Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Year of Irving

Irving Fields is a favorite of ours We used to play the Star Liner cruises with him and would never miss a night of his piano melodies at the Waldorf. We still try to catch him at Nino’s in Mahattan when we can– nothing goes better with spaghetti bolognese than Irving doing “Blue Danube” as a pasodoble. The finessed piano stylings on Bagels and Bongos are only a taste of what Irving has done over the years– everything from horn-honking sock-hop twists and velvet mash-ups of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to odes to Davy Crockett and Costa Rica. There’s also this 70s sizzler, “West Indies”, a tight bit of electric, Fender bass funk fom his 44th LP (!) Caribbean Cream, released on the Ford label. The congas come courtesy of one of Latin jazz’s top players, Bobby Matos. The copy of I have was signed by Irving in 1977: “To Mary and Rod, two wonderful people!” Irving has always been all about his public and in 1960 he even tried to teach his fans how to play piano on an E-Z Learn LP. If you follow the eight steps and practice on the piano keys sketched on the LP’s back cover, you’ll be playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” as a rumba in no time. Give it a try, and let a little Irving in your life.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The H Song, Part Two

Life is full of disappointments, but few compare to dropping the needle on Glen Campbell doing “Hava Nagila” and finding out it’s an instrumental. For weeks, I had been imagining what Mr. Wichita Lineman’s voice would sound like twanging its way through our beloved Hebrew Hallmark card, but alas we only get his legendary country guitarwork. Which is, of course, pretty stellar. Before he was known for having one of the best celeb mugshots ever and for making country Hollywood and pop (is that why when I was kid I always confused him for Fran Tarkenton?), he was one of the 60s most sought after guitarists, a vet of sessions with Sinatra, Presley, Nat King Cole, Jan & Dean, and the Beach Boys. The best part of his 1969 take on on the H Song is that it was released as a 45 b-side to “True Grit,” the theme song to the famed Western of the same name, in which Campbell played the Texas Ranger sidekick to John Wayne’s hard-living US Marshal. The H Song has shown up in the most suprising of places, but being the b-side to gun-slinging “rinches” and badge-flashing Marshals, sharing vinyl with Wayne and Campbell, just might rank as one of its oddest couplings ever.

Monday, August 18, 2008

She’d Rather Be Burned As A Witch

It’s well known that Eartha Kitt is a linguistic tongue-twister schooled in at least nine languages, from Spanish to Turkish. But she rarely meshed them all together in a single musical Babel like she did on her fifties version of “Shalom Aleichem” the all-time #1 hit on Billboard’s Shabbat Hot 100 List. For observant Jews, it’s what you’re supposed to sing when you get home from Shabbat services (”Peace Be Upon You”), and as a tune it dates back to the Kabalists, first showing up on the page in 17th century Prague. But the chorus is also a common “What up?” greeting and Kitt mines both here, even throwing in a bit of the H Song for good measure. Which makes her “Sholem” not really a cover of “Shalom Aleichem” at all then (see below for a more “standard” interpretation, albeit a Latin one, by Edmundo Ros), but more like a mash-up: part old-school hymn, part street dictionary, part Jewish greatest hits, and part “Introduction to Greetings of the Globe.” Kitt drops by France, Turkey, Italy, German, Spain, the American midwest (”how-dee-do?”), and finally “the old, old MIddle East.” The track appeared on Kitt’s first album for the Kapp label, after she had already been a Katharine Dunham dancer, a Victor/RCA recording artist, and an actress who could play Helen of Troy and later, Catwoman. It was joined in proto-world music style (Kitt beat Byrne, Cooder, Simon, & Gabriel to the internationalist punch by decades) by “Shango,” “Tierra Va Tembla,” “Jambo Hippopotami” and another Hebrew staple “Ki M’Tzion.”Maurice Levine conducted the orchestra and on the album’s back cover photo, the woman whose not-in-my-name-anti-war riffs made Lady Bird Johnson cry at a White House luncheon, is cradling a sleek black cat.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Oh Helen

Helen Shapiro was Britain’s buck-toothed teen pop queen of the 60s, who never changed her name. Shapiro’s first gig was lead singer of Susie and the Hula Hoops, a band that included a bass player named Mark Feld who did change his name, to Marc Bolan. She quickly left the band and in ‘61, at the age of 14, had her first solo chart hit, “Don’t Treat Me Like A Child.” She was no kid novelty act, though, and over the next few years Shapiro released tons of hit singles and a stack of LPs that made her so huge that when she did her first nation-wide tour in England, The Beatles were her opening act. She even published her own teen advice book, Helen Shapiro’s New Book For Girls. Campus curls up with it at night and reports that it includes the top ten rules of good dress (Golden Rule number 2– “undies may not show but they mattter - -they are a secret between you and your dress”), ”My Friends — The stars,” a collection of photos of her with (Jewish-American) Neil Sedaka and (Arab-Canadian) Paul Anka, and Films of the Year (Steve Reeves in the little remembered Son of Spartacus).This is her version of Sedaka’s “Little Devil” which is remarkable for Shapiro’s lack of vocal re-interpretation– a nearly note for note gender-flipped replica of the original. The track appeared on the 1962 LP, Tops With Me, which she recorded with another no-name-changer, Martin Slavin and His Orchestra. The liner notes tell us that her hobbies include “jiving, netball and playing banjo.” In the 1980s, Shapiro hit the gospel circuit and traded it all for Jesus: “One of the interesting things for me when I first became a believer in Jesus was to find out how Jewish it is and that I didn’t have to stop being Jewish to believe in Jesus.” I blame the netball and the banjo.

Los Hermanos Ames

The Ames Brothers, a strapping sibling quartet known for their easy-does-it Main St. America appeal, were actually the Urick Brothers, the four sons of two immigrant Ukranian Jews who set up family shop in Massachusetts. In the 40s, they were the first signees to the Coral label, where their knack for audio vanilla scored over 20 Top 50 pop hits. RCA Victor was next, and in the wake of albums full of breezy standards, lite exotica, Christmas faves, and Italian hits, they dropped a south of the border bomb, Hello Amigos, in 1960. On the front cover, they disembarked a plane carrying serapes and sombreros, and on the back was a cartoon stick figure plucked from Old Mexico. But don’t let the tourist vibe turn you off– the Brothers enlisted the help of Juan Garcia Esquivel and His Orchestra, the visionary Mexican composer and sonic eccentric recently revived by the bachelor pad crowd. Ed Ames does most of the Spanish-singing here because, they tell us, he had a Cuban wife. Like Nat King Cole’s “Saludos Amigos” Latin Americana albums, Hello Amigos was meant to serve as a tribute to the “colorful nations of the Spanish-speaking world” and the “unswerving loyalty of the Latin character.” Here’s them taking on Otilio del Portal’s classic “Me Lo Dijo Adela” (which they could have done in its well-known English incarnation, “Sweet and Gentle,” but didn’t) and Ary Barroso’s endlessy covered “Brasil” where Esquivel’s trademark orchestral sound effects have a particularly memorable co-starring role. “Perhaps we shall find that Buenos Aires is not as far from Boston as the maps would have us believe,” they mused in the liner notes, and then passed up the perfect groaner of a punchline. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Jewish Atlantic

Edmundo Ros was something like England’s Cugat, a skilled, kitsch-friendly bandleader schooled in Latin rhythms and committed to making them popular with the mainstream. Ros was born in Trinidad and raised in Caracas before moving to London in the late 30s and becoming the UK’s leading advocate of rumba mania. But the tune that put Ros on the Latin exotica map was his 1949 version of “The Wedding Samba,” which was Yiddish songwriting chief Abe Ellstein’s “Der Nayer Sher” dressed up in bananas and maracas. No wonder then that Ros would try to repeat the formula by making a few more Jewish nods later in his career. This is him doing a spooky, horn-blasted take on Friday night’s most-requested hit (originally for Decca), “Latin Shalom” and then him heading to California to go south of the border to go north of the border with a version of “Spanish Flea” the Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass smash (penned by Mexmeister Sol Lake) that was supposed to evoke a make-believe Mexico and ended up as the theme music to The Dating Game.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The "H" Song: Part One

I should be fair to “Hava Nagila.” The song has been good to us, the standard to beat all standards, theme music that can be used for any show. Plus, it’s been covered by everyone, from Belafonte to Celia Cruz and Dick Dale. Funny thing though is that the song most synonymous with traditional notions of Jewish identity– the Anthem of The Jewish Diaspora, really– is a modern tune cobbled together just after WWI in a Jerusalem musicology classroom by Abraham Idelson and Moshe Nathanson out of a European melody that had become a hasidic nigunim (warning: like the song itself, there are multiple versions of this history floating around and this is just one). Since then, the song has never been the same, changing hands and styles constantly. Its power is in its serious flexibility, its ability to go far beyond being a Hora stomper and cross cultural divides to fit the mold of any genre. The story of the H Song will keep unfolding on this site, so stay tuned. But for starters, check this stab at it by The Spotnicks, a group of sixties Swedes with a Yiddish-inflected band name who were best known for the space suits they often wore, not for managing to get the H Song on the English pop charts.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Far Out Katz

Much like Gershon Kingsley (see below), Katz has had one of the more extraordinary, if off-beat careers, in contemporary music. A vet of Army bands and Hollywood orchestras, plus sessions with Lena Horne and Carmen McRae, Katz made his biggest mark by bringing the cello into the forefront of the jazz repetoire. He did it best as a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, an ever experimental ensemble that among many great albums, dropped “Zen”, a Pacific Jazz gem of Katz compositions that went from nirvanic riffs on the title to the Latin dash of “Montuna.” Of course, he also did all the arranging for Harpo Marx’s “Harpo in Hi-Fi” LP, Ken Nordine’s classic “Word Jazz” project, the original score to The Little Shop of Horros, and yes, the ever popular Sidney Poitier Reads Plato record. He also did an A&R stint at Decca before setlling into a long-time academic gig as a must-take music prof. The most admired, if under-discussed, Katz album though is probably this one, Folk Songs for Far Out Folk, which he said was dedicated to the idea that all jazz is born from “the roots of people.” The roots he explores here are folk songs– American, Hebrew, & African. The Hebrew ones no doubt speak to Katz’s own roots as the son of a Kabbalist and Hebraic scholar. On “BAAL SHEM TOV” and “RAV’S NIGUN” Katz is joined by Paul Horn on sax and legendary LA jazzman Buddy Collette on flute. The tracks are from 1959 and sound prophetic in their way pre-Knitting Factory, avant tackle of jazz and Jewish tradition alike.

This album was rereleased by Reboot Stereophonic Records. You can buy it here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Axelrod's Oath

Fans of beats, breaks, and all things drummed (and drummed well) have long appreciated the production and composition work of David Axelrod. Working in house for Capitol in the 60s, his great achievement as a sound sculptor was to merge dreamy, lush symphonics with crackling chunky rhythmics, equally adept at conjuring a sweet urban romance as a careening car chase–just peek at his work with Lou Rawls, Letta Mbulu, and Cannonball Adderley in the 60s or Funk Inc in the 70s, or any of his own solo experiments (including two tripped out William Blake odes and a 70s “Earth Rot” bid for environmental protection). Axelrod grew up in South Central LA in the 30s and 40s, the son of an IWW ragman, and fell into jazz and blues via Central Avenue. While the Blake LPs and his collaboration with the The Electric Prunes on the loved-or-hated Mass in F Minor album are his best remembered concept albums, he also did two on Jewish themes– the 90s shoah meditation Holocaust: Requiem and his 1968 Release of an Oath, which he arranged and wrote even though the Electric Prunes get artist credit (the band was non-existent at that point). Release of an Oath explored Kol Nidre in seven liturgy-filled compositions that were as dramatic, grandiose, and solemn as they were funky and psychedelic– much in the same spirit as Gershon Kingsley’s arrangements for his 1968 moog rock opera for a Shabbat friday night in East Orange, New Jersey. The LP presented Kol Nidre as a modern liberation song, a lament against “the conqueror’s yoke,” a chance for all man to “break the chains that bind him to any oath made under duress and in violation of his principles.” Dick Whetstone’s drumming does most of the album’s best protesting, as you can hear on “Holy Are You,”proof that even Kol Nidre themes can be sampled by Fat Joe and Quasimoto.

Monday, August 11, 2008

My Mammy, Your Mammy

I give up. Is Jack Robin becoming Al Jolson becoming Eddie Fisher? Or is Eddie Fisher becoming Jolson becoming the blacked up Jolson-as-Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer? Who’s ghosting who? Does blackface haunt the Jewish entertainer, or is blackface the Jewish entertainer’s inevitable, utlimate desitination? This RCA LP from 1968 (you can tell it’s from the 60s because the blackface is faded into the background and not paraded front and center) is a pretty remarkable testament to both the lingering influence of Jolson on American popular song and the lingering influence of blackface on American popular song. Fisher came up in the 50s after Jolson had already died, but they were both Russian Jewish products of immigrant parents who did some name changing (Yoelson became Jolson, Fisch became Fisher). Their voices speak to their different eras as jazz singers who didn’t really sing jazz, and Fisher’s Jolson tribute is wrapped in the kind of over-produced pop shmaltz that Jolson didn’t need (his booming, elastic voice had more hammy drama than any producer could conjure in a studio). Fisher sings nothing but Jolson staples here, but it’s his version of “My Mammy” recorded in the thick of the Civil Rights era that is hardest to swallow. Jolson sang it– infamously– in blackface, on one knee, to his immigrant yiddishe momme in The Jazz Singer, as part of his bid for white Americanism via racial masquerade. Fisher sings it in whiteface, as an American, for mammy nostalgia, right when African-Americans were overhauling the racial legacy that blackface minstrelsy symbolized. By the late 40s, it was even hard to find Jolson doing harcore mammy shtick. On this LP released just after Jolson died (just after he returned from entertaining Korean War troops).

Friday, August 8, 2008

Exodus for Everyone

What does it say about us that we care less about the subject of Otto Preminger’s film about the founding of the State of Israel (which starred Paul Newman and was based on Leon Uris’ novel), and more about how everyone from Richard Clayderman to Edith Piaf and Count Basie thought it wise to take a crack at Ernest Gold’s rousing, chest-swelling main theme from the film’s score? Gold fled Vienna in 1938 and started making his mark as a film composer in Hollywood in the mid-forties. His Exodus theme was a huge, Oscar-winning hit in 1960, the perfect launch of a decade when Jews became synonymous with America– as Leslie Fiedler once put it, “when Zion became Main Street.” So much so that when it was time to add lyrics to “Exodus” the task fell to Daniel Boone’s great-great-grandson Pat. “This land is mine,” Boone wrote of Israel a year before the southern Church elder recorded his Reads From The Holy Bible LP, “God gave this land to me.” In 1969, Jimmy Scott (with Junior Mance on piano and Ron Carter on bass) did one of the most beautiful takes on the Gold/Boone version that was as much dirge as patriotic celebration, and four years earlier, the original Gold instrumental got one of its best workouts from Nuyorican conguero Ray Barretto on his Viva Watusi LP (Barretto had already worked the Jewish angle as a member of Juan Calle and His Latin Lantzmen). The other history of Israel: from Vienna to the Watusi via Pat Boone.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Israel’s B-Side

Check out “Israel,” originally written by John Carisi back in that fateful year of 1948. This isn’t his version or Miles’, but the trombone duo of J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding who made it the title of their 1968 A&M stunner. Herbie Hancock, who also played on Jonathan Klein’s “Hear O Israel” session around the same time, was on board, as was Ron Carter and Grady Tate. In his Israel liner notes, Ira Gitler wrote, “Herbie Hancock shifts over the sands of Sinai with both hands before getting into some straight-ahead, right-hand swinging.” Even in 1968 it was still possible to score Israel with a level of sand-shifting calm and straight-ahead swing. Blues, for sure, but not the menacing, dark, tragic, suffering, embattled blues you’d have to score now. Of course, you could also just put on a real fantasy record, “Israeli Sha Sha” from the great Machito. At least Carisi heard the blues as a permanent Israeli score. Machito is pure romance, a tropical, playful Zionism swishing across a dancefloor that for these three minutes at least, has room for everyone. A sigh for the CNN ticker–if only politics actually sounded like this.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Barry Sisters: Our Way

Claire and Merna were The Bagelman Sisters before they became The Barry Sisters and, soon after, the reigning queens of Yiddish swing from the late 30s on. Though best known for turning Yiddish folk tunes into jazzified pop hits (their purring “Tumbala-Lika” can still survive any tasteful DJ set), I’ve always liked them best when they go slightly off book, especially all of their impressive Spanish-language sides (check back here soon for those). But my fave Barry Sisters album comes when most thought their career had long fizzled, in 1973, when they released Our Way on the aptly named Mainstream Records. Instead of Yid hits in pop idioms, this time they did big pop hits in Yid idioms– “It’s Impossible,” “Mame,” “Love Story.” The best of the lot is this version of Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” (sung originally by BJ Thomas on the Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid soundtrack). In Yiddish, it became “Trop’ns Fin Regen Oif Mein Kop” and proved that even a dying language could save 70s radio from itself.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Middle Eastern Mann

Brooklyn’s own Herbie Solomon became jazz’s most hirsute flutist and devoted fusionist. Mann started on the clarinet as a Benny Goodman disciple, but then switched to flute to make his mark, mixing jazz with Afro-Cuban, R&B, funk, reggae, and most importantly Brazilian– he was one of the first US jazz musicians to collaborate with the likes of Jobim and the newly-hip-again Sergio Mendes. Before he died in 2003, Mann recorded Eastern European Roots which lacked the raw sizzle of his earlier work but which he talked about as a return to who he “really” was. I sure hope not. I’d hate to think that his roots voyage would erase all the other versions of Mann we got to meet– from trolling the “Memphis Undergound” to being a “Sultry Serenader” to hustling the “Discotheque” to having a bad case of “Latin Fever.” (Cue Carrie Bradshaw voice-over…)Does getting in touch with our roots negate all the branches? Is Jewishness just a one-way ticket? Plus, Mann may not have done Eastern European before, but he did do the Middle East on his killer 1967 album Impressions of the Middle East. The liner notes make no mention of Mann’s roots and don’t exploit any connection he might have had to the lands he visits here. There’s references to ouds and odalisques and Turkish coffee, the Jewish staple “Eli, Eli,” and this Mann original, “DANCE OF THE SEMITES”, which features Chuck Ganimian on oud, Mohamed Elakkad on zither, the always deft Reggie Workman on bass, and (DJs get ready) the Semitic percussion breaks of Robert Marashlian and Moulay Ali Hafid.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Genuine and Persuasive

Our favorite thing about Richard Hayman’s Genuine Electric Latin Love Machine album is the use of the word “genuine.” As if there were a slew of fake “electric latin love machines” flooding the market. And who better to offer a maraca-shaking Mexican robot in a sombrero as genuine than a Jewish arranger who started off as a harmonica guru before heading for the Boston Pops. Maybe that’s why the LP was subtitled “Persuasive Electronics.” There was some convincing to do. Hayman recorded this gem of Moog antics well after his stint with Borrah Minevitch’s Harmonica Rascals, a group which also produced Johnny Puleo, the harmonica shortie who would go on to do his own Jewish-hits-on-harmonica album. Love Machine was a first (and a last), a contribution to two crazes at once: the Moog craze and the Latin craze. As far as I know, it was a one-of-a-kind analog electro experiment, applying the tonal kaleidoscope of Moog oscillations to “The Peanut Vendor,” “La Comparsa,” and why not, “Hare Krishna.” Hayman lulls us with a version of “Scarlet Ribbons” writer Evelyn Danzig’s “Melody #2″ and goes hardcore on his own “Samba de Victoria”. Flip the album cover over, though, and you learn that even the latin love machine has limits, not to mention a whole history of stereotype to uphold. Unplug the robot and all you’re left with is another sleeping Mexican.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

That Levy Boy

There were plenty of Jews who got tangled up in the Latin music scene in the 40s and 50s, but only a few went for the name-change masquerade (think radio man Dick “Ricardo” Sugar). Alfred Levy could have become Alan Land but instead opted for Alfredito and morphed into a top percussionist on the NYC mambo scene. He gigged with Tito Puente and Joe Quijano before cooking up his own mambo unit that eventually got signed up to Tico Records (run by two of his lantzmen, George Goldner and Art “Pancho” Raymond). Early on Alfredito’s insider-outsider status produced tracks like this one, Chinese Cha Cha Cha which first appeared on Rainbow Records’ Alfredito Plays Mambo! 10″ and later as one of the “tantalizing rhythms” on Tito Puente’s Latin Spectacular LP showcase alongside cuts from Puente, Machito, Tito Rodriguez, Joe Loco, and Martino Savanto. In 1966, Alfredito went boogaloo for a Cotique release that showed him dabbling in Latin soul and R&B and even grabbing the mic. Here he does Sweets For My Sweet a classic from Doc “Jerome Felder” Pomus that was first made famous by The Drifters (even then it had a Latin shuffle to it), then covered by a host of folks including dubnaut Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Belle Barth: Uncensored

Pearlstein, Bernstein, Levitt, and Fink. Not a law firm, but a roll call of forbidden fruit, the “Nice Jewish Girls” who torture and taunt the Gentile bloodline of a young Loudon Wainwright III perhaps the most un-Jewish of all non-Jewish American singers. “Not Nordic names, I know,” he whines. It’s a short, odd ode to Country Day school boy-lust for the Other girls, the ones with the long names, the ones in the same tax bracket who hold out the mythical promise of exotic possibility somewhere deep in the suburbs. Jewish girls don’t usually get a good rap in pop culture– the wallet-draining, life-ruining, soul-stealing Jewish American Princess archetype has pretty much held Jewish women in a representational stranglehold for decades– and his song is no Jewish feminist anthem, but at least it’s momentarily celebratory. Plus, Wainwright comes off as the deprived and depaved one here. He may have the blue-blood, but they make his “juices flow” and by the song’s end, he sounds desperate for what he can’t have, like he’d do anything for them, like he’d stalk their Shabbas dinners, like he’d memorize Funny Girl, like he’d have a poster of Grace Adler on his dorm room wall (if she’d been invented yet). I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Wainwright had added Salzman to his Hebraic Hall of Fame– Annabelle Salzman to be exact. In the 50s and 60s, Salzman became the bawdy wonder Belle Barth, the gruff, potty-mouthed queen of a not-so-nice-Jewish-girls court that also included the likes of Pearl Williams and Patsy Abbott. Barth was a working-class trash-talker who worked nights in Miami Beach and Manhattan, sitting in front of the piano, singing about shmucks and oral sex, dishing insults at the insurance men in the front row. “If I embarrass you,” Barth liked to say, “Tell your friends.” Wainwright would have been on the next train back to Westchester.