A conversation with my daughter-in-law Elyse recalled my son's fondness years ago for a rock group called Rush. Elyse smiled and said when she first met Jeff at Rhode Island College, "His taste in music was terrible."
While I may have considered Rush a glitch in Jeff's musical history, his overall taste was pretty much the same as mine. We even shared an enthusiasm for (Harry) Nilsson. So I guess my taste is terrible, too. Jeff wasn't there to defend himself and I let the matter pass, though I couldn't help but think, "This from a woman whose favorite group is The Lemonheads . . . "
Music, like politics and religion, is something you cannot debate. Each of us has different, often peculiar musical favorites for reasons even we might not understand. So I've given thought to my musical taste and how I might account for it. Here's my story and I'm sticking to it:
THE YEAR: 1942. My mother and I team up to do something so incredibly foolish that I wonder if it scarred me for life. My mother's heart, as always, was in the right place when she encouraged her four-year-old son to take his toy guitar out on the front porch and sing his two favorite Gene Autry songs, "You Are My Sunshine" and "Back in the Saddle Again."
Perhaps she, like a lot of moms, mistakenly thought her child was a prodigy, when, in fact, I was serving out my term as the Russet Lane dork. Waiting on the porch were children who lived on the street. They were older than I was, some by several years. To encourage their cooperation and their applause, my mother handed out cookies.
I started to sing "You Are My Sunshine." Seconds later a cookie whooshed past me and crumbled against the four-foot wall that enclosed the porch. Then another cookie, and another. I don't think I made it past the second line of the song.
Thus my concert career ended in a chaotic scene that could have been used in a "Blues Brothers" prequel. Had I been less humiliated and more aware of what had just happened, I might have considered a career in comedy.
THE EXPERIENCE tested my allegiance to my first favorite singer who was a movie cowboy. I might have forgotten the debacle, except it had been such a neighborhood hit that I heard about it for several years.
My parents may have taken me to a Gene Autry movie, though most likely I learned the music from his weekly radio show. During this particular era most of a child's waking hours were spent outdoors. There was no television to hold us indoors and feed us a stream of politically correct tunes sung by puppets or cartoon characters or soft-spoken men in cardigans.
Something about Autry and his music — I don't recall what — appealed to me. That may seem a strange starting point, but I say better Gene Autry than Barney the dinosaur.
No matter, I went through my Gene Autry phase as quickly as my younger daughter Meridith would abandon New Kids on the Block many years later.
At 7, I took a detour that eventually went nowhere. It began when my parents took me with them to see "A Song to Remember," a movie about composer Frederic Chopin. My mother, whose maiden name was Smolinski, was Polish, so was Chopin, which meant, I guess, that his music was in my blood (duking it out with "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," from my father's side of my genetic equation).
My parents got carried away with the idea that I might be the next Chopin. Soon I found myself taking piano lessons. The lessons continued for five years, but proved to be a waste of my parents' money. But for the first several years of my life, my musical influences were Gene Autry and Frederic Chopin. Go figure.
Neither would exert influence later on. Neither would John Philip Sousa, whose marches I discovered in our attic where my parents kept a huge Victor-Victrola that already was antique. It was not electric; you cranked a handle to start the turntable. The only unbroken record we had contained two Sousa marches. While never a huge fan of march music, I nonetheless was affected by it. (One day I gave that Victrola one crank too many. Something snapped and it stopped working. My father gave it away, probably to someone whose children later became rich after an appearance on "Antiques Roadshow.")
DURING the 1940s — and well into the early 1950s — there wasn't much of a generation gap in music. Children, parents and grandparents often were fans of the same singers and songs. It's not like there was much choice. A handful of record labels controlled popular music. Each label had a stable of performers who were designated to sing certain songs. There was little opportunity for new composers or singers — or new record labels.
The pop mainstream was very wide, though there were some music lovers who explored the fringes — jazz, folk, country (sometimes called Western or hillbilly) and rhythm and blues (which at the time was called race music). There was a cultural music gap out there somewhere, as well as a geographical music gap, but as far as the radio networks were concerned, The US of A was one, big, happy musical family.
Music filled a much smaller radio niche in those days. Network radio stations carried quiz shows, mysteries, dramas, situation comedies, and kid-friendly adventures such as "Superman" and "Jack Armstrong." Our gauge to pop music was "Your Hit Parade," which featured the songs Americans were enjoying (though we might not enjoy the versions performed by this program's resident singers). The era's singing superstar was Bing Crosby. Everything he recorded turned to gold.
WOODY ALLEN'S "Radio Days" conveys how it was back then. The movie brought back many memories of my youth. Had I made "Radio Days," I would have included the Major family's Sunday routine. My father loved music — unlike me, he had a fine voice and sang in the village's annual minstrel show — but was hung up on songs and performers from the 1920s and early '30s.
In the late '40s we had no record player. For my father, who went through World War II working five-and-a-half days a week at the Solvay Process Company, his best opportunity to relax and listen to his kind of music was on Sundays after we returned from Mass. A Syracuse radio station presented programs that featured some of my father's favorite bands — Sammy Kaye, Wayne King and Russ Morgan. One or the other provided background music for our Sunday afternoon dinners — except when the meal was delayed and we'd wind up doing our chewing to the sound of my mother's favorite program — an hour of polka music. Subconsciously, my sister and I must have plotted revenge.
NOTE: Sammy Kaye often was confused with Kay Kyser. Both band leaders had popular gimmicks that landed them radio and television programs. Kyser, whose knack for comedy helped him star in a few movies, incorporated a quiz, "Kollege of Musical Knowledge," into his show.
Sammy Kaye's gimmick was "So You Want to Lead a Band," which he did at dances and concerts as well as on radio and TV. Audience members would compete for prizes by conducting the band, and Kaye's musicians would speed up or slow down as the contestants' gestures indicated, with entertaining results.
By the late 1940s big band music was on the decline; most of the hit songs originated on Broadway or in movies. Occasionally a song flew in from left field. Frankie Laine, a very popular singer at the time, had a hit called "Cry of the Wild Goose." ("My heart knows what the wild goose knows, so I must go where the wild goose goes . . . ") Weird stuff.
Phil Harris, band leader and radio personality, jumped onto the pop charts in 1950 with "The Thing." ("While I was walking down the beach one bright and sunny day, I came upon a wooden box floating in the bay . . . ") Also weird, but infectious.
At some point before my 13th birthday our family finally purchased a record player. The 33 rpm record album may have been available, as well as the 45 rpm single, but the Majors purchased brittle 78 rpm singles that shattered like cheap drinking glasses if they slipped from your hands. They also had a tendency to wear away around the hole in the middle. After several repeated playings, the hole became so wide that the record would slide back and forth, distorting the sound so it sounded like it a chorus of rowdy drunks.
(I did a quick check online but nowhere could I find a name for the post in the middle of a turntable, that thing over which you slipped the records. Anyway, it was that post — or whatever you call it — that slowly widened the hole in recordings and distorted the sound.)
MY FIRST RECORD was "Cocktails for Two" by the band I wanted in my home more than any other — Spike Jones and the City Slickers, a popular novelty act that must have annoyed the hell out of serious musicians. (Word of advice: if you click on "Cocktails for Two," give the song a minute or so; it is not what it first seems.)
It's clear now I can skip over Gene Autry and Frederic Chopin and designate Spike Jones as the first important influence in my musical taste. If you categorize Spike Jones' music and don't want to dismiss it simply as comedy, then call it Dixieland. Certainly I must have felt that way because within a few years I became a huge Dixieland fan fortunate to live near the home base of a terrific group called The Salt City Five, later the The Salt City Six, who often performed at a Syracuse bar called Memory Lane. Playing piano for The Salt City Six was Syracuse University graduate Gap Mangione of Rochester, who later had a successful career fronting his own big band as well as working with his better-known brother Chuck, who mixed jazz, pop and pseudo-classical to sell millions of records. The Salt City Five/Six also featured outstanding musicians on clarinet, first Jack Maheu, then Nick Palumbo.
So that explains one route I took in my musical journey — from Spike Jones to The Salt City Five/Six to Chuck Mangione. And it was Chuck Mangione, who prepared me for The Dave Mathews Band, another favorite. And branching out from Spike Jones, I later collected albums from two groups spawned by Herb Alpert, the Tijuana Brass and the Baja Marimba Band, which owed a lot to Jones' City Slickers. An important element in the music of most of those favorites is humor, some of it misplaced. I don't take many things seriously. It's my favorite personality trait, but one that keeps coming back to bite me in the ass. Few people like — or trust — a guy whose natural expression is a smirk.
In 1953 the big band sound revived briefly, thanks to the James Stewart movie, "The Glenn Miller Story." Miller's band was, by far, the most popular big band of them all, and it has never really gone away. Several musicians have stepped in to lead bands using Miller's arrangements. Miller was in the Army during World War II and in 1944 while traveling to entertain U.S. troops in France, the plane in which he was a passenger disappeared in bad weather. His body was never found. His tragic death added to his band's mystique.
While Miller's band eventually went on without him, another band emerged in the 1950s with a similar sound. It was led by Ralph Flanagan, who became my favorite big band guy, mostly on the strength of a song called "Hot Toddy." However, for a sample of the Flanagan sound, you'll have to settle here for "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho." (After "Jericho" you can now listen to "Hot Toddy" on the same page, though it's not a particularly good version.)
OBVIOUSLY, at this time there were no rock groups. The music was around, but was played by African-American musicians who weren't getting mainstream attention.
Until then, what we had were pop singing groups with simple, obvious names. The best-known was The Andrews Sisters. Two Major family favorites were The Mills Brothers and The Ames Brothers. (One of the latter, Ed Ames, later became played an Indian on the "Daniel Boone" TV series and is recalled for his hilarious tomahawk demonstration on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" when he hit the target silhouette in the crotch.) The most clever musical name at the time belonged to an African-American quartet, The Ink Spots.
None of those groups was a favorite of mine, though The Mills Brothers came close. The group that emerged as a favorite was unfamiliar to me until "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena," an Americanized version of a 1919 Hebrew composition. This song, as was common in the 1940s and '50s, was recorded by several people. Two versions attracted the public's attention, one by The Weavers (backed by Gordon Jenkins' orchestra), the other by Vic Damone (with Mitch Miller's orchestra). The Weavers won the battle and made the top ten. They did even better with the flipside, "Goodnight, Irene," which became the country's number one song.
The Weavers prepared me for the folk music explosion. But while The Weavers may have started it, The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary benefited most. Others who did well included The Limelighters and The Brothers Four, though in typical fashion I put my money on a group that never quite achieved stardom, The Chad Mitchell Trio.
I tired of folk music, but retained an interest in singers who couldn't wear ready-made labels. One such was Paul Simon, whom I regard as the best singer-composer of my lifetime. Other personal favorites in this unlabeled category are (Harry) Nilsson, Randy Newman, Beck, and more recently Regina Spektor, Jason Mraz, the Avett Brothers and a group called Old Crow Medicine Show. How I got to those last four acts is due to interesting changes in the music business I'll address later. (My younger daughter, Meridith, noting my high regard for Beck, correctly concluded that in my mind he was carrying on for Nilsson, who died in 1994.)
It's time to connect that John Philip Sousa record in our attic with my experience at Intermediate School, Solvay's version of junior high, where I was plucked from class on day and told by the principal and the music director that I was the drum major of the school band.
This happened before my 12th birthday, but already I was over six-feet tall, which seems to have been my primary qualification. Corny as it sounds (and, trust me, it sounded awfully corny when I heard it a few weeks later on a public address system), I think I was picked to set up this announcement at our appearances: "And the drum major . . . is Jack Major!"
Our junior high band was small, but it had a powerful percussion section. Our drummers overwhelmed the rest of the band, but I loved the sound. I never enjoyed drum solos that were mandatory in every big band set — a concession to the Gene Krupa inside every drummer — but I am a sucker for music with a strong beat.
My ability to march in step and keep time with a big stick got me plucked out of school again in eighth grade; this time I was driven to Solvay High School for a new assignment. For awhile I stubbornly refused to buy the white shoes that would complete the drum major outfit. I became known as the drum major who wore brown shoes (the working title of the autobiography I never wrote). A year later I quit and was replaced by Dick Gosson, who had more flair for the job.
BY 1952 I had my first legitimate favorite singer — Guy Mitchell, whose real name was Albert George Cernik, but had it changed by Mitch Miller, then a bigwig at Columbia Records. Miller, whose given first name was Mitchell, supposedly said — according to a Wikipedia article — "My name is Mitchell, you seem like a nice guy, so we'll call you Guy Mitchell."
Guy Mitchell soon had his biggest hit, "My Heart Cries for You." Many of his songs were written by the hugely successful Bob Merrill, whose music was irresistible, no matter how strange the lyrics. [One example: "(There's a Pawn Show on the Corner in) Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania." Another example: "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?", a hit for Patti Page.] Merrill also wrote the lyrics for Barbra Streisand's Broadway smash, "Funny Girl," though my all-time favorite Merrill song is another Mitchell hit, "Sparrow in the Treetop," a drunken lament by a wayward husband, amusingly told.
Songs like this aren't written anymore, or if they are, few people listen to them. But they were all the rage in the 1950s. Several Merrill hits were things well-lubricated bar patrons might sing. Or The Clancy Brothers. Another big difference between music from before 1960 and much of the music that followed: the old songs are easier to sing.
Mitchell had good looks and a wonderful voice, which got him into a few movies, including a 1954 oddity, "Red Garters," a musical spoof of Westerns. The film, which co-starred Rosemary Clooney and Jack Carson, tanked big time. What set it apart from other films was its use of stage-like sets, which made it look like an avant-garde Broadway musical.
Mitchell, unfortunately, couldn't act, though he had an impish, appealing way about him. With his looks and voice, he might have been considered for Curly in the movie version of "Oklahoma," but that role went to a man with the best pop singing voice I've ever heard — Gordon MacRae. I didn't really appreciate MacRae at the time, but as I re-watch "Oklahoma" — and the musicals he made with Doris Day — I marvel at the richness of his voice.
Besides Bing Crosby, popular singers in the 1950s included the inevitable Perry Como and Nat "King" Cole. It was Cole who had one of the weirdest hits of the late 1940s, "Nature Boy," a song that my sister says used to scare her (though she doesn't know why). While not written for the movie, a version of it was used in "The Boy With The Green Hair," released in 1948, the same year Cole's record was a hit. Frank Sinatra, all the rage in the 1940s, went into a slump around 1950s, but would make an amazing comeback a few years later.
A favorite of mine in the 1950s was Tony Bennett, popular, but not yet the respected singer he would become. He became a star with the ballad, "Because of You." I had a friend, John Scaia, who sounded a lot like Bennett, but John was more into sports than singing. Bob Ranalli, another friend, was an excellent singer and a fan of Billy Eckstine, a singer who always seemed to be on the verge of breaking through to stardom. I had one Eckstine single, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," which was a hit for Nat King Cole. As I recall that's the song Bob sang in one of our school shows.
On the flip side of that Eckstine record was "Lost in Loveliness," a ballad that today would be considered sappy. Soft love songs were one of the kinder, gentler aspects of the 1950s, an era crueler than it's often portrayed. There was no political correctness back then and sensitivity was only used in spelling bees. Parents didn't get oopy-schmoopy with their children and tended to side with police, teachers and neighbors who registered complaints.
DORIS DAY was my first favorite female singer, though when I first heard her — on "Sentimental Journey" — I was only seven years old and oblivious to her identity, knowing her only as the singer who made everyone cry. Years later I bought a couple of her singles, but by the time lps came along I regarded her more of an actor than a singer. And as would later be true of Elvis Presley, the more Doris Day got involved in movies, the worse her music became.
Joni James is the female singer who first springs to mind when I recall my high school years (1951-55). A few years ago there was a Solvay High School reunion that included several classes, most of them from the 1950s. The committee in charge of this three-day event wanted something special — so they booked a Joni James concert.
However, my favorite singer from the period was Gogi Grant, whose big hit was "The Wayward Wind." What clinched it for me, though, was Grant's performance in the 1957 movie "The Helen Morgan Story," when she did the singing for Ann Blyth, who played the title role. (This is not to be confused with a TV production in the same year, with the same title, on "Playhouse 90," when Polly Bergen turned in an Emmy-winning performance and did her own singing.) Grant is in her 80s now and reportedly still performing.
A close second as my favorite female singer was Teresa Brewer, who was super cute and had a voice and style all her own. My mother's favorite seemed to be Patti Page. And we all liked Rosemary Clooney.
Mention must be made of Mary Ford ("How High the Moon"), a one-time country music singer who owed her eventual pop success to husband Les Paul, the guitar genius who helped revolutionize the recording industry. He made Mary Ford a pioneer in dubbing; her recordings featured several layers of her own voice. Unfortunately, her in-person performances, done without those layers, were a letdown.
During my sophomore year in high school, 1952-53, I became a fan of Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan who'd worked as big band arrangers, but wanted to strike out on their own. Thus the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. After an unlikely hit ("Doodletown Fifers"), they went on the road. Trouble was, they often got booked for dances . . . but you couldn't dance to Sauter-Finegan music. The band had a truly unusual sound achieved by instruments not found in other pop bands (kazoos, triangles, tambourines, bassoons, etc.). If the two guys didn't look so serious, I might have mistaken them for the second coming of Spike Jones. (To hear one of the band's best numbers, try Midnight Sleighride.)
I credit Sauter-Finegan with pushing me toward my few jazz-influenced purchases, albums by Stan Kenton, Georgie Auld and Maynard Ferguson, though you'll note these all represent Big Band jazz; I never got into Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Gerry Mulligan, though I did buy a few albums by Herbie Mann.
Another favorite big band was headed by Billy May. I'm not sure May ever toured; his might have been a studio band using May's unique arrangements. The first album I ever bought was Billy May's "A Band Is Born." Again with the humor — there was something decidedly tongue-in-cheek about May's music. I first noticed May on a song called "Lean Baby." He recorded an instrumental version, Frank Sinatra later recorded a vocal with May's band. I credit May with rescuing Sinatra's career; also Nelson Riddle, whose arrangements remained a part of Sinatra's music until the end. Riddle's studio orchestra also produced a few instrumental hits, my favorite being "The 'Route 66' theme."
As for May's band, there are a few songs available for listening online, all of them entertaining, but represent a time his sound changed from his "Lean Baby" days that were heavy on the saxophones. Those I sampled online were more into trumpets, with some readers noting a similarity to the sound of Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass.
No story about pop music of the period would be complete without mentioning Percy Faith, who had several instrumental hits, including "Theme from 'A Summer Place'."
Equally successful was a guy named Hugo Winterhalter, a composer-arranger who conducted an orchestra that had several hits. Of more interest to me was Walter Schumann, best known for writing the dum-duh-dum-dum theme to "Dragnet." He also was the arranger behind The Voices of Walter Schumann, a choral group with the lushest, sweetest sound you ever heard. They are regarded today as little more than contributors to Muzak, but their recording of "Last Night" would put goose bumps on Frankenstein's monster.
Also, it was in the 1950s that Henry Mancini emerged as a musical force. I bought several Mancini albums, two of them devoted to the "Peter Gunn" television series. The "Gunn" theme remains my all-time favorite (nudging out "Hawaii Five-O"). It was interesting how Mancini wrote so much music for "Peter Gunn," songs that were tailored to each episode. (Incidentally, the version of the "Peter Gunn" theme that you'll hear on the link provided is one of the best ever. And it was done live on a Steve Allen TV show.)
Since then I've been a fan of certain musicians and composers who've enhanced TV shows with their music — Dave Grusin ("St. Elsewhere," for example), Mike Post ("The Rockford Files" and several others) and Jeff Beal (HBO's "Rome" and CBS's "Jesse Stone" movies). The one Beal theme I didn't like was for "Monk," though it won him an Emmy. Ironically, the show's producers must have disliked it, too, because they replaced it in the second season with Randy Newman's much more Monk-appropriate "It's a Jungle Out There." Ah, Randy Newman; another favorite of mine.