The Understanding Angel

Pretty much everyone who celebrates Christmas will put an angel on the tree. Ever wondered why?

I was chatting on the phone to my stepmother yesterday, as I won’t be able to see her for Christmas. At her church she has been part of a group studying angels and how they have been depicted and understood (and misunderstood) over time.

It made me think of this recording. The Littlest Angel, by Charles Tazewell, was first published in 1946. It was hugely popular and remains one of the best-selling children’s stories of all time. It was adapted to all sorts of different media, including this sound version, read by actress Loretta Young.

It was a deluxe item: three shellac gramophone discs, held in paper sleeves in a heavy card folder. This was “an album of records”. When LPs appeared, each one held the same amount of music as an album of records, so an LP got to be called an “album”, even though it wasn’t.

LYTLALike many a much-loved children’s story of this period, The Littlest Angel is a tad twee to modern ears. But just accept that it is a sentimental Christmas story, and go with it.

Among the characters you will meet in the story is the Understanding Angel. When my parents were divorced, and my father married my stepmother, my brothers and sisters and I were all teenagers. We were distressed and confused and did not always express these emotions well. Not our fault – it was a difficult time and we were children still. But thinking back, my stepmother showed great patience and kindness, sometimes in the face of great provocation. She was, in fact, something like the Understanding Angel.

To my stepmother: this is for you.

Happy Christmas everyone.

  • Artist: Loretta Young, with Ken Darby Choir
  • Track: Whole album (three discs, six sides)
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Decca
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: DA 23452-4
  • Year: 1950

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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

Five things I did not know about Ella Fitzgerald

Five things I did not know about Ella Fitzgerald

  1. She was born in 1917 in Virginia, but moved with her mother to New York State as a child, part of the Great Migration of African Americans seeking a better life in the northern states.
  2. Her mother died in a car crash in 1932, when Ella was only 15. She fell out with her stepfather and became homeless for a time.
  3. Her first hit was a version of a children’s rhyme “A Tisket A Tasket”, released in 1938
  4. In 1954 she was three days late to a tour of Australia, because she and three other black tour members were not allowed to board their flight from Honolulu to Sydney.
  5. She was active in the Civil Rights movement and refused to perform at segregated venues.

512px-Ella_Fitzgerald_in_September_1947

Something I did know: Ella’s was one of the great singing voices. This is one of her back catalogue. “I’ll Never Be Free” was a minor hit for her in 1950. Singing with Louis Jordan and his fine band, Ella makes it just shine.

3170

  • Artist: Ella Fitzgerald
  • A side: “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (with Louis Armstrong)
  • B side: “I’ll Never Be Free” (with Louis Jordan)
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Decca
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: Y6302
  • Year: 1950

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

 

 

Wealth, status, friends, etc

“The rollyng stone neuer gatherth mosse,” wrote John Heywood in his collection of “all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue”, published in London in 1546. A modern dictionary explains the meaning of this durable saying: “a person who does not settle in one place will not accumulate wealth, status, friends, etc … with allusion to the proverb, moss is occasionally used to denote money.”

0847 upI don’t know what John Heywood would have made of the Rolling Stones, 500 years on, but the band’s story rather gives the lie to its name. They accumulated a great deal of wealth, status, friends, etc, not to mention a legion of fans who have made Mick’n’Keef the joint subjects of an annoying personality cult. It’s a bit off-putting, the whole hero-worship thang.

But Planet Vinyl is an open society, the fellowship of the fair listen. When seven inches of Stones came my way, I cleaned off the moss and gave it a spin. I already knew the A side,  “The Last Time,” which was released in 1965, and was a number one hit in the UK. Good, bluesy rock.

But the B side was a surprise. “Play With Fire” belongs to that sub-genre of songs in which a working-class lad scoffs at a society girl for her privilege and lack of life experience. You ain’t lived in the real world, honey. The lyrics are a tad trite, but the mostly acoustic arrangement (the work of Phil Spector, who also plays bass) is lovely, and there is subtlety to the delivery.

  • Artist: Rolling Stones
  • Single Title: The Last Time
  • Side B “Play With Fire”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Decca
  • Catalogue: Y 7217
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1965

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

 

 

 

That fugitive thing

I have just read an article in which the author “hopes to catch that fugitive thing—Englishness”. He could do worse, I reckon, than contemplate the fictional secret agent John Steed.

avengersHere he is, in company of Emma Peel, with whom he shared many a rip-roaring adventure, saving the world from various villains in the 1960s TV series The Avengers. Steed was a gentleman, with a gentleman’s courtesy and sense of fair play. Mrs Peel was an English rose, a honey with a large wardrobe of mini-skirts. It’s all good, clean fun. Underlying issues of class, race and prejudice and economic injustice are cheerfully ignored, which is also the English way.

Cracker of a theme tune, too. It is performed here by Roland Shaw and His Orchestra. Shaw was an arranger and producer for Decca records. This is not the original theme, but in 1964 Shaw’s orchestra released a version of the James Bond theme which was an improvement on the original and which became a surprise hit. They followed up with several LPs of similar material, including Themes for Secret Agents in 1966. One of these was “The Avengers”.

As you will hear, Roland Shaw knew how to project the dapper, brave Patrick Steed in music. Perhaps no surprise, as he was to the manner born. His full name was Roland Edgar Shaw-Tomkins. Born in Leicester, he studied music at Trinity College, and served in the RAF during the Second World War. Englishness, old boy.

  • Artist: Roland Shaw and His Orchestra
  • LP Title: Focus On Phase 4 Stereo (Various Artists)
  • Track: Side 2 Track 4 “The Avengers”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Decca
  • Catalogue number: BPS 1
  • Manufactured in: Great Britain
  • Year: 1968 (track first released on the LP Themes for Secret Agents, 1966)

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A slice of pumpernickel

If George Michael, born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, is spanakopita transformed into white bread, what are we to make of the career of Arnold George Dorsey?

Performing as Gerry Dorsey, he was small-big in the UK in the 1950s. He was featured on television shows, and toured with Marty Wilde (best known now as father of Kim, but a star in his own right back in the day). Dorsey could sing, he had a powerful and expressive voice, but something was missing, that X factor which could elevate him to stardom. A new stage name, perhaps?

It had worked for his friend Marty Wilde, who had entered life as Reginald Leonard Smith. And so, perhaps the oddest makeover in stage name history occurred. Gerry Dorsey was rebranded, adopting the name of a real person, a German opera composer who had died in 1921: Engelbert Humperdinck. One of those ideas which is so silly it works.

0024 Humpy A 1970Under this strange moniker, white bread disguised as pumpernickel, Engelbert became a hugely successful singer of power ballads, selling millions of records. I have to admit that for me, the strange name makes it hard to take Humpy seriously. Just listen, though, and there is no denying that he was good at his craft: pop ballads with swelling orchestral backing. His producer in the 1960s was Gordon Mills, who also handled Tom Jones, and there is a lot of similarity in the arrangement and style of their records from this period.

Most of Humperdinck’s work is sentimental love songs. “My Marie” is a little unusual. It tells the story of a man who has been driven to despair by the poverty of his family. He tells the Marie of the title that he is heading off. He will either return before nightfall with all the money the family needs, or … we he doesn’t say, but suggests she should flee with the children, and remarry.

We never learn exactly what sort of errand the singer is intending. Not, one suspects, picking up the dry cleaning. Nor do we learn Marie’s opinion of this high-risk strategy which is likely to leave her destitute and a fugitive, and even less able to care for her children than before. Curiously, the original Engelbert Humperdinck is best remembered for the opera Hansel and Gretel, a story which also involves poverty and some questionable parenting choices.

But never mind. The song is not intended to be taken too seriously, and succeeds on its own terms. A nice slice of pumpernickel.

  • Artist: Engelbert Humperdinck
  • Single Title: My Marie
  • Track: Side A “My Marie”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Decca Y-9152
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1970

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

 

 

 

Pigeon pie

A tin whistle. A parade-ground drum. A slightly out-of-tune pub piano playing sort-of boogie-woogie. Someone who sounds like a dero growling out “mo-oo-ouldy old dough!”.

What part of this combination suggests “four weeks at the top of the British pop charts”?

lt pig mouldyJust in case you were unaware that truth is stranger than fiction, I offer you Lieutenant Pigeon, an impromptu band which put together a silly, novelty, mostly-instrumental number, “Mouldy Old Dough”. It was released as a single in 1972. After being ignored at first, it became popular in Belgium, and was re-released in the UK, and went to the top the charts. In fact, it became the second-best selling single of that year, beaten only by Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”.

Even with the Planet Vinyl philosophy – open minds, open ears – it is a little hard to understand what people saw in Lt. Pigeon. But maybe that is the charm: it is a silly, lightweight, muck-around piece of nonsense. Maybe, in an overly earnest world, there is something to be said for that.

The ancient wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures declares:

 I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11, (King James Version)

A point surely proved by “Mouldy Old Dough”.

  • Artist: Lieutenant Pigeon
  • Single Title: Mouldy Old Dough
  • Track: Side A “Mouldy Old Dough”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Decca, Y-9960
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1972

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