Accounting for taste: It's a long story
Big musical changes were noted in the mid-1950s, though their impact wasn't immediately apparent. Bill Haley and The Comets hit first with "Rock Around the Clock," well placed in the soundtrack of the 1955 movie, "The Blackboard Jungle."
There was little fuss when Elvis Presley made his national TV debut on January 28, 1956 on a program hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, relics of the big band era. A week or two later I was home from college, headed for the door on Saturday night when my mother stopped me. "Stick around for a few minutes," she suggested. "That singer I told you about is on the Dorsey show again tonight. I think you'll get a kick out of him."
When I consulted my sister Mary about this piece, she told me Dad couldn't stand Presley. I don't recall that being his first reaction; we decided that initially he and my mother, perhaps grownups in general, figured Presley was a passing fad. As he and rock 'n' roll dug in for the long haul, they no longer were a laughing matter, but the latest national menace. (Witness the difference in the ho-hum reaction to Presley's appearances on the low-rated Dorsey Brothers program and his first guest shot on the immensely popular Ed Sullivan Show a few weeks later, when all hell broke loose.)
MEANWHILE, back in the 1953, I heard my first Four Freshmen song, "Poinciana," I think, and became a fan. The Four Freshmen had a dense, jazz-influenced harmony, unlike any I had heard previously. In the years to come, several groups went to school on The Freshmen, most notably The Beach Boys, who kicked the sound up a notch and tailored it to rock 'n' roll. (The Four Freshmen released one album — 1963's "Got That Feelin' " — with Top 40 intentions, but there was something condescending about it.)
Most popular group for a few years — but not to my taste — were the Four Aces, who had a string of hits. I did like The Four Lads, whose hits included "Moments to Remember," "Standing on the Corner" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)." A lesser hit bore one of my favorite titles — "Gilly, Gilly, Ossenfeffer, Katzenellen Bogen by the Sea." (Those too young to recall The Four Lads may think "Istanbul" was written by They Might Be Giants, who recorded a terrific version of this song a few years ago.)
But by far my favorite group was The Four Freshmen who led me to The Hi-Los, Manhattan Transfer, The Pointer Sisters, Brasil '66 (and subsequent groups organized by Sergio Mendes) and even The King's Singers from King's College in England. While their musical reputation was tainted a bit by their 1960s Lawrence Welk-like television show, The King Sisters shouldn't be overlooked. At their best, the four sisters could hold their own with the Four Freshmen. Their versions of "Imagination" and "Take the A-Train" are classic.
The Four Freshmen was a sore subject between father and son. My dad did not appreciate their harmonies, claiming they sang out of tune. (It was a feeling I'd have many years later about Motown groups.) Radio had changed; my father's Sunday programs no longer were available. We were finally buying 33 rpm albums. My sister played Elvis Presley and Johnny Mathis, I played the Four Freshmen and someone my father really despised — Frank Sinatra. (Dad's feelings had less to do with Sinatra's singing than his thuggy lifestyle and mob connections.)
At last my sister and I achieved payback for all those hours of "Swing and sway with Sammy Kaye." My father threatened to disown us, but accepted our peace offering — a Lawrence Welk album. While my mother might have wanted us around forever, my father was probably happy when my sister and I moved out on our own — and took our music with us.
ORDINARILY COLLEGE is a time of musical growth, or, at least, change. But for me, college (1955-59), along with the early 1960s, represent my musical ice age. My years at Kent State University were extremely enjoyable and busy. I was a journalism major who worked for the student daily, The Kent Stater. For two years I spent four evenings a week at the downtown print shop where the newspaper was published. (I believe the compositor we worked with was named Clarence, like the apprentice angel in "It's a Wonderful Life.") There was a movie theater nearby and often I'd catch a film during the two or three hours between my last class and the time page proofs were available to be read. I was only vaguely aware of pop music, which was changing, though not as quickly or as dramatically as you may have been told in some documentary by a person who wasn't around at the time.
What I remember, musically, from my Kent State years were (1) seeing, for the first time, a live performance by the Four Freshmen and (2) going to dances that featured big bands with familiar names and one-way tickets to obscurity. Among them, my favorite, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. (I enjoyed watching those in attendance try in vain to dance to "Midnight Sleighride," "Doodletown Fifers" and "Yankee Doodletown.") Other bands I recall at Kent State were Ray Anthony and Buddy ("Night Train") Morrow, who played at a school dance called The Top Hop, inspiring some staff member to write my all-time favorite Kent Stater headline: "Top Hop to Morrow Tonight".
Meanwhile, Elvis Presley had taken over as the king of pop music, though a revitalized Frank Sinatra ruled an even larger entertainment empire. The Platters were popular, so were Fats Domino, Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Bill Haley, Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson, one of my favorites because I had watched him grow up on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." Presley, Sinatra and Nelson were the only ones included in my motley record collection. Because she scored a hit with "Who's Sorry Now?", a song written in 1923, Connie Francis became the first post-rock 'n' roll singer to earn a place in my father's heart. There was a special place in mine for The Teddy Bears, a Phil Spector group whose lead singer was Annette Kleinbard (aka Carol Connors), but my love for their music was restricted to one song, "To Know Him is to Love Him." Another favorite group was The Del-Vikings of "Come Go With Me" fame.
My father also was smitten with The McGuire Sisters, who became regulars on Arthur Godfrey's daily radio show and later his weekly variety show after they won on his "Talent Scouts" program in 1952. (Of Arthur Godfrey in the 1950s, it truly could be said, "He's everywhere! He's everywhere!") The sisters had been around for a few years before my father paid them special attention. That's because, as mayor of Solvay, he had been seated with them at a luncheon when they performed in the late 1950s at the New York State Fair which is held just outside the village. (In the It's-a-small-world department, The McGuire Sisters grew up in Miamisburg, Ohio, hometown of my first wife, Karla Silberman.)
I can't document this, but I wouldn't be surprised if the 1950s had more one-hit wonders than any decade. One such was a group called The Jamies who in 1958 recorded the immortal "It's Summertime" (as in "It's summertime summertime sum sum summertime"). This song inspired an unexpected outburst from my mother, not known for her sense of humor. But one of the fondest memories my sister and I share is the night my mother called us to the table by singing, "It's suppertime suppertime sup sup suppertime!"
IT WAS DURING the 1960s that Barbra Streisand arrived, and I jumped aboard the bandwagon and bought several of her albums. While in the features department of the Akron Beacon-Journal I had the opportunity to interview her. This was she before did "Funny Girl" and became a superstar. She was booked to spend a week in Cleveland where she was guest host on "The Mike Douglas Show." It may have been her first time away from New York City. Maybe she was homesick. In any event, she was a pain in the butt during the interview. Her manager later apologized, saying other interviewers had complained. Thus I was not prepared to become a Streisand fan, but I did, though by the end of the decade my ears hurt from all the drama and I turned to singers with softer voices and simpler styles. Vikki Carr was one, Anne Murray another.
Murray is the anti-Streisand. Some complain Murray put them to sleep. But if I went through my boxes of vinyl I'd find more albums by Murray than any other female artist. Right behind her: Karen Carpenter, possessor of a wonderful pop voice, and Carly Simon. And Carole King. Without King's "Tapestry" album, no collection is complete.
In 1969, working at the Providence Journal as TV critic, I also did some movie, concert and record reviews, including an lp called "Harry." From that record on I was a huge Harry Nilsson fan, though I wish he hadn't abandoned his personal, often touching ballads (with occasional comic detours, such as "Coconut"), and turned into a self-indulgent infant who wasted most of his later years.
Nilsson fans included John Lennon and Paul McCartney; I tend to think it was Lennon who led Nilsson astray. Nilsson damaged his voice in mid-career, limiting his range in his later recordings in which the music got stranger and stranger. However, in 1973, while still in fine voice, he recorded "A LittleTouch of Schmilsson in the Night," an lp of clasic oldies ("As Time Goes By," for instance).
Much of his music sounds like something that could have been written by or for The Beatles, which made Nilsson one of a few people who occasionally was called "the fifth Beatle." While my appreciation of The Beatles may have contributed to my love of Nilsson, I think I would have found him regardless. Besides, I can't say I ever noticed other Beatles fans lining up to buy Nilsson albums. Also, I still regularly listen to Nilsson; I hardly ever play The Beatles. All you ever wanted to know about Harry Nilsson, and then some, is revealed in the documentary, "Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?).
One of Nilsson's best early albums had him singing songs written by a guy who could have been his soul mate — the previously mentioned Randy Newman.
[Note: I'm a contrarian who reflexively resists many things that quickly gain mass acceptance. I was prepared to dislike The Beatles when they began their much-ballyhooed American invasion in 1964. I was working in Akron at the time and it was during a drive to Syracuse to visit my parents that I heard The Beatles for the first time. It was possible to make that six-hour drive tuned in to one very strong Buffalo, NY, radio station, which that day played "I Want To Hold Your Hand" at least once every 30 minutes. When I entered my parents home that evening, I wasted little time telling them and my sister that I had been subjected to one of the worst songs I'd ever heard. My prediction: The Beatles would never make it in the United States.]
Okay, so I was wrong about The Beatles. I quickly realized the error of my prediction. I liked The Beach Boys almost as much and The Mamas and The Papas even more when they came along in 1966. The Mamas and The Papas had a sweet sound that wouldn't be surpassed until ABBA arrived a few years later. ABBA would become huge in my family in the late 1970s, especially with my second wife Olinda and my older daughter, Laura. ABBA was one of the few recording artists that found Olinda and I in musical agreement. Fleetwood Mac was another.
Olinda certainly didn't agree with me on two other groups that were among my favorites: Jan and Dean and The Turtles.
CONSPICUOUSLY absent from my list of favorites are such wildly popular artists as Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Bruce Springstseen, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Kinks, Cream and countless other rock groups of the period, including the entire line-up at Woodstock. Eventually I'd come to appreciate The Eagles and The Doobie Brothers, but their music was much closer to ABBA than it was to Sly and the Family Stone. Blame it on my contrarianism, plus a healthy dose of cynicism where hype in concerned. Oddly, one of my recent favorite singers is Brandi Carlile, whose voice and style contains a hint of Joplin.
Worse, as far as my wife is concerned, is how I have come to like singers — Tift Merrit, Adrienne Young and Sarah Harmer — who remind her of Joni Mitchell, object of my scorn when Olinda and I were married in 1977 and her belongings included five Mitchell albums.
We are in agreement on one singer-composer who came to our attention in the 1990s — Beth Nielsen Chapman, who somehow manages to fly under the radar, but as a singer is as good as others who have recorded her songs. One such is Martina McBride who had a hit with a Chapman composition, "Happy Girl." I love McBride, but it's more for the person she is than the songs she sings. As a former Providence Journal colleague pointed out, McBride tends to favor anthems. I thought "Wrong Baby Wrong" was a slight departure and "Teenage Daughters" an even more drastic (and entertaining) change for the singer.
I like Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland, though she's taking herself too seriously these days. Kimberly Perry of The Band Perry seems an enormously talented singer. I also like Kacey Musgraves, a country singer who may be the anti-Taylor Swift. And since Musgraves did a television show with pop star Katy Perry, I like her, too. But I'm drifting . . .
WHERE FEMALE singers were concerned back in the '70s, my heart belonged to Olivia Newton John, Linda Ronstadt and Tina Tuner, kind of a strange threesome.
I first became aware of Ronstadt via a reviewer's album sent to the Providence Journal. I was an instant fan. Turner I had seen on television; she was electric. Later I was fortunate enough to see her perform in Newport. And I confess it was my contrary nature that drew me to Newton John, who was shunned by many pop fans because she had won a Grammy in 1973 for best country female. Wearing a "country" label in those days could be a kiss of death, career-wise, though it was a label often applied to Ronstadt, as well.
In going through my old vinyl albums, one cover still leaps out. It's the 1972 self-titled debut album of a singer named Lyn Christopher, whose looks were more stunning than her voice. The album contained only one song that I liked ("Is Everybody Happy?") so I didn't read the liner notes before I put it away. Not until I researched this piece did I know Christopher's backup singers on three songs were Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons.
Who'd have thought I'd wind up with what is now considered a collectible by KISS fans?
As I cruised into the 1980s I seemed more and more like my father, different musical taste, perhaps, but the same stubborn tendency to circle my wagons around a small group of favorites, which had come to include Billy Joel, who exemplified something that was very good while it lasted — that is, musicians whose albums contained few clunkers. You knew when you bought The Beatles, Paul Simon, The Carpenters, Joel, The Doobie Brothers and many others from this period that you'd enjoy most of the songs on the album. This was a far cry from the early days when record companies stuck a couple of hits on an album with things that sounded like musicians tuning their instruments.
WHAT SNAPPED ME out of my rut was the music video. The first one I recall was "I Don't Like Mondays" by the Boomtown Rats. The song came out in 1979, I assume the video was made the same year. What I don't remember is when and how I happened to see it. It must have been before MTV began, in 1981, or, at least, before my cable system carried MTV. Anyway, I knew immediately I had seen music's future.
My guess is I saw it on the USA Network, which for sure would later introduce me to England's Kate Bush. USA went through a period when the network got a lot of mileage out of a documentary-like film that included music videos by a singer previously unknown to me. I was fascinated, not only by Bush's beauty and her wonderful voice, but by the weirdness of it all, especially a song called "Running Up That Hill."
Turns out that Kate Bush was a huge star in England and one of the most influential performers on the planet. I believe the headset microphone, now used by touring performers everywhere, was created for Kate Bush, who had to move freely about the stage during her shows. Previously singers pretty much stood in front of a microphone and sang. A dance troupe was not required. Bush was constantly on the move, sometimes looking like a singing contortionist.
I was not so intrigued by performance artist Laurie Anderson, whose shows also were presented several times on USA. Both Bush and Anderson are pretentious in the extreme, but I found Bush entertainingly so. Bush paved the way for the likes of Madonna, Pink and Lady Gaga.
So I'm an unabashed fan of music videos. I was disappointed when MTV pushed them aside for its dreary reality programming.
When I find a song I like, I make a note to purchase it online. Then I create my own albums. You probably do it, too. Well, we have to . . . because pre-packaged albums have become a poor investment. A couple of listenable songs mixed in with eight or nine clunkers, just like the old days.
But mostly I turn to music videos to rescue me during commercial breaks in the programs I've been watching on other channels. A video or two entertains me until my program resumes. That is, if I can remember what program I was watching.
I follow music today strictly through music videos, so I have no idea what songs are current and what songs have been around for years.
My musical judgment, never particularly good, has been altered by videos. Case in point: "Cheating," a song by Sara Evans, she of the beautiful, incredibly animated face that offsets a twangy voice that stands my hair on end. I never would have listened to this song on the radio, but was always delighted when the amusing video was played. Likewise, I never would have listened to "Suds in the Bucket," but the video is a classic, a lot like a movie by the Coen brothers.
I also love Brad Paisley videos and those made by Weezer. It was through their videos that Aerosmith impressed me. Pink has turned out some amazing videos.
BESIDES VIDEOS, my other musical influences are my children, though my son, with two young boys of his own, has other things on his mind these days. From daughter Laura came my appreciation of Nellie Furtado and Keith Urban. Laura, daughter Meridith and I simultaneously discovered the late Amy Winehouse and have been tsk-tsk-tsking over her fate ever since.
It was Meridith who bought cds by Poe and Fiona Apple, and I had to buy my own because I couldn't find hers. (She had a habit of scattering them all over the place, seldom returning them to their plastic container, or, at least, not to the correct container. "Looking for Poe? Her cd is in the Dave Mathews case.")
In 2000, Poe – real name Annie Decatur Danielewski - released her second album, one of my favorites, "Haunted," but the singer has done nothing since. She remains a mystery to me — I've never seen her in a video or on any television show — but I was so carried away by "Haunted" that I did something I'd never done before — I bought an extra copy and sent it to my sister, who, probably wondered what the hell I was thinking.
Alas, my wife and I finally made good our threat to re-bundle our cable television line-up, and when we did we dropped more than half of the 200 channels we had been receiving. Among the missing are the music channels, which is okay, because I've noticed during the five years or so since I first wrote this piece that my tolerance for music written by and for teenagers finally bottomed out.
In revising this piece I listened to a lot of oldies — the Guy Mitchell/Bob Merrill songs, Henry Mancini, Sauter-Finegan, etc. — and decided I don't need any more music. Nor do I need to see any more videos. If you've seen one under-dressed girl shaking her butt, you've seen them all.