Whistling up spring

Whistling precisely is hard. Try whistling the same tune with someone else – you will wobble out of key with each other, for sure. There are, however, some people who can whistle with great precision. A few have made a career out of it, and had novelty hits with whistled versions of popular tunes.

Such a one is Fred Lowery. Born in Texas in 1909, Lowery lost his sight at the age of two as a result of scarlet fever. While attending a school for the blind, he met a bird imitator who encouraged him to develop his whistling. Lowery became a featured act on variety shows and in 1939 he had a huge hit with his whistling version of Indian Love Call. It sold two million copies, a staggering number for the time. He had other hits over the years, including the theme to the 1956 Western film, The Proud Ones.


Fred Lowery: a blind man with extraordinary skill at whistling.

This track comes from an LP late released much later – guessing mid-1970s? It is on Word, a gospel label. As you would expect it has plenty of golden fave hymns: Oh Happy Day, Old Time Religion, Precious Memories. All the usual suspects, and delivered beautifully, bang on key.

But the track I want to share is of a different character. Bring Back The Springtime channels Lowery’s old mentor, the bird imitator. It is unlikely as it sounds: a tone poem, for whistling and piano. And it is beautiful. Just listen.

  • Artist: Fred Lowery
  • Album: Precious Memories
  • Track: A6 Bring Back The Springtime
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: Word
  • Made in: United States
  • Catalogue: WST-8516-LP
  • Year: Unknown (mid-1970s)

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. 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

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C-grade Christian

Johnny Cash sometimes described himself as a “C+ Christian”. Robert Hilburn, in his wonderful biography of Cash, observes:

Most thought this American icon was just being humble. To those who’d been close to him at various points, it appeared he was being a bit generous with his evaluation. But there was  no question Cash believed. He wasn’t using his religion as commercial strategy.

Cash was a flawed man, and he knew it. His honesty about those flaws were part of his greatness. He made a gospel song, even one which was perhaps a bit twee, meaningful precisely because of that.

Cash ISAMThis is one of those songs. The arrangement could be better. No need for the backing vocals! Simple, spare would suit the song. But Cash’s voice carries it. It is the voice of a common sinner, the C-grade Christian, asking for forgiveness. Again.

Just listen.

  • Artist: Johnny Cash
  • Album: Hymns of Gold (compilation of various artists)
  • Track: B1 “I Saw A Man”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: K-Tel
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: NA451
  • Year: Unknown (c. 1975). Song recorded 1958.

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

The firehose effect

Probably the fastest way to disperse a crowd of Australians, short of turning a fire hose on them, is to invite them to church.

There is no oppression, just compartmentalisation. You are allowed to sing “Amazing Grace” on Sundays and at funerals, but gospel struggles to reach a wider audience. There is a lot of fine Australian contemporary Christian music – Hillsong in its many manifestations, Newsboys, Sons of Korah, heaps of others – but not too many of these acts are able to cross over. Real passion and fine musicianship, but sectional still.

0027 Label

Consequently, when Christian musicians try to sneak a bit of spirituality into a popular song, they tend to do it by the side door. It’s the U2 approach: exploit the ambiguity in words such as “love”, “spirit”, “sacred”, “eternal”. It can work well – “I did what I did before Love came to town” – though it is sometimes hard to work out if the singer is devoted to the guy upstairs or the girl next door.

One of the pioneers groups of this style in Australia was Family. Not a great choice of name for a band: there have been at least 25 other groups with the same or very similar names. Apart from anything else, it makes them hard to research: most search engines lead you to the Family which hung out with Charles Manson. If you don’t know who they were, let’s just say gospel was not their go.

0027 Label sleeveThis particular Family, though, were a much nicer bunch. Two of them were genuinely family, the brothers Ian and Phil Truscott. They were Queenslanders, and came together in 1972. They enjoyed modest mainstream success, and a stronger following in charismatic Christian circles. Several of their LPs were released in the US. They were, as you will hear, genuinely talented: lovely tight-harmony singing in a country pop style.

This track is from a single released in 1973. The lyrics are a bit lightweight, but as an early example of the U2 approach to Christian music, I think it stands up well. The B-side is out-there, no apologies gospel, and beautifully sung, but we will go with the A-side. Don’t want the firehose effect.

  • Artist: Family
  • Single Title: Just Another Song About Love / They’ll Know We Are Christians (One In The Spirit)
  • Track: Side B “Just Another Song About Love”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: M7 MS-032
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1973

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

Lotta hair

You know her, even if you don’t know it.

You know her voice.

If you have listened to Emmylou Harris’s albums, Luxury Liner and Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, or Neil Young’s Comes a Time, American Stars and Bars and Rust Never Sleeps, or the Doobie Brothers’ Minute by Minute, or a whole stack of albums and singles by Rodney Crowell, Billy Joe Shaver, Christopher Cross and other luminaries of country-rock-pop in the 1970s, then you know her voice.

Nicolette Larson was an aspiring folk singer in San Francisco who got some singing work which lead to other work, and in time she attracted the attention of Neil Young, and from that became a star backing vocalist. On everyone’s records. Which is nice – hey, I’d take it – but of course she wanted a solo career.

It started well, with this album.

The first single from it, the Neil Young composition “Lotta Love”, was a huge hit, a soft rock masterpiece. (Yes, oh sneering trendoids, there is such a thing. On Planet Vinyl at any rate.) Larson’s version of “You Send Me” also did well. But if you were expecting, and I admit that I was, an LP full of the same kind of thing – well it isn’t. It is an eclectic mix. A bit of soft rock, a bit of R’n’B, a song in French in waltz time, and some hardcore bluegrass gospel.larson

Larson’s story, at least from this album on, is a sad one. After her initial success with this record, she never quite caught the flame again. Continued singing, alone and behind others, but she was on a downward path. She died of liver failure in 1997, aged only 45. Fair to suggest, I think, that liver failure so young suggests a lifestyle neither happy nor healthy.

I knew nothing of any of this. I remembered “Lotta Love” from the radio in the 1970s. I did not remember the name, but I do remember seeing her on television and thinking that she had an awful lotta hair.

This album is not a masterpiece. It’s good, sometimes brilliant, but like Larson’s musical journey more generally, it somehow falls just a little sort of its promise. I can relate to that. So can most of us. None of that changes two core truths.

First, Nicolette Larson had the voice of an angel. Second, she was brave. It is precisely that much of this LP sounds nothing like “Lotta Love” which I admire. This track, “Angels Rejoiced” is a hokey bluegrass gospel number first released in 1957. Larson performs it as a duet with Herb Pederson, and somehow this temperance-pamphlet morality play of a song acquires a delicate magic. Just imagine a coked-up Warner Bros exec railing against including this track on the album of a singer they hoped would be major star.

Angels rejoice.

  • Artist: Nicolette Larson
  • LP Title: Nicolette
  • Track: Side 2, Track 3 “Angels Rejoiced”
  • Format: 12” 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Warner BSK 3243
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1978