David Lynch on Music

•May 5, 2014 • 5 Comments

David Lynch on Music.

David Lynch, photographed at Soho in West Hollywood

David Lynch in West Hollywood; photo by Paul Zollo.

Words & Photos by PAUL ZOLLO

Though famous forever as one of the greatest and most prolific directors of movies Hollywood and the world has ever known, David Lynch is also a long-time musician, guitarist and songwriter. Not only did he collaborate intimately with the great composer Angelo Badalamenti on the scores to many of his classic films and “Twin Peaks” too, he’s one of the few directors in history – along with Charlie Chaplin – to compose music for his own films, including Wild at Heart and Mulholland Drive.

A guitarist who plays “upside down and backwards, like a lap guitar,” he has as much passion for what is heard as what is seen, and like all great artists, also recognizes the mystery and beauty in what is unheard and unseen, delighting in the bridges humans build to connect these realms.

So when he released the beautifully mysterious musical journey known as Crazy Clown Time, we asked for an interview with the man himself about music. And he said yes. Music, like movies, he explained, “all starts with the idea.” It’s a journey of discovery, about which he happily expounded in that reedy, distinctive, humble and humorous voice, the voice of a man in love with art.

BLUERAILROAD: Does your musical journey start in the same way that you approach creating a movie?

DAVID LYNCH: Yes. The discovery is in ideas, whether it’s ideas for a song, a film, a painting. Ideas are hiding in there, in the big within. Lots of ideas come, but once in awhile one comes and you fall in love. It can be a big idea or a small idea, but you focus on it, and it becomes magically attractive and it brings other ideas in to join with it.

Ideas are like women. You can go down the street and many, many women are going by. But one day you’re going down the street and you see one of them, and you can hardly stand. You need to sit down or you’ll fall down. And you’re in love. And when you’re in love, that’s a great, great, great feeling.

Everything comes from this unified field within. Ideas are floating like fish. Desire for an idea is like a bait on a hook. If you desire an idea, it pulls and it makes a kind of a bait. Ideas will come swimming up. And you don’t know them until they enter the conscious mind. And then bingo! There it is! You know it instantly. And then more come in. If you go fishing for ideas, a lot of ideas will just pop in. And one of them will make you fall in love.

Ideas are what take me to one thing or another. If you get ideas that you fall in love with about furniture, then you’ll wake up and go to the wood shop. They direct you where to go.

Are you always able to tap into this source of ideas? Or does even the Lynch well sometimes run dry?

Of course. That is the hardest part.

When you’re without an idea, when you’re in the wasteland and the desert, it’s torturous. You know that love is out there but you’re not finding it. And so you don’t know how long it’s gonna be before you find it, and you try different things, and nothing’s working. But sometimes the desert gets smaller and smaller and you find an oasis.

Music is abstract. When you listen to music, a multitude of things happen in your mind and in your heart. Songs are little stories. A feature film is more complex; it’s more like a symphony in many movements. It has different speeds. It has to hold people for a couple more hours.

You’ve made art in almost every media. Where did you start?

I started as a painter. Painting led to cinema, and that led to still photography and more painting and to sound. Starting to work with Angelo Badalamenti on Blue Velvet, I got more involved with music, and built my own studio to experiment with sound. That got more musical and led to music. The world of music is a magical thing.

For this album, Crazy Clown Time, where did you start? Did you write these songs first before the recording, or were they born in the studio? 

To compose this music, I worked with Big Dean Hurley and we jammed, with me on guitar, and sometimes Dean on bass or another guitar or on drums. If you start off with a certain beat and a certain sound on the guitar, it’s gonna put you on a certain road. And when you go down that road, you can discover things. This is how it starts. There’s a lot of crap. But then there’s a few nuggets of gold.

The composed scores of your films, and on “Twin Peaks,” have  been very beautiful and tuneful. Whereas many film composers and fans feel film scores should not be too melodic, so as not to detract or  overwhelm, the scores composed by Badalementi for your work, and your own scores, are very melodic – beautifully so- and majestic. 

Yes. I love melody. I was very lucky to meet Angelo [Badalamenti]. In movies, there is music that is not melodious, but it’s setting a mood and a very special feel. And then there’s music that has a melody that can tear your heart out, and Angelo can do both of those things. He writes music that can pull your heartstrings like crazy.

I know it’s a hard question to answer, because music is, as you said – abstract – but is there any way of explaining what makes a melody great?

A great melody flows in such a way that you are almost anticipating the next note with such yearning that you can hardly wait. If there’s a wrong thing in the way, it breaks it and it’s just a horror story. But if you feel it moving, and it keeps moving the way you want, you just love the way it’s moving. Then it will move and grow and then it can hit something where there’s a collision that almost destroys you with the beauty of it.


I love your song “Good Day Today,” which has a charming melody. How was that one born?

“Good Day Today” came from the line “I want to have a good day today.”  It’s a yearning. First it was words, and then almost like a shadow of that was a tune. Then the verses came. It was that thing of being so tired of the negative.

Do you have any favorite songs? And, if so, can you name a few? 

 I love so many songs. “Heartbreak Hotel.” “Sound of Silence.” Paul Simon is an absolute genius. I love Buddy Holly, John Lee Hooker, Everly Brothers, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix.

For a song to be a great, there’s two things: It’s the song and the way it’s sung. It’s the story and the way the story it’s told. It’s always two things. Both of those things have got to be as close to 100%. Sometimes somebody hits them and they’re both 100 fucking percent ! And that’s the best of all.

Lynch at Ringo Starr's Birthday Bash at Capitol Records, July, 2014, raising money for the David Lynch Foundation. Photo by PAUL ZOLLO.

Lynch at Ringo Starr’s Birthday Bash at Capitol Records, July, 2014, raising money for the David Lynch Foundation. Photo by Paul Zollo. 

In 2005, Mr. Lynch, a longtime proponent of Transcendental Meditation, founded the David Lynch Foundation, which is doing wonderful work around the world, based on his idea that it would be good for mankind to teach TM to children and adults around the world.  They are working every day to effect change in the world, from America to Africa, in our military, our prisons, for our native Americans, for the armies of homeless all through America, for children everywhere, and much more. The following is a message from Lynch about this mission:

“I started Transcendental Meditation in 1973 and have not missed a single meditation ever since. Twice a day, every day. It has given me effortless access to unlimited reserves of energy, creativity and happiness deep within. This level of life is sometimes called “pure consciousness”—it is a treasury. And this level of life is deep within us all.

But I had no idea how powerful and profound this technique could be until I saw firsthand how it was being practiced by young children in inner-city schools, veterans who suffer the living hell of post-traumatic stress disorder and women and girls who are victims of terrible violence.

TM is, in a word, life changing for the good.

In 2005, we started the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace to ensure that every child anywhere in the world who wanted to learn to meditate could do so. Now, the Foundation is actively teaching TM to adults and children in countries everywhere.

How are we able to do it? Because of the generosity of foundations and philanthropists and everyday people who want to ease the suffering of others—and who want to help create a better world.

If you don’t already meditate, take my advice: Start. It will be the best decision you ever make.”

For more information:

The David Lynch Foundation

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In Memory of Mickey Rooney

•April 7, 2014 • Leave a Comment

In Memory of Mickey

Mickey Rooney
1920 – 2014

Mickey Rooney Waving Goodbye. May 17, 2013, behind Musso & Frank's in Hollywood.

Mickey Rooney Waving Goodbye. May 17, 2013, behind Musso & Frank’s.

Words & Photos by PAUL ZOLLO

Mickey Rooney died last night. His career spanned almost the entire life of the movies themselves. Like Buster Keaton, he got his start as an infant in vaudeville – at 17 months already used in slapstick routines – and he made his first movie appearance in 1926, in the heart of the silent era. He became one of the greatest movie stars ever in Hollywood, eternally beloved and linked in our mind’s and hearts with Judy Garland, his childhood partner.

I met him twice. When I was working on my book Hollywood Remembered, I wanted very much to interview him, along with many of his friends who I interviewed for their memories of old Hollywood. I attended a memorial service for Stanley Kramer in February, 2001 at the Director’s Guild on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. And there was Mickey. Okay, I recognized this wasn’t the ideal venue for a meeting – the funeral of a friend. But I approached him anyway, when he was leaving, out in the glaring sunshine on Sunset Boulevard. He scowled at my attempt, and walked away.

But that was my fault. Though he was only in his 80s then, and had years to go, it was an inopportune time for such an attempt. But I was redeemed on May 17, 2013, when Mickey joined famous friends like Jane Withers and Buzz Aldrin at a 95th birthday party for their friend, and mine, A.C. Lyles. A.C., who was friends with most people in Hollywood, was friends with everyone in Hollywood from Johnny Depp through Ronald Reagan. That Mickey would show was evidence of A.C.’s adoration.

We were at Musso & Frank’s Grill, the ideal venue for a classic Hollywood party as it is the most legendary restaurant in town, a place of great history and also present-day greatness. And people waited patiently for the chance to talk with Mickey, and to have a moment with this great legend.

I will admit I annoyed him by taking too many photos with my bright flash flashing, but in the company of Hollywood greatness I want to not take any chances of missing a great photograph.

I took several when Mickey was talking to Adolph Zukor, Jr., the son of the founder of Paramount, and Mickey’s face shone with joy at early memories. Though he was most famous for his MGM movies, he spent a lot of time among the Zukors at Paramount.

A.C. Lyles & Mickey at A.C.'s 95th birthday party.

A.C. Lyles & Mickey at A.C.’s 95th birthday party.

When it was time to go and the party was over, he went out the back of Musso’s, and sat down in a lawn chair there as he waited for his car and driver. It was my chance. I asked him if I could take a photo, and he said okay, though he didn’t smile. I then told him what I know to be true – that he is the greatest star of all.

He smiled brightly at this, and clearly liked that someone so many decades younger than him recognized who he was, and why he mattered. “Who do you work for?” he asked, and I told him about my book, and my love of Hollywood history, and I had my moment with Mickey. “It’s a history gone by fast,” he said with sad wonder.

When I big him goodbye, I raised my camera in the universal sign for “Can i take one more photo?” and he smiled that famous, million dollar smile, that smile that has cheered movie screens since before movies could talk. And he waved goodbye.

Statement from Mickey Rooney’s family:

“Mickey passed away from natural causes at the age of 93. Two years ago he requested through the Superior Court to permanently reside with his son Mark Rooney and Mark’s wife Charlene. With them he finally found happiness, health and a feeling of safety and was able to enjoy life again. In an effort to provide Mickey with a better life, Mark and Charlene reunited him with both old and new friends. Even someone of Mickey’s iconic statue was quite star struck and was extremely thrilled to attend Vanity Fair’s Oscar party recently. Just last week Mickey was ecstatic when they surprised him by reuniting him with one of his great loves, the race track. There they spent time with Mel Brooks and Dick Van Patten. He had exceptional care and a new lease on life. Recently, Mickey was proud to be part of Night at the Museum 3 with Ben Stiller. He had the time of his life and the utmost respect for the cast and crew. Mickey was finally enjoying life as a bachelor and the morning of his death they spoke of all their future plans. He loved the business he was in and had a great respect for his fellow actors. He led a full life but did not have enough time to finish all he had planned to do.”

He was born Joe Yule Jr. on September 23, 1920 in Brooklyn, New York. He first took the stage as a toddler in his parents’ vaudeville act at 17 months old. He made his first film appearance in 1926. The following year, he played the lead character in the first Mickey McGuire short film. It was in this popular film series that he took the stage name Mickey Rooney. Rooney reached new heights in 1937 with A Family Affair, the film that introduced the country to Andy Hardy, the popular all-American teenager. This beloved character appeared in nearly 20 films and helped make Rooney the top star at the box office in 1939, 1940 and 1941. Rooney also proved himself an excellent dramatic actor as a delinquent in Boys Town starring Spencer Tracy. In 1938, he was awarded a juvenile Academy Award.

Teaming up with Judy Garland, Rooney also appeared in a string of musicals, including Babes in Arms (1939) the first teenager to be nominated for an Oscar in a leading role,Strike up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941), andGirl Crazy (1943). He and Garland immediately became best of friends. “We weren’t just a team, we were magic,” Rooney once said. During that time he also appeared with Elizabeth Taylor in the now classic National Velvet (1944). Rooney joined the service that same year, where he helped to entertain the troops and worked on the American Armed Forces Network. He returned to Hollywood after 21 months in Love Laughs at Andy Hardy (1946), did a remake of a Robert Taylor film, The Crowd Roars called Killer McCoy (1947) and portrayed composer Lorenz Hart in Words and Music (1948). He also appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. Rooney played Hepburn’s Japanese neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi. A sign of the times, Rooney played the part for comic relief which he later regretted feeling the role was offensive. He once again showed his incredible range in the dramatic role of a boxing trainer with Anthony Quinn and Jackie Gleason in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). In the late 1960s and 1970s Rooney showed audiences and critics alike why he was one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars. He gave an impressive performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film The Black Stallion, which brought him an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. He also turned to the stage in 1979 in Sugar Babies with Ann Miller, and was nominated for a Tony Award. During that time he also portrayed the Wizard in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with Eartha Kitt at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which also had a successful run nationally.

Rooney appeared in four television series’: The Mickey Rooney Show (1954-1955), a comedy sit-com in 1964 with Sanunee Tong called Mickey, One of the Boys in 1982 with Dana Carvey and Nathan Lane, and the Adventures of the Black Stallion from 1990-1993. In 1981, Rooney won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of a mentally challenged man in Bill. The critical acclaim continued to now for the veteran performer, with Rooney receiving an honorary Academy Award “in recognition of his 60 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances”. More recently he has appeared in such films asNight at the Museum (2006) with Ben Stiller, and The Muppets (2011) with Amy Adams and Jason Segel.

His personal life, including his frequent trips to the altar, has proven to be just as epic as his on-screen performances. His first wife was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, actress Ava Gardner. Mickey permanently and legally separated from his eighth wife Jan in June of 2012. In 2011 Rooney filed elder abuse and fraud charges against stepson Christopher Aber and Aber’s wife. At Rooney’s request, the Superior Court issued a restraining order against the Abers demanding they stay 100 yards from Rooney, Mickey’s stepson Mark Rooney and Mark’s wife Charlene. Just prior, Rooney mustered the strength to break his silence and appeared before the Senate in Washington D.C. telling of his own heartbreaking story of abuse in an effort to live a peaceful, full life and help others who may also be suffering in silence.

He requested through the Superior Court to permanently reside with his son Mark (a musician) and Charlene Rooney (an artist) in the Hollywood Hills.

When news of his death swept through Hollywood and the world, his friends remembered Mickey.

Liza Minnelli: “Mickey was somebody that everybody loved, but to me he was part of the family. He was one of a kind, and will be admired and respected always.”

Rose Marie: “Showbiz has just lost one of the great talents that our industry has ever had. We were very good friends. I shall miss him and the world will miss him.”

Carol Channing: “I loved working with Mickey on Sugar Babies. He was very professional, his stories were priceless and I love them all … each and every one. We laughed all the time.”

Rip Taylor: “Mickey was such a friend and pro, that he even gave me advice, when I replaced him inSugar Babies. … As if it could ever be possible to replace Mickey. It was the treat of my life, to receive tips from the great Mickey Rooney.”

Margaret O’Brien: “Mickey was the only one at the studio that was ever allowed to call me Maggie. He was undoubtedly the most talented actor that ever lived. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Singing, dancing, performing … all with great expertise. Mickey made it look so easy. I was currently doing a film with him, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – I simply can’t believe it. He seemed fine through the filming and was as great as ever.”


Mickey Rooney at 23

Legends of Songwriting: Hoagy Carmichael

•April 1, 2014 • Leave a Comment


Inside the Stardust 

 Hoagy 1


Hoagy Carmichael once said that he didn’t write “Stardust,” he found it. “[I felt] that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me,” he said.  “Maybe I didn’t write it at all.“  This quality – that a song is not an invention but a discovery – is a sensation many songwriters of recent generations, such as Paul Simon and Bob Dylan,  have described. But it’s not the general thinking of those from Hoagy’s time, those Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths who shared Sammy Cahn’s famous sentiment that inspiration  comes not from a muse, but from a phone call. Songs in that era were written on assignment; contrived, crafted and delivered in quick order. Hoagy didn’t do it like that. And for that reason the miraculous melodies that he “found,” such as “Stardust,” flow with a natural, unfettered, organic beauty that few other songwriters have ever captured.

Hoagy wrote music, and left the writing of the words to some of the greatest lyricists America has known, such as Frank Loesser and Johnny Mercer. But while the wordsmiths were mostly content to stay in the background, Hoagy always had the urge to perform his own songs.  Though popular music then divided singers and songwriters into two separate camps, Hoagy was the first to belong to both groups,  a true singer-songwriter long before American had ever experienced such a phenomenon.

He described his singing style, which is not unlike that of a father singing gently to a child, as “flatsy through the nose.” It’s an apt description, and one of the reasons people loved him.  As Smithsonian music curator John Edward Hasse said, “His singing style made him seem like one of the people… His songs appealed to all sections of American society — from the Wall Street broker to the sharecropper farmer. He was a musical democrat.”

That dynamic also can be found in the universal quality of his musical expression, which generated tunes so ingrained in the American memory that it seems they have simply always been with us. “Heart and Soul,” for example, which every beginning piano student learns right around “Chopsticks” time, was written by him, as were so many other classics of the American songbook, including “Rockin’ Chair,” “The Nearness of You,” “Skylark,” “Georgia On My  Mind, ” “Two Sleepy People,” and his most popular song ever, “Stardust,” which has been recorded more than a thousand times, by singers as diverse as Pat Boone, Willie Nelson, Louie Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Liberace, Barry Manilow, Ringo Starr, Frank Sinatra, and Los Hombres Calientes, to name only a handful.

Hoagy’s music fused the timeless aspects of American folk and jazz to create a new kind of American song which had never been heard before. “No one would mistake his songs for those of Gershwin or Porter or any other songwriter,” wrote Hasse. “While there is no single Carmichael `sound,’ his songs nonetheless sound like him. His melodies are strong and distinctive, they move to unusual intervals, cover a wide range, and display the instrumental influence of jazz. Most have few repeated notes, and travel an unpredictable path…  And that’s one reason why so many of them have remained with us for decades.”

The legendary Johnny Mercer, with whom Hoagy wrote 36 songs, miraculously managed to match with words the simple complexities of the American folksy jazz intrinsic to Hoagy’s tunes. So immediate  and charged was their creative connection that the first song they attempted together, “Lazybones,” took all of twenty minutes to complete.

“[His] music is… American,” Mercer said. “It’s home-stuff. It sounds like the South. Like Indiana. Like any other place we used to know. Hoagy is self-taught, and his chords and melodies are unique. He doesn’t borrow except from himself. Rhythm is a part of him, which is more than a lot of us can claim.”

He was born Hoagland Howard Carmichael in Bloomington, Indiana on November 22, 1899. His dad was an electrician, and his mom played piano at parties and for silent movies. It’s from her that Hoagy inherited his love of the instrument, which she encouraged, but certainly never as a profession. She hoped her son could have a better life than that of a lowly musician, and urged him to become a lawyer.  She mastered Scott Joplin’s famous “Maple  Leaf Rag,” which was written the same year Hoagy was born, providing the context for his famous quote, “Ragtime was my lullaby.” Well-aware of his professional inclinations, she told him, “Music is fun, Hoagland, but it don’t buy you cornpone.”

Hoagy 2

But there was no stopping him. His had an almost insatiable hunger to hear and play music of all kinds, and he would go anywhere, places both sacred and profane, to find it.  His Sunday mornings, for example, would begin in a series of churches, where he’d happily bask in the rich soul of down-home gospel music for hours. From there he’d head to a local carnival or circus, if one was in town – to hear the ragtime and jazz bands there. By sunset he could usually be found sitting in with bands at  little restaurants, bars and  brothels.

When his family moved to Indianapolis in 1916, his mother changed Hoagy’s life forever by allowing him to get piano lessons from ragtime virtuoso Reginald DuValle, whose instruction gave Hoagy a foundation in  stride and jazz that forever seasoned his own music.  “Never play anything that ain’t right,” Duvalle told him.  “You may not make a lot of money. But you’ll never get hostile with yourself.”

Hoagy attended Indiana University to study law. But like Cole Porter,  who also studied law before devoting himself to songwriting, Hoagy discovered that his hunger to make music was only intensifying. Befriending the legendary  jazz cornetistBix Beiderbecke in 1922, Hoagy saw first-hand that a life in music could be a lot more exciting and lucrative than his mother ever dreamed. He took a shot that paid off – writing a song targeted directly for Bix and the band he played with, The Wolverines. “Riverboat Shuffle” was one of the first songs Hoagy ever wrote, as rhythmically propulsive as it was sweetly melodic, and the group loved it. Within a month it was recorded, released, and on the radio, and it became the Hoagy’s first hit. The first of many.

His next recorded song was “Washboard Blues,” cut by Red Nichols in 1927. Though Hoagy was still studying law at the time, hearing that song the first time on the radio was the impetus he needed to devote himself totally to songwriting. It proved to be a good choice, as one of the next melodies that Hoagy “found” became one of America’s most famous and beloved songs, “Stardust.”

In his autobiography, The Stardust Road (which proved he could be as melodious with a pen as with a piano), Hoagy preserved for all time the genesis of this special song:

 “It was a hot night, sweet with the death of summer andthe hint and promise of fall. A waiting night, a night marking time, the end of a season. The stars were bright, close to me, and the North Star hung over the trees… The town and the university and the friends I had there flooded through my mind… All the girls young and lovely…

But most of them had gone their ways.Gone as I’d gone mine.

I looked up at the sky and whistled `Stardust.’”

From The Stardust Road
By Hoagy Carmichael

On Halloween of 1927, Hoagy became the first of more than a thousand artists to record “Stardust.” His was an uptempo solo piano rendition. It was songwriter/bandleader Isham Jones who first recorded it in a much slower ballad tempo, which is the way it’s usually performed. The words by Mitchell Parish were added after both of these records were released, and yet matched the arc of the melody so perfectly it seems as if both were conceived simultaneously. Though Parish wrote many other famous songs, he said, “`Stardust’ is in a class by itself.”

Hoagy moved to Manhattan in 1929, quickly inserting himself into a thriving jazz scene that also included Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Beiderbecke, and Glenn Miller. Not  only did they enjoy his company, they also started cutting his songs, including “Rockin’ Chair,” “Georgia On My Mind,”  “Lazy River,” and “Lazybones.”

Hoagy drifted away from the jazz community after Bix’s death, and started spending more time in the Broadway corridors of Tin Pan Alley, collaborating with a score of gifted wordsmiths, including Mercer, Loesser,  Ned Washington , and Paul Francis Webster.  It was then that Hollywood came calling, and in the forties Hoagy not only became a staff songwriter at Paramount, but also began appearing in a string of movies. Starting with his sweetly laconic appearance playing the keys for Lauren Bacall in To Have And Have Not, which also starred Bogie, Hoagy soon became an iconic fixture at the piano in films such as Johnny Angel (1945), The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946), and Young Man With A Horn (1950) and others. “He was everybody’s favorite sidekick,”  Owen McNally wrote, “…as much in the American grain as Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper.”

Despite the international renown that came his way, Hoagy always remained the folksy, unassuming guy from Indiana. “When we were growing up in our house on Sunset Boulevard,” said Hoagy’s son, Hoagy Bix Carmichael, “we had absolutely no frame of reference for being famous. My dad and mom were from the Midwest. We considered ourselves to be `homegrown.’ My dad’s phone number was still listed in the book when he died in 1981.”

Throughout the forties and into the fifties Hoagy continued writing  the beautifully-crafted songs that made him famous, and in ’51 created yet another classic with Mercer, “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.” By the sixties, though, he  felt cast aside, as did most songwriters of his era, by rock and roll, and turned away from popular music to write two orchestral works, “Brown County In Autumn,”  and  “Johnny Appleseed.” But with little enthusiasm from the public for this music, he started spending less time at the piano and more on the golf course. The last years of his life were spent in Palm Springs, where he died on December 27, 1981.

His ongoing significance as an American songwriter was already a given during his lifetime, and has continued to expand exponentially. In 1999, the centennial of his birth, retrospectives of his life coincided with retrospectives of the century, an era enriched immeasurably by his work. When Paul McCartney was asked to list his top ten favorite songs of the 20th century, he put “Stardust” near the top of a list that also included two songs by John Lennon, and one by George Harrison.

New and old collections of Hoagy’s songs have been recently released, including The Great Jazz Vocalists Sing Hoagy Carmichael (Capitol Jazz), which features Nat King Cole’s timeless rendition of “Stardust,” and also singers from Dinah Shore to Cassandra Wilson. Hoagy Sings Carmichael With the Pacific Jazzmen (Pacific Jazz) was recorded in 1956, and features Hoagy’s poignantly off-key vocals set against a great jazz backdrop arranged by Johnny Mandel, and featuring classic players such as Art Pepper and Harry “Sweets” Edison. Both are ideal avenues into the timeless songs of Hoagy Carmichael, songs which have never stopped celebrating and enriching the real heart and soul of America.





Review: Paul Zollo at Martyrs

•March 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment


Martyrs 1
Paul Zollo at Martyrs

With special guests

Chicago, Illinois
March 10, 2014

Publishers Note: Never before has Bluerailroad published reviews of a performance by its editor and co-founder Paul Zollo. But as one of his oldest friends, who understands that his music means everything to him,  I insisted. He came around fairly quickly.  Thank you to Richard Klein and Ned Layton for their kind reviews.
-Henry Crinkle, Publisher
Atuona, Hiva ‘Oa, French Polynesia

martyrs 2

It was my first opportunity to see Paul perform in person. Chicago was truly the beneficiary last night. Surrounded by family, friends, fans, it felt like you were invited to someone’s home and at a most congenial party. Martyrs was a fine venue; good seating and hearing from almost any seat. Paul sings — mostly original songs, tells stories both in song and anecdote, shares with colleagues: with Paul’s niece’s boyfriend Jared Rabin on the violin and mandolin. I’m glad I got a “ear view” Saturday night on the live broadcast [on WFMT's Folkstage]. But it was a nice prelude to Monday at Martyrs. Well, I don’t want to do is write a review… but what a lovely night. The song may have ended, but the melody lingers on… –Richard Klein


I have his album Orange Avenue and his big book on songwriters [Songwriters On Songwriting], but I’d never seen Paul Zollo perform live. But for the first time in decades, I believe, he returned to my home-town, which is also his home-town, as I discovered. And through a set of mostly beautiful and lyrical originals, including many written with the great Darryl Purpose, he peppered the crowd with funny and poignant anecdotes about growing up in the Chicago area, and learning his craft at local clubs like The Spot in Evanston, and Somebody Else’s Troubles here on Lincoln Ave. The legendary Steve Goodman, he said, gave him his first songwriting lesson, backstage after a concert, when he listened to one of the young Paul’s songs, and told him bluntly that it didn’t make much sense, and he “could have written the whole thing in one line.” It was harsh criticism, Zollo said, but it helped him aim higher – towards that realm where Goodman and Prine and Michael Smith dwell.

And he got there. At Martyrs Monday night, to a packed crowd that seemed more reverent than the usual gang here on rock nights, he sang, with great clarity and heart, songs that touched on a surprising range of topics, from classic songwriters like Muddy Waters and Leiber & Stoller, to Edgar Allen Poe, the legend of Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles, and his love for his son. He also did a song he wrote with another legendary Steve – the late Steve Allen – a beautiful old-fashioned song with “adult chords” that resounded like a lost standard.  Thankfully he performed the beautiful “Being In This World,” which he recorded as a duet with Art Garfunkel on Orange Avenue. Joined onstage by Jared Rabin, a violin-mandolin virtuoso  (the leader of Chicago’s great Falldown), they played as if they had been touring together for years. They did a surprisingly sweet version of John Lennon’s “Help,” slowing down its famous melody to wring pure passion. A funny dark blues erupted, and for the encore a very sweet version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” on which Rabin soared into an inspired Stephane Grappeli-tinged solo. It was a happy night. Here’s hoping Zollo returns to his home-town more often. – Ned Layton

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Review: Simon & Sting at the Forum

•February 16, 2014 • 2 Comments

Simon and Sting

Los Angeles, February 15, 2014.

Simon Sting 1


At first thought it seemed a divergent coupling – Simon and Sting, obviously both tremendous songwriters, each with a formidable and timeless body of work. But together? Would that work? Some people suggested that Sting was a true rock star, whereas Mr. Simon was a folkie, and would be hopelessly outshone.

But as time has shown, Paul Simon moves from triumph to triumph, and last night at the Forum was a new chapter of joy in one of America’s most remarkable songwriting stories.

In fact, Simon rocked as hard as Sting. And Sting showed his gentle side too – career-wise, he was embracing softer textures just as Simon began experimenting with global rhythms – and so a ballad like “Fields of Gold” emerged, as melodically poignant as a Paul Simon song.

Those in the know know that Simon and Sting had been neighbors for years in the same Central Park West building, and were friends. But what would happen if they merged their shows?

The answer is a sum much bigger than its two astounding parts. Not only did they weave their sets together, often trading verses and harmonizing, they melded their bands. So there were two drummers often – and even two bassists (Simon’s longstanding Graceland genius, Bakhiti Kumalo – and Sting, who played bass on most of his songs). So we had 18 musicians on stage – drummers, percussion, many guitarists (especially the saintly Vince Nguini, whose rich electric guitar lines and textures add a whole dimension rarely attempted, let alone heard), singers, a horn section, a violinist-mandolinist, keys – and Simon’s Swiss Army Knife of a multi-instrumentalist Mark Stewart, who played slide and regular guitar (wonderful on “Graceland” especially) as well as baritone sax, cello, and penny-whistle.

Simon seemed especially happy, and was funny from the start. After a spirited opening of Sting’s “Brand New Day” morphing into Simon’s “Boy In The Bubble,” Paul said, “Welcome to our experiment. As time goes on, I am sure we will become even more like each other. Soon I will also have the body of Adonis, and have sex for weeks at a time.”

He also welcomed the audience to the newly-opened and refurbished Forum, former home of the Lakers, by saying, “This is great here. I expect to see Magic Johnson and Jack Nicholson right in front.” (More on the Forum follows.)

More than anything, what came across was a tremendous mutual respect. Simon has only done this kind of tour – sharing the spotlight – once before, with a guy named Dylan. Who is known for being a rather great songwriter. When Paul and Bob sang together, as they did on “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and other songs, it was Paul – just like Joan Baez used to do – trying to match Dylan’s unpredictable phrasing. It was fun to hear, and funny – but not great music.

Whereas Paul and Sting, well, you could tell these guys practiced. They joined their spirits musically with seamless soul, enlivened by the greatness of each other’s material. Sting sang beautiful and perfect harmony on “The Boxer,” one of the most famous two-part harmony songs of all time, and also took on Artie Garfunkel’s famous soaring beauty on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” easily nailing the dramatically stratospheric ending.

Paul added his sweet tenor to “Fields of Gold,” which flowed with great wistful beauty, and also inserted his Simon shine into “Every Breath You Take,” which like a lot of Sting songs, appears at first to be lyrically simpler than it is, hiding in its tunefulness an ominous mystery.

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As Simon once told me, he’s long been considered a folksinger “because of proximity to an acoustic guitar.” And it’s true that few songwriters have ever touched the folky, gentle heart of some of his finest songs, such as “The Boxer”. But if last night showed us anything, it’s that Simon has steadily been accumulating an astonishing collection of upbeat songs, work as invigorating and uplifting as any, starting back with the mysterious ska dimensions of “Mother and Child Reunion” (one of the first reggae-tinged tracks ever to touch American pop radio, long before Sting employed similar rhythms with The Police), “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” (with its intoxicating martial drum groove, as invented by Steve Gadd), “Late In The Evening” (maybe his best song ever about the sheer power of music itself, emboldened by its great groove and New York-Latin horn exhortations), and “Me and Julio” – which is both sweet and undeniable. 

Add to that a chain of songs from his landmark Graceland, including the great title song, plus “Diamonds On The Soles of My Shoes” (which got the audience crazy with elation), “Boy In The Bubble” (with its big bass drum slams linked to portentous minor-key accordion and one of Simon’s most modern and timeless lyrics, “…these are the days of miracle and wonder,” indeed), the New Orleans temporal gumbo of “That Was Your Mother,” and, of course, “You Can Call Me Al,” which is just pure fun – though always with the Simon genius blending, as he explained, colloquial and enriched language, so that in the same song we get “A man walks down a street” like the opening of an old joke, to  the promise of “angels spinning in infinity.”

We also unexpectedly got the opening song of The Rhythm of the Saints, “The Obvious Child,” with its enigmatic linking of baseball and Christianity. “The cross is in the ballpark…” And as a special gift to his fans who adored one of his lesser known masterpieces, Hearts and Bones, he played a brilliantly sweet rendition of that title song, with its famous bi-coastal, duo-religious opening: “One and one-half wandering Jews/free to wander wherever they choose…” 

And he also gave us “Still Crazy After All These Years,” with its breathtaking chromatic bridge and famous soaring sax solo.

Sting spoke of being humbled by the sheer magnitude of Simon’s work, which was a touching tribute coming from this fellow giant. He then launched into his own successive masterpieces, new and old. “Fragile,” with its worldly melodics and tender humanity, was an ideal duet with Simon, who embraced its spirit like one of his own. And though Sting eluded several of his biggest solo hits, such as “If You Love Somebody,” he did dip into Police days with “Message In A Bottle,” and “Roxanne,” and also gave us a gorgeous turn on “Driven To Tears.”

He said that, like a lot of Brits, he often yearned to write American country songs, and felt validated in this pursuit when Johnny Cash recorded his song “Hang Your Head.” It was a revelation, visceral in an odd time signature that was hypnotic. But perhaps Sting’s most exhilarating performance was his “Desert Rose,” with its Turkish, Middle-eastern melodics – a kind of world music even Paul Simon hasn’t utilized- and his band on fire, whirling in the ecstatic dervish of this extraordinary song.

Sting spoke about the baby days of The Police, when they drove through all of America in a little car, staying in cheap motels, playing to mostly empty clubs. The mystery, sorrow and joy of those days, he said, were best expressed by Simon in his classic “America,” which Sting then sang himself, to a breezy tempo on an acoustic guitar.

Like the recent Beatles show and special, the big question here was just how will they end this – what is the conclusion to such a momentous opus? It was the song many consider Simon’s greatest, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” with Sting valiantly taking over the Garfunkel passion as if he’s sung it his whole life. Standing ovation.

And then, after the last band number, with the huge ensemble joining at stage front and then dissembling, Simon and Sting remained, and did one last song – just the two of them – acoustic. It was a tribute to a man who Simon said was both a great friend, and an idol, Phil Everly: “When Will I Be Loved?” with Simon and Sting joining their voices in perfect and poignant harmony. It was a simple and stunning closer to an extraordinary night.

The new Forum was mostly great – beautifully fresh and refurbished inside, with excellent sound (especially by the third song, when the lead vocals got dialed in right).

The only drawback to the place – and it’s a big one – is that for some reason, unlike the similarly immense Staples with its many exit doors on many sides – this had very few exits, so that the gargantuan crowd had to squeeze very slowly through long winding corridors, not unlike sheep to the slaughter,  at a snail’s pace, before finally ascending stairs to eventual freedom. As many crowded in this crowd soberly noted, were there (God forbid) a fire, earthquake or other occurrence that would require fast evacuation, it would be impossible, and result in a disaster of vast proportions. How fire Marshalls ever approved this plan is staggering. This would be problematic anywhere, but especially here in earthquake country where such an exit could become urgently necessary at any moment; it’ egregious and hard to fathom. Forum folks – before there is a terrible accident – open more doors please!

But it wasn’t enough to diminish the impact of this momentous show, this great melding of music by two of the world’s finest songwriters and singers. Paul and Sting seemed to have as much fun as we did. And that was infectious. We got three solid hours of amazing material, performed by two true pros with a small army of world-class musicians. It was a joyful night, a triumphant one, and a great reminder that even in our techno-world, nothing can touch the greatness of real musicians joining together on great songs. Rejoice.

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Legends of Music: Les Brown

•February 13, 2014 • 4 Comments

On A Sentimental Journey with Les



Gonna take a sentimental journey,
Gonna set my heart at ease.
Gonna make a sentimental journey,
to renew old memories.

From “Sentimental Journey”
By Les Brown and Bud Green

I met Les Brown in 1996 when I was asked to write liner notes for the program and CD of a live concert he gave called Swing Alive! with his famed Band Of Renown at one of his most beloved venues, the Hollywood Palladium on Sunset Boulevard. (Broadcast on PBS, the show also featured Tex Beneke, as well as the Brian Setzer Orchestra, John Pizzarelli, Hal Linden, King Creole and the Coconuts, The Pussycat Dolls [before they sang and were just dancing], Sheena Easton, and the Royal Crown revue.)

But it was Les’ night.  Like a lot of veterans of the music business, Les Brown was humble and happy, never seeking to conceal the genuine gratitude he held for a lucky life spent making music. His old pal Bob Hope showed up to pay tribute to Les; it was one of Hope’s final public appearances – he was frail and unsteady, balancing on the arm of his wife, Dolores. They both sang that night. Gently, a slow rubato throughout, and beautiful. But Les was chipper. Though he was already 85, he beamed with an elfin delight throughout the evening, exultantly leading his famous big band, and doing that thing he did best his entire life, making music.

Les Brown & Bob Hope at Swing Alive. Photo by J. Weiss. Les Brown & Bob Hope at Swing Alive. Photo by J. Weiss.

He was born in March of 1912 in raised in Tower City, Penn­sylvania, the son of R.W. Brown, a baker and a musician. “My father’s love was music,” said Les, in 1996, “but he was a baker so we could eat.” R.W.’s instrument of choice was the trombone, but with his three brothers he played soprano sax in a sax quartet that played the most popular music of the day, the marches writ­ten by John Phillip Sousa. And since Sousa was known as the “March King,” R.W. Brown earned the sobriquet, “March Prince.”

As the son of the March Prince, young Les Brown was playing music almost as soon as he could walk. His father, who taught music to all his sons as well as to other people in the neighbor­hood, introduced him first to the cornet. But Les preferred the smooth sound of his dad’s soprano sax, and it was on that instru­ment that he excelled. “I took to it right away,” he said, “like fleas to a dog.” By the age of nine, Les joined his first pro band, hindered only by his lack of proper attire: “The only problem was that I didn’t have any long pants at the time,” he recalled. “A guy lived next door to us who was 16 and very short, and I borrowed his pants so I didn’t have to play in short pants.”

By the age of 14, Les Brown was already a seasoned profes­sional, and he started what would be the first of many bands, The Royal Serenaders. Playing the pop hits of the day, like “Barney Google,” the seven-piece ensemble would perform mostly at school dances. Les was inspired by the music to make it his living, and also by his desire to escape the drudgery of his father’s bakery, where he toiled from 5:30 am to 7:30 before school, and then for many more hours after school every day.

Recognizing Les’ abundant musical gifts, father asked son if, rather than going to the public high school, he’d like to study music at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music. “I said ‘Yes’ right away,” Les remembered, “because I loved music but I wanted to get out of that bake shop, too.”

The Ithaca Conservatory, besides being a first-rate music school, also boasted the presence of The Pat Conway Band, which — with the exception of the Sousa band — was the most popular military band in the country. Conway — as Les would do in later years — tired of constant touring, and took a job that would enable him to stay in one place long enough to raise his chil­dren. Les happily joined the band, quickly establishing a reputa­tion as a serious, gifted and ambitious musician.

Though sax remained his main instrument, Les also studied and mastered the classical clarinet while at Ithaca. When in­ formed that the school needed a second bassoonist for the school orchestra to play Mozart and Beethoven, and that whoever ful­filled that role would receive a full scholarship, he immediately purchased a second-hand bassoon, and started studying it and in addition to the sax and clarinet.

By 1927, his second year at Ithaca, Les felt the need to lead his own band, and a new group, The Rainbow Men, were born. The colorful name of the band was reflected in their apparel — like Duke Ellington, they wore sashes across the front of their tuxedos, but their’s were striped with all the colors of the rainbow. “Well, as many colors as we could squeeze into six inches,” Les qualified. This was the first real big band Les would lead. “Big for that time, anyway,” he said. “Four saxes, four brass, four rhythm. I did all the arranging and rehearsed the band for what few jobs we got.”

In the summer of ’29, after graduating from Ithaca, Les ran into a friend who would change his life. Bob Alexy was an excep­tional trumpet player who went on to play with the Jimmy Dorsey band, as Les recalled: “He was at the New York Military Academy and told me that he could get me a scholarship there. He called the bandmaster and said, ‘Hey, I got a kid here that can play clarinet.’” Les was granted a full scholarship because of Alexy’s recommendation, as well as his Les’ ability and inclination to play the small, oddly tuned E-flat clarinet. “I loved the instru­ment because it’s very light, so it’s great in parades. I used to joke with the tuba player who had these huge tubas around their necks, and here I am with my little E-flat clarinet.”

Though the academy was a devoted to all things military, Les never lost sight of his reason for being there, and his reason for being in general — music. So at night he’d sneak out of the barracks to go to a nearby frat house where he could catch the sounds of the big bands on radio.


“We’d hear Paul Whiteman, and Mildred Bailey, who was with Whiteman then, and we’d listen to Collin Sanders,” he recalled fondly. “It was great.” Despite these evening escapades, however, Les was a superb student who was named class valedictorian, and offered a full scholarship to attend West Point. He didn’t take it. “By then I had enough of military school,” he said.

Hungry to get on the road with a good band, Les and the Rainbow Men left town for a concert tour of New England. It was at Revere Beach, outside of Boston, that members of the Duke University big band — the notorious Duke Blue Devils — caught Les’ act. Recognizing greatness in their midst, they immediately invited him to attend Duke in order to join the Blue Devils. Though Les greatly preferred leading his own band, this was the Depression, and it was an offer too good to pass up: “They talked me into going to Duke because by going there and playing a con­cert every night at the student union, you got free room and board. And in 1932, believe me, free room and board was very good.” Tuition at Duke that year was only $200 a month, yet it was still a struggle, leading Les to pawn instruments. “That’s how bad the depression was. My dad managed to come up with the money most of the time, and when he couldn’t, I had to sell the bassoon.”

Les enrolled at Duke and performed with the Blue Devils for four years, taking over as leader in his junior year. They were such a hot band that Decca Records gave them a record deal, unprecedented for a college band. It was the first of a great many records that Les Brown would record. Later ones, however, were more successful in terms of sales:

“It was 1936, the first year I ever recorded anything. Sales were not too hot — there were twelve guys in the band, and we found out that twelve par­ents bought the record.”

After he graduated, Les took the band on the road for an extended tour, despite the fact that many of the members had yet to finish their studies. When their parents implored them, after more than a year on the road, to return to school, the group disbanded. Les headed to New York in the band car, a second-hand ’32 Ford, with no regrets. “I was happy to be done with the Blue Devils, because it was what we called a ‘cooperative band,’ which meant that the leader does all the work and all the guys share in the money. So I was happy to break it up. I started my own band
in New York, so if there were any profits — and there weren’t any for about three years — I’d get them.”

The final performance of Les and the Blue Devils, as fate would have it, was in 1936 at Budd Lake, New Jersey, the hometown of Georgia Claire DeWolfe. Two years later, in September of 1938, Claire and Les became man and wife, and they made their home in Manhattan. In 1940, a son — Les, Jr. — was born.

To support himself at first in New York, Les took jobs arranging for the bands of Isham Jones, Larry Clinton and others. But he was keen to lead his own band again, and with the help of two “angels,” a new Les Brown band was soon born.

The first angel was Eli Oberstein of Victor Records, who enlisted Les to form a band to play at the Hotel Edison on Broad­way. As there were more than enough good musicians in New York at the time looking for work, Les had no problem constructing a powerhouse ensemble. “We were there for four months with a wire, an NBC wire,” he said, referring to the live radio link that enabled bands of the time to play simultaneously for the audience in the ballroom with them, and for the radio audience around the country. It was invaluable exposure, and it led to the first of many record deals, this one arranged by the agent Joe Glaser, Les’ second “angel.” “Joe Glaser got us on Bluebird records, a subsidiary of Victor,” Les said. “It was known as the ’35 cents label.’ Same one Glenn Miller was on. He did a little better than we did at the time, but later on we caught up.”

At the time, Les had a couple of different vocalists front­ing the band, including Miriam Shaw. But it was in 1940 that Les would hear a singer that he felt was the perfect vocalist for his band, the one that would put them over the top. Her name was Doris Day.

“A song plugger told me that there was a great singer I had to hear who came into town with the Bob Crosby band named Doris Day,” Les remembered. “They found out that she had given her notice. I went and saw the show, went backstage and hired her. I thought she was great. She was a natural.”

And Les wasn’t the only one who thought that she was great. “The public loved her,” he said. “Wherever she went and whatever she sang, the public liked. It was a turnaround for us that really helped. The band started cooking, you might say.”

But, as often happens, romance got in the way. Doris was in love with her high school sweetheart from Cincinnati, Al Jordan,  who was now the trombone player with the Jimmy Dorsey band. He encouraged her to return to Cincinnati to settle down, which she did, leaving the band.

Not one to be easily derailed, Les replaced Doris with the singer Betty Bonney, and got back to work. It was then he had his first big hit, a novelty tune written by his arranger Ben Homer and the deejay Alan Courtney. Based on Joe Dimaggio’s amazing 56 game hitting streak that had the entire nation talking that

summer of ’41, it was called “Joltin’ Joe Dimaggio,” and it became an enormously popular hit for the band. “It was just a simple ditty,” said Les, “but that was the charm of it. And having that hit helped the band a lot. But we still weren’t in the black, so to speak.”

Joe Glaser continued to get good bookings for the band, always making sure that they had a live radio wire. They spent an entire summer in Armonk, New York, broadcasting live seven times a week. They went straight from that gig to the venerable Black Hawk restaurant in Chicago for a one month job that was extended for four months due to the enormous demand. “That’s when we finally started making money,” Les said. “But then the war came.”

In rapid succession came the news of Pearl Harbor and the birth of Les and Claire’s second child, a daughter, Denice. And as happy as Les was about his expanding family, he was distressed by his diminishing band, as members left to fight in the war. Les’ brother Warren, who played trombone in the band, left to join the Navy, and their first trumpet player joined him. Many of the others were drafted. It wasn’t easy, but Les continued to find new musicians to replace them, and he kept the band alive.

In 1943, Doris Day had divorced her husband, and Les per­suaded her to return to the band by paying her extra so that she could bring both her son on the road with her, as well as her mother to care for him. They played all over New York and the

East Coast, at the Paramount, The Capitol, The Strand, The Chica­go Theater, and other venues.

In 1944 Les got a call from Ben Homer, who said he had a tune he was working on that Les should hear. They got together, and Les listened to the melody. “I liked it right away,” he recalled. “It was simple, but it had promise.” Les changed the

rhythm of the verse slightly to make it more singable, added a bridge section, and within a half hour the tune was complete. He got it to his publisher, Edwin “Buddy” Morris, who allowed three lyricists to have a crack at it before he got a lyric he approved of. The accepted lyric, written by Bud Green, (who wrote “Flat­foot Floosie With the Floy Floy”) was based on the title of a book that Buddy Morris had been reading, Sentimental Journey.

“Buddy was reading a travel book written by an Englishman,” Les said, “and it was called Sentimental Journey, about this guy going all over Europe. He mentioned the inns he was staying in. Buddy liked the title of the book, and suggested it for the song, and Bud Green wrote a nice lyric. He even had to make up a word to rhyme with ‘journey’: ‘Never thought my heart would be so yearny …’”


Les wasn’t able to record the song for two years, however, due to a recording ban imposed during the war. It was completely a twist of fate that linked up this song with the end of the war. As soon as the recording ban was lifted, Les and the band record­ed “Sentimental Journey” with a great vocal by Doris Day, and it became the perfect theme song for the all the young men returning home from the war. It became the record that shot the band to the top. The Number One song in the country for some sixteen weeks, “Sentimental Journey,” stayed on the Hit Parade for months, and has since become an undeniable standard in the lexicon of the American popular song.

It was the hit Les had been waiting for, and now that he had it, he was ready for more. The song not only made the band fa­mous, it made Doris Day a star, and life for everyone got better. “Having the Number One song for all those months certainly helped us. It helped business, it helped our reputation, we got to do more recordings. And sell more records. It put us over the top.”

By this time, the band was now known as “Les Brown and the Band of Renown.” The name was born on the spot one night when the band was about to perform live on the radio from the Palladium. “We were about to go on the air in Washington and the announcer was ad-libbing because our trombone player, Sy Zentner, wasn’t in

his place. And our theme song at that time featured the trombone, so we couldn’t go on the air, and we were sweating. So we finally found Sy and put him on, but in the meantime the announcer was saying things like, ‘from the nation’s capitol, where we have cherry blossoms…’ He was ad-libbing like mad and sweating too.

I finally gave him the okay and he said, ‘Here’s that band of renown, Les Brown’ and we latched onto that.”

Soon Hollywood came calling for Doris Day, and she left the band to star in movies. Les was also attracted to Hollywood, but for a different reason — the allure of the Hollywood Palladium. “It then was the hottest place around,” he recalled. “After the war, in the ballroom there, it was like New Year’s Eve every night with all the servicemen in town.”

To get to the West Coast, Les and the band would travel piece-meal, in tiny DC-3s, two at a time, until the whole band reached California. New York was their homebase until 1945, at which time Les decided to permanently move the band to Los An­geles. “I told the guys that I was taking six months off, but if they wanted to come out, they had a job. It turned out only to be three months because I didn’t know I had a contract to go into the Palladium three months later. They insisted on it. So rather than have a lawsuit, I got a band together.” Five of the original band members made the move, but the others had their roots in the New York area and decided to stay. Les put together a new band in California, a band that has remained, with few changes, to this day, still performing some 50 years later.

It was at the Hollywood Palladium in the Spring of 1947 that Les got a note sent to him backstage that said that Bob Hope’s agent, James Saphier, wanted to buy him a drink.

“We got to talking,” Les said. “At that time, Desi Arnaz was Hope’s bandleader. I asked if he was happy with Desi Arnaz, and he said, ‘He doesn’t even know how to read music.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I knew that, that’s why I asked.’ He said, ‘We’re changing.’ I said, ‘Well, I’d like to put my hat into the ring.’ He said, ‘No, you can do much better on the road.’ I said, ‘I want to stop traveling. My children are school age and I want to settle down as much as I can.’”

The Les Brown Band joined up with Bob Hope in September of 1947. Les and Hope didn’t meet until their first show together, and their  collaboration continues to this day. At first they spent most of the year in town, doing the radio show and later the TV show, and spent the summers on the road. “It was a great break for us. It kept the band’s name in front of the public, through radio and television, and then we had a hit in 1948 with ‘Love To Keep Me Warm.’”

Les has the distinction of having a song pitched directly to him from the legendary Irving Berlin. Berlin was Hope’s special guest on the show one night, and when the songwriter came out on stage, Les played song ‘Love To Keep Me Warm’ — one of Berlin’s newest songs — to usher him out. Rather than walk over to Hope,

Berlin instead walked straight to Les, shook his hand, saying, ‘What a great rendition of that song!’ Hope, never one to miss a comic opportunity, said, ‘Excuse me, Irving, but I’m the star here!”

“He totally disregarded Bob,” Les said. “It was hilarious. Once a song-plugger, always a song-plugger.”

It was a ploy that worked, however, as Les later had a huge hit with his recording of the song. When an executive of his record company at the time, Columbia, heard Les and the band playing the song on a Hope broadcast a few months later, he called Les and told him to get into the studio immediately to record the song. Les informed the exec that they already had the song in the can, and he’d find it if he’d look into the archives. Les was right, of course, the recording was found, and it became one of the band’s biggest hits.

Les Brown

Bob Hope brought Doris Day back into the fold, and with Les, their combined star power was staggering. It was 1949, and Hope had the Number One movie, Pale Face, Les has the number one instrumental with “Love To Keep Me Warm,” and Doris had the number one vocal tune with “It’s Magic.” They went on a national concert tour that broke sales records wherever it landed. At the onset of the Korean War in 1950, they switched the tour to the military bases that Hope was famous for visiting. The first trip, to a bitter cold Korea, lasted 35 days and was the first of eighteen Christmas tours that Les and Hope would share.

“They were the greatest audiences in the world,” Les re­called. “To hear anything from back home, for them, was great. You didn’t have to be good, you just had to be there. The tours were very tiring, but also very exhilarating. And interesting.”

The only drawback was leaving his family , something he never liked doing, but which was worse at Christmas. But he made up for it by being able to stay in town working for much of the rest of the year by playing on many different TV shows. He got his own local show in Los Angeles called “Bandstand Review” as well as doing the Hope shows, doing the Steve Allen for two years, and performing on the variety show, “The Hollywood Palace.” And in 1961, he started what became eight years of performing on “The Dean Martin Show.” “I was working all the time,” he said. “I was young and dumb. And I had fun.”

When his friends, the songwriters Sonny Burke and Paul Weston, told him about the Recording Academy they had founded (which became NARAS, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences), Les became involved. Not only was he elected President of the L.A. Chapter, he also enabled the Academy to televise a Grammy Awards program for the first time.

Told by NBC that the show could only be accepted if they were able to land one of three stars, Hope, Sinatra, or Crosby, everyone but Les felt they were defeated. “I knew they could only say no,” Les said. He invited all three stars, all three accepted, and the Grammys was brought to TV for the first time. “Then we used to take the winners and made a show out of it. Later they started opening envelopes and making it like another Oscars.”

Les Brown Swing CD

Since the sixties, Les Brown and the Bank of Renown never stopped performing, appearing on TV as well as private par­ties, fund raisers and corporate events, as well as accompanying Bob Hope on many of his concerts and all of his television specials. They continued making records, and performed about sixty dates a year, making them the oldest existing band in America. Asked what was the secret of their longevity, Les joked, “I guess I’m just too dumb to give it up!”

In April of 1996, a few days after I interviewed him for this story, the Guiness Book of World Records awarded Les with the distinction of being the leader of the longest lasting musical organization in the history of pop music. But Les and his band were more than long lasting. They were quality. There was real joy when they played their music – on the bandstand, and in the audience. And that joy stands.



NEW REVIEWS: Music & Books from 2013.

•January 4, 2014 • 5 Comments


2014 McCartney NewPaul McCartney

The greatest, most inspired McCartney album in decades. Not that Sir Paul needs to be compared against the measure of his own work. But this so stands out, as it simply changes the game. That this man – whose work has not only impacted but completely shifted the very course of the popular song as we know It – is still plugged into the source to this extent  some half century  since his remarkable debut – it’s nothing short of miraculous.  He’s always been the great collaborator, creating his finest, freshest,  most infectious and brilliantly inventive work when collaborating with other gifted minds. Of course, there is no collaboration more monumental than his with John Lennon, in which each inspired and empowered the other to perpetually aim higher, deeper and farther. Even after having been to the top of the proverbial toppermost that they spoke of as lads, Paul and John found places beyond the toppermost to go – and doing so, they rewrote all the rules. They paved the musical way for the world we still live in, musically, in which the recording of a song – the production – is created with as much loving brilliance and inventive flair as the writing of the song. And so it makes sense that when Paul connects with some of the most gifted producers making records today, as he has here, that the results would be fresh and great both musically and sonically, and indeed that’s what  we got.

Here are brave, brilliant and beautiful songs written and produced with Paul Epworth, who wrote with and produced Adele, Mark Ronson – who wrote with and produced the late great Amy Winehouse, and Giles Martin – son of Sir George Martin – who teamed up with his dad on the brilliant Love. Put those guys together with Paul, and he’s at his best. He’s so famous for his beautiful melodies, that we sometimes forget he’s the guy who invented “Helter Skelter,” and has always loved to truly rock out seriously. So the opening song, the infectious and inviting “Save Us” is built around a raw and raucous guitar riff, both brash and unafraid, and leads us into a pure gem of McCartney genius. And it plays around with a fun and impudent rhyme, a rhyme that shows this guy is in there swinging, making it work as brilliantly as he did when the movement was on his shoulder: “In the heat of battle/you got something that’ll/save us…” Battle and that’ll! A rhyme to make Sammy Cahn smile. And harmonically it’s one of those songs like the kind he wrote back with Lennon in which the tunes turned unexpectedly on great sly chords, delighting us and inviting us at the same time – the kind of secret chords that songwriters have come to know as Beatles chords, those sly, inventive, quick turns of harmony as ingenious in their simplicity as were Cole Porter or George Gershwin in the ways they also subverted the changes of popular songs, with melodies that slipped into and out of major and minor keys, effortlessly transposing and returning. This is one of those songs that make you want to grab your guitar to fathom just exactly how he did that – what makes that effect so delicious and so precisely McCartney? It’s the essence of the best of what this man has done in his remarkable career, and that he does it as this age – and with layers of heavenly, perfect vocal harmonies and miracle bass lines, it’s a reason to rejoice that such good music is still being made, and by a man who has already given us so much. And from there we get a chain of songs that is intimate and playful, melodic and lyrical as the finest, and imbued with genuine joy throughout. “Alligator,” created with Ronson, is fast and funny: McCartney stretching out with long, rapid lyrical phrases.   It’s big and small, sad and laughing, and exceedingly,  generously joyful.  “On My Way To Work” evokes his early solo work, acoustic and intimate, a calm after the storm.

And rather than run from the imposing shadow of the Beatles, he embraces it. In “New” he celebrates the heady triumph that was their recognition that this hunch – this thing called Beatles – was paying off in a rather colossal way. And in “Early Days” we soar all the way back to when he and John were fans, poring over records, hoping only for inclusion, never domination. It was never about business. It was about joy. Paul McCartney shows all songwriters there are no excuses anymore – when you rock this hard in your 70s – and so ingeniously – rock and roll has expanded, the popular song has expanded, and the world is richer for it.

2014 Rod & Hemispheres Mist and Molecules

Rod Sphere & The Jet-Sets  * Rivers and Rockets
Rod Sphere & The Hemispheres * mist & molecule
Rod Sphere & The Galaxies * Variant Twist
Trough Records

Rod Sphere – the artist formerly known as Rod Smear – has long been one of the most inspirational and intriguing figures on the L.A. folk scene, whether playing his own remarkable originals, or one of his folk-reggae tinged takes on a classic Beatles or Dylan song. When Rod would step to the mic, people would quiet down and sit back, ready for anything. And he never disappointed. Live, that is. He has disappointed those of us, somewhat, who love his music, with a steady lack of recorded output for the last several years. But he’s made up for that now, and in a huge way, by releasing not one but three remarkable records, a triumvirate of truly exceptional record-making.

If Beck collaborated with Elvis Costello and David Byrne, it probably wouldn’t sound much like Rod. But you get the idea. Rod’s an artist with a great love of classic songs – and weaves beautifully inventive covers of famous songs here throughout his chain of originals. And when Rod takes on a cover, it’s unlike anything you’ve heard. He’s as inventive with a Dylan song, for example, as Dylan is! And there is the secret. True artists dig down to the most essential passion for the moment ; like Dylan, Rod takes us on profuse journeys of discovery, in terms of all aspects of this thing – the singing, harmony, instrumentation and songwriting.  All of these tracks are rhythmic yet without any real drums: the grooves are built mostly on the great percussive acoustic guitar rhythms he cooks up on his own, great rich textures, as he does live – like Richie Havens, he’s an astounding rhythm player on these steel strings – and that frame is a splendid and spirited one for his tender and friendly singing.

Astounding originals are here, like “Aqua Blue” – which is plaintive and ardent – it’s as harmonically angular as a Kurt Cobain song, but with the tender earnestness of Brian Wilson – a fusion which is special and endearing, and instantly memorable. “Ravi Shankar” is a beautiful rainbow of a tribute to the great sitar master who inspired those who so inspired us. “Mist and Molecule” embraces modern times thoroughly; it’s funny and scary at the same time, about the great blur of over-extended, endless input:  “My attention span is shrinking, the media does my thinking.” He comments on all of is as it unfolds with the indifferent “yeah yeah yeah,” an ongoing dialogue with the self in the sad “whatever” age of the selfie.  “I’m really busy if you want me you can reach me on my cell,” he advises.

As beautifully as he conveys the madness of these modern times, he also sweetly embraces the past, especially in certain covers. He takes on George Harrison’s “Long Long Long,” from the White album, which is one of Harrison’s lesser known gems, but with a gorgeous miracle of a melody that Rod doesn’t discard or distort, he crystallizes its elegant eloquence. Who knew he could sing with such soulful purity, conjuring up the spirit of the great spiritual Beatle, the one who – like Rod – mixed in his flavors from around the world into a heady gumbo of East and West unlike any which came before? It’s one of those tracks you can put on endless repeat, and it works.  I know, because I have driven endless freeways for what seems like days with only this one track playing over and over. And it worked.  This is spirit embodied. All the sense of the lesser Beatle, the little brother George, trying to play with the big boys but not always taken seriously, is cast out, replaced with a beautiful and essential focus on the transcendent and timeless power of this work.  Rod also does George’s “The Inner Light,” a song written during Beatles time but never recorded. Leave it to Rod to pick it up and bring us this beautiful bridge to the soul.

But then there’s his beautiful rendition of “Stardust,” in which he takes on this famous standard written by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish, the melody of which many consider among the greatest ever in popular music. Rather than give us an alternate slant on this iconic work, Rod stays faithful to the glorious melody, and it’s  a revelation.   Rod takes “Stardust” and makes it his own. He sings it with the authority of Sinatra, but with more tenderness, more grounded humility. Is there anything he can’t do? He also gives us a delightful “Dream,” by Johnny Mercer,  which is so right for Rod, the promise and affirmation in the lyric so lovingly expressed in the hopeful melody and great performance. Breathtaking renditions of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” (a very tough song to sing, and he does it flawlessly), Lennon’s  dreamy “Across the Universe,” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking” are also here.  This is a tour de force. Had he given us only one disc, this would be momentous and cause for celebration. But three fully realized albums, it’s a true trove of musical treasure. Thanks Rod. We missed you.  You give us a reason to believe.  As Johnny Mercer wrote, and you beautifully sang: things never are as bad as they seem, so dream, dream.

2014 Hipsters

Eminent Hipsters,  by Donald Fagen.

A  hilarious book by  Fagen, one half of the Fagen & Becker team that has been the engine of Steely Dan for decades. Anyone familiar with the Dan’s songs knows there’s both a lot of humor and darkness, often intertwined, in Fagen’s soul – as well as a great and gifted way with classic soul and jazz.  This is an intimate exploration of that soul. Fagen’s a famous curmudgeon, but nowhere has his powerfully negative sentiments about the human race ever surfaced as overtly as they do here. In fact, much of the book is Fagen griping. And griping, really, in the middle of a true rock and roll dream: unlike 98% of the world’s musicians, the man has  made a fortune playing music, so really is in pretty good shape. He has earned it – sure – the guy’s a genius, and with the Dan and solo has created countless masterpieces. So what exactly does he have to complain about? Well, it turns out, quite a lot. Cause he dwells in a world of other humans, and humans are the main problem. 

Though there’s precious little here about Steely Dan – (so essentially Fagen, to skip over the thing we love the most), there is his diary of sorts from his tour with the Dukes of September, the soul band concocted with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald. There are also interesting essays here – including a long and inspired take on the Boswell Sisters and an interview he did with Ennio Morricone.  But it’s here in this tour log, more than anywhere, that the true Fagen spirit is exposed.

The problem stems from the fact that this isn’t a Steely Dan tour he’s on, so it’s less grand in every way, in terms of transport, venue and reception. But they aren’t crowding into a van: Each artist has his own bus, and although both Scaggs and McDonald often sleep on their busses, Fagen insists on hotel lodging, as living on a bus is, to him, tantamount to the “life of an insect.” But hotels – like concert venues – are invariably populated by other humans, which to Fagen is almost always trouble. They either want something from him he can’t deliver, or ignore him when he wants to be noticed. Even worse to him than the generation of “TV Babies” (those born with few books but constant TV) is the new generation forever tuned into the phones in their palms, rarely looking up at the world. He even has a hard time with fans who come to hear the hits but don’t care as much about soul classics. But that is why they are there, after all – because they love your music!  Then there is the challenge of staying in shape, physically and psychologically, when on the road, which to Fagen is a supreme challenge, as he writes:

Swimming? Pools are grungy or freezing or crowded or there’s just not enough time. Treadmill in the hotel gym? Go fuck yourself – I am too wasted to exercise…. Bicycling? You mean, call the concierge, inquire about rentals, roll around unfamiliar streets while cars and trucks are trying to kill me? I can’t even get the hell out of bed.”

If it weren’t Fagen writing this, it would get tiresome. But because this is a genius songwriter here, a man who has written countless miracle songs and made so many classic albums, it’s different. So this is the mind that created those songs with Walter Becker!

Fagen also delivers what is probably the best, most succinct, and poignant reflection on why so many musical artists turn to drugs than any I’ve ever read. When he gets to Vancouver, he remembers you can get Tylenol with codeine over the counter, and gets several bottles. “I mean,” he writes, “William Burroughs definitely couldn’t be bothered, but if you take four of them, it just might hit the spot… By showtime I was feeling a little better.”

But this is the crux of it, the reason why :

It’s no wonder so many traveling performers end up in rehab or worse. It’s easy to see how it happens. They want to be alert and vibrant so that the audience won’t think badly of them, won’t punish them for not being as talented or magnetic as you thought they were. So your crush won’t suddenly end. I know, it’s pathetic.”

Pathetic, maybe, but so real, and true. For this revelation alone, this book is well worth reading. But there’s much more.  There’s some about Fagen the kid, loving jazz and science fiction and vocal groups. And a whole lot about Fagen the human, and what it’s like to be a genius in the regular world. Would I have liked several chapters about Steely Dan? Absolutely. I am hoping he writes a second volume. But for now this will suffice. I’ve already read it twice and remain enthralled. He’s got one of the most distinctive voices around – as a singer but also a creator, a thinker – and this is a rare and very fun opportunity to take in that voice, and revel in the often-disgruntled but never boring world of Donald Fagen.

ZIpperer 3John Zipperer
Full Circle

A beautiful new album by Mr. Zipperer, produced by Nick Kirgo, who did an exceptional job bringing all the joy and passion of John’s songs into full view. This is uplifting music, a celebration in words and music. If only for his tender, slowed down version of “Brown Eyed Girl,” which delivers this famous melody with a wonderfully hushed elegance, this is worth the price of admission. But there’s so much more. Great originals like the triumphant “Sailing Away” and beautiful “To The River” abound, and with much of the friendly, choral spirit of his shows with his John Zipperer and Friends band.  Laced throughout with the close, warm harmonies of Tara Sitser and Jime Van Booven, and lovely instrumental touches throughout – such as the perky steel drums on “Sailing Away,” played by Doug Lacey, or the multitude of musical magic provided by Kirgo, who brings slide guitars, piano, organ, banjo and more to the proceedings – this is a nourishing musical journey.  A friendly, inviting spirit pervades, as projected in “Sing With Me,” which has all the open arm promise of the best folk – from The Weavers to Belafonte and beyond. “Here By Me” is built on a great upright bass line, and resounds like a 1940s standard ideal for the Ink Spots. “Know Who You Love” is solo Zipperer, acoustic guitar and vocal, an elegiac song of questioning. Full Circle is a beautiful and pure cycle of songs of love and life that touches the heart and soul at the same time. Some years in the making, it was well worth the wait.

2014 Jagger book

Mick Jagger
Edited by Valeria Manferto De Fabianis, Text by Billy Altman
White Star Publishers.  

An absolute joy. Jagger’s long been one of this world’s most compelling visuals, and this collection of photos of him with and without his famous band is a delight. Pore over these photos of him from his earliest days to the present and recognize he’s never been unplugged from the zeitgeist for long. There is no dark period, or lapse in style or judgment. It’s been one long poem of a presence in our culture, celebrated here with elegant respect. Billy Altman provides deep text throughout, which is a plus: this is both a great photo collection, and a substantial tome about the man himself. Edited by Valeria Manferto De Fabianis, who has created similar volumes about Castro and lingerie, it’s a poignant, and powerful collection of the man who has brought us satisfaction for so long.

20144 Acustica
 Acustica World Music * Cuatro Vidas Luminous acoustic magic. The beautiful intersection of human voices with passion, percussion and strings. They are a remarkable quartet producing music of great spirit and beauty. Dolores Villareal is the lead vocalist, with John Orr on vocals and guitars, Dave Ambrose on bass and Matt Chrichton on percussion. If you’re feeling downhearted, and who isn’t sometimes, try this on to lift the spirit. Whether in Spanish, as if most of this, or other languages , the message is one of love and light. She sings Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” in French with heartbreaking power and grace; this is the real deal. And they wrap it all up with “Whatever Lola Wants” in English, a funny and fiery song about empowerment, especially on this samba-tinged track beautifully peppered by Ray Coffey on sax. This is uplifting, genuine music, good for the soul.

2014 Brad Parker

Brad Parker *  Days of Poetry * Riozen  He said this collection is a suitcase of songs he’s been carrying around for more than thirty years.  Good thing he opened it up and shared. There are 14 beautifully lyrical songs here, songs of love and time, songs by a guy who knows his way around a song. Tuneful melodies abound, as does gentle singing and delicate backing tracks with old pals Marvin Etzioni on bass, Michael Clarke on drums, Abe Parker on keys and Eleanor McEvoy on violins and vocals. All is understated, and bolstered perfectly by the Days of Poetry chorus – a dozen fine singers with voices rapped in harmony. So many beautiful songs are here, but none which haunts me quite as much as “Mulholland Highway,” a beautifully inspirational love letter to our angel city; imagine if Brian Wilson wrote and recorded a song  with the Eagles, and you get close to the spirit expressed here, that spirit of innocent, hopeful melodics linked to endless summers which have inspired romantic songs forever. In a time of much turmoil and dissonance, these days of poetry resonate so sweetly and peacefully, giving a reason to believe. Good songs matter.

20144 Amigo

Amigo * Might Could   This is what it’s all about – a great band of good musicians who know how to write funny songs, sad songs, clever songs, songs that rock and roll. There is no gimmick here: Amigo is the real thing. They’ve got a rootsy, down home sound – folk and rock like Wilco and the Band, and like those groups, composed of singers of much heart and soul. When they harmonize, it’s not perfect like the Eagles, it’s more like real people, and you want to sing along. They use funny country music conceits like “Where have all the bad times gone?” but in their hands, it works. They sing of “that old junkie two-step and cheap domestic stuff” and pull you in, you want more. Clean pedal steel lines underscore the funky soul, the jaunty vocals. Acoustic textures throughout are delicate, and set up these stories cinematically, especially the great “Old Testaments and Nail Bombs” which follows the “wise blood” in the veins of church-goers, and gives us some keen insight into both the dark and light of the faithful. “Murder of Crows” is presented in great multitudes of harmony against a cool and chugging guitar groove, and takes you out on a journey that is mysterious and foreboding – both happy and scary at the same time, a dynamic and dimensional effect.  “Easy Rider” is like a party with Jackson Browne, a mariachi band and lots of tequila. The Hammond organ, wed with mariachi horns, is infectious. This is unexpected and serious songwriting rendered by a band capable of vast extremes, the kind of band that could be around a long time. I hope they are.

2014 Piper book

The Single Wing and a Prayer by Keith Piper with David Piper

Written mostly by Keith Piper, this was completed this year by his son  David Piper. The elder Piper was the head football coach at Ohio’s Denison University for a long time, from 1954-1992. His record of success is legend, as was his use of his signature play, the single wing offense, which is affectionately explored throughout. His son, David Piper, is a celebrated songwriter in Los Angeles, one half of the Trough Records  duo Piper-Grey.  He’s also a teacher, and a former football player himself, at Ithaca under the late Hall of Fame coach Jim Butterfield.  So this is more than a tremendous labor of love, which it is, it’s also an informed one. Piper the son has a lot of love and respect for his father’s play and signature moves, which are related here as intricately and lovingly as classic Julia Child recipes. Even those of us mostly unfamiliar with the intricacies of this game are entranced by the union of precision and passion here, the art and science of this thing which unfolds physically, but is keenly calculated.  In David’s introduction, he explained his motives, that his father hoped to provide future generations of coaches with the single wing wisdom, which is both a method and a philosophy of the game, so that any coach could lead his team to triumph as he had some 200 times. But this is more than a play book:  Piper the son wove his own memories and anecdotes, and those of many others he collected,  around the technical stuff, as well as instilled all of it with rich textural photographs and diagrams on every page, so what you’re getting here is the full vision of a man’s life. Football is the focus, but it’s bigger than that, it’s about dedication, focus, passion, fearlessness and love. It’s also a gift to David’s mother and Keith’s wife, Philomena, to whom the book is dedicated, as a way of preserving the beauty and magic of this wonderful life, in which she was always present: “[She] missed only two games,” wrote David, “in my father’s entire 39 year career.”  If you love football, if you love wisdom and poetry intertwined, if you love the love of a family: father-mother-son – this is a place you should visit. You’ll be glad you did.

All proceeds will go toward the Denison University Football Program.

[www.thesinglewingandaprayer.com. Purchase at Denison University bookstore: http://www.denisonbookstore.com and look for The Single Wing and a Prayer.  Cost is $38.95 plus shipping.]

2014 Tall menThe Tall Men Group

Tall Men Group * 12 by 6 *Really wonderful.  Sure, you put six great singer-songwriters together who also happen to all be fine musicians, you would expect something good. But this is beyond good – this is great. These guys sound so happy and inspired making music together that they created a masterpiece. The Tall Men Group is Marty Axelrod, Ed Tree, Severin Browne, Jeff Kossack, John Stowers and Jimmy Yessian. Call it superfolk: these are six individuals who have been writing and singing their own great songs for a long time, and making great records. And they have worked together – producing, singing and/or playing on each other’s albums. But this is one of those happy instances, not unlike Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, when separate, unmatched pieces fit together to make something bigger than any of the parts, something magical. That’s what we got here – the sound of these voices together is transcendent, so that any time the whole group sings a line in harmony there’s a kind of musical momentum created- something compelling and hypnotic.

Ed Tree’s a celebrated producer, and Jeff Kossack’s well-known as a studio wizard; those two seemed to have led the technical aspects, so that the sound here is delightful. Each instrumental note rings sweetly, and all the voices and lyrics are warm and clear. They take turns singing each other’s songs, starting with Tree’s beautifully haunting “Chaco,” which is a great place to begin. It’s all desert mystery and romance, and memories from this life and previous ones. It’s a heavy place to start, but from there we go in many directions. Severin’s “She’s A Funny Girl” boasts one of his signature complex and chromatic melodies , wed to a poignant and genuine lyric. “Marie,” by Ed Tree,  resounds like a modern classic. Memphis-bound and bluesy, it’s a slinky and mysterious noir romance that’s about the present and the past at the same time, ideally etched by Axelrod on organ. Kossack’s “Lessons of My Father” is earthy and bluesy, replete with gritty acoustic slide guitars and soulful vocals, great story-telling that ties together the generations with funny wisdom, about fearlessness and “leading with example in reverse.”   “Bar Band” by Severin also starts with the lessons from a father, how music can buoy a life, and launches this rockabilly rave-up about the place where dreams meet life. And “No Time Left At All,” by Jimmy Yessian, is a beautiful ballad of urgent affirmation, floating on great organ and Dylan-like harmonica. This is an impressive and inspirational album; each Tall Man brought his A-game to the proceedings, fine songs and spirited singing.  This is an album about enduring spirit, about friendship and faith. Long live the Tall Men.


Jeff Gold
Streets Cracked
Windyapple Records

A modern classic. Timeless songs lovingly rendered by an exceptional artist. Not only does this contain a remarkable chain of finely etched songs sung by a singer of great soul and focus, it’s one of the best sounding albums to come along in a long time. Whereas many records  we hear reduce the sound of an acoustic guitar to a slim ghost of itself, this goes the other direction and gives us acoustic guitars as rich as orchestras, with all the dimensions,  inflections and frequencies singing with shining clarity, warmth and depth.  Guitars singing low and high, sparkling, shining. Jeff Gold’s long been beloved on the L.A. and New York folk scenes as not only a gifted singer-songwriter, but one of the best finger-style guitarists around, and this album celebrates his fluid flair for rich guitar expressions, on which each track is based.

An acolyte of the late great New York songwriter Jack Hardy, Gold walks in the footsteps of his mentor to create modern folk songs – elegant work which reflects the triumphs, failures and mysteries of modern times with the organic grace of folk songs. There are no affectations here, odd stylistic divergences or fluffy filler. This is pure.

It’s also a primer of sorts on how best to produce a singer-songwriter, as Gold the producer delicately frames each of these songs so as to bring out the story – and the tune – and not overwhelm or detract from the narrative. Most songs have two guitars, bass, a lead vocal. There’s hints of percussion here and there, and on the beautiful “Intuition,” Gold himself on “breathy alto sax.” (He’s one of the only singer-songwriters around who is also a fine horn player, both sax and clarinet.) There’s also lovely harmony singing throughout, provided by Lucy Hagan and Mark Mugrage, whose voices blend with Gold’s reedy baritone ideally.

“Three Strangers” resounds like a lost folk classic, but is in fact original:  a beautiful, mysterious and driving ballad empowered by their three voices in perfect harmony. It evokes passionate folk vocals of the past, especially Peter, Paul and Mary and The Weavers.  (The potent sweetness of Lucy Hagan’s voice is quite reminiscent of The Weavers’ great Ronnie Gilbert).   “You’re driving home in the wind,” he sings in the opening song, “At The End,” a song about the essential journey that is life. To start an album at the end is funny, but also reflective of the circles inherent in all we experience, in life, time, distance – and of course, songs.  “Streets Cracked”  remains  the best song ever written about surviving an earthquake, and has long been one of his most popular concert songs. It’s about hope, about going home, about triumphing over even the most adverse adversities in “this western town under a western sky.” When the whole world starts cracking up, the dreams humans dream don’t disappear. They thrive, just as human faith and love endures: “I’m still alive,” he affirms.  “Turn Around” is funky rock-folk of the best kind. It’s funny and serious as the same time, delving into human mysteries. “How can you ever expect to be happy when all you do is complain?”   “Intuition” is wintry and beautifully haunting.

“To England and Argentina” is the final track, a demo recorded on a boom box. It is breathtaking. Beautiful flourishes of guitar work, and a slinky and remarkable melody that traces the elusive lyric about not really understanding why we do what we do. “We just do.” It’s a contemplation on human nature, as is this entire album, and like the best songs resounds long after you stop listening. If you want pop confection, this isn’t the place to turn. But if you love deep songs that delve into places often unexplored, and with beautiful singing and poignant acoustics, this is a place you want to be.  Here in these times when so much of our lives is disposable or recycled, he’s made an album for the ages. Put it on the shelf with your most beloved albums, the ones by Dylan, Seeger,  Guthrie, and Lennon and Simon and the rest. That’s where it belongs. This is a keeper.

2014 Wicked Saints

Wicked Saints * Don’t Kill The Blackbird * Haunting, brave and beautiful. A really wonderful album, beautifully crafted and inspired, soulful  songs with compelling, inventive production throughout. Produced by Paul McCarty with Brad Swanson,  it sounds as great as it feels, and it feels good:  deep, dimensional tracks that a listener can fall into and swim for hours. Wicked Saints is a great folk rock band led by Paul McCarty, and with great musicians like the legendary Chad Watson (bass, trombone, mandolin), Robert Thomas (keys), Brent Michelle (harmony) and David Vidal on slide and cigar box guitar.  This is passionate stuff. Lyrical, hopeful, mysterious. It all starts with ghostly but spirited whistling which leads to a martial beat under the remarkable song “Hello,” which is all exultant faith, the kind of song that gives you a reason to believe that humans can cross the vast emotional gulfs between us.  With a lovely counterpoint of voices, robust guitars and a great groove, this is essential. The title song also boasts a driving groove – a very cool, jaunty beat, in fact –  and a passionate melody built around a plea to honor the artists in us – the voice that creates the songs we sing even before we fully comprehend the meaning, the spark of creation. “River of Fire,” co-written with Raspin Stuwart, is a charged and mythic journey which soars on wings of accordion, mandolin and rich harmonies; wings that can get easily singed: none of this is without risk or danger.  As the name of the group indicates, it’s about the journey of being human, which always contains contradictions. Whether holy sinners or wicked saints, all humans contain multitudes, and these songs contain that understanding.  And also the wisdom to laugh at the folly of the human condition. This is a happy discovery, this album and this great band. Paul McCarty is plugged into the source, and these songs sing with great truth, joy, mystery and passion.  A record for the ages.

2014 Marc Platt

Marc Platt * Brand New Day  Fast becoming one of the most prolific songwriters on the block, Platt’s coming up with great songs and new albums at a remarkable rate. Now comes a new one, an album of much grace and hope, and as always, filled with good tunes. In a world of increasing inconsequence and inanity, he reminds us why music matters so much. Now more than ever we hunger for the kind of music he makes: songs with melodies as luminous and lingering as his lyrics are incisive and inspirational; songs of grace & outrage, turbulence & redemption. He’s a true tunesmith, a man who knows how to craft a melody with spark and flair, inventing tunes to touch the heart and lift the spirit, and matched always to words that go against the grain of these tangential times to speak with a beautiful clarity about being human in modern times. “Nick Drake” is a remarkable song, a tribute from one songwriter to another in song, reflecting the beautiful and tragic cycles in which all artists spin. It’s short and smart, like a Nick Drake song, and infectious. “Greatest Price” is a haunting elegy for all soldiers for whom the war is never over. Like the best songs, it’s simple and stark, and it echoes in the heart long after the music’s over. “Best In America” is a response to the horror of the Boston Marathon bombing, a discovery of human light in the most brutal darkness. Platt’s been great for many years, a savvy and serious songwriter, and – remarkably – is growing ever greater.

2014 Ali Handal book.

BOOK REVIEW: Guitar for Girls: A Beginner’s Guide to Playing Acoustic or Electric Guitar, by Ali Handal. * Hal Leonard Publishing.  Ali Handal’s a great and beautiful electric guitarist, as well as gifted songwriter,  who has released several beautiful CDs of her music. She’s also performed all around the world. Now she’s channeled much of her passion and knowledge into a remarkable book. Guitar for Girls provides a profusion of information about playing guitar, with ample technical and practical approaches to the instrument as well as inspirational affirmations. She knows that being a good musician is as much psychological as it is technical, and so she crystallizes all aspects of being a guitarist.  She also goes a long way in celebrating female contributions to rock and roll by using, as teaching examples, songs written and performed by a vast range of classic female artists in every genre, including  Peggy Lee, Carole King, Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Jett and more. It comes with a CD that contains examples of Ali playing and explaining every song and every technique in the book. Though this is called a beginner’s guide, in fact there is much here that advanced players can benefit from. Ali’s someone who has thought a lot about all the aspects of musicianship and how they connect, and she expresses it with clarity and clear love for the guitar. A wonderful book, and great gift for any budding guitarist.
20144 SchwartzEric Schwartz * The Aristocrat * As evident by the cover photo, a portrait of the artist as a bewigged Louis XIV sorta guy, this is funny stuff. But not cheap funny. Aristocratic. Eric Schwartz is a comic songwriter – but he doesn’t write parodies, ala Weird Al, he composes  original songs in every genre under the sun – much like the great Tom Lehrer used to do – using the conventions of songwriting and stylistics to frame his humor. He is very funny, and quite masterful with the comic song, not an easy thing to do.  This starts with a C&W ballad that goes horribly wrong right up front.  “Black Man In The White House” is a blues about our president, a great turn of lyrics set to a driving Chicago stomp, “there’s a black man in the White House with the blues.”  “Telltale Kitchen” is one of the best of the bunch – a funky and remarkable deluge of culinary disasters that’s especially resonant in this age of constant cooking shows on the tube. “Senator Whatsoever” spills out a political screed of great proportions reflective of the constant outpouring of slanted politics in our media every day. These are great and inventive songs, beautifully fleshed out by Schwartz with Will Kennedy, who co-produced and mixed. The guy takes on content other people don’t consider touching in songs, and fully engages. These are funny songs but also smart ones – so that the humor doesn’t wear off like a cheap joke. And great musicians like Marty Rifkin on pedal steel and Ed Tree on guitar maintain a high level of musicianship throughout. The world needs funny songs when they’re well-written. He’s glib and poetic at the same time, and always with a fine gift for rhyme. Good work Mr. Schwartz, this is a comic treasure.

20144 BootsBad Ass Boots * Gotta Give Me Something *  A revelation.  Passionate country soul that explodes from the first downbeat and never lets up, building a great momentum that expands over the course of these six songs, making us hunger for more. Billie Burnor has a big soulful voice: she knows how to really project a song right to the heart, as in the opening title song, which is all visceral yearning and power. It’s a remarkable melody, written by Burnor with Lisa Nemzo, who also produced, it’s unexpected and arch, yet burns with real passion. But there’s more: in addition to Billie, these Bad Ass Boots boast two other powerful vocalists and songwriters, Karen Mullally and Shazam (aka Suzanne Cimone). “Feels So Good” also burns with genuine fire; it’s funky but triumphant, a statement of power.  “Thelma & Louise,” by Shazam, is a cool shuffle built on bluesy harp that unfolds the notorious narrative right off the edge, where it’s always bound, but beautifully compounded. This is visceral, powerful music.







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