25 April 2006

Jazzing it down

Over the loudspeakers in the café there was a woman singing The Way You Look Tonight, slowly, as if she were in a nightclub past her bedtime, and the smoke and the dim lights and the Martinis were making her dozy.

To some people this sounds sophisticated, but that's only because they don't let kids into nightclubs. To me it sounds like missing the point of a classic song. Fred Astaire didn't sing it that way, and he was plenty sophisticated for a gawky looking guy.

Because a song like The Way You Look Tonight (Dorothy Fields - Jerome Kern) is romantic and has a sweet melody, it's a sitting duck for interpreters who think that means slow and dreamy.

If you listen to a lot of music from the 1930s (at the peak of what Alec Wilder called the age of The Great Innovators), you find that even the most tender of love songs could still have loads of rhythm: you could dance to them, and they kept their tenderness.

This was also the Swing Era, after all, and there was a lot of, like, swinging going on back then. (The Way You Look Tonight was first heard in a film called Swing Time.) It might've been the olden days, but they didn't spend all their time in the parlour, singing light opera ballads around the pianola. It's worth remembering the context of the song as Fred Astaire first sang it, in Swing Time (1936).

He and Ginger Rogers have had a tiff, and she's retired to the bathroom, shutting him out. Fred sings this meltingly lovely tribute to her, through the closed door, and she melts. In fact, she reappears, halfway through shampooing her hair.

The pace is brisk, Fred's delivery is assertive. Jerome Kern's melody conveys regret but Fred sounds positive, ready to move on but thankful just to have known her. In the studio recording the pace is enhanced by a foot-tapping rhythm section. [YouTube]

For me, this tension between regret and a more upbeat counting of your blessings is the point of the song: take out the rhythm and the song loses its backbone. And let's face it: some mournful, lovesick guy who sounds as if he's about to swoon all over the apartment floor was never gonna seduce Ginger.

In the 50s and 60s, when a rock artist took an old ballad and reworked it with a beat, it was called jazzing it up. Rockin' Rollin' Clementine was Col Joye's jazzed up version of Clementine. This sort of thing was sent up by Peter Sellers as a cockney pop star named 'Iron' (cf. Tommy Steele) who is interviewed by the BBC about his rockin' version of the Trumpet Voluntary.

And jazzing it down? That's what I call it when a fine, rhythmic song like The Way You Look Tonight is slowed down and given a lethargic jazz interpretation.

There was already a lot of this about when I was a kid in the 50s: ballad crooners, vocal groups, lush string orchestras and smoky nightclub singers, all trying hard not to sound like anything from the 30s.

My impression is that it started in the early 40s. The reasons are varied: swing bands lost personnel to the armed forces, wartime cutbacks affected touring, and the ASCAP boycott (1941) and the Musicians' Ban (1942-44) disrupted radio performances. Vocalists became the big stars and smaller comboes on independent labels got a break. 

By the late 40s and early 50s, sweet, swinging records from the 30s probably sounded old-fashioned anyway, a harking back to the pre-war years and the outbreak of war. Certainly, radio in the late-40s and early 50s was full of mediocre novelty songs and cowboy music. That's what happens in pop music: things pass their use-by date.

Nowadays, though, when sophisticated jazz is mentioned, you can be sure there's a spot of jazzing it down in the offing, and it doesn't always make me melt.

22 April 2006

More on Andy Kirk and Killer Diller

In the late 30s when the yet-to-be-famous saxophonist Charlie Parker was fired from Jay McShann's band, on the road in Detroit, it was Andy Kirk who drove him back to New York.

That's in the book of the Ken Burns TV series Jazz. It also has a large photo of Andy Kirk's band The Twelve Clouds Of Joy. Andy Kirk is mentioned in passing, and quoted on the Kansas City scene, but more attention is given to his pianist, composer and arranger Mary Lou Williams: there is a Mary Lou Williams page at the Jazz website at PBS.

In fact, where Andy Kirk is concerned, all roads lead to Mary Lou Williams. ASV's retrospective CD Andy Kirk& the Twelve Clouds of Joy with Mary Lou Williams has 19 MLW compositions written for Kirk's orchestra, including Mess-A-Stomp, Walkin' and Swingin', In The Groove and Lotta Sax Appeal. [Amazon link]

Phil Milstein emailed to say that the George Wiltshire in the credits of Killer Diller is probably George "Teacho" Wiltshire, the musician, producer, arranger and actor whose career crossed decades and musical genres. He worked, in one capacity or another, with Louis Jordan, Thelonious Monk, Gene Pitney and The Drifters. He was a mentor to singer-songwriter Toni Wine, led an orchestra for a song-poem label, and guested in an episode of Sanford & Son. See, for example, Phil X Milstein's American Song-Poem Music Archive, and Toni Wine's website on her meeting with Teacho Wiltshire when she was an ambitious teenager.

Also, on the subject of the Katherine Dunham School of Dancing, Dave Heasman left a comment saying that Eartha Kitt was in Katherine Dunham's troupe for a while. She would've joined circa 1943, if my math is accurate, and toured the world: I doubt that she would've been one of the Varietiettes, but it's an interesting connection.

See my previous post: Andy Kirk, his Orchestra and other delights.

13 April 2006

Andy Kirk, his Orchestra and other delights

Post updated August 2022 with new information and YouTube videos. I posted it 16 years ago and there are still some defunct links I haven't got to yet. 
I found Andy Kirk and his Orchestra on a DVD of Killer Diller (1948). It was in one of those cheapo mega DVD packs from the supermarket, 50 movies for $29.95.

Killer Diller is a vehicle for a number of black music and vaudeville artists. The best known names in the credits might be Nat 'King' Cole, Jackie 'Moms' Mabley (she often guested on TV in the 60s) and Butterfly McQueen of Gone With The Wind fame.

It's a farce set in a variety theatre, I guess in Harlem, starring Dusty 'Open The Door Richard' Fletcher as an incompetent magician who keeps losing people in his magic wardrobes. There's a backstage romance, a bunch of bumbling cops, and lots of knockabout humour and corny jokes.
(- Where'd he go? - Down there. - How do you know? - I seen this movie before.)

Maybe you had to be there, but from this distance it looks creaky. There are compensations, though, including lindy hopping by The Congaroo Dancers and a smooth, good-humoured set by the King Cole Trio, beginning with "Ooh Kickaroonie".

Andy Kirk, tall and suave, comperes the variety show that's going on while the story gets out of control backstage, and the Andy Kirk Orchestra makes three appearances. The first, "Gator Serenade", is a locomotive, rhythmic piece that builds, showcasing the saxophonists Ray Abrams and Shirley Greene

Later there are some comic bits after Abrams finishes a fine solo standing front-of-stage with Kirk and Greene and returns to the ranks of the band. He repeatedly tries to rejoin Kirk and the spotlighted players out front, and is repeatedly sent back to his place by the boss, crestfallen.


This really swings: dare I say, it rocks? This is 1948, and all around us are the influences on rock'roll, itself just a hop, step and a jump away.

When I'm listening in this period, late 40s, early 50s, I'm like a kid camping out at night, listening for sounds in the forest. Every now and then I'll sit up, straining to hear: "Did I just hear some rock'n'roll? Off in the distance, really faint... There it is again..!"
Electric guitar makes you think of rock'n'roll, but by this time it wasn't unknown in jazz, and it features in the next Andy Kirk piece ("Basie Boogie"). There's a touch of bebop about this, it's not pure bop, but it  bops all right. 

Alerted by the YouTube comments thread, I'm now convinced that the guitarist is René Hall (1912-1988). His later body of work with rock and soul artists during the 50s and 60s is impressive. [Update Aug 2022]


Andy Kirk closes the film by announcing the dancing girls. These are The Varietiettes and they are cool: they file on in short swishy skirts and perky little hats, and they do a fairly synchronised, shuffly kind of dance with waving arms and twisty stuff, a few kicks and jumps, no fancy steps, nothing too frantic. Meanwhile, Andy & the boys try to focus on a peppy dance tune with lead guitar on "Apollo Groove".


The effect is unlike anything I've seen before. There's something reserved about the girls' demeanor, as though they're concentrating hard, and the musicians seem to be sharing a series of private jokes with each other. All the time there's this maddeningly catchy jump dance tune chugging along.

I hadn't heard of Andy Kirk (1898-1992), and he wasn't in any of my standard reference books (which just shows up the limitations of my jazz reference library). Turns out he was a key figure in the Kansas City jazz scene from the late 20s, with his band The Twelve Clouds of Joy.

The consensus seems to be that he was over-shadowed by such Kansas City stars as Count Basie and Benny Moten, but that he was a real contributor to the genre as a bandleader. His line-ups over the years included tenor saxophonist Dick Wilson, vocalist Pha Terrell and trumpeter Fats Navarro (none of whom are seen in Killer Diller). Even Charlie Parker was with him for a while.

In fact, these days he is usually mentioned in biographies of Mary Lou Williams, the esteemed pianist, composer and arranger who was with Andy Kirk from 1929 till 1942. Look her up: she was a star in her own right, who wrote and arranged for Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. The Mary Lou Williams Online Exhibit includes many fine photographs of her Andy Kirk days.

The Andy Kirk theme (all bands had a theme), sung by Pha Terrell, was Until The Real Thing Comes Along (1936), first recorded in '33 by Ethel Waters and also known in Fats Waller's throwaway version.

By 1948, when Killer Diller was made, the band was no longer The Twelve Clouds of Joy, Mary Lou Williams had left (there's a young guy on piano), and Andy Kirk was about to leave full-time bandleading. There's a New York Times report, archived online, about a 1982 tribute attended by Kirk, "tall, trim and vigorous" at 84. In 1989 Kirk's memoir Twenty Years On Wheels was published by University of Michigan Press.

And the Varietiettes? It crossed my mind that they might've been girlfriends of the band, recruited at the last moment, but that was unkind. They're billed as being from the Katherine Dunham School of Dancing. Katherine Dunham was a progressive and influential figure in modern black dance. For a start, see the Katherine Dunham Collection at the Library of Congress, but a Google search for "katherine dunham" + dancing gave me 110,000 results.

[See follow-up posts here and here.]
Note on guitarist Floyd Smith (August 2022): When I wrote this post in 2006 I speculated that the guitarist seen with Andy Kirk might have been Floyd Smith. It looks as if it is in fact René Hall. It's worth noting though, that Smith, who was in Kirk's band into the late 40s, was a pioneer in helping to bring the electric guitar into jazz in the late 30s. For example, here's the All About Jazz website [archived] commenting on Charlie Christian: 1939... Charlie probably learned of the electric from Floyd Smith whose "Floyd's Guitar Blues" made with Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy is the first important use of the electric guitar. The electric guitar was almost unknown before this.
Further reading: Commentary on Killer Diller posted in 2020 at the Monster Movie Blog. 

10 April 2006

Timeouts: The Tornadoes and a Marching Band

Gregg Sinclair who - as I mentioned previously - was a panel operator at 2GB, emailed with two more examples of Timeout Instrumentals: Lapland by The Baltimore & Ohio Marching Band (1967) and Hot Pot by The Tornados (1964).

Lapland is one of those obscure instrumentals that was surprisingly popular in Australia. In early 1968, it reached #5 in Sydney, #20 Melbourne, #9 Brisbane, #20 Adelaide. It didn't register nationally in the US, but charted regionally.

As for The Tornados: I can't believe I overlooked them, as they would've been a rich source of Timeout Instrumentals. They had that one stunning worldwide hit with Telstar (1962), produced by Joe Meek who also wrote a lot of their tracks, and they continued with a series of organ-led instros. These were pleasant enough but not in the same class as Telstar, and tended to sneak into the lukewarm end of the hottest hits.

Globetrotter (1962), Robot (1963), Dragonfly (1963), Monte Carlo (1964), Hot Pot (1964) and Exodus (1964) all charted somewhere in Australia - though not spectacularly - and I remember The Ice Cream Man getting some airplay as well. One thing Aussies dug in those days was an instrumental.

The Tornados. Bassist Heinz Burt (far right) had some
vocal hits as 'Heinz', notably Just Like Eddie (1963)

08 April 2006

Timeout Instrumental hits

In the previous post, I noted that Timeout Instrumentals weren't usually hits, and often came from from LPs, EPs and B-sides.

In a comment below, John G. suggested one exception, Love Is Blue (L'amour est bleu) by French orchestra leader Paul Mauriat (#1 USA, #12 UK, #1 Australia, #4 NZ). It was written by Andre Popp, initially as a 1967 Eurovision Song Contest entry sung by Vicky Leandros with lyrics by Pierre Cour. 

 No Matter What Shape (Your Stomach's In) by The T-bones (1966), and Classical Gas by Mason Williams (1968) were both hits (Classical Gas even has its own website), but I'd be surprised if they weren't also used as Timeout Instrumentals.  

Another example, and a mystery, is The Harem by British clarinettist and bandleader Mr Acker Bilk (right) and his Paramount Jazz Band. It was a hit in Australia in 1964 (#2 Melbourne, #4 Sydney, #3 Adelaide) but failed to chart in the UK, and for some reason it's just about impossible to find on the dozens of easy-to-find Acker Bilk compilations. All Music Guide lists four pages of Acker Bilk songs, but doesn't mention it. It is, however, listed as a 1963 British single at 45-rpm.co.uk.  

The Harem is a standout amongst Acker Bilk's recordings, a stirring, whirling, percussive instro that builds to a climax. It has a little "pip" on the clarinet a second or so before the end that always sounds to me like the first of the time pips that would've followed a Timeout Instrumental. 

I'm wondering whether The Harem started out in Australia being played as a Timeout Instrumental and caught the attention of listeners, who turned it into a hit. Just a hunch, there, but I do remember it being played as a Timeout. (For more on The Harem, see Only in Oz (1).  

The Spartans, by Beatles associates Sounds Incorporated (1964), was another British instro that did better in Australia than in Britain. This is a moody, brass-dominated piece that charted #5 Sydney, #3 Melbourne, #10 Brisbane, and peaked at #30 in the UK. It was written by the chart-topping British pianist Russ Conway, using his real name, Trevor Stanford. Again, The Spartans was probably used as a Timeout Instrumental, but its success was no doubt helped along by Sounds Incorporated playing on The Beatles 1964 Australian tour.

04 April 2006

The Timeout Instrumental

At the end of the hour on Top 40 radio, just before the news, the last record would end, the deejay would talk for a bit, and then he would fade in an instrumental track that had been playing in the background. The instrumental would be cued up so that it finished right on the pips (the electronic countdown to the hour). This practice was common in the 60s, but it seems to have faded out during the 70s.

I asked radio historian Wayne Mac and former 2GB panel operator Gregg Sinclair if there was a name for it and they said, yes, it was called timing out, and the tracks were fillers or timeouts.

In my mind, these works have always formed an unofficial, unnamed sub-genre of the pop instrumental. Radio people in the 60s could identify it immediately, just by choosing something that sounded okay in between a bunch of hit records and the news.

I'm calling this musical sub-genre the Timeout Instrumental, just so it has a name.*

The Timeout Instrumental might have been something by Herb Alpert (right): maybe Bittersweet Samba or Up Cherry Street or Mexican Shuffle. It probably wouldn't be the latest Shadows hit, but it could be one of their B-sides or an EP track, something like The Miracle. You might have heard some album tracks, often by middle-of-the-road orchestras. I'm sure Dalilia, that space-age classic by Roger Roger & his Champs-Elysées Orchestra, would have been used: it was a favourite as background music on Australian radio and TV.**

As examples of likely Timeout Instrumental artists, Gregg Sinclair gives The Baja Marimba Band (associates of Herb Alpert), Bill Justis and Floyd Cramer. Raymond Lefèvre's Soul Coaxing is one track he recalls.

There was some skill in timing out: if the timeout track was 3 minutes long, it had to start playing, faded down, three minutes before the pips, while the last record was still playing. Gregg Sinclair writes:
The art of ‘timing out’ was made all the more interesting by the fact that most of the tracks supplied weren’t timed! Believe it or not, any panel operator worth his salt could look at a track and determine how long it ran. After a few years of experience, I could look at an album track and say: “that’s about a 2’45” job”! However, I always preferred to time them if I had the chance. Usually, I’d get in early and go through the ‘music log’ - radio talk for the playlist – and time the appropriate tracks prior to going on air.
There was a feeling in radio that using instrumental filler in this way sounded sloppy or out of date, so from the late 60s it was replaced by playing regular vocal hits up to the news.

For me, though, it lives on. Sometimes when I hear an old instrumental track I haven't heard before - maybe something by
Cyril Stapleton or Sounds Incorporated - I find myself waiting for the pips, and I know I've stumbled on another Timeout Instrumental.

[For more on Timeout Instrumentals, see follow-up posts
here and here.]

*As a genre, Timeout Instrumental is similar to Northern Soul in that (1) it is applied retrospectively and (2) works are included not strictly for being of one musical style. See also Bizarro Shadows World Down Under, which is applied retrospectively and is partly defined by geography rather than style.

**Timeout Instrumental intersects with what is now known as Space Age Pop (another retrospective genre).
For more on Dalilia, see Only in Oz (9).

03 April 2006

Only in Oz (1): Jo Ann Campbell - A Kookie Little Paradise (1960)

The first in a series. These are records that were more popular in Australia than in Britain or the USA where they originated. They took the fancy of someone at an Australian radio station, got some airplay, and charted well in some major Australian cities where they are remembered as golden oldies. Back in their home countries their chart history was lukewarm, and some of them ended up as obscurities. More than this, they're records that could have been hits anywhere, they were good enough, but this was not to be. See the whole series here: Only in OzSee also: Only in Melbourne.

1. Jo Ann Campbell - A Kookie Little Paradise
(Bob Hilliard, Lee Pockriss)
USA 1960
ABC single (USA) #45-10134.
W&G single (Australia)  #WG-S-1023
Australian charts:  #5 Sydney, #5 Adelaide, #7 Melbourne, #7 Brisbane

Out there at Jo Ann Campbell's Kookie Little Paradise
the kids are out of control: swingin' about in the trees and bellowin' like Tarzan the Ape Man, drivin' fast cars down the beach without a speed limit, livin' on ice cream and pizza...

The record, from 1960, starts with jungle bird sound effects and a full-on Tarzan call (a sample from a movie soundtrack?), then it's the boys in the chorus, direct from the Riverdale High Glee Club: Dip... dip... dibba-dip-dip-dip. Kookie, huh?

This is Archie and Jughead territory: free juke boxes in the jungle, no school, junk food, sport cars and making out. It's a sugary and sticky kind of paradise:

Soft drink bubblin' down a mountain,
To the Carribean sea...

Ice cream - loaded with bananas -
And there's always pizza pie.

Jo Ann Campbell's record, on ABC, wasn't a hit in the US, but down here in Australia we really liked it: #5 in Sydney and Adelaide, #7 in Melbourne and Brisbane.

A Kookie Little Paradise was composed by Lee Pockriss, and those wacky teen-oriented lyrics were by Bob Hilliard, born 1918, who'd been writing since the 1930s.

In similar territory, Pockriss and Hilliard also wrote Seven Little Girls Sitting In The Backseat, a US #9 in 1959 for Paul Evans. Pockriss wrote Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini with Paul Vance, Bryan Hyland's 1960 US #1.

There was also a version of A Kookie Little Paradise by The Tree Swingers on Guyden. The B-side, in keeping with the jungle theme, was Teaching The Natives To Sing, also written by Pockriss & Hilliard. I have a suspicion that it may've been the original, which would make Jo Ann Campbell's better-known record a cover version.

A British version by Frankie Vaughan charted #31 in the UK. Like Jo Anne Campbell, Frankie was in his early twenties - they were both born in 1938 - but you're never too old for ice cream loaded with bananas.

[See follow-up post.]