Archive for the ‘Soundtracks’ Category

Saturday Evenings With Dad

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

It’s not very important, not after forty-seven years, but I’m still puzzled. For about five weeks in January and February of 1966, my dad and I went out and did stuff on Saturday evenings.

Oh, I didn’t mind at all. I liked spending time with Dad. I was twelve, and a Saturday evening with Dad was a pretty good weekend treat. And we did some fun stuff.

At least once during that stretch we spent the evening at St. Cloud State, watching the men’s basketball team – the college’s only basketball team in 1966 – take on another team from the Northern Intercollegiate Conference. The Huskies had one of the better small college teams at the time, routinely contending for the NIC championship and a spot in the national tournament of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), kind of a small college version of the better known NCAA.

We sat on the side, where our family always sat, but this time it was just Dad and me, three rows up from the Huskies’ bench, close enough to the press tables that I could listen in as a sportscaster named Peter Jay called the game for KFAM, one of the two radio stations in town. Being fascinated with radio and sportscasting, I likely greeted Mr. Jay before the game, as I often did when our whole family went to games. As always, he would have taken time to talk briefly to me, time that most surely could have been spent studying statistics, memorizing numbers or checking his connection to the radio station.

Then the game started, and I cheered for the Huskies, taking a break to get some popcorn from the concession stand at halftime. I don’t recall who St. Cloud State played that night; they likely won, as they did most nights. And it’s entirely possible that Dad and I went to two games during that five-week winter stretch, with me listening to the pep band play the “SCS Rouser” and taking my cues from the cheerleaders in their red and black uniforms. (The cheerleaders and the players – and their college-age fans, for that matter – seemed so much older than I was. It’s a shock this morning to realize that they were only ten or so years my senior. That gap now is minuscule; as I sail through my late fifties, they would now be pretty much my contemporaries.)

What else did we do on those Saturday evenings during that five-week slice of January and February in 1966? We went to at least two movies, maybe three. I think that’s why those Saturday nights linger in my mind. Just the two of us going to a basketball game at Halenbeck didn’t feel like anything out of the ordinary. That happened occasionally. But movies were a family thing (unless my sister and I went with friends). So a movie with Dad but without my mom and my sister was different.

What did we see? I recall The Sands of the Kalahari, about the survivors of a plane crash in that African desert trying to put together an escape craft from the wreckage of the plane that brought them there. I think we might have seen The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, a 1965 film based on the John le Carré novel and starring Richard Burton. And I know we saw The IPCRESS File, another spy flick from 1965, this one based on a novel by Len Deighton and starring Michael Caine. Why am I sure we saw that one? Because the music was by John Barry, whose name I knew from the James Bond films. I never got the soundtrack to The IPCRESS File, but I remember liking the music a lot.

Whatever we did on each of those Saturday nights, we found ourselves heading back to our car about nine o’clock. That was a late night out for a twelve-year-old kid in 1966. But our evenings weren’t over yet. On each of those four or five Saturday nights, after we got back to the East Side, Dad pulled the car over in the parking lot of the Ace Bar & Cafe.

We had dinner occasionally at the Ace, and I loved it when we did, as the Ace was one of the few places I ever knew that served liver pate as a part of its relish tray, and I loved liver pate on rye crackers. (I still do, though it’s more rare these days. So are relish trays, for that matter.)

But in the winter of 1966, Dad and I were walking into the Ace sometime after nine in the evening, and the character of the place was different. The dining room was nearly empty. Actually, I imagine that on a couple of those Saturday nights, Dad and I were the only customers in the dining room. The Saturday night action was in the adjacent bar, and the sound of weekend revelry came down the hall and around the corner

I’d been in the bar portion of the building only once, and that was by accident when I took a wrong turn from the restroom. Feeling very small, I’d ducked past big and loud people as I retreated to the familiar dining room. So during the winter of 1966, sitting at a table with my dad in the nearly empty dining room and hearing the sound of the drinkers in the bar made me feel a little vulnerable, a little lonely, a little bit how I often feel these days when I see the works of Edward Hopper. (Check out Nighthawks.)

However I felt, we’d order hamburgers, and Dad would have a Hamm’s beer. During our first stop at the Ace in that stretch of Saturday nights, I noticed something – a sign, an ad on the table, I don’t know what – that reminded me of a soft drink I’d recently heard of and never tried. So I ordered a Mountain Dew, and for the rest of that four or five week stretch, that was our order at the Ace: two burgers, one with raw onions, a Hamm’s beer and a Mountain Dew.

And after those four or five weeks, it stopped. Saturday nights went back to being nights spent mostly at home. Oh, we’d go see the Huskies play, but it was all four or us, not just Dad and me. And if I saw a movie, it was with the whole family or else with Rick or some kids from school.

I don’t know what was happening during that time. Did Mom and Dad decide for some reason that I needed more Dad-time? Maybe Mom needed time for herself, or with my sister, who was fifteen. Maybe Mom and Dad had their own issues – every couple has them from time to time, I know now – and my Saturday evenings with Dad were the result. I remember being puzzled, and I know that whatever I thought at the time, I came to no conclusions.

So there the minor mystery lies, forty-seven years later. I never asked Dad about it, and I have no idea what he’d have said. He was a pretty private man, my dad was, and I know very little about what he thought or felt about his life, or if he even spent time pondering how that life had unreeled for him. But I still think of him every time the RealPlayer falls on a couple of records by Frank Sinatra. I wrote a little about “Summer Wind” once, and that still brings Dad to mind.

But so, too, does one of Sinatra’s greatest performances, “It Was A Very Good Year.” If anyone was, Frank Sinatra was the voice of my father’s generation, and Dad might have found himself nodding to Sinatra’s interpretation of Ervin Drake’s song and its reflective nostalgia. So as I think about my Saturday nights with Dad during early 1966 and wonder why they happened, I find it fitting that “It Was A Very Good Year” was the No. 1 song on the Billboard Easy Listening chart forty-seven years ago this week.

‘Shadows Of The Night . . .’

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

The public fascination with vampires over the past few years has baffled me. From Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books and the films that have resulted from them through the HBO series True Blood to the recent film Dark Shadows, the vampire fetish that’s taken hold in American pop culture mystifies me. And I’ve purposely missed most of it. I watched the first episode a few years ago of True Blood and found it less than compelling, and that’s all the vampiring I’ve done.

I suppose there’s an explanation somewhere for the fascination, probably something about how pop culture reflects the times, frightening and uncertain as they are, and about the need to escape. And it’s certainly less stressful to watch horrible, scary (and occasionally romantic) films and movies (or to read the corresponding books) than it is to reflect on the very real tales of homelessness, hunger, murder, drought and flames (and all the rest) that wait for us when the entertainment is over. When we watch and read, we know it’s all fictional and temporary, unlike the worries outside our doors, and we know that we can get up and leave or turn off the TV or close the book, and thus get rid of our fears.

The same thoughts probably hold true for the recent parallel fascination with zombies. And those thoughts have held true for many years in American pop culture (as well as other pop cultures, too, as evidenced by Godzilla rising from the ashes of nuclear holocaust in Japan in the 1950s). When we worry and are frightened, our worries and fears find their ways into our books, onto the big and small screens and – to an extent – into our music.

This year’s movie isn’t, of course, the first time that the vampires of Dark Shadows have been offered to the public. The original Dark Shadows was a TV soap opera on ABC from 1966 into 1971. A year after the show went on the air, it was ripe for cancellation. Then the writers introduced the character of Barnabas Collins (played by the recently deceased Jonathan Frid), whom Wikipedia describes as a “200-year-old vampire in search of fresh blood and his lost love, Josette.”

Viewers went nuts, and the show prospered. Wikipedia says: “Dark Shadows was distinguished by its vividly melodramatic performances, atmospheric interiors, memorable storylines, numerous dramatic plot twists, unusually adventurous music score, and broad and epic cosmos of characters and heroic adventures. Now regarded as something of a classic, it continues to enjoy an intense cult following.”

And, as pop culture phenomena often do, Dark Shadows crossed over media lines. In mid-June 1969, a single titled “Quentin’s Theme” – credited to the Charles Randolph Grean Sounde – entered the Billboard Hot 100. “Quentin’s Theme” was named for Barnabas Collins’ brother (played by David Selby), and the music had been used in numerous episodes of the series, according to a Dark Shadows wiki. In August, the record peaked at No. 13 (No. 3 on the Adult Contemporary chart).

Back in June, however, shortly after the “Quentin’s Theme” single entered the chart, an episode of Dark Shadows had once again featured the same tune, this time accompanied by Selby’s recitation of the lyrics. Shortly thereafter, a single including Selby’s recitation was released. Titled “Shadows of the Night (Quentin’s Theme)” and credited to the Robert Cobert Orchestra, it entered the Billboard Hot 100’s Bubbling Under section at No. 135 on August 16, 1969, forty-three years ago today.

A week later, the record moved up to No. 125 and then it fell out of the chart, so despite the popularity of Dark Shadows, not a lot of folks were impressed. But the record did impress someone who worked at KRCB radio in Council Bluffs, Iowa. In the station’s Big 15+6 survey from August 16, 1969, the record “Shadows of the Night (Quentin’s Theme)” was one of the six singles listed (without ranking) under the Big 15.

For that, KRCB stands alone: Of the more than one hundred surveys from August 1969 available at the Airheads Radio Survey Archive, that one edition of KRCB’s Big 15+6 is the only survey to list “Shadows of the Night (Quentin’s Theme).”

Despite the single’s lack of success, however, things weren’t entirely dire on the Dark Shadows musical front: On August 23, 1969, an LP of Cobert’s music from the series entered the Billboard album chart and peaked at No. 18 in an eight-week run. And as the year neared its end, Cobert was nominated for a Grammy for his work on “Shadows of the Night (Quentin’s Theme).”

‘Like A Circle In A Spiral . . .’

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

On one of the cable channels a while back, I caught the 1999 version of The Thomas Crown Affair, a remake of a 1968 film that starred Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. The remake placed Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in those roles, and I have to say I was underwhelmed. Unfortunately, I’ve not seen the original film, so I can’t make a final judgment, but the original is currently at the top of my Netflix queue, and once it arrives, I expect the McQueen-Dunaway team to easily outpoint the Brosnan-Russo pairing.

One area in which the 1999 version will earn a victory, however, comes in the vocal performance of the very familiar theme. Titled “The Windmills of Your Mind,” the sinuous and lovely tune was – like “The Theme From The Summer of ’42” – a collaboration between French composer Michel Legrand and American lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. (The song’s French lyrics, under the title of “Les Moulins de Mon Coeur,” were by Eddy Marnay.)

In the 1968 film (or at least on the soundtrack), the vocal version was performed by Noel Harrison, son of British actor Rex Harrison. The younger Harrison had reached the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965 with the overly dramatic “A Young Girl” (No. 51) and in 1967 with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s cryptic “Suzanne” (No. 56). In 1969, a year after The Thomas Crown Affair was released, Harrison’s rendition of “The Windmills of Your Mind” went to No. 9 on the British charts. I don’t know if it was released as a single here in the U.S., but if it was, it failed to make the charts.

Maybe I just don’t care for Noel Harrison’s voice, but – like his 1966 album that included “A Young Girl” and his 1967 version of “Suzanne” – I find his version of “The Windmills of Your Mind” to be thin and not all that interesting. The version used in the 1999 remake of the film had vocals from Sting, and although it’s altogether too easy to have too much of Sting, his version of the classic theme is better than Harrison’s, if only by a little bit.

We’ll close today’s exercise with Legrand’s instrumental version from the 1968 film. Later this week, I’ll offer the French version of the tune that seems to have been the most popular, and we’ll take a look at a few of the many, many covers through the years of “The Windmills of Your Mind.” Here’s the original instrumental from the 1968 soundtrack.

‘In A Thousand Ages . . .’

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Poking around in the Billboard charts from March 23 over the years, I came across a listing in 1968 for a record by a group called the Orphans. The record, “Can’t Find The Time,” was sitting at No. 118 in the Bubbling Under portion of the chart, up from No. 122 the week before. Interesting, I thought. The song title rang faint bells, but I didn’t think it was by the Orphans.

At YouTube, I learned why I didn’t recall the Orphans. It’s because they weren’t the Orphans. The group’s name was Orpheus, and whoever transcribed my copies of the weekly Billboard charts in my files got it wrong for the entire seven weeks the record was Bubbling Under, peaking at No. 111.

The record was re-released a year later and went to No. 80. As I listened, I thought that it would have been a better story if the band had actually started out as the Orphans and then, as 1967 and 1968 came along, decided to go with something a little more hip and trippy (as Minnesota’s Underbeats did in the late 1960s when they became Gypsy). But no, the group was Orpheus from the start.

The band released a few albums during the late 1960s, and a revamped version of the band released one LP in 1971. The only other success on the singles chart came in 1969, when “Brown Arms in Houston” went to No. 91.

There have been a few covers of “Can’t Find The Time” over the years. Among them were a version by Rose Colored Glass that went to No. 54 in 1971 (which was the version I recalled, though its arrangement wasn’t all that different from the original), and a cover by Hootie & The Blowfish that was used in 2000 in the Jim Carey movie Me, Myself & Irene. Here’s the Hootie version, which doesn’t stray a lot from the original, either.

This, That & The Other

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

In the category of things I learn from readers: A frequent commenter who calls himself “porky” dropped by Tuesday after I wrote about “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis & the Playboys and the nearly simultaneous answer record by Wendy Hill.

He said that there was another version of the song out there at about the same time – Musicor put out a single by R&B singer Sammy Ambrose – and that both singles were highlighted in Billboard magazine the same week. He also said that Lewis got to perform his version of the song on Ed Sullivan’s influential television variety show. That exposure, along with Lewis’ Hollywood connections – his father was comedian Jerry Lewis – might have provided the younger Lewis’ version of the tune with a significant boost, porky said.

After reading porky’s note, I was a little annoyed with myself for not checking to see if any other versions of “This Diamond Ring” had made the charts. Muttering at myself, I wandered off to YouTube and found Ambrose’s version. It turns out that the record spent one week in January 1965 at No. 117 in the Bubbling Under section of the Billboard Hot 100. It’s a decent take on the song.

Early this month, I saw the news that on March 5, Robert Sherman had passed on, and there was a twinge. Along with his brother Richard, Robert Sherman wrote many of the songs and soundtracks for Disney’s movies. A list at Wikipedia of major film scores to his (and his brother’s, I assume) credit run from The Parent Trap in 1961 through The Tigger Movie in 2000 to an announced 2013 release titled Inkas the Ramferinkas. The Shermans also wrote what is perhaps the most annoying song in show-biz history, “It’s a Small World,” used first for the Pepsi pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York and then at rides at Disneyland in California and at other Disney parks around the world.

But that annoyance aside, the Shermans’ work resonates most loudly for me in their work for the 1964 film Mary Poppins. The duo won Academy Awards for “Best Substantially Original Score” and for Best Song, with “Chim Chim Cher-ee” winning the latter honor. For a few hours after I read of Robert Sherman’s passing, that tune and the others from Mary Poppins were roaming through my brain. Along with “Chim Chim Cher-ee” came “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly A Kite,” the mammoth nonsense tune “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and a few others.

But the song in my head that augmented the twinge of sadness I felt at Sherman’s passing was “Feed the Birds.” From the first time I heard the song in a movie theater in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1965, it’s been a favorite of mine. Here’s the scene from the movie in which Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins sings “Feed the Birds” as a lullaby to Jane and Michael Banks (played by Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber).

I think I’ve probably seen the word “dystopian” in the news more this month than I have in the 702 months of my life that came before this one. The word’s use has come, of course, in descriptions and reviews of the film The Hunger Games, which comes out tomorrow. That’s not to say that “dystopian” isn’t a perfectly accurate description of the world that Suzanne Collins has created in her trilogy of young adult novels. (The Hunger Games, 2008; Catching Fire, 2009; Mockingjay, 2010.)

The first of the three – and forgive me if you’ve read or heard this elsewhere – introduces readers to the land of Panem, a nation on the North American continent where things have gone horribly wrong. Each of twelve generally poor districts is required to send two children each year to the Capitol, where residents live lives of excess. Those twenty-four children compete in the Hunger Games, a nationally televised lethal competition that ends when only one child – the winner – survives. The series’ heroine, Katniss Everdeen, comes from District 12, the poorest of all districts, which is somewhere in what used to be called Appalachia.

I’ve read The Hunger Games and I enjoyed it. It didn’t pull me in so hard that I’ve had to go find the next two books without having breakfast, but I will likely read them soon. And I think I’ll get to the movie, though probably not for a few weeks; I’m going to give the crowds of young’uns time to thin. One thing I likely will do soon, however, is get hold of a copy of the film’s soundtrack, which I’ve been listening to bit by bit on Spotify.

Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the soundtrack – titled The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond – in fact sounds like the book felt, with strains of Appalachian music and other Americana combining with tougher and disquieting rock songs. The roster of artists on the soundtrack is pretty impressive: Neko Case, Arcade Fire, Secret Sisters, the Decembrists, Miranda Lambert, the Pistol Annies, Maroon 5, Taylor Swift, the Civil Wars, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and more.

Heather Phares of All-Music Guide likes the soundtrack, too: “The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond would be an impressive collection even if it weren’t associated with one of 2012’s most anticipated films, but the care put into the soundtrack makes it an experience that much richer for fans of the books, the movie, and any of the artists here.”

There are a few tracks that don’t seem to work. One of those is Taylor Swift’s “Eyes Open,” though I suppose it might grow on me. Her collaboration with the Civil Wars on “Safe & Sound” is, however, one of the album’s highlights. Other tracks that caught my attention positively during the first couple of listens were “Abraham’s Daughter” by Arcade Fire, “Dark Days” by the Punch Brothers, “Just A Game” by Birdy and “Come Away to the Water” by Maroon 5 featuring Rozzi Crane. Here’s that last:

A Rambling Post Seeking A Destination

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Like the real universe all around us, the musical universe continues to expand. I scan each new edition of Rolling Stone and the weekly music news in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and online, and more often than not I see unfamiliar titles released by groups and performers I do not know, many of those in genres I could not define if my beer supply depended on it.

And I explore some of those unfamiliar groups and performers, sometimes through music borrowed from friends or the library, sometimes through the many blogs I visit each week and sometimes through just taking the famed flying leap and buying a CD by a group or performer entirely new to me. The RealPlayer shows me this morning a tally of something more than 350 tracks released last year, about half of those by relatively new groups and performers. Compared to the total number of mp3s residing in the RealPlayer – something around 58,400 – that might seem a paltry amount, but it nevertheless indicates to me that I continue to explore new music.

In addition, as my recent post about the historical anthologies new to my collection indicates, I also explore music in the other direction, looking back through the clouds of the universe to see what things sounded like fifty years ago or more.

But I realized this week that I’ve set myself one more task in regards to music and listening and collecting: I’m trying to replicate my own early universe, duplicating on CD the record collection that I had sometime around 1970. That’s perhaps not surprising, as 1970 has a grip on me stronger than most years. But sometimes I’m slow in figuring out my own motivations. In December, as I was finishing off one of my occasional sprees at Amazon, finally purchasing a number of CDs that had been languishing for a while in my holding bin there, I found myself ordering John Barry’s soundtracks for the third and fourth James Bond movies, Goldfinger and Thunderball, released in 1964 and 1965, respectively.

I vaguely wondered why as I clicked the buttons. I have the original soundtracks on well-preserved vinyl. But, I thought, the CD versions are expanded, with additional tracks from the movies presented for the first time. Well, I argued with myself, hadn’t I already heard those expanded tracks via blogs? Yes, but . . .

And the argument in my head foundered there and stopped, and I clicked my way through the purchases and a few days later found the two CDs in the mail. As has always been the case, I enjoy Goldfinger more than I do Thunderball, but at odd moments in the past weeks, I will find myself humming a portion of either soundtrack. And I realized that many of my CD purchases in recent years are of music that resided on LPs kept in a cardboard box in the basement rec room on Kilian Boulevard when I was seventeen.

And that’s fine. Given the moderate epiphany of realizing my motivation, I’ll likely continue to replicate my early collection. But the arrival of the two Barry soundtracks pushed me further back, to an album I’d not owned before. Last week, I found myself picking through the Amazon website again and ordering the soundtrack to the Bond movie that came out in 1963: From Russia With Love, Barry’s first full Bond soundtrack.

And in reading the notes as the music played, I discovered the answer to a question that I’d wondered about a fair amount during my mid-1960s James Bond immersion: Why, given the iconic success of the “James Bond Theme” – which was introduced in the first Bond film, 1962’s Dr. No – did Barry write another iconic and heroic identifying theme, “007”? That second theme was introduced in From Russia With Love and, like the “James Bond Theme,” bits and pieces from it popped up on occasion in Barry’s soundtracks for the following Bond films. It’s a good piece, but why did Barry think it was needed?

And the answer was, perhaps understandably, pride. Barry had arranged the “James Bond Theme” for Dr. No, but it was written by Monty Norman. And, say the notes for the CD release of From Russia With Love (written by the fortuitously named Jeff Bond), “Barry was keen to put his own musical stamp on the series, and the result was ‘007,’ a pulsing syncopated action ostinato which included a bold, heroic trumpet theme.”

And that’s as good a reason as any, I guess. But as stirring as “007” is, it’s never entered the public consciousness the way Norman’s “James Bond Theme” has, right along with martinis shaken not stirred and the laconic words from Sean Connery: “Bond. James Bond.” I was reminded of that – and spurred to write this rambling piece – this morning. I was wandering through the Billboard Hot 100 for this week in 1982, trying to find a topic, any topic, and I came across a listing for “Spies In The Night,” a record by Manhattan Transfer that was sitting at No. 105 thirty years ago this week. It’s a record that owes a lot to Monty Norman.

A Roundabout Appreciation Of Roger Williams

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

When I graduated from high school in 1971, my sister gave me an Alvarez acoustic guitar to replace the old second-hand instrument I’d been messing around with. And not long after that, I bought a songbook called 50 Sensational Songs for Guitar. I don’t know if the songs were truly sensational, but the book – for which I paid $2.50; this was 1971 – had a good collection of songs from many styles.

There was some traditional pop (“Misty” and “Sentimental Journey”), some Top 40 pop (“Dizzy” and “Sugar, Sugar”), some Broadway (“Applause” and “Hello, Dolly”), some Jimmy Webb tunes (“Wichita Lineman,” “Didn’t We” and more), some Burt Bacharach/Hal David stuff (“Do You Know The Way To San Jose” and more) and a lot of other stuff including four Beatles’ tunes, two of which now seem to be very odd choices: “Old Brown Shoe” and “Octopus’s Garden.”

(As I look at the book now, I realize that three of the Beatles’ tunes in the book were written by George Harrison and “Octopus’s Garden” was, of course, written by Ringo Starr. No tunes by Lennon and McCartney. I’d never noticed that before.)

I don’t know that I ever played any of the tunes in the songbook on guitar. I did play my guitar a lot in those days, sitting on the little bank on the north side of our house in the spring and summer evenings, practicing my own songs as I let my hands learn what they needed to do. But I found a use for the songbook anyway.

During my first two years of college, I took five quarters of music theory, every class St. Cloud State offered in the subject. And through those courses, I realized that I could use 50 Sensational Songs for Guitar, which offered melody lines and guitar chord charts, as a fakebook, making up my own arrangements of those songs. Among the songs that I learned to play that way was a tune that had originally been titled “Les Feuillies Mortes.”

I knew the song as “Autumn Leaves,” although I can’t specifically say how I knew it. I was just aware that I’d heard the song many times as a pop standard. I certainly didn’t recall the song from 1955, when it was a No. 1 hit for pianist Roger Williams.

“Autumn Leaves” was the first of thirty chart hits or near-hits hit for Williams, who passed on last week at the age of eighty-seven. (And I should note that my version of “Autumn Leaves” hews to the melody: I have never attempted those fantastic runs Williams plays, nor will I ever do so.) I see this morning in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles that Kapp Records re-released Williams’ version of “Autumn Leaves” in 1965, which is when I might have heard the tune; if that’s the case, I was one of the few, as the record peaked at No. 92. Many of Williams’ other single releases did better, but quite a few parked themselves in the lower portions of the chart. Nevertheless, Williams had singles in or near the Billboard Hot 100 every year but one (1964) from 1955 through 1969, with one more coming in 1972.

Williams’ second-biggest hit came when his cover of John Barry’s movie theme “Born Free” went to No. 7 (No. 5 on the chart now called Adult Contemporary) in December 1966. That’s probably the Williams record I recall the most, and I know I would have heard it – and liked it – on any of the radio stations I happened to hear at the time.

Even though he was on or near the charts during the 1960s, Williams’ better years had been the late 1950s, when he placed several records in the Top 40: “Wanting You” went to No. 38 in 1955; “La Mer (Beyond the Sea)” went to No. 37 in 1956; “Almost Paradise” went to No. 15 and “Till” went to No. 22 in 1957; and “Near You” went to No. 10 in 1958. After that, beyond “Born Free,” the closest Williams got to the Top 40 was in early 1962, when his cover of “Maria” from West Side Story went to No. 48.

My favorite Roger Williams piece, however, comes from 1980, when he teamed up with John Barry to record Barry’s “Theme from Somewhere In Time,” which closes the soundtrack album (and, I think, plays under the closing credits) of one of my favorite films. The track also showed up on Williams’ 1986 album, also titled Somewhere In Time. The record isn’t listed in Top Pop Singles; if it made any chart, it would’ve been the Adult Contemporary.

I know I’ve shared “Theme from Somewhere In Time” before, but it’s good enough to share again, and it provides an appropriate way to say farewell to Roger Williams.

Finding A New Realm To Explore

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Almost three years ago, I wrote about my fascination during my adolescence and young adult years with The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s massive fantasy saga. I didn’t say then, as I might have, that no other piece of fantasy fiction had ever come close to filling the hole in my reading appetite that was left when I finished the trilogy the first time.

I tried to fill that hole, as I wrote (in a post that is available at Echoes In The Wind Archives), with regular browsing in Tolkien’s work and annual re-readings of the entire trilogy. That frequent browsing ended sometime in the mid-1970s, probably around the time I left college and entered the working world. The annual readings stopped sometimes in the 1990s, I’m guessing. (Most of the 1990s blur in my memory, primarily because not much happened.) But even as I was browsing through Tolkien’s appendices or re-reading his account of, say, Gollum’s treachery at Cirith Ungol, I was still looking for a book or series of books of fantasy fiction that could compare to Tolkien’s work.

It took years to find that rarity. During college, browsing in the St. Cloud State library and in the college bookstore, I tried first one and then another fantasy epic, but saw in all of them nothing more than pale imitations of Tolkien. In search of a fantasy fix as the years went on, I dug lightly into Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion and the various volumes titled The History of Middle-earth compiled and edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher. But those left me dissatisfied.

One set that came close was the Majipoor series of novels and stories by Robert Silverberg, which I discovered during graduate school in the early 1980s. The series begins with the 1981 novel, Lord Valentine’s Castle and now continues through nine more assorted novels, novellas and story collections, according to Wikipedia. I read the first novel avidly and the next two with mild interest, and when nothing more appeared for some time, I didn’t care. I see from Wikipedia that Silverberg re-threaded the needle in 1995, but by then, my fiction menu was pretty much drawn from historical, legal and detective novels. Will I go back to Majipoor? I think it’s unlikely.

But I have found that rare series of books that can rival Tolkien, and it’s thanks to HBO. I’ve enjoyed over the last few years the various historical series that HBO and the other premium cable networks have been airing: Rome, Deadwood, The Tudors, Mad Men and a few others. And in late winter, I began seeing promotional spots for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Intrigued, I watched the first episode of the series and was hooked. I watched it again with the Texas Gal, and she was hooked. The series became one of our few must-watch hours.

And of course, we learned that the HBO show was based on the first of five novels – with more to come – by George R.R. Martin, novels collectively called A Song of Ice and Fire. As the first season of Game of Thrones came to an end, the Texas Gal and I wondered if the quality of the writing in the books matched the quality of the story being told. So we tentatively bought the first of the five volumes, A Game of Thrones. It came to my table first, and I made short work of its nearly seven hundred pages, and as I passed the book along to the Texas Gal, I ordered the next volume, A Clash of Kings. And then, in quick succession, we ordered the next three.

As you might guess, we find Martin’s work remarkable. The world he’s created for his tales has – like Tolkien’s – a deep and rich set of histories for each of its cultures. The long game of thrones in which his characters and their cultures are engaged is enthralling, drawing me deep into the tales and keeping me there. As I read further into the books – I’m about midway through the fourth of the five, A Feast for Crows – I find my attention drawn away from other pastimes: I’m about three weeks behind on my reading of Newsweek, Time and Sports Illustrated, and a pile of about two dozen CDs sits on my desk awaiting logging into the database.

I think I was likely as engrossed in Tolkien’s work the first time I read it so many years ago, taking any spare moment available to move forward another few pages. But there are major differences. First of all, Martin writes much better than Tolkien did. Part of that, I imagine, is the era, with Tolkien’s work coming from the years that bracketed World War II, and part of it, I would guess, is because Tolkien – an academic whose real career was the study of languages and myth – came to write The Lord of the Rings at least partly as a result of his experiments in creating languages. Martin came to write A Song of Ice and Fire because he’s a writer.

And that leads to two of the other major differences I find between the two works. First, Tolkien’s work was set out in stark black or white; nearly all the characters – the notable exceptions being Boromir and Gollum – were either good or evil. There were no real enduring shades of grey in Middle-earth. In Martin’s Westeros and the surrounding lands, shades of grey are the norm. There is evil and there is good, there are evil characters and there are characters that are mostly good. But I cannot think of a character in Martin’s work who is so unfailingly and purely and unrealistically good as was Tolkien’s Aragorn. And that’s fine with me. People are flawed.

And the last of the major differences I find as a reader comes about because flawed characters are more realistic than are perfect characters. I care about Martin’s characters in a way that I never cared about Tolkien’s. Oh, I worried as I read years ago about the hobbits Frodo and Sam, anxious to know not so much if they would finish their quest – that seemed foreordained – but whether they would survive and, if so, would they remain whole? (As we know, they were both altered fundamentally by their quest, a very human fact that – as I look at it from the age of fifty-seven – is one of the more real things about Tolkien’s work.) But I also realize as I look back that I cared very little about anyone else in The Lord of the Rings. Part of that was being fourteen, but part of it was the one-dimensional nature of most of Tolkien’s characters.

Martin’s world, however, with its shades of grey and its very human characters, has made me care about nearly all the major characters I’ve met so far. I don’t like all of them; there are some I detest wholly. But I see them as human, not as the archetypes that peopled Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

So I turn the pages, anxious to know who thrives and who doesn’t. And as I do, the quality of the writing, the complexity of the tale and its characters, and my wishes and worries for those people I’ve come to know in those pages are making A Song of Ice and Fire one of the great reading experiences of my life.

To close, as always, with music, here is the opening sequence to HBO’s Game of Thrones. The main theme is by Ramin Djawadi, and it’s won the affection of the soundtrack geek who loved his time in Middle-earth and is now thrilled and terrified as he wanders through Westeros and its surrounding lands.

John Barry, 1933-2011

Monday, January 31st, 2011

I heard this morning the sad news that one of my favorite musicians – one who influenced my listening probably as much as anyone ever did – had passed on.

John Barry, composer of soundtracks for eleven of the James Bond movies and so many more films over the years, crossed over yesterday, January 30, in New York at the age of seventy-seven.

It was my fascination with James Bond in 1964 that led me to Barry’s work and then to my long-time interest in soundtracks. Those of my age or older will recall that Bondmania had about a three or four year run. It began, from what I recall, in the early 1960s with – among other things – the admission by then-President John F. Kennedy that he enjoyed Ian Fleming’s novels about James Bond, secret agent 007 of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Add the first Bond film, Dr. No, in 1962, with Sean Connery as Bond and Ursula Andress rising from the sea as Honeychile Rider, the first of the Bond girls on the screen, and the secret agent – blessed with gorgeous women, superb driving skills, an increasingly elaborate set of weapons and gadgets, and just the right double entendre at the right time – became an American sensation.

Barry didn’t score Dr. No – Monty Norman did – but Barry picked up the series with the second film, From Russia With Love, and when the third Bond film, Goldfinger, came out in 1964, the increasing fascination around me pulled me in. I turned eleven in 1964 and was too young, my parents judged, to see the movies or read Fleming’s books. But I could listen to the music. So I got the soundtrack to Goldfinger from our record club, and I sat by the stereo in the living room, listening and trying to create images and storylines that would match the sounds I heard, kind of the reverse of what Barry was doing as he created music to match the images and story of the film.

Of all the tracks on that first soundtrack, the instrumental version of the main theme remains my favorite:

By the time the fourth Bond film, Thunderball, came out in 1965, my parents had granted me permission to read Fleming’s books, and I went to see the new movie with my pal and fellow 007 enthusiast Brad. We followed that up with a double-feature of Dr. No and From Russia With Love, re-released as the nation’s attention to 007 increased. Somewhere along the line, we also saw a re-release of Goldfinger, allowing me finally to match the music with the scenes in the movie. And, of course, I bought the soundtrack to Thunderball, which included a new version of the “007” theme, first written for From Russia With Love.

Bondmania faded for the nation and for me, and although I saw some of the ensuing movies, many of which Barry scored, I bought no more Bond soundtracks after that. I did pick up Barry’s work for the film Born Free, and for many years, I noted when his name was in the credits of films I saw. But rock music and its relatives began to take more and more of my attention and my cash, and I bought few soundtracks by anyone for a few years. My early interest in Barry’s work had, however, cultivated the habit of paying close attention to the soundtrack any time I went to the movies, and during the 1980s I began to collect soundtracks again.

Fast forward a few years: During my graduate school days, I saw the film Somewhere In Time and noted that Barry had written the lush, romantic soundtrack for it, with pianist Roger Williams joining in for a turn at the main theme. I bought the LP and have since found myself watching the movie anytime I run into it on the cable channels. I mean, time travel, the luminous Jane Seymour and John Barry’s music – what more could one want?

The list of Barry’s work at All-Music Guide is amazingly long, with the earliest dated score being his work for Beat Girl in 1960 and the most recent being his score for The Dove in 2009. He earned Grammy awards for his work on Midnight Cowboy, The Cotton Club, Out Of Africa and Dances With Wolves and won five Academy Awards, earning Oscars for his scores for Born Free, The Lion In Winter, Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves and for the song “Born Free.”

As I write and think, I come to the conclusion that Barry probably had as much influence on me and my music listening as did anyone. Since the advent of the Internet, I’ve found my way to more and more of his soundtracks, work I enjoy hearing that I did not always know about when the films came out. Combine that with the attention I still pay to soundtracks and scores as I watch movies, and the effect of Barry’s work on me is huge.

I dabbled with writing some movie-type music when I was in college, at about the same time I dabbled in writing some short films. Not much came of either, except first, an awareness of the power of precise language in a script, and second – and more to the point here – a greater awareness of the difficulty of matching the mood of a scene with music. John Barry was a master at that latter task, and he deserves the lasting gratitude of anyone who loves movies or music.