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

 

 

Never shoot first

Gene Autry was the first great singing cowboy of American popular culture. Not a type of performer you see much anymore. We still have western movies, but they tend to be grim and bloody, and there is not much time for singing around the campfire, faithful horse in the background, between two cardboard boulders.

It all seems tacky now, the world of the B-movie western, but hugely popular in its day, and Autry was a colossus of that world. Born in 1907, Autry became a star of radio, the large and small screens, and one of the most successful recording artists ever. He wrote or co-wrote hundreds of songs. (His biggest success? “Here Comes Santa Claus”.) He made 640 recordings, and sold over 100 million copies of his records. The man was, in consequence, worth a mint. He owned a TV station, a baseball team, a film studio – the works.

637px-Gene_Autry_Pinafores_radio_show_1948

Gene Autry with singing group The Pinafores, 1948. Image: CBS Radio, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

Autry’s persona was that of the straight shooter, the cowboy as patriot and embodiment of what was good and fine in American manhood. This can grate on a modern audience. For the guidance of the boys and young men who idolised him, Autry created the ten-point Cowboy Code, which begins: The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

Just what a Boy Scout needs to know. Mind, there are some cops out there who could learn a thing or two from the Cowboy Code …

More important, the music was good. Autry’s mellow voice and easy guitar style stand up well. This is his take on “Buttons and Bows”, which was a hit for him in 1947.

  • Artist: Gene Autry
  • A side: Buttons And Bows
  • B side: Blue Shadows On The Trail
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Regal Zonophone
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: G25274
  • Year: 1948

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

 

 

 

A western, and sad

We did not have a television at home when I was a boy. This was the 1970s, when TVs had become pretty much universal in Australia, but my Mum and Dad did not approve of this trend. Although I didn’t like it at the time I am grateful for their non-conformity now. Much of my love of music and literature stems from reading, listening to the radio and to records.

Another good thing about not having a television was that when there was something on which we wanted to watch, we would go to someone’s house, and visit and have dinner and watch it together – it was a social experience, a bit of an event.

220px-Flamsta2

Elvis. This was before he invented the deep-fried peanut butter sandwich

One of the first films I can remember seeing on a colour television (which, young ‘uns, only came to Australia in 1976) was an Elvis Presley film, a western called Flaming Star. There are a lot of seriously dreadful Elvis movies, but this was one of the good ones. I remember little about it except that it was a western and sad, and that it had a wonderful theme. My recollection is that the music crops up in fragmentary form repeatedly in the film, and then plays in full over the closing credits.

This track was originally released in 1960, soon after the movie. It was only a modest hit, and is more-or-less forgotten. I found it on a rather tacky compilation, Elvis in Hollywood. It is buried among much more famous numbers, like “Viva Las Vegas” and “Rock-a-Hula Baby”, and I suspect “Flaming Star” only got included because it fit the album’s concept. For mine, though, it is the standout. It is a sad, poignant song about mortality, a young man fearing he will die before his time. The sombre song is in tension with the up-tempo, almost jaunty arrangement, but somehow the mix works.

Elvis Presley is one of those artists whose myth is so gargantuan, so ridiculously overblown, that it obscures his art. Tracks like this help us understand what all the fuss was about.

  •    Artist: Elvis Presley
  •    LP Title: Elvis in Hollywood
  •    Side 2, Track 3: “Flaming Star”
  •    Format: 12” LP 33⅓ rpm
  •    Label: RCA ‎– VPL1 7130
  •    Manufactured in: Australia
  •    Year: 1976 (original release 1960)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs. Most are only a few dollars, and I am open to offers.