Friday, December 30, 2011

In Memoriam: Bill Morrissey

Bill Morrissey: Handsome Molly


Bill Morrissey: Birches


His songs were like Elmer Rising's pen and ink masterpieces--you could admire each confidently executed lyrical brushstroke and melodic twist on the finest of scales, and never diminish the overall impression of their honesty and truth. At the height of his powers, on 1989's Standing Eight, 1992's Inside and 1993's Night Train, each Bill Morrissey record contained several songs that each would have been the life's work of a lesser artist. There may have been others writing songs equally detailed as "These Cold Fingers," "The Man From Out Of Town" or "Birches," but none were better.
- Mark Erelli, August, 2011

Darius and I have posted several tracks by Bill Morrissey over the years, including several duets of traditional folk numbers recorded with Greg Brown. But while I appreciate his handy coverage, and posted several of my favorites back in July over at Cover Lay Down, I'm partial to his more pensive songwriting - I count Mark Erelli's cover of Birches, for example, as one of the better covers in my vast collection, though in this case, at least, it's hard to outdo the original. And Handsome Molly was the very first track of his I heard, way back on Legacy, a 1989 folk compilation that perfectly captured the eighties folk movement, and my heart.

But I also owe that song an apology of sorts, one I hope to rectify by sharing it. Because at the time, I wasn't sure what to make of Morrissey's fragile, croaking tenor. It scared me a little, I think; the emotion was raw, and at sixteen, I wasn't ready. And so, although I treasured the album as a whole, I skipped over this track for decades, having not yet outgrown my penchant for the melodic.

Only in the least couple of years have I finally come to appreciate that the best music is most often wrung from a broken instrument, bringing me to Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and through them, back again to Bill Morrissey, a man well admired by his songwriting peers even as they worried about his lifestyle. And so I rediscovered the genius songwriter, chronicler of pain, his lyrics still and hollow on the surface, yet possessed of intimate and universal depth, each song like a Raymond Carver story. And I shared what I had found, in the very first month of my foray into music blogging, in the form of a feature on his tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, which I highly recommend.

And then I filed him in my mind alongside a hundred other songwriters I admire without dwelling too heavily in their sounds.

And then, just like that, he was gone.

As I wrote on my own blog after his passing, Morrissey had his demons: he was known for his drinking, and the weariness of the solo road warrior which caused no amount of stress and desperation in his actions. The heart disease which killed him before his sixtieth birthday was a symptom of the hard life he led, to be sure. And as Cliff Eberhardt, who as a fellow Fast Folk alumni and friend served as pallbearer to this fallen giant of the folk movement, noted on Facebook after his funeral, “The casket felt so light. That’s when I knew he was really gone, because if his soul was in there with him, that casket would have weighed a ton.” I can offer no more fitting epitaph. May there be no more pain where he lies.

In Memoriam: Charlie Louvin

Louvin Brothers

The Louvin Brothers: When I Stop Dreaming

[ Purchase ]

Charlie Louvin:"What Are Those Things (With Big Black Wings)?"

[ Purchase ]

The grand arbiter of what's popular and significant in music (a/k/a Billboard) would have us believe the Louvin Brothers were a minor act in country music. The Louvins scored just one number one hit and had only 11 other charting singles. (About the same as the O'Kanes.) Record sales don't accurately reflect the Louvins' far-reaching influence. Their harmony-soaked sound is echoed in the music of the Everly Brothers, the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and others. Charlie and Ira Loudermilk began singing as the Louvin Brothers after WWII, achieving their greatest popularity (and Opry membership) in the 1950s. By all accounts, Charlie was a saint and Ira was a jerk. Ira's high-maintenance personality and carousing broke up the act in 1963. Charlie went on to have a productive solo career, logging many more Billboard-certified hits as a soloist than he did as a Louvin Brother. Most of those records, weighed down by 1960s countrypolitan arrangements, are forgotten. The music he made with his brother remained Charlie's claim to fame. While Gram Parsons was the first hipster to cover the Louvins (starting with the Byrds), it was Emmylou Harris's championing of the Louvin catalog that brought Charlie back into the limelight. He toured and recorded with Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, Cake and Cheap Trick, among others.

Official recognition by the Country Music Hall of Fame was strangely slow in coming -- the Louvins weren't enshrined until 2003, 40 years after they disbanded. Charlie continued to record and perform live until the end; he succumbed to pancreatic cancer in January 2011.

Guest post by Mt Vernon Mike

In Memoriam: Gerry Rafferty

Gerry Rafferty: Big Change in the Weather


Stealers Wheel: Outside Looking In


$125,000 a year in royalties can buy an awful lot of booze. Thanks to "Baker Street", Gerry Rafferty never needed to do anything else after 1978... but drink. He passed away in January of 2010 from liver cancer after spending his last two decades seeped in alcohol. Among his final performances was a five day drinking binge at a five star London hotel which led to both his hospitalization and newspaper headlines that he had "disappeared".

But let's remember the more sober and creative days. The Scottish born singer first played with comedian Billy Connolly and Joe Egan in a folk act called The Humblebums. When they broke up Rafferty and Egan started up Stealers Wheel. I'm posting "Outside Looking In" instead of the more obvious "Stuck In The Middle With You" ( or that Beatlesque gem "Late Again") just to ensure you that dipping deeply in the Stealers Wheel catalog is well worth your time. The duo disbanded in 1975. Only the lawyers got rich.

But with his 1978 album City To City, which sold 5.5 million copies and knocked Saturday Night Fever off the the top of the charts, Gerry Rafferty became a millionaire. ( "Big Change in the Weather" is the B-Side to "Baker Street".) He didn't like being a star. You won't find a treasure trove of Rafferty videos on YouTube. The Proclaimers' Charlie Reid, whose 1987 hit album was produced by Rafferty said " He struck me as a very very very sensitive man and for someone like that, fame was probably not appropriate." 

From the outside, looking in, it appears Gerry Rafferty found his hiding place inside a bottle. But just give a listen to what he left behind.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

In Memoriam: Ralph Mooney and Marshall Grant

Ray Price: Crazy Arms


Waylon Jennings: Rainy Day Woman


Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two: Luther Played the Boogie


The names Ralph Mooney and Marshall Grant may not appear above the title on many records. But, their contributions to music were instrumental -- in both senses of the word.

Ralph Mooney co-wrote one of the greatest country songs ever, “Crazy Arms.” It’s been covered zillions of times; Ray Price and Patsy Cline own the best-known versions, and it's one of the few covers in Chuck Berry's Chess catalog. It sounds good every time, in part thanks to some of the greatest lines of despair in country music. (“This ain't no crazy dream, I know that it's real, you’re someone else’s love now.”) But Mooney is even better known as one of the all-time great country sidemen. A pioneering steel guitarist, he’s often associated with the Bakersfield sound and can be heard on the early hits of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. He also did some solo turns and made a fine duet album with James Burton. He found new fame in the 1970s as Waylon Jennings’ steel guitar player. Waylon’s band, The Waylors, lacked a standout lead guitarist. It was Mooney’s licks that propelled the arrangements. Mooney’s and Waylon’s interplay was at its finest on the 1974 hit, “Rainy Day Woman.”

Unlike Mooney, Marshall Grant didn’t leave behind distinctive solos or significant songwriting credits. But, he played an integral role in constructing the sound of Johnny Cash. He was the entire rhythm section of Cash’s original band, the Tennessee Three. (That was the group’s original name, the other two being Luther Perkins and Red Kernodle. They became the Tennessee Two when Kernodle dropped out, and went back to Three after drummer W.S. Holland joined a few years later.) Particularly on the Sun records, before Holland joined the band, it was Marshall Grant’s upright bass that provided the basis for the boom-chick-a-boom sound. The inevitable switch to electric bass dampened Grant’s sound, and his role in Cash’s shows and recordings diminished as players and singers flitted in and out of Cash’s band. He acrimoniously left Cash’s employ in the early 1980s, though the two reconciled shortly before Cash’s death. Grant died in the service of his old boss, after falling ill during rehearsal for a Cash tribute concert organized by Rosanne Cash.

Guest post by Mt Vernon Mike

In Memoriam: Bert Jansch

Pentangle: Sweet Child


Bert Jansch: Angie


Most of the time, Bert Jansch is described as a British folk musician. Fair enough, since many of the songs he performed were from the British folk cannon. But Jansch’s first inspiration was the American blues musician Big Bill Broonzy. Broonzy started out playing for dancers in juke joints, so he had to lay down a solid beat. But, on top of that beat, Broonzy had a gift for improvising. He could get that beat so solid that you could still feel it, even when Broonzy wasn’t playing it during a solo. Bert Jansch learned his lessons well, and always provided rock solid rhythm for the group Pentangle, while John Renbourn took the flashy solos. In Pentangle, Jansch also played the intricate finger-picked rhythm lines that are a feature of tradition British folk, and the group added rock, jazz, and even Indian influences. As you can hear on Sweet Child, Jansch could handle it all beautifully. But, as a solo artist, Jansch often looked back to the blues, albeit with a British accent. His performance of Angie is a fine example of this. There is that solid beat, but the freedom of the solos is also very much there. Jansch did not play by the musical rules, which is a fine definition of creativity. But he always gave the song what it needed. He won’t be laying down that solid beat any more, but I can still feel it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

In Memoriam: Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow


There's not much left to say about R&B crooner Amy Winehouse, whose July death by "misadventure" was foretold clearly by her blazing climb to fame - a trail littered by drug abuse, acts of violence, dangerous weight fluctuations, publicity disasters, and mental illness. But though the somewhat ironic posthumous autobiography that remains in the form of gigantic radio hits such as Rehab and You Know I'm No Good was all the rage on the blogs in the hot summer of her passing, the aching soul she brings to this Carole King hit always made me believe there was still a little girl in there, all hope and heart, struggling to break free.

Now a member of the pseudo-mythical 27 Club, Winehouse takes her place alongside Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Robert Johnson, Brian Jones (Rolling Stones), Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (Grateful Dead), Chris Bell (Big Star), Kristen Pfaff (Hole), and many more interpretative geniuses whose flames burned out in their youth, all casualties of the conflagrant combination of the fickle temptation of fame and the fragility of the body. May her life and death remind us of how precious, and how volatile, the life of the artist on the edge can be.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

In Memoriam: Isshi

Kagrra,: Haha e


Kagrra,: Arishi Hi no Bishou


One of the saddest things in Japanese culture is the high rate of early deaths of her young, which isn't ever discussed properly. Instead, we read terse announcements such as this one about the death of 32-year-old singer Isshi, whose band Kagrra disbanded this year, only to be followed by the dispassionate notice of the lead singer's death. The reason was not, nor will ever be, discussed in public, but I'm inferring suicide. And as a fan of the band it saddens me to read this.

Kagrra, embraced the visual kei genre with a Japan-heavy twist. They performed in traditional garb, titled their songs in Japanese as well, and didn't try to emulate the Engrish-laden lyrics of other groups. Their album covers were gorgeous, and I featured them earlier this year in cool covers week, sadly a short week before Isshi died. Isshi's voice began to fail after their 10-year run as a popular VK group, and the band broke up earlier this year, calling it the demise of Kagrra,. They'll definitely be missed.

In Memoriam: Loleatta Holloway

Loleatta Holloway: Cry To Me


Among the soul deaths this year were those of Marv Tarplin (you know his guitar from “Tracks Of My Tears” and virtually every Smokey Robinson hit), Sylvia Robinson (founder of Sugar Hill Records and a soul singer in her own right), Coasters founder Carl Gardner, Dobie Gray, Vesta Williams, Gene McDaniels, Marvin Sease, Howard Tate, Gladys Horton of The Marvelettes, percussionist Ralph MacDonald, guitarists Cornell Dupree and Melvin Sparks, J Blackfoot of The Soul Children, St Clair Lee of The Hues Corporation, Donald Banks of The Tymes and – above all – Nick Ashford.

But the death I want to highlight is that of Loleatta Holloway, whose voice was behind one of the biggest international hits of 1989, without her getting credit for it. The hit was “Ride On Time” by Black Box, sung on the video by a beautiful, thin girl. Loleatta was not thin, and the lithe girl was not the singer.

“Ride On Time” sampled profusely from Loleatta Holloway’s 1980 dance number “Love Sensation”, right down to her vocals, on which she sang “right on time”; the Italians producers of the Black Box hit thought it was “ride on time”, hence the title. The producers of “Ride On Time” had cleared the samples with Salsoul, who had released “Love Sensation”, but Hathaway rightly insisted that she should receive royalties from the 1989 hit which, after all, would have been pretty uninteresting without her vocals. A settlement was reached eventually.

So Loleatta Holloway is mostly remembered as a disco queen and the subject of the “Ride On Time” story. But before “Love Sensation”, she was a great soul singer. Especially her 1975 album Cry To Me (of which we feature the gorgeous title track) was outstanding. But before Holloway could establish itself herself, her label went bust. She went on to the Salsoul label where she had dance hits with songs like “Love Sensation”, “Crash Goes Love” and “Hit And Run” (and a big soul hit in 1978 with Bunny Sigler’s “Only You”), and sang on dance classics like Dan Hartman’s “Re-Light My Fire”.

In 1991 she topped the US pop charts with Markie Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations” – which featured, fully credited, vocals from “Love Sensation”.

Loleatta Holloway died on 21 March of heart failure at the age of 64.

Monday, December 26, 2011

In Memoriam: Cesaria Evora

Cesaria Evora: Sodade


The Cape Verde Islands are a chain of ten volcanic islands off the coast of Senegal. Much of the land is desert, there is a live volcano on one island, and the area has a particular kind of hurricane named after it. So it really isn’t that surprising that the islands were uninhabited until the fifteenth century. At that time, Portugal established an outpost there to service their slave trade. The Cape Verde Islands remained a Portugese colony until independence came in 1975. Since the end of the slave trade, the country has been an important port in the Atlantic shipping lanes. As such, the people of Cape Verde come in frequent contact with people from many lands, and singing for the sailors is a viable way to make a living. It was what Cesaria Evora did for thirty years, starting in the 1950s.

In 1985, a friend took Evora to Paris. It was the first time she had ever left her homeland, and it led to the making of her first album three years later. Worldbeat was all the rage then in world music, and Evora’s first two albums set her singing against a backdrop of heavy electronic beats. Her third album, 1991’s Mar Azul, was the first to feature her voice in an acoustic setting like the one she had always used at home. The album would prove to be her breakthrough.

Evora’s style is called Morna. The instrumental part of the music features Portugese rhythms, but influences from jazz, west African music, and all of the cultures that have passed through Cape Verde are in the mix as well. But the feature of this music is the voice. Evora sang of history, of love, of course, and of justice for poor people like she had been. Evora insisted on performing bearfoot, in solidarity with the poor. In her voice, you can hear a land buffeted by the whims of nature, but also the determination of her people. Her words are in Kriola, the native creole version of Portugese. Not many people know the language, but her meaning is completely clear. Morna is first of all music of the heart, and no one who sang it had more heart than Cesaria Evora.

In Memoriam: Kent Morrill

The Wailers: Tall Cool One


The Wailers: I Want To Walk With You


The Fabulous Wailers were the Zeligs of the Northwest Rock 'n' Roll scene. They were still Tacoma high school kids when they formed in 1959, the same year as another Tacoma band, The Ventures. The Wailers hit it big first, playing their top 40 instrumental "Tall Cool One" on American Bandstand. Then in 1960, with vocalist Rockin' Robin Roberts,  they recorded an obscure R&B tune called "Louie Louie" which became a regional smash. Alas, it was the Portland-based Kingsmen who scored a nationwide hit with their sloppy copy-cat version based on The Wailers arrangement. With "Out of Our Tree", available on the Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era compilation , The Wailers introduced the punk rock sound to the Northwest, inspiring The Sonics, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Among the band's early fans: Jimi Hendrix, who offered to lend the Wailers an amp if they'd let him on stage to play with the band. ( It never happened).

When Beatlemania swept through the country, The Wailers brought their secret weapon to the fore: keyboardist Kent Morrill's voice. Listen to "I Want To Walk With You" from the 1966 album Outburst! and you'll hear a voice every bit as good as those of the lead singers of The Byrds and The Turtles. It should come as no surprise that when The Wailers finally broke up, Kent found success as a Roy Orbison tribute artist.

He was reminding his wife of an upcoming tribute show the April week he passed away at the age of 70, after years of battling cancer.

 The legendary Seattle DJ Pat O'Day said "Fame of all kind is 75 percent talent and 25 percent luck. Kent had all the talent, all of the skills, all of the emotion, all of the writing ability to be a big star. The fact that he didn't become one was just a case of luck...We don't have to cry for his disappointments because he knew how good he was and that's what counts."

In Memoriam: Matt Jones

 Matt Jones: Ballad of Medgar Evers

The civil rights movement peaked during my childhood. I vaguely remember reading about it in the newspapers and seeing things on TV, and I remember hearing that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. On my mother’s birthday. Of course, growing up in the 70’s in a liberal suburban New York family, the civil rights movement was always there, always something that I was aware of, but not something that directly affected my life.

Fast forward to about 10 years ago. My wife and kids and I are living in a small village on the Hudson River, and we get invited to a “music party” at a neighbor’s beautiful brick house. The owners lived in Manhattan and used this house on the weekends. We were told that they had friends who were folk singers, and that we should come, bring a bottle of wine and be prepared to sing, if we wanted to.

Over the next few years, my wife and kids and I attended a few of these parties. There was a rotating group of singers and musicians—playing guitars, mandolins, banjos, concertinas—and singing old labor songs, anti-Vietnam War songs, Civil Rights songs, as well as classic and modern folk songs, and original compositions.

It was an amazing experience. The clear leaders of group were two brothers, Matt and Marshall Jones. Using the power of the Internet, I learned that they were true heroes of the Civil Rights movement—members of the SNCC Freedom Singers and participants in many of the famous marches and demonstrations. Being in the same room as them made me feel a connection to something that I had only previously read about, and hearing them sing songs that they probably played at demonstrations gave me chills. I was also glad that my children, who have grown up in a multicultural community where the legacy of the Sixties is, often, taken for granted, got a chance to get a personal connection to some of the people who put their comfort and safety on the line and fought for equality and peace. Matt Jones once said “I don’t think of myself as a cultural worker, I am a freedom singer; a freedom fighter. I’ve always been a freedom fighter; I’ll probably go down that way, too.”

A few years ago, one of the hosts had a stroke, and the parties ended. Earlier this year, I read that Matt Jones had died. I haven’t seen his name on any lists of musicians who died this year, and maybe that would be OK with him, but he left an amazing legacy. Listen to his Ballad of Medgar Evers, sung by the SNCC Freedom Singers, a tribute to the civil rights leader who was assassinated by a KKK leader in 1963.

Guest Post by J David

Sunday, December 25, 2011

In Memoriam: Hazel Dickens

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard: Who's That Knocking


Hazel Dickens: Only A Hobo
Hazel Dickens: Hills of Home


Raised in and ultimately hailed as the authentic voice of the West Virginia mountains, born into poverty and a factory-worker until she was discovered by Mike Seeger in the early sixties, early bluegrass trailblazer and singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens channeled the pain and hardship of coal country and holler culture into a wailing plea for social and economic justice - first alongside classically trained partner (and Seeger's spouse) Alice Gerrard, where they were arguably the first true female bluegrass tenor-and-lead harmony duo on the circuit; later as a solo act and collaborator.

Their arrangements of classic bluegrass and appalachian tunes would become standard in the country music world, with coverage by Emmylou and others. Hazel's stature would ultimately win her several major industry achievement awards, and a National Heritage Fellowship from the NEA. And later, Hazel's originals, such as Coal Tattoo and union song They'll Never Keep Us Down, would find no small placement in a myriad of documentary soundtracks about the region and its woes, giving her influence enough to merit major coverage in the NYT upon her passage at 75 due to complications from pneumonia.

I didn't know much about Hazel until this year myself, having only started digging into older bluegrass in the past few years. But these three tracks - the first from Hazel and Alice's early years as pioneering women of bluegrass, via a prescient Art Decade post in January and recorded with sidemen Lamar Grier, Chubby Wise, David Grisman, and Billy Baker, the second a track from a 1987 solo album snagged as part of a 70-song set of Dylan covers in honor of his birthday this year over at Boogie Woogie Flu, posted just a month after her passing, the third another track from that album I fell in love with after tracking it down - show both evolution and common conviction, saying more in song that I could in words.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Holiday Classics: Blue Christmas

Leon Redbone: Blue Christmas


Blue Christmas provides the template for the holiday heartbreak song. Usually, the emotion gets heaped on, with big string sections, cloying background vocals, and a lead vocal performance that milks the song for every ounce of emotion it contains and then some. Elvis Presley’s version of Blue Christmas is exactly the sort of thing I mean, but the song is treated this way by almost everyone who records it. There are some odd counter-examples that set the song against a sterile techno backdrop, with a passionless vocal up front. But Leon Redbone shows in his version what can be done with the song by taking it at face value. The emotions here are real, not pumped up to theatrical proportions. The heartbreak is presented honestly, not glossed over or denied. I always hated the song until I heard this version. To me, Redbone finds the essence that so eludes others, and delivers a fine performance.

Holiday Classics: Coventry Carol

Chris Smither: Coventry Carol


As I wrote about earlier this month over at Cover Lay Down, the conceit of the Holiday Classic is confounded a bit by the existence of several historical waves and source-period songtypes which, together, comprise the current spate of familiar tunes for the season, as heard on the radio, in the mall, and at the hearth itself.

But though my own tastes generally run to the modern folkworld during the rest of the year, and though others tend towards the mid-20th century pop canon when citing their holiday favorites, my own true preferences for this sort of music trend much earlier - all the way back to the early wassails and church songs, and to the hymnal which collects them.

As such, even as I blog the new and the novelty, my secret household Christmas mix is mostly full of centuries-old songs done up in a modern and mellow folkstyle, from Cindy Kallet's Cherry Tree Carol, Brooks Williams' I Wonder As I Wander, Shawn Colvin's In The Bleak Midwinter, and Mary Chapin Carpenter's Sill, Still, Still to Sufjan Stevens' indiefolk takes on O Come O Come Emmanuel, Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming, The Friendly Beasts, and more.

And then there's this: a mellow, rich take on an old, unsourced traditional carol from the oft-blogged catalog of Chris Smither, originally released on a 1996 holiday sampler which - like so many other such Christmas treats from a pre-webbed world - was only made available for that one year, and has since become a rarity. As with so much of my late 20th century folk treasures, it comes direct to us from my father's CD collection, making it especially dear to me. And so I offer it in the spirit of the season, from my generations to yours. May it serve you well.

Holiday Classics: Joy to the World

Eef Barzelay: Joy to the World


According to our friends at Wikipedia, "Joy to the World" is the most published Christmas hymn in North America. The words were written by Isaac Watts from his interpretation of Psalm 98 in the bible, and were published by Watts in 1719. The musical arrangement that we use today is by Lowell Mason, and it is believed that the melody of this 1839 adaptation was inspired by or taken from parts of Handel's Messiah. Watts originally intended for this hymn to be a song of praise and triumph for the Christian Savior's return to earth at the end of the world. It's unclear how this song eventually ended up being a Christmas song, celebrating the Savior's birth. It's equally difficult to research this song as I kept coming up with the song by Three Dog Night.

Most of the well-known versions of "Joy to the World" are triumphant, celebratory songs, often with lush orchestral or organ arrangements featuring soaring sopranos or jubilant brass sections proclaiming the news of Jesus's birth. Conversely, there is this version by Eef Barzelay, better known as the lead singer and principal songwriter of the alt country band Clem Snide. This very understated version from Barzelay's 2006 solo album Bitter Honey features his distinctive voice, an acoustic guitar, and minimal production. One can interpret Barzelay's version as more of a contemplative, purposeful hymn, something that may not be as triumphant as the original author and arranger had intended, but may be more suitable for a cold night in a stable in a far away Middle Eastern land.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holiday Classics: Frosty The Snowman

The Brady Bunch: Frosty The Snowman


The first single from the first album by The Brady Bunch was a Holiday song released in 1970. Cindy's "Frothty The Thnoman" will make even a white Christmas feel like a sunshine day. You're welcome!

Holiday Classics: The Christmas Song

Les Brown & his Orchestra feat. Doris Day : The Christmas Song

John Edwards: The Christmas Song
Out of print

Smokey Robinson & The Temptations: The Christmas Song

The Christmas Song might be the best of all Christmas songs in the pop canon. It was written in the space of 45 minutes on a hot summer’s day in 1944. Mel Tormé wrote the lyrics, Bob Wells the lyrics — on that hot day the lyricist sought to conjure images of winter in a bid to keep cool.

It was first recorded in 1946 by the King Cole Trio, also on a hot day. These recordings apparently did not make great waves. The trio recorded a new version in 1953, with an orchestral arrangement by Nelson Riddle. The version that we are most familiar with is Nat ‘King’ Cole’s 1963 recording, which is closely patterned on the 1953 take, right down to the jingle bells outro.

Tormé recorded the song he co-wrote in around 1954, and again in 1961 for the My Kind Of Music album, and in 1992. Also see this delightful video of Tormé and Judy Garland (wondering about flying rainbows) from Garland’s 1963 Christmas show. A couple of weeks ago, Glee paid homage to Garland’s Christmas special, to great effect.

But none of these versions feature here. First we have Doris Day and the Les Brown Orchestra doing The Christmas Song in 1946, around the same time the Cole Trio recorded the orignal. Note how this version incorporates strains of the "Noel" carol, and plays out with a nod to "Silent Night" where Nat would later opt for "Jingle Bells".

Then there is a slow-burning version by John Edwards from 1976, which sounds a lot like Donny Hathaway might have sung it. Edwards, an excellent soul singer in his own right who was once mentored by Curtis Mayfield, later became lead singer for The Spinners, most notably on "Working My Way Back To You".

A rather different soul version is delivered by Motown giants Smokey Robinson and The Temptations. I am unsure when they recorded it, but comments on the video on YouTube suggest the year 1987.

Normally contributors to the Star Maker Machine don't really plug their own blogs, but I think it is fair, at this time of the year when some may need a fix of new seasonal music, to make readers of this blog aware of the Christmas mixes I have posted in the past, ranging from soul to country to "Christmas in Black & White" and, of course, pop. ALL HERE.

And so, to my fellow contributors and all readers, may your Christmas be bright and may the new year bring you lots of joy.

Photo by Phill Joynes (

Holiday Classics: Christmas Time’s A-Coming

Emmylou Harris: Christmas Time’s A-Coming


Country music Christmas albums: Bah, humbug. They are almost all forgettable, often featuring the same couple of dozen songs, ("Little Drummer Boy," anyone?), philharmonic-style string arrangements and overly solemn vocals.

But there's one I will defend: Emmylou Harris’s first and only Christmas record, "Light of the Stable." And not just because it's the only Christmas record I know of with a Neil Young song as the title track. It's a significant record because it heralded (hark!) Emmylou's neo-traditional stylings of the early 1980s. Released in Europe in 1979 (It became available in the U.S. a year later; the cover above, showing a pregnant and not particularly comfortable Emmylou, is from the original English release), "Light of the Stable" came out a half-year before "Roses in the Snow," Emmylou's traditional country/bluegrass standard bearer. "Light of the Stable" also featured the first officially released "Trio" track, with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt providing supporting vocals on the title song. Thanks to the bright, acoustic arrangements, "Light of the Stable" still sounds fresh today. Even "Little Drummer Boy." Though, in deference to the Facebook "Little Drummer Boy Challenge," the album's opening track, “Christmas Time’s a-Coming,” is offered here instead.

Guest post by Mt. Vernon Mike

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Classics: Mele Kalikimaka

Poi Dog Pondering with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band: Mele Kalikimaka


I must apologize to one of our readers, who sent me an e-mail to request T-Bone Burnett’s version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen during our Offbeat Holiday Music week. I did not post it then because I knew that it would fit this week’s theme better. But I’m not posting it now either, because the album it comes from, Acoustic Christmas, has another song I wanted to post more: Mele Kalikimaka. The song was written by R Alex Anderson in 1949. A year later, it was a hit for Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Oddly, the notes in the Acoustic Christmas album list the song as traditional. Mele Kalikimaka is an example of a Hawaiian musical genre called Hapa haole, in which Hawaiian phrases or pidgen English ones are sprinkled into mostly English lyrics, and native Hawaiian rhythms are used. The words Mele Kalikimaka are what apparently happens when a native Hawaiian tries to say Merry Christmas.

The version heard here is a collaboration between Poi Dog Pondering and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. That was either going to be a nightmare or a blast. I’m happy to say that it was the latter.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Holiday Classics: We Three Kings

Book Of Love: We Three Kings


See if you can name the decade in which this song was recorded.

The Philadelphia-based synth popsters Book Of Love give us an immensely dance-able version of "We Three Kings", now available on the two CD version of their debut. It's worth noting for two reasons. First there's the way vocalist Susan Ottoviano sings as though she'd rather be scrubbing toilets. And secondly, because it provides the soundtrack to an outrageous 60,000 LED Christmas display near Miami, FL which you can see here .

Monday, December 19, 2011

Holiday Classics: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

David Lanz : O Come, O Come, Emmanuel


The origin of this Advent hymn is lost to time---some sources say it began as an 8th century Gregorian chant, some say it's from the 12th century, some say it's later. Regardless, it's got this great minor key going for it (rare for Christmas music), which I love. This version in particular by new-age artist David Lanz is special to me. A good friend who was the organist at the church I used to attend always began Advent with this arrangement. I especially like the phrasing, the way Lanz makes you wa-a-i-i-t for resolution, just like Advent itself. It's already a bit late in the season to listen to it, I suspect, but I hope you like it too, regardless of the day.

Holiday Classics - Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

Lou Rawls: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas


When Judy Garland sang “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” in the MGM musical Meet Me In St Louis, the song was a hymn of comfort to the narrator’s little sister – and, indeed, herself – in a situation of personal upheaval. It’s sweet and tender and fragile.

Over the years that meaning became roundly ignored in such ways that it assumed the dimension of a recyclable Christmas card. It is the equivalent of the tinselled “Season’s Greetings” banner in your local footwear store.

So if we need to take Judy’s quiet embrace of a song as the ubiquitous exuberant handshake of seasonal well-wishes it has become, we ought to be selective about whom we allow to convey the greetings. I might propose Luther Vandross’ quite lovely version, but if we are going to flip Judy’s intent upside down, we may as well go with the big band bombast of Lou Rawls, who delivers the song in big style on his 1989 album A Merry Christmas. In fact, I think I’d rather have Lou’s version.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Holiday Classics: Deck the Halls

The Roches: Deck the Halls


The one constant in my family’s holiday celebrations over the past 20 odd years has been The Roches’ Christmas album, We Three Kings. The Roches were a band that my wife, whose tastes ran toward the folky, and I, whose tastes were a bit harder edged, both liked. We appreciated the beautiful and quirky harmonies, and the music snob in me was impressed by their work with Robert Fripp.

In 1990, We Three Kings was released, and we heard it on WFUV, Fordham University’s amazing radio station. I wanted to get a copy, to surprise my wife, who loved it, and who had only a few months earlier given birth to our first child. In those pre-Amazon, pre mp3, days, you actually had to go to a record store to buy CDs, and like an idiot, I waited until right before Christmas to try to get a copy. I walked into J&R Music, probably the best record store in NY, and was encouraged to hear that very CD playing on the in-store sound system. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a copy in the bins, and wanting to make my wife happy, I dragooned one of the workers, who told me that the copy playing on the sound system was the last one in the store. I made him take it out of the CD player and sell it to me.

Since then, We Three Kings has become the harbinger of Christmas. My wife dusts it off when she starts her baking, and I know that delicious things are about to happen. Coming from a secular Jewish family that didn’t celebrate Christmas, I never really understood the power and fun of Christmas music until I started spending the holidays with my future wife and her family. Now, even though we have a large CD library of holiday (mostly Christmas) music, and I have compiled a large iPod playlist of holiday music, both classic and otherwise, We Three Kings continues to be my favorite.

It is hard to pick a favorite song on the disc. I can eliminate the few that they sing in overdone New York accents, and the more religious ones. Deck the Halls ultimately jumps out at me. The way they hit the first “Deck”, and the classic Roches’ harmonies, and the crazy fa la la la las. Enjoy.

Guest post by J. David

Holiday Classics: You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch

Carnival of Shame: You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch


I have no intention of stopping Christmas from coming, so I thought I had better clear this one off early. I can’t tell you much about Carnival of Shame. I know that they were based out of the Philadelphia area, and they released a holiday EP in 1993 with the wonderfully subversive name of Happy Alcoholidays. Of course, that is where this song comes from. You might think that their lead singer had a knack for imitating Thurl Ravenscraft, who sang the original version of Mr Grinch. But I was able to hear a couple of other tracks from Alcoholidays; it seems that Carnival of Shame’s lead singer always sang this way. The arrangement sounds like the classic four piece rock band: drums, bass, and two guitars. But the band stays loose, making odd interjections throughout that are just right for this woozy version of Mr Grinch.

Here’s a bit of Grinch trivia: aside from singing the original Mr Grinch, Thurl Ravenscraft’s other claim to fame was that he originated the role, and provided the voice for Tony the Tiger for many years.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Accidental Kidsongs: Je t'aime moi non plus

Jane Birkin with Serge Gainsbourg: Je t'aime moi non plus (vinyl)


I bought my first record when I was five years old (this masterpiece, if you want to know). Before that, I loved playing my grandmother’s singles – of which I remember only a recording of the Slave Choir from Verdi’s Nabucco – and, once I was given my own little record player for my fifth birthday, I liberally borrowed my mother’s singles, which were kept in an album with plastic sleeves.

It certainly was an eclectic collection. It included Manfred Mann (Ha! Ha! Said The Clown), Gilbert Bécaud (Nathalie; German version), The Archies (Sugar Sugar), The Peels (Juanita Banana), Trini Lopez (America), Al Martino (Spanish Eyes), Esther & Abi Ofraim (Noch einen Tanz; a deliciously sinister number in which a couple observe the death of the woman’s rich husband), Chris Andrews (Pretty Belinda) and Jane Birkin’s “Je t'aime moi non plus”.

My brother and I played them all, as well as later additions, such as The Sweet’s “Poppa Joe”. And my mother evidently saw no cause for withholding Birkin’s orgasmic stylings from us. I assume that she calculated, correctly, that her sons would not realise exactly what (never mind who) was going down on the song. So we cheerfully played the song with its lovely organ (the instrument!). I don’t know what we made of the lady’s noises. Maybe she had a sore tummy from sucking on too many lollipops. Whatever it was, we had no idea that there was such a thing as sex, and if we did, we had no idea what it sounded like. We just really dug the tune.

I’ve read that on the recording Birkin didn’t fake her orgasm; if it was faked, then Birkin certainly would trump Meg Ryan.

This is a vinyl rip, which is superior to the sterile digital rendering of a CD rip.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Accidental Kidsongs: Lucky Star

Madonna: Lucky Star

My first music memory is of climbing over the front seat in our old blue station wagon as we pulled into our driveway when I was about 4 years old to turn up the volume because this song came on the radio. I exclaimed loudly "I LOVE THIS SONG!". Of course, that dates me since it's been years since they've had all sorts of car restraint laws for children, but back then I could show my love for a song by doing that.

If you think about it, it makes sense for a small child to like this song. The lyrics are very simple and pull from from a nursery rhyme, and it is easily sung along with. There's not much risque about it either, considering it's from an artist known for pushing the envelope for her sexual image, so it all works out pretty well and my parents didn't mind getting me the 45 single of it.

It still makes me smile when I go through my old record collection and come across this single, as I was so young when I was listening to it that I used to have to harass my mom to tell me which side of the record the song was on every time I wanted to hear it. She got sick of me asking so she drew a star on the side where the song was so I didn't have to ask her anymore. So now when I see the record I see the star my mom drew on it almost 30 years ago because I couldn't read yet and I wanted to listen to my favorite song, and it always makes me smile.

Accidental Kidsongs: Skin Lake

Judge Dread: Skin Lake


I grew up in a time when The Beatles and Motown dominated the world of music. My parents were both amateur classical musicians, so they were intent on making sure my brothers and I had every opportunity to learn to love classical music as well. We had Peter and the Wolf in the house, and we went to a theatrical rerelease of Fantasia. And, for the most part, it worked.

Fast forward forty years. When my son was about four, he discovered classical music through a side door, so to speak. He knows more about classical music now, four years later, and I don’t think he even makes the connection, but here’s what happened. My wife and I both love ska music. Before I became a blogger myself, I started collecting mp3s from other people’s blogs. I tended to grab all of the ska I could find, and I would put the songs together on a series of discs I called Ska Boxes. Skin Lake is on the volume that became my wife’s favorite, volume III. So, my daughter was amenable, and we would play these in the car, as we still do. There was and is plenty of other music we play in the car as well. We always thought that my son wasn’t paying any attention, but we did notice that he liked to make up his own names for songs. One day, he started asking for “The Hick-it Song”. Huh? Now, to this day, he will ask for something over and over until he gets it, or we convince him that it ain’t happening. Over the next week, we realized that our sanity depended on figuring out which song was “The Hick-it Song”. Finally, I realized that he was picking up on the sound effect that ska artists make sometimes. As soon as I told my wife this, she figured out which song it was, and our lives were saved. Despite this harrowing experience, the song and the disc it is on are still favorites in my family. The melody, of course, comes from Swan Lake, and was also turned into a different ska song by Madness. The words are probably not much more appropriate for an eight-year-old than they were when he was four, but what can you do?

Accidental Kidsongs: I Want to Hold Your Hand(s)

The Chipmunks: I Want to Hold Your Hand


The Beatles: I Want to Hold Your Hand


My introduction to “grown up” music was served up by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Capitalizing on the success of a seasonal novelty record, “The Chipmunk Song (The Christmas Song)”, Ross Bagdasarian (a musician and actor who can be seen playing the cool jazz guy in Hitchcock’s classic “Rear Window”), working under the nom de plume “David Seville,” recorded a series of Chipmunks albums in the 1960s. By the time I was six years old, my record collection included two Chipmunk albums: first “Chipmunks a Go Go” and then “The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles.” Until then, all the records I'd been given featured kiddie songs or storybook adaptations. And, in fact, many of the songs on “A Go Go” sounded like they were written for the elementary school crowd – “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rain,” “What’s New Pussycat?” and “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” among them. I preferred the music on “Sing the Beatles,” but little did I know I was listening to the same songs my babysitters were, albeit with the vocals sped up. I figured these “Beatles” the album cover referred to were members of another cartoon animal singing group. Even after learning the Beatles and the Chipmunks were not on the same artistic plain, it didn’t register that “I Want To Hold Your Hand” wasn’t meant for children.

Knowing they had been one-upped Alvin and the lads always kept me from thinking of the Beatles as being too subversive.

Guest post by Mt Vernon Mike