Lady in Satin

Billie Holiday : Lady in Satin (#16)

Lady in Satin | Billie Holiday (June 1958)
Columbia (USA)
Vocal Jazz 44:36

“Life is pain, Princess; anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

So believes The Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) in the wonderful movie The Princess Bride. He’s only half-right. In reality, there are plenty of times when pain has been exactly what we’ve been sold. We have a fascination in the West, on occasion, to happily watch as someone destroys their life; at times, it almost becomes an obsession. I don’t mean knocking down somebody when they are on a high – a peculiarly British idea that, if you’ve found success, then you shouldn’t be allowed to hold on to it. This isn’t about stopping a celebrity getting too big for their boots. This is about a person who seems intent on ripping their own life apart.

Whether it is the alcoholism that slowly destroyed the talents of Richard Burton or Peter O’Toole, the pill-popping of Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe, or the drug abuse that took its toll on Janis Joplin or Phillip Seymour Hoffman, we love a tale of tragedy. From the time when mass entertainment began, some of our biggest celebrities have struggled with addictions and mental illness, having lived through abuse and poverty. Not every story is the same – sometimes it is a struggle with fame which has led to the downwards spiral. Other times, the personalities of these people have resulted in their self-destructive path. And, at times, it seems that genius and talent simply go hand-in-hand with this negative lifestyle. Such was the case with the gifted singer Billie Holiday.

Billie Holiday was given a rough deal in the four short decades she was alive. To say she had a rough childhood is an understatement. Her teenage mother, Sarah Fagan, was thrown out of the home of Sarah’s parents’ home for becoming pregnant and her musician father, Clarence Holiday, left shortly after she was born. She was left with distant family members during her upbringing while her mother worked on the passenger railroads; she was soon skipping school and, by the age of 11, she had dropped out completely. Following an attempted rape by a neighbour, she moved to join her mother in Harlem where their landlady ran a brothel. Within days of arriving, Holiday had become a prostitute like her mother; a few months later, the brothel was raided and she was sent to prison. She was just 14.

It seemed that music could have been her lifesaver; playing the clubs in Harlem as a singer, she was soon on her way to success. But with it came alcohol, drugs and a series of abusive lovers. As if that wasn’t enough, she faced both legal battles and, more problematically, a battle to be taken legitimately as a singer. By the time she died in 1959 – less than two years after the release of Lady in Satin and aged just 44 – she was virtually penniless. As she lay dying in her hospital bed, police officers swooped to arrest her.

But it is her music that she is most remembered for, with Lady in Satin regarded as one of the greats. As the record begins, and the music soars, I found myself braced for something special. I’ve never heard Holiday before (at least to my knowledge) but had read how her singing had set the trend for a new way of manipulating the voice. What I got was far from it – initially it was more like the croaks of a dying frog. After years of abuse, here was a woman whose pain had wracked her voice, tearing it apart. The smoky voice seemed to grate against the gentle swirls of the music behind it.

But then something happened. As opening number I’m a Fool to Want You ended and For Heaven’s Sake began, my ears began to grow accustomed to her tones. It began to grow on me and I was suddenly transported to a different world. Here was another darkened bar, not dissimilar to the one which Sinatra brought us to with the very first album on this list, In The Wee Small Hours. But while Frank’s songs were of a man who knew he had thrown love away, Billie’s reveal a desire for something more. And it somehow makes it all the more tragic; a woman who wants to match the music and sing of optimism but who you can hear will never achieve those dreams. It is the broken dream of someone beyond hope but who is completely unaware of the despair they live in.

To be honest, I’m not the first person to fail to get the songs straight away. The album’s bandleader Ray Ellis admitted he wasn’t initially impressed with Holiday’s work on the album, saying later: “After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.” And it is certainly an album that grows on you.

The mood of a woman emotionally fooling herself continues with You Don’t Know What Love Is. There is a bitterness underlying some of the words; as Holiday’s voice slightly breaks and struggles to reach one of the higher notes, you know that she is about to crack. It is an emotional car crash. Like so many other lost talents, your heart breaks as you hear her heart wrung wrought. I Get Along Without You Very Well sounds like somebody on the verge of collapse, convincing herself that she is far better than reality is proving.

This is one of the most painful albums to listen to; like Johnny Cash’s version of Trent Raznor’s Hurt 50 years later, this is the sound of a person with just months left to live, looking back on a life filled with lost moments. But, as much as you want to turn away from the suffering, you can’t help but listen. Life is pain – and beautiful music is made from it. If nothing else good came from her life, Billie Holiday produced one of the most incredible dissections of despair ever put to record. If only she hadn’t needed to suffer so much to do it.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Lady in Satin here:

Next time: Jack Takes the Floor by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot

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Dance Mania by Tito Puente

Tito Puente and His Orchestra : Dance Mania Vol 1 (#15)

Dance Mania Vol 1 | Tito Puente and His Orchestra (1958)
RCA (USA)
Latin / Jazz 37:50

Tom Baker’s career as an actor has been long and varied. Following stints as a monk and in the army, he eventually took to the stage, first joining the National Theatre under Lawrence Olivier. From there, film roles beckoned and, by the mid-1970s, he had played a variety of parts, including Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra (he was recommended for the role by none other than Sir Larry himself) and the evil sorcerer Koura in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. During the 1980s and 1990s, he took on parts ranging from a sea captain in Blackadder II, Puddleglum in The Silver Chair and the ever-so-slightly bonkers narrator in Little Britain. Not bad going for any thespian; but come the sad moment of his obituary, and it is a guarantee that it will refer to just one role throughout: Doctor Who.

At least for Tom, it’s a role that has dominated his career – he played the role of the Fourth Doctor for seven years on television between 1974 and 1981, before reviving the role for a series of audio adventures in 2011. Sadly, the same cannot be said for many others. Take the likes of Tito Puente. Known as The King of Latin Music, he helped shape the sound of mambo across five decades, producing numerous acclaimed albums that developed the music. He received numerous awards for his achievements, including a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys. And, yet, ask most people who Tito was and many younger people will only be able to identify him as featuring in The Simpsons episode Who Shot Mr Burns?, as the school’s music teacher (and possible suspect).

It seems that people have a defining role that remains with them – with the exception of those few cases who seem to have notched up two, such as Harrison Ford (Han Solo or Indiana Jones) or Sylvester Stallone (Rocky and Rambo). It seems a shame that, after all his hard work and success in music, Tito Puente’s legacy isn’t even in the field which he primarily excelled. Perhaps it is time to rediscover his work. It is one good thing about modern pop culture; those writing and producing it will often insert obscure references to the work of others which they admire. If, in some small way, it can encourage a few to head off and learn more about them, then surely that is a good thing. At least, being a fan of The Simpsons, I was at least aware of Tito Puente and his work, even if I hadn’t actually heard it. Take a look at some of the other artistes on this list – Machito springs to mind, having recently reviewed the album Kenya – and I hadn’t even heard of them. Turning to Puente’s album Dance Mania Vol 1, I at least had an idea of what to expect.

The sound of Latin mambo and salsa is an interesting one. My experience of the genre is limited to the Top 40 hit Bamboleo by the Gypsy Kings in 1987, and the Antonio Banderas movie The Mambo Kings (which, while I haven’t actually seen, have at least heard music from). And, as you would expect with music that was designed to get people moving on the dancefloor, there is a swing that moves the body to the songs on Dance Mania Vol 1. But there is also a tightness to the sound as well; throughout the tracks, the musicians have a unity which helps to keep the numbers on track. Yet, while the music is undoubtedly able to get the body shaking and shimmying, there is also a cheesiness to it. Perhaps it is the age of the recording – mambo is certainly something which conjures up images of the 1950s, when the genre was undoubtedly at its height. The singing doesn’t help, dating the music; when the musicians are given leave to go it alone, such as on the third track Three-D Mumbo, there is more of a freshness to the numbers.

This is an album that pushed mambo into the mainstream. Certainly it is easy to listen to, but many of the tracks merge into one. I am aware this is a complaint I’ve had of other genre albums that I’ve not felt I have truly appreciated. Perhaps it is more to do with how I am listening to the numbers; however, I fear that the real reason is that certain albums are not able to arouse my interest. That doesn’t mean I’m not appreciating them or am able to see any worth – far from it, as Dance Mania is a good record, full of great tunes – standouts include Llego Mijan and Hong Kong Mambo (the sound not dissimilar in parts to Gassenhauer from Carl Orff’s Schulwerk, used to brilliant effect in the movie Badlands and influencing Hans Zimmer’s You’re So Cool). But there isn’t anything to pull me back again. While other albums had tracks which seemed to warrant repeat playing, Tito’s album is too much like background music; something to play while performing other tasks rather than an album to put on to sit back allow to wash over you without distraction. Still, it certainly lives up to its title – whatever else you are doing, you will certainly be dancing along to it. Which is perhaps all you need to ask from an album called Dance Mania.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Dance Mania Vol 1 here:

Next time: Lady in Satin by Billie Holiday

Here's Little Richard

Little Richard : Here’s Little Richard (#14)

Little Richard| Here’s Little Richard (March 1957)
Specialty (USA)
Rock and Roll / R&B 28:30

I admit that I am no shrinking violet. As those who know me (and they don’t have to know me particularly well) will be able to tell you that performing is not something I would ever shy away from. There is a joy to being on the stage in front of others. I have a certain self-confidence that replaces any fear of being watched with a pleasure from being the centre of attention. In that respect, it puts me in a group of people who seem to be only at home when they get to perform. Of course, I’m not saying that I’m at any point close to those great entertainers. Some people go beyond simple enjoyment of being on a stage – they crave being the focus of a room. Those people who seem to exude raw energy and need to have the world revolve around them. They have a charisma that pours out of every pore of their body. Trying to hold them back is as useless as trying to hold back the ocean; they have a strength of character that is unstoppable. And when you put them in front of a microphone, there is no stopping them. Little Richard puts them all to shame.

By the mid-1950s, when record executives were keen to cash in on the new rock ‘n’ roll craze, it wasn’t long before one came knocking on Little Richard’s door. What they got was perhaps beyond anything they could have imagined. Born Richard Penniman (he was nicknamed Lil’ Richard by his family because of his small stature as a child), the man who would become one of the creators of modern rock music was a born showman (some would go as far as to call him shameless). By the time he was 14, he had managed to talk his way into performing on stage at concert by singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe; he was invited up by Rosetta after she heard him sing one of her songs; before anyone knew it, he had commandeered the microphone for the opening number. From here, he moved to performing with travelling shows before moving on to the New Orleans vaudeville circuit, taking on a role as a drag artist. It wasn’t long before his on-stage antics became legendary.

Sadly, sometimes that energy can be lost when a live performance is transferred to a more permanent home. We’ve already looked at the efforts Duke Ellington made to ensure that his live performance at Newport was recorded for posterity without losing any of the vitality that he and his band had shown on stage. Watching a band pour out their heart and soul at a gig is a very different experience to sitting in an armchair with a roaring fire as a studio-mixed album plays through a hi-fi system. But every now again, you find someone who can break the mould. If you can call Little Richard ‘breaking the mould’ – he seemed to smash it into small pieces before setting fire to it with his debut album, Here’s Little Richard.

Just take a listen to the opening number. Within seconds, you know this is something different to anything that has come before (and you’d be hard pushed to find anything like it since). Rather than music kicking in to bring the listener into the world of the artist, we’re instead treated to Richard screaming down the microphone the immortal line: “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop a-wop-bam-boom!”. Even today, 58 years later, the introduction to Tutti Frutti still sends a shiver down the spine. These are fast, hard-hitting songs, over in a matter of moments (the opener of the album lasts just 2 minutes and 27 seconds). It’s little surprise that the picture on the front of the record is of Richard mid-screech – it perfectly matches the sounds coming from the speakers. There had been interesting innovations in music to this point – new styles being developed – but nothing like this. Here is a sound that, even now, is raw and powerful. This is the rock ‘n’ roll that got the older generation so frightened about how the youth of the day were turning out.

As the second track of True Fine Mama opens, the piano is pounded by Richard, keeping the visceral vigour of the opener momentum going. The backing vocals may sound like something from a decade earlier (and do their best to distract from what is a great song), but it is one of the few times when Richard doesn’t seem to be left to do what he does best. Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave channels Fats Domino (unsurprising given that Fats had been a backing pianist to its writer Lloyd Price), but Richard brings his own powerful vocals to it, giving it more of an edge.

It is easy to forget the debt we owe to the rock ‘n’ rollers of the mid- to late-1950s when it comes to modern music. Fats, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Richard were turning out classic song after classic song that would influence many of the 1960s artists who would, in turn, influence bands and singers for the next 50 years. Listening to Ready Teddy blast out of the speakers (there’s no way that albums like this can be played quietly), the birth of the teenager, jiving on the dancefloor, can be heard taking place before your very ears.

Not all the songs work, and, given the nature of the record executives at the time, it would be easy to blame them for not allowing the artists to do what they do best. But the fifth track of the album, Baby, was written solely by Penniman himself, so there is nobody else to blame. Still all singers must be allowed to find their own voice and, given how ground-breaking this style of music still was, there has to be some kind of forgiveness. It is just that it is followed by the excellent Slippin’ and Slidin’ and the classic Long Tall Sally (which was influential enough to have The Beatles go on to cover it), that those other songs do stand out for not quite hitting the mark. According to legend, Long Tall Sally was written to stop Pat Boone from covering it (Richard wanted a song that was so fast that – to be honest – even he struggled to sing). Whatever the reason, there is no denying that Richard owns it. With Miss Ann, the wonderful Jenny Jenny and She’s Got It closing out the album, this is one record that doesn’t give up towards the end. It may not be the longest of albums, but it was enough to change the face of popular music for ever.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Here’s Little Richard here:

Next time: Dance Mania Vol 1 by Tito Puente and his Orchestra

Kenya by Machito

Machito : Kenya (#13)

Machito| Kenya (1957)
Roulette Jazz (USA)
Latin / Jazz 35:46

It is sometimes surprising how quickly something radical and innovative – perhaps even deeply controversial – can become the accepted norm. When Monty Python released their seminal film Life of Brian in 1979, it was to outrage and screams of blasphemy. Councils banned it (Truro have only just allowed the first public showing of it in the cinema in the last few months); outraged Christians, mistaking Victorian values for Biblical principles, condemned the maker to Hell (thereby judging others and breaking one of the Ten Commandments themselves). And yet, 35 years on, it barely raises an eyebrow. Many Christians have a copy of it on DVD (myself included). Aside from the dubious theological arguments against it, it simply doesn’t shock any more. Similar outrage had greeted the publication of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover a little over 15 years previously; now, it is regarded as a modern classic and yet only 50 years ago – well within many people’s lifetime – it was banned for promoting smut.

The same is true whether we look at literature, theatre, film, art or music. Something new comes along that causes a shock then slowly becomes the norm. It doesn’t always need to be particularly controversial, dealing with sex or religion. Bob Dylan aroused the ire of folk fans when he did the unthinkable and plugged in an electric guitar (a moment that we will doubtlessly come on to later in this blog). And yet that one simple act proved to change the course of popular music. Listening now to songs on the hit parade, the influence comes from far and wide; no longer do we categorise the tracks into easy genres and instead find artists drawing on sounds from across the world. I still remember hearing Paul Simon’s Graceland (an album that will feature – eventually – in this blog, although not for another three decades of music) and being amazed by these African sounds (albeit ones that had been heavily Westernised). World music, while not necessarily controversial, has lost its edge when introduced to our ears. When George Harrison headed back from India, sitar in hand, it was to push music in a radical new direction. Now, it would seem perhaps seem gimmicky – we’ve heard those sounds before.

All of which, in a roundabout way, makes Machito’s album Kenya an interesting find. It was clearly a radical sound when it was released 58 years ago; blending Afro-Cuban beats with the jazz sounds of the Big Bands playing in places like New York. Frontman Frank Grillo had created a blend that managed to combine the smooth sounds of the cool cats with the passion underlying that Latin beat. But while it was undoubtedly a revelation to those who heard it for the first time six decades ago, to our modern ears it has sadly lost its revolutionary air. We are used to fusion in our music – the oh-so-popular mash-ups of the 1990s giving way to an endless combining of styles and genres. And yet, while I can never go back to a time when it would have been new, the album still manages to sound fresh.

I have an image in my mind of certain types of films from the 1940s and early 1950s. A hero walks into a bar somewhere south of the American border – Brazil or Argentina – and a Latin groove can be heard bouncing out of the speakers. It was a cliché that managed to survive well into the 1960s – witness James Bond when he heads to the Caribbean in Dr No. For some reason, there is a certain sound that, to this day, is still associated with that part of the world. But Machito does something interesting; by combining this sound with those of the jazz scene, the band is able to create something which transcends that place and time. Don’t get me wrong – in my head, the music still conjures up a certain scene of Rita Hayworth or Cary Grant in a South American join. But there is something else to it which allows it to sound like an up-to-date soundtrack too.

Perhaps it is the shortness of the tracks or the skill of the performers; guests such as Cannonball Adderley and Doc Cheatham bring a tightness to their improvisations that means they never outstay their welcome. Above all, it is the vibrant nature that each number possesses which makes this whole album such a joy to listen to. From the opening notes of Wild Jungle to the final blast of Tururato just 35 short minutes later, there is not a duff track on the album. It brings joy and sunshine as it sets up the template for the Latin jazz genre. Musical director of the album, Mario Bauza, has been quoted as saying: “If you’ve got rhythm, you have everything. Without rhythm you have nothing.” Kenya has rhythm in spades – it grabs hold of you and refuses to let go until its dying beat. World music may be passe these days, but Machito’s African-influenced album is still as fresh as ever.

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

Next time: Here’s Little Richard by Little Richard