Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ethel Waters: Sweet Man Blues

Ethel Waters was one of the most popular African-American singers and actresses of the Twenties. She was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1896. Waters attained success of a level that saw her eventually become the highest-paid female entertainer of her day, an unheard of accomplishment for an African-American woman in the early years of the 20th century.

Waters moved to New York in 1919, following several years of touring in vaudeville shows as a singer and a dancer. In 1921, she made her first recordings for Cardinal Records. Later, she switched to the African-American run Black Swan label, and recorded “Down Home Blues” which would be the first blues recording for the label. Waters recorded blues and vaudeville numbers for the label including “Oh Daddy,” “Royal Garden Blues,” “Jazzin’ Baby Blues,” “Sweet Man Blues,” and “Sugar.”

Waters appeared in a number of musical productions and films during the Twenties including, “Check and Double Check,” featuring Amos and Andy and Duke Ellington. By the end of the Thirties, she was a big star on Broadway.

In 1949, Waters received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress for the film, “Pinky.” Waters died in 1977. A series of compilations called, “The Chronological Classics” are the best sources of her classic recordings.
Ethel Waters in 1940

Monday, July 28, 2014

Billie Holiday: Lady Day

Billie Holiday’s life is the stuff of jazz legend. She rose from poverty and abuse to become one of the biggest stars of jazz during the Thirties and Forties. Holiday was a great singer who did not possess a great voice. She employed her voice like a horn player would his horn, and had a reputation for taking mediocre songs and transforming them into greatness. Her singing style was influenced by Bessie Smith’s singing and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet playing. Fellow jazz musicians referred to her as simply, “Lady Day.”

Holiday was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1915. In 1933, she was discovered by the legendary John Hammond, talent scout extraordinaire. Hammond signed her to Columbia Records, and she recorded for some of the company’s subsidiary labels.

Despite being offered only mediocre material to record, she was supported by some of the finest musicians in jazz, including pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist, Lester Young, who would coin her “Lady Day” and become her closest friend and musical collaborator.

In 1937, Holiday toured with the Count Basie Orchestra and later joined Artie Shaw’s Orchestra. She stayed with Columbia Records until 1942, only leaving once for the Commodore label with which she recorded the classic and searing song about lynching, “Strange Fruit.” In 1942, she signed with Decca records and later ended up recording for Verve. One of her last sessions with Columbia produced the classic side, “God Bless the Child.”
In the late Forties, Holiday was convicted of heroin possession and spent several months in prison. Due to the conviction, she was unable to obtain a cabaret card, making it impossible for her to find work in New York City clubs. Suffering from both liver and heart disease, Billie Holiday died in a New York hospital, in 1959.

Holiday’s best recordings can be found on the following collections: “Lady Sings the Blues” (1956), “Songs for Distingue Lovers” (1958), “Lady in Satin” (1958), “The Billie Holiday Story” (1959), “The Golden Years” (1962), “Billie Holiday’s Greatest Hits” (1967), “Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944)” (2001), “Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday” (2001), “The Ultimate Collection” (2005), and “Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles” (2007).

Lady Day

Friday, July 25, 2014

Artie Shaw: Begin the Beguine

Artie Shaw was the greatest white clarinetist of jazz, save perhaps, Benny Goodman. Like Goodman, Shaw was a classically trained musician that excelled at playing other styles of music besides jazz. Shaw had his own orchestra which rivaled Benny Goodman’s orchestra in popularity during the Thirties. Shaw had a huge pop hit with the song, “Begin the Beguine” in 1939.

Shaw was born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky in New York City. He faced a great deal of anti-Semitic discrimination during his youth in New Haven, Connecticut, so anglicized his name as Shaw. During the Thirties and Forties, Shaw was the rival of fellow clarinetist and band leader, Benny Goodman.

Shaw’s best work was with the small band he assembled called, The Gramercy Five. The Gramercy Five recordings are considered by jazz critics to be among the best ever jazz recordings.

Essential recordings by Shaw include the following studio albums and collections: The Great Artie Shaw” (1959), “This is Artie Shaw” (1971), “The Complete Gramercy Five Recordings” (1989) and “The Chronological Classics: Artie Shaw and His Orchestra 1938” (1998), and “The Chronological Classics: Artie Shaw and His Orchestra 1939” (1999).
Young Artie

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bing Crosby: White Christmas

Bing Crosby was among the most important singers in the history of American popular music. His bass-baritone was immediately recognizable on even his earliest pop/jazz recordings. His relaxed crooning style influenced just about every white pop singer who came after him including Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin.

Fortunately, Crosby’s early career coincided with the development of the microphone and electronic recordings. Earlier jazz singers needed to shout out songs without the aid of amplification during performances, whereas Crosby’s softer delivery could be amplified with a microphone and heard amid the din of a band.

Crosby was born Harry Crosby in Tacoma, Washington, in 1903. His brother, Bob Crosby, would also become a notable jazz figure. In the summer of 1917, while witnessing a performance by Al Jolson in Spokane, Washington, Crosby was bitten by the music bug and decided that a career in music was for him.

In 1923, he formed a band with some high school chums called the “Musicalalers” featuring himself on vocals and drums. The band played shows in clubs and at high school dances. After two years, the band broke up, and in 1925, Crosby’s musical connections led him to Paul Whiteman, the leader of the most successful jazz/pop orchestra in America. By 1926, Whiteman had hired Crosby. Crosby would eventually be featuring in Whiteman’s touring band with two other singers as the “Rhythm Boys.” As one of the Whiteman fold, Crosby would work with some of the best white jazz musicians in the country including Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, and Eddie Lang.

Crosby’s magnetic voice quickly made him the star of the Rhythm Boys and he would record a No. 1 pop single with the Whiteman Orchestra with “Ole Man River,” in 1928. Eventually, Crosby’s love of alcohol and good times put him at odds with Whiteman, and he left Whiteman with the Rhythm Boys to join the Gus Arnheim Orchestra. While with Arnheim, The other two singers in the Rhythm Boys were increasingly pushed out of the spotlight, leading to inevitable bitterness and the eventual dissolution of the trio.

Crosby was now on his own, but by 1931, he had signed a recording deal with Brunswick Records and a performance deal with CBS Radio. Crosby performed for 15 minutes every week on CBS, giving him a national audience for the material he had recorded for Brunswick. The songs “Out of Nowhere,” “At Your Command,” and “Just One More Chance” all became huge hits for Crosby in 1931.

As the Thirties progressed, Crosby would become the leading singer in America, placing more hits on the charts than any other singer. He also made the transition to movie star, appearing in a number of short musical films by director Mack Sennett. He signed a new recording deal with Decca Records and appeared in his first full-length film, “The Big Broadcast,” in 1932. Crosby would ultimately appear in 79 films.

During World War Two, Crosby was one of the most dedicated of the performers who traveled into the European theatre of war to entertain American troops. Crosby’s dedication to the fighting men did not go unnoticed and only served to increase his popularity.

On Christmas Day, 1941, Crosby introduced what would become his most famous song, “White Christmas,” in a radio broadcast. By the following year, Crosby had recorded the song, and that recording of White Christmas went on to become the biggest selling single in recording history with world-wide sales of over 100 million copies.

After a career that lasted for more than fifty years, Crosby collapsed and died of a heart attack while playing golf, in Spain, in 1977.

Of the myriad of Bing Crosby collections available, the multi-volume “The Chronological Bing Crosby” (1999) is the most comprehensive. “Bing: His Legendary Years 1931-1957” (1993) and “Gold” (2008) are also worthy collections.

This guy has balls!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Dizzy Gillespie: Salt Peanuts

The great jazz trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie, was one of the musicians at the forefront of the development of be-bop music in the Fifties. He was born John Birkes Gillespie in Cheraw, South Carolina, in 1917. Gillespie earned the moniker, “Dizzy,” for his ebullient personality and antics while performing.

 After hearing the great Roy Eldridge on the radio as a child, Gillespie decide then and there that he, too, wanted to be a jazz trumpeter. Gillespie got his start in New York City, in 1935, playing in the bands of Teddy Hill and Edgar Hayes. It was with the Teddy Hill Orchestra that Gillespie would make his first recording, “King Porter Stomp.” Gillespie stayed with Hill for one year and then freelanced with several bands for a while before finally winding up in Cab Callaway’s Orchestra in 1939. Calloway would fire Gillespie three years later following an altercation between the two men.

In 1943, Gillespie would join Earl Hines band which featured Charlie Parker and was beginning to create a new music which would become bebop. From there, it was on to the Billie Ekstine band, which also featured Parker. He would later leave the Ekstine band because he wanted to play in a smaller ensemble.

In the mid-Forties, Gillespie, Parker and other jazz musicians such as Max Roach, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clark would meet at clubs such as Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown to jam and experiment. It was at these jams that bebop was born.

Gillespie would become a member of the “Quintet,” the legendary be-bop supergroup formed in Toronto in 1953, with Parker, Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Following his one-show tenure with the Quintet, Gillespie would form his own Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra.

Among the best of the classic sides that Gillespie recorded in the Forties and Fifties are: “A Night in Tunisia,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Hot House,” “Manteca,” “Perdido,” and “Night and Day.”

Gillespie’s best albums begin with the Quintet. His “Salt Peanuts” from the album “Live at Massey Hall” is perhaps the best moment of many brilliant moments on that live recording of the Quintet’s only show. Other fine Gillespie albums include, “Dizzy In Paris” (1953), “For Musicians Only” (1958), ”Gillespiana” (1960), “Groovin’ High” (1953).

After Gillespie had had his fill of bebop, he became interested in Afro-Cuban music. Gillespie died in 1993.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

James P. Johnson: The Father of Stride Piano

James Price Johnson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1894. He was a ragtime turned stride pianist whose composition, “The Charleston,” became one of the anthems of the “jazz age” of the Twenties. Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton were probably the two pianists most responsible for taking ragtime music and turning it into jazz via the piano.

Although he started out playing ragtime music in the tradition of Scott Joplin, Johnson became the innovator of a jazz subgenre of piano playing that was dubbed, “stride.” This piano style got its name from the walking or “striding” sound produced by the pianist’s left hand. Stride piano incorporated elements of the blues and it allowed for on the spot improvisation which is an essential characteristic of jazz music. Ragtime was a rigidly composed form of music which stifled improvisation.

A future jazz star, Fats Waller, would become Johnson’s protégé’, adopt his stride style, and later expose it to the masses.

Johnson was a prolific composer, and he wrote some of the most familiar compositions of the roaring Twenties. Aside from the Charleston, he penned, “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic,” “If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight,” “Carolina Shout,” “Keep Off The Grass,” and “Old Fashioned Love,” among others. In addition to jazz and pop tunes, Johnson wrote waltzes, ballets and symphonic pieces.

Johnson’s finest recordings can be found on a number of compilation albums including the multi-volume “Chronological Classics: James P. Johnson” (1996) series and “Snowy Morning Blues” (1991), “Harlem Stride Piano” (1992), and “Father of Stride Piano” (2001).

The Father of Stride Piano

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Johnny Cash: The Man in Black

Johnny Cash, originally from Kingsland, Arkansas, began his career in music in Memphis, Tennessee as a rockabilly performer with Sam Phillip’s legendary Sun Records label which had among the musicians on its roster, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

Cash recorded his first single, “Cry, Cry, Cry,” in 1955, and his first big hit, “I Walk the Line,” in 1956. These early singles would be collected with others on his debut album, “Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!” in 1956. In the late Fifties, Cash would switch to country music and record a number of classic songs including, “Big River,” “Ring of Fire,” “Give My Love to Rose,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “Long Black Veil,”  and “I Still Miss Someone.”

In the late Sixties, Cash recorded two live albums in prisons, “At Folsom Prison” (1968) and “At San Quentin” (1969). The tremendous popularity of these albums led to a successful TV variety show which was canceled after only two seasons. Both albums have been described as two of the best live albums of music recorded in the 20th century.
In 1971, Cash recorded the album, “Man in Black.” The title track would later be attached to Cash as a title of sorts. Cash’s career was in decline, however, and the rest of the Seventies would be lean in terms of hit recordings. The mid-Eighties saw Cash return to prominence with the outlaw country group, “The Highwaymen,” but solo success continued to escape him. In 1986, Cash entered The Betty Ford Clinic for addiction to painkillers.

In 1994, Cash teamed up with producer Rick Rubin, and recorded an album of mostly cover songs, “American Recordings.” The album introduced Cash’s music to a whole new generation of fans. Three more critically acclaimed volumes of American Recordings would follow.

Cash had been sick with diabetes for several years, but he still managed to record the fourth American Recordings album which was released in 2002.Cash succumbed to diabetes the following year.
Early Johnny Cash Promotional Photo