Category Archives: 1950’s

Frank Sinatra – Songs for Swingin’ Lovers – Classic Music Review

It’s been a little over two years since I left Frank Sinatra all forlorn and lonesome on that empty city street well after closing time, cigarette in hand, gazing absently into a blue fog, mourning his deteriorating marriage to Ava Gardner.

My review of In the Wee Small Hours was published on Independence Day 2018, my last review of an American artist before I launched a boycott of music exports from the USA. My modest protest lasted eighteen months, and during that time, my greatest regret was leaving my readers with a one-sided impression of Sinatra. While I completely agree with the characterization offered by Terry Teachout in the documentary Sinatra: All Or Nothing at All (“He was the poet laureate of loneliness; his songs were haunted by it.”), we also hold the image of Frank Sinatra as a man who loved the high life, the guy who clowned around with his Rat Pack buddies in Vegas, the singer with one of the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen, one that radiated joy and optimism.

Sinatra was also a hopeless romantic, in constant search of agape (unconditional love). His well-documented philandering can be interpreted in two ways: one, he was a typical dude on the make who viewed women as sex objects, blessed with the fame and fortune that makes getting laid a snap; or two, he was constantly searching for the all-consuming merger of body and soul and the women in his life were simply incapable of meeting both needs over the long haul. As he crooned in his first mega-hit:

All or nothing at all
Half a love never appealed to me
If your heart never could yield to me
Then I’d rather, rather have nothing at all

And as is often the case with Frank Sinatra, both interpretations are probably 100% on the money.

Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, an album that celebrates the joys of love through Sinatra’s interpretations of songs from The Great American Songbook, was the fourth in a series of collaborations with arranger-conductor Nelson Riddle, recorded less than a year after In the Wee Small Hours. The creative synergy so obviously manifested on the darker album continues unabated here, the two albums forming a yin and yang of heartbreak and happiness. While critics agree that the two works are equal in terms of quality, In the Wee Small Hours gets the lion’s share of critical attention because it is considered “serious.” This bias towards gloom and doom is part of the human condition; Shakespeare wrote seventeen comedies, but we spent most of our time in lit class on four tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. Most of the history we study focuses on war, pestilence and disaster; what passes for news today is largely bad news; clips that describe the good things humans do are diminished by the adjectives “heartwarming” and “light” and stuck at the end of the newscast.

Though the same bias exists in music criticism (Beethoven’s symphonies are considered “superior” to Schubert’s lieder), popular music has often served as an antidote to our obsession with the bleak. Although I don’t have exact figures (though it’s possible that someone out there looking for something to do while riding out the pandemic may already be on it), I think it’s a safe bet that most of the popular songs written over the centuries are about love and that most love songs are more “I love my baby and she loves me” than “My baby left me.” The need to love and be loved is also an essential facet of the human condition, and love songs capture many of our most cherished hopes and dreams. Love brings out the best in us and in each other; automatically dismissing love songs out-of-hand as “nice,” “sweet” or “soft stuff” should be considered absolute sacrilege.

Great philosophers have a gift for the pithy statement that cuts through our mental meandering and captures the essence of the matter of hand, and one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century, holographic Vegas lounge singer Vic Fontaine (portrayed by James Darren on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), put it this way:

“It’s love, baby. Nothing better than that.”

Songs for Swingin’ Lovers is Sinatra and Riddle at the top of their game, working with the best studio musicians and recording engineers in the business, swinging with force and finesse.

Nothin’ better than that, baby.

*****

I specifically mention the engineers because the quality of the recording knocks my socks off every time I take Songs for Swingin’ Lovers for a spin. I have a similar reaction after listening to Masterpieces by Ellington, so part of my delight can be attributed to the sheer warmth of analog recording on the Ampex 200 series tape machine used for both albums. The other factor affecting my perception is a rather snooty, probably millennial attitude towards the primitive recording techniques of the time and a quickly-becoming-archaic belief that better technology means better outcomes. Any DIY software today has a thousand times the recording capability of a 50s set-up, but the little recordings of the piano-flute duets my mother and I come up with don’t come close to the quality and crystal-clarity of Songs for Swingin’ Lovers—and the Capitol engineers had to deal with a full swing band with up to thirty-six musicians (not to mention a very demanding vocalist).

As a highly informative piece I found at Sound on Sound conclusively proves, ingenuity + collaboration + persistence can overcome any and all technological limitations. Engineer John Paladino related some of the challenges facing the crew, the musicians and the arranger:

Having experimented as to where the sound really came from on each instrument, I found that miking lower — maybe two-and-a-half to three feet above the floor, shooting straight under the music stands — provided a nice fullness to the saxes. You see, on stage the sax section would play standing up, but even when they addressed the microphone full-on they still wouldn’t get the boost that the floor provided. Sometimes, that was very difficult to handle because the woodwind guys would have to play multiple instruments: after playing a sax, a guy might then have to play a flute, and we didn’t have extra mics [to accommodate different setups].

This was educational for the arranger. He had to know some of the pitfalls of recording, and that he couldn’t all of a sudden just go from a full sax section to a little old flute solo. He had to somehow work it into the arrangement so that the guy could, perhaps, quickly get up and go to another microphone. In the beginning, someone like Nelson Riddle didn’t know how to write for a recording . . . and we didn’t know how to record for a recording! We were all learning at the same time. I’d tell him, ‘Nelson, I can’t do this. You’ve got the strings here against the brass and it won’t work.’ Well, Nelson became very adept at that — he was very good — and all of the on-call arrangers got wise to that, too.

And at the center of it all, you have the man George Will described in a centennial piece on Sinatra as “unquestionably . . . the greatest singer of American songs.” Many of Mr. Paladino’s challenges had to do with Sinatra’s insistence on recording with a live band, but Sinatra also challenged everyone in the studio to achieve an exceptionally high level of craftsmanship, including and especially himself. Paladino remembered, “Frank knew his own voice pretty well, and when he wasn’t singing well, he’d walk out of a session. I’ve got to give him credit for that. In fact, I’ve got no criticism of Frank at all. His criticisms of the musicians’ playing were really top-notch, because they locked in with what he was doing. He knew what he was doing, and he knew what he wanted the band to do.”

Sure, all these guys (and the three gals in the band) were paid for their efforts, but it is clear from the result that their work was a labor of love. Sinatra would accept nothing less the best from himself and the people around him, and his high standards became their high standards.

Nothin’ better than that, baby.

*****

The album kicks off with the perfectly thematic “You Make Me Feel So Young,” a song lifted from the positively dreadful film “Three Little Girls in Blue” and transformed into a swing masterpiece by Sinatra and Riddle. The arrangement is split into three parts: the two repeated verses and a coda. After a healthy opening from the horn section, Riddle tones it down a bit to establish a relaxed, happy-go-lucky mood for the first verse. When Frank enters in marvelous voice, he mirrors that happy-go-lucky feeling so well that you can picture him with his hat at a jocular angle, hands in his pockets, a girl at his side, “Running around the meadow/Pickin’ up lots of forget-me-nots.” Prior to the start of that verse, muted horns handle the counterpoint, but right after Sinatra delivers the fanciful lines “I wanna go and bounce the moon/Just like a toy balloon,” Harry Klee takes over those duties with light responses from the flute that complete the meadow-scape with images of flittering butterflies. I feel like squealing with delight when Harry executes a perfect rising glissando to introduce the “Pickin’ up lots of forget-me-nots” line and then harmonizes with Sinatra’s voice. While all this is going on, Riddle has followed up on Sinatra’s suggestion for a continuous string background, providing a subtle watercolor wash to the overall picture. As we move forward, the attention shifts entirely to Sinatra’s delivery, phrasing and astounding breath control as he executes what turns out to be a modest crescendo. I don’t know how he managed to avoid taking a breath after belting out the line “And a wonderful fling to be flung,” where he extends the high-register note of the word “flung” and then immediately drops an octave to deliver “And even when I’m old and gray” without a pause. He then shows us he still has plenty left in the tank with his sinuous yet powerful delivery of the closing lines.

Following his lead and anticipating the denouement, the full band returns with a more muscular swing, cueing Frank to repeat the verse, albeit in a more jazzy, finger-snapping style. I can’t describe the build and crescendo of the second part any better than Will Friedman did in Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer’s Art: “Even more effective are the ways he increases the emotional, no less than the musical, pitch within a single track: “You Make Me Feel So Young” modulates from mere cheerfulness to exalted rapture so overpoweringly it could make a statue want to fall in love.” The flute then returns for the gentler coda, this time reflecting those little kisses we give our lovers when all passion is spent. Once you get past the ecstasy the song generates (if that’s possible), you might realize that the Sinatra-Riddle take on “You Make Me Feel So Young” serves as a masterclass lesson in vocal command and the art of musical arrangement.

Technically speaking, “It Happened in Monterey” doesn’t fit with the album’s theme since Frank left the girl and “threw away the key to paradise,” but Riddle and Sinatra deserve medals for transforming the patently odd original into a serviceable swing number. Of the two competing versions of the original, Ruth Etting (of “Ten Cents a Dance” fame) wins out over Paul Whiteman, but even Ruth couldn’t overcome the molasses-level slow tempo set in 3/4 time nor the lame attempt to “Mexicanize” the song with Spanish guitar. The reconstruction eliminates one of those tedious lyrical introductions that often accompanied popular numbers in the 20s and 30s (Al Jolson’s discography is full of them), replaces it with an attention-grabbing flurry of horns, strings and flute, and shifts the time signature to 4/4. The structure of the new arrangement is similar to that of “You Make Me Feel So Young,” with the harder swing in the second verse marked by sharp punctuations from the horn section and sexy bursts of solo trumpet.

The metaphor of love-as-addiction is familiar to everyone who has seen the video version of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” with the five leggy, red-lipped broads undulating to the song’s thrusting rhythm or to fans into the Huey Lewis and the News hit “I Want a New Drug.” The Songfacts entry on Palmer’s number is remiss in that it identifies the trope as a purely ’80s phenomenon, failing to note that “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” initiated this micro-genre way back in 1932. The original sort of appears in the film 42nd Street (vocalist Bebe Daniels performs a quick run-through that is interrupted by dialogue); the version that went to the top of the charts came from Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo. The Crosby version is rather stiff and formal, befitting the sexless elegance of Lombardo’s music, and though Riddle and Sinatra chose a slightly slower tempo for their rendition, the song flows nice and easy, and the combination of strings, celeste and flute in the instrumental passage turns the song into something approaching sweet and cuddly, though not cloyingly so. The images of addiction are far less harsh than Palmer’s “Your heart sweats, your body shakes,” as the only substances mentioned are coffee and tea . . . not the cigarettes and booze one would expect from Frank Sinatra, who often changed lyrics to suit his taste.

Maurice Chevalier (who sang much better in his native French) turned “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” into a hit, his version earning the honor of satirization via the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business. The lyrics caught the attention of this kinky broad due to the ambivalent expression of male submissiveness:

I’m hip that I’m the slave, you’re the queen
Still you might understand that underneath it all
You’re a maid and I am only a man

That verse only makes sense if you remember that most men are in denial about their desire to serve the superior sex. Sinatra is relatively restrained in this piece, with the band contributing the subliminal oomph. Apparently the boys in the band were more enthusiastic about the possibility of engaging with a dominatrix.

You may be familiar with the Johnny Mercer-Richard Whiting song “Too Marvelous for Words” via Jo Stafford’s version that appears in the Bogie-Bacall vehicle Dark Passage, or, if you go back aways, the runaway hit rendition by Der Bingle. I’m not all that hot on Crosby, but Jo Stafford is one of my favorite singers and I absolutely love her take on this marvelously crafted song.

That said, Frank really knocks this one out of the park. The key to Sinatra’s performance here is his remarkable gift for phrasing; as George Will put it, “For Sinatra, before a song was music, it was words alone. He studied lyrics, internalized them, then sang, making music from poems.” In the first verse, you hear Sinatra in a relaxed voice, taking time to savor the euphony of Mercer’s lyrics (“Like glorious, glamorous/And that old standby amorous”), maintaining his delight with rhyming phonemes while nailing the rare but brilliant middle-of-the-verse key change (“I mean they’re just not swell enough”). Song established, Frank takes a breather while the band launches into a hard swing featuring the trumpet section led by Harry “Sweets” Edison with two brief double bass solos adding dynamic and sonic contrast. The second bass solo cues Frank to step up to the mike, and baby, does that man know how to fly or what? His phrasing is now in perfect sync with the swing, riding the wave all the way to the thrilling crescendo where he closes his performance on a long, unbroken note at the upper reaches of his range. I like to imagine myself watching Sinatra performing “Too Marvelous for Words” in Vegas, where at the end of the performance I leap out of my seat to give him a standing ovation, rip off my bra and fling it onto the stage.

Yeah, I’m that kind of girl.

Speaking of striptease, ladies, if you’re into déshabiller érotique as a way of spicing up the foreplay, Sinatra’s version of “Old Devil Moon” would provide the perfect accompaniment. Unlike the semi-comic David Rose number that immediately jumps to climax while calling up images of sleaze and tawdriness, Sinatra and Riddle open with a playful dialogue between singer, flute, harp and trumpet, each providing an emotional response to the unexpected appearance of a beautiful vision in silky lingerie:

I looked at you and suddenly (rising harp followed by a quick trumpet burst—initial excitement)
Something in your eyes I see (flute slowly moving up the scale as the lovers make eye contact))
Soon begins bewitching me (swirling flute reflecting that delightful sense of vertigo when you shift gears from the rational to the irrational erotic urge)

Sinatra then goes full jazz singer, filling the tune with blue notes and the languorous phrasing of Billie Holiday. Meanwhile, the band responds with a combination attack featuring slow, hip-shaking rhythms, sudden punctuations and direct responses to Frank’s lyrics (the laughing trumpets that accompany the line “Wanna laugh like a loon”). And baby, they’re just warming up! The instrumental break is a striptease artist’s dream, the powerful horns providing hip-thrusting punctuation and “Sweets” Edison bringing the sass with his trumpet responses. “Old Devil Moon” is so hot that . . . well, let me borrow another phrase from Vic Fontaine. If this song doesn’t raise your temperature, “you’d better check the obituary column, because chances are you’re in it, pallie.”

“Pennies from Heaven” is another questionable thematic choice, as it’s one of those songs like “Happy Days Are Here Again,” a tune designed to sustain American optimism during the Great Depression. The core thought behind the song—you have to take the good with the bad—was already covered by Jolson in “April Showers.” What’s different is the strange use of a copper coin in a rain shower. Hey! Hail and sleet are bad enough, but a rainshower of pennies would surely leave dents in my skull! I’m also operating under the bias that I have never lived one moment in my life when a penny was worth a damn and I found it intensely annoying whenever the clerk tried to give me pennies in my change back when I lived in the States. I did some research and found that a penny wasn’t really good for much back in 1936. A candy bar, an ice cream cone, a bottle of Coke or a cup of coffee would set you back a nickel, and the only food item I could find that was close to penny value (other than the bad joke known as penny candy) was a pound of cabbage (1.5 cents). Perhaps it meant a lot more in 1936 when people had to save enough pennies to feed a poor family, but I can’t come up with a reason why people would want to be reminded of those days in a song twenty years later. It’s always nice to hear Sinatra sing, but I just can’t buy this song, no matter how many pennies you rain on my head.

“Love Is Here to Stay” was the last song George Gershwin wrote before his passing at the too-early age of 38. I have fond memories of this song because, well, it wasn’t the first song I learned on piano but it was the first song I played that earned a compliment from my piano teacher on my touch and rhythm (only took four years). It’s really a delightful song to play, filled with sixth, ninth and diminished chords and designed to be presented in “moderate swing time.” The melody is the ultimate expression of what it means to “tinkle the ivories,” a light, cascading flow of perfectly-arranged notes. Sinatra captures that feeling in his light, lilting vocal, and though it feels at times Riddle has the band swinging a little more intensely than “moderate,” it all works like a charm.

It took twenty-two takes and completely burned out the trombone player, but “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” remains one of the most exciting performances in popular music history. Astonishingly, the song was a last-minute addition to the album and Nelson Riddle had to come up with the arrangement in a hurry (in a taxicab on the way to the studio). “Go with what you know” is always a good starting point when panic sets in, and Riddle had spent quite a bit of time and energy studying the works of Maurice Ravel. Although “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” bears little rhythmic resemblance to Bolero and its 3/4 time signature with a triplet on the second beat, Riddle thought that its skeletal form of a repeating theme combined with a slow build leading to a veritable musical explosion might just work. The real challenge Riddle faced was Ravel spread his build over a period of eighteen or so minutes; Riddle had about three-and-a-half minutes to work with.

As in Bolero, Riddle established the repeating figure in the introductory passage that continues in the background once Sinatra launches his vocal (it sounds like a baritone sax, but biographer James Kaplan raised the possibility of a bass clarinet). Though the figure is not continuously repeated throughout the song (as it is in most of Ravel’s work), the figure re-emerges between verses, serves as a bridge to the instrumental break and makes a crucial reappearance in the fade. While most of the critical and popular attention justifiably focus on Sinatra’s vocal and Milt Bernhart’s once-in-a-millennium trombone solo, these tiny bits of repetition solidify the structure while giving the listener a satisfying sense of continuity and resolution. No wonder the band gave Riddle a standing ovation for this beautifully-designed arrangement.

This may be the twenty-second take but Ol’ Blue Eyes sounds completely relaxed as he savors Cole Porter’s typically clever lyrics in the first two stanzas. Though there are moments when you feel he’s ready to shift to belt-out mode in a heartbeat, he remains true to Riddle’s build, easing off at just the right moments. At this point, Riddle fast-forwards the build (in comparison to Bolero), heralding the shift by allowing a slightly truncated version of the figure to serve as a foundation while the strings build in volume and pitch; eventually the baritone sax eases out of its moorings with a more muscular sound. Right at the peak of the building tension, we hear a flurry of trumpets followed immediately by Milt Bernhart’s trombone, a sound  that defines the phrase, “let it rip.” Milt blows at a gale force level pretty much throughout the solo, but somehow manages to maintain complete control of his instrument, hitting those beautiful blue notes and moving in and out of the strong swing delivered by the band.

Given the energy, the power and the superb craftsmanship displayed by Milt and the band, someone who has never heard Frank Sinatra sing may wonder if Riddle made a serious faux pas in designing an arrangement that requires the singer to follow such a stunning display of musical talent. “How do you top that?” our naïve listener mutters to himself.

What follows provides complete justification for Sinatra’s demand for full band accompaniment as well as his insistence on complete takes. I think part of the reason that no singer has come close to matching Sinatra in the intervening years has to do with advanced recording technology that allows a singer to record a vocal several times and then let the engineers cherry-pick the best parts. While some editing and patching were indeed possible with the primitive recording tools of the ’50s, Sinatra understood that songs are holistic forms of communication and that to deliver a song in a pleasing fashion made certain demands on a singer that he gladly accepted as part of the craft. To put it simply, he wanted full artistic control over his work and the opportunity to capture the feeling of a live performance. To accomplish that, he needed to draw on the energy of a full band to replicate the stage experience.

Sinatra’s delivery of the verses leaned more towards the tender and romantic; in the thrilling final chorus he sounds like a man who has experienced a revelation. Though his excitement shines through with absolute clarity, he never comes close to losing command of the song. He delivers the first three lines in a tone of budding excitement, then makes a crucial change in the lyrics: “In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night/And repeats, how it yells in my ear.” He then shifts to full belt-out mode, adding lyrics that bring the narrative closer to conversational speech while adding some terribly exciting rhythmic variation to his vocal:

Don’t you know, little fool, you never can win
Why not use your mentality, step up, wake up to reality?
But each time that I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop just before I begin

The music stops briefly on “begin,” allowing Sinatra to flip back to warm-and-tender as he delivers the closing lines:

Cause I’ve got you under my skin
Yes, I’ve got you under my skin

I get the chills so many times during the final chorus that when I finally melt like butter to those closing lines, part of me feels like crying in gratitude. No, it doesn’t get any better than that.

After the positively orgasmic experience of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” we need something a bit less taxing and the Van Heusen-Mercer composition “I Thought About You” fills the bill nicely. The hit version featured Mildred Bailey singing for Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, and I think Riddle’s decision to downplay the clarinet and pump up the horn section was a good call—you can’t top Benny Goodman unless you’re Artie Shaw. It’s followed by “We’ll Be Together Again,” the only performance on the album that doesn’t move my needle . . . I don’t know if it’s the song, the arrangement or Frank’s approach, but it doesn’t seem to be a particularly good showcase for Sinatra’s talents.

I’m not exactly sure why Sinatra chose to record a highly sanitized version of “Makin’ Whoopee,” the 1928 number made justifiably famous by Eddie Cantor. Cantor’s version is much more suggestive, maybe one step away from explicit. Sinatra’s version describes a man who is pussy-whipped; Cantor’s a man who’s cheating on his wife and eventually has to pay up in divorce court. Here’s a comparison of just the first two verses:

Eddie Cantor:

Another bride,
Another groom,
The countryside is all in bloom

The flowers and treezes, the birds and beezes are making whoopee

The chorus sings, “Here comes the bride.”
Another victim is by her side.
He’s lost his reason cause it’s the season
For making whoopee.

Frank Sinatra:

Another bride, another June
Another sunny honeymoon
Another season, another reason
For makin’ whoopee

A lot of shoes, a lot of rice
The groom is nervous, he answers twice
It’s really killin’ that he’s so willin’
To make whoopee

I hate to say this, but Sinatra’s version qualifies as (ugh) “cute.” A line like “The groom is nervous, he answers twice” is a bit of dialogue that scarcely qualifies for a titter on the laugh track. In contrast to the tepid lyrics, the band is on fire, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for Frank’s curiously missing libido; nonetheless, his delivery is as flawless as ever. Sinatra also plays it safe on the following track, “Swingin’ Down the Lane,” and once again, the band brings the fire with some seriously hot horn work.

There’s nothing like a sprightly Cole Porter tune to get the blood pumping, but I would argue that the 1934 original featuring Ramona Davies for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra was over-the-top sprightly with its herky-jerky high-speed tempo. Sinatra and Riddle executed a full rebuild on this one, dispensing with the oh-so 30s introduction, ridding the lyrics of era-specific references (FDR, Mae West, Vanderbilts and Whitneys), and, most importantly, reducing the tempo and smoothing out the rhythm (an approach Ella Fitzgerald would embrace a year later on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook). The reconstruction of the beat into something more foundational gives the band lots of room to add the punctuation that transforms the song into a hot swing number in the second go-round, inspiring Sinatra to yet another thrilling finish.

I also like what they did with the lyrics. Combined with Sinatra’s perfectly clear enunciation, the re-arrangement gives the listener a better opportunity to appreciate the witticisms that made the cut:

The world has gone mad today and good’s bad today
And black’s white today and day’s night today
When most guys today that women prize today
Are just silly gigolos

I agree with most of the cuts save one—I wish they would have found room for “When ev’ry night the set that’s smart is intruding in nudist parties in studios.” While the editing is consistent with the sanitization of “Makin’ Whoopee,” I’m now very curious to find out if the upper crust really and truly humped their way through the Great Depression, knifing their way through the bread lines to arrive on time for the orgies, the bastards.

Songs for Swingin’ Lovers closes with “How About You?” originally performed as a duet by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in the film Babes on Broadway. The piece follows the dominant format used in the album, with a gentler first go-round followed by a swingin’ finish and fade. Riddle again finds a place for the celeste in that sweet first section; by contrast, the second section is full band on fire with Frank happily riding the waves. What I love most about the song is Sinatra’s plunge into the lowest part of his register on the parting words, “How about you?” I can picture him lifting his head up after nailing that line with his big, beautiful smile lighting up the studio.

Songs for Swingin’ Lovers remains an exhilarating experience sixty-three years after its release . . . but I have to admit it left me feeling more than a bit sad. The craftsmanship demonstrated by Sinatra, Riddle, the band members and the production team has been sorely missing from the vast majority of popular music released in this century. Auto-tune can make a shitty singer seem like a diva; this song is indistinguishable from that song; drummers are becoming obsolete. Society has devalued the craftsperson, whether it’s the jazz musician who toils in obscurity or the people who struggle to make a living working with their hands. When I lived in the States, I remember my astonishment that software engineers were commonly paid in six figures to produce products that never fail to disappoint the user. The visual arts have become portfolio investments; the best-seller lists are filled with tell-alls and celebrities with ghost-writers; and yes, music has become a commodity, screwing music creators in the process. I don’t think a person can be nostalgic about an era she never lived through, but I’d give anything to live in a world filled with Sinatras, Riddles, Milt Bernharts and John Paladinos—people who really cared about, respected and cherished the opportunity to make great and timeless music.

Elmore James – Shake Your Moneymaker: The Best of the Fire Sessions – Classic Music Review

I am temporarily suspending my boycott of American music for one day, for two very good reasons:

  • I wanted to acknowledge the ray of hope ignited by Nancy Pelosi. My former congresswoman finally got off her bony little ass and kick-started the painfully long-overdue impeachment process of he-who-shall-not-be-named.
  • But just like he-who-shall-not-be-named . . . I was BAITED BY A TWEET!

My response was succinct and immediate (accounting for the time difference):

Though I clearly and unashamedly state on the blog’s front page that my top priorities in life are sex and music (with baseball now a distant third), the wording gives the impression that I view sex and music as separate and distinct experiences. It’s more accurate to describe the relationship as partially symbiotic: I can enjoy music that doesn’t ignite my libido, but I can’t imagine fucking without music. While the origins of this inter-dependency probably lie in not wanting my parents to hear the grunts, groans and cries of delight emanating from my bedroom when I was fucking boys and girls in my teens (not that they would have given a shit), I eventually learned that certain kinds of music can add tension, drama and color to the sexual experience. This is particularly true in BDSM, where lengthy scenes integrating foreplay and various forms of orgasmic stimulation are the norm. I love to make my entrance to music, to pose suggestively to music and get my rocks off while the music is throbbing in the background, mirroring the throbbing of the bodies engaged in the act.

Most of the music I use in a scene is kick-ass rock, jazz, samba, R&B, soul and Chicago blues—music that makes your hips grind, music with attitude. And no single artist appears more often on my fuck playlists than Elmore James, a man who had attitude down pat.

It’s stunning that we still lack a full-blown biography of the man who influenced a generation of rock and blues guitarists, but from the bits and pieces in encyclopedia entries, we can conclude Elmore James was an introvert, rather bashful type who only emerged from his shell when he had a guitar in hand and a microphone close to his lips. Introversion is one of those good things/bad things, for while introverts tend to have an exceptional ability to concentrate that allows them to explore a given field in depth, they also tend to keep many thoughts and feelings to themselves, building up a huge amount of pressure in the inner boiler that often manifests itself in physical breakdowns. Elmore James was diagnosed with heart disease in 1957 at the age of thirty-nine; six years later he was dead at the age of forty-five, having ignored the doctor’s advice to cut down on his drinking and chill out.

You might say, “Gee, if only Elmore had taken care of himself, he could have lived to a ripe old age.” To which I respond, “Yeah, but he wouldn’t have been Elmore James.” The introverted intensity that defined his life and manifested itself with crystal clarity through his music may have killed him, but had he become a frightened middle-aged musician trying to hang on for dear life, we’d remember Elmore James as someone who lived way past his prime rather than a guy who left it all on the playing field.

The thought process that led Elmore James to attach a pickup to a Kay dreadnought guitar with high action and then opt to fingerpick in order to achieve the fat, raunchy sound he wanted is not available to us, but it clearly marks him as a man who refused to be stopped in the pursuit of the sound he wanted to achieve. Slide players back in Elmore’s day couldn’t go to Sweetwater.com, read the online guide “How to Choose the Right Guitar Slide for You” and then select from a wide range of state-of-the-art slides in glass, brass and porcelain. Well, when you ain’t got nothin’ you look around the house for something that will do (like those plastic bread clips you can use as an emergency guitar pick). According to Hal Leonard’s tabs-and-techniques manual, Elmore James – Master of the Electric Slide Guitar, “Elmore’s slide was the metal slip that fits over a tube in old radios and record players. These tube covers were made of light metal, often aluminum, and if one was too small for his finger, Elmore sawed it open with a hacksaw.” This sounds like a setup that most people today would associate with a desperate busker trying to earn a few pennies from the charitably-minded, but in the hands of Elmore James, it sounds like the guitar equivalent of a Stradivarius. The Kay wasn’t his only ax, but it’s the one he probably used for “most of his slide playing, both performing and recording,” and is now part of the treasure trove in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

James learned at the feet of Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson II during his youth on the Mississippi Delta, and though you can certainly hear their influence in his music (especially in the early 50’s recordings), his expression of the blues at this later stage of his career is all his own. This is particularly noticeable in his vocals, which are marked by an unusual intensity and unbridled confidence. In many of his vocals, there is an undeniable urgency in his timbre, perhaps a manifestation of all that internal pressure, or perhaps fueled by the knowledge that he was living on borrowed time. Whatever the cause, listening to Elmore James sing gives you the impression that this is a man who needs to impart a message that is essential to his very existence. As he wrote most of his material—material that strictly adheres to blues norms—the result was a fresh take on the art that demonstrated the enduring vitality of the blues.

The Best of the Fire Sessions features most of his signature songs, some in the form of remakes of earlier releases. As these are from multiple recording sessions, the album features a variety of backing musicians depending on who happened to be in town on the recording date. No matter—Elmore James was an accomplished bandleader who worked with some of the best blues musicians of the time, and when you work for a leader with a clear artistic vision, it’s a lot easier to figure out where you fit in and what you can add to the mix.

So without further ado . . .

“Shake Your Moneymaker”: The collection is bookended by two classics, but though one could argue that “Dust My Broom” should have come first due to its status as Elmore’s first hit, the album version is a remake, so the timeline hardly matters. My review of “Shake Your Moneymaker” in the Dad’s 45’s series wasn’t as much a review as an emotional-sexual reaction to both the orgasmic experience of finding the record in his collection and the orgasmic experience of the song itself. “I had been planning to do a full review of Elmore James’ The Best of the Fire Sessions, but every time I started to write it, it sounded more like porn than a music review,” I wrote, and my commentary on the song suffered from trying to write in bitch-in-heat mode.

What is unique about Elmore’s vocal approach to this song is his restraint, eschewing the gravelly belt-out approach featured in many of his classics. He sounds cool and collected, like a man sitting in a tall, upholstered leather chair with cognac and cigar, savoring the merchandise. Although some women may find it offensive to refer to a woman’s nether regions as a “moneymaker,” the lyrics clearly indicate that Elmore was unsuccessful in fulfilling his desire to plunge his member into the honeypots and back ends of two different women. This tells me he was attempting to maintain his self-esteem by writing the whole thing off to the cynical motivation of unliberated women to trade pussy for a payoff. So while Elmore may pride himself on having the biggest dick in town, he knows he can’t compete in the financial arena, so he’s shit out of luck and headed for the (cold) showers.

The music is subtly inviting, and before long you’ll be shaking your moneymaker with abandon. Elmore uses his go-to tuning (open D); his 12th fret call-and-response bending slides are sweet and expressive. Johnny “Big Moose” Walker defies his nickname and gives us a smooth, rolling boogie on the piano, syncing perfectly with King Mose on the skins. While Jeremy Spencer’s tribute performance on Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac rocks harder, it doesn’t come close to capturing the sheer sexuality of the original.

“Look on Yonder Wall”: James modified the lyrics to this Memphis Jimmy tale of a wounded veteran returning home from WWII who shacks up with another veteran’s squeeze only to learn that hubby is on his way back to the States to reclaim his property. Not to worry: Elmore’s already made other arrangements and will gladly step aside for a fellow vet:

Your husband went to the war, and you know it was tough
I don’t know how many men he killed but I know he killed enough
Look on yonder wall and hand me down my walking came
I got me another woman, now baby, yon come your man

War does tend to throw all the usual norms out the window for a while. I hope there wasn’t a sequel featuring the hubby hunting down Elmore to “thank” him for services rendered to the missus in his absence.

James’ version is slightly more upbeat than the original, and the comparatively rare appearance of an accompanying harmonica (courtesy of Sammy Myers) gives this piece a front porch feel. I absolutely love the nimble display of Elmore’s fretboard skills in the introduction.

“The Sky Is Crying”: This is a James classic that was played at Duane Allman’s funeral, and has been covered by other luminaries such as The Yardbirds, Albert King, Little Walter, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Etta James. The debate about Elmore’s slide setup rages on, with Homesick James claiming studio accident, others claiming a different amp and Ry Cooder insisting that Elmore had abandoned the Kay setup for this recording. I think all three views have validity: it certainly isn’t his Kay guitar; James certainly could have plugged into a different amp; and the omnipresence of reverb could indicate an acoustic interaction with open space, intensifying any reverb coming through the amp. Whatever it is, it sounds fucking great—a distant, terribly lonely expression of loss. James’ lyrical imagery—“The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street”—was inspired by one of those tremendous downpours that often accompany thunderstorms in Chicago and the greater Midwest, a powerful symbol of the destructive power of loss and the consequent helplessness. Elmore’s vocal balances command and heartfelt emotion, his phrasing emphatic without crossing the line into histrionics. Here he is backed by his usual guys, The Broomdusters, and the synergy inherent in a trusting relationship shines throughout the song. The boys knew their man and his tendencies, and provide just enough backing for you to know that if they weren’t there they would be sorely missed . . . and no more. That support gives Elmore plenty of room to rip, and “The Sky Is Crying” is full of fills that absolutely knock me out. Kudos to The Broomdusters: J. T. Brown on saxophone, Johnny Jones on piano, Odie Payne on drums, and Homesick James on bass.

“Rollin’ and Tumblin'”: A blues classic recorded by a slew of artists, the Muddy Watters and Cream versions are probably the most familiar to the listening audience. James’ version is certainly more intense than Muddy’s but not over-the-top like Cream’s. The Johnny Winter version is . . . well, meh . . . and the latest rendition featuring Jeff Beck on guitar and Imogen Heap on vocals is like . . . what the fuck? Personally, I’ll take the 1925 original “Roll and Tumble Blues” by Hambone Willie Newbern for its authenticity and continue to wonder why this particular song has generated so many cover versions. Not my favorite Elmore James contribution.

“Held My Baby Last Night”: Goddamn—this is one seriously sexy breakup song. Elmore is in fine voice as he belts out this lament for a relationship on the skids, and once again The Broomdusters provide a suitable background for the emotional dynamic expressed through his vocal pleas for freedom and the heartfelt riffs delivered between lines. The drone of J. T. Brown’s saxophone establishes a mournful mood of a love gone wrong while Odie Payne’s more active drumming reinforces the stutter-stop communication that invariably accompanies separation. I like to put this one at the end of fuck playlists when my lover and I are finishing off the booze and enjoying our post-fuck cigarettes while stroking each other with messages of reassurance.

“I’m Worried”: This track from the posthumous release The Sky Is Crying is a tightly played number featuring Elmore laying out some classic blues figures and a few clever variations from the norm toward the end of the song. I think the song could have been a stronger track with The Broomdusters; alas and alack, Homesick James is pretty much on his own, surrounded by unknown studio musicians who do their bit, pick up their checks and move on. This so-so support places Elmore in the position of having to save the song, which he does with aplomb because he’s Elmore Fucking James, people!

“Done Somebody Wrong”: Powerful stuff here. A black man trying to reconcile the teachings of Christ with the cruelty-laden apartheid of Jim Crow faces a task equivalent to Sisyphus pushing that damned boulder up the hill for all eternity. The downside of having a sense of moral responsibility is that the morally responsible person develops a tendency to feel responsible for every misfortune that comes their way, particularly when frightened. Here Elmore is blaming himself for the loss of his baby, but the story is easily translatable to the African-American experience. “Man, what did I do wrong?” is a sadly pathetic question for which there is no answer because no, you didn’t do anything wrong. The syncopated two-beat-rest pattern certainly draws the listener’s interest, but Elmore’s vocal is the main attraction—a pleading, anxiety-ridden expression of the search for meaning and forgiveness.

“Fine Little Mama”: The flip side to “Done Somebody Wrong” features a nice easy mid-tempo beat, outstanding guitar work and two renditions of Elmore’s delightful groans of satisfaction: “Hmmmm-hmm.” I love to hear that sound from any man I fuck, as it’s a foreplay cue that tells me I’ve found his sweet spot with either hand or mouth. Apparently his Fine Little Mama knows exactly what to do, as confirmed in the closing verse when Elmore admits, “Well, when she start the lovin’/My love come tumblin’ down.”

Uh oh. Sounds like premature ejaculation or a guy that can’t hold back long enough to give me some deep thrust pleasure. THAT IS NOT MY IMAGE OF ELMORE JAMES. Well, she is a “red hot mama,” and hot women do have a tendency to overwhelm even the best of men, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Shit, this is turning into a porn review, but goddamnit, that’s how I respond to Elmore James.

“Anna Lee”: The b-side of the final single Elmore released in his lifetime features erotic, groaning baritone sax from Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams and smoky jazz-tinged trumpet from Danny Moore, who would go on to play with Yusef Lateef, Les McCann and Wes Montgomery. Elmore more than holds his own in the presence of these jazz musicians and the timbre of his strong and confident vocal tells us that he loved working with a larger combo and was thrilled to the expand the blues with greater sonic variation. I can’t leave the song without extending appreciation to drummer Johnny Williams, who kills the finish with an emphatic run that truly seals the deal. I have no doubt that had Elmore James lived a bit longer he would have steered his core blues arrangements towards jazz sensibilities.

“Stranger Blues”: Tampa Red had to find a way into this collection, and this modified version of one of his lesser-known songs pays suitable tribute to one of the earliest (single-string) slide players (and one of the first to use the National steel guitar). Red did a lot of what were called “hokum” songs—bawdy tunes filled with double entendres like “Tight Like That” by Ma Rainey. This song takes on a darker cast as it deals with the mass migration of African-Americans to the northern states in search of jobs during the WWII manufacturing boom. Elmore’s version opens with a riff that sounds very close to the main riff of “What’d I Say?” and soon settles into an aggressive samba-like beat enhanced by the jazz trumpet offerings of Danny Moore. The baseline story is that the narrator feels like an outcast in northern climes and decides to return to the Deep South “if I wear out 99 pairs of shoes.” You may wonder any African-American would want to return to the land of Jim Crow and the KKK, but though they didn’t have to worry too much about white terrorism up north, they experienced the more subtle and insidious forms of racism, particularly when it came to choosing a neighborhood. And for many people, there is an inexorable pull towards home, no matter how shitty a place it might have been. That paradox would give anyone the blues, and choosing to record this song at the dawn of the activist phase of the Civil Rights Movement formed a coded but clear message that Elmore James felt the sting of second-class citizenship and wanted to say something about that intolerable condition.

“Something Inside of Me”: I don’t mean to engage in a weird form of schadenfreude, but this “my baby left me” slow blues is one sexy bitch of a song. Elmore gives it everything he’s got and then some—a full-throated passionate vocal married to a cascading variety of riffs from nearly every spot on the fretboard. Some of the riffs sound like a man trying to hold it together; others go deep down the bottom strings to capture the darker thoughts of bitterness and despair; still others try to rise to the heavens but are held back by hints of dissonance. At brief moments Elmore gives the rhythm a push, indicating he is totally immersed in the overall flow of the song. An absolutely hypnotic grinder that makes you want to get oh so close to your baby.

Cigarette!

“Early One Morning”: A nice little pick-me-up (assuming you and your baby have exhausted every drop of passion) in the form of mid-tempo blues . . . until you get tired of the saxophone repeating the same fucking figure ad infinitum. Still, Elmore gives a powerful vocal performance, making the short trip more than worthwhile.

“Sunnyland”: Robert Johnson’s influence is obvious in this straight-up, don’t mess with me rollicking blues number. This was another posthumous release featuring King Mose and Big Moose Walker, a remake of a 1954 b-side (originally titled “Sunny Land”). Sunnyland, by the way, was the name of the train that Elmore’s baby used to hightail it out of town. The delightful twist in the story comes when baby writes to Elmore to say she’s coming home . . . under one condition: “Cool down papa, you better change your ways.” Like the aforementioned Mr. Johnson (who admitted he wanted to beat his woman till he got satisfied), Elmore took the first step towards toxic male recovery by admitting he’d been a fucking asshole.

“Standing at the Crossroads”: This (remake) was the A-side of the “Sunny Land” single back in its 1954 form, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it was the first concept single. Both songs deal with the uniquely masculine choice: do I beat the crap out of my unsatisfactory baby or do I move on to a hotter, more compliant babe? Elmore’s tale omits the Johnsonian pleas for assistance from a higher being, preferring to work things out for himself. I love how he leaves us hanging right there on the crossroads, clueless as to what he’s going to do next. Despite his dismissal of the lord’s assistance, Elmore sounds remarkably like a hell-fire preacher (and just as horny).

“My Bleeding Heart”: I find it unbelievable that one of Elmore James’ greatest songs wasn’t rushed into the stores as soon as the master was finished but had to wait four long years to see daylight as a posthumous release. It’s no wonder that Jimi Hendrix made several attempts to duplicate its intensity while fashioning his unique interpretation of the original, finally getting it right in the live versions. Elmore’s original is intensity squared, opening with a disarming, understated set of riffs, gradually raising the heat through a no-holds-barred vocal performance that builds to a hard-picked bending crescendo as the horns of Danny Moore and Johnny Williams cry out in parallel agony. The blues rarely gets better than this.

“Dust My Broom”: This remake of Elmore’s first big hit is a radical departure from the original, which landed somewhere between the Delta and Chi-town. The Fire remake is 100% Chicago with horns blaring, percussion thumping, and Elmore ripping it like there’s no tomorrow. The difference between the two vocals couldn’t be greater, as young Elmore was terrified of recording, and his comparatively thin voice was further hampered by a common early-fifties recording technique: direct-to-disc with everyone on the same microphone. What is special about the original is the slide guitar on overdrive with that famous repeating triplet figure simmering in vibrato and delivered machine-gun style. The remake features Elmore with his fully-matured voice, laying out the vocal with complete command. While I appreciate the inventiveness of the original, I’m forever attracted to hot-and-steamy as well as a man in total command of all his faculties, whether real or in my imagination.

The Best of the Fire Sessions is a fully engaging listening experience, whether you’re libidinially oriented, emotionally centered or a music aficionado searching for excellence. The tragic aspect of his short existence comes through clearly in his stylistic development and the late-stage jazz leanings that reveal tremendous potential, but the sheer joy of listening to a man expressing heart, soul and fire through his music moves the discussion from what could have been to oh, my fucking god, listen to what this man is laying down.

And now, back to the Brits.

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