Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

The much-acclaimed 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis spins the tale of a St. Louis family from summer 1903 to spring 1904. A posh production helmed by Vincente Minnelli, it’s at once nostalgic and not, dreamy and dour, with most of the songs dating to the early 1900s or before. However, the film is spiced by a handful of new tunes by songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine: “The Boy Next Door,” the Oscar-nominated “The Trolley Song” and a song that’s since become a seasonal classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

This NPR/Fresh Air page delves into the song’s history; this Wikipedia page does, too. But if you choose not to click through, what you really should know is this: Martin’s and Blaine’s first version was rejected by Judy Garland, co-star Tom Drake and Minnelli. As Martin explained to Fresh Air host Terri Gross in 2006, “The original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, ‘If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they’ll think I’m a monster.’ So I was young then and kind of arrogant, and I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry you don’t like it, Judy, but that’s the way it is, and I don’t really want to write a new lyric.’ But Tom Drake, who played the boy next door, took me aside and said, ‘Hugh, you’ve got to finish it. It’s really a great song potentially, and I think you’ll be sorry if you don’t do it.’ So I went home and I wrote the version that’s in the movie.”

Garland’s rendition was released as a single and, though it only rose to No. 27 on the pop charts, became a hit with U.S. service members fighting in World War II. It’s easy to hear why; she captures the nuances of the lyrics, which are simultaneously hopeful and yearning, cherishing the days that used to be while wishing to forge similar memories again: “Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow/So have yourself a merry little Christmas now….”

Here she is performing it on the radio in 1944:

In 1957, Frank Sinatra – who first covered it in 1948 – asked Martin to change the line “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” to something a tad more upbeat, as he wanted to re-record it for his A Jolly Christmas LP and found that line depressing. As a result, it became “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” It zaps some of the song’s strength, I think.

In the years since, it has joined the Great American Songbook and been performed by hundreds upon hundreds of artists; SecondHandSongs lists 1575 recorded renditions, for example, and that’s likely an undercount. Simply put, it tugs at the heartstrings like few others; and, in some respects, could well be the theme song for Christmas 2020. In any event, here’s a Song Roundup of renditions that have captured my ear through the years and also this morning…

Ella Fitzgerald sings it from her 1960 Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas LP. Note that she sticks with the “muddle through” line…

…while Lena Horne, on her 1966 album titled Merry From Lena, does not.  

The a cappella jazz vocal ensemble Singers Unlimited perform the “highest bough” version song on their 1972 Christmas LP.

In 1987, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders deliver a stirring rendition of the Sinatra version for the A Very Special Christmas CD compilation. (Interesting to note, but it was after this record that the song’s popularity jumped into hyperdrive.)

In 1992, the Stylistics put their soulful spin on it and make it sound brand new, though they, too, sing the “highest bough” line.

Linda Ronstadt also “hangs a shining star” on her 2000 A Merry Little Christmas album. 

In 2004, Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight joined together for this moving rendition, which appeared on Warwick’s My Favorite Time of Year album; they actually make me not mind when they sing “highest bough” line. 

Also in 2004, Chris Isaak channels his inner Sinatra for this version from his Christmas album, but sings the original “muddle through” line.

In 2011, She & Him (aka Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) covered the Sinatra version for their A Very She & Him Christmas set.

First Aid Kit shared their beautiful version, which they performed on BBC Radio 2, in 2017. They, too, “muddle through.” 

Finally, the rendition that ignited this journey: Malin Pettersen and Darling West, who shared their cover a few weeks back. As I said at the time, it’s a hauntingly beautiful rendition of a haunting beautiful song. (And, note, that they also sing the original “muddle through” line.)

February 3rd, 1978, was a cold, cold Friday in the Delaware Valley, with highs in the mid-20s (Fahrenheit) and lows in the low teens. As anyone alive out there can confirm, that winter of 1977-78 was a rough string of months for much of the Midwest and Northeast, with extreme cold and snowstorms the norm. In the Philly area, for example, some 13-15 inches of snow paralyzed the region two weeks prior; and from Sunday the 5th through early Tuesday morning, we’d endure a repeat performance that dropped 14 more inches of the white stuff. 

I was 12 1/2 years of age and still adjusting to the realities of winter; just a few years earlier, I’d actually thought 60 degrees was freezing. (Life in a desert kingdom may not have been ideal, but at least we didn’t have snow or actual cold.) About the only relief: Escape via books, television and, increasingly, music. As I charted in this long-ago post, Elvis Presley’s death the previous August essentially kickstarted my interest in rock ’n’ roll.

My parents picked up the book-thick Sunday edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer early Saturday evening most weeks, and we would spend part of the night reading through it. At that juncture, Michael St. John’s oldies show on WPEN-AM, which I routinely listened to, was on Sunday night – but there were plenty of oldies to be had around the dial. (Oldies, back then, primarily meant the rock, pop and soul/R&B of the 1950s and early ‘60s.) My parents and older brother weren’t much into music, but indulged me. So, for at least an hour, the sounds of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Ronettes, Supremes and Beach Boys filled the living room.

On occasion, Jan & Dean rode the wild surf from California to the eastern seaboard… 

…I loved the songs of theirs that I heard on the radio, most likely because they were often catchy and funny. Over time, I bought three 45s that sported hits on each side (and, eventually, the cool two-LP Anthology) – and, this night, turned on our local CBS affiliate, Channel 10, to watch Deadman’s Curve, a made-for-TV movie about them.

My memory tells me that it was a dramatic, dark and ultimately uplifting film accented by top-notch performances. My memory is wrong. A while back, I stumbled upon a gray-market DVD of the movie while looking for the 1977-78 James at 15 TV series, ordered it and, last Wednesday, gave it a go. Wow. It’s almost as awful as the Inky calling Jan Berry “Jan Perry” in its TV highlights for this night…

The TV movie was inspired by a 1974 Rolling Stone article by Paul Morantz, who also helped with the screenplay. One problem: Jan is presented as a first-class jerk from the get-go, which begs the question: Why would anyone want to work with him? Also, his friendship with Brian Wilson, who cowrote “Surf City” and “Ride the Wild Surf,” isn’t mentioned, nor is Jan & Dean’s memorable stint hosting the T.A.M.I. Show

Still, the film is a product of its time and environs, as TV mores were not what they are today. If James at 15’s attempts to deal with teen life in an authentic manner were met with resistance, one can only imagine the hurdles faced by Deadman’s Curve. 

The film did help re-energize the duo’s career, however. As this L.A. Times article explains, they began by touring with the Beach Boys before venturing out on their own. Dean says, “I didn’t want to play for just the over-30 crowd, but I found out that teen-agers were coming out for the music. In 1978 Jan and I toured with the Beach Boys to test the waters. It went OK, and in ’79 we became Jan and Dean again.” (That article is well worth the read in full, I should mention.)

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Jan & Dean.

1) “Surf City.” Where this video comes from, no idea, but it portrays their humor very well.

2) “Dead Man’s Curve.” 

3) “Honolulu Lulu”

4) “Sidewalk Surfin’” Dick Clark welcomes them to American Bandstand, where they lip sync to their latest release – and then Dean demonstrates his skateboard skills. 

5) “Little Old Lady from Pasadena.” This hails from the T.A.M.I Show – a classic performance from a classic film, and yet another example of their humor.

Throughout the 1960s, many Motown albums followed a predictable pattern: a few hits (or would-be hits), songs made popular by other artists and, depending on the singer or group, a show tune or two. The formula wasn’t unique to Hitsville, U.S.A. – most of the era’s popular acts, including the Beatles on their early albums, adhered to it. Everyone, or almost everyone, sang other people’s songs – until they didn’t. Within the world of rock music, then just over a decade old, the shift began with the Beatles’ Rubber Soul LP, which arrived just in time for Christmas 1965. Suddenly, the idea that an album could be an artistic statement took hold and cover songs became the exception, not the rule.

That said, and forgive this indulgence, the Fabs and their contemporaries weren’t the first to see the possibilities inherent in the LP, which was introduced in 1948 by Columbia Records. Self-proclaimed saloon singer Frank Sinatra released the 10-inch Songs for Young Lovers LP in 1954; the eight songs, all recorded for the project, sported a unified theme. He followed it later that year with Swing Easy!, another 10-inch set, and then released the classic In the Wee Small Hours, a 12-inch LP often credited as the first concept album, in 1955. Ol’ Blue Eyes wasn’t alone, either – jazz artists and other performers released sets that were more than just their latest single(s) and filler.

Not that any of that matters when it comes to Silk N’ Soul. It’s simply evidence that, by 1968, pop-oriented Motown had yet to follow the route laid down by the Beatles and other mainstream acts, preferring the old-school, supper-club approach instead. It also serves to show how Gladys Knight & the Pips were treated within Hitsville at the time. Although they were fresh off of a No. 2 hit with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and a Top 20 hit with “The End of Our Road,” there are no original songs. Instead, the 12 tracks were known quantities at the time of the album’s release – and “I Wish It Would Rain,” the LP’s lone single, was a recent hit by the Temptations.

In a sense, it’s almost as if they were being punished for their success. It’s been well-documented, after all, that Diana Ross’ petty jealousies caused Gladys and the Pips to be ditched from a tour with the Supremes, as she feared they were too good. (As she told Gladys years later, “We all had to grow up.”) Was Berry Gordy trying to sabotage their careers?

Well, if he was, it doesn’t much matter. Gladys and the Pips, simply put, are at the top of their game throughout the album’s 12 tracks, with Glady becoming one with the songs when she sings. She’s similar to Elvis and Aretha, among others, in that every song she sings becomes hers in the moment.

Available on the usual streaming suspects, including YouTube, Silk N’ Soul is a thoroughly enjoyable album. No, it’ll never make anyone’s Top 10 list (nor should it), but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile listen. It’s a glimpse of the way life used to be. Pull it up, press play and let the music cleanse the soul. You won’t regret it. 

First time ever I heard her sing, I heard an angel plucking a piano string by string. Her vibrato shimmered and her passion simmered. She was killing me softly with her song, though it was actually a duet with Donny Hathaway, “The Closer I Get to You.” I was a few months shy of 13 and – spurred by “With a Little Luck” by Wings – just discovering Top 40 radio. The sweet groove of “Closer I Get to You” stopped time for me, just about, and made me wish I could leap through my teen years and instantly become an adult.

But, of course, if wishes were horses we’d all own ranches. My $2-a-week allowance (upgraded to $5 once I hit 13) only went so far; it wouldn’t be until late 1981 or early ‘82 that one of her LPs – The Best of Roberta Flack – entered my collection. The way her voice soared into the sky one moment before gliding to Earth the next mesmerized me. All these years later, it still does.

The 10 tracks on The Best of herald love in its many splendors. While it’s an excellent encapsulation of her career to date, it doesn’t accurately reflect her debut, First Take, which I first heard decades later (as explained here). The first time I listened to it, I was taken aback – and pleasantly surprised – that its eight tracks didn’t exclusively chart the inner workings of the human heart. Recorded in early 1969, it instead navigates the nuances of life during a tumultuous time. Revolution was in the air, but so was love – and, for some, despair. The LP mixes jazz, soul and gospel in arrangements that never feel forced or sound cluttered.

I’d be remiss in not providing a quick-hit summary of her life up until this point. A musical prodigy, she earned a full scholarship to Howard University at age 15, studying piano before switching to voice. She graduated at age 19 and became a student teacher in a Maryland suburb of D.C. while pursuing graduate studies in music. The passing of her father, however, caused her to curtail her education and pursue teaching full time.

That changed, of course. By the late ‘60s, she was wowing crowds three nights a week at a Capitol Hill restaurant. As jazz great Les McCann tells it, whenever he visited D.C. someone would encourage him to check her out. She bowled him over when he finally did in 1968; he quickly arranged an audition for her at Atlantic Records. That audition led to a three days of recording demos and then, a few months later, a full-fledged session for her debut LP. 

The taut rumble of “Compared to What,” which opens First Take, remains restrained throughout, though its lyrics (“The President, he’s got his war/Folks don’t know just what it’s for/No one gives us rhyme or reason/Have one doubt, they call it treason”) do not. “Angelitos Negros” is both pleading and reaching, a song one need not know Spanish to understand (though it helps to read a translation). “Our Ages or Our Hearts,” one of two Donny Hathaway-penned songs (this one co-written with Robert Ayers), places a heart’s desire ahead of society’s whims. “I Told Jesus,” the final song on the first side, is an old spiritual. 

The Leonard Cohen tune “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” opens the second side and then the slice of hypnotic love that is “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” blooms like a flower captured by time-lapse photography. 

“Tryin’ Times,” the other Hathaway song (written with Leroy Hutson), speaks to tumult then and now: “But maybe folks wouldn’t have to suffer/If there was more love for your brother/But these are tryin’ times…”

“The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” written by lyricist Fran Landesman and composer Tommy Wolf for the 1959 Broadway musical The Nervous Set, is an evocative slice of beat poetry set to song, conjuring the angst of a generation adrift in the bleating boredom and conformity of post-WWII America.

These aren’t teenager laments, in other words, but adult concerns and observations poignantly expressed in song. Roberta may not have written the words, but she feels them; her soul reverberates in each and every syllable.

The 50th anniversary edition, limited to 3000 copies (at least for now) and only available from SoulMusic.com, is well worth the $50. The CD bonus tracks include the single edits for “Compared to What” and “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” the “First Time” b-side “Trade Winds,” as well as a live track McCann recorded in 1968 that was released in 1991 on the Les Is More compilation of his private recordings. The remaining 12 tracks are culled from the demos she recorded and sound as finished as the songs on First Take. Here are two examples:

As most music fans know, the album didn’t sell all that well upon its release, but sold enough for second and third efforts, Chapter Two (1970) and Quiet Storm (1971), to be released. Then Roberta received a phone call from none other than Clint Eastwood, who asked if he could use “First Time” in his movie Play Misty for Me. The rest, as they say, is history. The eight-track original album is a five-star affair; with the added bonus cuts, it’s beyond that.