Friday, January 14, 2011

Sleepsongs: A Sleepin’ Bee

Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley: A Sleepin‘ Bee


Hey, did you know that Truman Capote wrote a musical? It’s true. It was called House of Flowers. The music was by Harold Arlen. The show debuted in December of 1954, with Pearl Bailey as the established star, and Diahann Carroll the up and coming star in the cast. Even with all that talent involved though, the show was a flop. So why even mention it?

The reason is that the songs survived and thrived. In particular, A Sleepin’ Bee became a standard, recorded by many jazz singers to this day. This version by Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley is a fine example of why the song survives. The song has both tender and playful aspects. Some singers perform it as a ballad, but this swinging version is closer to the tempo in the original version from the show.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sleepsongs: Sound-A-Sleep

Blondie headlined the first rock and roll concert I went to. It was an all-day bill that also held Duran Duran and Elvis Costello. Not a bad deal for $15 American, no?

I'd like to say that I fell asleep with Debbie dreams, later on that night, but I didn't. I was so tuckered out that I don't remember what my sleepy-time included. Over the next few months, though...

All my lawn-mowing money (hey! I was 13 - I got cash where I could) was sent to the Columbia Record And Tape Club... one of the lps I wore out, over the next couple years, was Eat To The Beat.

I love the placement of this song, on that album - 3rd to last. Lull us listeners into dreamy-land before finishing us off with what - to me, anyway - is a sweet 1-2 lullaby kiss-off to punk rock.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sleepsongs: (Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All


The 5th Dimension: (Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All


Are all of us SMMers nocturnal? Let me add my vote to the night owl category. Add the fact that I'm a female of a certain age notorious for sleeplessness. I sing this song wa-a-ay too much for my liking.

The 5th Dimension was an American pop vocal group that had many noteworthy hits in the late 60s and 70s. One key to their success was choosing some of the best songwriters of the day---Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Ashford & Simpson, Neil Sedaka, and especially Laura Nyro. They had more hits of Nyro's songs that she did herself. Just goes to show, if you start with the best you can't go wrong.

Sleepsongs: You Might As Well Go To Sleep / Sleeper

Greg Brown: You Might As Well Go To Sleep


Eliza Gilkyson: Sleeper (orig. Greg Brown)


As a chronicler of the human condition, Greg Brown is well-known for a particular emotional depth and wonder-at-the-world attitude which rests heavily on concrete, often wry imagery. He's strong in every life-stage, too, from death to parenthood, from hormone-crazed lust to love's end - and his deep signature growl only frames the journey all the better. Sleeper, which we hear here covered by his contemporary and labelmate Eliza Gilkyson, is a great example, running through a patient sequence of life's moments and metaphors verse by verse and stage by stage fluidly, like the streams and hills of his native rural Iowa.

But although Brown's songs of age increasingly resonate with me, my favorite parts of his songbook are those which take on the lens of parenthood in all its hopeful, aching glory. And where Say A Little Prayer - perhaps my favorite from his songbook - lulls us slowly through a sick child's love lullaby, on You Might As Well Go To Sleep, we get the other side of love: I love you, but it's late, and my job is to get you to let the day go and get some sleep, so let's get moving, already.

Both Say A Little Prayer and You Might As Well Go To Sleep, of course, reveal the father figure as deeply sensitive, caring and gentle, the dad each one of us yearns to be at his best moments. But like Sleeper, the former is pure poetry, while in his kiddie sleepsong, the long, repetitive language culminates in what amounts to a paragraph of highly recognizable too-wired-to-sleep kid language bounced back gently yet firmly from the bedside. That the punchline still doesn't break the tone of lighthearted, slightly exasperated poignancy is just one more piece of evidence for his genius - and one more perfectly articulated facet of the "how to live right" model which Greg Brown provides for us, over and over again.

The moral: though several of us have proselytized about him before, it's time to buy some Greg Brown. The whole catalog is solid, but if you, too, have kids or just know some, Greg Brown's Bathtub Blues, the 1993 kids album which today's track comes from, makes a wonderful addition to the library. And if you, too, love strong female singer-songwriters and coverage, it's worth noting that the Red House collection Going Driftless: An Artist’s Tribute to Greg Brown is on this coverblogger's eternal top ten.

Sleepsongs: Sleep Away Your Troubles

The Softies: Sleep Away Your Troubles


The Softies are what some might call the definition of the term "twee". Two girls, Rose Melberg and Jen Sbragia, of the Pacific Northwest who often wore babydoll dresses and sang sweet, delicate music using only two guitars that harmonized, as did their vocals. They sang of love and friendship and childhood memories all with an innocent beauty, and anything else that could leave you with a warm tingling feeling of nostalgia.

This song comes from their album "Holiday in Rhode Island". The song is lovely, but the subject matter heartbreaking. She sings about a lover potentially leaving her and feeling sad but wishing him sweet dreams as he sleeps away his troubles.

I choose this song after seeing the weather report yesterday and seeing that there's only one day in the next 7 with no chance for snow. I sort of wish we could do like the bears and just sleep until April and not have to worry about all this mess. Wouldn't that be nice?

Sleepsongs: Behind the Wall of Sleep

The Smithereens: Behind the Wall of Sleep


Just try to sleep to this one. The Smithereens play it loud. In the 1980s, someone felt the need to come up with term “power pop”, and it stuck. But, as far as I’m concerned, this one is rock n’ roll, pure and simple. Here is a guy dreaming of his perfect girl. She plays guitar in a rock band, and I’m hoping this wasn’t written about Joan Jett. In any case, there’s nothing profound about this song. It’s just a burst of lust fueled rock music, and one of the best examples of the genre I know.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sleepsongs: Sleepy Cowboy

The Five Sharps: Sleepy Cowboy

(No recordings in print, it seems)

This is the b-side of what is reputed to be the world’s most collectible record. The Five Sharps were a New York-based a vocal group – precursors of doo wop, really – that released only one record, in 1952.

The Five Sharps’ version of the standard Stormy Weather, backed with their original composition Sleepy Cowboy, was singularly unsuccessful. Indeed, to the members, just owning a copy of their single was a loss-maker: they had been paid for the recording in hot dogs and soda pop, but had to buy their single (Jubilee #5104).

The single was soon forgotten even by the few who had bought it. Fast forward a decade, and the notion of records as collectible items had started to take hold. One such collector, Billy Pensabene, in January 1962 lent the New York radio presenter Irving ‘Slim’ Rose his precious 78rpm copy of the Five Sharps solitary single – and Rose broke it by accident (there are various accounts of the record’s provenance and ruin; let’s stick to the most commonly told story). Lesser men would have shrugged their shoulders, and perhaps pay Pensabene a suitable amount of money in reparation. Rose, however, advertised for copies of the single, offering a handsome sum in compensation.

Weeks went by, and nobody came forward even as Rose increased the bounty from generous to crazy money. A visit to Jubilee Records with a view to re-pressing the single was fruitless: the masters had been destroyed in a fire (or perhaps water damage; as so often in such stories, the details change with every re-telling).

Jubilee had issued the single in both 78 and the new-fangled 45rpm formats. A few 78s are still circulation, but no 45 has ever resurfaced. A re-recording was produced by Rose in 1965; nobody really cared about that.

The highest price fetched for the single was $19,000 in a private sale in November 2003.

The story of how we are able to hear the b-side of what is said to be the world’s rarest single is quite long (and interesting). That, the full story of the Jubilee #5104 and the fate of the Five Sharps is recounted on Marv Goldberg’s fine R&B Notebook, from which we borrow the two illustrations.

Sleepsongs: I Like to Sleep Late in the Morning

David Bromberg Band: I Like to Sleep Late in the Morning


Like Boyhowdy, I am nocturnal, and like him, I should fix that for similar reasons. So this song seemed to me to be the perfect follow-up to his post. Sleeping late follows directly from being up too late, on a good day.

This song was released on a major label in 1975. Today, that could never happen. Sleep Late starts out sounding like a folk number with a hint of blues. Before it ends, there are gospel-inspired background vocals and Dixieland jazz instruments joining in. David Bromberg’s music of that period also had a strong rock element, but all of it was fair game, sometimes in the same song. Later in his career, Bromberg would also add Celtic folk to the mix. Bromberg is still out there performing, but he doesn’t record much any more. His most recent release, from 2008, was a live recording from 1982. He had a studio album in 2007, and the one before that was from 1990. So I’m hoping to get the chance to see him live one of these days. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Resolutions -> Sleepsongs: Go To Sleep

Sarah Harmer: Go To Sleep


I love this 2004 lullaby from Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer. But today it serves a stronger purpose, reminding me that of all the resolutions I've ever made regularly -from quitting smoking to spending more time with my children - the one that ultimately would make the biggest difference in my life would be going to sleep earlier.

Being naturally nocturnal runs in my family: I have strong childhood memories of my siblings, my father and I all drifting through the house like ghosts until the wee hours of the morning, when exhaustion finally overtook us. But my chosen vocation calls me to consciousness when the world is still dark, and the combination of those two elements - up late and up early - means that most nights, I get four or five hours of sleep, tops.

As a result, I often find myself struggling to stay awake in the afternoons, most dangerously and famously on my drive home each afternoon. Naps help, a bit, and I tend to crash on the couch a few days a week before supper, though it means being out of it for those few precious hours when I could otherwise be with my kids before their own bedtimes. But the fundamental problem remains: I'm a mess, in person, and I owe it all to sleeplessness.

I know that even an hour more a night would ease this process immensely. I know that I'm not my best self most of the time; know, too, that a lack of sleep strains the heart, shortening my lifespan. But try as I might, I can't get my butt off the couch and into bed until midnight or afterwards most nights. And each year, as I resolve to do better, I know in my heart of hearts that it's a losing proposition to promise myself that someday, I'm going to get it right.

Note the time on this post, folks. It's Saturday night, sure. But that's no excuse. I should be sleeping. And I probably could be, too, if I weren't so fatalistic, and so stubborn about it.