Archive for November, 2007

Holiday Music Favorites

I’m really not sure why, but every year I still enjoy it when everyone starts playing the holiday music again. Not counting the traditional carols , there are hundreds of holiday songs – I have a fake book with 275. However, there are a relative few that seem to get the most attention year in and year out. So every year I start playing my arrangements of my favorites again. I never have written them down, so each year I need to remember and often reconstruct the arrangements. This actually works out well, as every year I seem to be able to add one or two enhancements to each.

Here are some of my favorites:

The Christmas Song

Mel Torme

Mel Torme was from Chicago, born in 1925. He died in 1999. He showed enormous talent at an early age, writing and performing professionally as a teenager. It is worth noting that “The Christmas Song” dates from 1944, when Torme would have been only 18 or 19 years old. He also claimed that he wrote the music in about 40 minutes.

Torme was an incredible jazz vocalist. It might reasonably be claimed that the only contemporary who matched or perhaps exceeded his ability and skill was Ella Fitzgerald. He could scat, had flawless pitch, unerring rhythm and a beautiful voice (his nickname was “the Velvet Fog”).

“The Christmas Song” has been covered hundreds of times. Still, the standard version that still gets the most airplay each year remains the version recorded by Nat King Cole with his trio in 1961. This was not Cole’s first recording of the tune – there were several dating back as far as 1946.

Click here for a delightful story about the song and Mel Torme.

Christmas Time is Here

vince-guaraldi.jpg

Vince Guaraldi was born in 1928 and was from San Francisco. His trio’s performance of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”, which he also wrote, was a top-40 hit (going to 22) in 1963. This is one of those tunes almost everyone has heard, but many do not know what it is called or who the artist is.

“Cast Your Fate to the Wind” has been covered by many other artists. I have a particularly nice version by guitarist Earl Klugh and another by pianist David Benoit (who cites Guaraldi as a major influence).

Guaraldi is most famous for providing the music for the first several Peanuts TV specials, starting with “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. While searching for the right music to accompany a planned Peanuts television documentary, Lee Mendelson (the producer of the special) heard a single version of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” by Vince Guaraldi’s trio on the radio while traveling in a taxicab on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. Mendelson contacted Ralph J. Gleason, jazz columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and was put in touch with Guaraldi. He proposed that Guaraldi score the upcoming Peanuts Christmas special and Guaraldi enthusiastically took the job, performing a version of what became “Linus and Lucy” for Mendelson over the phone two weeks later. The soundtrack was recorded by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, whose other members were bassist Fred Marshall and drummer Jerry Granelli. Guaraldi went on to compose scores for sixteen Peanuts television specials and the full-length movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

Guaraldi died suddenly of a heart attack in 1976 at the age of 47.

Much of Guaraldi’s work is harmonically rather simple, relying heavily on the diatonic I, IV, and V chords. “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is like this, as is “Linus and Lucy” and much of the “Charlie Brown Christmas” music. “Christmas Time is Here”, however, is anything but. It is full of altered chords and chromatic progressions. My version emphasizes those advanced harmonies and adds several substitutions as well:

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

was written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, dates from 1934. It was first sung on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934. It became an instant hit with orders for 100,000 copies of sheet music the next day and over 400,000 copies sold by Christmas. It is certainly one of the most popular holiday songs of all time. It is a pretty solid tune as well – jazz pianist and legend Bill Evans recorded a version on a non-Christmas album: Trio ’64. My version is solidly in the straight-ahead jazz tradition:

White Christmas

is a 1942 Irving Berlin song reminiscing about an old-fashioned Christmas setting. The version sung by Bing Crosby is the world’s best-selling single with estimated sales in excess of 50 million copies worldwide. When the figures for other versions of the song are added to Crosby’s, sales of the song exceed 100 million.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

was written by the lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent and recorded in 1943 by Bing Crosby, who scored a top ten hit with the song. Originally written to honor soldiers overseas who longed to be home at Christmas time, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” has since gone on to become a Christmas standard.

Happy holidays!

November 30, 2007 at 2:05 pm Leave a comment

Teen Idols Addendum

This past weekend I arranged and recorded “Sealed with a Kiss”. Written by Gerry Geld and Peter Udell, it went to three on the charts in 1962 for Brian Hyland. Bryan Hyland was another of the teen idols. Born in 1943 in Queens, his first hit was the novelty number “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” which hit number one in 1960 – when Hyland was just seventeen.

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November 20, 2007 at 7:10 am 2 comments

Teen Idols and Plane Crashes

Trying to target young teen and preteen girls is not new for the music industry. In recent years this has been the goal of the boy bands like New Kids on the Block, Menudo, ‘NSync, and the Backstreet Boys. While there are certainly examples of bands from the 50’s and 60’s with this type of appeal (Herman’s Hermits comes to mind, and the Beatles certainly appealed to this demographic as well), there are more numerous examples of individuals who fit this mold. For the purposes of this discussion, we can think of a teen idol as someone specifically created and groomed by a record company to sell records to this particular market.

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November 16, 2007 at 12:24 pm Leave a comment

50’s Instrumental Hits

The 1950’s saw the birth of Rock’n’Roll, evolving from Rhythm and Blues, Gospel, Jazz, and Country, while simultaneously influencing all those genres as well. It should be no surprise that there were a large number of instrumental hits from the 50’s that reflect all of those styles. This post will look at three of them: Sleepwalk, Honky Tonk, and Night Train.

Possibly the most familiar of all 50’s instrumentals, Sleepwalk was written and performed by Santo and Johnny (Santo and Johnny Farina were brothers born in Brooklyn). It was a number one hit in 1959. It features the melody performed on steel guitar. The singing, sliding sound is the result of the strings being stopped not by the fingers of the left hand but by a steel bar.

Sleepwalk is one of the most covered instrumentals of all time, with versions by Brian Setzer, The Shadows, The Ventures, Jake Shimabukuro, Larry Carlton, The Deftones, Chet Atkins, Danny Gatton, and Joe Satriani. Many of these are available on YouTube.

My version is quite traditional. I use the Bigsby vibrato bar to simulate some of the sliding, pitch bend effects of the original version.

Sleepwalk Stream Mp3

 

Honky Tonk was a hit for Bill Doggett in 1956. He also wrote it. The original version featured tenor sax and piano (Doggett was a pianist) but this did not prevent the song from becoming a staple for guitarists and guitar bands. It was covered by Duane Eddy, the Ventures, Lonnie Mack, and the Beach Boys.

According to the Wikipedia article, the song Night Train has a complex history. An R&B/Jazz standard, the first charted version of Night Train was Jimmy Forrest’s in 1952. Like Honky Tonk and Sleepwalk, it was covered by many artists, including a noteworthy version by James Brown and the Famous Flames in 1962.

Both Honky Tonk and Night Train are 12-bar blues forms typically performed with a shuffle feel, so I have combined the two in one arrangement I call Honky Tonk Night Train. What else would I call it?

Honky Tonk Night Train Stream Mp3

November 9, 2007 at 5:18 pm 1 comment


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