Give Peace a chance

On the fringes of the R&B and soul scene of the 1950s were hundreds, maybe thousands, of talented singers and musicians who inhabited the land of Neverquite. It is often hard to chart their careers. They would shift from group to group, perform under different names, a minor hit here, an under-appreciated release there.

Such a one is Elroy Peace, aka Elroy Peade, and perhaps some other names. I have been able to learn that Elroy had the nickname “Shadow”, that he fronted a group called the Bow Ribbons, and that he sang the odd duet with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Almost certainly he performed on many other recordings, credited or not, under one name or another.

elroy peace via discogs

Elroy Peace. Image via Discogs

So, I know almost nothing about him. There is a photograph, and there is this record. From the photograph we learn that Elroy was black, and had a flashy stage suit. From the record – well, he really, really could sing.

This single’s A-side is a novelty dance track, Elephant Walk. Doubtless the hope was to start a dance craze and rocket to stardom, but it didn’t and he didn’t. It is well-done, but lightweight fun.

The B-side, though. Here Elroy Peace drops the silliness and just lets a fine singing voice caress a torch song. The lyrics are trite, but it does not matter. The result is magical. Hints of Nat King Cole, but not an imitation – in fact, maybe better?  I do not know Elroy’s story, but this fragment of recorded sound, washed up on Planet Vinyl, suggests that had the breaks gone his way he could have been a star. Just listen.

  • Artist: Elroy Peace
  • A Side: Elephant Walk
  • B Side: Our Hearts Will Sing
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: RCA
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 101528
  • Year: unknown [mid-1960s?]

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

 

 

Cross-over Man

Cross-over. It was a buzz term in music marketing, back in the 80s. Like many things from that decade it was applied cynically. Industry executives were worried that Micheal Jackson would not make them quite enough money because, well, he was black, n’ all.  So they hired Eddie van Halen, with impeccable redneck street-cred, to play the guitar solo on “Beat It”. This would ensure radio airplay in the Southern states, you see.

Just one of many examples of such cold calculation, which brought the whole idea of cross-over into disrepute. This is a shame, because, at core, music which crosses over between cultures, or even sub-cultures, is surely a good thing. Elvis. Dylan. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. All cross-over in one way or another. It means reaching out, breaking down barriers of prejudice.

“Prejudice”: literally, to pre-judge, decide without a fair hearing. Which is to say, without just listening.

Jim_Reeves

Jim Reeves. Image: WikiMedia

Which brings us to Jimmy Reeves. “Gentleman Jim”, they called him. Starting out as a shrill hillbilly country singer, Reeves changed his singing style, brought in elements of pop, elements of swing jazz, and became something of a crooner – but still country, and in many ways much more than that.

Born in 1923, Reeves served a long apprenticeship working the country music circuit. He performed on the great radio shows of the 1950s, Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry, and was already established in country before he broke through to the pop charts in 1957, with the hit “Four Walls”.

And did he cross-over, or what? It is one thing to record in Nashville and make the US pop charts. It is quite another to become a revered, genuinely loved artist across nations and cultures, most of which have never seen a Stetson hat outside of a movie theatre. And that is what Reeves did.

Reeves was listened to and loved – and is still remembered fondly if fan websites are anything to judge by – in the UK, in Norway, in the Netherlands, in South Africa (he was so big there that he recorded songs in Afrikaans), in India, in Sri Lanka, and in a whole host of other places you would not expect. Reeves died tragically young, killed in an air crash in 1964, but his music lived on.

The secret of  Reeve’s appeal? Part was his pure, smooth vocal style. Part was his ability to give emotional conviction to the (let’s face it) sentimental lyrics which are country music’s core. He was a Christian, too, and he expressed his faith in his music without being bombastic or preachy.

This track “Suppertime” is the B-side to a 1965 single. It is sentimental to the extent it needs a heart-health warning, but Reeves carries it off. He was already dead when the record was released, which makes the message all the more poignant: there is a loving God, at whose table all of us are welcome. Just listen.

  • Artist: Jim Reeves
  • A Side: How Long Has It Been
  • B Side: Suppertime
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: RCA
  • Made in: UK
  • Catalogue: RCA-1445
  • Year: 1965

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fifth Beatle

If, like me, you grew up listening to the Beatles you may have wondered about the strange-sounding “piano-or-is-it-a-harpsichord” solo on the song “In My Life,” on the Rubber Soul album. It goes like this:

This was the work of the “Fifth Beatle,” George Martin, so called because of his work playing, producing and arranging many of the Beatles’ finest recordings. Both classically-trained and open-minded, Martin engineered subtle soundscapes which complemented and enhanced the band’s work, especially Paul McCartney’s melodies – including “In My Life”. Hunter Davies reveals the secret to that puzzling keyboard sound in his book The Beatles Lyrics (which I recommend as a fascinating insight into both song-writing generally and the Beatles canon in particular):

The music is greatly helped by what sounds like a harpsichord, tinkling away like a Bach minuet, giving it a classical timeless quality. This was George Martin, on a piano with the sound speeded up.

rubber soulHere is the solo, slowed down by 25% (very nearly the same as playing a 45rpm record at 33⅓), the speed at which it was originally played.

(Full disclosure: this processed segment was taken from a different, stereo release. This meant I could separate the piano from the other sounds, such as the drum track.)

Nice enough. Dignified. But it has nothing of the magic which the speeded-up version drops into the finished song. And here is the whole song – as released. The record has been bashed about a bit, but that is okay. It shows that someone once loved this LP, and played it over and over. Just listen.

  • Artist: The Beatles
  • Album: Rubber Soul
  • Track: B4 In My Life
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Capitol-EMI
  • Made in: USA
  • Catalogue: T 2442
  • Year: 1965

Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie

I am not a TV soap kinda guy. Nothing against the soapies – they give work to lots of actors and entertainment to millions of people, and are mostly harmless. Give me Neighbours over the latest vile reality-TV blood sport any day. Anyway, not being a watcher of soaps, I had not heard of Michele Lee but she was seriously big. She appeared in all 14 seasons of Knots Landing, playing Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie, a Texan society-matriarch with a string of husbands.

KFC etc

Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie not, from the look of things, having a great day.

It is that for which Lee is chiefly remembered, but she did a lot of other stuff besides: as well as acting she was a singer, dancer, producer and director. One of her early successes was in the 1962 Broadway musical, Bravo Giovanni, about an Italian restaurateur facing bankruptcy because of a big “chain” eatery setting up next door. The production was primarily a vehicle for one of the star opera singers of the day, Cesare Siepi. Lots of booming baritone among the bocconcini and basil.

bravo

Bravo Giovanni was a Broadway hit show in 1962.

But for mine, Michele Lee’s lower-key take on the song “Steady, Steady” steals the show. Hints of Peggy Lee in the delivery – a strong, assured performance. Long before she became the First Lady of Knots Landing, Michele Lee had star quality. Just listen.

  • Artists: Cesare Siepi, Michele Lee
  • A Side: Cesare Siepi, “Rome”
  • B Side: Michele Lee, “Steady, Steady”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono, promo
  • Label: Columbia
  • Made in: United States
  • Catalogue: JZSP 57428
  • Year: 1962

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

There are even apples

Do you know the song, “Danny Boy”? ‘Course you do. The pipes, the pipes are calling. Do you know who wrote the words? Almost certainly not.

Frederic Edward Weatherly was born in England in 1848. He was a successful barrister – the photograph shows him in 1895, in his legal robes – but he was also an author and an astonishingly prolific lyricist.

weatherly

Yep, this is the chap who wrote “Danny Boy”.        Image: WikiMedia Commons

 

He is said have written 3000 songs. “Danny Boy” is the best known, but literally hundreds of them were successful pop songs in their day: “The Holy City” and “Roses of Picardy” were also huge hits. Weatherly’s lyrics were mostly sentimental, sometimes patriotic, and often expressions of “motherhood and apple-pie” values. But they were good. Catchy, memorable; songs you find yourself singing, despite yourself.

This song, “Up From Somerset,” manages to combine family values, patriotism and sentimentality, all in one. There are even apples, though not for a pie. The recording was released on a budget label, Broadcast. One trick to keep prices low? They squeezed the music onto discs only eight-inches across, instead of the usual ten. That is why the label is so small.

somersetJPG

Weatherly himself was originally from Somerset. Unfortunately, the singer in this recording most decidedly was not. His attempt at the “Zommerzet” accent is cringe-worthy. But never mind. Just listen, and see if you don’t find yourself later humming, “Oh, we come up from Somerset, where the cider apples grow.”

  • Artist: John Thorne
  • A side: Up From Somerset
  • B side:  Come To The Fair
  • Format: 8”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Broadcast
  • Made in: England
  • Catalogue: 114
  • Year: 1927

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

 

 

 

Somerset

As cowboy as an Arancini ball

I had always thought of Frankie Laine as a country singer. This was partly because the song of his which I knew best was “High Noon,” the theme song from the film of the same name. If you have not seen High Noon, I seriously recommend it: a cinema masterpiece, moody, tense and strange.

High Noon - 1952

What’s the time, honey? Image: Variety

Unlike so many films these days, High Noon is both tightly scripted and short. It’s a Western, of sorts. In and out of the story weaves the song: “Do not forsake me, oh my darling …” A gentle but rapid percussion lies under the melody. It is eerie.

So yes, I thought of Frankie Laine as belonging in the cowboy genre, an impression strengthened by album covers which show him wearing a Stetson and gun-belt.

FL as cowboy

Francesco Paolo LoVecchio does his best to impersonate a cowboy.

In truth, though he sang so well on High Noon and several other Western films, Laine was about as cowboy as an Arancini ball. He was born, in 1913, as Francesco Paolo LoVecchio in the Little Sicily area of Chicago. It ain’t even on the west side of Chicago!

For many years LoVecchio was a successful singer, without really cracking the big time. In 1938 he was persuaded to adopt an Anglicized name. A radio producer told him that LoVecchio was “too foreign sounding, and too much of a mouthful for the studio announcers”. As Frankie Laine, he kept on working, but it was not until 1946 that he had his first real breakthrough, with That’s My Desire.

 

I had no idea how genuinely HUGE Frankie Laine was. Especially popular in Britain, he sold more than 100 million records over his life time. Nor did I realise his extraordinary versatility. He sang rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, folk, country, and later rock ‘n’ roll. Even on this one shellac disc there is a powerful gospel song, “In The Beginning,” which backs a Sinatra-style big band crooner. It is this track, “Old Shoes,” I want to share, because it is a wonderful example of how Laine used his powerful, emotional voice to pour meaning into what is, in truth, a fairly lame Tin Pan Alley song. I still love “High Noon”, but Frankie Lane was a Picasso of the voice: he could take any style, and make it his own. Just listen!

  • Artist: Frankie Laine with Paul Weston and his Orchestra
  • A side: Old Shoes
  • B side: In The Beginning
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Philips
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: B 21947 H
  • Year: 1955

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

 

 

Aimee Mann is alive and well and playing bass

I feared for Aimee Mann. She was the lead singer, bass player and chief selling point of ‘Til Tuesday, a band which was, in the mid-1980s, the Next Big Thing. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

Another casualty of the star machine?

‘Til Tuesday was a Boston synth-pop outfit with a hint of punk, which burst onto the scene in 1985 with “Voices Carry”. With the help of a striking video featuring Mann, she of the platinum hair and wide eyes, it was a huge hit.

TT VC 1985

Industry executives looked at her and saw dollar signs. There was a rash of publicity. I remember reading a profile in Rolling Stone. There was a picture of Mann, looking moody. The caption: “C’mon, Aimee, how can someone who looks so good feel so alienated?” This remains possibly the stupidest thing ever written, even in Rolling Stone.

Early success was not replicated. Label heavyweights demanded hits. The hits failed to come, and the band fell apart under pressure. ‘Til Tuesday; gone Wednesday.

I looked up Aimee Mann, expecting a sad story of bitterness, break-up and drug abuse. I am happy to be completely wrong. She built a solo career, worked on film music and a variety of other projects, and still performs. She has won Grammy awards, done heaps of stuff. This is her in 2008: looking healthy and happy, a woman in control of her own destiny.

Aimee_Mann_October_2008 Against all expectation, Aimee Mann is alive and well and playing bass. Her most recent album is called Mental Illness, and it is, frankly, wonderful. I have bought the download — I encourage you to do the same.

Here she is, back in the ‘Til Tuesday days, with “Don’t Watch Me Bleed”, a B-side breakup song with angsty vocals and moody bass to suit the title.

  • Artist: ‘Til Tuesday
  • A Side: Looking Over My Shoulder
  • B Side: Don’t Watch Me Bleed
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Epic
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: ES 1057
  • Year: 1985

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