The Atomic Mr Basie

Count Basie : The Atomic Mr Bassie (#9)

Count Basie | The Atomic Mr Basie (1958)
Roulette (USA)
Swing / Big Band 39:30

Thunderous applause filled the auditorium as I made my way to the front of the stage. I could feel the sense of pride well up inside of me, as I approached my adoring audience and took my bow. They had seen me in action and, approving of my performance, were giving me the admiration I deserved. But did I? Because as an actor, while I can take the credit, how much really belongs to me? I didn’t write the script; I hadn’t made and fitted the costume; I hadn’t created the set or the lighting; and I had been guided to where I should stand, how I should speak, even what gestures to make, by another person. All I can do when I take to the stage is hope that I can remember the words and don’t fall over. At what point is this down to any talent I may kid myself that I possess?

It can be the same with musicians as it is with actors. We have already seen how Frank Sinatra’s relationship with Nelson Riddle had brought him renewed success; and even a band of near untouchable greatness such as The Beatles were undoubtedly reliant as much on the skills of producer George Martin as they were on their own formidable talents. As for Count Basie and his band, they had at their side the work of composer and arranger Neal Hefti. Having started playing in bands himself, Hefti had moved into more of a backstage role by the mid-1940s and, in 1950, began working with Basie. The results proved sensational, pushing the musician back into the spotlight, with critics raving about his work. But who is the real genius behind the work?

A few years ago, I had the privilege of seeing two of our finest actors performing in one of the great plays of the 20th Century. Settling in to watch Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan tackle Samuel Beckett’s wonderful Waiting for Godot, I knew I would be in for a treat. I have seen Patrick Stewart in performance a couple of times and he is an outstanding actor; he commands the stage, bringing a strength of presence that draws your eyes towards him. If I ever get the chance to see him again, I will gladly take it, knowing I will be witnessing one of Britain’s finest in action. And yet…when the man behind Gandalf entered stage right, something rather special happened. Ian McKellan was a revelation. I knew he was good – he’s Sir Ian, for goodness sake! – but he completely blew his fellow thespian out of the water. Don’t get me wrong; Patrick gave a fine performance that, on its own, would still be one of the best I have ever seen. But there was something about McKellan that extended far beyond this. Yes, the script was sublime, the staging was wonderful and the direction perfect. But McKellan gave something more; he turned the whole experience into something magical. To this day, my overriding memory of that performance is witnessing the world’s greatest actor in the flesh. While I can claim that all an actor needs to do is remember his lines and not fall over (occasionally I’ve managed to get through a performance without doing either), a truly great master of the craft brings so much more.

Like many of these moments (and I hate to sound too Hollywood in all this) it is a meeting of minds at the top of their game. Yes, Hefti was an outstanding writer and arranger, creating some beautiful numbers; but Basie had the innate talent and had surrounded himself with a tight orchestra who were able to interpret the material and make it their own. Hefti’s genius was to play to the strengths of Basie’s orchestra, ensuring that each musician was able to shine. As fellow musician Miles Davis, who features later in this list of albums, pointed out: “If it weren’t for Neal Hefti, the Basie band wouldn’t sound as good as it does. But Neal’s band can’t play those same arrangements nearly as well.” You can have all the right notes in all the right places but, if you don’t have somebody with the magic touch to perform it, it can still sound bland. But give a talented group of musicians a masterpiece of writing, and the result can be electrifying. Such is the case with The Atomic Mr Basie.

Things kick off at speed with the explosive trumpets on The Kid from Red Bank. Mixed in with some fine piano work, this is a stunning introduction to the music of Count Basie. Much like Ellington’s work, it screams smoky jazz clubs in New York and a time long since lost. Yet, for the exuberance in the playing, there is a tightness to it as well; from the start these are musicians confident not just in their own ability, but who completely trust one another too. There is no sense of one trying to outdo another; this is about letting each one have their moment in the spotlight. Duet brings a smoothness to proceedings, the piano and brass counterpointing the double bass; here is a track to lounge to.

Each number on this album is a masterpiece in itself, from the slow easiness of After Supper to the joyfulness in Basie favourite Flight of the Foo Birds. The band doesn’t hit a wrong note and it becomes quickly evident that they are enjoying the thrill of playing tunes that have been expertly composed and arranged as much as the listener is in hearing it. Stand out numbers like the call and response playing of Splanky and gentle beauty and brilliance of closing number Lil’ Darlin’ stand side-by-side, proving that when you combine the right elements, you are guaranteed something rather special.

If you’ve got a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:

 

Next time: Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk

The Chirping Crickets by The Crickets

The Crickets : The “Chirping” Crickets (#8)

The Crickets | The “Chirping” Crickets (November 1957)
Brunswick (USA)
Rock and Roll / Rockabilly 25:59

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Where does our inspiration come from? What is it that gives us a spark of creativity which compels us to make or build? Is there really “nothing new”; are we really just recycling old ideas and passing them off as our own innovative thinking? Certainly the wise speaker of the quote taken from the Bible above (possibly King Solomon, although there is some debate which I won’t get into here) seems to think so. Even geniuses like Shakespeare borrowed heavily from other sources to create their masterpieces. And listening to the current music chart, there are plenty of times when it feels like it is made up of nothing more than hits from my youth regurgitated for a new generation (and not just the tracks making heavy use of ‘sampling’, like those made by the great Mark Ronson).

Thinking of some of the musical innovators who I admire, I am forced to admit that, more often than not, they have not come up with these new sounds themselves. Take a look at any of the big hitters of the 1960s, for example: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones. As their music developed, they all made a mark on the scene which can still be felt – and heard – today. Despite the insistence of John Lennon that The Beatles were “just a band” (contender for biggest understatement of the century), they were consistently pushing music in new directions. Yet each one of those had their own influences; their own musical heroes who they admired and emulated. And the name which comes up more often than any other as one of their biggest inspirations? Step forward Charles Hardin Holley – better known as Buddy Holly.

It’s hard to argue with the view of critic Bruce Eder that Holly was, despite his too short life, “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll”. Both Lennon and McCartney emulated him with their early work – not just with covers of his songs (an early recording of That’ll Be the Day by The Quarrymen can be heard on their first Anthology album) but down to their very name, cheekily riffing on The Crickets to come up with The Beatles. Dylan saw Holly play live just two days before the singer’s death in 1959, with Bob continuing to feel his influence decades later (he insisted that he felt Holly had been present during the recording of 1998’s Time Out of Mind). And one of the Stones’ biggest early hits was a cover of Not Fade Away. When Don McLean sang of The Day the Music Died in 1971, there was no doubt that many agreed the world had lost a truly great singer and songwriter when Buddy’s flight crashed, killing all those on board (including fellow singers Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper).

But does the music meet the hype? Was Holly – who only made three full albums before he died in that February aged just 22 – really that good? The truth is, as the first song begins to play, after almost 60 years, The Crickets still sound amazing. I first heard Buddy Holly as a pre-teen, playing a greatest hits compilation on cassette owned by my parents. It became a well-played recording, with me often putting it into the player and doubtlessly wearing the tape thin. At the time, I didn’t know what it was that attracted me to it (I had only begun listening to songs in the charts a few months earlier), but I like to think that it was the genius of the songwriting and talent in the playing which kept me coming back. Certainly I realised I was listening to something very special.

The first song on the recording I’ve got is Rock Me My Baby (some recordings put this as the last number on the album, starting instead with Oh Boy). As the guitars start to twang, a shiver runs down the spine. While I know many of Holly’s numbers, thanks to that cassette of my parents, this is the first time I had heard this particular track. And what a number – I suddenly hear the revolutionary sound that those teenagers had heard so many years before. The brilliant numbers keep on coming: Oh Boy, which for a Crickets’ song is a throwaway number, is still head-and-shoulders above most. Then comes Not Fade Away; the song which the Stones chose to cover. It’s not hard to hear why; the staccato guitar playing and the incessant beat make this a number that screams instant classic. Even hearing it now, it is like capturing a once-in-a-lifetime experience in music. This is a man who could not only play, not only turn out hit after hit, but who could push the boundaries of music. The only response, even at my age, is to want to pick up a Fender Stratocaster (Holly’s guitar of choice) and start playing.

You’ve Got Love sounds slightly old-fashioned (particularly after the previous three songs on the album) but that doesn’t stop it being a sweet number. But just when you wonder if the group has peaked too early, comes along Maybe Baby. The musical ability on the slower It’s Not Too Late, which may not match the virtuosity of other numbers, still manages to draw a breath of awe, while Tell Me How could be released by any band between then and now and still sound fresh and original. As for That’ll Be The Day, the introduction on guitar is still something that any guitarist would be happy to master. The apparent simplicity of the numbers, an assumption easy to make from the lyrics, hide a brilliant talent on the instruments. There is a tightness to the playing which belies Holly’s young age (he was barely 20 when he recorded this, his first album).

As the album heads towards its end (the whole thing wraps up in just 25 minutes), Looking for Someone to Love keeps things moving, demonstrating that even The Crickets’ less known songs are still nothing short of masterclasses in writing and playing. Three slower numbers wind the album down, perhaps an anti-climax to the preceding tracks (although don’t let that fool you into thinking they aren’t worth a listen). While some aspects of the recording may have dated slightly (the backing vocals sound like they should be used in songs from the 1940s than the late 1950s), this is still an amazing debut that deserves to live on. If it can influence some of the greatest artists from the last 50 years, many of whom have gone on to redefine music, then The “Chirping” Crickets needs to be played to any aspiring musician; without the work of Charles Hardin Holley, modern music would sound very different – and certainly be a lot less exciting. Listen to this album and you’ll soon realise that this was a man who changed the world.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:

 

Next time: The Atomic Mr Basie by Count Basie

Frank Sinatra - Songs for Swingin Lovers

Frank Sinatra : Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! (#7)

Frank Sinatra | Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! (March 1956)
Capitol (USA)
Jazz / Vocal Jazz / Traditional Pop 44:00

Three minutes – that’s all you get. From start to end, the average pop song can fit a love story, a broken heart, a lifetime of emotions, into just 180 seconds (give or take a few either side). But what makes that such a perfect length for a track? Why do we rarely hear a song last no more than 30 seconds or span out to a distant 10 minutes or more? With the odd exception, why has the Western world accepted that the time it takes to boil an egg is sufficient for a masterpiece of music.

Of course, the real reason is simply one of technical limitations. When the first singles were released at 78 rpm, it was only possible to record that amount of time on to the vinyl. Anything much longer would simply not fit – you had space for three minutes, so it made sense to make use of it. But it has been a long time since the days when those particular vinyl recordings were available; we’ve developed over the years to the point where, with our MP3 players, it is entirely possible to record hours of music as just a single song. Yet the three-minute pop song has remained – even thrived – as if this is the only length that the human brain can cope with hearing.

I know that there are exceptions – from the short blasts of thrash metal numbers to the sprawling sound of jazz performers (just take another listen to some of the wonderful tunes in the last album – rarely do you worry that Duke and his band have exceeded their allotted time). But, by and large, the traditional popular music hit, from the 1950s until today, is as close to three minutes as you can humanly hope for (in the case of The Jackson Five’s ABC, in fact, it is right on the nose). It persists on albums (most tracks on any long player will rarely extend beyond the four minute mark) and there is no getting away from the fact that, once your song starts, you have only a few short minutes to make the most of it before it ends.

The reason why we insist on keeping songs at this length is harder to fathom. But there is something about the shortness which works – they are long enough to tell us a story and etch their ways into our brains, but not so long that they outstay their welcome. Pick a favourite number and I suspect that you will be able to play it a good number of times on a loop before tiring of it. The art of the catchy tune, which has us humming along and tapping our feet, seems to be interwoven with the length of time it takes to run in its entirety.

So it comes as little surprise that Frank Sinatra follows this rule with one of his best known albums (which, as it happens, was the first album to ever reach the top of the official album charts in the UK). It surely cannot be a coincidence that the 15 tracks on Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! last a total of 45 minutes. Work it out – that’s an average of three minutes per number. Ol’ Blue Eyes seems to have found the formula and, wouldn’t you know it, it put him in the position of claiming the first ever number one.

Much of the credit for this album’s success (and arguably Sinatra’s change of fortune in the mid-1950s) is down to the brilliant arrangements of Nelson Riddle. Riddle had helped boost the career of Nat King Cole when he arrived at Capitol at the start of the decade, and the studio wanted to use him to help the newly arrived Sinatra find success. Frank had initially resisted but, after finally relenting, the result was the smash hit In The Wee Small Hours. Realising that Riddle was a good thing, the pair teamed up again a couple of years later. The final product was a million miles away from the misery of their first effort with the more upbeat Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! And what an album it is.

Things kick off in style with the brilliant You Make Me Feel So Young. From the off, this is clearly no repeat of the previous Sinatra record (in fact, only one slower song was allowed to be included to avoid it sounding anything like In The Wee Small Hours). The joie de vivre of the number, with Frank sounding like the excitement of young romance and the first budding of love wants to just explode out of him, is infectious. The arrangement truly makes one feel the burst of youth again and puts a smile on the face.

This is the Chairman of the Board that I remember; the swinging lounge lizard, crooning to the Las Vegas crowd. And while that may sound like damning him with faint praise, don’t be fooled. This is an album that never puts a foot wrong. The smooth tones of Frank’s voice against the warmth of the music turns this into a dream of an album. As he glides into It Happened in Monterey, the open roads of 1950s Europe open up before you; you can feel yourself in an open-top car, Audrey Hepburn by your side (to be fair, this may be more of a personal fantasy), driving down to a town by the sea, the sun glistening off the ocean. And the mood continues with You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me, another song of love and desire with no doubts or fears of unrequited feelings. When Sinatra sings on this album, the sun appears and all is right with the world.

The music continues to bring a smile to the face, with such classic renditions as Got You Under My Skin and Makin’ Whoppee (has anyone performed this number any better? The mischief in Sinatra’s voice as he sings the story of a man desperate for some nookey, but ends up in a relationship where he certainly isn’t wearing the trousers, you can almost see his broad grin). And if Anything Goes sounds a little out of place (one of the few times when Sinatra comes so close but doesn’t quite manage to pull it off), then it is all wrapped up beautifully with How About You.

We’re only seven albums in and already Sinatra has appeared twice (he makes it onto the list one more time but has to wait until 1967 for that third pleasure). And while there is no denying the excellence of his first album on the selection, this is the one for which, at least to this point in proceedings, he needs to be remembered. Like a summer’s day, this one still shines brighter than many of those which have come in the six decades since. As a way of starting the UK’s first album chart, there are few records more deserving than appearing as its first number one. This is a record which truly deserves to be on any list of the world’s greatest ever albums.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:

 

Next time: The “Chirping” Crickets by The Crickets

Duke Ellington - Ellington at Newport

Duke Ellington : Ellington at Newport (#6)

Duke Ellington | Ellington at Newport (July 7, 1956)
Columbia (USA)
Jazz 127:00

During the mid-1990s, as my musical tastes were developing, a badge bearing the slogan ‘Keep Music Live’ began doing the rounds. Bands were keen to show that their songs were not created by whiz-kid producers and session artists in the studio, but were able to bring their talents directly to the stage. Gone were the days of pop stars badly miming along to their latest hit single – instead the musicians were able to show their ability to hold a tune and actually perform – what they played was what you got.

There is a certain atmosphere that cannot be reproduced when you see an act live; a song, which previously was a deeply personal connection between you and the artist, suddenly becomes a shared experience with dozens – or even hundreds – of other people. And a performer can connect with this and, if all goes well, up their ante. So often it can be heard that a certain live rendition was the best that people, privileged enough to be in the audience, will insist was the greatest a certain number would ever be played; witness the numerous arguments between fans of The Who, each one insisting that the show that they had attended was the definitive live performance (an argument to which we will doubtlessly return when we reach the group’s Live in Leeds album in 1970).

But both these points leave a big question for Ellington at Newport – and one I overlooked in the rules. Because, while the performance put in by Duke on July 7, 1956, is regarded as one of his greatest moments, unfortunately, the original recording was so bad that he was forced to return to the studio and recreate the live show. For many years, this was the only version available – much like Thin Lizzy did 20 years later, the “live” show available on vinyl was the only recording you could hear – despite being a mixture of original recordings from the night, studio retakes and canned applause. But then, in 1999, the album was reissued on CD which, using the latest technology (probably doing something that would be far beyond my understanding), allowed the original live recording to finally be heard in full.

So what do I do? Do I stick to my initial rule – no reissues allowed – and force myself to listen to the album as it was first released. Because, while it is clearly going to be a good album, the reason for its inclusion in the book was for the simple fact that the original concert itself was so important – and I can only truly appreciate that aspect of it if I listen to the reissue.

To be perfectly honest, I’m setting myself up for a fall. I have no reason to dislike the extended cuts – if it were a movie, I’d wait for the longer director’s cut to make its appearance before heading out to buy it (I’m looking at you Peter Jackson). Heck, I even own the definitive box set of Blade Runner, which includes five (yes, really – five) different cuts of the film. In fact, it’s one of my most prized possessions. But I digress. In terms of a recording artist, it can be illuminating to listen to outtakes as they try to find their way (for example, there are some fascinating alternate versions of songs on the three Beatles anthologies – not in this list but highly recommended). But this isn’t about different takes of already popular tracks or even the occasional number which didn’t make the final cut as a result of space. No – this is about an album which, while in practice has been available since 1956, has only been able to shine for the last 16 years, since its release in a new edition.

Of course, all this is a completely pointless argument if the actual songs themselves – on either version of the album – weren’t any good. When Duke Ellington performed at Newport, it was the start of a resurgence for him; after a spell when his style of music had fallen out of favour with the record buying public, the release of this album saw him once again reclaim his title (indeed, this proved to be the biggest selling record of his career). And listening through it (and, yes, I went for the lengthy reissue rather than the 44 minute original), it isn’t hard to see why. The musicality of Duke and his band is incredible, switching effortlessly from slow blues to upbeat swing, often mid-number. I admit, jazz is not my forte – while the idea of sitting in a jazz bar appeals, I’d end up looking more like John Thomson’s Louis Balfour than any real expert. But I can appreciate both good music and talent when I hear it, and this album produces these two aspects in spades.

I’m not going to try to dissect this record in detail – I feel I’d need to be more knowledgeable to get away with my ramblings about the genre. Besides, the stand-out tracks are numerous; this is a record that churns out brilliant number after brilliant number. My particular favourite is the 8 minute Festival Junction, with some incredible playing from the musicians on the stage which just gets the body moving. But picking out one number is a little like choosing a favourite child – you simply don’t want to do it. And while the nature of the music would suggest something to be played at a dinner party (and it is wonderful music to accompany such an occasion), it also demands that you listen intently to each number. The concert’s reputation is immense – as is the skill of the Duke (I’m no jazz expert but I could tell you that he was regarded as one of the masters). Listening to this album, you realise that it is richly deserved. Don’t bother with the original recording – the more of such wonderful sounds as these, the better.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:

 

Next time: Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! by Frank Sinatra

This is Fats

Fats Domino : This is Fats (#5)

Fats Domino | This is Fats (1957)
Imperial (USA)
Boogie Woogie/ Rhythm and Blues / Traditional Pop – 27:00

Pop quiz – can you name five Elvis Presley songs? How about five songs by The Beatles? What about Abba? David Bowie? Easy, isn’t it? After all, they’ve had such a huge number of hit records? Which begs the question, how many songs by Fats Domino can you name? I’ll be surprised if you get more than three (which would be more than me – I think I could manage two at a push). So it may come as a surprise that The Fat Man has racked up 37 Top 40 hits in his career. Ok, so it isn’t quite the number of those other artists (Elvis and The Beatles both win that contest with over 100). But he certainly wasn’t a one-hit wonder either – and his influence is still being felt in the charts today.

It’s always curious how future generations remember those trend-setters coming before them. Take punk, for example. Looking back at the late 1970s phenomena, from a viewpoint 40 years after the event, it would be easy to assume that the charts were dominated by the likes of The Ramones or Stiff Little Fingers. During the height of Brit Pop in the mid-90s, a style that borrowed heavily from the genre, even Tony Blair was claiming to be a punk rocker (although, as one wag noted, it is hard to imagine the instigator of New Labour moshing to Career Opportunities or White Riot). But, despite this wave of nostalgia, go back to the charts of 1977 or 1978 and it wasn’t the likes of The Clash or Sex Pistols really dominating. That honour, instead, went to the disco kings and queens; in truth, the kids were more likely to be putting on their favourite Bay City Roller tartan than sticking safety pins through their noses and gelling their hair up into mohawks.

While Fats may not be the force he once was, at least as far as being remembered by the current generation of music buying tweens, it doesn’t stop his work from being some of the most important in the history of modern music. And nowhere is that more evident than in his album This is Fats. In its 12 tracks, you can hear the modern pop charts taking shape, in much the same way that Elvis, at his very best, was doing with his recordings. You only have to listen to the opening number of Blueberry Hill – the one classic which everyone should recall – to realise this is going to be one hell of an album. No single take of the song was ever completed (according to legend, not helped by Fats never being able to remember the words); yet the production is so strong that you never realise. When you’re dealing with songs of this calibre, sung by artists as skilled as Fats, it would take a lot more to ruin such a great track.

The opening four numbers go from strength to strength; just when you think that one could never be topped, along comes a song that’s even better than the last. What could be better than Blueberry Hill than the fantastic Honey Chile? And how do you follow that, other than with the wonderful What’s the Reason I’m Not Pleasing You? And want a cherry to place on the top of that confection of brilliance? It can only be Blue Monday – a song that encapsulates all the feelings of facing the start of the week. Just listen to that intro on the piano before going into a lament of the end of the weekend and struggling through a working week. Who can’t relate to those sentiments?

After such a brilliant start, perhaps it’s little wonder that the fifth track jars a little for me. There’s no denying So Long is a great song, with a wonderful sax solo in the middle. But following on from the previous songs, somehow it doesn’t quite gel for me. Perhaps the wonderful start doesn’t help – a weaker song, which in reality is pretty good, suddenly sounds much worse in comparison. Not to worry, things pick up again with the bopping beat of La La – few words but a track which still manages to really bring a sense of boogie woogie to proceedings after a couple of slower numbers.

There’s no denying that the second half of the album doesn’t quite live up to its opening songs; but, in some ways that’s like saying £1.9 million isn’t quite as good as £2 million – they difference is so minimal that, to be honest, I’d be happy with either. Troubles of My Own and You Done Me Wrong keep things going well. However the slower Rockin’ and Reelin’ seems to prove that Fats is better when he’s pounding his piano rather than trying to perform at a more leisurely pace; despite a run time of only 2 minutes 25, the number does seem to drag – as does the instrumental The Fat Man’s Hop and Poor Poor Me. Fortunately, the closing number of Trust in Me goes some ways of returning to the beat of the original numbers – a faster sound with a great guitar solo in the middle (you can hear rock ‘n’ roll being created before your very ears).

So does it matter that, in truth, only half of the album hits the mark? Does it matter that, while some songs are undeniable classics, others on an album may be less fondly remembered? Can a record that has less than a 50 per cent approval rating from the listener still be deemed as a ‘must listen’? Is it just my own modern ear which is failing to recognise a consistent greatness to the album? I admit that I don’t know. But one thing is for certain – there is no doubting Fats’ talent and, when the songs are strong, they are true classics. Fats Domino may no longer be remembered in the same way as Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for his contribution to modern music; but, even if this album doesn’t always hit the mark, there is plenty on here to prove that his influence should not be forgotten. If only for the first four songs alone, this album is definitely one every aspiring musician should listen to – because, trend-setter or not, you can’t argue with tracks that good.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:

Next time: Ellington at Newport by Duke Ellington

Louis Prima's The Wildest!

Louis Prima : The Wildest! (#4)

Louis Prima | The Wildest! (November 1956)
Capitol (USA)
Big Band / Swing – 32:00

Picking a favourite Disney film is no mean feat. When you have the likes of Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Mary Poppins – the list of choices goes on. Add to that neglected classics like The Emperor’s New Groove, The Princess and the Frog and The Black Cauldron, and then the Pixar films (which now come under the Disney banner) and it is almost impossible. Almost – but not quite. Because, from my childhood to this day, one stands out above all the others. Because one film still manages to put a smile on my face, no matter how blue I am. Because, without any doubt in my mind, the Disney film which is head and shoulders above all the others is still The Jungle Book.

What is it about the film which causes such affection to well up in me? It certainly wasn’t the first Disney film I watched (though I don’t recall exactly, I’m pretty sure the first one I saw was Sleeping Beauty at a very tender age). In fact, it was only later in life that I began to go back to it as any sort of classic. But there is so much in it which, over the years, has created a real resonance with me. There is a beauty in the simplicity of the animation; it does the job of creating a vivid landscape without ever being showy. The story, again, is a simple coming-of-age tale which is easy to follow but, as is often the case, has a universality to it. And it has a thumping heart and soul through the characters: Bagheera the panther; Baloo the bear; and, of course, King Louie, the orangutan who just wants to be human.

The primate royal, whose scene has always seemed the centrepiece of the movie to me, was given amazing character by the wonderful Louis Prima. The swinging sound of the King of the Swingers still has me, much like Baloo, grooving along, unable to stop my shoulders swaying. This is a voice with the power of dance – so it comes as little surprise to find that The Wildest!, which precedes the Disney film by more than a decade, instantly has the same effect on me.

Outside of The Jungle Book, I’ve not really come across much Prima. Which is a shame, given how highly I rate his performance in the movie. The singer, who was able to constantly adapt his sound to fit with the times, was in the midst of a renaissance when he recorded The Wildest!: he had moved from the clubs of New York to the stages of Las Vegas; married a woman almost half his age (Keely Smith); and was enjoying a new found audience that lapped up his joyous sounds. It is these wonderful, happy, dance-fuelling rhythms that make the album such a pleasure to find.

Things open with the wonderful Just a Gigalo; the beat pounded out from the piano makes you just want to get up and dance. It was Prima’s most famous number – a line from it was used as his epitaph on his gravestone – and it isn’t hard to see why. There is an infectious feel to the whole album that pervades into the soul from the start. Prima has been likened to a poor man’s Louis Armstrong; and, while Satchmo is clearly unparalleled in his genius, it does Prima a disservice. He had worked hard to achieve the success he attained by the release of this album and his talent for a good number shines through.

As the album moves into (Nothing’s Too Good) For My Baby, the Latino feel whisks you away to a nightclub in South America. This could be the soundtrack to many a film from the 1950s with a setting south of the border. I can see Cary Grant walking into a bar with Rita Hayworth dancing to one of these numbers. But above all, the swinging sound cannot but bring a smile to your face (how can you not grin hearing Prima sing to Smith that ‘just for you I’d learn to bake a pie…’?) Things never let up as the album races from track to track, with Smith taking lead vocal on the wonderful The Lip. Each number has a hook that draws you in and, at this speed, it is little wonder the album is over in little more than half-an-hour.

We slow down for the instrumental Body and Soul, displaying that the talent of Prima went far beyond his voice; this is more of a smoke-filled room of a number, but one that nonetheless creates a groove in the shoulders. As Prima turns the tune into The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, you realise that he is more interested in creating joy in any way he can. Oh Marie is something of a throwaway number, but it gives you a couple of brief minutes to get your breathe back before the medley cover of Basin Street Blues / When It’s Sleepy Time Down South. Prima’s version of the classic Louis Armstrong songs may not have the deep resonance of Pops’ wonderful voice, but that doesn’t need to distract from the quality of the numbers; the trumpet playing is impeccable and Prima’s voice carries them well.

As you’d expect Jump, Jive an’ Wail is another toe-tapper that keeps the beat moving incessantly on; one thing which can be said of this album is that it never really lets you stop for breath. It feels as if you are being dragged on to your feet and given free-reign to just get down and boogie for 30 minutes. The wonderful joy of letting yourself go and dancing is clear in song after song after song on The Wildest! A tango feel to Buona Sera shows how even a slower number can keep you on a dancefloor (although, admittedly, it soon picks up speed).

Finally, after the brief instrumental of Night Train, things round off with the wonderful I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You. It is a winning end to a fantastic album which, as the title suggests, shows that Louis Prima really is the wildest – in fact, a decade before he hit the big screen, this album goes a long way to crowning him the King of the Swingers.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:

 

Next time: This is Fats by Fats Domino

Tragic Songs of Life album

The Louvin Brothers : Tragic Songs of Life (#3)

The Louvin Brothers | Tragic Songs of Life (1956)
Capitol (USA)
Country – 35:55

The great American comedian Bob Newhart once said: “I don’t like country music, but I don’t mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means ‘put down’.” To be honest, I think he was being over-generous; it assumes far too much intelligence on behalf of Country and Western fans.

What is it about country music that grates on me? It is perhaps the most American of music; but it is also one that conjures up an image of toothless rednecks swigging moonshine in some dirty Deep South backwater. I’ve seen Deliverance; I know what they do to pretty boys like me in that part of the world. I know the genre is huge and, yes, I am more than well aware that it has even influenced some of my own musical idols (one of Bob Dylan’s best albums is his country-heavy – and, noteably, occasionally maligned – Nashville Skyline; it has been sadly neglected in this list of 1,001 records). But even so, there is something about the sound which sets my teeth on edge. I’m not talking about those artists who have tried to crossover into the mainstream – a cynical attempt to pander to the pop chart (for whom I have even less respect; at least stay true to your roots, people!). I’m thinking of those real country singers who sound like they are strangling a cat when they sing. Seriously, who sings like that? A few ‘yee-hahs!’ and shots fired into the air, and the stereotypical image would be complete. So will a listen to one of the early works of this goliath of American music change my mind? Well, not really.

The Louvin Brothers are highly regarded in the genre of country; older brother Ira was certainly living the life he sang about (an alcoholic who had been married four times – including a third wife who shot him – he died in a car crash while wanted by the police for a DUI charge), even if his younger sibling, Charlie, was much more sedate. If what they say is true, that you really do have to live country and not just sing it, Ira was out to prove it. But for all of his pain, it doesn’t make much of a difference.

Ok, maybe I’m being overly harsh. The purpose of this was to come to these albums fresh and unprejudiced; to open myself to new experiences. And, trust me, I do want to like it. I want to be able to say that my musical taste is eclectic without turning my nose up at those genres I used to ignore. To be able to throw in the occasional ‘of course, the original is so much better’ never looks bad either.

But I can’t. At least, not with this album. Things start off relatively well – opener Kansas has a certain charming twang to its guitar and there is a sense that this could go well. There is a definite bluegrass tone to many of the songs on this album, and, for me, that gives it the potential to please. Even the singing doesn’t have me cringing inside, wanting to turn it down before too many people wandering past my door overhear the sounds of country escaping through the gaps in the window. There is a sense this is more folksy; more akin to Woody Guthrie than a precursor to Billy Rae Cyrus. But it is a false sense of security. Things turn sour pretty darn quickly and, frankly, talking about individual tracks becomes impossible as the songs all seem to merge into one. Not in a good ‘every one is a classic’ way. No, this is more the fact that they all have the same droning sound to them. Even the brothers’ rendition of In The Pines (which many in my generation came to through Nirvana’s cover of the same song – this time entitled Where Did You Sleep Last Night – on their Live in New York album; possibly one of the best songs on that particular album) doesn’t get the juices flowing when performed by the Louvin boys.

In fairness, the voices of the two brothers do possess a sense of loss and pain. But alongside that is the sound of whinging. Yes, to my ear, it sounds like nothing more than a couple of people whining to a woeful guitar soundtrack. There is no real feeling that I want to know more about their lost loves and broken lives. Instead, I wish they would find somebody else to unload their troubles to. Believe me, it isn’t the subject matter which puts me off; as a teenager, I was more than happy to listen to the drone of the Madchester scene, that post-Goth sensibility of Robert Smith wannabes who help you insist that the older generation just ‘don’t get being young’. Hell, I’m sure I even uttered the phrase ‘you don’t know what it’s like’ to my poor parents at one stage. But I don’t think there was quite the same overall dreariness to the music. At least there was some sort of melody, rather than this awful sound.

Would I listen to Tragic Songs Of Life again? Not if I can help it – it did nothing for me. But am I glad that I’ve taken the time to check out something which I would never have thought about playing before? To be perfectly honest – no. If the book had been called 1000 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and this album had fallen by the wayside, I’m pretty sure my life would have been no less fulfilled. I’m still certain there are country albums out there which may change my mind and I hope there is at least one on this list. But this isn’t the one. And for those people who like country music, that means I think it’s bad.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:

 

Next time: The Wildest! by Louis Prima

Elvis Presley : Elvis Presley (#2)

Elvis Presley | Elvis Presley (March 1956)
RCA Victor (USA)
Rock and Roll / Rockabilly / Country – 28:03

“Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant sh*t to me…Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”

It’s a bold statement from Public Enemy’s track Fight the Power. It gets to the nub of the cult of personality which has grown up around The King; a musical legend who is now as much about the legend as he is the music. If nothing else, it highlights what may be one of the most difficult parts of dissecting some of these iconic albums and the artists who recorded them. Because, after 60-plus years of hearing Elvis songs and seeing him as an overweight, lamé-wearing, drug addicted Las Vegan attraction, how do you separate the music from the myth?

Initially I believed that, putting this blog of the 1,001 must hear albums together, the most difficult pieces I would need to critique would be those genres that I knew nothing about – jazz, techno, country and western. But that lack of knowledge can work in my favour; when I get to those albums, I really will be listening to them for the first time. They will sound fresh to my virgin ears, and I will be able to comment freely on new sounds, unaware of what the ‘experts’ deem to be important tracks or essential listens. Yet listening to Elvis often means hearing a song that I could have heard hundreds of times over the last 30 years. Can I get back to that moment when I heard it for the first time?

I’d love to do that with The King’s self-titled first album; go back to a time when these tracks were pumping from a player for the first time in history. How did they sound to those teenagers when they put the needle on the record back in 1956? This was a generation which created modern music as we know it – they had nothing to compare it to; no context of influences. To them, this was as raw as it got.

Sadly, I’ll never know that first time; nor can I unlisten to some of those iconic tracks which I have heard countless times in my life. The album kicks off with Blue Suede Shoes; a song that has become part of the zeitgeist (see, I told you I liked that word) and imbedded itself into modern parlance. The list is endless; while there may not be quite as many well-known Elvis favourites, there are still plenty of takes of other artists’ hits – Tutti Frutti, made popular by Little Richard at around the same time, or Blue Moon, covered by many other groups (perhaps most notably The Marcels in 1961). Try listening to the opening refrain of Tutti Frutti and not hearing the scream of Little Richard (an artist we will come to in a few albums time).

And yet…and yet…it is still possible to recognise the greatness. There remains a rawness to the sound which instantly pulls you in – within the first few seconds of the opening number, you can’t help feel your whole body shake (or possibly succumb to some sort of Elvis-esque hip wiggle). Blue Suede Shoes still has the power to hit a spot deep within the soul; it still feels revolutionary. Of course, the debut album isn’t perfect and things soon slow down for I’m Counting On You; suddenly, in the space of two songs, it feels like we are in impersonator territory. And it comes as a shock to realise that, perhaps, Elvis didn’t come fully formed. Yes, there is plenty to mock in hindsight, knowing his 1970s excesses and those cheesy times when we’ve attempted that Andy Kaufman curl of the lip. But on his debut, you can hear him attempting different styles, trying to find his voice. Frankly, two songs in and already he sounds like a parody of his future self. Fortunately, it’s all back on track by song three; I’ve Got A Woman picks up the swagger of the opening number and once again this is Elvis as dangerous rebel. You can feel the sexual energy drip from him (ok, not the best metaphor but you know what I mean).

And so we seem to hit a pattern with The King’s debut – one moment there is pure, undiluted talent giving birth to a whole new genre that will eventually take over the world; the next, there is a slightly cheesy smooth operator who is trying to emulate a lover man character he’s heard about but never witnessed in person. One-Sided Love Affair seems like a bizarre breed of the two and I Love You Because is little better. But then, just when you wonder what the fuss about this boy from Memphis was all about, along comes a number like Just Because or, as mentioned earlier, Tutti Frutti. And you hear the voice and music which caused such fervent fanaticism from the young and fervent outrage from their elders.

Trying To Get To You is a prime example of what this album does at its best. You can hear Elvis bear his soul as he tries to restrain his feelings of (dare I say, physical) desperation to reach the woman he loves. In many ways, the second half of the album is the stronger, with Elvis seeming to finally let go of any restraint, or even doubt in his own ability, and, for want of a better phrase, start to make love to the microphone – I’ll Never Let You Go (My Darling) being the one exception. In fact, by the time you reach the closing numbers of Blue Moon and Money Honey, you don’t want it to end. Elvis has found the voice which will have 50 million fans crying out his name for decades to come. Rock and roll – that raw, dangerous and sexy phenomenon – had finally arrived and the music scene would never be the same again.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:

 

Next time: Tragic Songs of Life by The Louvin Brothers

Frank Sinatra : In The Wee Small Hours (#1)

Frank Sinatra | In The Wee Small Hours (April 1955)
Capitol (USA)
Vocal Jazz / Traditional Pop – 48:41

Growing up, I remember seeing Frank Sinatra performing on the television. By this stage, in the 1980s, he seemed a relic to me; someone my grandparents listened to. The overweight elderly gentleman (who, to be fair, was probably only in his late 60s) was a far cry from the music which I listened to each week on Top of the Pops.

Even as my musical tastes have developed, Ol’ Blue Eyes has never really hit my radar. Despite the love which so many seem to possess of him, I have always maintained that singers like Tony Bennett did it much better. How I knew this is beyond me – while Tony Bennett is certainly one of the finest singers of the last 50 years, it seems odd that I should make this assumption based on just one or two over-played Sinatra recordings. Songs like My Way or New York, New York may be bone fide classics but when you have heard them so often, they do lose some of their sheen. Which makes listening to In The Wee Small Hours something of a revelation.

Going back to the albums of the mid-1950s is an interesting exercise. My musical knowledge, in terms of history, is fairly sound in the most part when it comes to the development of modern music. Yes, I have one or two blind spots, but from the middle of the Swingin’ Sixties (say around 1963 and the arrival of The Beatles) I like to think that I have some understanding of the context of the records. I know who was writing for other artists, how one band would compete with another to create a better sound, the musicians jumping from one act to another as they settled into their chosen genre. But as I press play and the opening piano of the title track from In The Wee Small Hours begins to stream through the speakers, I suddenly feel lost. I have no concept of this period in time. It is completely alien – my parents’ records, which, as my musical tastes were awakened in my youth, would be brought out and played on the old record player, all dated from the 1960s, not the 1950s. Rock ‘n’ roll had made way for the British Invasion and the coming of the hippies in their collection. Sinatra is someone I have no connection with.

I have some vague knowledge of Frank, naturally – you don’t become Chairman of the Board without some of your legend being spoken of even by youngsters who have never even played one of your songs. By the time In The Wee Small Hours was released, Frank had fallen from his days of grandeur in the 1940s to one of a washed out performer, ready to be thrown aside like so many former superstars. His marriage to Ava Gardener was on the rocks and he was at his lowest ebb. It was in this context that he recorded the melancholic sounds of In The Wee Small Hours. And, boy, can you tell. With my only experience of Frank being the jolly, swinging, finger-snapping star of Vegas, this is a whole new world for me.

Things begin gently with the faint, almost hesitant, sound of a piano before Frank’s tones begin to intonate the title track. His voice seems almost sleepy – this isn’t the confident voice of a man commanding performances to crowds of cheering fans. Here is a lonely man who is feeling the pain of lost love; one who is deeply missing his soulmate, a connection he thought he had made but which proved to be crumbling before him. It is strong enough to bring you up short: as he continues into Mood Indigo, you realise that this is not a one-off; here is album in which a man’s soul suffering is laid bare. It is the sound of solitude and facing those demons with only a stiff drink to protect you.

And it works so well. Instantly, you feel a need to pour yourself a whiskey and sit at a bar in some American city, lost in thoughts of loves that could have been. Sitting here with the tunes seeping out of the speakers, you realise that this is a record which has to be heard under specific circumstances. This isn’t one to pull out at parties – this is one to pay a visit to late at night, when you’re sat alone, wondering why everyone else is partying and leaving you in isolation.

Widely regarded as launching the age of the album (and concept albums at that – you can trace the story of a man broken by love throughout the recording), you couldn’t ask for a greater start to a journey through the 1,001 best albums of all time. While many things have moved on, there is still a power in returning to just one man using his voice to express his inner thoughts. If the next 1000 albums can reach this standard, it is going to be an easy ride.

Any stand outs among the tracks? Obviously the opener is a rightly remembered classic, but isolating one or two songs seems to defeat the purpose of this album (and, quite probably, this project). Grab that bottle of spirits, turn down the lights and wallow in the sound of a true great. Frank – I apologise; I understand now why you are considered so great. Thank you for entertaining me with your misery.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:

Next time: Elvis Presley by Elvis Presley