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

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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