Songs

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Today we have a song we recorded in the record shop a few weeks ago to follow up on a recent post about Bluebird Records, the RCA/Victor subsidiary which specialized in jazz and blues singles. Unfortunately, there’s a skip at the beginning of the track and the record has since been sold to a customer so we can’t record it again until we find another copy of this album.

It should be noted that in the early 20th century, the phonograph and is amenities became one of the fastest-growing new industries in the United States. Some say second only to automobiles. As with every great innovation, it encompassed our entire nation even at a time when basic civil rights did not. Everyone bought and listened to records, and from the most base economic impulses “race” labels like Bluebird were born. As is so often the case, the growing success of the industry did not always benefit all involved, especially those easiest to abuse, which included performers like Green. Despite several successful singles, she was unappreciated by the industry when she died from pneumonia at the age of thirty-two.

Lil Green is described in the liner notes to this LP, written by jazz historian Leonard Feather, as “one of the far too numerous might-have-beens of jazz,” and that’s not an altogether unfair description. Her songs were timely and often witty, and her band sounded fantastic. On this track we chose today, pianist Simeon Henry aptly captures the style Earl Hines had popularized in Chicago at the time. Her songs are often covered by other jazz singers — including Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Nina Simone — and a few like “Romance in the Dark” remain standards today.

It’s been one year and Prince’s estate has already become a multi-million dollar enterprise. In its most recent visit to court the estate blocked the release of Deliverance, and EP that was to be released digitally today. The reason? The estate argued that recording engineer George Ian Boxill violated his agreement “for his personal gain,” although the ‘independent label’ RMA set to release the recordings claimed the majority of its sales would benefit the estate.

Universal and Warner Music Group are in court with one another, and the estate, over ownership of Prince’s released and un-released catalog. The contents of Prince’s so-called vault of unissued music is the subject of legend, and those industry giants know there’s a fortune to be made in mining it.

For our part, we’re happy with the albums that were released, and hope to see all of them remain in print throughout the manic cash-grab. Honestly, the albums he released in his five decade career are a pretty incredible legacy without any embellishment. His records are steadily being reissued, including a series of classic 12″ singles out tomorrow for Record Store Day, but the fate of those post-Warner-era albums is uncertain. His last two albums weren’t even issued as LPs, although pricey European bootlegs with poor sound do exist.

As for his unreleased recordings, its entirely possible he intended to collect them but just as likely he kept them the same way a painter may keep his sketchbooks, that is solely for his own use. And maybe we don’t need to hear everything he chose to keep under lock and key in his studio.

All of this is before we even consider all the tell-all interviews and books, and the obsessive peering into the life of this famously private person. Its heartbreaking to see someone who had so much love being treated so poorly.

 

 

This week we discussed with a friend what his son’s musical taste was likely to become, growing up in a home with two musicians and others often visiting for band practice in the basement. It reminded us of Paul Witgenstein, who was destined to become a pianist, and whose determination to play led to the commission of a whole new subgenre in music for the left hand.

Witgenstein grew up in one of the wealthiest households in the world. His home in Vienna was of often visited by famous musicians, including Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler, and as a boy he played duets with Richard Strauss. What’s more is that his grandmother was the woman who had adopted Joseph Joachim, the famous violinist and friend of Brahms, and arranged for him to study piano with Felix Mendelssohn.

In December of 1913, Paul Witgenstein made his debut in Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinsaal and received good reviews. The following summer, of course, came “the guns of August,” and at twenty-seven he was conscripted to serve in the Austrian army alongside his philosopher brother, Ludwig. In battle on the Eastern front, he was shot and lost consciousness. When he awoke as a prisoner of war, he found his right arm had been amputated.

While a prisoner in Siberia, Witgenstein “practiced” on a wooden crate with his left hand, and began to dream of ways to play his favorite music of Chopin without a right hand. He was returned to Austria by the Russians in a prisoner exchange in 1915, in part because they felt a one-armed man was not useful for forced labor.

After the War, Wittgenstein used his family’s enormous wealth to commission works from an extraordinary list of great composers, creating a collection of concerti similar to the book of variations created by Anton Diabelli which we featured in a post last month. This collection came to include works by Ravel, Britten, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev, to name just a few.

Pianist Nicholas McCarthy has a lot to say about Witgenstein and the music he commissioned, because he himself was born without a right arm. “The most poignant thing must have been to have lost his hand after such a long struggle to become a pianist,” he wrote. “Because he came from such a high society family, being an ‘entertainer’ was looked down upon.”

Wittgenstein had a bit of an attitude himself, and was even critical of several of the works he commissioned. He did not initially approve of Maurice Ravel’s employment of jazz motifs in his Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major, and to the consternation of the composer chose to perform it with his own revisions. This is a shame because the single movement concerto is one of the most interesting of Ravel’s explorations of American music, while also incorporating clever ideas from Saint Saen’s 6 Etudes por la main gauche seule.

More remarkably, Wittgenstein chose not to perform the concerto composed by Sergei Prokofiev altogether.

We are passionate fans of Prokofiev’s works, and can’t imagine simply sitting on something so lively and inventive. Wittgenstein did not, as is sometimes written, refuse to play the Piano Concerto No 4 in B-flat major, he said he would perform it when he understood it, and this just never happened. This sounds to us a lot like the notorious “Minnesota no,” which is when the booker doesn’t get back to you about your band after repeated entreaties because he doesn’t want to tell you that you suck.

Unlike Ravel, Prokofiev remained friendly with Wittgenstein. He considered adapting it as a two-hand concerto, but never found the time. Sadly, it went unperformed until Wittgenstein passed away in the early sixties. This is because he retained exclusive performance rights for the works he commissioned during his lifetime. “You don’t build a house so that someone else can live in it,” he famously explained.

For this reason many of the works Wittgenstein commissioned are not familiar, even to fans of the composers. For instance, Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote a characteristically bombastic concerto for in 1922 which has elements of his exciting film scores as well as a Wagnerian sense of tonality. It is, in many ways, our favorite of the left handed repertoire.

Wittgenstein’s exclusivity caused one of the lefty concertos to nearly go unheard. This was the concerto written by German composer Paul Hindesmith, which Wittgenstein apparently so disliked he did not keep the autograph (or original) copy. After his widows’ passing his papers became available to researches and in 2004 a copy of Hindesmith’s Opus 29 was discovered. Although it contained errors, Hindesmith’s enthusiasts were able to reconstruct his Concerto for the Left Hand from sketches and it received its long-overdue debut in Berlin.

Paul Wittgenstein lived out his late years teaching in the United States, where he’d become a citizen in 1946. In spite of his complicated relationship with some of the composers, his commissioned works and their story inspire pianists whether they have the use of one or two hands.

Another remarkable story began in 1964, when concert pianist Leon Fleisher developed a nerve condition called focal distonial, which cost him the use of his right hand in the middle of a successful career distinguished by his interpretations of Mozart and Brahms. For years he performed the left handed repertoire, until his condition was improved with the experimental use of botox. In 2004, the same year he performed the debut of the nearly-lost Hindesmith concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, Fleisher released his first album since his recovery. He titled it Two Hands.

Here is “Bayou Lebatre,” the first song from Sabyre Rae’s EP Revel. Ms. Rae will be performing on the stage inside the record shop at our block party on April 22nd, along with Mike Munson, Ben Weaver and Dingus. We’ve posted set times for this stage and also the stage outside here. She first performed here several years ago as a member of Jack Klatt’s backing group, and played with him on his Mississippi Roll album.

Revel is her debut recording and you can hear another song from it on her Bandcamp page. We think her combination of country blues and swamp rock is a particularly unique sound, and we’re looking forward to hearing more recordings from her.

Hey everyone, just a quick note here at the beginning to letcha know that we posted the set times for our SEVENTH ANNUAL RECORD STORE DAY BLOCK PARTY on our facebook page and on the events page here on the website.

The Clash has always been one of our favorite bands, and Mick Jones one of our favorite musicians in the world. We were beside ourselves when he came into our li’l neighborhood record shop years ago. In our view, the only problem with Mick Jones’ records is that there aren’t enough of them — sometimes we’ve listened to all our Clash albums, all our Big Audio Dynamite albums and all our Carbon/Silicon albums (do you remember this band he founded with former Gen X guitarist Tony James?) and we wish there were something else.

After hearing new that Gorillaz has a new album out in April, we recalled that Jones and Paul Simonon played on the title track to Plastic Beach and toured the band. This inspired us to find his other guest appearances on albums.

We dug up a record by his one-time flame Ellen Foley on which he was a producer and songwriter, and also this album by Ian Hunter.

The last time we listened to the former Mott the Hoople frontman here on the Hymies blog we were making the case he was owed credit for the melody of John Cougar’s “Small Town.” Other folks know his solo career for introducing “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” and “Cleveland Rocks.” We’ve always liked listening to Hunter’s albums while we’re working here in the shop, but we never put this one on the turntable.

Jones produced the record in between The Clash’s Combat Rock and Sandinista! and you can definitely hear those records reflected in this one, especially the two songs we chose here. Jones’ bandmate Topper Headon even played the drums on Short Back n’ Sides. We’re gonna go out on a limb and guess that the 1995 CD reissue’s bonus disc includes a lot more material like the Clash-y ‘instrumental’ “Noises.”

Anyways, fellow Clash fans, if you’re ever in the mood for a li’l more Mick Jones, check out the Ian Hunter section at your favorite record shop for this one.

Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun is familiar to metalheads as the source material for the Metallica song “One.” The novel was originally serialized in the Daily Worker, and published in book form just two days after Britain and France declared war on Germany to mark the beginning of World War II, but tells the story of a soldier in the First World War. It’s title is derived from a then-popular song, “Over There,” which in its hit recordings by Al Jolson, Enrico Caruso and others may have been one of the best-selling tunes of its time.

Johnny in Trumbo’s story is actually Joe Bonham, who loses loses his arms and legs and much of his face in an artillery explosion. He comes to realize he is trapped inside of his body, unable to end his life because he cannot stop his breathing through a tracheotomy. Using morse code, he expresses his desire to be shown to others throughout the country so they can witness firsthand the horrors of war, but is devastated to realize this will not happen.

The video for “One” provided an enormous commercial break-through for Metallica and propelled the album, …And Justice For All, to be their best-selling yet although it was less enthusiastically welcomed by fans and critics. The video used footage from the 1971 film adaptation of Trumbo’s novel, for which the band purchased the rights rather than paying royalty fees. Through regular rotation on MTV the video exposed Metallica to their largest audience yet.

The song’s anti-war sentiment sat well with others on the album, which make reference to environmental destruction and economic discrimination. “One” also displayed the group’s innovative approach to arrangement and featured a highly praised guitar solo by Kirk Hammett, but fans were disappointed by the thin production of …And Justice for All, in particular the lack of bass. There was a lot of drama involved in the recording and mixing of the album. Producer Flemming Rasmussen talked about it in Rolling Stone around this time last year.

“Jason is one hell of a bass player,” the producer says. “I’m probably one of the only people in the world, including Jason and Toby Wright, the assistant engineer, who heard the bass tracks on …And Justice for All, and they are fucking brilliant.”

Rasmussen went on to say he still doesn’t know why the tracks were “nixed in the mix,” as the mixing duo Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero had been attached to the project prior to his arrival. “It’s not on them, that’s for sure,” the producer says. “It was Lars [Ulrich] and James [Hetfield] who said to turn the bass down. I know that for a fact because I asked them.”

Interestingly, Rasmussen, who produced three Metallica albums in all, once wrote a song based on Dalton Trumbo’s novel as well. At the time he began working with Metallica, he was likely best known for his work behind the mixing board, rather than the folksy rock album he released for Reprise in 1971. It was his work as an engineer on Rainbow’s album Difficult to Cure, ten years later, which caught the ears of Metallica as they set out to record Ride the Lightning.

“Johnny Got His Gun” opens the second side of Rasmussen’s self-titled album, an album focused on hippy themes (other titles include “A Song for the Children” and “The Whole World is Crying”). The record was released the same year as the film adaptation.

Johnny Got His Gun had previously been adapted for radio by NBC with James Cagney in the lead, but we haven’t figured out if Radiola, the 70s label which reissued classic programs on LP, had pressed that production.

Flemming Rasmussen remains a respected recording engineer in Denmark. The Sweet Silence Studios where Rainbow, Metallica and many other bands recorded were demolished in 2009. After a short time working elsewhere, Rasmussen reopened it as Sweet Silence North in a town outside of Copenhagen. His official website is here. His self-titled album on Reprise Records remains out of print.

According to the jacket of this 70s collection of rare 78s, Bluebird Records released more than 2,000 blues singles between 1933 and 1946. The album appears on RCA’s “Vintage Series,” which also included whole collections of single artists who recorded for the label and its various subsidiaries. Bluebird was its budget label during the 1920s-40s, but its distinctive sound influence blues and early rock and roll in the following decade.

Considering Third Man Records has produced  lavishly-packaged collections of recordings from Paramount Records (the Wisconsin label known for its blues catalog) we wonder whether the Bluebird catalog could merit a more substantial reissue program. Individual artists who recorded for Bluebird have certainly been anthologized by Document Records on CDs.

We’re surprised and fascinated by the sales of similar records which anthologize blues and roots recordings from the 1920s, and sixteen out of two thousand is hardly a fraction of a single percent of the blues records Bluebird released during this period.

This single by Tampa Red is from the same period as his biggest hit, “Let Me Play With Your Poodle,” a song which reached #4 on the “Harlem hit parade,” which was Billboard’s early R&B chart. Although he recorded from 1928 until 1961, he only released two albums — both on the Bluesville label late in his recording career. In another of traditional music’s tragic tales, his life fell apart due to alcoholism after his wife’s passing in 1953, and Tampa Red died in poverty and anonymity in 1981.

In addition to recording stack of singles in his early career, Tampa Red collaborated with Thomas Dorsey (then Georgia Tom) who went on to become “the Father of Gospel Music,” and also backed singers such as Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie. He can be heard on the recent Memphis Minnie reissue, Keep on Goin, which collects some of her early records for labels such as Columbia, Okeh and Vocalion.

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