Month: November 2020

There is still music being made

Back in the 1980’s, the company I worked for had a warehouse for the products we sold. The people working in the warehouse listened to the music of the time. One day the warehouse manager, who was about a year younger than I, said, “I swore I’d never say this, but that’s not music.”

You can go back at almost any point last century and find that the music of young people was considered garbage by older generations.

In 1980 I had an Oldies Hour on my daily late-night shift. Sometimes the chief engineer would stop by. Ken was forty years older than I and we were pretty good friends. I would love it when he would tell me stories about working in radio in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. Among other things during his career, Ken had emceed big band radio broadcasts over the Mutual Radio Network.

One time he stopped by and I was playing Topsy, Part II, a 1958 hit by Cab Calloway’s former drummer, Cozy Cole. Ken liked that. He would have been in his early 40’s when it was a hit.

Big Band holdout from 1958.

Another time he came in and I was playing Lies, a 1966 hit by the Knickerbockers. To say that Ken was not a fan was an understatement. He would have been about 50 when that came out.

I still don’t know why he has a sax. (Yes, there is a video there.)

The reason I mention Ken’s age when those records come out is because the late 1990’s, when I was in my early 40’s, was the last time I enjoyed most of the new music on the radio. By 2006, when I was 50, there was little new music that interested me – just like Ken when he was 50.

It seems hard to find young people playing instruments and making “music” anymore, but there are some.

A while back I was surfing YouTube and saw a suggestion of a new version of the Hollies’ song Bus Stop by the MonaLisa Twins.

My introduction to the Twins.

Mona and Lisa Wagner are twin sister who were born in Austria, which explains their accents. They currently live in the Liverpool area. They have gotten attention from famous people such as John Sebastian.

The Twins getting well deserved attention.

They are clearly talented, but many of their videos seem to over-emphasize that many of their recordings are studio productions with multi-tracking and over dubbing. I know “everyone does it,” but I would like to hear music that is being made, not music that is being manufactured.

But did they sweep the floor afterwards?

That being said, they do write original material and can rock out with other musicians in live shows. They have appeared at numerous venues including the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool where they performed this original song, One More Time.

Where is Brian Epstein when you need him?

Another great group of young people making music comes from the Philippines. The REO brothers consists of the Otic brothers Reno, Ronjoseph, Raymart, Ralph, and Roy Mark. They started playing music with improvised instruments to help out the family finances. They were heard jamming with some friends and things went up from there. The name REO brothers come from their first initial (“R” for all of them), “E” from their mother’s maiden name (Evasco), and “O” from their last name (Otic).

Their videos look like they are recording in their basement. However, the acoustics are good and they are playing the music live as it is being recorded. They might make minimal use of multi-tracking to add another instrument, but most of what they do is performed as the video is being recorded. One of the reasons they have become successful is because they play their live shows with a polish usually found in more experienced musicians.

The first time they came to my attention was when YouTube suggested this video to me, again with the song Bus Stop.

Young people seem to like Bus Stop.

They like to play the Beatles, from early songs such as I Saw Her Standing There and Boys

Rocking out to the early Beatles.

…to later songs such as While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

The more mature sound of the later Beatles.

The brothers have played a relief concert at Madison Square Gardens with several other performers such as Jennifer Hudson and Plain White T’s. They also were the first performers from the Philippines to play at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.

I am thrilled to hear young musicians playing music that is not dependent on sampling and computers.

Memories Made With Music

Music has a way of etching itself into your memory even if you don’t consciously remember it. My father always had the radio on when he drove. Before he went to Korea in 1960 he would listen to KSFO in San Francisco. They played what was then called “Middle of the Road” music. Frank Sinatra would have been the type of artist they played. In the late 1950’s I’m sure they played Big Band music to a certain extent – not really the swing stuff, but the more melodic tunes from the late war, early post-war era.

In 1984 I bought an album of Harry James’ Greatest Hits. I knew some of the songs on that album but not all. One tune stood out to me. I did not know it, but I knew it. It was Man With a Horn.

Seeing what time it is.

As that song played it was almost as if I was three years old again. It brought back a memory of riding in the car high on a hill overlooking a bit of a valley in or near San Francisco/Daly City. There was a billboard, I think for Dial Soap, with a working clock at the upper left-hand corner.

In 1985 I attended the National Association of Broadcasters convention In Las Vegas. A company that provided music services was giving out sample CD’s and I picked up one. On it was a recording from 1955 – Band of Gold by Don Cherry. Again, it blew off dust from the recesses of my memory.

I know that song from somewhere.

Another song that takes me back is Old Cape Cod by Patti Page even though I have known this record for years. I seem to remember hearing this in an old military building on the Presidio of San Francisco.

Images of formal dining with ladies in chiffon dresses.

KSFO also had what has to be the most beautiful jingle I have ever heard. It still brings me back to the San Francisco of my childhood.

San Francisco on my mind.

That is the long version — there was also a shorter version. That jingle made such an impression on me that I remember where I was when I last heard it on the air in March, 1972.

There are also songs that bring me back to a specific incident.

My Grandfather lived in Washington DC until I was 15. When we lived in New York we would visit him from time to time. It was not unusual for my Grandfather to give us a dollar to buy something in the stores on H Street North East. One time, I bought a friction-motor toy of a 1960 Chevy station wagon. My oldest brother bought a record: Rinky Dink by Dave “Baby” Cortez. As my brother played the record, I pretended that it was playing on the radio in my toy car.

Cranking up the radio in a toy car.

My oldest brother liked ships and other things nautical. The July 7, 1965 issue of Life Magazine had an article about yachting on the Riviera. Being interested in such things, he bought a copy. The lady in a bikini on the cover probably did not hurt, either.

Music to swim by. Photo: Life Magazine

While he was looking at that we listened to the first record by the Four Tops that I remember: I Can’t Help Myself.

Motown Soul while yachting around.

That is the power of music. It brings you back to an earlier time. It is the closest thing we will ever have to a time machine.

A Song of the World

I think I have always been aware of the radio. My father always listened in the car. I remember hearing a baseball game with the Detroit Tigers while I was on a canal boat on the C&O Canal in Washington DC in 1963. About that time I remember being on a bus in Washington and hearing a radio from the back that was playing one of my all-time favorite songs.

That song was the only Japanese song to reach number 1 in the United States. I did my best to hear the tune over the noise of the crowded bus.

Some background:
It is well known that teenagers in the United Kingdom in the early sixties liked American music. Besides the R&B records of the 1950’s, there was another American music craze among English youth in the early 1960’s: Dixieland Jazz. This put the lines from Dire Straights’ Sultans of Swing into perspective (“They don’t give a damn about any trumpet playing band. It ain’t what they call rock and roll”). The Sultans were not playing some obscure music from half a century before; they were an oldies band playing a style that was popular almost two decades before and the crowd of young boys in the corner really didn’t care.

Richard Lester, the American movie director who directed the Beatles’ films Hard Days Night and Help, took his first step into the English youth/music genre in 1962 with a film called It’s Trad, Dad about a teenage boy and girl trying to get support for a concert featuring Dixieland music.

One of the bands featured in the film was Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen. Ball is known as a one-hit wonder in the United States for the 1962 hit Midnight in Moscow. In January, 1963, he had an instrumental top 10 hit in the UK with a Japanese song, Ue o Muite Arukō. Inasmuch as Ball recorded the song as an instrumental and the UK audience would not understand or be able to pronounce ue o muite arukō, the record company thought they would give it a Japanese name they thought people could pronounce: Suki Yaki.

About that time, Rich Osborn, a disc jockey at radio station KORD in Pasco, Washington, was given a copy of a 1961 Toshiba album by a young singer named Kyu Sakamoto. Osborn played the original version of Ue o Muite Arukō. It was very popular with his listeners. Word of the song’s popularity grew. Pat O’Day started playing it on KJR, Seattle. O’Day told his friend, Canadian disk jockey Red Robinson, about the record and it became popular in Canada.

An early music video

Capital Records licensed the recording and released it as a single, keeping the name given by the UK label to the Ball record.

About thirty years ago, a DJ on a Seattle oldies station told the history of the record and mentioned how Osborn was credited with making the Japanese record a hit in the west. In the mid 1980’s I worked with a Rich Osborn at a station in Seattle. I called the oldies DJ and asked if the Rich Osborn I knew and the Rich Osborn at KORD in Pasco in 1963 could have been the same person. The DJ did not know.

I tried for many years to find an answer to that question but could not find any new information. A few years ago I tried again and found someone on Facebook who mentioned his friend Rich Osborn who was now retired. I messaged the person and asked. Yes, the Rich Osborn I knew and the Rich Osborn who was at KORD were the same person. While I had nothing to do with making the record a hit, I did feel a sentimental connection.

Kyu Sakamoto Photo: tv-tokyo.co.jp

On August 12, 1985, Sakamoto was flying from Tokyo to Osaka on Japan Airlines Flight 123. Shortly after takeoff, the 747 suffered severe decompression because of poorly repaired damage that failed. Despite the best efforts of the crew, the plane crashed into the terrain around Mount Takamagahara. Everyone, including Kyu-san, knew what was sure to happen. He used his last moments to write a love note to his wife.

A lovely final act from one, whom all accounts, was a lovely person.

Ah, Such Beautiful Music

I am old enough to remember when TV stations had hosts who showed cartoons. I used to watch such hosts as Sandy Becker in New York in the early 1960’s and Brakeman Bill in the Seattle/Tacoma area in the latter part of the decade. A mainstay of both of their programs was old Warner Brother’s cartoons.

Brakeman Bill, 1955 Photo: Tacoma Public Library

The Warner’s cartoons were my favorites, especially the ones from the 1940’s. Those were made before the artwork was “stylized” – meaning simplified artwork so the cartoons could be made quickly and less expensively. I would not quite say “cheaply” yet: those cartoons would come in the ‘60’s after the advent of the Hanna Barbera cookie-cutter cartoons that were made for TV.

There is another thing about those cartoons that make them first rate: the music. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies originally had two purposes. The first was to plug Warner Brother’s movies. Many cartoons from the 1930’s had names that were the same as or were a play on the names of Warner feature films. The other reason was to plug the Warner music catalogue. Getting people to hear the music was important. If people enjoyed the cartoons, great but it was a secondary concern. It was purely a business decision.

To handle the music Warner’s brought in someone who had worked for Walt Disney: Carl W. Stalling. As Chuck Jones, Warner’s animator, explains in this video, Stalling had been the organ player and orchestra conductor in Kansas City.

Chuck Jones, Warner’s director

Disney was a young animator also from Kansas City who heard Stalling at work and was greatly impressed. The two began to work together. They kept in touch once Disney moved to California, . Stalling would later go out to California as well. Stalling worked for Disney for two years, then freelanced for several years. He was hired by Leon Schlesinger, Warner’s animation producer, in 1936.

Skeleton Dance from 1929, animated by Disney with Music by Stalling

Stalling had a terrific memory for music and had the entire Warner’s music catalog to work with. He also had the full Warner’s orchestra as well. I saw Leonard Maltin speak in 1980 after the release of his book Of Mice and Magic. As Maltin explained, Max Steiner would finish a session recording the music for the latest big production, then Stalling would come in and record the music for the next Looney Tunes.

Leonard Matlin’s great book from 1980 about the history of cartoons Photo: Amazon.com

There was no editing of the music. The timing of the film had all been worked out. Stalling would work out the musical arrangement and it would be recorded straight through.

The orchestration was magnificent. Sometimes I will watch a cartoon just to hear the music. One of my favorites is the opening of the 1941 cartoon Wabbit Twouble (released two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor). Stalling’s opening rendition of Says Who, Says You, Says Me swings. I just wish it was longer. He returns to that theme later in the cartoon, but it is more sedate the second time.

Opening of Wabbit Twouble, 1941

Stalling often would uses just a few short bars of a song. Often, the song would have some tie-in to the action on the screen. If there is food, you can bet that the music is from A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You. Another song that Stalling used often was Powerhouse, a bizarre 1937 tune that you almost would have thought was an original to be used in hectic scenes. (It was also licensed for use in Ren and Stimpy cartoons in the 1990’s)

This is from 1937?

The old Warner’s cartoons are under copyright and those copyrights are closely protected so I can’t give you much in the way of samples, but if you have a chance, go watch some of the old cartoons. Maybe you are old enough or know enough about history to know what such lines as “Turn out that light” and “Is this trip really necessary?” mean.