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Bob Dylan has drawn a lot of criticism for his decision to sit out the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm next week. Just today it was reported he also sat out a meeting with President Obama and other American laureates.

One can never predict what Bob Dylan is going to do, which has endeared him to some fans and alienated him from others. Whether its a a Christmas album (which we will enthusiastically defend) or an album of Frank Sinatra songs (which even we can’t get behind), Dylan has long had the luxury of following his muse and allowing his records to largely speak for themselves.

Consider his original Greatest Hits package, released by Columbia in 1967 to fill the gap when it appeared his next album was a ways off on the horizon and presumably compiled without his involvement. While it is not one of those “Greatest Hits” collections which misuses the word hits — his sixties singles sold successfully — it was still frustrating to fans. While it compiled his singles, in cases where those contained a separate mix from the album version, the album version was used. And it retailed for a dollar more than most LPs at the time.

Greatest Hits Volume II, which came just four years later, offered a little more to fans in the form of a side’s worth of new material. Dylan originally suggested one side be drawn from the then-unissued “Basement Tapes,” but this was rejected by Columbia executive Clive Davis — and instead a hodge podge new songs were added to the double LP. These included the tracks produced by the late Leon Russell (“Watching the River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”) as well as a live cut from the 1963 Town Hall concert and three newly recorded songs.

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This is the first “Greatest Hits” album we can think of which finds the artist enticing fans with a few new songs. Dylan’s business savvy is always surprising to us — and in this case he created an idea that became common by the time Columbia finally churned out Greatest Hits Volume III in 1994, including a successful new song, “Dignity.”

gil-scott-heron-best-of-lpWe’ve thought a lot about some of those songs added to “Greatest Hits” and “Best Of” records, because sometimes we are such big fans of the artists that we’ll buy an album even though 90% of it is already in our collection. For instance, Gil Scott-Heron’s topical “Re Ron,” which first appeared on a 1984 compilation. His picture is hardly flattering on The Best of Gil Scott-Heron, and its hard for fans to face the reality of how poorly he was doing at the time.

 

“Re Ron,” Scott-Heron’s response to Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign, would be one of the last songs he’d release for nearly a decade, as drug use derailed his life. A sequel to his first Reagan song, “B Movie,” it didn’t leave the same impression with fans and he was subsequently dropped from the label.

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From an entirely different era and an entirely different section of the record store are the two Best Of albums released by Jethro Tull in the 70s. Each adds a new song, which sound distinctly like outtakes from earlier albums. Neither is particularly essential, although Tull fans are not unlike Dylan fans in their complete-ist tendencies. The first also offers an alternate mix or edit of a couple songs, notably “Aqualung” where Martin Barre’s familiar opening riff is extended.

The second of these is one of the most un-necessary “Best Of” collections of all time, and is indulgent even by Jethro Tull standards. The new track offered for the faithful is an outtake from the band’s successful War Child album which was clearly left aside for a reason.

Faring little better is The Best of the Band, an early album in the trend of titling these collections carefully to avoid the word “Hits.” After all, The Band’s singles hardly charted, and several of these songs were not even released as singles in the United States. The album is still a fair representation of highlights from their first half dozen albums, with the exception of a single-only track, “Twilight.”

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Another collection clearly forced by the label was RCA’s Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed. Never a hit-maker, Reed had already been dropped by the label by the time this record sulked into stores in 1976. Essentially a vehicle for the title track, Walk on the Wild Side did offer the first LP release of “Nowhere At All,” a rockin’ outtake from Coney Island Baby which had previously been issued as a B-side. Also worth noting is the appearance of Rachel, Reed’s long-term transexual lover, on the cover. Rachel was the inspiration for much of Reed’s music in the second half of the seventies even though she had been all but erased from the rock and roll lexicon by the time she died in obscurity in the nineties.

So far we have established that the extra song on a “Greatest Hits” or “Best Of” album is a sort of ashcan for outtakes and leftover live cuts. A recent culling of our own collection turned up all the albums in today’s post, each of which purchased solely for those added ‘bonus’ tracks, but hardly ever taken off the shelves. We’ll end today’s post with a more successful example. It’s a Greatest Hits which recently saw its first US release on LP and has already sold out.

See, nobody drew such success out of the extra song on their Greatest Hits album than Tom Petty, who recorded “Last Dance with Mary Jane” while recording his second solo album with career-reviving producer Rick Rubin. The song was the last to be recorded by the original Heartbreakers lineup, and an unexpected hit. It almost certainly spurred the success of that fantastic solo album, Wildflowers, the following year.

Always one to create the creepiest possible videos, Petty outdid himself with “Last Dance with Mary Jane,” a macabre vignette purportedly based on a French film which was, in turn, based on a Charles Bukowski story. If you have never seen this video before, you’re likely to not feel the same about Tom Petty, or about actress Kim Basinger, ever again.

 

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The Doors’ second record is an outcast’s album like no other. Successful as they may have been by the time Strange Days was released in the fall of 1967, they remained industry outsiders and almost inevitably doomed by their own internal anxieties and fears. One of the two explicitly “strange” side openers, “People Are Strange” was a successful single and is still widely assumed to reference a bad acid trip.

Drummer John Densmore (the outsider within a group of outsiders) discredited this claim in Riders on the Storm, his book published in the wake of the band’s bio-pic fueled revival. He describes the song as derived from Morrison’s depression, and inspired by a sunset over Laurel Canyon rather than LSD. The music, arranged by guitarist Robbie Krieger, encapsulates the Doors’ fascination with cabaret, a theme which was carried over onto the album’s jacket, which depicts dwarves, acrobats, musclemen and other performance artists on the periphery of society.

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Where the song “I’m A Stranger Here” finds its home is, fittingly, unknown. What is certain is that it in the sixties it inspired Bob Dylan, in “She Belongs to Me,” and Taj Mahal, who derived “She Caught the Katy” from it to open his essential second album, The Natch’l Blues.

Lambchop’s recording of the song for a long out of print 10″ EP, Hank, is evocative of the band’s initial outsider status as well as the universality of this old saw. While Kurt Wagner’s Nashville collective would eventually be recognized as “arguably the most consistently brilliant and unique American group to emerge during the 1990s,” they were an indie world anomaly in those early alt-country years.

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One of the great, often unsung, heroes of American music is Dorothy Love Coates, whose work as the lead of the Gospel Harmonettes had an undeniable influence on the style of early rhythm and blues and rock and roll recordings. Coates never performed secular music and was outspoken in her advocacy for civil rights and opposition to war, pushing her further from mainstream recognition.

“Strange Man” was a song Coates wrote after her career had become deeply entwined with the civil rights movement. This late 60s single is truly a family affair. Her brother, Fred McGriff, produced the recording and Coates, as pianist, is joined by her daughter Carletta Coates-Criss who plays the tambourine. The song recounts Jesus’ encounter with the Sumaritan woman at the well, as recounted in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John.

In the eastern orthodox tradition, the woman at the well (there known by her baptismal name Photini) is regarded as a Saint, and held as highly as the apostles for her proselytizing of the Savior’s message. Taking the perspective of an outsider, Coates’ song is set in the subversive world of the early Christian faith, almost entirely unrecognizable today but long overdue for a revival.

The song is out of print, but we found it on this collection of classic gospel music released by Columbia Records in the 70s. The label’s longstanding ownership of Okeh Records has provided access to a variety of outsider music, and collections such as this are a valuable resource to music lovers of all stripes.

The United States makes up about five percent of the world population, but more than a quarter of the world’s prisoners. There is no precedent for the extraordinary increase in incarceration in our country, and its consequences could be catastrophic. An absolutely alarming article published by The Atlantic Monthly last year detailed the devastation our mass incarceration has brought on African American families, where prison life is increasingly becoming ubiquitous. One in four black men born after 1970 will, by his thirties, have been imprisoned in this country.

The prison industrial complex is essentially hidden, as far as affluent Americans are concerned. You might be surprised to learn that last year President Obama became the first sitting President to visit a federal prison. Clearly we don’t want to see what’s going on, or even hear about it. In spite of the success of prison-set television programs like Orange is the New Black, the omnipresence of bars in the lives of America’s disenfranchised hardly appears in our pop music these days. This wasn’t always the case.

It seems likely that when we suggest the subject of prison records, you’ll expect us to post a song from Johnny Cash’s two live albums, At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin. They’re classic country albums and all, but we could never take Johnny’s prison persona as seriously as he seemed to himself — the closest Cash came to doing time in the sixties was waiting for his meth dealer.

After Merle Haggard passed away earlier this year, each obituary (including ours) mentioned that he was inspired to join a prison band after seeing Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin on January 1st, 1958. Haggard was no stranger to prison, having done a couple stretches before he was arrested in Bakersfield after attempting to rob a roadhouse. An escape attempt at the Bakersfield jail earned him a trip to San Quentin, but it wasn’t Cash’s performances which really set him on the path to redemption. It was an encounter with Caryl Chessman, known for his 1954 memoir Cell 2455, Death Row.

Chessman’s case captivated the push to abolish capital punishment in the United States, at a time when most other western nations were moving towards abandoning it. Ronnie Hawkins even recorded a song about Chessman in 1960, just a few months before he was executed at San Quentin.

Merle Haggard wrote a number of songs about his experiences, and was rightly remembered for how honestly he captured the trials and troubles of the disenfranchised. His story is inspiring, as are many stories which come from prisons. It’s no accident that two of the most significant works of American literature — Henry David Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail — were both written behind bars. Our interest today, then, isn’t songs like Merle’s “Mama Tried,” which are about prison, but rather records which were actually recorded by prisoners.

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The first of these is Any Woman’s Blues, which was recorded on New Years Eve 1975 at the Women’s Jail in San Bruno, California. It’s a pretty remarkable record, although not a perfect fit for our purpose today because in addition to former prisoners, the performances on Any Woman’s Blues include professional musicians as well. Several of the women who founded and recorded for Olivia Records appear, notably Cris Williamson, Linda Tui Tillery and Holly Near. The lesbian-oriented label was on of the most successful independents of the seventies.

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The album was released by the Women’s Prison Concert Collective, which was supported by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Their commitment to improving the lives of incarcerated women is evident in the album’s insert, which includes a list of things one can do to help and where you can find more information.

Incidentally, here in Minnesota one thing you can do is support the Women’s Prison Book Project. It may not seem like much to provide reading material, but it often provides an important resource for an even more marginalized population. There are more than 150,000 owmen in prison and jail in the United Sates, and eighty percent of them are serving time for non-violent crimes. Of the remaining, most were convicted for defending themselves or their children from abuse. More than half of the women in prison are women of color, and two thirds of them have one or more children under the age of eighteen. According to their website, “the WPBP works to support prisoners; and through that solidarity works to empower prisoners themselves and build connections through prison walls.”

We remember accepting donations to their program when we volunteered at the now-closed Arise Bookstore. Today you can contact them through Boneshaker Books, a really great place just up in Seward not far from our shop.

That first song from Any Woman’s Blues is written and sung by Gwen Avery. Her signature song, “Sugar Mama,” appeared on Olivia Records’ Lesbian Concentrate compilation and she toured with Tillery and Mary Watkins, but she did not make an album of her own until almost twenty-five years later.

This second selection from Any Woman’s Blues is poetry read by Pat Parker. One of the poems is particularly moving, as it is written about her older sister, who died at the hands of an abusive husband. “Womanslaughter” protests the one-year sentence her sister’s killer received, remarking with scorn that “men cannot kill their wives / they passion them to death.”

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This next record is by Glen Shirley, who had no idea he was to become a famous country songwriter as he sat in the front row of Johnny Cash’s famous performance at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. Cash explained what happened without Shirley’s knowledge in a 1994 Life magazine interview:

The night before I was going to record at Folsom prison, I got to the motel and a preacher friend of mine brought me a tape of a song called ‘Greystone Chapel.’ He said a convict had written it about the chapel at Folsom. I listened to it one time and I said, ‘I’ve got to do this in the show tomorrow.’ So I stayed up and learned it, and the next day the preacher had him in the front row. I announced, ‘This song was written by Glen Sherley.’ It was a terrible, terrible thing to point him out among all those cons, but I didn’t think about that then. Everybody just had a fit, screaming and carrying on.

The memorable closing track on Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison put Shirley on the country music map, and later a hit recording of his song “Portrait of my Woman” by Eddy Arnold helped propel his career further, even though he was still incarcerated for a failed armed robbery. He recorded an album at Folsom Prison for Mega Records in 1971, and was released later that year.

Cash met him at the gate, and invited him to join his House of Cash organization as an opening performer and songwriter. Shirley hosted the performances in the documentary Flowers Out of Place, which featured Cash, Roy Clark and Linda Ronstadt. His behavior, which included violent threats, concerned Cash’s crew, and he was eventually fired.

Shirley was working for a cattle company in May 1978 when he shot a man in a drug-fueled rage. Two days later he took his own life in his brother’s house in Gonzalez, California. Cash paid for the funeral expenses, but effectively ended his involvement in prison reform after Shirley’s death, and never performed for prisoners again.

Perhaps the most popular prison recording of all time was made by John Lomax and his son Alan on a portable aluminum disc machine on loan from the Library of Congress. At Angola State Prison the folklorists found Huddie Ledbetter, later known nationwide as Lead Belly, who made a number of recordings for them during his time for an attempted murder.

It is believed by some that a recording Lead Belly made in prison, delivered to the Governor by the Lomaxes, hastened his early release, but records show he was already eligible because of good behavior. The most famous of the songs he recorded for the Library of Congress was one he’d been singing for more than twenty years, “Goodnight Irene.” This song is, of course, where the record shop’s li’l Boston Terrier Irene gets her name.

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This last record, Ain’t Got Time to Lose, features blues, folk and country songs written and performed by inmates and former inmates of the Oklahoma Correctional System in 1980. Leo Chandler, who served as production director as well as performing one of the songs on the album, describes the project in its liner notes:

For years Institution Programs Incorporated has developed and conducted arts based programs within the framework of the Oklahoma Prison System. Because of financial limitations, these programs have not reached all eligible inmates. The idea of a convict album was conceived to share the talent that has existed inside the prison.

It was not an easy task to arrange for security to transport men and women from different institutions across the state to a recording studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to finalize the project. Yet, with the extra effort and cooperation of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, it happened!

All income generated by this album, except for production costs, will go to the expansion of the prison arts programs. These programs offer projects in visual art, literature, drama, music, design and continuing humanities dialogues.

Creativity can be developed through discipline, and I feel that discovering one’s own potential brings self-esteem. This album is an entertainment package and consists of more than one style of music. It is comprised of the stories, joys, the sadness and frustration, triumph and humor of people in prison. It is a sincere attempt for these people to financially support their own redirective programs.

Several songs express the successes of such a program, such as Chandler’s “Looking for a Better Way to Live” and Harvey Smith’s “Oh Lord Help Me.” Others, like “Crow in a Hickory Tree” by Bill Baker, are just fun songs which otherwise might never have been heard outside of Oklahoma. There are several gospel songs on the album as well, notably the beautiful song at the beginning of this post which was written and performed by Kim Holloway.

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A collection which came through the record shop recently included the first three albums by Malo, a latin rock band from the seventies who celebrating their 45th year according to their official website. The band has been through many line-up changes over that time, and it retains two original members and several others who have been with the group since the seventies.

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The band had a number of top musicians from the San Francisco music scene of the time, including members of the Malibus and Naked Lunch. Their name was likely derived from the Mayan word for “good” or “fine,” and not from the Spanish word for “bad.” This would also explain the Mayan imagery on their album covers.

And the band certainly wasn’t bad at all. Two members, Gabe Manzo and Tony Menjivar, recently formed a Christian latin rock band, and they chose to name it Bueno!

Malo’s biggest hit was “Suavecito,” a love song written by percussionist Richard Bean. allegedly while in algebra class. Bandmates Pablo Tellez and Abel Zarate helped arrange the song and share writing credit. Bean and Zarate were, unfortunately, two of the members who left Malo in an unpleasant rift after the release of their first album in 1972. The first of several new groups debuted on Dos late that year, but the band was never quite the same.

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Another loss was percussionist Luis Gasca, who left to record his own albums of more jazz-oriented latin music. His replacement, Francisco Aguabella was up to the task — he is especially great on “Marengue” on the band’s third album, Evolution. We posted one of his solo albums several years back as part of our tribute to Blue Thumb Records (here). We also posted a song from one of Jorge Santana’s solo albums (here). Although he left to start a solo career, Jorge — the younger brother of Carlos Santana — still sits in with Malo from time to time. The band is now led by Arcelio Garcia, who sings lead vocals. Sometimes his son, Octaviano, joins them.

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Malo is not as well known as Santana, and their albums are surely more difficult to find, but each is worth the search. We have really enjoyed having these first three in stock this weekend.

We’re pretty excited to be releasing the second album by Corpse Reviver next week. The folk trio has long been one of our favorites in town — we love them so much we hired them to play our 10th anniversary party a couple years ago, and promised them we’d release their second album on vinyl.

If you have never heard them before, you may still be familiar with some of their songs. That’s because Corpse Reviver’s repertoire is drawn from the Anthology of American Folk Music, the enormously influential compilation first released in 1952 by Folkways Records. Harry Smith collected traditional music on 78s and with the six-album series revived music which was largely being swept into the dustbin.

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Adam modeling the new Lp

When Corpse Reviver released the first volume of their interpretation of the anthology (titled I’ll be Rested When the Roll is Called), we posted the original songs (here). On that disc, and on their new Lp, they’ve chosen songs which have been widely performed over the years, but its especially interesting to go back and hear those original 78 transfers from Harry Smith’s collection. Some are songs which had a long life before they were recorded in the late 20s or early 30s, and others have taken on new significance as songs associated with the mid-century folk boom or the more recent alt-country revival.

The new album opens with Adam Kiesling’s familiar fretless banjo and a confident take on “I Wish I Were a Mole in the Ground,” a song first recorded in 1928 by Bascom Lunsford. The song has been widely recorded by folk musicians, notably here in Minnesota by Charlie Parr about ten years ago, but Corpse Reviver turn the song’s perceived resignation on its ear. The same is true for “The Butcher’s Boy,” the second Buell Kazee ballad they have recorded with Jillian Rae singing. Mikkel Beckmen adds a funeral march rhythm to her reading of with his djembe, making this suicide ballad dark and dramatic.

In all, we count at least a half dozen deaths in the songs on Dry Bones. Corpse Reviver’s compartmentalization of the Anthology songs is as idiosyncratic as were the choices made by Harry Smith himself, but its clear they’ve chosen this second volume to collect some of the darker sides of the so-called “old weird America.” The result is an album much weightier than the first volume, but also a great collection of stories.

The original twelve songs, all found on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, are collected below. Corpse Reviver will be performing these and other favorites at the album release show next week. It’s possible opening performer Spider John Koerner will bring out one of them old numbers as well.

Corpse Reviver will be releasing their second album, Dry Bones, next Wednesday night at the Cedar Cultural Center (details here). Minnesota folk legend Spider John Koerner will perform an opening set, and local choir Mpls imPulse will perform with the trio during their set.

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One subject to appear in much of what has been written about Prince since his unexpected and tragic passing last week is his frequent legal battles with Warner Brothers Records. During his conflict with the label over the pace of releasing his recordings, leading up to The Gold Experience in the mid 90s, Prince made his famous appearances with the word “SLAVE” written on his cheek. He also said at times that the reason he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol was because he felt the label owned his name.

Pop records have made reference to the underside of the music industry and artist/label relations since at least around the time Prince was born. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Money” and the Byrds’ “So You Wanna be a Rock and Roll Star?” are both examples of successful sixties singles which reference the industry this way.

Billy Joel has never had a warm relationship with his label, Columbia Records. He presented a particularly sardonic view of the industry in “The Entertainer,” a song of his third album. Describing the decision to shorten his break-through hit for its release as a single, he sings

It was a beautiful song but it ran to long
If you’re gonna have a hit you gotta make it fit
So they cut it down to 3:05

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Streetlife Serenade is hardly remembered as one of Joel’s best albums. He complains that he was under such pressure to tour he didn’t have time to write enough songs. Columbia had him opening for big name acts like the Beach Boys at the time — this is probably why the album has two instrumental tracks as filler.

Another band with a high-pressure opening gig at the time was Lynyrd Synyrd, who joined the Who on the Quadrophenia tour in 1973 after the release of their first album. The first side of Second Helping, recorded after the tour, ends with “Workin’ for MCA,” a song about the label which ended the band’s “seven years of bad luck.” The song sounds mostly positive about their experience, but the last line is a warning to the label which Prince would probably have endorsed:

I’ll sign my contract baby, and I want you people to know
That every penny that I make, I’m gonna see where my money goes

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This next artist/label conflict carried over to the cover of the album itself. After their fourth album was rejected and delayed by Apple Records, Badfinger commissioned Peter Corriston to paint the cover (Corriston also made covers for Carole King, The Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull, Tom Waits, and many more). His painting portrays a donkey being led off into the desert by a gigantic, but unreachable carrot — presumably representing the way the band felt they had been misled by Apple Records.

The album also became part of a music publishing conflict between the group and the label, so the songs were not credited on original pressings. That’s too bad, because Pete Ham deserves credit for his hilarious break-up song intended for the label, “Apple of my Eye.”

Ass was also an album dumped in the cutout bins quickly, so actually copies like the one pictured (with an intact jacket) are probably harder to find. Its release delayed Badfinger’s debut for Warner Brothers, which the band wanted to title For the Love of Money, a decision rejected by their new label.

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The only time the commentary on the record label was released on another label that we’ve found is “EMI,” the last song on Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols. The band had signed a contact with EMI, but were dropped after an incident on television in which Johnny Rotten repeatedly cursed at the host, causing a national uproar.

“EMI” ends with the band saying “Hullo A&M,” but this relationship also didn’t last, owing to equally outlandish behavior. A&M actually pressed 25,000 copies of their second single, “God Save the Queen,” but after dropping the band they were summarily destroyed. It is believed about a dozen exist today, making them among the world’s rarest and most valuable 45s.

Virgin Records signed the band, and manager Malcolm McLaren negotiated a deal for the album to be distributed in the United States by none other than Warner Brothers.

nevermind the bollocks

West Side Story was first proposed fully a decade before its first production. The 1957 Broadway musical was an enormous commercial and critical accomplishment but its success was hardly the result of sudden inspiration.

Broadway producer Jerome Robbins conceived the story (originally East Side Story) as a timeless cultural conflict, and screenwriter Arthur Laurents wrote a first draft. This is why he is credited in show business terms with “The Book,” although the actual book from which the story was derived would be a volume of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Laurent wrote a first draft of Robbins’ plan for an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet which recast the Capulets and the Montagues as Catholics and Jews, and Leonard Bernstein was on board to compose the score, but the project was pushed to the back burner.

Laurent and Bernstein mulled over the idea five years later, and the maestro suggested it be re-set in Los Angeles as a conflict between Mexican gangs. Laurent didn’t like the idea, but he did like the latin direction it took the story, and rewrote the book in New York City as a conflict between working class whites and Puerto Rican immigrants. When Laurent dropped out of the project to work on another project, he was replaced by a then-unknown composer and lyricist, not initially enthusiastic, named Stephen Sondheim, who was being mentored at the time by none less than Oscar Hammerstein II. It would turn out to a pretty good move on his part.

West Side Story went into production with an previously unprecedented eight weeks’ dance rehearsals. Bernstein composed concurrently with Candide, his critically panned operetta (which we kind of love and would like to encourage listeners to revisit) — not surprisingly, he’d originally wanted West Side Story to be an opera, and never really let go of his plans. You can hear Bernstein’s operatic aspirations throughout the finished score, which is part musical, part ballet, and also part opera.

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After its awesome run — and all the drama over its production and credits — West Side Story was adapted to an epically successfully film, which won an unprecedented ten Academy Awards. The big-selling soundtrack album remains today a staple in the collections folks bring into the shop, but its so damn good we’re always glad to see another copy.

One secret to the story’s success is that it doesn’t shy away from its subjects. The plight of the Puerto Rican gang is portrayed through “In America,” a clever back-and-forth about the benefits and challenges experienced by immigrant communities.

Bernstein adapted the musical’s addictively awesome score into a symphonic suite soon after and recorded it with the New York Philharmonic. This shorter score condenses the music in very much the same way many ballets are shortened into similar suites, and maybe that’s why Bernstein chose to title it “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.”

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Of course, the musical’s memorable melodies quickly became jazz standards. Ramsey Lewis recorded an entire side based on them, as did a variety of pianists. We recently posted a tribute to our favorite female jazz pianists and included tracks from Marian McPartland’s version of the score, which is a favorite trio album of ours. Here she plays “Tonight” and “Cool” with a great rhythm section of Ben Tucker and Jake Hanna:

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One of the biggest West Side Story jazz tributes was Kenton’s West Side Story, an album which will always be a favorite of Kenton fans but leaves the emotion of the story somewhere far from the west side. Kenton’s explosive arrangements are undeniably appealing, but lose us somewhere in their bombast. Even his own piano introduction to “Maria” seems without the same passion Marian McPartland brought to the song. Still, we can’t deny it’s a helluva big band track, even if it lacks the passion Jimmy Bryant put into singing the song for Tony off screen in the movie.

Kentons west side story

“Somewhere” was the first cover on a Tom Waits album when it appeared on Blue Valentine in 1978 (this fact is mostly true: a couple Foreign Affairs tracks are a little involved). Perhaps no other recording so aptly demonstrates Waits’ penchants for wistful schmaltz.

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The only full-length album by the enormously inventive (although heavily derivative) 90s punk rock band Schlong was a complete cover of West Side Story. Although they shared a sound with bay area punks like Kamala and the Karnivores, Crimpshrine and Operation Ivy, Schlong’s Punk Side Story was a loving interpretation rather than an exercise in irony. We were pleased to read in Pop Matters (here) that when Bernstein’s daughter Nina was presented with a copy of Punk Side Story, “She was surprised that someone of our generation knew her father’s score so well, and said she wouldn’t sue us.”

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We think “Lenny” (as he is credited on Punk Side Story) himself would be very pleased with the inventive pistache of Schlong’s “Dance at the Gym,” if not their surprising devotion to his original score. This was, afterall, the guy who composed Candide and lived to see it come into some reknown.

And the band of misfits were perfectly suited to perform the Jets’ hypothetical, subversive response to authority in “Gee Officer Krupke” (a number which, incidentally, borrowed some music from Candide). This song is one of the gems of middle 90s bay area punk rock.

In 1985, Bernstein was finally able to realize the operatic West Side Story of his dreams. Although this recording for Deutsche-Grammophon was not produced for the stage, its stunningly theatrical. Fans of the film are likely to find it alienating, but this triple-album is well worth a second (and third and fourth) listen.

West side Story

Bernstein’s casting choices were confounding, especially the choice of José Carreras as Tony. This was several years before he became an enormous star outside of opera as one of the Three Tenors — at the time there was some controversy as to whether his accent was fit for the role (Carreras is the second-most-awesome Catalan in any good record collection). In his defense, his duet with Kiri Te Kanawa (as Maria) on “One Hand, One Heart” would captivate anyone who has ever been in love. Bernstein gets a magnificent performance out of the strangely anonymous symphony orchestra, making the action sequences especially exciting.

This West Side Story fell somewhere in between the opera house and the Broadway theater, and maybe never sat well with either audience. We feel its an essential Bernstein recording, if only for the insight it provides into his most enduring work.

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