP, Live in London. That’s Westminster Bridge in the background there, and Ricky looks as though he feels like the dang handsomest fella to ever pull on a pair of snakeskin books, y’all. I would have felt the same, dressed like that, only I couldn’t afford the boots and I would have drawn a line at the mustache. Oh dear.

But here on Planet Vinyl, we don’t get phased by fashion, or deterred by dud record covers. We just listen. And when it comes to live albums, we go further. I love live recordings, don’t get me wrong. But a live album should be long on music and short on stage patter, because what can be fun and part of the show when you are there, can be embarrassing committed to vinyl. This is certainly true of Ricky. Maybe it is being an American abroad, or something, but to call Skaggs’ patter cheesy would be an insult to cheese. Exhibit A.

But, it’s about the music here. Can the boy play? Yessir, he can. Skaggs and his band are hot, drawing on bluegrass and country and fusing it with rock and making it all something new. Personally, I rate his playing, on guitar and mandolin especially, more highly than his singing, but that is a matter of taste.

Ricky Skaggs has been described as the man who single-handedly rescued country music in the 1980s. That may be overstating things, but his willingness to hoot and holler and wear cowboy boots but merge styles and collaborate with unlikely partners – it did re-energise country and bring it to a new audience. He even shared the stage with … spoilers! You’ll have to listen to find out which unlikely figure joined him for the encore number at the Dominion Theatre, London, in 1985.

  • Artist: Ricky Skaggs
  • LP Title: Live in London
  • Side 2, Track 5 “Don’t Get Above Your Raising”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, stereo
  • Label: Epic
  • Catalogue number: ELPS 4525
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1985

Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.

Easter special

How many pop songs about Easter do you know?

It’s is a curious thing. There is lots of lovely church music for Easter, just as there is for Christmas. But popular music? Every man and his dog has released a Christmas album – there are so many in the op-shops of Australia that they effect Earth’s gravitational pull. But there is no “Rudolph the Red Nosed Rabbit”, no “I Saw Mummy Kiss the Easter Bunny”.

vaughan and erskineIf you want something rare, though, Planet Vinyl is the place to go.

In 1958, the great Sarah Vaughan teamed up with Billy Eckstine – not so well-remembered now, but a star singer and bandleader in his day – to collaborate on an album of Irving Berlin songs. One of them is “Easter Parade”, written by Berlin in 1933 and later a hit for Bing Crosby and Liberace, among others. Sage observers declare “The song is often considered to be one of the most popular Easter songs of all time”. Not sure that it has a great deal of competition, but it’s fun and happy and Sarah and Billy sing it beautifully.

Happy Easter from Planet Vinyl.

  • Artist: Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine
  • LP Title: Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine ‎Sing The Best Of Irving Berlin
  • Side 2, Track 4 “Easter Parade”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, mono
  • Label: Mercury
  • Catalogue number: MG 20316
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1958

Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.

What became of her?

Somewhere in his sprawling masterpiece, Moby Dick, one of Herman Melville’s characters muses that “It’s a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians”. We are all interlinked and intertwined and astonishing coincidence happens so often that we should cease to be astonished.

Even so.

I was listening to an old LP, a compilation called Hootenanny Vol. 2. It is a bit of silly name, but Hootenanny was a TV program back in the early 1960s which showcased the emerging American folk scene, the Greenwich Village coffee-house crowd. It is a great LP, with a wide range of styles – gospel, blues, flamenco, bluegrass – consistently excellent performances. But one track stood out, sent shivers down my spine. It’s a nonsense song, “Hooka Tooka”, and it doesn’t mean anything, but somehow the singer’s voice makes it rich and poignant and sad and joyful, all at once.Henske crppped

So, I looked at the sleeve. Judy Henske? Never heard of her, but an amazing talent. What, I wondered, became of her?

Half an hour later, I picked up a music magazine I had bought earlier the same day, and flipped it open at random, and this is what I saw.

henske magHenske, I learned, had married Jerry Yester, and together they made an album, Farewell Aldebaran, which flopped at the time but is now regarded as a classic and has been re-released. Might track it down.

Meantime, have a listen to “Hooka Tooka”. Nonsense about chewing tobacco, but maybe also saying that it’s a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians.

  • Artist: Judy Henske
  • LP Title: The Original Hootenanny Volume 2 (Various Artists)
  • Track: Side 1 Track 6 “Hooka Tooka”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Crestview
  • Catalogue number: CRV-807
  • Manufactured in: United States
  • Year: 1963

Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.

 

 

Stage fright

Mea culpa. Or, as young folks say these days: “my bad”.

It’s like this. I pick up a battered old single, a local release, mid-sixties. I have not heard of the artist,  Ned Miller, but I recognise the song on the A-side. “Do What You Do Do Well”: one of Johnny Cash’s hits. Clearly, then, Ned Miller was a second-tier country artist, pumping out a cover.

My bad. The great Johnny Cash did have a hit with “Do What You Do Do Well”, but that was after this release. Not only did Ned Miller release it first, he wrote it. In fact, Miller wrote lots of great songs. One, “From a Jack to a King”, was a top ten hit in many parts of the world, but mostly he wrote excellent songs, which other people recorded. “Invisible Tears” and “Dark Moon” were two: hits for Bonnie Guitar and Elvis Presley respectively. There were plenty more: Miller was in the top echelon of Nashville’s songsmiths. Why didn’t he have more success as a performer?

0673 labelSimple, really. He didn’t like performing, and often suffered stage fright. He retired from the entertainment business in 1970, saying: “If you love shows and like to perform, it’s a great business, but if you don’t, you shouldn’t be in it.”

It was not that he couldn’t play and sing. Just listen to this, “Dusty Guitar”, the delightful B-side to a more famous song. The record is a bit battered, but the performance shines through. It is a rumination on musical fame, ironically enough from someone who achieved it, and then decided it was not for him.

  • Artist: Ned Miller
  • Single title: Do What You Do Do Well
  • Track: B “Dusty Guitar”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: W&G
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: WG-S-2321
  • Year: 1964

 

Small nations

Many otherwise intelligent and discerning people delight in the Eurovision Song Contest, and can name the winners stretching back decades. Personally, the magic and mystery of Eurovision rather misses me, but one thing I have noticed and respected: the contest really matters to small nations. For Bosnia-Herzegovina, for Ireland, for Belgium, for Finland – there is genuine joy at success, and even at just being on equal standing with the big guys on this stage, if no other. ESC_1974_logoOne of Europe’s small nations is Malta, an island in the Mediterranean which has had the historical misfortune of being strategically valuable. At different times the island was conquered by the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Vandals, the Moors, the Sicilians, the Spanish, the French, and lastly the British. Mussolini tried to capture Malta during the Second World War. He failed, but his air force dropped a few thousand tonnes of bombs in the attempt.

Malta’s turbulent history is reflected in its language. Maltese is described by linguistic authorities thus: “a Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet, descended from Siculo-Arabic, but altered in the course of Malta’s history by adopting vocabulary from Sicilian, Italian, English, and to a smaller degree, French”.

This is the language which you will hear in the following track, which was intended to be Malta’s entry in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest.  For some reason – bickering in the Arts Ministry? funding problems? – Malta withdrew.

gusman

Enzo Gusman

This was the year the contest was won by a Swedish group, by the name of Abba, with “Waterloo”. It is fair to say that even had Malta’s Enzo Gusman got to perform “Paci Fid-Dinja” on stage in Brighton (where the contest was held that year), it unlikely he would have taken the chocolates.

It is, well, undistinguished. Mainstream, lightweight pop, with a bit of Moog synthesizer in the background. But, hey! It was good that the Maltese were having a go. More than that: a sentimental song calling for “Peace on Earth” (that’s what the title means) sounds a whole lot better than many the slogans of our own time: Stop the Boats. Build the Wall. Ban the Burka.

Maybe the Maltese know the value of peace more than most. They were, after all, conquered by Napoleon, before he faced his Waterloo.

  • Artist: Enzo Gusman
  • Single title: Paci Fid-Dinja
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Elyphon
  • Catalogue: 101
  • Manufactured in: Italy
  • Year: 1974

 

Hear the real Maria

Sound of Music tragics, of whom there are many, will tell you that there is a scene early on in the film in which Maria, played by Julie Andrews, passes through an archway, and you see an old lady in the background. That, so I have heard, is the real Maria von Trapp. A fellow blogger has gone to the trouble of capturing the frame – thank you!

real maria

In a strange way, The Sound of Music is a bit like Macbeth. A piece of theatre is based on real people. The show is a huge success, such that the real people fade, are forever seen through the lens of the fiction. You can forget there really was a king of Scotland called Macbeth, and he never said “Is this a dagger I see before me?”. You can forget that there really was a Trapp family, and that they became refugees who managed to make a living from their music.

The Trapp Family Choir sang and played complex interwoven harmonies, mostly arrangements of traditional German songs. Like in the musical? Not really. There is a hint of similarity, here and there. Rogers and Hammerstein clearly took some songs as starting ideas. “Wohlauf ihr lieben Gaste (Now Then, Dear Guests)”, is a party wind-up song, and identifiable as the distant ancestor of “So Long, Farewell”.

This track was one of a dozen the Trapp family recorded in December 1938, not long after they had left Austria. It is a traditional Christmas song, “Maria Durch Ein Dornwald Ging”, which means roughly “Mary Walked through a Thorny Wood”. The family must have felt they were in a thorny wood of their own. A rousing show tune it ain’t, but the singing is quite lovely. Forget what you know, and listen to the real Maria.

  • Artist: The Trapp Family Choir
  • LP Title: The Sound of Folk Music of Many Lands
  • Track: A2 “Maria Durch Ein Dornwald Ging”
  • Label: RCA Camden
  • Catalogue: CAS-904
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1965 (song recorded 22 Dec 1938).