Having talked in recent posts about the sickly nature of the pre-rock'n'roll British charts, now seems a good point for a quick look at some typical fare.
The Fabulous 50s is a CD series on the Xtra label, an offshoot of the ultra-cheapo Delta Music. I bought the first few volumes for work purposes because they were there - specifically, going cheap in the Bond Street branch of HMV - then my male need for completion forced me to buy later volumes as the UK's public domain laws permitted each subsequent issue.
So I'm not necessarily recommending this collection above all others. In fact, if you already have an interest in this period you may well get frustrated at the fact that it's only one disc, and therefore about twenty four tracks, per year - as opposed to the 4CD collections in the British Hit Parade series (example above) on the more adventurous oldies label Acrobat, say, which include competing cover versions of songs from those faraway pre-Lennon and McCartney days when artists knew their place, left it to proper writers, and hoped that theirs would be the biggest hit.
It's also well worth investigating the Acrobat site for a range of excellent and imaginative compilations in a variety of genres including doo wop. If you like the Orioles' ballads but can't afford the Bear Family box set, I'd have a look here.
But the virtue of the Xtra CDs is they provide a quick snapshot of each year, so in the next few posts I'm going to reproduce tracklistings and the brief notes I wrote on purchase so that those not already in the know can get a sense of what poor, beleagured Britons such as Alan Klein and Myles Rudge (not to mention the fictional Private Hopper) were up against. My notes (immediately below) are the same for the first four volumes, 1950-1953, so I'm putting all those tracklists together in this post, plus youtube links for most tracks. For spotify users, these volumes don't appear to be up there, but there will be some spotify album links in later posts.
This series of CDs is a real taste of what people in Britain - parents and children alike - were listening to before rock'n'roll. The corn is as high as an elephant's eye, but this is invaluable for a sense of period. Before Elvis Presley, life in Britain was in monochrome, people have said; but on the evidence of these songs it was bright, bright, bright. Keep smiling. I said, keep smiling! And get your hair cut.1 Teresa Brewer: Music! Music! Music!
2 Billy Cotton And His Band: The French Can Can Polka
3 Donald Peers: Dear Hearts And Gentle People
4 The Beverley Sisters: Ferryboat Inn
5 Eileen Barton: If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked A Cake
6 Anton Karas: The Harry Lime Theme
7 Bing Crosby And The Andrews Sisters: Quicksilver
8 Frankie Laine: Cry Of The Wild Goose
9 Doris Day: Bewitched
10 Edith Piaf: Hymne A L'Amour (Hymn To Love)
11 Perry Como And Betty Hutton: A Bushel And A Peck
12 The Ames Brothers: Ragg Mopp
13 Red Foley: Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy
14 Flanagan And Allen: Hey Neighbour
15 Tony Martin: Valencia
16 Edmundo Ros And His Orchestra: The Wedding Samba
17 Phil Harris: The Thing
18 Gene Autry: Frosty The Snowman
19 Charles Williams And His Concert Orchestra: Girls In Grey (TV Newsreel March)
20 The Weavers: Goodnight Irene
21 Kay Starr: Bonaparte's Retreat
22 Vic Damone: Just Say I Love Her
23 Patti Page: With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming
24 Nat King Cole: Mona Lisa
1. Guy Mitchell - My Truly, Truly Fair2. Patti Page - Tennessee Waltz
3. Johnnie Ray - Cry
4. Frankie Laine - Jezebel
5. Rosemary Clooney - Come On-A My House
6. Nat 'King' Cole - Too Young
7. Perry Como - If
8. Tony Bennett - Cold, Cold Heart
9. Mario Lanza - Be My Love
10. The Weavers - On Top Of Old Smoky
11. Les Paul & Mary Ford - The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise
12. Winifred Atwell - Black And White Rag
13. Frankie Laine - Rose, Rose, I Love You
14. Bing Crosby & Jane Wyman - In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening
15. Tony Bennett - Because Of You
16. Jo Stafford - Shrimp Boats
17. Guy Mitchell - My Heart Cries For You
18. Mantovani - Charmaine
19. Billy Eckstine - I Apologise
20. Dinah Shore - Sweet Violets
21. The Four Aces - (It's No) Sin
22. The Ames Brothers - Undecided
23. Louis Armstrong & Bing Crosby - Gone Fishin'
24. Mario Lanza - The Loveliest Night Of The Year
Doris Day & Frankie Laine: Sugarbush -Guy Mitchell: Feet Up (Pat Him On The Po Po) -
Frankie Laine: High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me) -
Jo Stafford: You Belong To Me -
Eddie Fisher: Any Time -
Doris Day: My Love And Devotion -
Nat `King' Cole: Somewhere Along The Way -
Al Martino: Here In My Heart -
Mario Lanza: Because You're Mine -
The Mills Bros: Glow Worm -
Guy Mitchel: There's A Pawnshop On A Corner In Pittsburgh Pennsylvania -
Kay Starr: Wheel Of Fortune -
Ella Mae Morse: The Blacksmith Blues -
Jo Stafford: A-Round The Corner (Beneath The Berry Tree) -
Percy Faith & His Orchestra: Delicado -
Eddie Fisher: Outside Of Heaven -
Rosemary Clooney: Half As Much -
Johnnie Ray: Walkin' My Baby Back Home -
Les Paul: Meet Mr. Callaghan -
Georgia Gibbs: Kiss Of Fire -
The Four Aces: Tell Me Why -
Leroy Anderson & His Orchestra: Blue Tango -
Danny Kaye: Wonderful Copenhagen -
Jo Stafford: Jambalaya (On The Bayou)
Guy Mitchell: She Wears Red Feathers -Kay Starr: Comes Along A Love -
Nat King Cole: Pretend -
Eddie Fisher: I'm Walking Behind You -
Frankie Laine: I Believe -
Mantovani: The Song From 'Moulin Rouge' -
Les Paul And Mary Ford: Vaya Con Dios -
Lita Roza: How Much Is That Doggie In The Window -
Perry Como: Don't Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes -
Winifred Atwell: Coronation Rag -
Guy Mitchell: Look At That Girl -
The Stargazers: Broken Wings -
Billy Cotton: In A Golden Coach -
Eddie Fisher: Outside Of Heaven -
Frank Chacksfield: Theme From "Limelight" -
David Whitfield: Answer Me -
Frankie Laine: Hey Joe! -
Johnny Ray And Doris Day: Let's Walk That-A-Way -
Tony Bennett: Rags To Riches -
Dickie Valentine: All The Time And Everywhere -
Kay Starr: Side By Side -
Dean Martin: That's Amore -
Diana Decker: Poppa Piccolino
Further thoughts - if your ears aren't bleeding:
Having listened to the youtube choices above, I'd still say that "bright" is the key word: easy to imagine many of these recordings kicking, punching and (almost) shrieking their way through the sonic limitations of medium wave radio or 78rpm records. It's certainly not the case that they're all bad but there does seem to be a relentless cheeriness about most of them - when the singers are not in soppy light operatic ballad mode, that is - designed to expel thoughts of social or familial unrest. No wonder Dennis Potter's Hopper yearned for
A beat that busts up the old way - the old stodge - the Empire and knowing your place and excuse me [...]
Interesting to see how many artists are actually American. And while I do have to admit that some of the sides have an energy which seems related to rock'n'roll - like Ragg Mopp and the accentuated beat of If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked A Cake - they don't seem to be about anything, and certainly nothing remotely, you know (Les Dawson sotto voce) like that: a case of rhythm in their nursery rhymes at best, to borrow a title from an earlier age. Everything seems to be for the widest possible audience, for entire families to sit down and listen to without embarrassment, or possibly to be pumped out to encourage productivity in factories: Austerity Britain won't repair itself, y'know.
The hand of the late Mitch Miller is evident on quite a few tracks, and his spirit seems to hover over many of those he didn't produce. I have to confess to an ambivalence about these: Ken Sykora's Serendipity programme on Radio Clyde in the seventies introduced me to many Guy Mitchell recordings whose novelty I sort of warmed to - though maybe, as one who'd already been introduced to rock'n'roll, part of me knew it was wrong, even then.
But there is a poignancy about at least one title in the listings above: that Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman duet, In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, written by Hoagy Carmichael. Growing up I would hear Carmichael's name and recordings in the radio programmes I'd listen to - Benny Green and Hubert Gregg as well as Ken Sykora. And I have read in Richard Sudhalter's biography of Hoagy Carmichael that when the rock'n'roll revolution hit the fifties, then Carmichael's huge general audience - and therefore, in effect, his occupation - was gone.
Which, much as I sympathise with Hopper, seems a great pity. And somewhat ironic: jazz had been the rock'n'roll of the 1920s for people like Hoagy - and the appeal to later British listeners like Philip Larkin and his chum Kingsley Amis was doubtless, in part, that it had an earthiness not to be found in most of the recordings listed above. Here's a short review of that biography I prepared earlier, aimed at an audience who might have known the odd song but not his name:
Hoagy Carmichael didn't write for Broadway, which may be why his name doesn't trip off the tongue as easily as a Gershwin or a Porter, but he is up there with the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century. Stardust. Skylark. Up a Lazy River. Georgia on My Mind. I Get Along Without You Very Well. Rockin' Chair. Two Sleepy People. Lazybones. Memphis in June. (Give up?)
What makes him unique is his jazz sensibility - not surprising as he was a friend of revered cornettist Bix Beiderbecke, duetted with Louis Armstrong (on his own composition Rocking Chair), and Armstrong's own version of Carmichael's masterpiece Stardust (originally a piano instrumental) redefined popular singing.
This excellent book takes you through aspects of some compositions in detail, so may offer practical help in tackling some of the songs, but it's really about the whole life, and like Ken Burns' documentary series Jazz it gives you a sense of life in the 20s and the way that "hot" music answered some kind of unarticulated need in American youth.
Sudhalter identifies one of Carmichael's main themes as a longing for an impossible, idealised Southern past (no accident that he collaborated with Johnny Mercer) and as the story progresses there is a great sadness in Carmichael's seeing his own, real enough, past slip away: two close friends and mentors die prematurely and, as has been said in other books, by the 50s rock'n'roll has affected the large general audience for this music. Carmichael continued to compose ("songs that voices never heard", as Paul Simon might have put it) and his son, Hoagy Bix, speaks movingly of his father's energies which now have nowhere to go, no audience to reassure and encourage.
There is a cheap JSP 4 CD set (above), compiled by Sudhalter, with remastering by John R.T. Davies, which may be the best way of getting acquainted with his work (details here). You can read an interview with Richard Sudhalter about his biography on the jerryjazzmusician website here. There is also an inexpensive 10 CD set on the Avid label - details here - which I haven't heard, although some Avid releases are a bit too warm for my tastes. The focus is on Carmichael's own recordings, though the final disc has other artists, including Louis Armstrong singing an obscure number called Ev'ntide.
There was also a really good vinyl and cassette box set (below, reviewed here) a few years ago whose focus was simple: the very best recordings of Carmichael songs, made by whoever, whenever. There were a few substitutions on the UK edition but if you can find it, cleave it unto you.
Which musings have slightly taken us away from our 50s theme, but
I cannot but remember such things were,That were most precious to me.
You got a problem with that? Eh? Have you? Oh, and George Harrison liked Hoagy Carmichael an' all. And Jerry Lee Lewis recorded Hong Kong Blues. Even though Carmichael said in 1979, possibly in Tony Palmer's All You Need Is Love:
I could have accomplished a hell of a lot more…..but rock just knocked me out…I just quit almost on account of rock n roll!
Go figure - whatever the heck that phrase means.
To close, a lesser-known Carmichael number, Moonburn, known to me, in this 1935 recording by one of Bowie's collaborators, from that cleavable-unto vinyl/cassette box set. Listening to it again right now has been a delight - and I defy you to tell me that by the end it doesn't rock - or swing, or, ooh, something: