In my continuing quest to find Mexican connections to New Orleans (see here and here and here), I came across this gem. And now I'm obsessed with how the Mexican standard "Cielito Lindo" got to the jazz trombonist Wilbur De Paris. Here's my first theory: the Indiana-born De Paris moved to New York in the late 1920s, just before the exhibition "Mexican Arts" was installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show and its related activities, including concerts, reportedly took New York by storm, and so it's possible that De Paris heard it then. But he didn't record it until the 1950s. This version was recorded live at Boston's Symphony Hall in 1956, produced for Atlantic Records by Nesuhi Ertegun and engineered by the legendary Tom Dowd. The plot thickens...
My longtime compañero, the poet John Phillip Santos, once wrote: the streets of heaven are convoluted and friendly / like the meat of the brain. (No, he's not a zombie; he was referring to barbacoa.) Sounds like the streets of New Orleans too. And few writers have explored those conflicted streets as thoroughly and sensitively as the author and songwriter Ned Sublette. He's written two absolutely essential books about the Crescent City: "The World That Made New Orleans" and "The Year Before the Flood." And now he has a new CD, "Kiss You Down South" (available on iTunes), which includes the song "Between Piety and Desire" (video above). Yes, those are New Orleans street names.
I was recently in New Orleans and made the requisite visit to Louisiana Music Factory, where I picked up the Oxford American's annual music issue, which this year is devoted to...Louisiana! It comes with a sampler disc that I didn't listen to until returning home. (While in NOLA, the car radio was locked on the mighty WWOZ.) The twelfth track caught my ear, but I couldn't figure out who was singing. The song had the same chugging rhythm as "Sea Cruise," but it didn't sound like Frankie Ford. I assumed it was one of the town's lesser-known R&B singers. Turns out it was John Fred (top row, far left), who would have a huge hit in 1968 with "Judy in Disguise (WIth Glasses)." But this song, "Shirley," was released 10 years earlier, when the Baton Rouge native was only 16-years-old. He co-wrote the song and it was his first recording. And that wasn't his group, the Playboys (pictured), backing Fred—it was Fats Domino's band (including Dave Bartholomew on trumpet), which had just finished a session with Domino in Cosimo Matassa's studio that day and stuck around to back the young singer. Honestly, my first thought was: That's a white boy singing? But, you know what they say: there aren't really any white people in Louisiana.
So, I saw "Not Fade Away" after all. (See previous post.) It's a great little film with a fantastic soundtrack, which is no surprise given how terrifically director David Chase used music in "The Sopranos." The revelation here was "Down So Low," which I knew from Linda Ronstadt's "Hasten Down the Wind" album. But the song was written by Tracy Nelson and the use of her version in the film is a powerful moment. Nelson is one of those artists who I've known of, but never explored much. My loss. She grew up in Madison, Wisconsin where her band, Mother Earth, came together. They moved to the Bay Area after being signed by Mercury Records. She's a blue-eyed soulstress — less histrionic than Janis Joplin, and obviously inspired by her idol, Irma Thomas. This is from the 1968 album, "Living With the Animals."
Not sure I'll get to a movie theater to see "Not Fade Away," the current film set in '60s New Jersey about a young band's coming of age. But I heard the film's director, David Chase, and executive producer/music supervisor Steve Van Zandt recently interviewed on "Fresh Air," where they talked about what a huge influence The Young Rascals had been on them as they grew up in Jersey in the '60s. The Young Rascals (later just The Rascals) were from Jersey and they came to be known as one of the first blue-eyed soul bands. You could hear it in Felix Cavaliere's soulful voice and in the punchy horn arrangements. But you could also hear the Italian heritage shared by three of the band members. Chase and Van Zandt included the band's first hit, "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore," on the film's soundtrack. My favorite songs of theirs are from the 1967 album (above), the title song of which was one of their biggest hits. These two songs (written by Cavaliere and bandmate Eddie Brigati) were arranged by Arif Mardin, who was part of the troika of Turkish emigrés (led by Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun) that made Atlantic Records one of the greatest music labels ever. The first cut is a three-minute masterpiece—as sophisticated a pop song as can be found. (Listen for the brief but brilliant harp pings about two minutes in.) The second song, driven by an accordion, belies their Italian roots. It could've been sung by Johnny Fontaine at Connie Corleone's wedding in "The Godfather." (After the songs is Van Zandt's 1997 induction of the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)
The calendar is turning, it's time to turn the page. Another year, my friends. Ups, downs, and in-betweens. But so much to be grateful for. So take a cup of kindness, for auld lang syne. Bless you all.
When Fontella Bass died last week at the age of 72, every obit started by mentioning her biggest hit, "Rescue Me." She was a one-hit wonder of sorts, but she had a rich and varied career. The St. Louis native was the daughter of the prominent gospel singer, Martha Bass. She recorded with her mother and with her late husband, Lester Bowie—the great jazz trumpeter who was a founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Here's her lovely version of a Hal David-Burt Bacharach classic.
Everyone's favorite pseudo-Republican, Stephen Colbert, has a big heart and a pretty decent voice. He recently paired up on his show with Mandy Patinkin and Michael Stipe for a nice version of "Good King Wenceslas." It's available at the iTunes store and all proceeds go to Hurricane Sandy relief. Come on, you can shell out one more buck this holiday season.
Let's stay on the country tip for one more day with this classic, written in 1948 and recorded one year later by Ernest Tubb. He was born in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but according to Wikipedia: At age 19, he took a job as a singer on the San Antonio radio station KONO-AM. The pay was low so Tubb also dug ditches for the Works Progress Administration and then clerked at a drug store. Take it away, Ernest.