The Total Sinatra

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I wrote this last summer after reading James Kaplan’s monumental Frank Sinatra biography. I didn’t post it then, but here it is now. 

Frank Sinatra was the first musical celebrity in the modern sense, the first to excite mobs of screaming teenagers like Elvis Presley and the Beatles and a gaggle of lesser stars would eventually do. While his popularity in the 40s rivaled that of Bing Crosby, his celebrity was of a different degree. Bing was cool and understated; Sinatra was hot, and he made other people hot. Nobody was going to tear up a theater or rush a police line to get their hands on Crosby, but Sinatra pushed people’s emotional buttons in an entirely different way.

That fundamental difference between the two men crossed all forms of media. Every week for a decade (1936-1946), millions of American radio listeners settled down for a comfortable hour or half-hour of Bing as host of Kraft Music Hall, while Sinatra hosted several different shows that struggled. Similarly, Crosby was more visible and successful on TV. Crosby’s easy charisma translated to the movie screen; as a screen presence, Sinatra was more intense. (Crosby won his Oscar for playing a kindly priest in Going My Way; Sinatra won his for playing a sawed-off troublemaker in From Here to Eternity.) Some of the differences work in Sinatra’s favor, however. Crosby disliked singing songs containing the phrase “I love you,” although he would sing of love obliquely; Sinatra was far more swooningly romantic. On the other hand, Bing could sell Christmas songs from the heart, while Sinatra never seemed comfortable with them.

While biographers have revealed that Crosby was cold, harsh, and unfeeling in his private life, there was almost never a hint of it while he was alive. By the late 40s, Sinatra was frequently in the papers for hanging out with mobsters and punching out photographers. His love life was also a familiar topic, although as Kaplan reveals, the women whose names made the papers were only a tiny fraction of the total. Eventually, many would be decades younger than he. Sinatra feuded with reporters and columnists over the way he was covered but he didn’t change his behavior, which ensured that the papers would continue to write stories that angered him, over and over again.

It has been the official position of this website for many years that while it’s appropriate to discuss the private lives and behavior of artists, we should not use private lives and behavior to judge their art. As soon as we start discounting artistic merit because of personal failings, the slope gets very slippery. Some of our greatest artists were drug users, child abusers, or simply jerks for their own private reasons. Does any of that affect the intrinsic value of their art? It should not. What’s in the grooves is what should count.

Outside of the grooves, Frank Sinatra was not an especially nice man, and often barely an admirable one. It’s all part of the historical record: he was capable of great personal kindness, but he also treated both friends and strangers callously, and he squabbled childishly with lovers. He donated time and money to charity, but he also used people selfishly and then cruelly cast them away. He hung out with mobsters, knew exactly who they were, and took professional and personal advantage of those relationships. And he did it all as if it were his due. Don Hewitt was onto something when he promised that Walter Cronkite would treat him like a president. By the time of that 1965 Cronkite interview, Sinatra had long since expected head-of-state deference from everyone in his life.

Was Frank Sinatra, in totality, a good person? Your mileage may vary. But was he a great singer, perhaps the best America has ever heard? Listen to his music and there’s only one answer: indisputably yes.

Len Barry, by the Numbers

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(Pictured: the Dovells, with Len Barry on the far left.)

Len Barry came out of Philadelphia at the turn of the 60s, out of Overbrook High School (alma mater of Wilt Chamberlain and other pro sports stars, along with rapper/actor Will Smith and members of the Delfonics) and the Coast Guard, at a time when when record moguls tried to make stars out of any young man who could carry a tune. He joined the Dovells, a vocal group that scored a handful of hits between 1961 and 1963, most famously “You Can’t Sit Down,” “The Bristol Stomp,” and “Bristol Twistin’ Annie.”

In 1965, Barry hit under his own name with “1-2-3,” which was a smash, going to #1 in Cash Box and #2 on the Hot 100. Thanks to oldies radio, it was once one of those records everybody knew, at least until oldies stations stopped playing 60s music. Among the musicians and singers backing Barry on “1-2-3” were guitarist Bobby Eli, a childhood friend and longtime collaborator of Barry’s who became one of Philadelphia’s major studio stars, especially with the group MFSB; keyboard player Leon Huff, future architect of the Philly soul sound; trumpeter Lee Morgan, famed jazz player pickin’ up a check one year removed from his hit “The Sidewinder;” Valerie Simpson, future Motown songwriter; and members of the Tymes, who had hit in 1963 with “So Much in Love.”

Barry continued to chart after “1-2-3,” but nothing broke as big. In 2011, I told the story of what happened next—one of the great moments in record marketing, a speculation on my part that nevertheless has the ring of truth:

Flash forward to the summer of 1968. Len Barry, three years removed from his biggest hit, is on a new label, and the new label is looking for a score. The thought process is easy to follow: Len Barry is best known for “1-2-3.” Ergo, if we want to get radio stations to notice his new release, shouldn’t it be called “4-5-6”?

Not an unprecedented thought in the entertainment biz then or now—if people like something once, make it a second time and they’ll probably like it again. But there was a flaw in the plan: Somebody would have to write a song called “4-5-6.” What in the hell would a song called “4-5-6” be about? A house number? An area code? A batting average?

It was at this moment some anonymous record executive was seized with a stroke of brilliance worthy of an era 40 years in the future, when no promotional gimmick is too shameless and people will fall for anything. Barry had recorded a song called “Now I’m Alone,” a weeper about a man who has lost his wife and family. In June 1968, that song was released under the title “4-5-6 (Now I’m Alone).”

Never mind that the numerals 4, 5, and 6 do not appear anywhere in it—a radio programmer who remembered “1-2-3” might be persuaded to give it a listen when it crossed his desk, just because of the title on the label.

As it turned out, “4-5-6” didn’t become a hit, although a few stations picked it up. At WRIT in Milwaukee, it rose as high as #14 in August 1968.

A more successful Barry project was the 1969 instrumental hit “Keem-o-Sabe” by the Electric Indian. He originally produced it for his label, Marmaduke, which he co-owned with Philadelphia DJ Hy Lit, although it didn’t become a national hit until after United Artists picked it up. Although Barry likely wrote “Keem-o-Sabe” (and recorded a vocal version of it), it’s credited to Bernice Borisoff, Barry’s mother, and another Philadelphia record mogul, Bernie Binnick. The musicians are all Philadelphia studio cats including Eli, Vince Montana, and other future members of MFSB. Wikipedia claims Daryl Hall is on it too.

From the 70s to the new millennium Barry stayed in the entertainment biz, producing and performing, and he even wrote a novel about growing up in Philadelphia. He died in his home town last week at the age of 79. There’s more about his life and career here.

One More Thing: I was on the air Saturday when the major news organizations called the presidential election for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, so I got to tell the people about it. I even broke the format to do it—on the country station, talk breaks have been severely curtailed for a couple of months now—but old radio dogs know when to bark, and it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission anyway. Reading that bulletin was one of the highlights of my radio career.

You Really Got Me

Although I was in the prime Van Halen demographic—“You Really Got Me” was a minor radio hit during my last semester in high school—I was never a fan. As somebody whose top two musical obsessions were A) Top 40 pop and B) English prog rock, I wasn’t wired for it. When I got to college in the fall of 1978, I quickly associated Van Halen’s debut album—and specifically, the siren-like fade-in of “Running With the Devil,” cut one on side one—with dormitory stereos cranked beyond the limits of human endurance. I cheered the music critic who wrote of Van Halen II that it was as imaginative as its title. When Women and Children First came out in 1980, I was writing for the campus newspaper, and I destroyed it.

I should go through my clips and find the actual column, but I’m not doing that today. If I’m recalling correctly, it was mostly a screed about what an asshole David Lee Roth was, a word that the paper actually printed. (And I remember that it led to a blizzard of aggrieved letters from Van Halen fans.) It occurs to me now, 40 years later, thinking about Eddie Van Halen, that 100 percent of what I hated about his band was Roth. He was the opposite of the kind of rock star I admired—a keyboard god like Keith Emerson, to name one. And he also represented the very kind of person I disliked in the real world—a strutting, bloviating pretty boy. It took a long time before I could get past him to the music of the band behind him. But by the end of 1980, after several months of hearing Women and Children First in radio rotations, I had come around a little. I was never going to be a fan, but I wasn’t going to savage them anymore, either.

One measure of genius is whether you can inspire legions of imitators without any one of them sounding exactly like you. Eddie Van Halen certainly had that. Just as guitar players who came up in the 50s wanted to be Chuck Berry and those who came up in the 60s wanted to be Jimi Hendrix, those who came up in the 80s wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. His sound owed plenty to Hendrix, but it went to its own places. Even when his band was making music that left me cold (the entirety of the Van Hagar years), Eddie’s one-of-a-kind virtuosity on both guitar and keyboards was clear.

Based on everything I’ve read about him before his death and after, Eddie was relatively normal, and largely unimpressed by who he was. (Maybe you have to be like that when you’re in a band with David Lee Roth.) A former radio colleague of mine tells how his station’s morning team somehow got the direct phone number to Eddie’s studio. They would call it every now and then, and sometimes Eddie himself picked up, and he’d talk to them when he wasn’t talking to anyone else. “Unfazed by fame,” one of the jocks said on Facebook this morning.

And the man was married to Valerie Bertinelli. I mean, really. That’s a life well-lived.

Also yesterday, we lost soul singer Johnny Nash. “I Can See Clearly Now” is Nash’s monument, having done a month at #1 in the fall of 1972 (not long after Mac Davis, who passed last week, did a month at #1 with “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me”). It’s as familiar as the weather now, and I’m not sure anybody needs to hear it again. Maybe give “Hold Me Tight” a few spins instead—it was a #5 hit in 1968 that somehow resisted becoming part of the good times/great oldies radio pantheon.

Nash, born in Houston, was an important figure in the rise of Jamaican music in the United States. On “Hold Me Tight,” he’s backed by the band of Jamaican impresario Byron Lee, and nothing that sounded quite like it had ever hit so big on American radio. According to music historian Charles Hughes, Nash got the first UK record deal for what became Bob Marley and the Wailers, and publishing deals for Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer.

If it’s true that they always go in threes, we need to hold our breaths today. But that’s a regular condition of life in America right now, and it’s got nothing to do with music.

Stars in the Sky

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(Pictured: Helen Reddy with Glen Campbell and Donna Summer, and Mac Davis with Doc Severinsen, both from 1979.)

I stayed off Twitter last night to avoid the presidential debate, so it wasn’t until early this morning that I learned of the deaths of Helen Reddy and Mac Davis. It wasn’t the debate that killed them, however. Reddy had Alzheimer’s disease, and Davis died after heart surgery.

Reddy’s first hit was a version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971. She would hit #1 three times between 1972 and 1974 with “I Am Woman,” “Delta Dawn,” and “Angie Baby.” She charted a total of 14 records on the Hot 100. On the adult contemporary chart, she had six straight #1 hits between 1973 and 1976. Five of her albums made #11 or better on the Billboard 200 in that period. She was not the sort of performer who was going to thrive in the disco era, however, although she had a few modest AC hits, and her career continued to thrive even after the hit singles stopped. She became the host of The Midnight Special in 1975, acted on TV, and appeared on variety, game, and talk shows for as long as that was a thing. Her last charting record on the Hot 100 and AC chart came in 1981.

Davis, meanwhile, first came to prominence as a songwriter, and every obit you read today will mention in its first couple of lines the ones he wrote for Elvis. His first big single under his own name, “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” spent a month at #1 in 1972. Of his other 14 Hot 100 hits, only “Stop and Smell the Roses” would make the Top 10. (America reached peak Mac-itude in September 1974, when “Stop and Smell the Roses” and “One Hell of a Woman” were both in the Top 40, just weeks after his limited-run summer TV series left the air.) Several of his Hot 100 hits in the 70s scratched onto the country charts, but he didn’t become a major figure in country until 1980; five singles hit the country Top 10 in less than two years, and three of those made the Hot 100, including “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” which peaked at #43. His last country chart hit was in 1985.

Like Reddy, Davis pursued an acting career as the 70s turned to the 80s, appearing in a string of high-profile movies: North Dallas Forty, Cheaper to Keep Her, and The Sting II. Based on their entries at IMDB, both Reddy and Davis largely retired from acting around the year 2000. Davis recorded his last album in 1994; Reddy released an album of re-recorded hits in 2002.

So it’s been a long time since Helen Reddy and Mac Davis were much on anybody’s mind, outside of their families. But if you could transport yourself from the fall of 2020 back to the fall of 1974, back into the world of Top 40 radio and TV as it existed in that bygone day, Helen Reddy and Mac Davis would be two of the biggest stars in the sky.

And on the subject of time travel. . . .

Continue reading “Stars in the Sky”

The Cat Who Came First

I don’t write about every musician who dies, because most of the time, other people will do a better job than I. In this case, however, I can do OK. 

Jazz came to Europe from America during World War I, when the regimental band of the Fighting 369th, a black unit that was the first American force to reach France, played the music that was taking America by storm. When war again tore through Europe in the 1940s, American GIs again brought their music along. By the end of World War II, the European jazz scene was thriving. In Denmark, a young fan named Bent Fabricius-Bjerre formed a band after the war and made the first-ever Danish jazz records. They were successful enough for him to form his own record label, Metronome, in 1950. He later hosted a show on Danish TV, a variety series called Omkring et flygel, translated to English as Around a Piano. (He had, by this time, shortened his name to Bent Fabric.) By 1961, the show was so popular that its theme song became a hit in Denmark, and it quickly spread to other countries in Europe.

The early 60s were an uncomfortable time for pop music. Elvis had gone Hollywood; the creativity and freshness of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll had waned; although Bob Dylan was in New York and the Beatles were in Liverpool, neither had broken through yet. Even R&B, which had provided such a deep well of material for record labels like Atlantic through the 50s, was going through a dry spell. On the lookout for the next big thing, Atlantic noticed Fabric’s popularity in Europe, and picked up some of his songs for release in the States. The label believed that the Omkring et flygel theme would be a hit here, too, but not with that title. And so, in true American zippy-marketeer fashion, the song was renamed “Alley Cat.” (Atlantic’s marketing department concocted a story that Fabric had been inspired to write the song by his two cats. Fabric did not own a cat.) In the late summer and early fall of 1962, it rose to #7 on the Hot 100. An album of the same name became Atlantic’s best-selling title of the year.

The followup single, “Chicken Feed,” failed to match the stateside success of “Alley Cat.” “Alley Cat” did, however, win the first Grammy given for Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Recording (in 1963), which would boggle the mind if the Grammys didn’t do stuff like that all the time. A collaboration with British clarinetist Acker Bilk didn’t return Bent Fabric to the American charts, either.

It’s doubtful, however, that he cared much. He remained a well-known figure in Danish musical circles, and Around a Piano stayed on TV for years. Metronome eventually moved into television production and, after becoming part of a larger media group, produced (if Google Translate is helping me understand the Danish obituaries properly) Scandinavian versions of shows including Big Brother and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In 2003, Fabric scored an enormous Danish hit with “Jukebox.” Three years later, a remixed version of it became a hit in American clubs. In 2010, at age 85, he appeared in a movie as a brothel owner. He played his final concert in 2019.

Bent Fabric died yesterday at age 95.  One obituary says of him, “old age never came. He made sure to keep it at a distance.”

Like other hit records of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, “Alley Cat” spawned a dance of its own, a simple step that is still performed by elementary-school students today. I am told that I developed my own little dance to “Alley Cat,” which my parents had purchased on a 45. In the fall of 1962, I was two years old. So I guess it’s not true that “Candida” was the first record I ever loved. “Alley Cat” came first.

This post is rebooted from one originally appearing in 2009.

Good Golly

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(Pictured: Little Richard in the 1957 movie Mister Rock and Roll.)

Of the members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first class, only two are still with us: Jerry Lee Lewis, age 84, and Don Everly, age 83. Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Phil Everly, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard are all gone now.

I cannot remember when I first heard, or heard of, these people. My parents’ radio stations might have played certain songs by Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers, and Elvis, but I don’t recall specifics. When I first started listening to WLS in 1970, I might have heard them there. Whether I knew who they were and what they represented—well, it’s been too long for me to know. But as time went by, from radio, or TV, or reading, or whatever, I learned who they were, even if I didn’t yet fully appreciate Who They Were. My education didn’t truly begin until I got into radio and became responsible for running the syndicated program Sunday at the Memories. Host Ray Durkee loved 50s music and the stars who made it. He taught me a lot, and he made me want to learn and hear more.

I didn’t have to listen very long to understand that Little Richard’s energy was different. Where the pianos of Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino rolled like a mighty river, Little Richard’s hit like a battering ram. Elvis sang, but Little Richard shouted. Ray Charles testified, but Little Richard came off possessed. “Tutti Frutti,” “Lucille,” “Keep a-Knockin’,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and the others were wild in a way that the other iconic hits of the 50s were not, not “I’m Walkin’,” not “Great Balls of Fire,” not “Johnny B. Goode,” not anything else.

Not since Glen Campbell died in 2017 has Twitter felt more like a firehose of information than it did after Richard’s death was announced on Saturday morning. Here’s some of what I saw, read, and heard:

—In 2004, Little Richard himself reflected on his career and influence for Rolling Stone.

—Bob Stanley, author of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Modern Pop, wrote about Little Richard and what he meant for The Guardian; his piece contained some insights I didn’t see anywhere else.

—Rob Sheffield described the remarkable range of Little Richard’s influence: everybody who was anybody.

—A couple of Twitter threads told some tales proving that of all the early rockers, Little Richard was the biggest character: this one, about an early 90s Little Richard/Jerry Lee double bill that was quite something; and this one, in which Richard made a big entrance and an even bigger impression.

—The excellent Let It Roll podcast did a number of episodes in 2017 with author and historian Ed Ward that discussed Little Richard and his times. Find them here.

—The original Ernie version of the Sesame Street song “Rubber Duckie” is a war crime, but Richard’s version is a big improvement.

Look over the list of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers beyond the 1986 inaugural class and you’ll see that only a few of the pioneers remain. In addition to Jerry Lee Lewis and Don Everly, Charlie Thomas, last of the original Drifters, is still here at age 83. Dion will be 81 this summer. Several of the Isley Brothers, who first hit in 1959, are still among us. If you want to count Tina Turner or Smokey Robinson, both 80 years old, working musicians in the late 50s who found their greatest fame in the 60s, I’m good with that. The greatest surviving stars of the 60s, several Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson, the Rolling Stones, Paul and Ringo, are all on the far side of 70.

At a time when the oldest among us are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, it’s natural to feel more protective of them than ever before. And not just musicians. One night last week, The Mrs. and I made a list of elderly VIPs we’re glad are still here: her Aunt Clara, Betty White, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tony Bennett, Olivia de Havilland (who will be 104 this summer), Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Norman Lear. And we mentioned Little Richard too, never knowing that he’d be in the news only a couple of days later.