Monthly Archives: December 2008

What are you doing New Year’s Eve?

That’s the question posed by the great songwriter Frank Loesser, who also wrote another holiday classic — “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

We’ve seen plenty of New Year’s Eves, and we long ago left the crazy parties behind. We’ll leave Amateur Night to the amateurs.

The only time it’ll get anywhere close to wild for us is at midnight, when we’ll stick the fireworks in the snow and fire them off.

Just three questions for you, then.

Do you like your sexy, sophisticated New Year’s tune as a solo by one of America’s great female pop singers, served up in vintage nightclub style?

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“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” Eydie Gorme, from “That Holiday Feeling!” Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, 1964. (Sorry, Steve sits this one out.)

Or as a sexy husband-and-wife duet, paying homage to that style?

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“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” Brian Setzer and Julie Reiten, from “Dig That Crazy Christmas,” the Brian Setzer Orchestra, 2004.

Or as a sizzling, sax-driven instrumental with a style all its own?

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“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” King Curtis, from “Soul Christmas,” 1968. (Recorded on Oct. 23, 1968, at Atlantic Studios in New York. That’s Duane Allman on guitar.)

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Filed under December 2008, Sounds

The last stop: 2008

I read the obits every day. I read them in my local paper, in the papers from the towns in which I grew up and in the Los Angeles Times, which has some of the best obits. I write them, too.

I wish I would have written this line. It’s from my friend Larry over at Funky 16 Corners. It was a comment on one of my posts earlier this year:

“The first thing I do almost every day is check the New York Times obit page. Therein lie all manner of stories that would otherwise be forgotten, the last stop for really interesting people.”

Looking back at 2008, these folks made their last stop. This is my list. You have yours, and vive le difference.

Lee Sherman Dreyfus, 81, Jan. 2. LSD was Wisconsin’s governor when I was starting out in the newspaper business in the late ’70s. This former speech professor always wore a red vest and had a pencil-thin mustache. He campaigned from a school bus in 1978. I once was part of a panel of journalists … or college students … or both … at which he and the other candidate appeared. I remember nothing about it. Too much LSD, perhaps.

Howard Washington, 98, Jan. 15. The security guard at the Warner Bros. Records parking lot in Los Angeles. No, Madonna, you may not park here. You neither, Prince.

Suzanne Pleshette, 70, Jan. 19. Ooooh, those looks, that sassy attitude and that sultry, smoky voice. I always had a thing for her.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, 91, Feb. 5. Meet the Beatles, expand their minds.

Charlie Ryan, 92, Feb. 16. Riding that “Hot Rod Lincoln” into legend. He wrote it. (This version by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, from “We’ve Got a Live One Here!” 1976.)

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Jeff Healey, 41, March 2. We spent a night with Healey in Memphis in the late ’80s. We were listing to his music. It got fairly drunk out.

Gloria Shayne Baker, 84, March 6. She wrote the modern Christmas classic “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

Ivan Dixon, 76, March 16. Sgt. Kincheloe and so much more.

Bob Kames, 82, April 9. You know you want to do the Chicken Dance, made famous by this Milwaukee organist.

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Al Wilson, 68, April 21. “The Snake” and “Show and Tell” and so much more.

Here then, “The Snake,” from “Searching For the Dolphins,” 1968, (available on “Searching for the Dolphins: The Complete Soul City Recordings and More, 1967-1971.”) and “Show and Tell,” from “Show and Tell,” 1973 (available on “Show & Tell: The Best of Al Wilson,” a 2004 CD release).

Dick Martin, 86, May 24. Sock it to me? Godfather of a thousand junior high catchphrases.

Earle Hagen, 88, May 26. You know all his classic TV theme songs … and “Harlem Nocturne,” too.

Harvey Korman, 81, May 29. No, it’s Hedley Lamarr! Seeing him surrender to Tim Conway was even better.

Bo Diddley, 78, June 2. “Sixteen Tons,” my ass. Remember how he pissed off Ed Sullivan? (From “Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger,” 1960.)

George Carlin, 71, June 22. My dad found him increasingly less amusing. I found him increasingly amusing. That is how fathers’ sons start to become their own men.

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Isaac Hayes, 65, Aug. 10. Imagine you are 14 and you listen to the “Shaft” soundtrack day after day. That is how a record collection starts.

Wonderful Smith, 97, Aug. 28. There was a man named Wonderful, and it was his real name. Everyone from Richard Pryor to Dave Chappelle followed in his footsteps. All this, and Spinal Tap, too.

Gilbert Moorer Jr., 67, Aug. 28. Get on up, and pay tribute to the leader of one of Milwaukee’s great soul bands of the ’60s. “Get On Up,” the Esquires, 1967, from “Get On Up: The Esquires,” a 1995 CD compilation.

Jerry Reed, 71, Sept. 1. The skinniest man I ever saw, and I watched him from backstage one night.

Don LaFontaine, 68, Sept. 1. In a world where we no longer hear his voice on movie trailers …

Norman Whitfield, 67, Sept. 16. I didn’t know his name, but his music greatly influenced the way I looked at life when I was 13.

Paul Newman, 83, Sept. 26. The essence of cool. He made a movie in our town and raced at a track in Wisconsin’s rolling hills. He drank beer. He made “Slap Shot” and “Absence of Malice.” The dressing on my Southwest salads at McDonald’s are Newman’s Own. Good enough for me.

Carmen Rocha, 77, Oct. 9. The waitress who introduced nachos to Los Angeles.

Neal Hefti, 85, Oct. 11. Give me the theme to “The Odd Couple” over the theme to “Batman.” (It’s from 1970 and from “Television’s Greatest Hits, Vol. II,” 1986, which is out of print.)

Edie Adams, 81, Oct. 15. Hey, big spender … why don’t you pick one up and smoke it some time? I’m fairly certain the slinky, sultry Miss Adams was the reason my dad smoked Muriel cigars in the ’60s.

Levi Stubbs, 72, Oct. 17. I am more a Temptations man than a Four Tops man, but I know greatness when I hear it.

Mr. Blackwell, 86, Oct. 19. How will we know who is worst dressed now that the former Richard Sylvan Selzer is gone?

Studs Terkel, 96, Oct. 31. One of America’s legendary journalists and storytellers. The voice of Chicago.

Joe Hyams, 85, Nov. 8. One of Hollywood’s great stories. A New York reporter sent west in 1951 to do a story on illegal immigrants, he did it, then was told to interview Hollywood stars if he saw any. He fell into an invitation to Humphrey Bogart’s house. Bogart offered Hyams a drink. Hyams asked for a Coke. Offended, Bogart said, “I don’t trust a journalist who doesn’t drink.” The tee-totaling Hyams told off Bogart and headed for the door. “Get back here, kid,” Bogart said, “I like you.” It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Irving Brecher, 94, Nov. 17. Another of Hollywood’s great stories. One of the funniest men you never knew. He wrote for Groucho Marx. When they met in 1938, Brecher said “Hello, Mr. Marx.” Groucho responded, “Hello? That’s supposed to be a funny line? Is this the guy who’s supposed to write our movie?” Brecher shot back. “Well, I saw you say ‘hello’ in one of your movies, and I thought it was so funny I’d steal it and use it now.” Groucho smiled, bought him lunch and they were pals forever after. The New York Times’ obit recalled that Brecher once pissed off producer Darryl F. Zanuck by saying his new movie “hadn’t been released; it had escaped.”

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Guy Peellaert, 74, Nov. 17. A Belgian pop artist and a designer of album covers, among them David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs.”

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Bob Jeter, 71, Nov. 20. He played for the Green Bay Packers, and I got his autograph when I was a kid.

Alan Gordon, 64, Nov. 22. He and Garry Bonner co-wrote “Happy Together,” a No. 1 hit for the Turtles in 1967 and one of the greatest pop songs ever. Even when done by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. (From “Fillmore East — June 1971,” 1971.)

Joern Utzon, 90, Nov. 29. The Danish architect who designed the Sydney Opera House. He never saw the finished building, having left Australia in a huff in 1966 after working there for four years and sparring with government officials over its cost.

Bettie Page, 85, Dec. 11. American cultural, fashion and sexual icon.

W. Mark Felt, 95, Dec. 18. The career FBI man was Deep Throat during Watergate. He helped Bob Woodward (and Carl Bernstein) bring down Nixon. I read “All the President’s Men” as a senior in high school, and it helped convince me — as if I needed convincing — that journalism would be my career. I always hoped I’d learn Deep Throat’s identity in my lifetime.

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Dock Ellis, 63, Dec. 19. He claimed to have thrown a no-hitter while on LSD in 1970. File under “Good story if true.”

Eartha Kitt, 81, Dec. 25. “Santa Baby,” of course, but also the best Catwoman ever.

Bernie Hamilton, 80. Dec. 30. Ah, Captain Dobey from the old “Starsky and Hutch” TV show. But did you know he spent the next 20 years producing R&B and gospel records on his Chocolate Snowman label — and even recorded a blues album?

Be sure you make one more round of last stops. Head over to the Locust St. blog, where Chris offers “Absent Friends,” and lots more tunes to accompany it.

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The Christmas mystery

It was 30 years ago tonight — Christmas night 1978 — that Bobbie Gentry performed on “The Tonight Show” and vanished into legend.

The dark-haired, sultry-voiced Mississippi native once was one of America’s hottest singers. At home in country, pop and Southern soul, she topped the charts with “Ode to Billie Joe” in 1967 (originally a B side, as our friend Larry explained a good while back at Funky 16 Corners) and was a familiar face on TV variety shows in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Watch and see what the fuss was all about. This is Bobbie Gentry singing “Fancy” on “The Johnny Cash Show” on Jan. 21, 1970. What’s not to like?

Then only 25, Gentry already was a seasoned performer.

And she was just 34 when she called it a career that Christmas night.

Since then, she’s lived in Los Angeles (maybe Atlanta, maybe Las Vegas) and, perhaps, raised a son … or worked behind the scenes in TV production … or ran a farm … or became a playwright. No one knows for sure.

“She just disappeared,” the equally quirky singer Lucinda Williams — for whom Gentry has been an inspiration — reportedly once told Rolling Stone. “I heard she married some rich guy in Vegas. It just adds to the mystery of it all.”

So, 30 years on, let’s listen to some Bobbie Gentry and hear what all the fuss was about.

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“Mississippi Delta,” Bobbie Gentry, from “Ode to Billie Joe,” 1967. The album link is to a 2-on-1 CD that includes “Touch ‘Em With Love,” Gentry’s 1969 album.

This was the A side to “Ode to Billie Joe,” which unexpectedly became the hit. Our friend Larry at Funky 16 Corners explains it all.

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“Okolona River Bottom Band,” Bobbie Gentry, from “The Delta Sweete,” 1968. The album link is to a 2-on-1 CD that includes “Local Gentry,” her second 1968 album.

This was the followup single to “Ode to Billie Joe.” It peaked at No. 54 on the U.S. charts.

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“Eleanor Rigby,” Bobbie Gentry, from “Local Gentry,” 1968. The album link is to a 2-on-1 CD that includes “The Delta Sweete,” Gentry’s first 1968 album.

Gentry did an increasing number of pop covers as her career progressed. This one is particularly suited to her earthy, downbeat style.

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“Fancy” and “Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em and Forget ‘Em,” Bobbie Gentry, from “Fancy,” 1970. The album link is to a 2-on-1 CD that includes “Patchwork,” Gentry’s 1971 album.

Gentry’s songs often portrayed strong women. These two certainly do. They’re from the last album that charted for Gentry, reaching No. 34 among U.S. country albums and No. 96 among the Top 200 U.S. albums.

And over at our other blog …

The Midnight Tracker offers these tunes and the rest of Side 1 from “Fancy.”

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Three under the tree, Day 28

And so we come to Christmas Eve, to the end of our series for another year.

The three under the tree tonight have a valedictory feel to them.

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“Silent Night,” the Blackhearts and special guests, from “A Blackheart Christmas,” 2008.

This is one of the songs that will define 2008. Listen to the special guests, and you’ll know why.

(This record is a compilation of Christmas tunes by artists on Blackheart Records label. It includes Joan Jett’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” originally released on early vinyl pressings of “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” in 1981.)

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“The Silent Night Sermon,” Robert Banks with the Golden Voices Ensemble, from “Christmas Gospelodium,” 1967. It’s out of print and apparently rare.

From the liner notes:

“(‘Silent Night’) is not generally used in gospel singing, except when it is treated as the background to a sermon. The performance here, wherein Robert Banks throws the lines to the choir, is exceptionally soulful.”

Indeed.

As the night grows increasingly quiet, as Christmas draws near …

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“The Night Before Christmas (A Poem),” Louis Armstrong, 1971,  from “The Stash Christmas Album,” 1985. It’s out of print, but you can find the original 7-inch single (Continental CR 1001) on eBay.

No music. Just Satchmo’s warm, gravelly voice and Clement Clarke Moore’s classic poem.

Armstrong cut this in the den at his home in Corona, Queens, New York, on Feb. 26, 1971. It was the last thing he ever recorded. Satchmo was 69 when he died that summer.

“But I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, ‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night. A very good night.’

“And that goes for Satchmo, too. (Laughs softly.) Thank you.”

After all the gifts are opened, stop back on Christmas Day. We’ll be returning to our regular programming here at AM, Then FM.

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Three under the tree, Day 27

“O Holy Night,” written in 1847 by French composer Adolphe Adam, is one of those Christmas standards that frequently receives a reverent treatment, yet all too often a treatment that turns an epic sonic blast.

Tonight, we find three under the tree that treat “O Holy Night” a little differently, a little more downbeat.

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“O Holy Night,” Easy Anthems, from “Hark!” 2007.

Remarkably, this record was a free download last year, and I was delighted to have found it. Easy Anthems is an Americana group led by the Long Island husband-and-wife team of Philip A. Jimenez and Vanesa Alvero Jimenez. Theirs is a laid-back version featuring Vanesa’s strong, soulful vocals, Philip’s gentle guitar and Paul Loren’s Wurlitzer electric piano.

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“O Night Divine,” Melissa Etheridge, from “A New Thought For Christmas,” 2008.

This is the only new Christmas record I bought this year. It has its moments, and this is one. While not “O Holy Night,” this tune incorporates bits of it. You hear it in Philip Sayce’s long, sizzling guitar solo, which starts about a minute in. You hear it again about two-thirds of the way through, when Etheridge winds up her scorching vocals. It’s different — music from long ago, lyrics for today — but I like it.

“O Holy Night,” Irma Thomas, from “A Creole Christmas,” 1990. It’s out of print and much in demand.

Last year, our fellow music blogger Jason Hare’s Mellowmas series (since moved to Popdose) offered Jim Nabors’ take on this tune. In the comments was this tip from a reader named Rob:

“For a GREAT take on this song, check out Irma Thomas’ version on a compilation called ‘A Creole Christmas.’ Goosebump-inducing stuff.”

Rob was correct, and we posted it over here at AM, Then FM.

Reverent but thrilling, this version is done as a New Orleans dirge with some terrific Hammond organ. Still the best.

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Three under the tree, Day 26

As promised, we’ve put three under the tree to fulfill some of your requests.

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“Santa Baby,” Eartha Kitt, 1953, available on the “Elf” soundtrack, 2003. As are a bunch of other swell Christmas tunes by Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Brian Setzer, Leon Redbone and Zooey Deschanel. A delightful collection. “Santa Baby” also is available on “Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits: 1935-1954.”

We got more than one request for this naughty Christmas tune, including one from the lovely Janet. We’re celebrating our 30th Christmas together.

Update, three days later: Eartha Kitt died on Christmas Day. She was 81. Here is a wonderful story about lunch with Miss Kitt from the Washington Post, an appreciation of her life from the Chicago Tribune and a photo gallery from the Los Angeles Times.

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“I Believe In Father Christmas,” Emerson, Lake and Palmer, 1974, from “A Rock ‘N” Roll Christmas,” 1995. It’s out of print but is available digitally.

Our old pal Hose asked for this one. I’m not sure whether this is Greg Lake’s original solo version or a subsequent version with the band. It’s billed this way on the CD, so there you go.

The Hose also asked for “Deck The Halls With Boston Charlie,” a jazz spoof done by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross in the late ’50s or early ’60s. I don’t have it, but our friends over at Star Maker Machine posted that last week.

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“Merry Christmas Baby,” Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, 1980, from “A Very Special Christmas,” 1987. Recorded live on Dec. 31, 1980, at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.

Our old pal Doug earlier requested “Christmas In Hollis” by Run-D.M.C. from this album, which we delivered on Day 19. He also requested “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by U2 from this album. Doug explains:

“You probably are aware that all of these songs are found on Vol. 1 of ‘A Very Special Christmas,’ the first in the series (benefitting) Special Olympics. It is played each and every Christmas morning in (our) household when opening presents.”

Well, for a tradition like that, I think we can grant Doug a second request.

Speaking of “A Very Special Christmas” — an album I got from my sister-in-law, who teaches physical education for special education kids — it’s become the standard aganst which all contemporary Christmas rock compilations are judged. Few measure up. Certainly not any in the rest of the “Very Special Christmas” series, even though they have their moments.

This is the fourth time this year we’ve hit up “A Very Special Christmas” for a tune. We easily could have grabbed three or four more tunes. Yeah, you hear it a lot, but it’s that good.

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Three under the tree, Day 25

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Christmas is for children. Sometimes, those children never really grow up. Guilty as charged. Today, our three under the tree are children’s songs.

That’s me in the photo above. It’s Christmas 1959, and I’m sitting in the living room of our house in Ironwood, Michigan. I was 2 going on 3. I remember that Tickle Bee game. Best game ever, at least for a preschooler.

Look closely on the blackboard under the tree, you’ll see “Kangaroo” written on it. As in Captain Kangaroo. I came along before Mister Rogers, before “Sesame Street, so Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans were my guys.

The Captain (Bob Keeshan) and Mr. Green Jeans (Hugh “Lumpy” Brannum) set up both of these tunes.

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“Sleigh Ride,” Captain Kangaroo and the Golden Sandpipers, from “Merry, Merry Christmas,” 1960.

That sounds like Thurl Ravenscroft — who sang “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and was the voice of Tony the Tiger — on the bass parts. (However, Mark thinks otherwise. He should know. He’s posted a bunch of Thurl’s tunes at over at his fine blog, She’ll Grow Back.)

I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas,” Captain Kangaroo, from “Merry, Merry Christmas,” 1960.

The Captain wasn’t much of a singer, but kids didn’t care. Written by John Rox, this tune was a hit for 10-year-old Gayla Peevey in 1953.

Then, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, we lived in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. There, we watched Milwaukee TV. One station — WITI, Channel 6 —  had Albert the Alley Cat.

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Albert the Alley Cat was a puppet voiced by Jack DuBlon, a legend in Milwaukee TV. He appeared on Channel 6’s children’s shows.

Albert the Alley Cat — who sounded as if he came from Brooklyn — also did the weather on Channel 6’s newscasts from 1965 to 1981. Actually, he was the weather man’s sidekick.

One year, DuBlon recorded a couple of Christmas songs as Albert the Alley Cat. He did so with the help of George Busateri, a Milwaukee musician who shares this story — and the tunes — on his web site.

“When I was first starting out in the music business, I had a gig as the music director of a morning show at WITI-TV6 in Milwaukee. The show was called “Funny Farm.” … It featured (hostess) Barbara Becker and the Jack DuBlon puppets. His star puppet was named “Albert the Alley Cat.” Al was a BIG star in Milwaukee. …

I landed the gig because of a couple of Christmas songs I co-wrote with a terrific talent by the name of Jimmy C. Hall. Jack DuBlon came in our studio one day, and wanted to record a couple of Christmas standards. We talked him out of that and wrote and recorded … two original songs. The project took about two days. I played all of the instruments and the choir consisted of studio staff and their wives.”

An unexpected and delightful surprise while putting together this post was getting a chance to chat with George Busateri. He recalls that he cut the Christmas songs with DuBlon in the early ’70s. He wrote the music and Hall wrote the lyrics.

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“Santa’s Helper,” Albert the Alley Cat, 1971, from the Key Records 7-inch single K1002. It’s out of print, but I found a copy on eBay. If memory serves, the other characters in this little story are Rocky the Gorilla and Alice the Alligator. DuBlon voiced at least a dozen characters.

If you want the flip side — “Send Me A Bit Of Home For Christmas” — head over to Busateri’s site.

One last thought: I fully realize almost no one may dig these tunes. However, there once were kids who did. That’s what drives the holidays — that kind of spirited innocence. Listen through their ears and capture a little bit of it if you can.

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Filed under Christmas music, December 2008, Sounds