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So Rare

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(Pictured: some guys who could play: L to R, Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Lionel Hampton.)

This post has been in my drafts folder for quite literally years, but today is its day. I started it after a reader asked me how come I never write about the 30s and 40s. 

I have written about the Pioneer Era of Recording, which spans the late 1800s to the middle of the 1920s. I think I’ve probably mentioned the pre-rock 50s a few times. But the era between has been neglected, so here we go.

The 30s are often said to be the decade in which jazz was America’s most popular music, but that’s not completely accurate. Based on the list of the decade’s #1 singles (as found in Joel Whitburn’s remarkable Pop Memories: 1890-1954), jazz arrives in 1932, when Louis Armstrong’s version of “All of Me” reaches the top. But a version of the song by Paul Whiteman, erstwhile King of Jazz whose music is not considered especially jazzy today, was on the charts at the same time. A bandleader who’s never been considered a jazzman, Guy Lombardo, was far more popular than Armstrong. During the first half of the 30s, Lombardo would hit #1 or #2 something like 15 times.

Jazz doesn’t start to dominate until what we call the Swing Era. Between 1936 and 1939, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman were frequent visitors to #1, even as Lombardo and Bing Crosby continued to get their share of time at the top. Glenn Miller scored his first #1 hit in 1939, although you’ll get some debate about whether to consider Miller a jazzman or a pop star. (Even recordings by ostensible jazz bands often had plenty of pop flavor, such as Artie Shaw’s “Frenesi,” which spent 13 weeks at #1 as 1940 turned to 1941.) The year 1941 belonged to Tommy Dorsey’s brother Jimmy with seven #1 hits that year alone. The World War II era was soundtracked by bandleaders Freddy Martin, Harry James, and Kay Kyser in addition to the Dorseys, Miller, and Goodman—and Lombardo, and Crosby, who was the most popular recording artist of the 20th century until Elvis came along.

The bands of the 1940s all had singers, some who would remain eternally famous, like Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey or Doris Day with Les Brown, and some who were famous in their time but no longer, such as the stable of singers who fronted Miller, including Ray Eberle, Tex Beneke, and Marion Hutton. And as World War II ended, you can begin to see the big bands fade out and solo singers take prominence. Perry Como hits #1 for the first time in 1945 and repeatedly in 1946; so do Dinah Shore, Nat King Cole, and Sinatra as a solo artist. By 1948, the Kay Kyser band is the last of the World War II big bands to hit #1; in 1949, nearly all of the #1 songs are by solo singers not fronting big bands, including Evelyn Knight, Mel Torme, Como, Vaughn Monroe, Vic Damone, and Frankie Laine. Guy Lombardo managed a #1 version of “Third Man Theme” in 1950, 23 years after his first #1, but he was the last of the famous bandleaders to reach the top.

Eras never break cleanly. Think of the start of the rock ‘n’ roll era in 1955 or the British Invasion in 1964, and then consider how older styles continued to thrive even after times had supposedly changed. So there’s a finer gradation to this story than I am relating here. Solo singers were popular throughout the 30s and 40s, as Crosby’s success indicates. Jimmy Dorsey scored a big pop hit with “So Rare” in 1957. Even without hit singles, editions of the dominant big bands sold albums, and they remained on the road in the 50s and 60s, albeit scaled down in size and itineraries. Stars such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie would remain popular live attractions until their deaths, Ellington in 1974 and Basie in 1984, as would Frank Sinatra until his death 20 years ago last month. Guy Lombardo was on national network TV every New Year’s Eve until the end of the 70s.

An edition of the Glenn Miller Orchestra is still on the road in 2018, over 70 years after Miller’s death. How long it will remain viable is a good question. We live in a society where “old school” means 10 years ago; before long, the music of the 30s, 40s, and early 50s will be entirely the realm of antiquarians. But while it lasted, it was pretty remarkable.

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Music Within Limits

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I read a Twitter thread recently about the preferred format for mix “tapes” nowadays. CDs are still popular, although Spotify links are catching up. A few people compile them as zip files or use USB drives. I would like to think there are some old geezers out there who still use tape; perhaps they aren’t connected to the Internet to say so.

I have written here before about the 8-track recorder I bought in high school, so the first mix tapes I ever made were in that format. When I got to college, I made a few party mixes on reel tapes in the production rooms of radio stations. I graduated to cassettes shortly after I graduated from college, and they were my medium of choice for car tapes until the early 00s, when I got a CD burner. But I kept playing tapes until 2012, when the car with the tape deck went to the big salvage yard in the sky.

I burned a CD just this morning, some tunes for a trip we’re getting ready to take. I burn as MP3s, which means a single CD can hold several hours of music. (Burning standard CD files limits a disc to 80 minutes.) As I was selecting tunes for the CD, I kept thinking, “What else could I put on here? There’s certainly room for more.” If I were putting them into a zip file or USB drive, there would be even more room. A Spotify playlist is theoretically limitless.

That feels like it could be a problem.

A mix begins with a goal. What do I want this mix to do? If you’re sending one to a girl (and I am guessing that many of the male geeks reading this post have done it, or considered it), you want to express yourself, tell her who you are, and create a mood. For a road trip, you want to create a different mood, one that enhances the experience of travel in whatever way you choose. Or maybe you’re making a mix for your own amusement (“the greatest hits by artists whose names begin with A”), or on a particular theme (“best party hits from college”). What belongs, or best fits the theme?

More importantly, what doesn’t? A C-90 cassette or an 80-minute blank CD requires you to make choices. Does this song contribute to the mood, or the theme? Is it better for that purpose than some other song I am considering? I’d argue that a cassette or CD mix you make for somebody will say more about you as a person than a mix you send as a Spotify list because of the paring and tweaking you have to do to make it right within a physical limit. It also says something about how you regard the person you’re giving it to. You care enough to spend real time, effort, and thought on them. You don’t just browse a list and hit “add” a few times.

Years ago, I heard a party DJ say something similar. He wondered whether there’s really an advantage in being able to take thousands of songs to a party digitally instead being confined to what fits in a crate of vinyl or CDs. As in making a mix, choices are necessary. Is this a record I need, one I can’t imagine the party without? If so, it goes in the crate. If not, it can stay home. True, the DJ with 10,000 songs is likely to have more latitude on those occasions when it’s helpful, or be better able to play some guest’s request, but does that automatically mean he’ll provide a better party in the long run than the DJ who’s crated up a couple of hundred tried-and-true dance floor monsters?

Our culture frowns upon limits. We equate freedom with having whatever we want, as much as we want, whenever we want, for as long as we want. But “unlimited” is not automatically better. For an artist of the mix, acceptance of limits can enhance the work.

The Secret History of 1968

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(Pictured: the Grateful Dead, who do not figure in the story of Boston in 1968 except as one of the acts who played at a club called the Boston Tea Party, as shown here.)

(But see the postscript below.)

In 1968, Van Morrison and his wife, Janet, were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’d made one album, Blowin’ Your Mind, and one indelible single, “Brown Eyed Girl.” But late in 1967, after Morrison and Bang Records chief Bert Berns got into a shouting argument, Berns fell over dead. Morrison wanted out of the contract he signed with Berns, but Berns’ mobbed-up business partners weren’t willing to just let him walk. It took a sack of $20,000 in cash, delivered to a warehouse in the dark of night by a Warner Brothers executive, to get him free. While the contract situation was hanging over his head, Morrison was working on new music—music that would eventually become the legendary album Astral Weeks.

The making of that album is only one of the Boston stories told in Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh. In addition to Morrison, we meet an enigmatic guru named Mel Lyman, who presided over a commune in Boston’s Fort Hill neighborhood, published a newspaper called the Avatar, was deeply influential in the city’s counterculture, claimed to be God, and may or may not have died a decade later. We’re present at the Velvet Underground’s historic residency at the Boston Tea Party, and the less-successful attempt to hype the local music scene under the name “the Bosstown Sound.” We visit the set of an experimental public television show called What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? and influential rock radio station WBCN. We tag along at an odd modern-day meeting between the author and musician (and former WBCN DJ) Peter Wolf, who says he has tapes of a show at which Morrison, his longtime friend, played some of the Astral Weeks songs for the very first time. And we’re there the night James Brown plays a televised concert in the wake of Martin Luther King’s murder that’s credited with keeping the lid on the city.

The Brown story is often portrayed as a magnanimous gesture by a star who wanted to do something for his people. The reality is something else again. Brown was scheduled to play Boston Garden on April 5, the night after the King shooting. Officials feared what might happen with so many black people in one place, but they also feared what might happen if the show were canceled. So the idea came about to televise it, thereby keeping people indoors and off the streets. Brown hated the idea at first; TV would lower the attendance and his take of the proceeds. The city agreed to pick up the cost of lost earnings from ticket sales, which turned out to be $60,000. (Mayor Kevin White ended up having to go to a group of old-line Boston financiers for a handout to cover it.) The concert nearly went bad when audience members started jumping on stage, but Brown managed to get the fans back under control, and ended up keeping Boston peaceful while other cities were burning. Years later, White would say it was definitely worth the money.

Although Van Morrison had woodshedded his new songs with a group of local musicians, only one of them ended up playing on Astral Weeks. Producer Lewis Merenstein rounded up a group of bigtime professionals to play; one of them, guitarist Jay Berliner, walked into the first Astral Weeks session after spending the afternoon recording jingles for skin cream and potato chips. Another, bassist Richard Davis, said that none of the musicians had ever heard of Morrison and he never spoke to them, staying in the vocal booth with his guitar the whole time. Because the musicians were all jazz players, they were able to improvise at the direction of Morrison and Merenstein; the album came together in three sessions over several weeks.

You don’t have to know anything about Boston to read Astral Weeks, although it might enhance your enjoyment if you do. For example, Marsh Chapel at Boston University figures in several scenes; only after I finished the book did I remember that I attended a wedding there many years ago. At a time when we’re overdosing on memories of 1968, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 is on ground that few other histories of that fabled year have covered.

(Postscript: in a Twitter exchange we had over the weekend, Ryan Walsh reminded me that an early edition of the Dead was heavily inspired by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Kweskin was an associate and sometime-bandmate of Mel Lyman’s, and lived at Fort Hill. So the Dead indeed has something to do with the 1968 Boston story, albeit peripherally.)

A Starry Night to Steal My Breath Away

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Forty years ago tonight, on May 30, 1978, I graduated from Monroe High School in Monroe, Wisconsin. As graduations go, it was neither unique nor unusual, apart from being mine. I gave a speech at the ceremony, only the outlines of which I remember, as I didn’t bother to save a copy. My family was proud of me, and I smiled for the pictures. But what was going on inside of me was a secret I kept to myself, until I wrote about it years later.

I am looking back at a world that I know is about to change forever, and it doesn’t make me happy. I have lived in the same town and gone to school with the same people from age 5 to age 18. This life and those people suit me fine, I think to myself, and although I know I have to, I am not in a hurry to leave it all behind. I try not to let this feeling show—after all, just because I know I’m a geek doesn’t mean I want other people to know I’m a geek—but the feeling is no less real for being hidden.

I was writing obsessively that spring, about what I was doing and what I was feeling, but sometime in the next few years, I threw the manuscript away. I have, of course, mourned the loss of it ever since. I remember it as raw and confessional, although it’s more likely to have been overcooked melodrama, given the inveterate self-dramatizer I was.

In addition to writing obsessively, I was listening to a single album over and over: the Rolling Stones’ Black and Blue. I hadn’t paid much attention to Black and Blue when it came out in 1976. It contained “Fool to Cry” and “Hot Stuff,” both of which I had liked when they were on the radio, but neither of which had left a very strong impression. But I after heard the full album for the first time in 1978 (and made a tape from the vinyl copy I borrowed from the public library), it lived in the car with me that whole spring.

I liked the world-weary “Fool to Cry,” but the song that got the deepest into my head was “Memory Motel.” It had (and still has) some of the loveliest playing ever heard on a Stones record, but to a geek such as I, words always mattered more. “Memory Motel” seemed to me to be about a road that takes us farther and farther away from the ones we love the most—a sentiment square in my wheelhouse at that moment.

In that narcissistic way of teenagers everywhere, I was sure I was the only person who felt what I was feeling. Me and Mick, that is.

I got to fly today on down to Baton Rouge
My nerves are shot already
The road ain’t all that smooth . . . .

So long, so far.

On the seventh day my eyes were all a-glaze
We’d been ten thousand miles
Been in 15 states . . . .

No one was as reluctant to see it all end, I told myself. Everybody else seemed happy. Their happiness felt like an intrusion.

What’s all this laughter on the 22nd floor
It’s just some friends of mine and they’re bustin’ down the door
Been a lonely night at the Memory Motel

Forty years ago tonight, and self-dramatizing to the end, I made sure that “Memory Motel” was cued up and ready to play after graduation as I drove, alone, back out to the farm for the party I didn’t want to attend.

Later that night, a friend and I extracted ourselves from our respective parties so we could go to another. We rode silently through the Wisconsin night until I said, “So, what do you think?”

After a moment he said, “I want it all back.”

Turns out Mick and I weren’t alone after all.

You’re just a sweet old memory
And you used to mean so much to me

Two Guys Named Charlie

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(Pictured: Charlie Rich, the Silver Fox, in 1974.)

I was in the car the other day and heard records by two guys named Charlie, one you know and one you don’t.

The Charlie you don’t know started in mid-60s Mississippi with a band called the Phantoms. After gigging around Biloxi for a year or two and backing some big names passing through, they adopted the more distinctive name Eternity’s Children. They’d make a couple of albums and hit #69 on the Hot 100 with a single called “Mrs. Bluebird” in 1968. Charlie Ross was the bass player and one of the lead singers. After the band disintegrated, he worked as a radio DJ in Mississippi and launched a solo singing career. In 1975, “Thanks for the Smiles” made it to #61 on the Hot 100. It’s pleasant enough in a mid-70s sort of way, but not the kind of thing that was going to set the world on fire.

Ross’ next chart hit was a lot hotter. “Without Your Love (Mr. Jordan)” got airplay on some of the biggest Top 40 stations in the country, including WFIL in Philadelphia, CKLW in Detroit, and WLS in Chicago, which charted it for eight weeks. It rose to #42 on the Hot 100 during the week of April 3, 1976, and reached #13 country, including #1 at New York City’s country station, WHN. How you feel about “Without Your Love (Mr. Jordan)” will depend on your taste for novelties. It’s about marital devotion, but it comes with a twist—actually, a double twist. And it may not surprise you to learn that it was co-written and produced by Paul Vance, a man with a long history of writing and producing fragrant pop cheese, from “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” to “Playground in My Mind” to “Run Joey Run.”

In 1982, Charlie Ross made an album at Muscle Shoals Studios called The High Cost of Loving, and he scraped onto the Billboard country chart with the title song. He was an executive with RCA Records by then, a position he’s held for more than 40 years.

The other Charlie is a guy you know much better.

Charlie Rich was a session cat at Sun Records in the 1950s, and he scored modest hits with “Lonely Weekends” in 1960 and “Mohair Sam” in 1965. Forty-five years ago this week, “Behind Closed Doors” hit #1 on the Billboard country chart. It would get to #15 pop in July 1973, and claim Single of the Year, Song of the Year, and Album of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards in October. But “Behind Closed Doors” was only the beginning of a ridiculous hot streak: by December 1974, Rich would hit #1 on the country chart six more times and be named the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year. All six country #1s crossed over to the Hot 100, including “The Most Beautiful Girl,” which hit #1 pop in December 1973. “There Won’t Be Anymore” was #18 and “A Very Special Love Song” was #11.

Charlie Rich found a particular sweet spot in ’74, at the nexus of pop and country, and his piano provided a little jazz flavor too. But another reason for his remarkable number of hits was that two labels were releasing them. “The Most Beautiful Girl,” “A Very Special Love Song,” and “I Love My Friend” were on Epic. “There Won’t Be Anymore,” “I Don’t See Me in Your Eyes Anymore,” and “She Called Me Baby,” all of which had been recorded several years before, were on RCA. (Mercury even got into the act that year, releasing “A Field of Yellow Daisies,” which he’d cut for them in 1965.)

The hits continued during 1975 and 1976 with four more country Top Tens and another Top 20 pop crossover, “Every Time You Touch Me (I Get High)” in 1975. That same year, Rich famously appeared at the CMA Awards to present the Entertainer of the Year award—and set fire to the envelope after announcing John Denver as the winner. His action was part protest against a pop star winning such a prestigious country award, and part drug-and-alcohol-fueled attempt at a joke that backfired. The incident didn’t hurt his career much; he’d hit #1 twice more, including the fabulous “Rollin’ With the Flow” in 1977. His last chart hit was in 1981, and he died in 1995.

The connections between Charlie Rich and Charlie Ross go deeper than a shared name. When Rich played Biloxi in the early 60s, Ross backed him in the Phantoms; “Thanks for the Smiles” was written by Kenny O’Dell, who’d written “Behind Closed Doors.”

Two guys named Charlie, one you know and one you didn’t.

The Leftovers

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It’s leftovers day today, in which I resurrect a fragment or fragments from my drafts folder and call it a post. This next is something I started after writing about Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” last month. Fifty years ago this week, the record hit #1 on the Hot 100. 

Goldsboro’s first major professional gig was touring as a guitarist with Roy Orbison in the early 60s, a gig he gave up when his solo career began to take off. He hit the Hot 100 26 times between 1963 and 1973, but apart from “Honey,” he made the Top 10 only one other time, with “See the Funny Little Clown,” which rose to #9 during the week of March 21, 1964, when the Beatles had the top three songs on the Hot 100 and the Four Seasons and Beach Boys were also riding high. He would eventually open shows for both of the latter acts, and according to his website, he also opened for the Rolling Stones on their first American tour in the summer of ’64.

Apart from “Honey” and its five weeks at #1 in 1968, Goldsboro hit the Top 20 just two other times, with “Little Things” in 1965 and “Watching Scotty Grow” in 1971. The latter was an enormous hit; it did six weeks at #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart, where “Honey” had done only two, and went to #7 country. Goldsboro was a dominant Easy Listening act from 1968 to 1971, hitting the Top 10 eight times in all, including the #2 followup to “Honey,” “Autumn of My Life.” His final Hot 100 hit came in 1973, “Summer (The First Time),” which made #21 on the Hot 100. He would bubble under with some of his later releases, and he’d last long enough for me to play a couple of his final country hits on the radio in 1980 and 1981.

Goldsboro’s success eventually got him a syndicated TV show, The Bobby Goldsboro Show, a weekly half-hour of music and comedy that ran from 1973 through 1976. He was a frequent guest on other TV shows during the 70s, but at the same time, he was building an empire in music publishing. His last high-profile gig was providing music for the Burt Reynolds sitcom Evening Shade in the early 90s. (He’d known Reynolds for years, producing an album of Burt’s in the early 70s.) In recent years, he was been painting and writing children’s books. He’s now 77 years old.

I listened to several Goldsboro tunes while whipping this post into shape, and I can tell you that I’d rather listen to “Honey” 100 times than “Watching Scotty Grow” once. 

What’s next is something I wrote this morning, following up on a remark in my Friday post about the Elton John tribute album Restoration

Miranda Lambert won the Academy of Country Music’s Female Vocalist of the Year award for the ninth straight year last night. Nevertheless, I stand by my contention that mainstream country has moved on from her. It’s true that “Vice,” the first single from Miranda’s most recent album, The Weight of These Wings,” was a success. But the next two, including ACM Song of the Year “Tin Man,” struggled. In fact, Miranda hasn’t been a big deal on country radio for over three years, and in an environment where top stars are on the singles charts almost continuously, that’s not a good omen.

Country’s “woman problem” has been widely reported over the last few years. There are lots of female artists making really good country music, but they can’t get on the radio, and the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association generally don’t waste nominations or awards on artists the general run of country fans aren’t hearing every day. (That tendency is what made Chris Stapleton’s wins a couple of years ago for his album Traveller so shocking.) So the ACM has a shallow pool of women to nominate from. Only one other Female Vocalist nominee, Carrie Underwood, is remotely in Miranda’s league, but she didn’t have a hit single in 2017; although she still moves albums (and hosted the ACM show last night), Reba McEntire hasn’t been on the radio in eight years. Beyond those three, the stature gap is enormous: Maren Morris is a lightweight and Kelsea Ballerini is a cipher. I suspect Miranda Lambert got the award last night because the ACM basically had nobody else to give it to.

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