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

 

 

Solitary bird in flight

There are times, here on Planet Vinyl, when inclusiveness is a challenge. Manuel’s syrupy strings. The testosterone-soaked roar of heavy metal. Not my thing, really – but all music is good music if it brings people joy, whether to millions of people or even only to the musician creating it. But yes, it is nice when the randomiser turns up something I love, and think the world should know about. I can just be the fanboy for a bit.

fiddleLong term readers already know that folk music, especially Irish and Scots folk, was my first love. Although I have broadened my horizons, Celtic folk still has a special place in my heart. One of the artists I most admired in my teens was Scottish fiddler and singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean. It was his songs which first drew me in, but this LP, Fiddle, is almost entirely instrumental. It uses the fiddle to explore an extraordinary range of tempos and emotions. All the compositions are original, though many sit squarely in the folk tradition.

There is one track, The Ferry, on which MacLean sings. It is only for a few lines, towards the end of the piece, which itself is well into the second side.

The boatman is waiting to take me away
And these aching hands have worked me through another day

These quiet lyrics almost shock the listener, coming as they do without warning. It is masterful touch, and such subtlety and restraint are key to MacLean’s art.

But it another track that I want to share, The Osprey. It is the album’s opening track, and it is as beautiful an evocation of a solitary bird in flight as I know.

sat-nav-ospreys-tracked-scotland-destination-africa_318

The osprey became extinct in Britain in 1916, but has since been reintroduced. The bird’s main stronghold is the Scottish highlands. Image: Earth Times

Dougie is still with us, so if you like what you hear I urge you to visit his website, where this and a dozen other records can be purchased. But first, just listen!

  • Artist: Dougie MacLean
  • Album: Fiddle
  • Track: A1 The Osprey
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Dunkeld
  • Made in: Scotland
  • Catalogue: DUN004
  • Year: 1984

Bong-smoking skeleton rides motorbike

The magic and mystery of heavy metal is somewhat of a closed book to me. That the musicians are skilled is not in question, and their fans are models of admirable loyalty. But the merch? Not for me, that whole “black tee-shirt with a picture of a bong-smoking skeleton riding a motorbike across a desert which is also the body of a tanned Amazon warrior in a metal bikini” look.

Mens-Funny-T-Shirt-Darth-Vader-Heavy-Metal-Designer-T-Shirts-Short-Sleeve-Cotton-Tee-Shirts.jpg_640x640And a lot of metal lacks, to my ears, light and shade. Often enough it is just pitch-black, from screaming beginning to screaming end.

But I have met and chatted to pleasant and cultured people wearing the black tees, and they are not the perpetual adolescents the art-work might suggest. Their passion for and appreciation of the music is real. What is more, metal fans put their money where their pierced tongues are.

This record is a seriously obscure early release by a Melbourne, Australia, band Virgin Soldiers. It was put out by a label called Metal for Melbourne (their fourth, and last, release). It is also seriously metal: the two sides are labelled Metal A and Metal B. There are people who love it – enough that a Netherlands outfit put out a bootleg CD in 2008.

Someone in Japan bought it from me for A$50, plus postage. Looking at what the record is selling for now (A$130+) I let it go pretty cheaply, but that is fine. I am glad the record has gone to a home where it will be played and loved.

This is “Metal A”, track 1, a song which the same name as the band, “Virgin Soldiers”. (Which came first?) More than many metal tracks, there is light and shade. The band is tight, the production excellent. I won’t be buying the black tee with the skeleton anytime soon, but I can agree that for what it is, it is genuinely good.

Just listen.

  • Artist: Virgin Soldiers
  • Album: Watching The World
  • Track: Metal A, Track 1 “Virgin Soldiers”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Metal for Melbourne
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: M4MLP0004
  • Year: 1990