Posts Tagged ‘Doc Severinsen’

Sometimes It’s Not So Easy

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

On occasion, my fascination with easy listening music jumps out of the speakers and bites my ears.

I was puttering at the computer yesterday, posting a note or two on Facebook, checking email, keeping an eye on the news from Ukraine and scoping out the latest rumors about the Minnesota Vikings and the upcoming NFL draft. Keeping me company was the RealPlayer, chugging along on random and offering me some current Americana, some 1960s and 1970s pop, some 1950s R&B and the occasional bit of a film soundtrack.

And then came this:

I winced and then laughed at Ray Conniff’s pretty much clueless take on “Happy Days” (found on the 1976 album TV Themes), and then I took a look to see exactly how much music I have by Ray Conniff in the files. It turns out to be 227 mp3s. That means that Conniff should have been listed in the Top 20 artists I posted a few weeks ago, coming in at No. 15, just ahead of Richie Havens. Why wasn’t he? Because some of his albums were credited to just Ray Conniff, others to Ray Conniff & The Singers, others yet to Ray Conniff & His Orchestra and so on, and that inconsistency, along with my inattention to detail that day, kept Conniff off my chart.

Why so much Conniff? Because I do love – generally – easy listening music from the 1950s through the 1970s, probably in large part because the work of Conniff and his easy listening brethren reminds me of the years of Hula Hoops and Erector sets on through the years of madras shirts and eventually mood rings. So my love for the music is mostly nostalgia, but that’s a potent enough force as it is.

And then there’s the fact that some of the easy listening tunes in the stacks are pretty good music. In terms of execution, nostalgic weight and chart performance, it’s hard to beat “Theme from ‘A Summer Place’” by Percy Faith, which was No. 1 for nine weeks in 1960. There were many other decent easy listening pieces during the years of my youth; many of those are in my files; some, I have to assume, are not.

But it’s not at all difficult to find easy listening missteps like Conniff’s “Happy Days,” especially when the easy listening folks tried to translate pop-rock hits into instrumentals palatable for their audience (generally older folks, of course, as well as the unhip kids like me). And since pratfalls are often more fun than graceful success, I thought I’d wander through the collection and find some easy listening efforts that are not at all easy to listen to.

So here are a couple from 1969: A clueless take on Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” from Billy Vaughn’s Theme From Love Story and a flighty version of the Doors’ “Touch Me” from Enoch Light & The Brass Menagerie, Vol. 1.*

I could dig further for hard listening, but I won’t. Instead I’ll close with a couple of covers that are interesting takes on popular songs. On his 1970 album Doc Severinsen’s Closet, the Tonight Show band leader of the time took some chances by covering a number of intriguing titles (including a cover I once shared here of “Court of the Crimson King”). The one that caught my ear this morning was his cover of the Chairmen of the Board’s “Give Me Just A Little More Time” (into which Severinsen incorporated a quote from “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” from the group then called Chicago Transit Authority).

And as I dug around in the 121 tracks I have from dual pianists Ferrante & Teicher, I came across their cover of Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence.” Ferrante & Teicher occasionally missed the sense of a song; there are some missteps in their work. But far more often than not, at least to the ears of this easy listening fan, they succeeded in translating pop songs into their own idiom. I think they did so with “The Sound of Silence,” which was on their 1969 album Midnight Cowboy.

*I was going to make it a trio of missteps from 1969 by including Franck Pourcel’s version of Zager & Evans’ “In The Year 2525”, which seems to have first been issued on the Bolivian release En El Anno 2525, but after a couple of listens, I’m liking it.

‘And A Thousand Violins Begin To Play . . .’

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

The other afternoon, the Seventies music channel provided the background as I dozed for a while on the couch. I kept the volume low, but every once in a while, I’d wake up and listen for a moment, just to see how deeply into the decade the channel digs. (Not very deeply, generally.)

At one point, when I raised my awareness, I heard Roberta Flack: “The first time . . . ever I saw your face . . .” I went back to sleep, and as I did, a connection flickered between a movie and Flack’s record, which spent six weeks during the spring of 1972 at No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary chart (and went to No. 4 on the R&B chart). And as the song ended and the music shifted to something from 1979, I went back to sleep, remembering the connection.

The movie was Play Misty For Me, the tale of a late-night jazz disc jockey and a fan who regularly requests the classic Erroll Garner record “Misty.” Over the course of the movie, the fan goes from devoted listener to lover to demented slasher. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood – who plays the disc jockey – was the destination in late 1971 for the first date I had with my first college girlfriend. And it was the first time I’d ever heard of the classic tune “Misty.”

The tune was written by Garner (with lyrics added later by Johnny Burke) and was first recorded by the Erroll Garner Trio and released as a single in 1955:

Shortly after learning about the tune, I came across it in a guitar book I was using as a fake book for piano, and I began to put together my own arrangement. I tried several approaches, ranging from slow minimalism to a bouncy trip, sometimes decorating the tune with some added sixth and major seventh chords, but I never felt at home with the song, and quit playing it. It might have helped, I suppose, if I had ever sought out and listened to the numerous versions of the song that were available on record, but I never thought of that. And the next time I heard the song was a few years later when I heard what Doc Severinsen and Henry Mancini had done with “Misty” on their 1972 album Brass on Ivory.

That cover remains one of my favorites in a list that stretches back to a 1955 cover version by jazz pianist Johnny Costa. The list of covers offered at Second Hand Songs (not necessarily a complete list, but likely pretty good) starts there and goes on to the 2010 cover by the Sachal Studios Orchestra that includes traditional Indian instruments and a 2011 version by singer Michael Ball. Some of the more interesting names among the earlier instrumentals on that list are Toots Thielemans, King Curtis, Buddy Rich, Cal Tjader, Earl “Fatha” Hines and Stephane Grapelli.

When it comes to vocal covers, the list includes the performance that a lot of people might think is the essential version of “Misty,” the 1959 cover by Johnny Mathis that went to No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 10 on the R&B chart. Other noted names who’ve done vocal covers include Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London, Keely Smith, Frank Sinatra, Marty Robbins, Lesley Gore, Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Timi Yuro and more. Not being very conversant with current jazz, either instrumental of vocal, I don’t recognize a lot of the names post-1980.

As to charting versions on or near the Hot 100, they came from Mathis, Sarah Vaughan, Lloyd Price, the Vibrations, Richard “Groove” Holmes and Ray Stevens. Of those versions, neither Vaughan’s standard 1959 vocal (No. 106 on the pop chart) nor Price’s 1963 big band version (No. 21 pop and No. 11 R&B) grab me much.

I didn’t care much for the twangy countrified version that came from Ray Stevens in 1975; I like it better now, but it’s never going to be my favorite version of the song. Other folks liked it well enough, though, as it went to No. 14 on the pop chart, No. 3 on the country chart and No. 8 on the AC chart.

The least familiar name among those that hit the charts with “Misty” is likely that of the Vibrations, a Los Angeles R&B group. I do like the classic R&B sound they brought to “Misty” in 1965 when their version went to No. 63 on the Hot 100 and to No. 26 on the R&B chart.

Next to Stevens’ version, jazz organist Holmes’ 1966 take on the classic tune did the best on the charts, going to No. 44 in the Hot 100, to No. 12 on the R&B chart and to No. 7 on the AC chart. Not long ago, I lucked into a collection of Holmes’ work, and I’ve been digging through that. While I won’t say that his take on “Misty” is my favorite – I tend to lean to Mathis’ classic performance – it’s awfully good.