Doomed beauty

I had known Gene Pitney for his gunslinger ballads, especially the themes to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and Town Without Pity. He was also a successful songwriter, whose material was performed by Roy Orbison, Bobby Vee, The Crystals – heaps of others. Many are jaunty pop or country numbers with no lyrical pretensions:

Hello Mary Lou goodbye heart
Sweet Mary Lou I’m so in love with you
I knew Mary Lou we’d never part
So hello Mary Lou goodbye heart

“Hello, Mary Lou” was first a hit for Ricky Nelson, but The Seldom Scene do a fabulous bluegrass version: flim-flam, but great fun.

0688-a-sidePitney did have a more serious side, though. He released a song in the late 1960s called “Somewhere in the Country”, sympathetically exploring the world of an unmarried mother. Nothing to raise an eyebrow now, but brave for a mainstream artist at the time. This track likewise explores darker terrain. You wouldn’t pick it from the arrangement, which is up-tempo and almost bouncy, but it is a subtle subversion of the girl-next-door love song. I have always found this sub-genre a bit creepy: possessive male watches girl grow into woman, plots marriage. “Rose of Spanish Harlem” is one; “Living Next Door to Alice” is another. If I were Alice, I too would get as far away as possible.

The “Blue Angel” of the title is a doomed beauty from the wrong side of the tracks, and at the time of singing has fallen very low. The male singer does care for her, but respects her art and her independence: loyal friend rather than brooding control freak.

A strange song which lures you in, then makes you think.

  • Artist: Gene Pitney
  • Single Title: Blue Angel / Song Without A Friend
  • Track: Side A “Blue Angel”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Bronze
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: Bronze ‎– 21-011
  • Year: 1974

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No need to shout

It says a lot about the changed status of tobacco that as avuncular and wholesome a figure as Bing Crosby would appear on record sleeve smoking a pipe. Look at that jaw! Those kind twinkling eyes! The nice hat, and the colour-coordinated pocket handkerchief! This is as solid a slice of Middle America as ever practised his golf swing.bing

But Bing Crosby – and this is all that matters – Bing could sing. He was among the first singers to take advantage of the development of the electric microphone. Amplification freed the singer from having to produce the power and volume of an operatic tenor, just to be heard. Instead, a more quiet, intimate style of singing was possible – this is what came to be called crooning.

This is something a lot of rock bands could usefully learn. Let the microphone do the work. No need to shout.

Bing was the consummate crooner. His voice is warm, and expressive, and the arrangements were masterful. Yeah, the songs are mostly sentimental, but there is a place for that. This track, though is a bit of a break from White Christmas wholesomeness.

“Paper Doll” was a huge hit for the Mills Brothers in 1943 – really huge, they sold more than 10 million copies – and pretty much every singer of note recorded a version over the next decade, and inevitably Bing Crosby was among them. His take is superb, though the disc is a bit crackly, and it is best not to listen too closely to the lyrics. It is a jealous male song: Possessive Guy Spits Dummy after Failed Romance. Plenty of those around but this one is a bit creepy. He’s going to by a paper doll, “that I can call my own” and can’t ditch him for other men

When I come home at night she will be waiting
She’ll be the truest doll in all this world
I’d rather have a paper doll to call my own
Than have a fickle-minded real live girl

Makes her sound like an early-model inflatable woman, and it jars a bit coming from an upstanding gent like Bing. Just like him being a smoker.

  • Artist: Bing Crosby
  • EP Title: Memories
  • Side 2, Track 2: “Paper Doll”
  • Format: 7” EP 45 rpm
  • Label: Festival FX 10374
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1962 (recorded much earlier)

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