Posted in Music

In Praise of 50’s Pop

If you’re fond of sand dunes, and salty air
Quaint little villages, here and there
You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod…

True confessions time again. Are you ready? I totally adore 50’s pop. I could say it’s my guilty pleasure, only I don’t feel guilty in the slightest. Keep in mind I’m talking pop here—not rock ‘n roll, much as I love 50’s oldies. This is Hit Parade stuff—the Tony Bennett–June Christy–Tony Martin–Peggy Lee–Patti Page (she of the aforementioned overdubbed “Old Cape Cod”)–Rosemary Clooney–Perry Como–Johnny Desmond variety. And a bit later, Bobby Darin, Johnny Mathis and Sarah Vaughn. And let’s not forget the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra, who, though he sang his best in the 50’s, is really timeless.

I can hear the groans now. Too boring. The age of Pat Boone. I’ll grant you Boone, but there were so many others who were incredibly engaging. Exhibit A: Les Paul and Mary Ford. No one took better advantage of all that was made possible by developments in sound and production, and Les Paul continued to push the outside of that envelope his entire career. Aside from his innovative recording techniques and guitar designs, the man was one hell of a musician who influenced jazz, pop and rock for decades to come.

50’s pop just adored drama with a capital D. You find it over and over again—Miss Toni Fisher singing “The Big Hurt”, which introduced phasing as a recording technique (in this case achieved by pressing on the tape head) and Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs, ramping it up with “Kiss of Fire.” Drama! Tangos! Paso dobles! And it wasn’t just the ladies. Has anyone ever topped Frankie Laine?

This was the heyday of top-notch arrangers like Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Axel Stordahl, all of whom were served by great studio musicians and backup singers who in most cases sight-read these charts in the recording booth. One of the best examples of session-day virtuosity is Jane Morgan’s “The Day the Rains Came”. By the way, if the lyrics sound like the Farmer’s Almanac, it’s probably because of a misguided translation of the original Gilbert Bécaud song (If you think this is bad, try a literal translation of Charles Trenet’s “La Mer”. Bobby Darin’s version, “Beyond the Sea”, actually did us all a favor). I love the blowsy French horns and trombones at the start of the number and the tremendous string arrangement that follows, but there’s even better to come. Listen closely to the bridge, beginning with “A robin sang a song of love…”. That’s some wicked harmony, topped by a soprano descant that shadows Jane Morgan’s voice into the next A section of the song. It’s the musical equivalent of backlighting. Then it’s all stops out for the backup singers leading into the finale, “ooohing” and “aahing” for all they’re worth. A terrific job all around.

A number of the best ’50’s singers were veterans of the Big Band Era who had learned their trade through exhausting tours and one-night stands, but most of all, by performing with some great musicians. Jo Stafford, who along with Frank Sinatra had sung with Tommy Dorsey’s band, was one of the best. In addition to having perfect pitch, her breath control was astonishing. Listen to “Symphony” or better yet, “The Nearness of You”, in which she carries the bridge of the song directly into the final A section in one breath (“…come true/I need no soft lights to enchant me…”). Her filmed performances are rare, but I really like this one because the song is one of my favorites—Rodgers & Hammerstein being unusually sophisticated, from their show “Allegro”:

I can’t end this post without mentioning the many groups that proliferated during the ’50’s—The Four Freshman, The Four Aces, The Ames Brothers, The Crew Cuts, among a multitude of others (A recent play, “Forever Plaid”, is a fond tribute and send-up of these performers and their music, not to mention their clothes). But the best of these, by far, was The Hi-Lo’s, who were in another league entirely. Blessed with four great voices, a distinctive top to their sound supplied by Clark Burroughs and stupendous arrangements by Gene Puerling, their recordings remain as fresh as ever. Just for starters, listen to “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”

The longer this post gets, the more 50’s tunes I remember. I could go on and on like the Energizer Bunny. But I’ll leave you with one final goodie for now. Did you know that Dean Martin could really sing? Not drunk-sing, not “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime” sing. If your only knowledge of the man is derived from the Rat Pack jokester, you’re in for a shock. Lend your ears to“Sway”.

Next time, all. Come on-a my house!

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