Saturday Single No. 538

April 29th, 2017

Sometime around 1969, I was wandering around Mac’s Music in downtown St. Cloud, either checking out books of solos for trumpet or piano sheet music (if it was before the autumn of that year, it was horn music I was looking for, as I hadn’t yet resumed playing piano), and I came across a bin of odd little plastic thingies. I picked one up, white with a red sort-of speaker, and took a closer look.

It was called a Hum-A-Zoo, and it was basically a kazoo in altered form. HumaZooIntrigued, I spent fifteen cents or so and began a period of (most likely) annoying my friends, my family and our neighbors by humming random tunes into the toy as I went about my mid-teen days. (It wasn’t the only odd instrument I had cluttering the knick-knack bin on my bedroom table; I also had a couple of Jew’s harps, a nose flute and a box of what were called – if my memory serves me well today – Swiss bird whistles that I bought from a vending machine at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.) But the joy of the Hum-A-Zoo faded, as it does for most gimmicks and gewgaws, and it eventually sat ignored in the bin, its pristine white in time turning an ugly shade of yellow.

I’m not sure if the Hum-A-Zoo is still with me in one of the boxes of miscellany I’ve ported around through the years. If it is, I’m not sure the little membrane would still be flexible enough to produce the buzz that a good kazoo provides. No matter. Up until last autumn, I would have put long odds on needing either a Hum-A-Zoo or its ancestor, a kazoo, for any of my musical needs or impulses.

That was when I was working with my friends Heather and Lucille to put together our show, Cabaret De Lune. And we decided that my tune “Twenty-First Century Blues” needed an instrumental break on kazoos. I didn’t even bother to look for the Hum-A-Zoo but went kazoo hunting instead. I called a couple of music stores and came up empty, but my third call, to an establishment called Bridge of Harmony, was a success: The store had two kazoos. Either Heather or Lucille stopped by and bought them, and they were then used to good effect for that small portion of our show. And I assume that Heather and Lucille took their kazoos home for whatever use they had for them.

And I now have a kazoo, a blue and gold one – just like in the picture – from the Trophy Music Company of Cleveland, Ohio.kazoo

Earlier today, I was practicing with two of my fellow musicians from our Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, preparing for the next few Sundays. This week’s program is a presentation by one of our members on Scott Joplin and his times. Earlier this week, that member asked Jane and Tom if they’d perform “I’m Certainly Living A Ragtime Life,” a tune recorded in 1913 for the Zoophone label by G.H. Elliot. (Was that the original? I’d guess so, but I’m not certain.)

So I listened this morning as Jane and Tom worked through the chords – he with his banjo and she with her guitar – and took a go at the melody. And when they finished a couple of run-throughs, I idly said, “You know what might be kind of fun in there? A kazoo.”

Tom jumped on the idea: “Oh, yeah, that would be great!” Jane nodded her head, and one of the two asked if I had a kazoo.

Well, I didn’t, but I knew where I could get one. So I joined them on the vocal and then faked a humming part as they ran through the chords for the chorus. And on the way home from practice, I stopped by Bridge of Harmony and picked up my Trophy Music kazoo. It cost a little more than four bucks, far more than my red and white Hum-A-Zoo cost me nearly fifty years ago. (Yeah, I could check the actual values with an inflation calculation, but never mind.)

I may never use the kazoo after tomorrow; the demand for a kazoo solo tends to be pretty rare, I’m sure. But that’s okay. Maybe twice in a lifetime is enough.

In any case, “I’m Certainly Living A Ragtime Life” is a fun song to do. It’s hard to make out the words in the 1913 recording, so here’s a modern version by British singer Ian Whitcomb. It’s from his 1972 album Under The Ragtime Moon (an album I must find), and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

‘Still Holding On’

April 28th, 2017

I’m still upright, but it’s been a difficult week with some health challenges and lots of family obligations, as we get Mom settled and take care of some of her business affairs. But I’m still holding on, as Chris Rea sings in this track from his 1998 album The Blue Café. (And things are not nearly so dire for me and mine as the world sounds for Rea in “I’m Still Holding On.”)

I should be here tomorrow with a Saturday Single, trying to bend the world back to what passes for normal around here. Take care!

Saturday Single No. 537

April 22nd, 2017

Today is Earth Day, and – according to the map I saw on the CBS Evening News last night – folks around a large portion of the world will be marching and mobilizing to defend and protect our environment, science, and common sense itself.

We did this almost half-a-century ago, and we made some progress in cleaning up our back yards (literal and metaphoric both), progress that in many cases is distinctly imperiled by the ham-handed actions – some already taken with many others likely yet to come – promised by the science-denying worshippers of Mammon who currently run our federal government. I guess we naively though we’d won.

We were wrong.

I’m not, however, going to turn this space into a screed about all the things that are likely to head in the wrong direction in the next few years. I’m just going to note that – as I have in the past few months – I’m going to continue to regularly call and email Minnesota’s U.S. Senators and our local U.S. Representative about matters that I believe need better thought and attention; I plan to begin doing the same with my state senator and representative on state and local matters.

Forty-seven years ago, I marched, hoping my energy and actions – combined with the energy and actions of like-minded people – would help preserve those things that needed preserving and help change those things that needed changing. Here’s my armband from back then:

Armband

These days, I write emails and make phone calls, still hoping my energy and actions – combined with the energy and actions of like-minded people – can preserve those things that need preserving and can change those things that need changing .

I find comfort in the large numbers of people who, in whatever way they choose, are working harder than ever these days for progressive causes. Turning in another direction, it’s no secret that I find comfort from day to day in music. So here, to keep to the topic at hand, is Tony Joe White’s “Ol’ Mother Earth.” It’s from his 1973 album Homemade Ice Cream, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

A Look At The Standings

April 19th, 2017

I was loading some mp3s into the RealPlayer the other evening when I began to get an error message that shut down the program. I rebooted, loaded the collection – one of the Nuggets collections of mid-1960s stuff – in smaller batches but still had problems and eventually ran into a wall. The program would not work.

I wondered if I’d hit the program’s limits with more than 90,000 mp3s, given that I was using a version of the player from a few years ago. (When I got my most recent computer eighteen months ago, I installed the newest version but found it clunky, so I went to the site oldversion.com and grabbed, well, an older version of the program.) And as I retired for the night, I wondered what to do next, assuming that I had hit a limit.

By morning, I decided that I’d go back to oldversion and check out what was available for RealPlayer and, if I found a different release that had good reviews, I’d uninstall the version I had, download the new older version and then spend a few hours reloading the mp3s in the main collection. That worked, and as a bonus, it gave me an accurate count of the mp3s in the main collection. (I’ve learned over the seventeen years I’ve been using various versions of RealPlayer that after a while, it can duplicate mp3s and its arithmetic can then get fuzzy.)

As of this morning, the total number of mp3s on the main digital shelves is 93,499. And here are the totals for the fifteen most popular artists:

Top 15

(In compiling that chart, I’ve tried to include the various pairings and combinations, both frequent and infrequent. The obvious ones are Springsteen with the E Street Band and the Sessions Band and Dylan with The Band, but there were lots of one-offs on the digital shelves, like – to give one example – Clapton on a track by Buckwheat Zydeco. I might have missed a few.)

And in that list of fifteen, we find rock, jazz, soundtracks, Danish folk/pop/rock, blues, Americana, easy listening and more. The only genre that I listen to on a regular basis that is unrepresented there, I think, is country. Still, not all of those musicians show up here regularly. Organist Jimmy Smith has been mentioned three times over the ten-year span of this blog and has been featured once. Fellow organist McGriff has been mention three times and featured twice.

That obviously means we need to listen to more jazz organ around here. We’ll start today with Jimmy Smith, to pull him even with his fellow organist McGriff and to mark his ascension into third place in the RealPlayer standings. So, chosen not quite at random but without much digging into the files, here’s Smith’s stellar version of “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts of Town.” It’s from his 1968 album Stay Loose.

Saturday Single No. 536

April 15th, 2017

So, a chance to breathe. And to rewind to two weeks ago today, when I headed over to my recently discovered barber shop, Barbers on Germain, where Russ has been clear-cutting my scalp since sometime early this year.

On the way over – not far; just across the Mississippi and west about a mile – I slid into the CD player a Time-Life anthology of hits from 1964, and as I drove, up popped Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” I knew the record, but only a little, not nearly as well as I know his 1950s work that was a major part of the foundation of rock ’n’ roll, the records like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and the rest.

And I realized – not for the first time – that I’d not offered anything here to note Chuck Berry’s passing on March 18. Over the years here, I’ve noted the passing of many artists, but I imagine that if I were to take the time to track out the subjects of those pieces, my choices of which artists’ passings to note might seem idiosyncratic. That’s likely no surprise. But to ignore Chuck Berry?

So I thought, as I headed up the sidewalk to Barbers on Germain with the strains of “You Never Can Tell” running through my head – “C’est la vie,” say the old folks. “It goes to show you never can tell.” – that I should probably do something here about the man and his music. Well, c’est la vie, indeed. The following Monday was the start of two weeks of dealing with changes in my mom’s life, as I noted here yesterday.

I’m not going to say that Chuck Berry’s music, life and passing are now old news: The edition of Rolling Stone that came into my mailbox yesterday has Berry on the cover. But I’ve read too many tributes to the man at too many blogs and online publications in the past month to have any assurances that whatever I offer here would be anything other than echoes of those pieces.

So I think back to that drive to the barber shop. As “You Never Can Tell” came out of the speaker, I thought about Dave Marsh’s comments in his 1989 ranking of the top 1,001 singles, The Heart of Rock & Soul. He ranked “You Never Can Tell” at No. 341, writing:

Chuck returned from doing time on his trumped-up Mann Act charge in 1964 as if his flow of hits had never been interrupted. The new batch included two of his finest, “Promised Land” and “You Never Can Tell.”

“You Never Can Tell” makes an obvious break with Berry’s earlier format, not so much by prominently featuring Johnny Johnson’s piano as by using it with a New Orleans-style beat.

Had prison altered Chuck’s gifts in any way? Nah, he was bitter and hostile before he went in. And still a poet when he came out. How else explain: “They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale / The coolerator was crammed with teevee dinners and ginger ale.” It may not read as great as it sings, but then, neither does the rhythm of everyday life.

So here, to catch up and to offer my respect and thanks to Chuck Berry, is “You Never Can Tell.” It went to No. 14 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

(Quotation corrected after first posting.)

A World Diminishing

April 14th, 2017

About two weeks ago, the folks who run Ridgeview Place, the assisted living center where Mom has lived since the spring of 2006, got in touch with me and my sister: It was time, they said, to talk about Mom’s care. When we met a few days later, my sister and I learned that the staff thought that Mom’s ability to be focused and present had been waning noticeably for a month or so.

That matched what my sister and I had been noticing, and we agreed that Mom would be safer – and, we hope, happier – down the hall at the memory care facility called Prairie Ridge, a secure facility on one floor with rooms that are in effect efficiency apartments. When my sister talked to our mom, Mom agreed that it was time. And we began to plan:

We rented a storage unit for the furniture and other things for which she would no longer have room. We hired a moving company. We filed changes of address for the post office, the newspapers, the telephone company and the cable company (with more, of course, to follow as mail comes in with its yellow forwarding labels). We collected boxes, large and small. We got measurements of the new apartment and began to decide what would fit where. And we began sorting.

Mom had some concerns. What would happen to her grandfather’s small table? As it turned out, my nephew took it, which pleased her. And then, would she be able to keep the writing desk? It had been her father’s, and after my aunt’s death in 1990, the desk had been brought from Lamberton in southwest Minnesota to St. Cloud. Yes, my sister and I determined, there was room for the writing desk and its attendant chair.

But there was no room for the buffet, a massive dining room chest that had been a storage place for china, a silver service, and an odd mix of necessities ever since 1957, when it had been left behind by the previous owners of the house on Kilian Boulevard. We sorted the buffet’s miscellaneous contents, and this week, the movers packed for storage all of its china, as they did the fragile pieces in the glass-fronted china closet.

A few days before the movers came, my sister and my mom were looking at the pieces in the china closet, some of which dated back to before Mom was born in 1921. (The china closet itself is likely that old, but we’re not exactly sure; Mom and Dad got the piece sometime in the 1970s, if I recall things clearly.) And my sister told Mom that if there were a few things she wanted to have with her in her new place, she needed to decide before the movers came. My sister later told me that she tried gently to make it clear to Mom that once the movers packed those things away, Mom would likely never see them again. She said Mom seemed to understand.

I brought a few things home (but just a few, having been reminded by the Texas Gal that our long-term goal is to diminish the amount of stuff in the house, not to augment it): Some household goods that we’ll use, some items that my Dad saved that we’ll likely offer to the St. Cloud State archives, and three pieces that I’ve long known would come to me – a metal candelabra I bought for my parents in Moscow, a pewter plate I bought for Mom in Flensburg, Germany, and a reindeer antler letter opener that I bought for Dad in Kiruna, Sweden.

My sister took boxes of things home to the Twin Cities suburb of Maple Grove to pass on to a local charity; I hauled boxes of books to the St. Cloud Public Library for the Friends of the Library to sell at its bookstore; more books and a deluxe Scrabble set went to the library at the assisted living center; my nephew took a set of dishes, an antique dresser, the aforementioned antique table and the buffet (which pleased and relieved Mom); and bit by bit, drawer by drawer, shelf by shelf, a lifetime’s worth of possessions was trimmed down for a third time.

We first down-sized Mom’s belongings in 2004, when she moved from Kilian Boulevard to the patio home in Waite Park, just west of St. Cloud. We did so again when she moved from the patio home into Ridgeview Place. This week came the third time. I imagine there might be a fourth, if the time ever comes for full nursing home care.

But we’ll think about that later. For now, she’s safe, and my sister said that yesterday, everything was pretty well in place and that Mom reconnected during snack time with a few other women who have previously moved from the assisted living portion of the center to the memory care unit. She was tired and a little confused, my sister said. We’ll see how she does, but she’s safe, and she’s in an environment where folks know how to take care of her.

When I told my sister two weeks ago that the staff at Ridgeview Place wanted to discuss Mom’s care, my sister was in Chicago, visiting her grandson, who will turn two this summer. The contrast, my sister said, is striking: Every couple of months, she spends time with a little boy whose world is expanding in great chunks day by day, and every three weeks or so, she visits my mother, whose world is diminishing day by day. And my sister and I stand in the middle, connecting generations heading in opposite directions.

Here’s Michael Johnson’s cover of “Old Folks,” a song written by Jacques Brel, Gérard Jouannest and Jean Corti. Mort Shuman wrote English lyrics. Mom’s lived through the first portions of the song, and she’s alone now – as she has been since 2004 – with the clock keeping her company. Johnson’s version was on his 1973 album There Is A Breeze.

Saturday Single No. 535

April 8th, 2017

With only a few days left to organize my mom’s stuff, my sister and I will be spending most of the day in Sauk Rapids today, trying to get ready for Wednesday’s move. I imagine that any appearance I make in this space through the middle of next week will be cursory.

But before I head out today, here’s an appropriately titled track: “Movin’ On” by Bobby Whitlock. It’s from his 1975 album One Of A Kind, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

Weary

April 5th, 2017

Well, life happens.

Two days ago, my sister and I learned that Mom would have to be moved to a smaller apartment, almost an efficiency, in a facility adjacent to her assisted living center where she can get a greater level of care.

That means packing, moving, downsizing, renting another storage unit and all the stuff that goes with that. I’ve spent most of the past two days running errands and making phone calls as well as trying to keep things running smoothly here at home. Sorting and packing starts tomorrow, and the move is set for a week from today, April 12.

Add some sleep issues, and I’m already weary. I’ve got most of today to refresh – although there are some lingering domestic duties – so I’m going to go do that.

In the meantime, here are Jim and Jean Glover, the musicians who recorded during the 1960s as Jim & Jean, with their version of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” from their 1966 album Changes. (Dylan’s version of the song, recorded in 1963 for his album The Times They Are a-Changin’, was eventually released in 1985 as part of the Biograph box set.)

Saturday Single No. 534

April 1st, 2017

Forty years ago today, I gathered up all the stuff I’d moved from my folks’ house over to St. Cloud’s North Side and packed it into my blue 1967 Falcon station wagon. I then moved most of that stuff to the little burg of Sauk Rapids and its Blue Skies Mobile Home Park. (Some things, like the dresser and the bed, went back to Mom and Dad’s because the small mobile home I was now renting from my friend Murl had both a built-in bed and dresser.)

The move didn’t take long. Beyond the furniture that went back to Kilian Boulevard – and I’m not entirely certain how my friend Bill and I got it there; I have vague memories of borrowing a friend’s pick-up truck – there were only a few boxes of clothes and books and miscellany and, of course, my two cats. It only took a couple of trips.

And by the end of the day, I was safely ensconced in my new digs, a 35-foot by eight-foot mobile home. Small, yes, but for one person with few possessions, it was fine. (And I had few possessions: I was still a student, in the first of two quarters aimed at adding a print journalism minor to my radio-television news major.) And it was the first place where I’d ever lived by myself, and that pleased me.

As I settled in that evening, there was, I am certain, music. I had an AM radio in the kitchen, tuned to St. Cloud’s WJON, and I had an AM/FM clock/radio on the bedroom dresser. That radio was tuned at first to KVSC, St. Cloud State’s student-run FM station and then later on – maybe in just a week or two – to WHMH-FM, a Sauk Rapids-based station that offered a format that I remember as half album rock and half hits that weren’t too far to the pop side of the pop/rock divide.

So what might Bill and I have heard on the car radio that day as we drove back and forth from St. Cloud’s North Side to Blue Skies? Here’s the Top Ten in the Billboard Hot 100 that came out the next day:

“Rich Girl” by Darryl Hall & John Oates
“Dancing Queen” by Abba
“Don’t Give Up On Us” by David Soul
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Thelma Houston
“Love Theme From ‘A Star Is Born’” by Barbra Streisand
“Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell
“The Things We Do For Love” by 10cc
“Hotel California” by the Eagles
“I’ve Got Love On My Mind” by Natalie Cole
“Maybe I’m Amazed” by Wings

Well, that’s a mix. I love “Dancing Queen,” and I like “Southern Nights” and “Hotel California” well enough. The David Soul single has an unhappy memory attached to it. The singles by Thelma Houston, 10cc, Natalie Cole and Wings don’t matter to me one way or another. I’m not fond of the Hall & Oates record. And I detest the Streisand single. (It would be during the approaching summer when I took a Streisand-loving young lady to see A Star Is Born on a date that turned into the Night of the Buttered Falcon.)

But as we often do here, we’re going to look deeper into that Hot 100 and play Games With Numbers. We’re going to look at No. 17 for 2017, No. 40 for the number of years it’s been since my move, and No. 77 for 1977.

Sitting at No. 17 forty years ago this week was Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” a single well-regarded enough here that it showed up in my long-ago Ultimate Jukebox. It was coming down the chart after peaking at No. 4.

The No. 40 record forty years ago this week was “Angel In Your Arms” by Hot, a classic cheating song by an interracial trio of women from Los Angeles that was on its way up the chart to No. 6. I recall it as an okay record.

And parked at No. 77 was “Cinderella” by Firefall. This was the group’s third foray into the Hot 100. During the summer of 1976, “Livin’ Ain’t Livin’” went to No. 42, and in the autumn, “You Are The Woman” had gone to No. 9. “Cinderella” would peak at No. 34.

Well, the Seger record – as I noted – is one of my all-time favorites, but, as I also noted, it’s been featured here before. “Angel In Your Arms” is just another record. As to “Cinderella,” well, even though I have had very little of Firefall’s work on my physical or digital shelves over the years – three LPs now gone, no CDs and just twelve mp3s – there is something in the sound of the band from Boulder, Colorado, that just feels like 1977.

Add to that the fact that over just more than ten years, I’ve mentioned the group only four times and have never featured its music here, and it’s an easy call this morning to make Firefall’s “Cinderella” today’s Saturday Single.

Wandering To A Place

March 29th, 2017

A couple of weeks ago, I made my way through The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel, which I found to be a pretty good book. It’s not so much about the production of the 1956 John Ford/John Wayne movie as about the story behind the movie.

And for Frankel, that starts in Texas in the mid-1830s, with the kidnapping by the Comanche of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was about 10 at the time. Her uncle’s increasingly obsessive search for her and her recapture and return to Anglo life after twenty-four years is obviously the seed behind Alan Le May’s 1954 novel The Searchers and the film that followed two years later.

Along the way, Frankel tells as much as can be determined – from many sources, some original – what life was like for Cynthia Ann both among the Comanche and when she was returned to Anglo life. (That latter portion of her life – only ten years – was unhappy, as she longed to return to the Comanche and her sons; she had brought a daughter with her when she was, in effect, recaptured by U.S. Cavalry and Texas volunteers.)

In his book, Frankel tells Cynthia Ann’s story; the story of one of her sons, Comanche chief Quanah Parker; Le May’s story; and the better-known stories of John Ford and John Wayne, as he winds his way to the tale of the making of the film version of The Searchers, discussing along the way the themes of obsession, racism, and fear of the other found in both the book and the movie. It’s a good read, one that was more compelling than I thought it would be when I opened it. (If there’s a section that moves a little slowly and seems to have more of Frankel’s attention than necessary, it’s Quanah Parker’s story.)

The book touched a lot of sweet spots for me: I’m a history buff, I have an interest in Native American culture (especially the Plains tribes), I’m a writer, and I’m a movie fan. And of course, I’m a music fan, so when Frankel got around to talking about the scoring of the movie, I paid attention. The score was written by Max Steiner, whose name I knew.

Steiner was one of the first composers to score a film, and Wikipedia says that he’s been called “the father of film music.” He scored more than 300 films, including Casablanca and Gone With The Wind, to name two of the more prominent. And in his discussion of Steiner’s work on The Searchers, Frankel threw out two tidbits of information that honestly made stop reading in surprise and awe: When he was a child in Vienna, Steiner studied piano under Johannes Brahms, and he later studied composition with Gustav Mahler.

Then, the other day, I saw a Facebook post about the theme to the 1959 movie A Summer Place, and I wandered off to YouTube to find versions of the theme. (I have, of course, the hit version by Percy Faith and a few more, but I wondered if there were some obscure versions I’d not heard.) And I learned that the score to the film, including the famous main theme, was composed by Max Steiner.

I found a truncated version of Steiner’s version of the main theme at YouTube, and then went wandering to Amazon and learned that a CD of the score runs more than sixty bucks, which is well out of the sanity range for me. Back at YouTube, I found a couple of videos with highlights of the score. Here’s the better of the two. It offers a good sampling of Steiner’s approach to scoring a film. (The piece at Wikipedia offers a detailed assessment of his thoughts and techniques.) And, of course, it includes what is likely Steiner’s most famous piece of music: The main theme to A Summer Place, which comes in at the four-minute mark.