Tag Archives: Frank Sinatra

Reprise Records Launched ► Monday Musical Appreciation

On this day in 1961 Frank Sinatra launched Reprise Records, the first record company owned by an artist.

Sinatra started his recording career at Columbia Records, but eventually moved to Capitol. However, after 7 years Sinatra was dissatisfied with his latest contract negotiations with Capitol Records. The sticking point wasn’t money.

Sinatra wanted to own his masters and Capitol was not having it. That’s when he decided to look for a new deal. At first he tried to buy Verve Records, where Frank Zappa later started his recording career. However, Norman Granz wasn’t selling. It wasn’t a total loss. Sinatra was able to steal Mo Ostin, one of the executive directors at Verve, to help him head up the new concern.

Reprise didn’t have a smooth launch. Not only did Sinatra still owe Capitol 2 LPs and a single before he was free, but Capitol exacted other revenge.

“As soon as Frank started Reprise, we began to exploit our whole Sinatra catalog, because we weren’t going to have him anymore,” [Capitol President Alan] Livingston’s quoted as saying in Charles L. Granata’s Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording. “We had so much Sinatra product on the market that Reprise couldn’t get off the ground!”

Forced to discount its new-release prices to compete with the slew of budget Capitol titles, Reprise found it difficult to gain traction, and as Livingston gleefully noted, the label was rumored to be in financial straits not long after its launch. Compounding the problem was that unlike the biggest labels of the day, Reprise didn’t own and operate its own recording studios, adding a major chunk of overhead to an increasingly besieged operation.

Sinatra, meanwhile, remained in demand as a recording artist — and unlike most pop stars, he was also a proven commodity as a movie star, which made obtaining the rights to distribute his work an appealing prospect even for a studio forced to sign over creative control and ultimate ownership of his master recordings. Enter Warner Bros., where top execs enthusiastically pursued a deal that would bring Reprise into the Warners family while making Sinatra a member of their film stable. In the summer of 1963, Warners purchased two-thirds of Sinatra’s Reprise stake.

Years later, when Warners absorbed Reprise, it gave Sinatra a seat at the table. That’s when he got the nickname Chairman of the Board. It also gave him oodles of money, the sale pegged to be around $80 million.

The first Sinatra LP on Reprise was Ring-a-Ding-Ding! and according to the Blog Critics web site:

It would continue his commercial popularity by reaching number four on the Billboard Pop Album Chart.

The original idea was to issue an album without ballads, which was very close to the concept that Capital had used to put together Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session, which they had issued two months previous, after he had left the label.

The music comes very close to returning Sinatra to the big band idiom of the 1940s. It is finger snapping light jazz, with a beat. While Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn wrote the title song specifically for the album, Sinatra mainly recorded older songs from the Great American Songbook.

Sinatra eventually went back to Capitol Records for his Duets albums in 1993 and 1994.

As great as his music, Sinatra’s greatest contribution to the industry may have been his hire of Mo Oston, who eventually went on to run Warners. At both companies, he signed artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, the Fugs, The Beach Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Prince and many more. Later Ostin went to work for DreamWorks records.

Here is Sinatra’s first Reprise LP, released 56 years ago:

Crank it up and D A N C E ! ! !

My First Band ► Cobwebs And Strange ► Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

When I was growing up, like every other kid in ‘Merka, I wanted to be in a band. The Beatles had just broken worldwide and it seemed like the easiest thing in the world. All you had to do is grow your hair long and shake your head every once in a while, right? No, it turns out being in a band actually involved learning an instrument. That’s where I fell down on the job.

We had a crappy acoustical guitar in the house and I would spend hours fumbling on it trying to make it sound like a guitar. It never sounded like a guitar in my hands. That’s when someone suggested I take lessons. Lessons?!?!?! Who knew?

I took many lessons and never seemed to improve. I’d practice for hours V-E-R-Y  S-L-O-W-L-Y and could pull it off the runs and scales. However, the second I tried to speed up it all started to fall apart on me. I could never make my left hand do what I wanted. Eventually my guitar teacher, as gently as he could, told me to give it up. Now keep in mind: he was getting paid for these lessons and could have strung me out forever, earning money on my fumbling. Yet, he was honest enough to tell me that in his career he had seen a couple of people like me before. Slow, I could play anything he gave me. However, the minute we tried to speed it up to anything resembling music, it all fell apart. I had an uncoordinated left hand that wouldn’t obey commands from my brain. I was heartbroken.

It turns out that time proved him right. Over the years I have learned that my left hand is pretty useless for most tasks. When I smoked I couldn’t even use my left hand to hold the cigarette because I managed to drop it so many times. Trying to use a remote with my left hand? Forget it! I’m the EXTREME opposite of ambidextrous. Hell! I’d give my right arm to be ambidextrous.

I was heartbroken until I saw bands like The Turtles and The Rolling
Stones and The Doors. Those bands had lead singers who only had to know
how to shake a tambourine. So, I bought a tambourine and I practiced shaking it, for hours on end. When I felt I had that down I added my next signature move: I’d shake the tambourine, occasionally hitting it with my left hand. Once I perfected that I moved on to Lesson Three: Hitting my thigh with the
tambourine. That was much harder because on Day One of Lesson Three I
created a huge black and blue bruise on my thigh.

Eventually my right thigh toughened up and I could bang a tambourine
with the best of them. It was time to find a bunch of backing musicians.

Dean Donaldson, my childhood friend from Gilchrist Avenue

The truth of the matter is the band kind of fell together
organically. Across the street from me lived Dean Donaldson who had
taken up the drums. I can still remember how excited he was when he got his
first pair of drumstick and a practice pad, before he ever got his first
drum set. He came over to the house and put his practice pad on our
kitchen table and said, “I can play ‘Downtown’,” the Petulia Clark hit
that was at the top of the charts right then. Then he started singing
and banging on the pad. Every syllable was punctuated with a thud, alternating hands: ♫
WHEN YOU’RE A-LONE AND LIFE IS MA-KING YOU LONE-LY. YOU CAN AL-WAYS GO
[pause] DOWN-TOWN ♫ and at this he did a little para-diddle. It sounded
like real drumming to me. What did I know? I had just perfected the
tambourine.

I went to summer camp with a fellow named Mark Levine, who played Farfisa organ, and another kid named Howard Deitch, who played guitar. Both were not only proficient on their instruments, but had real equipment with real amplifiers too. That was almost more important than being proficient in those days.

So, now I had a band and we needed a name. One of my favourite songs at the time was a demented instrumental by The Who, written by Keith Moon, called “Cobwebs and Strange.” I don’t remember how I convinced the rest to name the band after this song, but they went for it and Detroit’s “Cobwebs and Strange” were born. Actually, I know why Dean voted for it, because we also did the song and he got to do some wild soloing during that song.

Here’s The Who version. Ours was never recorded for posterity.

The set list was, for the most part, mine. It had to be. I was always the final determining factor for any songs we did, because the song had to be in my very limited vocal range. We did a lot of Doors, The Who, Animals, and Mothers of Invention, The Turtles (which is ironic, due my later friendship with Howard Kaylan; we even did Happy Together and I didn’t have to pay Howard 17 cents either). All those influences were mine, as were the Frank Sinatra covers we did.

Mine, mine, mine!!! ALL MINE!!!

Why am I obsessing over a band I started 45 years ago this year, Daylight Savings Time? Because there’s a web site out there called “My First Band” with a page on Cobwebs and Strange in which I was totally written out of the band’s history, even though I formed the band with my childhood buddies and had the most influence on our set list. Under the rubric of “Cobwebs and Strange/The Greenhalgh Band” it says:

Bill, Howard, Dean and Mark formed “Cobwebs and Strange” in 1967. They won a battle of the bands contest at Cobo Hall (Detroit), winning some equipment. The band did a lot of Doors, Who and Mothers. Also some Motown and Moby Grape.

Dean, Bill, Howard and Mark in 1969, after I
had already left the band. I never knew Bill at all.

There is no mention of me anywhere on the web site. I have on 3 separate occasions written to “John Kanaras” for a correction to no avail. He provided the information to “My First Band,” and replaced (according to his own suspect band biography) Mark Levine in Cobwebs and Strange in 1969, having come from Johnny and the Junglemen, which (I’m guessing) was later called The Greenhalgh Band. I have never gotten a response.

Writing to the owner of the web site would do no good. Aside from the fact that he says “we’re no longer taking submissions,” he has a very cleverly worded disclaimer:

The publishers of My First Band™ do not check facts submitted by contributors. All information is expected to be as truthful and factual as possible. My First Band™ is not responsible for any lapses in memory, lack of good taste, assassination of character, disparaging remarks on musicianship, outing of sexual preferences, public exposure of alcohol or pharmaceutical abuse, paternity suits, or any other kinds of vindictiveness festering over 40 years. Information submitted is the sole responsibility of the contributor.

My First Band™ accepts no responsibility for erroneous or fabricated information concerning the bands or individuals listed as members of said bands, so if you’re out to humiliate that guitar player that got all the girls and kicked you out of the band, piss off, we’re just trying to have a little fun here.

A version  of Cobwebs and Strange I was never in

“Having a little fun here” was the whole reason I started the band in the first place. That and the fact that deep down inside I was a frustrated musician after not being able to play guitar. Maybe that’s why I later went into music promotion and managed several bands.

By 1969 I had already left Cobwebs and Strange because I went to be a councellor at Camp Tamakwa in Algonquin Park, Ontario, Canada and, by the end of that summer, had met a Canadian gal I eventually married. I didn’t live in Detroit a whole lot of time after that and spent 35 years in Canada before returning to the States to take care of Pops.

Me onstage on the venerated El Mocambo stage (where
The Rolling Stones also played) with Drastic Measures.
I love this pic because it appears as if I am singing with
Drastic Measures. I am not. I’m just introducing the band.

The sad, sad truth of the matter is Cobwebs and Strange were probably better off with
out me. I am, to be generous, a mediocre singer with a limited range.
When I do Karaoke, there are some songs I can nail. I do a mean “Sixteen
Tons;” have great fun doing the Otis Redding arrangement of
“Tenderness,” rocking out at the end on the stuttering part; but my favourite is to do the
Louis Prima arrangement of “Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got No Body” with my
Louis Armstrong voice. These 3 tunes always go over big because I have
’em down pat. But more importantly, they are in my range and don’t
require me to harmonize. I can’t harmonize worth shit.

Once I was visiting my friend Tony Malone, who I also had the honour of managing when he was the leader of Drastic Measures. He was building up tracks on a song at his home recording studio and asked me if I wanted to add a backup vocal. I was thrilled because I’d finally be on a Tony Malone song. He played me the song and then sang me the part I needed to sing as harmony to his main vocal. I had no trouble singing the part he wrote for me to sing. That is, until he hit playback. Every single time I fell off my harmony line and sang the main melody that the recored Tony was singing. He gave me a nearly a dozen attempts and I did the same thing every time. Without the playback, I had no problem singing that very simple harmony. With the playback, I was a total vocal idiot. Frustrated, Tony gave up on me and sang the harmony line in ONE TAKE! One fucking take!!! I felt humiliated. But I also knew I was watching a true professional at work.

Anyway, that’s my story of My First Band and I am reclaiming my history starting NOW.

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Musical Interlude ► Happy Birthday Harry Nilsson

Dateline June 15, 1941 – A happy father had a son*, Harry Edward Nilsson III.

There was a time I listed my Top Three artists as Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, and Harry Nilsson. Who knew that Sinatra would outlive the other two?

I first learned of Harry Nilsson the same way much of ‘Merka did, when The Beatles name-checked him twice during their ’68 press conference to announce the formation of Apple. Wait! What? Who? The Harry Nilsson Web Pages picks up the story: 

The album came to the attention of the Beatles (through Derek Taylor their press agent). At the press conference to announce the formation of Apple, the Beatles were asked “Who is your favorite American artist?” to which John Lennon replied, “Harry Nilsson.” When asked “What is your favorite American group?” Paul McCartney replied, “Harry Nilsson.”

Harry’s arrangement of “You Can’t Do That” weaves some 20-something other Beatles’ songs in and around the Lennon-McCartney melody.It needs to be heard to know why The Beatles were so knocked out by it.

The great irony of Harry Nilsson’s all-too-short artistic career is that while he is an amazing songwriter, the two songs he is best known for were not written by him: “Without You” was written by two of the members of Badfinger and was originally recorded by that group, while “Everybody’s Talkin'” was written by Fred Neil.

That’s why we’ll start with songs Harry wrote. Here’s a rare version of “Coconut” created for one of his his BBC shows. All vocals are Harry re-recorded specifically for this ‘video’ and the instrumentation is minimalist. to say the least:

Many people have covered Nilsson’s “One.” His version followed by the obscure Chris Clark on the even more obscure Motown subsidiary label Weed, because that’s what this LP was apparently fueled by.

Here is a rare tee vee appearance of Harry’s on The Smother’s Brothers Comedy Hour. Harry was a good friend of The Smothers Bothers, which is why he thought he and John Lennon could heckle them at The Troubadour, but we won’t rehash THAT story. “Think About Your Troubles,” the second song here, is personally one of my favourite Harry Nilsson songs. I like the circular story. I like how it sums up this larger dynamic than the listener and then says, “You  think you’re the center of the universe? Well, I got news for you.” The third song is from the upcoming “The Point” cartoon, which is remembered fondly by many big kids.

Another rarity from his BBC tee vee special is this medley of three covers intertwined, Walk Right Walk, Cathy’s Clown, Let The Good Times Roll all recorded with 3-part harmony done by Harry himself.

Here’s the very obscure Miss Butter’s Lament, written by fellow Canadian Bob Segarini.

When Harry Met John resulted in Pussy Cats, an album that marked the nadir of Harry’s career. Yet there are still some true gems on this LP. Harry makes his ravaged voice work for this incredibly emotional cover of Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers To Cross.

I could go on and on, but this makes a good starting point for Harry Nilsson if you are just getting to know him.

*1941, by Harry Nilsson

Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra ► Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

Dateline: May 12, 1960 – Elvis Presley, newly returned from the U.S. Army, serving Uncle Sam, makes his first network tee vee appearance with Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra:

 

And here is Elvis in his prime, in 1956, with one of his earliest hits:

 

Elvis loved Gospel Music. Listen to his sensitive treatment of the classic “It Is No Secret.”

 

Fifty-two years ago today!!!

Okay, I’ll Confess. I Love Bing Crosby!

People, who know that Dub Reggae is my favourite musical genre, and that I was also a ‘60s psychedelic, hard-driving, product of Detroit, are often surprised to learn that my favourite singer of all is Mr. Bing Crosby. Here’s something totally stupid and incomprehensible to whet your appetite while I try and convince you that Bing was best.

I admit. I didn’t come to appreciate Bing until about 10 years ago. I was born in the early ‘50s. By the time I was rocking out to the MC5 and Iggy Stooge at the Grande Ballroom, I had pretty much dismissed Bing Crosby in my mind as an untalented hack that had only lucked into a singing and acting career. He was the guy that was so easy to imitate—so ubiquitous—that anyone saying “buh buh buh blooo” was referencing him. You couldn’t escape the muther. He would pop up as a caricature in kiddy cartoons of my youth. Nothing says “has been” more to a kid than a caricature someone popping up in a cartoon.  Nothing demonstrates this better than the Warner Brother’s cartoon, “Bingo Crosbyana.”

Of course, this was long before I knew what “homage” meant.

Another thing I disliked about Bing Crosby is that he owned Christmas. As a Jewish boy being called kike in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I was sure that Bing was somehow connected with it all. Hell, maybe he was behind it all, for all I knew. According to Gary Giddins (see below) Crosby “made the most popular record ever, ‘White Christmas,’ the only single to make American pop charts twenty times, every year but one between 1942 and 1962. In 1998, after a long absence, his 1947 version hit the charts in Britain.” And let’s not even talk about all the Christmas movies.

However, worst of all, Bing Crosby was the guy who almost ruined David Bowie for me for all time. I heard Bowie was going to make a rare appearance on a Bing Crosby Christmas special. Wait! What? Yes. True. It took me a long time to forgive Bowie for that. Crosby’s Christmas specials occupy its own niche in the category of Hollywood kitsch. On reflection, with so many years to assuage hurt feelings, the harmonies are lovely and the arrangement of “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth” medley is clever. Still, you have to admit this is the low point of David Bowie’s career, especially the 1st minute, forty nine. Watch:



Here’s what I’m trying to say: I had absolutely no appreciation of Bing Crosby. This, despite being a huge Frank Sinatra fan. I just didn’t think Bing was fit to hold Sinatra’s trench coat.

This began to change about 10 years ago. I was watching a documentary on Louis Armstrong (a musical hero of mine) and in it Mr. Armstrong made 2 remarks: 1). All singing begins and ends with Bing Crosby; 2). Bing’s voice was like honey being poured out of a golden cup.

Well, Louis Armstrong ain’t no slouch and he knows his Jazz. If he’s saying these wonderful things about Bing Crosby, maybe I should reassess my opinion. I started doing a little reading and found that pretty much every singer subsequent to Bing said they merely imitating Crosby and owe it all to him. Elvis name-checked him as an influence, as did both Sinatra and Dean Martin. Here’s a clip from “Robin and the Seven Hoods,” where Sinatra and Martin have a whole lot of fun with Bing’s sartorial choices in “Style.”



Now I was more curious than ever. What was I missing?

Coincidentally (or just another instance of synchronicity), right at this same time I happened to see a book on my local retailer’s remainder table called “Bing Crosby; A Pocketful of Dreams; The Early Years; 1903-1940” by Gary Giddins (who was quoted extensively in that Armstrong documentary referenced above). Amazingly this 592 page book (published in 1991) ends at “White Christmas” and is merely the first volume in a proposed 2-volume set. While reading the book, I also immersed myself in Bing’s earliest recordings, something I had never taken the time to do before.

The light went on!!! I am now a believer!!!

There were recordings I knew, but didn’t realize they were by a young Bing Crosby because his voice had changed so much over the years. His “Pennies From Heaven” or “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” are transcendent, blissful, and (here’s the most important part) are full of pathos. His voice carries the drama of the songs in a way that few singers have ever been able to pull off. For so many people of my parent’s age these songs, and Bing Crosby’s version of them, represented the Great Depression.

Everyone knows the dreadful David Lee Roth rip off of the Louis Prima arrangement of “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” however those arrangements make the song swing and being a gigolo doesn’t seem like such a bad life. Even Louis Armstrong’s version swings. However, I never really understood the song until I heard Bing Crosby’s version of “Just a Gigolo” To begin with, it’s a very, very sad song, something you don’t get from Prima, Roth, or Armstrong. When Bing sings it, you hear every ounce of the pathos in the song. Bing also sings the introduction, left off most other versions. I can’t listen to Bing’s version without feeling great empathy for that sad, unemployed, World War One doughboy. Get out a hanky:



I now own a great deal of Bing Crosby’ recordings and I hear something new in them every time I listen.

Finally, here’s a partial list of Bing’s accomplishments, by Giddin in the Introduction to his book, I find most impressive, especially the second-to-last, because that changed Show Business forever: 

  •  He was the first full-time vocalist ever signed to an orchestra. 
  •  He made more studio recordings than any other singer in history (about 400 more than Sinatra). 
  •  He made the most popular record ever, “White Christmas,” the only single to make American pop charts twenty times, every year but one between 1942 and 1962. In 1998, after a long absence, his 1947 version hit the charts in Britain. 
  •  Between 1927 and 1962 he scored 368 charted records under his own name, plus 28 as vocalist with various bandleaders for a total of 396. No one else has come close; compare Paul Whiteman (220), Sinatra (209), Elvis (149), Glenn Miller (129), Nat “King” Cole (118), Louis Armstrong (85), The Beatles (68). 
  •  He scored the most number one hits ever, thirty-eight, compared with twenty-four by The Beatles and eighteen by Presley. 
  •  In 1960 he received a platinum record as First Citizen of the Record Industry for having sold 200 million discs, a number that had doubled by 1980. 
  •  Between 1915 and 1980 he was the only motion-picture star to rank as the number one box office attraction five times (1944-48). Between 1934 and 1954 he scored in the top ten fifteen times. 
  •  “Going My Way” was the highest-grossing film in the history of Paramount Pictures until 1947; “The Bells of St. Mary” was the highest grossing film in the history of RKO Pictures until 1947. 
  • He was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor three times and won for “Going My Way.” 
  • He was a major radio star longer than any other performer, from 1931 until 1954 on network; 1954 until 1962 in syndication. 
  •  He appeared on approximately 4,000 radio broadcasts, nearly 3,400 of them his own programs, and single-handedly changed radio from a live-performance to a canned or recorded medium by presenting, in 1946, the first transcribed network show on WABC — thereby making that also-ran network a major force. 
  •  He financed and popularized the development of tape, revolutionizing the recording industry. 
  •  He created the first and longest-running celebrity pro-am golf championship, playing host for thirty-five years, raising millions in charity and was the central figure in the development of the Del Mar racetrack in California. 

Taste is subjective. We won’t all like the same things in food or music, f’rinstance. However, I suggest you take another listen to Bing Crosby. He’s a lot better than your parents ever told you.

Quality never goes out of style and Bing Crosby has quality!