Category Archives: Uncategorized

Born at the Right Time

When I was a younger man, I believed that the people I grew up with had a magical bond. We saw so much together and did so much together, lived life’s most tumultuous period of change together, that we would just naturally ride into the future on the same ship for as long as time lasted. We wouldn’t be together in space, but having once been together in time meant that we would always be together in time.

But what about the people I met in the college dorm, people with whom I lived in even closer proximity than my school friends from back home? We, too, went through a tumultuous period of change together. But there was less magic in it. It wasn’t a community. It wasn’t a ship built to sail through time. It was just an accident of geography.

Then I started thinking that maybe everything else was an accident of geography, too. I took Job A instead of Job B, then quit Job B in favor of Job C. I didn’t choose the people who were my colleagues at A, B, or C. They were just there, like office furniture. And even more fundamental: what if my mother had married somebody from her hometown instead of a man from the next town over? What if my grandfather had stayed where he was born, in northern Illinois, instead of buying land just over the state line? I’d still have gone on a journey with a group of people, but it would have been a completely different group of people, different people to love, and hate, and be indifferent about.

I eventually started believing that the bond was actually contingent, random, and perhaps, because of that, meaningless. Sure, I have individual friendships—close, rewarding, beautiful friendships—with people I grew up with, people I met in college, people I have worked with. But that thing about the magical bond from childhood and the ship sailing into the future, all of us together? Too romantic. Not the way the world is. Just an accident of geography.

Continue reading →

An Autobiography With No Words

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Henry Mancini in the studio, circa 1970.)

(Before we begin: this seemed like a great idea when I thought of it. Now that it’s finished, I’m not so sure anymore.)

Fifty years ago this week, three instrumentals were in the Billboard Top 10: “Grazin’ in the Grass,” “The Horse,” and “Classical Gas.” After digging into my own instrumental music stash, I discovered that I can tell my life story to approximately age 20 entirely in instrumentals.

“Theme From A Summer Place”/Percy Faith. The #1 song on the Hot 100 on the day I was born, and the definitive easy-listening hit. Also on the radio that same week: “Tracy’s Theme” by Spencer Ross, less monumental but more significant in the mythology of this blog, for I imagine it as one of the first songs I ever heard, lying on the little bassinet in the kitchen, as Mother went about her daily routine with the radio on.

“Alley Cat”/Bent Fabric. When I was two, I apparently had a little dance I would do whenever “Alley Cat” came on the radio. Kids dancing to “Alley Cat” is now an Internet genre all to itself, so I was clearly ahead of my time—possibly for the only time.

“A Walk in the Black Forest”/Horst Jankowski. This is the first song I can remember thinking of as a favorite, having heard it on our hometown radio station, presumably when it hit in 1965 and for years thereafter, “taking us up to news time.” See also “Last Date” by Floyd Cramer.

“Summer Samba”/Walter Wanderley. I have written before of certain long afternoons during which my brother and I would amuse ourselves with toys in the living room while my mother did household chores with the radio on. Certain instrumentals popular in the mid 60s conjure up this image when I hear them today, and “Summer Samba” is one of the most reliable.

“Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet”/Henry Mancini. When I was in fourth grade, a reporter from the school newspaper (a sixth grader) asked me some questions for a student profile. To “what’s your favorite song,” I responded with “Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet,” which may have been the last thing I heard on the radio before I went to school that morning. But it also confirmed me as one of the world’s biggest nerds, which remains accurate.

“Time Is Tight”/Booker T. and the MG’s. This struck me differently than “Summer Samba” and the rest of the instrumentals popular just a couple of years earlier. It activated some strand of DNA that had lain dormant for the first nine years of my life—or maybe it’s truer to say it scratched an itch I didn’t know I had.

“Scorpio”/Dennis Coffey. I’d been buying 45s for about a year when I bought this. To be added to my collection over the next couple of years: Coffey’s “Taurus,” “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter, “Love’s Theme” by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, and “TSOP” by MFSB. I found—and still find—all of them to be equally crankable.

“Pick Up the Pieces”/Average White Band. On the radio the night of my first kiss. See also “The Hustle,” learning to do it in gym class, and the socially sanctioned—even academically necessary—touching of girls.

“A Fifth of Beethoven”/Walter Murphy. Bridges the summer and fall of 1976. See also “Nadia’s Theme (The Young and the Restless)” for a further significant text from the fall of 1976.

“Star Wars Theme-Cantina Band”/Meco. I resisted my peer group’s mania for all things Star Wars in the summer of 1977 (except for this), mostly because that was how I rolled back then. Eventually, the iconoclasm of never having seen the movie became a thing. A few years ago, my nephews put in the DVD and I quietly fled the room, mostly so I could still tell people I’ve never seen it.

“Music Box Dancer”/Frank Mills. A hit during my first spring getting paid to be on the radio. On those rare occasions when I hear it today, it takes me back to that studio and makes me into the kid I was. He acted like he knew what he was doing, but in fact he did not know the most important thing: that he really had very little idea what he was doing.

We’ll end the story there. If you care to name an instrumental significant to part of your life story, add it in the comments.

Annual Custom

Embed from Getty Images

Today is this blog’s 14th birthday. In keeping with annual custom, here’s a rundown of some favorite posts that have appeared here since last July 11. You can find the rundowns for other years by clicking here, or visit “jb’s Greatest Hits” at the top of the blog anytime.

—The Sirius/XM Yacht Rock channel periodically cycles between the regular S/XM service and streaming only (it’s on the service again for the summer), but people are apparently finding it wherever it is. A post I wrote about it last July often gets as many hits in an average week as the new posts I write, which is both flattering and moderately depressing in similar amounts.

—I seem to have written more tribute posts in the last year than I did the year before, a year in which it seemed like death claimed a new victim in the music world nearly every week. I wrote about Glen Campbell, Fats Domino, Tom Petty, David Cassidy, Mel TillisVic Damone, and Walter Becker.

—Following Becker’s death, I ranked my favorite Steely Dan songs and their albums. I also ranked the songs on famous albums by Elton John, the Cars, and the Rolling Stones, which you can find by visiting the archives of The Re-Listening Project.

—We learned about the history behind several songs celebrating their 50th anniversaries: “Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey,” “Snoopy’s Christmas,” and Henson Cargill’s country-to-pop crossover “Skip a Rope.” A Vietnam-era record not celebrating a round-number anniversary got the same treatment.

—There was, as usual, some stuff about radio at this blog this year: about how the way one station chose to promote itself had an unintended effect; about how to prepare for a radio show and how to keep ads voiced by clients from sounding as crappy as they often do; about the granddaddy of all holiday radio shows; and about one of the greatest of all radio DJs at work on a random day in 1971.

—We watched some TV, including the unlikely Starland Vocal Band Show from 1977 and a radio sitcom that predated WKRP in Cincinnati by a decade. We watched some Elvis movies. We read some books, including one about the impact of drugs on the Beatles and another about the secret history of 1968. We listened to American Top 40 after having a few beers. We traveled a bit, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Bob Dylan’s childhood home.

—One morning last summer, I went for a walk around my own childhood home—the Wisconsin farm I grew up on. Forty years ago this summer, it was nearly time to leave that home, as I graduated from high school. (All these years later, there are certain memories from that time I’d rather not relive.) I remembered another summer when I was a lot younger, and the way it came echoing back to me years later. And I wrote about the things we don’t know.

In this post, I have yet again badly misused and/or overused the editorial “we,” which is also in keeping with annual custom.

After a ridiculous number of years doing business at this stand (and at my other stand, One Day in Your Life), I remain grateful for your eyeballs. And more than just eyeballs—I have been gifted out of the blue with some wonderful stuff as a result of the relationships that this blog has fostered. As great as the stuff is, however, it’s the relationships that are the best thing about this blog. My thanks to all.

So Rare

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: some guys who could play: L to R, Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Lionel Hampton.)

This post has been in my drafts folder for quite literally years, but today is its day. I started it after a reader asked me how come I never write about the 30s and 40s. 

I have written about the Pioneer Era of Recording, which spans the late 1800s to the middle of the 1920s. I think I’ve probably mentioned the pre-rock 50s a few times. But the era between has been neglected, so here we go.

The 30s are often said to be the decade in which jazz was America’s most popular music, but that’s not completely accurate. Based on the list of the decade’s #1 singles (as found in Joel Whitburn’s remarkable Pop Memories: 1890-1954), jazz arrives in 1932, when Louis Armstrong’s version of “All of Me” reaches the top. But a version of the song by Paul Whiteman, erstwhile King of Jazz whose music is not considered especially jazzy today, was on the charts at the same time. A bandleader who’s never been considered a jazzman, Guy Lombardo, was far more popular than Armstrong. During the first half of the 30s, Lombardo would hit #1 or #2 something like 15 times.

Jazz doesn’t start to dominate until what we call the Swing Era. Between 1936 and 1939, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman were frequent visitors to #1, even as Lombardo and Bing Crosby continued to get their share of time at the top. Glenn Miller scored his first #1 hit in 1939, although you’ll get some debate about whether to consider Miller a jazzman or a pop star. (Even recordings by ostensible jazz bands often had plenty of pop flavor, such as Artie Shaw’s “Frenesi,” which spent 13 weeks at #1 as 1940 turned to 1941.) The year 1941 belonged to Tommy Dorsey’s brother Jimmy with seven #1 hits that year alone. The World War II era was soundtracked by bandleaders Freddy Martin, Harry James, and Kay Kyser in addition to the Dorseys, Miller, and Goodman—and Lombardo, and Crosby, who was the most popular recording artist of the 20th century until Elvis came along.

The bands of the 1940s all had singers, some who would remain eternally famous, like Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey or Doris Day with Les Brown, and some who were famous in their time but no longer, such as the stable of singers who fronted Miller, including Ray Eberle, Tex Beneke, and Marion Hutton. And as World War II ended, you can begin to see the big bands fade out and solo singers take prominence. Perry Como hits #1 for the first time in 1945 and repeatedly in 1946; so do Dinah Shore, Nat King Cole, and Sinatra as a solo artist. By 1948, the Kay Kyser band is the last of the World War II big bands to hit #1; in 1949, nearly all of the #1 songs are by solo singers not fronting big bands, including Evelyn Knight, Mel Torme, Como, Vaughn Monroe, Vic Damone, and Frankie Laine. Guy Lombardo managed a #1 version of “Third Man Theme” in 1950, 23 years after his first #1, but he was the last of the famous bandleaders to reach the top.

Eras never break cleanly. Think of the start of the rock ‘n’ roll era in 1955 or the British Invasion in 1964, and then consider how older styles continued to thrive even after times had supposedly changed. So there’s a finer gradation to this story than I am relating here. Solo singers were popular throughout the 30s and 40s, as Crosby’s success indicates. Jimmy Dorsey scored a big pop hit with “So Rare” in 1957. Even without hit singles, editions of the dominant big bands sold albums, and they remained on the road in the 50s and 60s, albeit scaled down in size and itineraries. Stars such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie would remain popular live attractions until their deaths, Ellington in 1974 and Basie in 1984, as would Frank Sinatra until his death 20 years ago last month. Guy Lombardo was on national network TV every New Year’s Eve until the end of the 70s.

An edition of the Glenn Miller Orchestra is still on the road in 2018, over 70 years after Miller’s death. How long it will remain viable is a good question. We live in a society where “old school” means 10 years ago; before long, the music of the 30s, 40s, and early 50s will be entirely the realm of antiquarians. But while it lasted, it was pretty remarkable.

Music Within Limits

Embed from Getty Images

I read a Twitter thread recently about the preferred format for mix “tapes” nowadays. CDs are still popular, although Spotify links are catching up. A few people compile them as zip files or use USB drives. I would like to think there are some old geezers out there who still use tape; perhaps they aren’t connected to the Internet to say so.

I have written here before about the 8-track recorder I bought in high school, so the first mix tapes I ever made were in that format. When I got to college, I made a few party mixes on reel tapes in the production rooms of radio stations. I graduated to cassettes shortly after I graduated from college, and they were my medium of choice for car tapes until the early 00s, when I got a CD burner. But I kept playing tapes until 2012, when the car with the tape deck went to the big salvage yard in the sky.

I burned a CD just this morning, some tunes for a trip we’re getting ready to take. I burn as MP3s, which means a single CD can hold several hours of music. (Burning standard CD files limits a disc to 80 minutes.) As I was selecting tunes for the CD, I kept thinking, “What else could I put on here? There’s certainly room for more.” If I were putting them into a zip file or USB drive, there would be even more room. A Spotify playlist is theoretically limitless.

That feels like it could be a problem.

A mix begins with a goal. What do I want this mix to do? If you’re sending one to a girl (and I am guessing that many of the male geeks reading this post have done it, or considered it), you want to express yourself, tell her who you are, and create a mood. For a road trip, you want to create a different mood, one that enhances the experience of travel in whatever way you choose. Or maybe you’re making a mix for your own amusement (“the greatest hits by artists whose names begin with A”), or on a particular theme (“best party hits from college”). What belongs, or best fits the theme?

More importantly, what doesn’t? A C-90 cassette or an 80-minute blank CD requires you to make choices. Does this song contribute to the mood, or the theme? Is it better for that purpose than some other song I am considering? I’d argue that a cassette or CD mix you make for somebody will say more about you as a person than a mix you send as a Spotify list because of the paring and tweaking you have to do to make it right within a physical limit. It also says something about how you regard the person you’re giving it to. You care enough to spend real time, effort, and thought on them. You don’t just browse a list and hit “add” a few times.

Years ago, I heard a party DJ say something similar. He wondered whether there’s really an advantage in being able to take thousands of songs to a party digitally instead being confined to what fits in a crate of vinyl or CDs. As in making a mix, choices are necessary. Is this a record I need, one I can’t imagine the party without? If so, it goes in the crate. If not, it can stay home. True, the DJ with 10,000 songs is likely to have more latitude on those occasions when it’s helpful, or be better able to play some guest’s request, but does that automatically mean he’ll provide a better party in the long run than the DJ who’s crated up a couple of hundred tried-and-true dance floor monsters?

Our culture frowns upon limits. We equate freedom with having whatever we want, as much as we want, whenever we want, for as long as we want. But “unlimited” is not automatically better. For an artist of the mix, acceptance of limits can enhance the work.

The Secret History of 1968

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: the Grateful Dead, who do not figure in the story of Boston in 1968 except as one of the acts who played at a club called the Boston Tea Party, as shown here.)

(But see the postscript below.)

In 1968, Van Morrison and his wife, Janet, were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’d made one album, Blowin’ Your Mind, and one indelible single, “Brown Eyed Girl.” But late in 1967, after Morrison and Bang Records chief Bert Berns got into a shouting argument, Berns fell over dead. Morrison wanted out of the contract he signed with Berns, but Berns’ mobbed-up business partners weren’t willing to just let him walk. It took a sack of $20,000 in cash, delivered to a warehouse in the dark of night by a Warner Brothers executive, to get him free. While the contract situation was hanging over his head, Morrison was working on new music—music that would eventually become the legendary album Astral Weeks.

The making of that album is only one of the Boston stories told in Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh. In addition to Morrison, we meet an enigmatic guru named Mel Lyman, who presided over a commune in Boston’s Fort Hill neighborhood, published a newspaper called the Avatar, was deeply influential in the city’s counterculture, claimed to be God, and may or may not have died a decade later. We’re present at the Velvet Underground’s historic residency at the Boston Tea Party, and the less-successful attempt to hype the local music scene under the name “the Bosstown Sound.” We visit the set of an experimental public television show called What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? and influential rock radio station WBCN. We tag along at an odd modern-day meeting between the author and musician (and former WBCN DJ) Peter Wolf, who says he has tapes of a show at which Morrison, his longtime friend, played some of the Astral Weeks songs for the very first time. And we’re there the night James Brown plays a televised concert in the wake of Martin Luther King’s murder that’s credited with keeping the lid on the city.

The Brown story is often portrayed as a magnanimous gesture by a star who wanted to do something for his people. The reality is something else again. Brown was scheduled to play Boston Garden on April 5, the night after the King shooting. Officials feared what might happen with so many black people in one place, but they also feared what might happen if the show were canceled. So the idea came about to televise it, thereby keeping people indoors and off the streets. Brown hated the idea at first; TV would lower the attendance and his take of the proceeds. The city agreed to pick up the cost of lost earnings from ticket sales, which turned out to be $60,000. (Mayor Kevin White ended up having to go to a group of old-line Boston financiers for a handout to cover it.) The concert nearly went bad when audience members started jumping on stage, but Brown managed to get the fans back under control, and ended up keeping Boston peaceful while other cities were burning. Years later, White would say it was definitely worth the money.

Although Van Morrison had woodshedded his new songs with a group of local musicians, only one of them ended up playing on Astral Weeks. Producer Lewis Merenstein rounded up a group of bigtime professionals to play; one of them, guitarist Jay Berliner, walked into the first Astral Weeks session after spending the afternoon recording jingles for skin cream and potato chips. Another, bassist Richard Davis, said that none of the musicians had ever heard of Morrison and he never spoke to them, staying in the vocal booth with his guitar the whole time. Because the musicians were all jazz players, they were able to improvise at the direction of Morrison and Merenstein; the album came together in three sessions over several weeks.

You don’t have to know anything about Boston to read Astral Weeks, although it might enhance your enjoyment if you do. For example, Marsh Chapel at Boston University figures in several scenes; only after I finished the book did I remember that I attended a wedding there many years ago. At a time when we’re overdosing on memories of 1968, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 is on ground that few other histories of that fabled year have covered.

(Postscript: in a Twitter exchange we had over the weekend, Ryan Walsh reminded me that an early edition of the Dead was heavily inspired by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Kweskin was an associate and sometime-bandmate of Mel Lyman’s, and lived at Fort Hill. So the Dead indeed has something to do with the 1968 Boston story, albeit peripherally.)

%d bloggers like this: