Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Full Service Music Man


George Russell, who died on the 21st at age ninety, was a music professional in a way that was most likely unprecedented in the record business. For he was probably one of the few music biz figures to've worked both sides of the street. . .not only as an active musician (guiarist, composer) but also a behind-the-scenes west coast promo man. He was highly regarded by his peers whichever hat he was wearing. Surely we will never see his likes again.
I became phone friends with George a while back and I would ring him up from time to time, just to let him talk. His stories were wonderful. I'm sorry I never met him in person.
His first job was with Mercury Records for West Coast promotions, from there he went to Capitol during the glory years of that label (Sinatra, Cole, Christy, Kenton, Shearing, Lee, Freshmen, et al!) then to Columbia around 1960. As such, it was not unusual to find recording artists somewhat uncomprehending upon discovering that the same person who'd played guitar on their sessions then showed up at sales meeting devoted to promoting the end result of those dates, i.e. "What are YOU doing here?" Singer Sue Raney confirmed to me that was exaactly what happened when, first, Russell played on and produced the session that secured for her a contract with Capitol Records. Then a few months later she went on a tour of radio starions with George to promote her first LP for that label. She had to blink her eyes a few times before all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
George told me that he was at a party recently with Johnny Mathis for whom he had worked as a record promoter for more than four decades. Suddenly caught up in the realization of just how very long the two men had been together, he turned to Mathis and mused, "Where are we going with all this?" To which the singer replied, "Staight ahead, George. Staight ahead." George loved that!
Russell was writing and recording music right up until the very end. Here is a 1972 track, "Run for the Sun," from George Russell: His Guitar and Music. It is produced by him, arranged and conducted by Johnny Keating, and mixed by George and musician---a very young---John Wood, who is also heard on vibes. Russell was also associated with John's dad, Randy Wood, who owned Dot Records.
Mathis' web site has long contained a fascinating bio of George. It has just now been updated to include mention of his death. Go here and scroll about three-quarters down the page.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Welcome back, Page Cavanaugh!

Page in the studio with June Christy
For a couple of hours yesterday afternoon, the lounge at Seasons at Northridge (CA) assisted living facility was definitely the hippest "room" in town when living music legend Page Cavanaugh gave a two-hour concert for fans and friends. Mit rhythm section yet! And all that was missing was a tip jar on the piano. Assisting were his long time cohorts Jason Lingle, drums and Phil Mallory, bass.
After more than a two-year run of serious health issues, the 86-year-old Cavanaugh who has been hors de combat during that time, has recently sprung back into action, playing with the same zest and imagination as of yore, leaving little doubt as to why one or several (?) local wags have come to deem him "The Chairman of the Keyboard." This was his second Sunday afternoon performance at Seasons, where he's been living the past few months.
Page played and sang his way through a healthy chunk of the Great American Songbook, including a 15-minute Fantasia (of sorts) on Sweet Sue that found him journeying farther and farther out in his variations on the theme, but always landing back on his feet after each foray into the pianistic unknown.
But a few of the other songs that he breezed his way through, singing and playing, included Moonlight in Vermont, Wait Till You See Her, Spring is Here and a signature tune, The Three Bears.
Proof that Page has regained his chops (were they ever even gone?) was captured on a recording of the event. If the technical quality is good enough, perhaps it could be made into a CD? "Live From the Rehab Room," perhaps?
It seems like it's about time for Page to get back into action on the local L.A. club circuit that he's so diligently served for the past half-century or so. He's been sorely missed these last couple of years. It'll be nice to have him back.
To my way of thinking Page Cavanaugh is due the Kennedy Center Honors---and if not that, at least a star or two on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He actually qualifies in three different categories: Radio & TV, Recording, the Movies!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Meditating on Michael

There’s a guy I know, who for all his fashionable Betty Carter and Frank Sinatra sycophancy, still his fave singer of all time is---no joke---old sunglasses nose herself, Liza Minnelli. His least favorite is Helen Merrill. Is he kidding? No, alas, I don't think so. He also happens to be a major Michael Bublé detractor. When I first met him (I date this to about a year before 9/11), he was allegedly straight with a wife and kids. And so I said to my good friend and constant traveling companion David Ehrenstein:

"There's this guy I met recently whose musical impulses otherwise seem pretty good, Sinatra, Ella et al, but his favorite singer is. . .Eyewwww---Liza Minnelli! He just saw her perform four nights in a row at the Palace and---get this!---he's STRAIGHT." "Not anymore," said David. "Not after seeing Liza four nights in a row, he‘s not." (rimshot) I guess David is right. The last time I saw (let‘s call him) “Jasper,” he was divorced (separated?) and keeping company with the nelliest brain surgeon you ever laid eyes on. Not that there's anything wrong with nelly, but I just hope the guy can at least control his grand gestures in the operating room.

One time, ummmm, Jasper was booked on a segment of Phil Donohue, "The Heartbreak of Straight Men Who Love Liza," but he was bumped at the last minute when the producer caught him making out in the Green Room with another guy. (That's a joke, son.)

But I digress (as is my wont). Not that Michael Bublé needs my support. and he's not getting all that much either, considering the grotesquely high ticket prices they're charging to see him live. I'm convinced that his handlers know that he's more or less a flash in the pan. Grabbing all the gelt while they can. Maybe when he's someday reduced to doing the entre acte at the dogfights in Tijuana, Jasper and his ilk will come around.

Michael Bublé is not trying to channel Frank Sinatra. Not at all. Much closer to Bobby Darin . . .if anyone. And sooooo, whenever I hear someone compare him directly to F.S., my feeling is that they simply have no grounding for saying anything negative OR positive about Bublé. ("School of Sinatra," okay). Take another listen, pal.

I can understand how the Bublé killer lounge act can get on some purists' nerves, but quite frankly, that is what has finally allowed him to become literally the largest selling record act in the world. A small price to pay.

I also like Bublé the quasi rocker. Check out his “Stuck in the Middle With You” on the recent maxi-single, “A Taste of Buble.” So pulsatingly HOT that you'll need revival with smelling salts after listening to it. I do believe that there is a quantifiable quality that has come to be called swing. It can be proven by hooking singers up to a (not yet patented) device of my invention. I've not had a chance to do this yet with Bublé (he's always "too busy"), but I'm more than certain he possesses it in spades. Just listen!

On “Taste of Bublé,” there's also a breathtakingly beautiful “I’ve Got a Crush on You," backed by quartet, with a “Moonlight Serenade” sax counter melody. Breathes new life into the old warhouse.

I'm convinced that the fact that Bublé was raised strictly on standards is a major contributing factor to his musical credibility. Not that there's anything wrong with rock---yeah, sure---but if that's the first musical sounds you ever heard, that pretty much cancels out your ever being able credibly interpret the music of---if you will---an earlier era. Too much pre-adolescent, rhythmically monotonous damage to one's musical DNA. But not necessarily vice versa. To wit, I'm also somewhat fond of Bublé's faux Motown-ish stuff as well.

Bublé has this rattle in his lower register that I've never heard in any other singer. I just KNOW he's a secret smoker.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Great Minds Think Alike

Recently, an as-yet-unreleased CD by a singer-instrumentalist (not exactly a household name and who will remain nameless for the nonce) came across my desk, and he is simply fantastic at both singing, and playing the alto, soprano and tenor saxes. I phoned him up to convey my enthusiasm. He thanked me and then told me the following story:

He now lives in Vegas and about ten years ago received a phone call from Luciano Pavarotti's office requesting him to be the sole entertainer at L.P.'s birthday party in New York City.

"Why me?," Mr. X asked. "I've never even met the man."

"Oh, but he knows you. He's a big fan of yours. He used to come by. sit in the back, and see you perform often when you appeared at [such and such a club] in New York."

"Well, I don't live in New York anymore."

"That's alright. We'll fly you in."

And that is EXACTLY what happened. He was flown to New York and performed an hour-long show for Pavarotti, who afterward grabbed him by the shoulders and exclaimed, "MAESTRO!" I feel fully as enthusiastic toward this entertainer as did Luciano Pavarotti. Just listen to this guy play and sing! "Maestro," indeed.

Thinking about Jo Stafford

I spent much of yesterday listening to Stafford (including "Darlene Edwards"), who died Wednesday and it's simply amazing how little the texture, "sound," quality, timbre, range etc. of her singing voice changed over the thirty-or-so years of her career. Must've been all that classical training.

I remember my friend Nat Shapiro (apochryphally??) telling me one time that the sound of Stafford's recorded voice in song possessed the seemingly MIRACULOUS ability to ofttimes bring brain-damaged GIs back to consciousness in military hospitals during WWII. The routine became standard operating recovery procedure, he said. (St. Jo?)

I ran into Stafford's musician son, Tim Weston, at a party a few years back. I quoted something that his mother had said to me in an interview about the innocuousness and disposability of most rock music. To wit:

"When the Presleys and other first, popular, legend-in-their-own-time performers started to come along it was the first time in the U.S. where a ten-year-old had enough money to influence something to the extent that they did. So when you've got a ten-year-old picking the music it's going to be pretty simple. Just above the level of a nursery rhyme. The other music is too sophisticated for young ears. I'm not being judgmental at all; it's a simple statement of fact that that's the first time kids had enough money to influence a market and they did."

I couldn't have agreed more, and I told Weston so. He, at once, became engagingly argumentative with me. He couldn't have disagreed with "Mom" and me more. Before the back-and-forth between us was over I felt the two of us were replaying a scene that might have taken place between a teenaged Tim and his mother (with me taking the role of Stafford) back in the Sixties. But all very civil and amiable.

I can't emphasis too strongly how brilliant I still feel Stafford's comments on rock to've been. Many other remarks about music made by Stafford and her husband Paul Weston in the interview I conducted with were, in my opinion, of equally strong import. (Though ---LOL---I'm not so certain Tim Weston would agree.) Eventually, however, Stafford must've made some impression on him. Tim Weston started out as a standard issue Beverly Hills boy band rock guitarist before gradually gravitating more and more toward the field of jazz. He produced the terrific "Jazz Portrait of Brian Wilson" CD, among many other fine recordings, including some for the wonderful singer Shelby Flint who has been his partner for the past couple of decades.

One time Paul Weston sent me a recording of his and Stafford's daughter Amy, a professional singer. It struck me as uncanny how similar to her mother she naturally sounded. It would fool some? many? most? all? in a blindfold test?

My condolences to Tim, Amy and their families.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Jo Stafford R.I.P.


The great singer Jo Stafford died at age ninety at her L.A. home yesterday. In my journalistic tenure at the L.A. Herald-Examiner, the L.A. Reader, the S.F. Examiner, Rolling Stone, etc. I interviewed a lot of biggies (no names puh-leese), but the only two who ever totally knocked me out were husband-and-wife (bandleader) Paul Weston and Jo Stafford!

I spent an afternoon at their Century City (L.A.) condo. The result of my conversation with them appeared in the L.A. Reader back in 19-ought-whatever. Most of that article was eventually recycled into another interview I conducted with Stafford some years later in 1999, after the death of Weston, for the on-line mag Songbirds.

From everything I could determine from the relative distance of my journalist-fan perch, Stafford must've led something approaching a near-perfect existence. A great artistic career from which she walked away in the late sixties at an optimum time (while the getting was still good), a long happy marriage, two loving and accomplished offspring, good health, and an enduring fan base that reminded her on an ongoing basis of just how much she meant to them.

In a less barbarous clime, flags would be flown at half-staff.

John and Johnny

anyone care to translate into English?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Vow of silence

Remember a time when one could make a phone call and someone would pick up on the other end and say, "Hello"? Nowadays whenever that happens to me, I'm so shocked that I'm almost unable to continue the conversation.

Finally, I think I would rather even play Russian Roulette than phone tag; thus, I've decided that I will never again speak into a telephone answering machine. Once upon a time---the before time, that is---three things happened when you dialed a phone number, i.e. it would be busy (signaling that the party to whom you wished to speak was not there and you could try again later), or else it would ring and ring and ring (you do the math), OR someone on the other end would pick up. I am getting just get so friggin tired of starting out my day making at least a half-dozen calls before a real, live human being answers and NOT a machine.

AND, there's the additional problem of unreturned phone calls even after one has left a message. (You know the old saying, "He who ends the day with the most unreturned phone calls wins.")

AND THEN, when you pile on top of that the way people use cell phones as a cudgel against organizing their day. ("I'm running late. . ..") is it any wonder that this nation (the U.S.) has most likely gone into what appears to be---as physicists term it---a "skid," i.e. a state of irreversible out-of-controlness.

There was a time not so long ago when email seemed as if it might be at least a partial solution to some of the communication problems engendered by the answering machine. But what with the chaos caused by spam and the resultant spam filters, email is simply no longer a viable means of communication either.

I am just old enough to recall the initial era of the answering machine. At the time I thought it just about the niftiest thing to come down the pike since sliced bread. In the immortal words of Gomer Pyle: "Golleeee!" One day my rather spoiled and sheltered grandmother rang up the gas company to inquire about her bill. She dialed, waited a beat, then threw the phone across the room. "They answered my call with a record player," she screamed. At the time, all I could think was 'Get with the program old lady.' Now I can see that her instincts were spot on.

And don't get me started on voice mail. Fortunately, one of the wisest women on the planet said it all for me from the stage of NYC's Walter Reade Theater in February 2006. Ladies and Germs, I give you Ms. Elaine May:

". . look how quickly we all get used to eating shit. Really, about seven years ago, if somebody had answered the phone saying,“We really value your call. Please hold on for the next hour and twenty-five minutes,” we’d have hung up. We get used to it very fast. We get used to skim milk very fast. Whole milk tastes like cream. We adapt very quickly to being treated very badly. . . To simply actually stop. I’m just taking this “Your call is important to us” thing as an example because, having visited a large corporation, some executive is getting a $100 million a year and saving money not giving some woman a job for $30,000 a year. And he says we don’t want to take the shareholders’ money. And you say, well, you pay it, deduct it. But there’s no way to enforce that. We all know that that’s true, we all know that that’s bad, and we all know that there’s something about the tiny things in life happening to you that devalues you, that lessens you, that makes you numb. You have to become more and more numb not to get offended. And pretty soon you get pretty sick. . .it seems to me, at some point what you really want to say is I won’t deal with a company that doesn’t have a real operator. For one day, I’ll make them lose that much money. For one day, I won’t go to a bookstore where the guy says, “Huh, I don’t know.” For one day I won’t say, it’s so hard. I won’t run home to a rerun of Cheers, I can’t bother with it. For one day, you’ll take the trouble to make trouble for someone else, because it’s the only thing that keeps you from getting sick, from sort of retreating. I think that’s what dumbing-down kind of is. It’s too much trouble. And there is such a thing as too much trouble."

Elaine May: A bright light shining in a bad old world.

You can't blame everything on 9/11 and George Bush. Surely some of the cause of the advanced state of alienation, disorganization. and de-evolution we find ourselves in these days lies at the feet of Mr. Willy Müller. And just who might he be?, you ask. None other than the evil scientist who invented the first automatic answering machine in 1935. Après Willy le déluge.

If you want to talk to me, you're gonna have to PICK UP.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Annie by Ted

The 1961 pic of singer Annie Ross recently added to the (Yahoo group) Songbirds home page is by my good friend and great jazz photographer Ted Williams. Originally it was in Metronome mag; later on, I spent many years trying to find a copy to replace the one I had lost during my hippie perigrinations. Then one day I was going through Ted's contact sheets and there it was! He made me a print, signed it and the portrait now hangs proudly in my hallway. Maybe Ted could be given credit under the photo on Songbirds?
In the photo Annie is smoking French Gitanes cigs. I know, because another shot of her by Ted from the same date (and also published) shows her holding a box of the damn things. When I saw that, back in '61, I immediately switched from non-filter Camels to this French brand of lungbusters (I was such an impressionable little poseur back then. . .maybe still am). I probably ended up taking even MORE years off my life than if I'd stuck with my original brand o' choice.
Nearly a half-century later, Annie continues to smoke, and I can only hope that by now she's switched to a slightly less lethal coffin nail. As for me, I gave up the feelthy habit aeons ago. Curiously, however, I can still summon up sense memory of how Gitanes tasted; i.e, like inhaling all the fumes of hell.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Today is Jero Day

Dennis Cooper has very kindly offered to host, on his blog, a day devoted to African-American Enka singer Jero. Take a look! I think your brains'll fall out!

Friday, July 04, 2008

disc o' the day

I love this album. . .probably even more than the artist himself. Kills me, in fact. Hard to decide which track is best. Maybe this one?

New for Summer from the John Wood Collection

detail of t-shirt

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Pinky Winters and Masaki Kanamaru

Pinky and Masaki-San in concert at Tokyo FM Hall, 7/01/08. The presentation will be broadcast nationwide in Japan in December. Stay tuned for further details.