Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Favorite Christmas Song This Year

After I posted a 78 of "The Three Little Pigs" both to this site and to WFMU's blog, asking who knew the name of the singer, I was quicly able to learn that it was Toby Deane, a specialist in the fields of both children's records and unique vocal performances. I will do an entire multi-song post about her, soon, as she is my 2008 chioce for the greatest singer I'd never heard of before.

Many thanks to Irwin Chusid, who sent me what appears to be Toby Deane's greatest moment, a Voco records 78 from the late '40's, which is quite unlikely anything else I've ever heard. It's called "Alice in Christmas Wonderland", and it's been in nonstop rotation here in my world, since I first heard it, in late August of this year.

There is so much I love here, I don't know where to start. The whole arrangement is so beautifully odd, what with the multiple female backing singers, who sound at one moment like they are in a halloween cartoon, and another moment like they belong in the "You're Out of the Woods" scene from "The Wizard of Oz". Then there's the one singer who swoops in with descending broken chords (then echoed by the clarinets) at the 1:30 point.

Speaking of those clarinets, the sheer business of this track is a wonder to behold. The various sections played by the piano, in particular, just takes my breath away at times. And the double bass adds a lovely feel, too. All that work, for a children's record. I would LOVE to have been at this session.

Then there's the song. Most songs of this type would wear out their welcome with me by the end of the first minute, but somehow, this one is a joy in that area, too.

And all of that leaves out the main show, which is the lead vocal. I've not grown the least bit tired of listening to this, over the past four months, primarily because of Toby Deane's stunning and wonderous singing. There are moment, such the second time she sings "Alice", about 25 seconds in, that just give me chills.

The ability of a singer, who was apparently in her 20's or 30's at this time, to fully and convincingly sing as if she was, oh, about 12, astonishes me. And the little laugh on her voice, as heard at about 1:16, and again at 1:43 - well, I don't think that's something that can be taught.

I suspect I like this more than anyone who may hear it here on my site, but that's okay. Hopefully, you'll like enough to make my lengthy post worth reading.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fun with Decorations

Since you've probably got your tree decorated by now, perhaps you'd like to hear how someone else's decorating is going. Here's Ben Light and the Surf Club Boys, to tell you about the "Christmas Balls" on the tree of someone very special!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Family Christmas

I guess this song is well known to a lot of people, and I've even seen it listed in a few places as one of the Worst Christmas Songs. Happily, I've not heard the versions of this song that are typically referred to. They are described in terms of this being a novelty song, or a redneck Christmas tribute, or something like that.

Again, luckily, I never read any of that until I had grown to love this song to death, without any irony needed. This version grabbed me from the first moment, and from that time on, I've loved it as a real slice of life look at one (fairly bemused) woman's Christmas memory. I live fairly far from redneck central, and yet (apart from the parents getting drunk in the first line) I've always been able to picture the video of this recording, in my head, as taking place at my own home.

The song is "Merry Christmas From the Family", and it's sung here by Jill Sobule, from a long out of print Various Artists Christmas album. She reminds me here of Melanie, a singer whose best work I adore, and she has the same passionate, if slightly overwhelmed and confused tone about her, which fits this wobbly Christmas story well. I am in awe of someone who can sing the verse about the lights blowing out, with the same emotional conviction as Melanie employed on "Candles in the Rain".

And the arrangement, with accordion, a lead clarinet, and all sorts of acoustic strings and drums, resonates with me and rings in my head throughout the year, not just for the last three weeks. I'm often a fan of music that sounds like it's about to fly off the rails, and at times, that's the case here, especially in terms of the electric guitar which enters the song here and there after a minute or so. Going into the second bridge there is an especially nice moment.

I guess I have to accept that this was written as silly satire, but it works better as a more nuanced, Randy Newman style number. Hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

O Holy Night

There really is no competition, as far as I'm concerned, for the best or most beautiful Christmas song. Far and away, that vote goes to "Silent Night". By the same token, there's no race for second place, either. That one is "O Holy Night", which is well above all the others, apart from the one at # 1.

Here are two unusual versions of "O Holy Night", both of which I love. First up, The Christmas Jug Band. I've enjoyed several tracks by this group, more often than not, because of the involvement of Dan Hicks, surely one of the greatest singers I've heard. But here, in my favorite of their tracks, it's not Hicks' singing on display. And anyway, in any version of this song, the song itself needs to be the focus, as it surely is here.

And what a singularly marvelous piece of work this is. Start with this great song, and apply a wonderfully loose, folky arrangement, with altered (but still wholly appropriate) lyrics here and there, sung by a cadre of folks who sound like they might be trying out this arrangement for the first time. It’s just that free and joyful. And then there’s a perfect recorder solo, and when the vocals come back, there are two magical moments on the word “divine”, where the three main singers hit a major triad as if the whole song had been waiting for them to get there. This is on my very short list of the best Christmas records ever made, and one I’ll never get tired of.

In a completely different direction, I offer up Ellis Chadbourne, a singer I was introduced to by my friend Citizen Kafka, a man I have subsequently lost touch with. Also offering up rewritten text, in this case significantly so, to remove all Christian references, Mr. Chadbourne instead is seeking for a Holy Night in which the Bomb has been banned, and peace reigns over the Earth.

This (and all of Mr. Chadbourne's work) tends to be quite divisive - either you "get it" or you don't. It was a early moment of bonding between me and Citizen Kafka when I focused in on Chadbourne's material as the real heart, the key material within what he had shared with me.

Yes, some say he can't sing, and/or even that this is painful to listen to. I won't disagree with anyone about taste, and I recognize that there is one howler of a note here.

But I will disagree (and have, quite forcefully) with those who have said there is nothing to "get" - there is a passion, a life-affirming spirit captured in Ellis Chadbourne's records, particularly this one, which gives me chills. When he gets to "O Night Divine", and seems at the very top of his range, it takes my breath away - and yet then, I realize there is a higher note yet to come - will he make it? When he reaches that note, just at the end, I feel I am hearing a man singing directly to God, and I rarely can hear this track without tearing up.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas Music - The Sublime and the Ridiculous

I'm going to try an provide several obscure and (in most cases) wonderful Christmas recordings over the next week or so. First, two tracks that couldn't be more different. We'll start with the sublime, in this case, a performance that doesn't seem like it would work well: A New Orleans styled version of "Silent Night", performed by one of my '50's heroes, Huey "Piano" Smith and his group The Clowns. Even though they repeatedly get one of the chords here wrong, this is still a peerless, exquisite performance, filled with deeply emotional singing, a rollicking beat, and great instrumentation:

On to the ridiculous. All thanks to Dr. Demento for this one, which I'll let speak for itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, "The Chipmunk Song" as performed by The Whales:

More to come!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Uncommonly Pretty

Today, not a song, but a link to a song. While on a used record shopping spree with my pal Stu, we poured over some well loved disks at a Salvation Army store. Whichever one of us found the album by "The Sacred Heart Singers" was bound to make it a certain purchase, if for nothing more than the great cover, featuring a bunch of girls and young women, some with guitars and ukes.

Stu was the lucky one who found it first, and he has now posted his favorite track from the album to his blog. I'm about as taken with it as I can get, and maybe you will be, too. It's quiet, flowing beauty is something you can just let wade over you. The words may or may not be consistent with your way of thinking. If they are, you may well find this extremely moving from standpoint, as well - I know I did. If the lyrics aren't your thing, I think perhaps you'll still find the sound of this record extremely affecting and moving.

It can be found here:

Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Gorgeous Little Song

This song was actually featured as part of a post to the 365 Days Project last year, but I fear it got lost as part of a collection of random singles that I posted to that project, all in the same day, and it really deserves to shine on its own.

Here's a portion of what I wrote at that time about the song, "Jingle Down a Hill" by Gaitley and Fitzgerald:

This one is so good I can still picture where I was the first time I heard it: Almost 20 years ago, I was on my way to a new job, and listening to a cassette tape I had made of a stack of 45's, recorded earlier that day (with one of those record players which would drop the records one at a time). "What the hell was THAT" went through my mind, and I rewound it and listened about five more times. It's actually the B-side of a song which has been included on several psychadelic comps, but that song on the A-side doesn't move me at all.

On the other hand, this B-side... well, it's just one of the loveliest things I've ever heard. The folky arrangement fits the song perfectly, the Everly Brothers harmonies on the bridge get me every time, and the simple piano figure at the end of each chorus has echoed in my head since that first listen in 1990. The cruddy production prevents me from making out every word, but I can get most of them, and they portray a sweet description of tender love for the singer's girl, and time spent together.

"Whistlin' as we walk along, smilin' all the way
Singin' with the summer wind, slow and happy days
Alone and free, the world to see, Jingle down a hill"

Although I'm sure I have a couple of the words wrong, here and elsewhere in the song, I certainly get a detailed picture of the life the singers are describing, and the imagery is absolutely magical. If anyone wants to have a go at all of the lyrics, and perhaps catch a few I've been unable to make out, by all means do. I've listened to this record hundreds of times over the years, and it never gets old, and always hits me in just the right place.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

More Children's Records

As a followup to my recent post at WFMU's Blog about "The Three Little Pigs", I thought I'd post more of the obscure (and, to varying degrees, wonderful) 78's and 45's that my mother recorded on a reel to reel tape back in 1964, for posterity.

First up, two absolutely wonderful songs from Al Goodman and his Orchestra, in both cases, these are hi-fi era remakes (although these records are admittedly no longer "hi-fi") of orchestral favorites from the dawn of recording, songs originally recorded for Victor in the first decade of the 20th Century.

First up is "A Hunt in the Black Forest":

And the flip side is "In a Clock Store":

From the opposite end of the 'Wonderful' spectrum, come two sides of a children's 45, which apparently were excerpted from an album titled "songs about words". These are genuinely weird, especially the first one, which is titled "Rattlesnake":

The flip side is "Alphabeetle":

Next up are two songs that were favorites of mine in 1964 (when I was four), and which appeared on either the Cricket or Peter Pan labels. First up is a song that I actually used to sing at that age - I have a tape on which I'm singing it, none of which is odd, except that the song is "The Pretty Little Dutch Girl". Here's the record:

And here is a series of little poems, some of them quite odd, and another favorite from my childhood, titled "More Pussy Cat Rhymes":

Here's a wonderul little record from the early 1950's, if not earlier. It's the old song "Polly Wolly Doodle", but I've always been quite taken with just how much is going on during this performance, especially near the end:

Finally, an actually hit group, The Ames Brothers, with a song from the mid 1950's, featuring an extremely clever lyric and great harmony singing, "I Saw Esau":

Special thanks to mom for preserving all of these records while they were still in half-decent condition!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

John Cleese Sings!

During an interview many years ago, on David Letterman's show, John Cleese told the story of his first work in America, as a chorus singer on Broadway, as I recall. The point of his story was that he cannot sing, and although he managed to get the job anyway, he more or less pretended to be singing throughout the length of the job.

As a result of having hearing that story, I was quite surprised to hear the following selection, which I've excerpted from an episode of the long running BBC-Radio comedy show, "I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again", which featured Cleese before, throughout and after the run of Monty Python, during its mid-'60's to mid-'70's run.

On the other hand, I was not surprised at the quality of Cleese's singing or of the opening joke, "Anybody should be singing it but John Cleese". I hope you enjoy Mr. Cleese singing his heart out on "The Ferret Song".

Friday, April 25, 2008

I Love a Mystery

Anyone who knows me probably knows I love a good musical mystery. My passion for an album called "Musical Memories of Camp Bryn Afon" led not only to a post at the original 365 days project, but an entire privately reissued release of the album as a CD. And for the last few years, I've updated my discoveries about Merigail Moreland, both at WFMU's blog and in this blog.

Recently, I had the chance to listen to virtually every song which made the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1957. I love that era of music, and came across dozens of tracks I hadn't heard before, and which I either loved immediately or am growing to love. But one of the standouts, for me, was a record which may not cause the same reaction among the majority of listeners.

Perhaps it's old news among other collectors and music obsessives like me, but this record, "That's All I Want From You" by The Silva-Tones, is not quite like anything else I've ever heard. It starts with fairly odd doo-wop vocalizing - "chu-wah-wah", which leads into what sounds like a harmonium. Whatever that instrument is, it dominates the few other instruments on the record, which is bathed in the degree of reverb that Stan Freberg liked to make fun of.

I already had that "deer in the headlights" feeling before the lead singer even started. And when he did, the bizarre quotient went way, way up. Sounding like a demented version of Robin Gibb (several years before the Bee Gees made any records, of course), with inflections and pronounciations that only added to the weirdness, this vocalist had me completely in his power.

For the last few weeks, I've barely let a day go by without listening to this record, and saying one version or another of "what the hell"? On the one hand, it seems sort of like a car crash, but on the other hand, there is something about that greatly appeals to me. I've been able to find out almost nothing about this group, and my Joel Whitburn Hot 100 book doesn't say anything about the group either.

Here it is, hope you enjoy it! Anyone with information about this group or this recording is encouraged to offer comment:

Monday, March 10, 2008

His Name is Barker Bill

I thought I might toot my own horn here a bit, and share a little piece I recorded almost eight years ago. This was the first recording I did for what I'd hoped would be a quickly recorded follow-up to my 1996 collection of songs "The Many Moods of Bob". That collection was simply a cassette given out to friends and whoever else requested a copy. The new recording was to be a full fledged, well produced CD.

While I've been able to record many tracks since then, all of which sound much better than my earlier recordings, due to better equipment, time has been the enemy, and the project still sits unfinished, with about 35-40 minutes worth of material more or less ready, and another ten or twelve minutes of songs which I just don't seem to be able to find the time to complete.

This piece - a combination of nostalgia and my own strange taste in music - remains one of my favorites.

To fully understand, you have to first hear this Little Golden Record, a five inch yellow 78 which has been in my family's collection, and much beloved, for well over 50 years. It's called Barker Bill, and here is that original children's record:

During a visit to my brother's home in 2000, I used his home studio to record my own version of the song. After recreating the open bars of the Little Golden Record, things get revved up into a whole different style. I created the backing track, playing everything on my brother's keyboard (using midi software), and using all the singers in my family, professional and otherwise, to sing the lines from the two bridge sections. I'm the singer for the main part of the song, including the bass voice and most of the massed voices heard at the end.

On the first bridge, you'll hear the voices of my two daughters, ages eight and six at the time, as well as my mother. On the second bridge, you'll hear my sister, my brother and my neice.

Given that I love Caribbean music, and also adore marimbas, it's not surprising that I'm particularly fond of the little instrumental section in the middle of the song.

Hope you enjoy it.

When finished, the album will be titled "A Few More Plans", after a rather strange instrumental piece that I've been playing with for a decade or more. Maybe I'll share that piece, one of these days. In the meantime, if you're of a mind to, let me know what you think of "Barker Bill".

Monday, February 25, 2008

It's All Elvis' Fault

I love calypso music. Over the last several years, I've come around to the way of thinking that says that, at least in its original Trinidadian form, calypso may be the most perfect style of music ever developed by humans.

Today's example is not part of the Trinidad tradition, and by its subject matter, quite clearly comes from the great mid-1950's revival of calypso. It's also more cute than it is "great" or "perfect".

What little I can find out about this group, which went by the rather unweildy moniker of "The Fabulous McClevertys", is that this was in fact, the family name, and that the band was, for a time, the backing combo for the little known Calypso performer "The Mighty Charmer", a violinest and singer who later abandoned music and became better known under the name Louis Farrakhan.

Each side of the record fits one of Calypso's typical subjects, with the A-side being quite topical, and the B-side being about one aspect of (as a great Calypso compilation once described it) "the human condition".

I was rather surprised to find that this single was on Verve, a label associated at the time (1957 or 1958) with some of the best Jazz being made, and additionally, a bit later, with cutting edge comedy.

The A-side: "Don't Blame It On Elvis":

And the B-Side: "Tickle, Tickle":

Saturday, February 09, 2008


Well, there's been no activity here for some time, and that's almost entirely due to the death of my mother at the end of last year, after a series of illness over the past few years.

I've written about her before, and rather than go into any great detail, since this is a music blog, and if I can indulge a bit, I thought I'd just share some of the music I was lucky enough to hear, while growing up, as well as one song I had the pleasure of introducing my mom to, and playing piano for.

First, two acetates, both of which I believe are from around 1944, when she was perhaps 20 years old:

A Broadway standard, recorded in the late 1950's:

A more gorgeous piece you're unlikely to find, than "Shepherd on the Rock", heard here from 1959. This is admittedly quite lengthy, but I love it. There is an unfortunate splice right near the end of the piece, which cuts out a few moments of the big finish:

The following version of Mozart's Alleluia, recorded around 1965, was played at my mother's funeral:

And finally, a song by William Bolcom, which became mom's signature piece near the end of her life, particularly once her days as a soprano soloist were coming to an end. That's me fumbling around on piano, and the picture below this link is of the two of us, performing the song (not the same time as this recording) at mom's 80th birthday party:

Thanks for everything, mom.