Saturday, 25 February 2012

Big ten . . .

10 Please Come Home For Christmas Charles Brown

Yes, it’s Mr Black Christmas himself. Among the various legal requirements referring to the selection of music for a Christmas collection, there is one eternal. A Charles Brown record is essential. It’s simply non-negotiable. You can get away without any Elvis or even a version of White Christmas but there must be a Charles Brown.

A pianist from Texas, Brown came to fame in the post-war piano blues world of Los Angeles that also had Nat King Cole. I’ve got at least five different Charles Brown Christmas songs — and multiple versions of his two biggies. Merry Christmas, Baby (1947) he first recorded as one of the jacketed ones in Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers. Please Come Home For Christmas is far later and was written by Brown himself, with bandleader and A&R man Gene Redd. First cut for King records in 1960, it was a pop chart hit the following year and an even bigger hit in 1968.

PS If you've just caught up with this stuff and want to hear the actual tracks, either post a comment or email me asking for the relevant link.

Next The vexed question of the three ships' inland adventure

Friday, 24 February 2012

Number nine, number nine, number nine . . . 

9 Back Door Santa Clarence Carter

There were — in the heydays of R&B and soul — a lot of black Santa records of one kind or another. There was Big John Greer’s I Wanna See Santa Do The Mambo and the Enchanters’ Mambo Santa Mambo. There was Babs Gonzales’ Be-Bop Santa Claus and Santa Claus Boogie by The Voices — who went on to become Bob and Earl and do the Harlem Shuffle.

James Brown — whose long-term associate Bobby Byrd was the Bob in Bob and Earl — cut at least three Santa tracks. The Jackson Five cut a brace — even though, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they didn’t even celebrate Christmas. And there is, of course, Butterbeans and Susie’s vaudevillian Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus (And Mama Ain’t No Christmas Tree.)

I can’t help but see some possible symbolic meaning in this black Santa thing. What exactly it is, though, I’m not sure. Is there something ‘outsidery’ about Santa? Is he some kind of non-Christian figure for a Christian festival?
Well, there is also Santa Claus Is A Black Man by AKIM and the Teddy Vann Production Company. Born in Brooklyn, Vann won a Grammy for a song he wrote with Luther Vandross. He died in 2009, on St Nicholas’ Day — by accident or perhaps design. His casket was left open. There were a pair of trainers in it, just in case there was a chance to do a runner. (It’s not a good record, by the way.)

Is black Santa a dressing-up thing? Or is it a sex thing? Think Rufus Thomas’ I’ll Be Your Santa Baby. Or, a female corollary, Victoria Spivey’s I Ain’t Gonna Let You See My Santa Claus. (Next year’s seasonal collation will, I can tell you now, be entitled Sexmas and include both of those, plus Let Me Hang Your Stockings In Your Christmas Tree and Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.)

Back door men had been around in the blues since the mid-1920s. Probably somewhat longer than that in life outside. As the husband goes to work, out through the front door, her lover steps in through the back door. Which, in a large affluent house, would be the traditional tradesman’s entrance.

If, at this point, you’re wondering if there is an anal intercourse reference hanging around this back door, there probably is. But there wasn’t when the first song-mention of back door men was made, in the 1920s. The actual Back Door Man song, though, is far later than that. Written by Willie Dixon, it was cut, in 1960, by the great Howlin’ Wolf, as the, er, back side of Wang Dang Doodle. This back door man ‘ate more chicken than you ever seen’.
The Staton-Carter wedding. 

Clarence Carter — a blind man who got his first guitar for his 12th birthday on December 25, 1947 — was, truth be told, something of a back door man himself. The titles of his hits tell the tale: Slip Away, Making Love (At The Dark End of The Street), Thread The Needle. He was married to Candi Staton. Her record titles tell the truth of their life together. I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than A Young Man’s Fool). Suspicious Minds. Young Hearts Run Free — ‘You'll get the babies, but you won't have your man/While he is busy loving every woman that he can’. Victim — ‘a victim of the very songs I used to sing.’

PS1 Run DMC sampled this track for Christmas in Hollis.

PS2 I do also have a mash-up of it, on which it shares aural space and time with Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. I’ll save that one for Sexmas.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Eight . . .

8 Hey Santa Claus The Platters
Four men, one woman. For them, shawl collar, one-button silk suits with side stripes on the trousers. For her, full-skirted satin, thin-strapped evening dress and white high-heels. The smoothest and hippest of black doo wop, the Platters were from Los Angeles. (A platter, for younger readers’ information, was slang for a record — a visual analogy that made sense in the days of Bull Moose Jackson’s Big Ten Inch Record.)

Their first hit was Only You, in July 1955. Their big hit, the one we all remember from American Graffiti, came six months later: The Great Pretender. There were a couple more number ones — My Prayer, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. But by 1958, they were pretty much done. A ‘morals’ rap in 1959 didn’t help too much, either.

This is not the original version of the song. That’s the one by the Moonglows, out on the Chance label just in time for Christmas 1959. This version was, I reckon, cut in 1963, but that gives me little idea who is singing on it. There seems to have been at least thirty-five Platters over the years — and as many law suits about ownership of the name. (For ‘name’ read ‘copyrights’. For ‘copyrights’, read ‘cash’.) There are currently four versions of the group touring.

Next for you (tomorrow) Blindness and (seasonal) back door sex

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Number seven . . .

7 Boogie-Woogie Santa Claus Mabel Scott

Born in Virginia, Mabel Scott started out singing in the choir of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, 151 W128th St, in Harlem. She sang R&B from the mid-1940s till the mid-1950s. ‘Tiny Bradshaw, Bull Moose Jackson, I worked with all of them,’ she said. She worked in the Cotton Club (with Cab Calloway), Detroit and . . . London, where her first recordings were made for the same label as would later sign the Beatles (and Bernard Cribbins), Parlophone.

Boogie-Woogie Santa Claus was written by Leon René, a ‘Creole’, originally from Covington, Louisiana, right across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans — a four mile trip on the world’s longest bridge over (continuous) water. He took up brick-laying to support his music-making. By then based in Los Angeles, he was the first person to record Nat King Cole. (He said. Actually, Cole had cut stuff years earlier.)

One of the first (and foremost) black music business giants, René also wrote When It’s Sleepy Time Down South, I Sold My Heart To The Junkman, Rockin’ Robin and When The Swallows Came Back To Capistrano — which I can’t be alone in having thought was about somewhere in Italy rather than, as I just discovered by checking, a cliff in southern California.

Mabel Scott was the first to have a hit with this song, in 1948 — on René’s own Excelsior label. That was only a ‘race’ hit. The one that really made the money was Patti Page’s version. ‘It just happened to be couple with one of the biggest hit records of all times,’ said René. It was the flipside of Page’s Tennessee Waltz and when it comes to royalties, of course, the b-side pays just as much as the a-side.

Mabel Scott also cut Baseball Boogie, for King. ‘I’m a big-legged pitcher. Get your bat ready, baby. If you can hit that ball, you can make a home run. I’ve got a drop that’ll make you swing down low. So get your bat ready, baby, let’s see what you can do. Will you step down low? Will you step to the plate?’ Donne or Marvell would have been proud of such an extended poetic conceit. She also cut a track called Yes! Sample lyrics: ‘I can’t say no to you. Baby, baby, yes. Yes, yes, yes.’

How her songs and singing related to her offstage life is hard to say. Judging by the few pictures, she was certainly beautiful. Yet . . . around the time she first cut this track, she was married to the man I shall now dub Mr Black Christmas — Charles Brown (see below). But she divorced him within three years. Her second marriage wasn’t much more successful. That husband hit her. Disillusioned, she gave up secular music and retreated to the church for the remaining forty-five years of her life.

Next up A Platters' platter

Monday, 20 February 2012

A sixth helping?

6 Merry Christmas Polka The Andrews Sisters

The Andrews Sisters are another constant of seasonal music compilations. I’ve seen them described as The Queens of Christmas Music, with Bing Crosby as its King. He did half a dozen duets with them.

Real sisters, they were also real Americans — daughters of a Greek father and a mother from a Norwegian family. Their first hit was archetypally American, too — Bei Mir Bist Du Schon, an old-sounding (but really only a few years old) Yiddish tune updated and Anglicised by a Jewish Tin Pan Alleyist Sammy Cahn who acquired the publishing for thirty dollars. Ah, the music business . . .

The music of Merry Christmas Polka is by Sonny Burke, a big band leader who later became music director at Sinatra’s label Reprise. He wrote the music to Peggy Lee’s words for the Disney cartoon, Lady And The Tramp. (Nothing to do, of course, with the Sinatra standard, The Lady Is A Tramp. That was a Rodgers-Hart song written for 1937’s Babes In Arms — which also introduced My Funny Valentine. Both were sung by a 16-year-old, Mitzi Green. The second was about herself — well, her character anyway. The first was was about — and sung to — a man named Val. Some Broadway night out that must have been.)

The lyrics are by Paul Francis Webster (1907-1984), a New Yorker who dropped out of college, ran away to sea and ended up in Hollywood writing songs for Shirley Temple. He wrote the words to Duke Ellington’s I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good) and worked on the all-black show, Jump For Joy.

He won three Oscars, for Secret Love (Doris Day, in Calamity Jane, 1953), Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing (1955), The Shadow Of Your Smile (The Sandpiper, 1965). He wrote the theme for the Spider-Man cartoon series: ‘Spider-Man can, Spider-Man can, Spider-Man can do what a spider can.’

That idiocy aside (deliberate, I assume), he had a real hand for rhymes. Merry Christmas Polka has barrels with carols and a top quality triple rhyme: tingle/jingle/Kringle. Good as that is, though, his one for Memphis In June, is even better. To my mind, it’s popular song’s greatest triple internal shwa rhyme: oleander/veranda/Miranda.

Because of its southern setting and atmosphere, I’d always thought Memphis was a Johnny Mercer lyric, even probably wrote as much. Not that anyone corrected me. It seems most people are as unknowledgable about Paul Francis Webster as I was till I looked him up.

There is a mystery about him, too. What colour was he? If he worked on all-black musical, you assume he was black. But there is no reference to that so maybe he was white. Even looking at pictures, I can’t work out whether he was black or white. In younger pictures, he looks black. In ones from old age, white. See  for yourself.

So, the polka?
Despite its name, it’s not a Polish dance but Czech. Well, Bohemian — as that bit of the Austrian Empire was known till it was killed off in 1918. The Andrews Sisters did well with polkas. They had the first hit with Beer Barrel Polka — which, until I looked it up, I believed was an old English music hall knees-upper. ‘Roll out the barrel, roll out the barrel . . ’ etc etc, with upright, jangly piano (or rather, pianner) accompaniment. In fact, it’s a Czech tune which was probably pushed into the wider world by the impact of the German invasion of the Sudetenland.

PS1 Polka dots? Why? Because when big round spots on clothes became fashionable, around 1850, the polka itself was the latest thing on western European dance-floors. If came into fashion  now, I’d guess they might be called dubstep spots.

PS2 My shoemaker friend Marcus reminded me about polka Grammys. For twenty-three years, they had a polka section, from 1986 till 2009, when it was dropped and polkaristas were encouraged to enter the folk or world music categories. Too late for either the Andrews Sisters or Paul Francis Webster. But not for Brave Combo (see above) who won twice, in 2000, with Polkasonic! and in 2005 with Let's Kiss: 25th Anniversary Album. Out of the remaining twenty-one years, Jimmy Sturr won eighteen times. Which is maybe why the category was, in Grammy publicity’s word, ‘retired’.

Next up Boogie-woogie and spousal abuse

Sunday, 19 February 2012

And . . . the fifth choice . . .

5 Must Be Santa Brave Combo

This is from something no modern Christmas is musically complete without — an extract from Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour Christmas & New Year’s two-hour special first broadcast, from the Abernathy Building, on December 20, 2006. It played between Huey Piano Smith and The Clowns’ New Orleans re-work of Silent Night and the Enchanters’ Mambo Santa Mambo.

I thought it was traditional kids’ song but it’s not. Not that it doesn’t have a pre-history. As you might suspect from its sound, it’s based on an old German drinking song. The new version was written, in 1960, for Mitch Miller, legendary A&R man and TV singalong host. Tommy Steele had the UK hit with it, a minor one. That must be where I first heard it.

Dylan liked it so much he did his own version — in which the reindeers are given the names of US presidents. 

If you haven’t see the video for it, you have a real treat coming your way. It’s quite mad. Dylan himself has long straight-haired wig, wears a new hat for each verse and dances a kind of hora. There’s a serious punch-up — a kind of follow-up to the seeming murder in the video for Beyond Here Lies Nothin. That’s the one that, er, borrows the tune of Black Magic Woman.

Brave Combo have featured in The Simpsons and were David Byrne’s wedding band. They have done the Rolling Stones as cha-cha-cha and Tennessee Ernie Ford as cumbia. But, mostly, they do polka. They did a whole Christmas album some twenty years ago. I haven’t got round to listening to it yet. A man can enjoy only so much polka. Yet . . .

Next (probably tomorrow) A man who might be black or might be white but whichever it was he did the polka.