Likeable rogue on guitar

Astonishing, the human stories which lie behind the neat gold lettering on a gramophone label. “Never heard of him,” I thought of Vic Lewis, placing this 1946 shellac disc on the turntable. Lowered the needle. And, wow. Lovely jazz guitar in front of a tight band. But not just tight, there’s real feeling in this. That extra “something” – indefinable but unmissable.

So, who is this Vic Lewis? An Englishman, he was born in 1919. Inspired by American recordings, he became one of the pioneers of jazz guitar in Britain. He visited America and at different times played with the cream: Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli, George Shearing. At least, he claimed to have played with them, and this was mostly true. Vic Lewis was, you see, not the most reliable witness.

viclewis

Vic Lewis

He served in the RAF during the war, and it was there that he met the other musicians on this record. He was successful as a band leader and arranger after the war.

When rock’n’roll arrived, he shifted into management. He worked with Brian Epstein, and was involved in the careers of Cilla Black, Elton John and The Beatles. Like most managers, he was a bit of a spiv. His business dealings were not always honourable; his word, not always his bond. But people liked him: he might cheat you, but he was also generous with his time, his talents, his connections and his money.

And he never lost his love for jazz. And that shines through on this recording. “That’s a Plenty” is an up-tempo stomper, with a Dixie feel; “Singin’ the Blues” more mellow. Something special about them both, I reckon. Just listen!

That’s a Plenty

Singin’ the Blues

  • Artist: Vic Lewis and Jack Parnell’s Jazzmen,
  • A side: That’s a Plenty
  • B side: Singin’ The Blues
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Parlophone
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: A7551
  • Year: 1946

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Lie, cheat and hope for a miracle

It is a strange experience to revisit the Grimm’s Tales as an adult. When you hear them as a child, you just go with them. That’s the story: Red Riding Hood, Snow White, many others. The stories become so familiar that you don’t pull apart the elements. This is, perhaps, just as well. These stories are treasures of our shared culture, but don’t look to them for moral guidance.

Take the story of Rumpelstiltskin.

Here is what happens. A miller, hoping to win favour with the king, lies that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king is fooled, and imprisons her. He demands she produce the gold or be killed. A mysterious dwarf appears and does a deal with the young woman: he will make the gold and save her life, but only in return for the woman’s first child. The king, fooled again, decides not to kill the woman but marry her instead. The new queen has a baby, and the dwarf appears and demands payment. The queen stalls for time, eventually manages to cheat the dwarf, and saves her child.

Moral? Lie and cheat, and with amazing luck you will get away with it and become rich. The queen’s love for her baby – though she had previously sold it – is pretty much the only admirable thing in the entire story.

The Brothers Grimm collected their famous stories in the nineteenth century, but they are much, much older. The reflect the moral world of pre-Christian Europe. The Christian faith has copped a lot of criticism in recent times. Fair enough. We deserve it. But the Grimm stories, when you look more closely, show what came before: a pagan world view which is cruel, violent, and ruthless.

Great stories, mind!

Here is “Rumpelstiltskin”, as read by “Uncle Mac” (real name Derek McCulloch, a popular BBC Radio presenter). This shellac recording was obviously intended to be played as a bedtime story for children. Pleasant dreams!

  • Artist: Uncle Mac (Derek McCulloch)
  • Title: Uncle Mac’s Bedtime Story – “Rumplestiltskin”
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Made in: England
  • Catalogue: B.D. 1095
  • Year: 1944

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

The name suggests a gangster

Muggsy Spanier. The name suggests a gangster from the Al Capone era, but Francis Joseph “Muggsy” Spanier was a musician. Given that the mob controlled all the best nightclubs in those days, and that, like Capone, Spanier was a native of Chicago, they might have crossed paths.

Muggsy played the cornet. The what? It’s a cousin of the trumpet – same basic design but a bit smaller, and the tube is differently shaped, and has a mellower sound. For many years it was the preferred instrument in jazz bands. The trumpet was all a bit bold and, well, brassy.

Spanier was just outside the absolute top flight of jazz musicians in the 1930s and 1940s. He played with the big guys: Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet, Bob Crosby, many more. Just didn’t quite crack the A-list, but surely not through lack of talent.

Trumpet playing evolved, and that instrument became king in jazz. The cornet – well, it’s still around, but a minority thing. But, man, does it sound great? Certainly in the hands of Muggsy Spanier it does. This is a 1941 recording, a shellac cutting of a sort of Dixieland-meets-swing version of a gospel tune, “Little David, Play Your Harp”. Actually, no harp is played, but there are lots of horns, played with skill and exuberance. Just listen, especially to Muggsy on the cornet.

  • Artist: Muggsy Spanier And His Orchestra
  • A side: Little David, Play Your Harp
  • B side: Hesitating Blues
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Decca
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: Y5972
  • Year: 1941

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

One minute to midnight

We make a bit of a hash of New Year’s Eve in Australia. There is a tradition that on this night, you go out, drink heavily, and watch fireworks. No different to many places, I know, but here in the southern hemisphere, it is high summer. The day is often hot, and lots of people will be sun-struck and shicker well before sundown. So when the crowds gather, there is often a nasty edge in the air.

Events are managed better now than they used to be, and drunken brawls are not such a fixture, but even so – an over-rated festival, methinks. Perhaps reflecting this, there is nothing like the number of songs celebrating New Year’s Eve as there are for Christmas. There is “Auld Lang Syne”, my dear, but not a huge deal else.

Holiday_Inn_poster

Image: Movpins

Here is one exception. Like “White Christmas”, Bing Crosby performed “Let’s Start the New Year Right” in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. It is a tight Irving Berlin number, smoothly performed by Bing and the John Scott Trotter orchestra. Flimflam, in truth, but pleasant, and there is a place for that. Happy New Year!

 

  • Artist: Bing Crosby
  • EP Title: White Christmas
  • Track: A2 “Let’s Start the New Year Right”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Festival
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: DX-10,212
  • Year: 1961 (original release 1943)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Looking at a Foxconn factory

George Orwell was one of my first literary heroes. I got hooked by Nineteen Eighty-four, and went on to read everything he wrote. I don’t recommend this. His best work stands up: brave, clear sighted, a voice raised against tyranny. But don’t seek out the B-sides and rarities.

Having once been an uber-fan, though, I know his lesser works, and was reminded of one just now.

4019 AIn 1941, as the world careened into the darkest years in human history, His Master’s Voice released a recording of the BBC Symphony Orchestra performing Carl Maria von Weber’s delightful Invitation to The Dance (the record label calls it “Invitation to The Waltz” – it’s the same thing). The disc is a bit scratchy. That happens when a record gets played on a portable gramophone in an air raid shelter. But through the crackle we hear what must, in 1941, have seemed like paradise lost: the glittering ballrooms of privileged Europe, before the world knew of the machine gun.

4019 COnly months earlier, George Orwell wrote a poem about the factory where this disc was made. It channels the same tension. On a Ruined Farm Near the ‘His Master’s Voice Gramophone Factory’ contrasts the rural idyll of pre-industrial England – which the writer yearns for but knows is lost to him – with the intimidating power of modern industry.

The factory is:

where steel and concrete soar
In dizzy, geometric towers —
There, where the tapering cranes sweep round,
And great wheels turn, and trains roar by
Like strong, low-headed brutes of steel

There was a time when making 78 rpm records out of cardboard and shellac was new, the cutting edge – terrifying even.

These same records now seem quaint, archaic, objects of nostalgia.

But imagine a young person in China, uneasy about the country’s breakneck modernisation and pursuit of wealth, looking at a Foxconn factory. Imagine the same young person writing a poem, while listening to lovely classical Chinese music on an iPhone. A lifetime ago, that was the experience of listening to this record, .

  • Artist: BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini
  • A side: Invitation to The Waltz, Op. 65 – Part 1 (Weber, Orchestration. Berlioz)
  • B side: Invitation to The Waltz, Op. 65 – Conclusion (Weber, Orchestration. Berlioz)
  • Format: 12”, 78 rpm, shellac
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Made in: England
  • Catalogue: DB 3542
  • Year: 1941

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

Never shoot first

Gene Autry was the first great singing cowboy of American popular culture. Not a type of performer you see much anymore. We still have western movies, but they tend to be grim and bloody, and there is not much time for singing around the campfire, faithful horse in the background, between two cardboard boulders.

It all seems tacky now, the world of the B-movie western, but hugely popular in its day, and Autry was a colossus of that world. Born in 1907, Autry became a star of radio, the large and small screens, and one of the most successful recording artists ever. He wrote or co-wrote hundreds of songs. (His biggest success? “Here Comes Santa Claus”.) He made 640 recordings, and sold over 100 million copies of his records. The man was, in consequence, worth a mint. He owned a TV station, a baseball team, a film studio – the works.

637px-Gene_Autry_Pinafores_radio_show_1948

Gene Autry with singing group The Pinafores, 1948. Image: CBS Radio, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

Autry’s persona was that of the straight shooter, the cowboy as patriot and embodiment of what was good and fine in American manhood. This can grate on a modern audience. For the guidance of the boys and young men who idolised him, Autry created the ten-point Cowboy Code, which begins: The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

Just what a Boy Scout needs to know. Mind, there are some cops out there who could learn a thing or two from the Cowboy Code …

More important, the music was good. Autry’s mellow voice and easy guitar style stand up well. This is his take on “Buttons and Bows”, which was a hit for him in 1947.

  • Artist: Gene Autry
  • A side: Buttons And Bows
  • B side: Blue Shadows On The Trail
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Regal Zonophone
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: G25274
  • Year: 1948

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

After the movie finished

Australia and America have been close friends for a long time. It dates back to the Second World War, when Australia found itself facing a Japanese invasion. Traditionally, Australia had looked to Britain for protection. But Britain was in a desperate struggle for survival herself, and unable to help. So on 27 December 1941 the Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, made one of those this-changes-everything speeches:

Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.

One result was a huge influx of US servicemen. At the peak, some quarter-of-a-million Americans were based here.

IMG_2240 (002)This gramophone record is an artifact of this period. Specially made, it has the same track on both sides. It was not allowed to be broadcast, and was played many, many times – note the wear around the central hole. And the music? An unknown brass band plays the first few bars of God Save the King (which was then the Australian national anthem), segueing into John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever”.

I think that this strange record was played at cinemas inside American military bases. In those days, it was routine for the national anthem to be played after a film had finished. The first section is a polite nod to the host country, before they launch into America’s national march – which, it must be said, is far and away the better tune.

  • Artist: Unknown
  • Title: God Save the King followed by Stars and Stripes, march
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: Special Record No. 1
  • Year: Unknown (c. 1942?)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs