Music For Your Road, no. 2: Cherish the (non-Classical) Ladies, Part 1
Your hearing works in the dark. It even works when you are asleep. Humans were designed (or evolved) so that certain hard-wired aspects of our ear-brain systems serve as important defense and survival mechanisms. When an Ice Age Cave Mommy heard a twig snap in the forest, she did not consciously have to focus on, think about, or figure out which direction that noise had come from.
That’s because an amazing biological mechanism (which is, essentially, an analog computer running on a very fast, very precise, clock) received the neural inputs from Ice Age Cave Mommy’s widely spaced ears; converted the arrival-time-difference information into spatial-localization information; and then immediately (and involuntarily) redirected her eyes in the direction that the potentially-threatening sound had come from. All of which takes place in a matter of milliseconds.
My thesis is that our abilities to perceive, assess, enjoy, and remember music “ride along” on the neural wiring for an important survival mechanism. That’s why music means so much to us. That’s why old people who have lost many of their mental faculties nonetheless can still remember and be moved by music they enjoyed when they were young.
When we suddenly hear a loud sound with the frequency range and timbral qualities that are characteristic of a lost toddler’s wails, we all have, first, a hard-wired “startle alert” reaction; and then, a hard-wired “fight-or-flight” reaction. Opera composers have been shamelessly exploiting these universal human reactions for as long as they have been composing operas (that is, from AD 1598 on). Especially in the big Act 1 aria for the leading soprano.
Just as importantly, many composers of popular music have also made use of this gambit. If you want to hear an example of an “operatic” pop song, listen to Linda Ronstadt’s 1970 breakthrough “Baroque Rock” hit (meaning, with classical guitar, classical strings, and harpsichord) “Long, Long Time.”
Listen to the artful catch in Linda’s voice … and to the power of her voice. (I myself think that Linda was gunning for Maria Callas’ job at the Metropolitan Opera.)
Nearly everyone had a mother, or a female caregiver. That’s why women’s singing voices tap right into everyone’s limbic systems. The first album I conceptualized and brought to completion (it is still in print and selling, nearly 40 years later) is a violin-and-piano short-piece recital. However, the title of the album is Songs My Mother Taught Me, after a Dvořák art song that is usually sung by a female singer—as though to her own baby.
What is the most-requested audio-show demonstration material? “Female vocals.”
So, here are a few!
But first: Ella Fitzgerald’s Cole Porter Songbook (which I covered in my most recent column); Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark; Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat; and Norah Jones’ Come Away with Me all are extremely well known. Therefore, I think that my giving any of those recordings any additional coverage will only take away from some great albums that many people have never heard—or even heard about.
In some circles, I think the same can also be said for Julie London—the best-selling U.S. female popular vocalist of 1956, 1957, and 1958. Or, perhaps it’s just that I need a break from writing about Julie. If you don’t know her albums, you should check them out—‘early ones first’ is best, I think.
The following recommendations are in chronological order by release date or recording date. As always, these lists are idiosyncratic, and very subjective. Therefore, complaining that a singer like Taylor Swift is not on my list is guaranteed to be futile.
That said, I think that, listening first to Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” (1975), and then to what might well have been intended as an “answer song,” Ms. Swift’s “Fifteen” (2008), one can only conclude that the 1970s were a Golden Age of popular songwriting, while the 2000s… weren’t.
Also, I want to focus on artists of demonstrated depth whose works have withstood the test of time. Therefore, this is a list of representative albums, not “one-hit-wonder” singles. Even though I love playing Alannah Myles’ one-hit-wonder Elvis-tribute song “Black Velvet” really, really, loud.
That song went to #1 on two Billboard charts, and won the Female Rock Vocal Grammy. Two trivia bits: The song is in D# minor, which, I think, for a rock song, is as remarkable as the Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms,” which is in G# minor.
And, while I always had assumed that Alannah Myles’ song title “Black Velvet” was a reference to the over-the-couch-sized Elvis Presley paintings (paintings of Elvis, not by Elvis) on black velvet (and, in that, I was correct; but just not totally correct); it turns out that the mature Elvis’ hair dye of choice was called… Black Velvet.
But there’s no way to fit the Black Velvet Canadian whisky brand in there: Elvis had a massive prescription-drug problem, but he never drank alcohol.
(Wow, Alannah Myles is 61 now. That makes me feel old.)
The mid to late 1950s were the last time when the most popular musical genre in America was an art music. That’s because jazz is an art music.
Yes, there was dopey pop music that was simply not jazz (e.g., “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”); lots of “Middle of the Road” instrumental music that did not qualify as jazz; and lots of vocal music, especially small-group vocal music, that also did not qualify as jazz.
Moreover, one should admit that among the general populace in the 1950s, appreciation for jazz was far wider than it was deep. The same can be said for classical music. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, and perhaps Duets with the Spanish Guitar checked off the necessary cultural-striving boxes, and that was that.
But jazz, back then, had a prevalence, in part born of its contemporaneousness, that it lost not long after. There were not only live performances by artists of the caliber of Miles Davis on prime-time television in the 1950s. Jazz music was a production element of many television shows, especially the detective drama Peter Gunn. In that series, private eye Peter Gunn’s girlfriend was a singer in a jazz club. From the theme music, through the unfolding of each episode, all the music was jazz.
Two priceless trivia bits: Multi-instrumentalist Victor Feldman played vibes on the 1958 LP The Music from Peter Gunn; in 1977, Feldman played on Steely Dan’s album Aja. Even better: Future superstar film-score composer John Williams played most of the improvised piano solos on the Peter Gunn TV-episode soundtracks.
So, we start with jazz, and then we cast the net more widely.
1. Helen Merrill: Helen Merrill with Strings (1955)
The name “Helen Merrill” might as well have been picked out of a phone book. First-generation Croatian-American Helen Merrill’s birth name had been Jelena Ana Milcetic. Merrill’s self-titled début album is the one that usually shows up on lists, largely because Clifford Brown’s trumpet solos alternated with her singing. But I think that this (perhaps, obligatory for the 1950s) “with strings” offering is the real sleeper/star of Merrill’s early catalog.
I can only speculate that her Eastern European heritage (or perhaps her birth sign, or her temperament) is what makes Merrill approach her chosen songs as seriously as though they were classical art songs—and also why she gravitates to the pensive and moody end of the emotional spectrum. Jumpin’ jive is not Helen’s thing. There are uptempo numbers, such as “Everything Goes.” But they are taken at a measured pace. Sure to be a new discovery, for almost everybody.
2. Blossom Dearie: Verve Jazz Masters 51 (1956–1960)
I recommend this compilation, despite its inclusion of the dopiest song in human history: “Rhode Island Is Famous for You.” (“Pencils, come from Pennsylvania… Minnows, come from Minnesota… .”)
Blossom Dearie was a remarkably talented young woman with a very distinctive voice, and a given name that sounds like a made-up stage name. (But it wasn’t.) Dearie had been a member of the music-nerd study group that gave birth to The Birth of the Cool; but, for some reason, she was not invited to join the band. Curious. Crow Jim? Or, was Chivalry already dead?
In addition to singing, Dearie plays piano on all but one track of this compilation. Bill Evans once remarked that his use of the musical interval of the fourth in his chord voicings had been inspired by listening to Blossom Dearie. While she can be light-hearted or fey, I think her finest work is wistful ballads (“They Say It’s Spring”), or songs that allow for a gently ironical delivery (“Down With Love”).
3. Salli Terri: Duets with the Spanish Guitar (1958)
I’m not going to argue with anyone who asserts that the LP Duets with the Spanish Guitar was make-out music for 1950s sophisticates (or sophisticate wannabes). However, it was far more than just that. It was also make-out music for 1970s sophisticates and sophisticate wannabes! (Tee hee.)
Salli Terri was an exceptional singer, by any standard.
This was, as far as I know, the first classical/jazz/jazz-vocal crossover record. Duets with the Spanish Guitar served to bring Latin-American folk and classical music, such as Villa-Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5,” to a much wider audience, as well as dressing up music by Chopin, Fauré, and Ibert in Mid-Century-Modern, flute-and-guitar style.
Villa-Lobos, by the way, said that Salli Terri’s was the best performance of his “Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5.” Not incidentally, an LP copy of Duets with the Spanish Guitar was one of the young Linda Ronstadt’s most-cherished recordings.
Audiophiles take note: Duets with the Spanish Guitar won the first Grammy award for Best-Engineered Classical Album.
4. Jo Stafford: Jo + Jazz (1960)
Jo Stafford (1917–2008) was a once-famous singer whose career began in the 1930s, and whose unstinting service entertaining military personnel during WWII earned her the nickname “GI Jo.”
Jo + Jazz was recorded just 16 months after Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, in the same studio, with the same producer—Irving Townsend—and (I must assume) the same equipment and engineers. However, whereas Kind of Blue was the high-water mark of brilliance and innovation in improvisation, Jo + Jazz was the swan song for orchestrated-jazz female vocals.
The list of assisting musicians is stellar: Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Jimmy Rowles, Mel Lewis, Conte Candoli, Russ Freeman, and Don Fagerquist. The orchestrations were by Johnny Mandel, from the time before he struck pay dirt with “The Shadow of Your Smile.”
Stafford and her husband, jazz pianist and arranger Paul Weston, reportedly thought that Columbia failed to promote the record adequately. That might have been the case.
However, in the label’s defense, tasteful jazz singing was going begging in 1960. 1960 was the year of “Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.” The top 1960 chart positions went to Elvis Presley, Chubby Checker, and the Drifters; there also was a strong showing for Ferrante & Teicher’s “Theme from (the movie) Exodus.”
My two favorite Jo + Jazz cuts are “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” (Stafford’s is my go-to vocal version) and “Imagination.” But the entire album is a treat: a precious moment in time, forever frozen in amber. Again, this is almost certain to be a new discovery, for almost everybody.
5. Françoise Hardy: Françoise Hardy (Tous les garçons et les filles) (1962)
Now, here’s a seismic change from Jo + Jazz. Or, if you prefer, a sea change.
Françoise Hardy (her last name is pronounced “Ardy”) was raised in Paris, by a single mother. Her father briefly reappeared in her teenage years, giving her a guitar as a high-school graduation present. Françoise taught herself to play the guitar, and she soaked up the music she heard on the radio in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Radio Luxembourg, which played American music, and which broadcast in English).
Françoise answered an ad looking for young singers. The first single released from her first LP (originally untitled; then self-titled; then re-titled with the hit-single title) sold a million copies, mostly for its “B” side, “Tous les garçons et les filles” (“All the Boys and the Girls”).
A modeling career and a role in the 1966 racing film Grand Prix followed. Bob Dylan thought that Françoise was the ideal woman—Dylan gushed about her on the back of one of his LP covers. Miles Davis was entranced. And, Mick Jagger, it seems, tried to set Françoise up in a threesome … my guess, with Marianne Faithfull.
It gets better! Jimmy Page once claimed in a radio interview that he had played on Hardy’s first recording!
Zut alors! Future Led Zeppelin frontman playing rockabilly behind a teenaged Eurobabe??? Incroyable!
Quel dommage, I must conclude that that’s a story that is “too good to fact-check.” Hardy later said that her first record was made with “the four worst musicians in Paris,” and I can’t imagine the word “worst” ever applying to Mr. Page’s playing.
What most likely happened was that after the success of her first LP, Hardy crossed the Channel to record an LP in England that could be sold in the British market without worrying about having to pay import duties. Therefore I conclude that Jimmy Page recalled having played on Françoise’s first UK album.
The chronology fits … and it is a matter of record that Page did play, in London, on two Johnny Hallyday albums in the same general time frame. If the name “Johnny Hallyday” is unfamiliar to you, he was a Franco-Belgian pop and rock singer (the “Gallic Elvis”) whose 79 career albums racked up total sales of more than 80 million copies.
The thing that I find most arresting about Hardy’s first LP (which was issued about four months before the Beatles’ first LP) is that a self-taught teenager created a fusion between the French chanson tradition and the Rockabilly strain of American popular music.
Which, obviously, puts Françoise’s first album worlds apart from Jo Stafford’s “Great American Songbook” jazz stylings. That said, taking Françoise’s career as a whole, her most popular songs in English-speaking countries were her poignant but dignified ballads, such as “All Over the World.”
Well, with all the important explanatory material up front, I have already gone over my word target. Therefore, I will cover albums 6–12 next time around!
Here is a Qobuz link where you can listen to albums 1–5:
The first part of this column is based upon guest lectures on “Music Perception” that John Marks gave at Brown University, in the Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences department course on Perception. The reading and listening assignments for John’s Brown University lectures are available for anyone to browse, on John’s personal blog The Tannhäuser Gate.