"My Elusive Dreams" by David Houston and Tammy Wynette 
Loving Arms: The Golden Age of Country Duets
For the next seven days I plan to post a list of the best male/female country duos from the late ’60s and early ’70s, a golden age in my opinion. Certainly country duets had a long history already, going back at least to Kitty Wells/Red Foley and Roy Rogers/Dale Evans if not to the harmonies of The Carter Family, but never were there so many talented singers performing such well-written songs. Furthermore, each of the seven pairs highlighted this week is notable either for the length of the partnership or the introduction of a new singer through the association with someone already famous. In this case we’re looking at the latter situation.
By July of 1967, David Houston had already been a regular on the country chart for four years and was developing into a bona fide star. At the same time, twenty-five-year-old singer Tammy Wynette had but two singles to her name, with the most recent “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” being her first Top 10. The pair teamed up on the new Curly Putman song “My Elusive Dreams.” Their haunting take on enduring love turned into Wynette’s first #1. Sixteen more #1s followed in the next decade.
"Police Squad! Opening Theme" by Ira Newborn 
Leslie Nielsen’s passing reminded me of all the actors and actresses who will never outlive their association to a single piece of music. The “Police Squad! Opening Theme” comes to mind automatically upon any mention of Nielsen. You simply cannot have one without the other. Composed by Ira Newborn, this music opened every Police Squad! episode, from the show’s debut in 1982 to its cancellation in… 1982. The same scene was then used as the opening to the more successful 1988 film The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
I realize separating theme music from its visuals can be jarring, especially when a scene has become archetypical, in this case, for police spoofs. If for some reason (you are four years old or you grew up under a humorless rock) you don’t recognize the music, I have taken the liberty of posting the video of the very first public use of the song: the introduction to episode 1 of the Police Squad!I guarantee you’ll recognize it then.
One of the subjects I am most interested in is the process by which American (and to a large extent British) music extended its reach across the globe. Each continent and each country presents its own unique situation in terms of both access to American music and the social and political environment in which that music is interpreted. While American music had certainly begun its international spread decades earlier (with jazz making the most notable inroads), the psychedelic era provided arguably the biggest wave of worldwide interest. Other forms of experimental music from the late 1960s and early 1970s (e.g. free jazz and avant-garde) were also influential, but psychedelic rock provided the right mix of subversiveness and popular appeal.
By the mid 1970s, the Southern African nation known as the Republic of Zambia had fallen on hard times. The new Federation found itself under party rule. Zambia’s then-president engaged what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in a political fencing match that damaged his country’s ability to trade with its main partner. The Portuguese colonies of Angola to the West and Mozambique to the East were fighting their own battles for independence; conflict loomed on all sides of this landlocked nation.
This is the environment in which the catchy – if misleadingly – titled “Zam Rock” scene that flourished in 1970s Zambian cities such as Lusaka and Chingola emerged. Though full of beacons of hope for its numerous musical hopeful it was a tumultuous time and it’s no wonder that the Zambian musicians taken by European and English influences gravitated to the hard, dark side of the rock and funk spectrum. From the little of the Zambian 70s rock and funk music that has been spread via small blogs and bootlegs – the likes of Chrissy Zebby, Paul Ngozi and the Ngozi Family, and the devastating Peace – we learn that fuzz guitars were commonplace, driving rhythms as influenced by James Brown’s funk as Jimi Hendrix’s rock predominated, and the bands largely sang in the country’s national language, English. (read more)
The label Now-Again has recently worked to re-release some of the better albums from the Zamrock scene, including Africa, put out by the band Amanaz in 1975.
The next time you listen to your favorite song, think about the impact that same song might be having on a musician living a completely different lifestyle on the other side of the planet.
This song isn’t about Black Friday as American retailers know it, but about the first famous Black Friday in American history. In September of 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant uncovered a plot by two financiers to get rich by manipulating his fiscal policy to drive the up the price of gold. James Fisk and (fittingly) Jay Gould—assisted by Grant family insider Abel Corbin—hoarded gold in late summer and the price of gold did indeed rise. After learning of the scheme, on Friday, September 24, 1869, Grant ordered the release of $4 million worth of gold into the market.
Within minutes, the price of gold plummeted, and investors scrambled to sell their holdings. Many investors had obtained loans to buy their gold. With no money to repay the loans, they were ruined.
Among those who lost big on Black Friday was Abel Corbin. The wily Gould escaped disaster by selling his gold before the market began to fall. In the Congressional investigation that followed, General Daniel Butterfield was removed from his post. But loyal Republicans refused to allow the testimony of Virginia Corbin and First Lady Julia Grant.
Black Friday scarcely put a dent in Jay Gould’s financial career. Within five years, he controlled the Union Pacific Railroad. Gould went on to control a number of other interests, including the Western Union Telegraph Company and the Manhattan Elevated Railroad. Fisk’s luck — and Fisk himself — proved shorter lived. In 1872, after arguments over money and a Broadway showgirl named Josie Mansfield, a fellow financier named Edward Stokes shot Fisk dead.
Joseph Burns gives a good rundown of the complex influences that came together in the creation of rock and roll. The only thing he doesn’t mention is that—and this should be obvious, but isn’t—nobody knew at the time that it would define the sound of popular music throughout the world for the next half-century or more.
Longing for another ride on the carousel? Relive the aural experience by listening to the charming song “Billboard” by John Klohr from the 1961 album “Music of the Carousel”. In the detailed liner notes (download free at www.folkways.si.edu), album producers Ralph Ilowite and David Ross trace the fascinating history of the early-20th century carousels and their mechanical organs. The album features 14 playful songs that will bring back nostalgic memories of merry-go-round ponies and lions. If the aural experience alone just isn’t enough, come ride the Smithsonian Carousel on the National Mall!
Quiz – is there a difference between a carousel and a merry-go-round?
Thanks to Rick Ilowite, Ralph’s son, for reminding us about this great album.
The amusement park: yet another place we hear a specific type of music.
I feel much the same way today James P. Johnson did when he woke up to snow in NYC during the winter of 1926-27. He recorded “Snowy Morning Blues” at two sessions in late February and early March. It was among the best non-stride jazz recordings he ever put to wax.
(Photo taken in Mankato, MN, by my fiancee’s sister about two hours ago)
"That Old Gang of Mine" by Mitch Miller & the Gang 
Anti-Rock: Pop Vocal Groups of the 1950s, Day 14
We end our survey of pop vocal groups of the 1950s with the blandest, most parent-pleasing, date-ending, rock’n’roll-killing vocal group of the era: Mitch Miller & the Gang. As director of Arts and Repertoire for Columbia Records, Miller had enough taste to sign Mahalia Jackson and Erroll Garner, so his deafness and stubbornness when it came to rock and folk are still surprising. Columbia cofounder and leader John Hammond should really have been the head of A&R too.
Mitch Miller’s preferred taste is evident on the recordings he led with “The Gang” - an all-male chorale that fell somewhere between pop of The Crew-Cuts and the classically-trained Robert Shaw Chorale. Though it’s hard to comprehend today, Miller’s 1958 album Sing Along with Mitch sold quite well - enough even to inspire NBC to create a sing-along television show of the same name in 1961. Listening to this, would you believe that a decade earlier, Miller played oboe on a Charlie Parker record? Bird seems too hip to have included such a straight-laced fellow, but it really happened:
(Image on the back of the 1949 LP Charlie Parker with Strings)
"That Old Gang of Mine" is also a good closing number for this playlist. While some pop vocal groups maintained their chart presence into the early 60s, very few survived the decade with much of a fan base. Many of the singers spent the rest of their lives working regular jobs and reminiscing about their glory years.
Most everyone with more than a passing interest in pop culture knows The Buggles and their hit “Video Killed the Radio Star” as a trivia question response. And when pressed, most of those folks can hum at least a few bars of that tune; however, surprisingly few know anything about The Buggles beyond that.
Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes formed The Buggles in the late 70’s. During this time they were joined by Bruce Woolley, who stuck around long enough to write most of “Video…” before splitting. After that single became a surprise UK #1, the LP The Age of Plastic (Island, 1980) was written and recorded. “Clean, Clean” is a standout track on that record.
As the duo began their followup, the band in the studio next door had just lost their singer and keyboardist. And so it came to pass that Horn and Downes joined Yes for that group’s final album (1980’s Drama) and tour before disbanding (Yes would, of course, later reform).
"Twnety-Six Miles (Santa Catalina)" by The Four Preps 
Anti-Rock: Pop Vocal Groups of the 1950s, Day 13
The Four Preps, a reasonably successful vocal group from Los Angeles, released this lover’s ode to Santa Catalina Island in late 1957. The song reached #2 nationally in January 1958, despite its specific geographic reference to a place that is honestly rather obscure outside California. Then again, everyone identifies with the ideal “tropical heaven out in the ocean / covered with trees and girls,” no matter where it is. In this case, once the protagonist managed to cross the (actually less than) 26 mile channel, he and his lover undoubtedly stopped to dance at the Catalina Casino ballroom.
The song had more to overcome than just geography. Capitol Records at first refused to release the song, citing the chart failures of the groups earlier (eight) records. The group’s fortune turned when a teenage Nancy Sinatra heard them at a party and pressed her father’s label to give them another try. Even then, “26 Miles” was only released as the B-side of “It’s You.”
Lastly, does a local vocal group singing about Southern California sound familiar to anyone? From this perspective, The Beach Boys were simply treading the same territory, but with an updated sound built on folk and surf rock - both of which took off not long after “26 Miles.”
I just realized this blog is sorely lacking in female vocalists. Inexcusable!
The Ballroom is one of the many projects of the great Curt Boettcher, a singer, songwriter, and producer who worked with some of the most seminal bands of the late 60’s (including The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and The Association). While The Ballroom’s album was never released, in 2001, Boettcher pulled together some of his work from this band, Sagittarius, and The Millennium, in a compilation called Magic Time.
I can’t really find much information on The Ballroom, but this is a really pretty song, lead by a female vocalist with a voice as pure as crystal.
Enjoy this rarely heard track, and I’ll be back soon with another song for the laaadiesss.
"What Is There to Say?" by Rosemary Clooney and The Hi-Lo’s 
Anti-Rock: Pop Vocal Groups of the 1950s, Day 12
Vocal groups did not exist solely for their own gain. Various record labels occasionally paired their leading trio or quartet with successful solo singers. In 1957 Columbia Records - the same label who hosted The Four Lads - matched the popular vocal group The Hi-Lo’s with star Rosemary Clooney (for those of you born more recently, she’s George’s aunt) on the release Ring Around Rosie. The 12 track LP served as both a place for collaboration (four tracks) and a means of exposing fans of one artist to the work of the other (four for each group separately). My favorite song from very a solid record is the E.Y. Harburg number “What Is There to Say?”
Most of the groups in this playlist have come across as harmless sweethearts, who, we assume, would go out of their way to avoid even stepping on an ant. We take clean-cut charm to a whole new level today. I mean, what could be more harmless than four Canadian lads?
That image set up a bit of humor since The Four Lads put on the perfect guise for the Frank Loesser Broadway tune “Standing On the Corner.” We can decry the sexism (catcalls no longer get a pass), but we can’t deny that every one of us (either gender) took part in a scene like this as a teenager.
I had a tough choice with The Four Lads. The group was so perfect for “Standing On the Corner” - which reached #3 on the Billboard Top 100 - but they were also the group that first took “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" into the charts (#10).
A minor Broadway classic from Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s 1943 farce One Touch of Venus (in which Mary Martin first made a name), “Speak Low” was given a modern update by the Four Freshmen in 1955. You will notice that The Four Freshmen, while not sounding dissonant, come across sounding less clean-cut and a bit more adventurous than most of the artists we’ve already heard in this survey. This is because they sang open harmonies - leaving unexpected voids in the chord structure - based more in jazz than standard popular choral music.
The group was also fairly enterprising in the types of albums they put out. Where most 10” and 12” pop LPs in the 1950s were nothing more than a collection of assorted standards, The Four Freshmen released themed albums. “Speak Low” comes from the group’s second LP, 1955’s Four Freshmen and Five Trombones. As the title suggests, every song on the record saw the group accompanied by a quintet of trombones.
This venturesome form of vocal group was the type most likely to hold fans as other genres, particularly West Coast jazz, drew ever more sophisticated listeners in the late 1950s.
"It’s Almost Tomorrow" by The Dream Weavers 
Anti-Rock: Pop Vocal Groups of the 1950s, Day 9
As with other genres, for each hit by “big name” vocal groups like the ones we’ve looked at so far, there were many local and regional groups just lucky to see one recording reach the national charts. The Dream Weavers were “one hit wonders” in the UK (and essentially in the US). “It’s Almost Tomorrow” first received airplay in Miami before being picked up by Decca and rerecorded for national release. The song hit #7 in the US and topped the chart in the UK.
The song is also in a slightly different style from those we’ve looked at already. Instead of simply a small group singing close harmony, The Dream Weavers balanced the lead tenor of Wade Buff against a quartet (or more?) of female singers. For most of the song that group sang background harmonies, but they took a more traditional vocal group lead for the third chorus.
The title of this little playlist takes on a real meaning today. The McGuire Sisters released their cover of “Sincerely” in direct competition with The Moonglows’ original doo-wop version. With The Moonglows recording still on the Billboard pop chart, this (white) pop cover made a direct pass on its way to six weeks at #1 in early 1955. The original then stalled at #20. In another interesting quirk, The McGuire Sisters took over the top spot from a different doo-wop cover by a white female vocal trio: “Hearts of Stone" by the Fontane Sisters (originally recorded by The Jewels). Can you see why many people saw the system as unfair (or blatantly racist)?
Why Queen? 20 Reasons to Appreciate the Greatest Rock Band on Earth (and Why You Should Know More Than “Bohemian Rhapsody”)
Reason #2: Mini Rock Operas
Queen - The March of the Black Queen / Funny How Love Is, from Queen II (1974)
“March of the Black Queen” is a tiny little opera in six movements, and in just as many minutes. While “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the best known (and probably most beloved) of the Queen mini-operas, there were quite a few before it: just about every song on the debut album Queen, and on Queen II there is the three-track epic masterpiece made up of “Ogre Battle,” “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke,” and “Nevermore.” And then, of course, there’s this track.
Queen II is possibly Queen’s most consistent album— every track is solidly written and executed, and sort of ties into a dreamy, surreal fantasy theme, its feet planted firmly in the progressive rock movement. Bookending the album, there are two self-referencing tracks that symbolize the dark and light: “The White Queen (As It Began)” and “The March of the Black Queen.”
Flowing in seamlessly on the falsetto of an angel is the Black Queen’s follow up track, “Funny How Love Is,” a throwback to the Larry Lurex days in pitch-perfect Wall of Sound (my favorite recording technique, and one of my all time favorite songs to utilize it).
Presented together for your listening pleasure.
Next week: They’re Seaworthy! Swashbuckling on the seven seas with Mercury and Co.
[It shows] one of the great paradoxes of rap: The toughest, coolest, most dangerous-seeming MCs are, at heart, basically just enormous language dorks. They love puns and rhymes and slang and extended metaphors; they accuse enemies of plagiarism and brag endlessly about their own hard-core habits of revision. A book like this, then, is the ultimate homage.
To complement The Four Knights doo-wop pop post, here’s a white vocal group (with a terribly corny name) covering arguably the best doo-wop song recorded before the rock and roll era. The Chords’ rockin’ original reached #5 on the Billboard pop chart, among the highest chart positions for an R&B song to that date. When the Crew-Cuts released their version of “Sh-Boom” a few months later, it topped the pop chart for nine weeks and they were awarded with a performance on Ed Sullivan’s show Toast of the Town (which would soon be renamed The Ed Sullivan Show).
"Oh, Baby Mine (I Get So Lonely)" by The Four Knights 
Anti-Rock: Pop Vocal Groups of the 1950s, Day 6
Now that we have come down from our Halloween hangover (or sugar high?), we now return to our even more thrilling survey of pop vocal groups of the 1950s. The firstfewgroups we looked at were rather traditional, while the lasttwo brought us at least a bit more character.
By 1954, many white pop vocal groups were becoming aware of the level of success African-American vocal groups were having, with a few breaking onto the Billboard pop chart. Groups like The Crows, The Drifters (with a young Clyde McPhatter), The Jewels, and The Chords had melded the influences of gospel and pop vocal groups with the upbeat rhythms of jump blues. The next three songs we will survey each come from 1954 and show the significance doo-wop began to take on.
"Oh, Baby Mine (I Get So Lonely)" was the biggest hit for The Four Knights - a black vocal group from North Carolina - reaching #2 on the US pop chart and #5 in the UK. The "oh baby" baritone intro, walking bass line, and light backbeat make clear that this is doo-wop, but the overly-extroverted horn arrangement is an obvious pop touch.
When we talk about the birth of rock and roll, many people forget that in the two years before Elvis Presley became a household name, the first throws of “racial” music mixing on the charts were taking place with vocal groups. As exemplified above, doo-wop could soften the shock of black music for white audiences by incorporating the clean cut innocence and sweet harmonies of traditional vocal groups. Of course almost immediately - at the first sign of commercial viability - white groups moved to imitate (but never to replicate) the new fad. It’s foolish to blame either side for cultural “theft.” White audiences potentially meant more money for black groups, covers were more common (rather ubiquitous actually) in that day, and everyone wanted to keep up with the new sound.