Review: Tom Petty, Hypnotic Eye

•July 30, 2014 • 2 Comments

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

Hypnotic Eye

BLUE Tom Petty cover2


Exultant. A masterpiece. Tom rocks through this album with the great Heartbreakers, and does the unthinkable for most songwriters of his age:  he’s written some of the best songs of his life.

Much more common, as we all know, is for a songwriter to peak in his 20s, and never match the greatness of their first work. Not so Mr. Petty, who started with greatness and has continued to ascend over the decades, while so many of his peers aren’t even in the game anymore. It is remarkable at any age to write great songs. But at this age, and after so much success, it’s triumphant.

Produced by Tom and Mike Campbell with Ryan Ulyate (who also recorded and mixed), it’s an album of much disquiet, of superstition, corruption and evil unchecked, leavened only by the limitless power of love. It’s also an album of much beauty and fury. Even in the bluesy songs comes a chorus of exultant tunefulness, reminding us that the man knows how to construct a song. He knows how to speak to our hearts and our minds at the same time. Though even those he loves, it seems, are not always on his side. The result is one of his strongest and most focused collection of exceptional songs.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Listen to “Faultlines,” a great essential new song for the uneasy emotional landscape which is Los Angeles, using the constant threat of total disaster – an earthquake – as a symbol for the disquiet of love. Which wouldn’t be great, of course, without a killer groove and great tune. It’s another gem he wrote with Mike Campbell, who gives Tom tracks to which Tom writes lyrics and a tune. Some of these have been famously passed on, and handed off to other hitmakers, so that both Henley and Hornsby have had hits with Tom’s discards. Wisely, he didn’t pass on this one, and instead created one of the best songs ever about this city, and the romances which are born, and sometimes die, here at the most western edge of this continent. As far west as you can go, wrote Jack Kerouac, before you fall into the ocean. And Tom, who lives right on the ocean, having come all the way from Florida, understands this Californian dynamic.

See those fault lines laid out like landmines
It’s hard to relax
A promise broken, the ground breaks open
Love falls through the cracks

And I got a few of my own
I got a few of my own fault lines
Running under my life…”

From “Faultlines”
By Tom Petty & Mike Campbell

It all starts with grunge. The opening song “American Dream Plan B,” (the title says it all, time for an alternate plan as that first big one doesn’t seem to be working out) is launched by a grungy electric rhythm guitar, as if Tom plugged into a tiny amp, distorting in the rawness of the night. It’s a song about endurance, about holding onto the dream against all odds.  This isn’t Tom Petty narrating, it’s an American struggling with the modern American struggle – recognizing one’s own weaknesses while resolutely not giving up the fight:


Well, I’m half-lit, I can’t dance for shit
But I see what I want, I go after it
Yeah my girl’s alright, treats me nice
Ain’t nothing but a woman puts out that light

I got a dream, I’m gonna fight ’til I get it
I got a dream, I’m gonna fight ’til I get it right

From “American Dream Plan B.”

The sound is essential and great. I know well how some fans of the Heartbreakers – purists, sure – will never be happy with Steve Ferrone, and still want old Stan Lynch behind the drums. But there is no denying the great sound of Ferrone’s snare slams – except for John Molo and Ringo Starr, there is no drummer who so masters the greatness of the cracking snare backbeat – it falls right between the rhythm guitar bursts, and is eloquent and right. This is Tom Petty raw, and it’s great.

The Heartbreakers. They are distinguished for the greatness of their playing. It was good fortune – serendipity maybe – that brought deeply gifted players like Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell into his world even before he jettisoned Florida to make it big in L.A. Tench, a child prodigy, could play all of Sgt. Pepper on the organ as a kid, and those chops have just grown more soulful and resplendent over the years. And Mike Campbell is simply one of the world’s great rock guitarists, a master of burning, eloquent solos always, sometimes on slide, sometimes not – and visceral, raw guitar riffs perfect for fueling a song. Never too much, his choices always resound with purity; he’s one of the most tasteful guitarists around.  Not to mention the fact that he’s a great songwriter whose singular focus on music and groove results in wonderfully powerful, if sadly dark, songs.

Then the tempo shifts and speeds up, that Ferrone snare still the engine driving this train – and we are in “Faultlines.” Built around a great and slinky riff by Mr. Campbell, this is the essence of the Heartbreakers: all momentum, forward motion, perfect for this lyric of the ground breaking open physically and spiritually. Then on the chorus, on “I’ve got a few of my own faultlines running under my life,” we get the great sweetness of Heartbreakers harmonies, and the effect of this rawness and sweetness fused is visceral and poignant. It’s a familiar sound – Tom’s reedy voice enriched by other voices in perfect harmony (being a great harmony singer always mattered as much in the Heartbreakers, Tom said, which is why the late Howie Epstein got the job) – and makes us feel good even in this uneasy panorama where the earth can open up – figuratively and literally – and swallow up your life at any moment. It is that knowledge of foreboding cataclysm which lies at the center of this work.

“Red River,” a mysterious and beautifully detailed and lovingly melodic if furious song, invites an especially superstitious woman to meet the singer at the Red River to “look down into your soul,” with lyrics that bring to mind Steely Dan’s brilliant “Two Against Nature” with its arcane admixture of spooky, black magic ingredients, spelling the length to which a soul will go to protect or inspire one’s self. We get a great American blend of the accepted holy and unholy (“she’s got a rosary and a rabbit’s foot”) all of which leads to the same place, the unceasing unfolding of our lives. The true source of peace, not unlike Springsteen’s answer, is the river itself, the flow, the force of real life:

She’s got a rosary and a rabbit’s foot
A black cat bone that treats her good
She’s got a tiger tooth and a gris gris stick
Still it don’t do the trick

From “Red River”

“Sins of My Youth” starts with a beautifully arpeggiated minor guitar chord on an electric, the ideal opening to this plaintive ballad of reflection. It’s a coming to terms song, a stated understanding that present love means more than all those endless nights of youthful indulgence, sung inside a weary but beautiful tune:

I’m worn and wounded, but still the same
Oh, let me tell you the truth
I love you more
Than the sins of my youth…”

From “Sins of My Youth”

“Power Drunk” is one of his most explicit and forceful songs about the 1 %, those in this society that allow their own status to overwhelm any internal moral compass. With classic sinewy Mike Campbell lead lines weaving together the vocal lines, we get Tom telling us of how power corrupts forever:

He’s power drunk
Yeah, look at his eyes
Better sober up
It’s the truth within him makes a good man rise
God protect us from the thoughts in some men’s minds

From “Power Drunk”

“You Get Me High” is a great love song using this play on herbal fun to apply instead to love, replete with a resplendent Petty melody. Though the title might seem light-weight in print, when Tom sings it, it goes straight to the heart, and the meaning isn’t just clear, it is overt. That there is only one place to look for a real high, something that will last and be there for strength when needed.

BLUE Tom Petty cover


“How am I gonna tell her I love her/when words don’t mean a thing?” (from “Full Grown Boy.”) Well, one way is writing a song. It’s the reason songwriters become songwriters. Without music, these words just don’t mean as much. Put a great groove and heartrending melody in there, and it suddenly means a lot. As Jackson Browne said, songwriting is a forgiving medium. Not forgiving the songwriter for not writing more lucid words, but forgiving of what is not stated. Music fills in the gaps. Something about the momentum and grace of music and rhythm combined adds a whole level of meaning to lines that, in conversation, might seem nonsensical. When he sings, in “Full Grown Boy,” “the full moon seems to know me,” we are right with him. Even if we are with him in different ways, according to what the full moon means to us. It’s the beauty of song.

“Burnt Out Town” is a half-time shuffle punctuated by perky harmonica exhortations, leading Tom to narrate with spoken words at first, answering a woman who asks him why he looks so down. The answer is this burnt out town – but this town seems to extend to all of America more than his adopted Angeleno home:

This is a burnt-out town
It’s full of dirty looks
There’s ashes on main street
And the mayor is cooking the books
Why, even my best friends are turning into crooks

From “Burnt Out Town”

Tom Petty at the Troubadour.  Photo by Paul Zollo.

Tom Petty at the Troubadour.
Photo by Paul Zollo.


As always, these dark tales are illuminated by wonderful musical moments, such as the drum and harmonica breaks here, which separate us musically and remind us, regardless of everyday American reality, of the redemption inherent in music.

It all comes to a close with “Shadow People,” which starts with solo piano and leads the listener to believe we are going to close this one, as he does others, with a piano ballad. But then the grungy and slinky guitar riffs and rhythms enter, and we are on still shaky ground, ready to break open. It brings to mind the famous vampires on Ventura he sang about back in the day in a previous incarnation, in which the city is peopled at night by dark and sinister souls. Now those shadow people are out in the open, in the light of day, darkening everything they touch with infectious fear and foreboding. It’s about people who have internalized the shadows cynically used to scare them, so that they isolate themselves ominously– even in big cities – with fear:

He’s a 21st Century man
And he’s scary as hell
Cause when he’s afraid
He’ll destroy everything he don’t understand

From “Shadow People”

It ends with an elegy, just Tom solo with an acoustic guitar, after The Heartbreakers have gone home, with this last rather ambiguous vision of the end, or is it the beginning?

Waiting for the sun to be straight overhead
’Til we ain’t got no shadow at all

It’s a beautiful and portentous ending to one of his greatest works.

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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.”

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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

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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.

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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.




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