The Soundtrack Magic of Ennio Morricone

Jackie Chan's Greatest Hits

People scare better when they’re dying.

His music has enhanced films of every genre… and even video games!  Discover more about the amazing Ennio Morricone… and especially his aural contribution to Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST… in this installment of NOTES.

Women Who Sing Badly (and the Audiences Who Love Them)

One of the oddest trends in popular music — and one of the longest lasting — has been the American penchant for women who sing very, very badly. You think you know what I mean by “very badly,” but no — worse than that. Worse than Jessica Simpson. Worse than Paris Hilton. We’re talking women for whom the word “caterwauling” might well have been invented. Women whose tonsils, could they be smelled, would lead you to think something crawled under the house to die. Yet weirdly, these women have found large, eager audiences for over a hundred years.

Take, for example, the Cherry Sisters, who rose to prominence in the late 1890s. These four dour sisters rose from performing at local school presentations in their native Linn County, near Cedar Rapids, Iowa to long runs on the big-time circuit of vaudeville, eventually playing in Oscar Hammerstein’s opulent Broadway “palace,” the Olympia Theatre. The Cherrys did a sold-out, six-week run at the Olympia, saving Hammerstein from bankruptcy and establishing the venue as one of New York’s most important vaudeville houses. And they managed to accomplish this with nary a whiff of talent or craftsmanship. At many of the theaters where the Cherry Sisters played, so awful was their performance that they were met with what one newspaper called “vegetable applause” — fusillades of tomatoes and rotten fruit sent hurtling by aggrieved vaudeville patrons. At first, the sisters didn’t take kindly to this form of criticism. The eldest, Effie, would sometimes come onstage brandishing a shotgun, and in more than one city, the local law was forced to intervene during their performances for fear that someone would get hurt. But being incredibly bad proved to be better than being merely competent, and the Cherrys parlayed their lack of musical skills into a long career, until the death of youngest sister Jessie put an end to their act in 1903.

It was nine years later that Florence Foster Jenkins launched her musical career. Jenkins was the daughter of a wealthy attorney from Pennsylvania who lavished his daughter with musical lessons when she was a child, but who refused to bankroll Florence’s ardently coveted career as an opera singer when the young woman came of age. And who can blame him? For, having heard young Florence sing, he probably recognized she was as tone deaf and rhythmically insensitive as a fence post. But whatever Florence lacked in talent, she more than compensated for in sheer passion to perform. When her father passed away in 1909, leaving her a sizable inheritance, she founded the Verdi Club in New York City, where she proceeded to star in numerous musical recitals, often bedecked in ridiculously ornate costumes of tinsel and bangles. Soon, like the Cherry Sisters before her, she became popular for her very lack of vocal ability. That popularity continued to grow until she played a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall, just a month before she died.

We’ll look back at other remarkably successful and remarkably awful singers next week. Until then, take a lesson from the Cherry Sisters and Florence Foster Jenkins and remember: It is better to sing poorly than to never sing at all.

Chan’s the Man!

Jackie Chan's Greatest Hits

Who else can drop 50 feet off a clock tower and sing in at least four languages?

Jackie Chan is well-known the world over for his work as a film action hero. But few in the west are aware of his status as a musical pop star. Learn more about singer Jackie Chan in this episode of NOTES.

Jackie Chan's Greatest Hits

Wading Across Genres

To some, the study of popular music may seem the very model of a trivial pursuit.

After all, BILLBOARD‘s charts are often littered with flash-in-the-pan fashion fads and jejune novelties. In the pop domain, art can be eclipsed by P.R. and talent can be trumped by spin. For every Beatles there is a Pipkins, for every U2 a Right Said Fred, for every Michael Franti a Kevin Federline. It is a world where the forgettable and insubstantial frequently elbow their way to the front of the V.I.P. line, a world where the A-list is all too commonly dominated by the Z-grade.

Nevertheless, there is much to be learned about our nation in the study of popular song. Sometimes, like the shadows on Plato’s cavern wall, the hits of the day reflect the history and zeitgeist of the universe which spawned them.

Submitted for your consideration is the old baptismal hymn, “Wade in the Water” — a song that has been covered by literally hundreds of artists and which has crossed effortlessly from its gospel origin into the genres of rock, soul, jazz and easy listening.

For a song that is more than 150 years old, “Wade in the Water” has proven remarkably spry. In 1966, it was a hit for jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. It has been dressed in blues by Big Mama Thornton and Dr. John… funkified by Billy Preston and Booker T. & the MGs… and folked up by Bob Dylan and Odetta.

As with other American negro spirituals (like “The Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”), “Wade in the Water” had a dual meaning for the slaves who sang it in the mid-19th century. Although it served as an accompaniment to baptism, the song’s lyrics were also codified instructions for black runaways seeking freedom via the so-called “Underground Railroad.” Until 1850, slaves fleeing the plantations of the south could find independence just north of the Mason-Dixon line. Gospel songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” reminded the runaways to steer north using the Big Dipper (the titular “Drinking Gourd”), while “Wade in the Water” exhorted them to evade the pursuing bloodhounds by running by night through streams and rivers.

Even the biblical locales mentioned in the song were encrypted references to specific checkpoints along the Railroad. For instance, in the song’s third lyric:

Jordan’s water is chilly and cold.
God’s gonna trouble the water.
It chills the body, but not the soul.
God’s gonna trouble the water.

Jordan represents the Ohio River, which slaves would cross on their way to one of southern Ohio’s several African-American settlements or further north to Canada.

It’s possible that some who sing “Wade in the Water” today are unaware of its Underground Railroad roots. Many have enjoyed the song for its spiritual message, timeless melody and rhythmic possibilities. But like other popular American hits, it also tells an important story about a part of our national history that must not be forgotten.

Peking Opera Blues — The World of Hong Kong Cinema Music

Peking Opera Blues

Composer James Wong put the blues in Tsui Hark’s PEKING OPERA BLUES (1987).

During the latter half of the 20th Century, Hong Kong rose to prominence as a major player in the world film industry thanks primarily to its hugely popular cinema of martial arts.  In this episode of NOTES, you’ll learn more about the music behind the mayhem.

Wordless, But Not Nameless

Here’s a thought: How about I hum today’s post?

Okay, I acknowledge that probably wouldn’t work very well in blog form. But sometimes, in the strange world of pop music, wordless singing is just what the doctor ordered.

There are many kinds of wordless singing we could talk about nowadays, ranging from humming to scat-singing to beatboxing, and beyond. But when the phrase “wordless vocals” is used to describe a song, it is generally distinguished from improvisatory techniques like scat or percussive techniques like beatboxing to signify the use of the voice as a melody instrument — er, without words, that is.

Probably the most famous example of wordless vocals in a rock song is British singer Clare Torry’s anguished (but melodic!) wail on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” from DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. Torry was paid 30 pounds for coming into Abbey Road Studios on a Sunday and improvising a vocal part over a chord sequence written by Pink Floyd’s keyboardist, Richard Wright. In 2005, Torry sued Pink Floyd for a share of the songwriting royalties on “Great Gig” and eventually settled out-of-court for an unspecified financial payment and a co-writer’s credit on all subsequent releases of DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. She also performed similar wordless vocal duties 11 years later on the Culture Club’s pacifistic ditty, “The War Song.”

But when Torry laid down her tracks for Pink Floyd in 1973, there had already been a long tradition of wordless vocals in rock and jazz. One of the earliest recordings to utilize the singing style was Duke Ellington’s 1928 single on the Victor label, “Creole Love Call,” which featured Brooklyn-born song thrush Adelaide Hall crooning exotically over Ellington’s torchy melody.

Wordless vocals were very popular during the lounge era. Juan Garcia Esquivel’s stereo masterpieces were liberally dosed with finely harmonized “oohs,” “ahhs” and “zu-zu-zus” provided by the Randy Van Horne Singers. Les Baxter frequently spiced his records with wordless vocals from the likes of Beverly Ford or the bordering-on-the-outlandish Bas Sheva.

And many a television and film soundtrack has been enhanced by memorable wordless vocals. Burt Bacharach used the technique on the track, “South American Getaway,” from his award-winning score to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. Bacharach turned to the Ron Hicklin Singers to perform the wordless vocals for that song, just a couple years after they sang on the television themes to BATMAN and FLIPPER, and only months before they would sing all the background vocals on the songs of the Partridge Family.

Meanwhile, Italian singer Edda Dell’Ors made memorable wordless contributions to Ennio Morricone’s scores for Sergio Leone films like ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and DUCK, YOU SUCKER. And sessions singer Loulie Jean Norman provided one of the most famous examples of wordless vocals of all time when she warbled the classic theme to STAR TREK.

Singers like Torre, Dell’Ors and Norman are unknown to most people, although their work has been heard — and loved — by millions. Their songs may have been wordless, but it is long past time their names be sung.

This article originally appeared in slightly modified form in the GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS.

The Eccentric Genius of Vivian Stanshall

Vivian Stanshall

He made dada rock.

He died in flames — but for decades, he burned with the incandescent glow of his own off-kilter brilliance. Learn about the singular Vivian Stanshall… the man who had his fingers in mainstream and oddball classics like the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Rhinocratic Oaths,” Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” Stevie Winwood’s ARC OF A DIVER and his own RAWLINSON’S END in this edition of NOTES.

And you can read more about the Bonzos in “The Missing Link Between the Beatles and Monty Python.”

Of Razors, Conspiracy Theories and Iron Butterflies

Not everyone wants to shave with Occam’s Razor.

Even after nearly 700 years, Occam’s Razor remains sharp and useful — but not everybody knows of its existence or understands its importance.

Occam’s Razor is a philosophical precept invented by the 14th Century friar, William of Ockham. It states: “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” That’s a fancy, 14th century way of saying, “The simplest answer is usually the correct one.”

In 1999, when they found Philip Taylor Kramer, the brilliant engineer and former bassist in Iron Butterfly, at the bottom of southern California’s Decker Canyon, he was just a skeleton. The flesh had been stripped from his bones, presumably by rats. Police said that was to be expected; after all, his body had lain undetected in the wilderness area for more than three years.

What was harder to explain was that Kramer’s 1993 Ford Aerostar minivan had also been stripped — of its license plates, that is. They were never found, and that was just one of the strange facts which led many of his friends and family to conclude Kramer hadn’t died accidentally.

But was he murdered? We may never know for sure, and your take on Kramer’s death will probably be dictated by whether or not you choose to apply Occam’s Razor.

When we left Kramer’s tragic story last, the video compression company he co-founded, Total Multimedia (TMM), was floundering and Kramer himself was in massive debt. Kramer had begun to combine his knowledge of data compression with the study of gravity waves. He was inspired by his own father’s effort to disprove Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity during the 1960s at Ohio State University. He worked late in his lab, forgoing sleep for sometimes days on end.

Meanwhile, TMM’s board of directors had hired a new CEO to improve the company’s bottom line. Peter Olson had won accolades as a canny manager at the communications giant, MCI, but once ensconced at TMM, he proved to be a New Age flake, hiring South American shamans to offer business advice and requiring his staff to read James Redfield’s spiritualist novel, THE CELESTINE PROPHECY. Olson’s credulity rubbed off on Kramer, who began requiring his family to wear only certain colors, and who became convinced O.J. Simpson was the innocent victim of a nefarious conspiracy plot. Kramer was beginning to show the classic signs of extreme paranoia. He was convinced someone was trying to get his research, which he told friends was worth billions.

Finally, on February 12, 1995, he left his home and went to the airport. Records show he stayed there for about 45 minutes, but never met the investor he was there to pick up. Instead, he drove off and began making cell phone calls. He called his old bandmate in Iron Butterfly, Ron Bushy, to say he loved him. He called his wife and told her he had “the biggest surprise” for her. He made 14 other calls, then dialed 911. He told the emergency operator, “I’m going to kill myself. And I want everyone to know O.J. Simpson is innocent. They did it.”

That was the last time anyone spoke with Philip Taylor Kramer.

This article originally appeared in the GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS.

The Ladies of Rockabilly, Pt. 4: The Lesser-Known Ladies

Rockabilly Girls

Besides Wanda, Janis and Lorrie, there were other great — but lesser-known — female rockabilly singers.

The rockabilly era also saw many great singles released by more obscure female artists.  Learn about some of these lesser-known lasses — including the amazing Sparkle Moore — in this episode of NOTES.

The Mysterious Death of an Iron Butterfly

On THE X-FILES, Fox Mulder used to say: “The truth is out there.”

But for Philip Taylor Kramer, one-time bassist with the psychedelic band Iron Butterfly, the truth was down there — at the bottom of Decker Canyon, 300 feet below California State Route 23, to be precise.

Decker Canyon is like the mythic Elephant’s Graveyard, only it isn’t pachyderms which come to die in its poison oak-shrouded ravines, but the cars and trucks which at various times have plummeted from Route 23’s serpentine curves. One of those now rusted automotive fossils is a green 1993 Ford Aerostar minivan. That was the vehicle Kramer was driving on February 12, 1995, the last day he was seen alive. In May of 1999, more than four years after Kramer vanished, his skeletal remains were found in and around the minivan by a pair of hikers. How Kramer’s Aerostar got to the bottom of Decker Canyon is either a very simple story or a very complicated one, depending on how far “out there” you are prepared to go in search of the truth.

If you remember Iron Butterfly at all, it’s probably on the strength of their one Top 40 hit, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” from 1968. That infamous song (the title of which was originally “In the Garden of Eden” but was changed because lead singer Doug Ingle was so drunk on red wine during the recording session that he couldn’t properly pronounce it) was over 17 minutes long in its album version, and was a popular early example of “acid rock.”

Kramer didn’t play on that famous recording; he joined a later incarnation of the band formed by original drummer Ron Bushy during the mid-’70s and can only be heard on the Butterfly’s now virtually forgotten SCORCHING BEAUTY and SUN AND STEEL albums. When the band dissolved for a second time in 1977, Kramer got a haircut and went to night school to study aerodynamic engineering. Upon graduation, the budding physicist snagged a job with the military contractor Northrop Grumman, where he did highly classified work on the guidance system of the MX missile. According to a fellow Northrop employee, very few of his co-workers knew about his rock star past.

By the late 1980s, Kramer had become fascinated by the incipient field of media compression and had helped form a company called Total Multimedia Inc. Using groundbreaking mathematical techniques developed by Kramer, TMM (as it is still known) introduced the first commercial video codec utilizing so-called fractal compression. Although the technology was licensed to a handful of videogames in the mid-’90s, it proved to be too time-intensive for widespread use. (Encoding just one minute of video could take a network of dedicated servers up to 15 hours.) By 1994, TMM was fighting for its life in bankruptcy court and Kramer — by now a husband and father of two children — was in massive debt.

Next week in this space, we’ll learn more of the strange story of how Philip Taylor Kramer, rock star-turned-rocket scientist, wound up at the bottom of Decker Canyon… what roles O.J. Simpson and THE CELESTINE PROPHECY payed in his ballistic arc… and why some of Kramer’s friends and family, in the years following his disappearance, adopted another of Fox Mulder’s favorite sayings: “Trust no one.”

This article originally appeared in slightly modified form in the GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS.

The Ladies of Rockabilly, Pt. 3: The Collins Kids

The Collins Kids

She may have been young when she recorded with brother Larry in the 1950s, but Lorrie Collins was a real “Rock Boppin’ Baby.”

The Collins Kids were young and squeaky clean — but that didn’t stop thousands of rockabilly fans from fantasizing about pretty Lorrie Collins.  Learn more about Lorrie and her brother Larry in this episode of NOTES.

Weill-ing Away the Years

Like the country itself, American music is a melting pot. Its songs come to us from many different walks of life and parts of the world. Today, let’s look at how some of America’s best-loved standards were given to us by a small, balding and bespectacled German Socialist.

Kurt Weill did not cut a studly figure, but he is remembered today (64 years after his passing) as one of the greatest composers of the musical theatre stage, and many of his songs still weave a spell over audiences whose parents weren’t born yet when he died. What’s your favorite genre? Chances are, some artist you like has covered a Weill song. You dig jazz or the Rat Pack? Then you have probably enjoyed Weill’s “September Song,” which has also been covered by Bing Crosby, Lindsey Buckingham and Lou Reed, just to name a few.

Or are you a fan of classic rock? Then it’s probable you have sang along at some point with Jim Morrison on the Doors’ cover of Weill’s “Alabama Song” (aka “Whiskey Bar” or “Moon Over Alabama”), which the L.A. band recorded almost 40 years after Weill wrote the song.

And then, of course, there is Weill’s best-known song, “Mack the Knife,” which was a #1 hit for Bobby Darin the week Craven was born, and which has also been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Nick Cave, among many others. The song (known as “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” in its original form) might never have existed had an actor in one of the musicals Weill co-wrote with playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht not complained that his entrance wasn’t “special” enough.

It was with Brecht that Weill had his first big success in his native Germany, composing songs for plays like HAPPY END and DIE DRIEGROSCHENOPER (the latter of which we know here as THE THREEPENNY OPERA, and from which emerged “Mack the Knife” in 1928). Brecht and Weill’s work was popular, but eventually the partnership disintegrated — not over money, but politics, instead. Although he considered himself a Socialist, Weill was alienated by Brecht’s tendencies to propagandize for the Left. (“[I am unable to] set the Communist party manifesto to music,” he famously told his wife, actress Lotte Lenya.)

It was political differences of a more desperate measure which also separated Weill from his native country. In 1933, he moved to France to escape the Nazis, then to the United States in 1935. He eventually became an American citizen and did much volunteer work for the war effort during the 1940s. Always influenced by American dance music, Weill continued to draw upon the idioms of his adopted country as he collaborated with other great theatrical luminaries like Maxwell Anderson, Elmer Rice, Langston Hughes, Alan Jay Lerner and Ira Gershwin. He was working on a musical version of that most American of novels, HUCKLEBERRY FINN, when he died from a fatal heart attack in 1950. He died just 12 years after penning the words from “The September Song” he might well have addressed to his wife, Lotte, in that final year:

“Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few…
September, November…
And these few precious days, I’ll spend with you.
These precious days, I’ll spend with you.”

This article originally appeared in the GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS.

The Ladies of Rockabilly, Pt. 2: Janis Martin

Janis Martin

Cock your pistol and rooty-toot-toot: Janis Martin was a musical straight-shooter.

Less well-known than Wanda Jackson to the general public, Janis Martin is nonetheless revered by rockabilly fans for the vivacious, hot-rockin’ singles she released in the 1950s and early 1960s.  Learn more about “the female Elvis” in this episode of NOTES.

Note: This episode was recorded before the 2007 passing of Janis Martin. For more on the ladies of rockabilly, see “Praising the Ladies of Rockabilly.”

There’s Always Room for Giallo

As Craven posts this, we are less than three weeks past the day in the United States when ghosts and monsters can kick up their bony heels and revel in all things ghastly… but we should remember that ghouls in other parts of the world are not so lucky.

For instance, there is no Halloween in Italy.

But there is “Ognissanti” (All Saints’ Day) on November 1, followed by “Il Giorno dei Morte” (the Day of the Dead) on November 2.  It is on this latter date that families bake cookies called “Ossa dei Morte,” or “Bones of the Dead”… a culinary indication that — even without a Halloween — Italians enjoy a pronounced sense of the macabre.

For further proof, one need travel no further than to the local “cinema teatro,” or movie theater, where for more than 40 years, Italian audiences have thrilled to the baleful shocks of the so-called “giallo.”  Giallo is the Italian word for “yellow,” and its use to describe horror mysteries dates back to 1929, when Italian publisher Mondadori issued a series of novels bedecked in bright yellow covers and inspired by American hardboiled detective literature.

In 1963, the giallo leapt to the silver screen when cinematographer-turned-director Mario Bava — already a 24-year veteran of the Italian film industry — helmed his story of serial murder called LA RAGAZZA CHE SAPEVA TROPPO, or THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH.  Starring American genre favorite John Saxon (and featuring characters with the noble name of Craven), THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH established some of the stylistic markers that would come to characterize gialli, and additionally would prove to be a big influence on Sean S. Cunningham’s influential slasher opus FRIDAY THE 13TH nearly 20 years later.

Over the next few decades, Bava would continue to churn out gialli and was soon joined by other filmmakers like Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento.  Argento (whose previous credits included co-writing Sergio Leone’s masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) in particular became associated with the giallo genre, and was soon dubbed “the European Hitchcock” for his visually stylish — and relentlessly gory — thrillers.

In 1975, a relatively unsuccessful Italian progressive rock band called Cherry Five was hired to compose the soundtrack for Argento’s latest giallo, the now-classic DEEP RED.  Led by keyboardist Claudio Simonetti and guitarist Massimo Morante, Cherry Five changed their name to Goblin for the project — and landed the biggest hit of their career thus far.  The soundtrack to DEEP RED topped the Italian pop charts for 12 weeks, and marked the beginning of a long working relationship with Argento.

We’ll talk more about Goblin in the future.  Please check back for more on these “dons of the dead.”

This article originally appeared in slightly modified form in the GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS.

The Ladies of Rockabilly, Pt. 1: Wanda Jackson

Wanda Jackson

Well you could talk about her, say that she was mean.  She’d blow your head off, baby, with nitroglycerine.

They were red hot and icy cool.  The ladies of rockabilly redefined the role of the female singer in the nascent days of rock n’ roll.  Our four-part look at the hep kittens begins with the story of Wanda Jackson, the original “Fujiyama Mama.”

For more on the ladies of rockabilly, see “Praising the Ladies of Rockabilly.”

X and the Punk Rock Daikaiju

Like some unholy rubber monster from a Japanese daikaiju movie, punk rock of the late 1970s and early ’80s was a chaotic, multi-headed creature.

Sprouting from one wire-hoisted vinyl neck were the pop stars — bands like the United States’ Ramones, Britain’s Buzzcocks and Ireland’s Undertones, whose notion of punk was bubblegum pop played at blistering speed on buzzsaw guitars.  Bobbing violently next to them were the political bands like the Clash and Stiff Little Fingers, who saw in punk rock’s populist ethos a platform for their anti-racist, anti-imperialist jeremiads.   And then there were the nihilists, the punks whose sloppily played pogo rock and boozy, self-destructive lifestyle were inspired by the pessimistic puke-in-public shenanigans of the Sex Pistols.

The latter camp represented the punk rock that struck the loudest chord in the United States, especially on the west coast.  The spirit of late-1970s American youth was typified by director Jon Landis’ cinematic celebration of inarticulate anarchy, ANIMAL HOUSE, which grossed more than 60-million stateside dollars.  Simultaneously, the rise of skateboard culture in California set the seedy club stage for bands like the Germs and Henry Rollins’ Black Flag, whose  songs like “Lexicon Devil,” “TV Party” and “Six Pack” glorified anomie and apathy in 4/4 time.

But standing out amidst the believe-in-nothing bands that burst onto L.A.’s late-’70s music scene was one group that not only rejected their fellow punkers’ easy indifference, but did so with uncharacteristic instrumental virtuosity and a nod to pop music’s past.  X, the Los Angeles-based quartet formed by married couple John Doe and Exene Cervenka, was unlike any other California punk band in almost every way.  Eschewing the juvenile profanity of Black Flag in favor of a lyrical poetry that had more to do with Rimbaud and Kerouac than Rotten and Vicious, and substituting the rhythmic precision of rockabilly guitarist Billy Zoom’s amped-up fretwork and classically-trained drummer D.J. Bonebrake’s pounding gallop for the discordant din of their peers, X started to develop a devoted following almost as soon as they formed in 1977.

And they set themselves apart again three years later when they enlisted ex-Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek to produce their first album, LOS ANGELES, for the independent label Slash Records.  Manzarek would go on to helm three more long-players for X, becoming almost a fifth member by supplying sinewy organ to songs like “The World’s a Mess (It’s in My Kiss)” and their adrenalized cover of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen.”

Although X signed with Elektra Records in 1982, saw their music videos placed in high rotation on MTV and even secured a gig on Jerry Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy telethon(!), they never managed to escape the ghetto of critical adulation.  Doe and Cervenka divorced in the late 1980s (with Cervenka later marrying — and divorcing — LORD OF THE RINGS actor Viggo Mortensen), but X never officially broke up, and the band still performs sporadically.

We’ll talk about X’s incendiary career again in this space.  I hope you can join us when we further examine a band whose “unheard music” still excites almost 30 years after its recording.

This article originally appeared in slightly modified form in the GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS.

The Secret Musical Lives of TV Game Show Hosts

A Bert and Two Chucks

A Bert and Two Chucks: Just three musically-minded game show hosts…

They’ve won their place in the public imagination by hitting gongs… tattling tales and making love connections… but many of television’s best-known game show hosts have led shadowy, alternative lives — as pop singers!  Come on down — and learn more about the recording histories of Barris, Convy and Woolery, et al., on this episode of NOTES.

For more on the musical lives of game show hosts, see “Game Show Hosts Come on Down.”

Girdling the Globe with Manu Chao

So goes a popular platitude… and in an age that has seen cheap and ubiquitous air travel, giant Wal-Marts swollen with NAFTA-enabled foreign goods, widespread international outsourcing of labor and an Internet that allows a toy store in Hong Kong to reach customers in Peoria, this is one saying that rings true today.

Nor has popular music been entirely immune to this trend.  Witness, for example, the astonishing career of pop polyglot Manu Chao.

Since emerging as the leader of the influential French rock band Mano Negra in the late 1980s, Chao has perched on the peak of a globe-girdling tsunami of performers and artists willing to draw from the musical palettes of many different countries in the pursuit of their art.  The 53-year-old singer-songwriter is a multi-linguist’s dreamboat, his songs an entoxicating blend of French, Spanish and English lyrics set to an equally eclectic montage of relentless dance beats, South American folk flourishes and comically flatulent synth riffs, leavened liberally with musique-concrete samples galore.  Listening to one of his albums is like undertaking an international tour at supersonic speeds — around the world in 80 minutes.

His role as a global synthesist came naturally to the young man born as Oscar Tramor in Spain, but raised in France, the son of well-regarded novelist and journalist Raymond Chao.  As a teenager, Chao the younger came under the influence of U.S. rockabilly and British punk rock — especially the Clash.  He was also inspired by the music of the Spanish Revolution.  He formed his first band, a French rockabilly combo called Les Hot Pants, in the early 1980s.

But in 1986, Chao came together with his brother Tonio and his cousin Santiago Casiriego to create the band that would secure him a place on the world stage of popular music.  Mano Negra (named after a Spanish anarchist organization) scored a major French hit with the song “Mala Vida” from their 1988 debut album PATCHANKA, drawing the attention of Virgin Records, which signed the band worldwide the following year.

Over the next five years, Mano Negra became huge stars the world over… except in the United States, where their glossological dexterity made them a marketing challenge.  The band called it quits in 1994.  But Chao’s career was far from over.  Four years later, he issued his debut solo album, CLANDESTINO, which included the huge international hit, “Bongo Bong,” a re-recording of an old Mano Negra number that benefited greatly from its lazy, insistent hook and silly, sotto voce lyrics.

Since then, Chao has continued to defy generic boundaries with subsequent releases like his sophomore effort, PROXIMA ESTACION: ESPERANZA, which found the artist sprinkling Caribbean rhythms into his unique musical stew.  Already a superstar in much of the world, and with his profile growing within the United States, it is safe to say there will be more border-crossing to come from this musical alchemist.

We’ll further examine the career of Manu Chao in this space in the near future.  Join us then for a look at an artist who, in helping shrink the globe, has enormously expanded the world of pop music.
The world has shrunken.

This article originally appeared in slightly modified form in the GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS.

The Musical Heroes of HEE-HAW, Pt. 3: Grandpa Jones

Buck Owens

Hey Grandpa, what’s for supper?

Another important HEE HAW veteran was Louis Marshall Jones, the bluegrass and gospel great who had gone by the sobriquet of “Grandpa” since he was just out of his teens!  In this third and final installment of our look at the “Musical Heroes of HEE HAW,” learn more about the man who gave the world “Mountain Dew” and “Rattler.”

Come On-A My House

One of the joys of pop music is its capacity to bring together disparate folks — but only one song in musical history ever brought together a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, the girls of the Playboy Mansion, George Clooney’s aunt, the inventor of karaoke and the Chipmunks.

This year, it will be 63 years since the Columbia single, “Come On-A My House,” hit number one on BILLBOARD’s singles chart.  The song was a rollicking, nonsensical tease as sung in pseudo-Italian pidgin English by Rosemary Clooney, filled with promises of fruits and treats and, perhaps, something even more delectable:

“Come on-a my house, my house,
I’m gonna give you candy
Come on-a my house, my house,
I’m gonna give you everything.”

The song spent eight weeks perched at the apex of the charts and became Clooney’s first gold record.  And yet it was a song the beautiful blonde singer from Kentucky bitterly resented having to record.

“Come On-A My House” was already 12 years old when Columbia music director Mitch Miller sent it to Clooney as the follow-up to her Top 40 hit, “Beautiful Brown Eyes.”  The song had been written in 1939 by a pair of Armenian-Americans who would each become much better known for very different accomplishments:  William Saroyan won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE, just a year after co-writing “Come On-A My House” with his young cousin, Ross Bagdasarian — who, in 1959, under the nom-de-plume of Dave Seville, created the Chipmunks, that trio of helium-voiced rodents which continues to amuse children half a century thence.    (ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKQUEL, the Chipmunks’ CGI cinematic offering from 2009, earned over 400-million dollars worldwide.)

“Come On-A My House” was just the sort of cheery novelty bon-bon that Mitch Miller loved.  The man who would later be credited as one of the inventors of karaoke (thanks to his series of best-selling albums and TV show, SING ALONG WITH MITCH) was notorious for saddling great singers with ridiculous, gimmicky songs.  (A month before giving “Come On-A My House” to Clooney, he had convinced Frank Sinatra to record the truly dismal “Mama Will Bark,” the lyrics of which were sung from the point-of-view of a romantic-minded dog and which marked the only time Sinatra was accompanied by canine barking.)

When Clooney told Miller she didn’t think “Come On-A My House” was her type of record and wanted to pass on it, the A&R executive sternly issued an ultimatum: Either record the song or be fired from Columbia’s roster.  Clooney relented, but for the rest of her life loathed the song which made her a star.

Decades later, the song found a new generation of fans when it was used as the opening music for E! Entertainment Television’s popular reality series, THE GIRLS NEXT DOOR, which focused on the comic misadventures of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion harem.  After half a century, the song co-written by a chipmunk had become the theme for the house built by a rabbit… something that could only happen in the zoo that is the world of pop music.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in THE GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS.