Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Christmas Collection 2016

I've been doing this for a while now, but this is the first time I've put it on the internet.  This is my annual mix of holiday music, with songs new and old to get and/or keep you in a festive mood.  These are not the same old songs you hear on the radio each December.  Well, some of them are the same songs, but not the versions you're used to.  This is stuff you likely haven't heard before.  It's also a relentlessly upbeat collection, so don't worry about crying to Christmas Shoes or a Grown Up Christmas List.  This collection is just fun.

Here are the ground rules I use when putting my list together:
  • There are twenty-five of them.
  • Twelve of them are cover of songs you probably know.
  • Twelve of them are songs you probably don't know.
  • The 25th spot is saved for the most unusual song I find each year.
  • No duplicated songs or duplicated artists in any given set.
  • The collection will always contain a version of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, my favorite traditional carol.
You will find a lot of swing and big band sounds because that's my sweet spot, but I try to find a nice variety of styles.  I have everything from country to klezmer and from gospel to zydeco.  Some of it is silly (though I try to avoid simple novelty tunes) but musically, it's all pretty solid.

Click on the link below to download the entire collection as a zip file, then unzip it into a folder with 25 mp3 files.  It's timed to fit on a standard CD if you choose to burn it that way, though I know that's increasingly rare.


1. Tony Orlando
2. Nick Lowe
3. The Klezmonauts
4. Jimmy Davis
5. Pete Fountain
6. The Goldbergs
7. The Chenille Sisters
8. Si Cranstoun
9. The New Christy Minstrels
10. Keb' Mo'
11. Wayne Holton
12. Aaron Neville
13. Southern Culture on the Skids
14. Chet Atkins
15. Mary Karlzen
16. Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers
17. Sir Patrick Stewart
18. Ashley Fox Linton
19. Death Cab for Cutie
20. Jamie & Steve
21. The Pete Jacobs Orchestra
22. Kip Anderson 
23. Leon Redbone feat. Dr. John
24. Carly Jamison
25. Pledge Drive

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Milton DeLugg and Ray Charles

This has been a rough week for losing interesting figures in the entertainment industry.  But for as much attention which is (rightfully) being paid to legendary satirist Stan Freberg, to character actor and Clint Eastwood’s comic foil Geoffrey Lewis, and even to James Best, who played the lovably inept Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard, two forces in television music also died this week that you might not have heard about.  Neither of them were very well known, but just by longevity alone (both lived way into their nineties), they each left a mark on entertainment in very unusual ways.

Milton DeLugg is probably best known as the bandleader for the Chuck Barris free-for-all known as The Gong Show.  Barris called the band “Milton DeLugg and his Band with a Thug”, a play on the name of Bob Hope’s better-known house band, “Les Brown and his Band of Renown.”  DeLugg contributed more to the craziness than just his music; he occasionally offered corny jokes in character as “Naso Literatus” (actually the Latin name of a tropical fish!). 

With Abe Burrows
A 19-year-old DeLugg played his accordion in the 1937 short film Trailing Along.  He continued to appear in shorts and the occasional feature until the early fifties, when his attention moved to television.  He was the musical director for Broadway Open House, an NBC late-night program considered by many to be the progenitor of The Tonight Show.  (Many years later, he led the Tonight Show band in Johnny Carson’s early years for a brief interim period between Skitch Henderson and Doc Severinsen.) During the fifties, he served as bandleader for variety shows starring such diverse personalities as ventriloquist Paul Winchell, playwright Abe Burrows and even game show host Bill Cullen.  Through his association with Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser (his co-writer on "Hoop-Dee-Doo"), DeLugg was informally involved in the development of their classic musical Guys and Dolls.

As a composer, DeLugg contributed many “Really, that was him?” trivia moments to popular culture.

  • “Horray for Santa Claus”, his theme song to the notorious 1964 cheapie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, has become a novelty favorite.  Al Hirt even recorded a respected cover of the silly ditty.
  • His “Orange Colored Sky” (perhaps better-known for the lyrics “Flash! Bam! Alakazam!”) was a 1950 hit for Nat King Cole, and has since been recorded by everyone from Doris Day to Lady Gaga.
  • His instrumental “Rollercoaster” was used as the closing theme music to the long-running panel show What’s My Line?
  • “Hoop-Dee-Doo”, a fun polka number all about how much fun polka numbers are, was a top-20 hit for three different artists (Perry Como, Kay Starr and Doris Day) in the same year.  DeLugg eventually used it as the winner’s theme on The Gong Show.  Until a recent redesign, The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, a dinner show at the Fort Wilderness Resort in Disney World, used his song as its theme.

For decades, DeLugg also served as musical director for the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  He served in that capacity for the final time in 2013 at the age of 94.  He died Tuesday at the age of 96.

For MUCH more detail about DeLugg's long career, here's a transcript of a lengthy and detailed 2011 interview:

Ray Charles is certainly a much more famous name, but the guy who died this week wasn’t THAT Ray Charles.  The legendary blind soul singer died more than a decade ago.  THIS Ray Charles was a musical arranger and conductor perhaps best known as the leader of The Ray Charles Singers, a group known for their long association with Perry Como.  If you’re old enough, and if your tastes veered toward the easiest of easy listening, you might remember their hit recording of “Love Me With All Your Heart”.

The Ray Charles Singers recorded dozens of albums your parents bought, and which you can now easily find in the dusty back bins of thrift stores, but Charles himself provided a specific and invaluable skill in the early years of television variety shows.  Broadly described as “special material”, Charles had the ability to create new pieces or adapt old ones to the styles of any given guest performer, a useful skill that allowed him to work with most of the great entertainers of the 20th century, including the famous Ray Charles.  He once said of his abilities, "My forte is material written for a special situation. I'm a one performance-only man!"

He took his musical arrangement skills to a variety of variety shows in later years, including The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (where he had the famous Ray Charles perform “America the Beautiful”)  the ersatz-50s group Sha Na Na, The Muppet Show, and annual spectaculars such as The Kennedy Center Honors and A Capital Fourth.  As his name appeared with increasing regularity in credit rolls, he began billing himself as “the other Ray Charles”

As with DeLugg, Ray Charles’ career has some amusing trivia footnotes.  He provided the male voice to the duet that sang the Three’s Company theme song ("Come and knock on our door.").  And if you remember the names of the states in alphabetical order because you memorized the song “Fifty Nifty United States” in grade school, you have Ray Charles to thank for that.

Coincidentally, Ray Charles and Milton DeLugg not only died on the same date, both were 96.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Voice to Remember

Leonard Nimoy was an icon with a distinctive voice and a dedicated sci-fi following.  Therefore, it's not surprising that portions of his professional life were spent in a recording studio giving vocal life to a variety of characters.  So here's a quiz that will separate the geeks from the even BIGGER geeks!

Below are twelve images from movies, television and even video games for which Leonard Nimoy provided his distinctive voice, ranked in order from what I believe are the easiest to identify to the hardest.  Your job is to identify the program from which these images are taken, as well as the name of the character pictured.  Twenty-four correct answers in all, with the first eight pretty much giveaways.  A total of eighteen or more (without searching the internet!) proves you really know your Nimoy.

Feel free to comment your answers, though be aware they have to go through moderation first so you won't see them right away.  












Friday, February 27, 2015

Live Long and Prosper

My entry to the world of Star Trek was probably different than most.  As a child (I was six when the original series debuted), I was only vaguely aware of the show.  By the time I was old enough to actually appreciate it, the series had ended its network run and began airing in syndication around the country.  Yes, that's where a lot of people discovered the show for the first time, and where it gained momentum and started its march toward iconic status, but even then I wasn't paying that much attention.  Until a trip to the bookstore.

My father loved reading science fiction, so once I decided I was too old for children's books (I was nine or ten after all!), I made my way over to where he was looking.  That's what sons do, after all.  Entering this strange new world for the first time, authors' names didn't register.  Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, all would matter to me eventually, but at the time, those and hundreds of other names were meaningless.  I also didn't recognize the name James Blish.  But I recognized the title on the small Bantam paperback: It said "Star Trek".  Specifically, "Star Trek 3."  And I'd HEARD of Star Trek.  It was on TV!

Years later, "Star Trek 3" would be followed by the subtitle "The Search For Spock", but in 1969, it was the third collection of short stories --each one based on an episode of the television series -- that Blish had adapted from the original scripts.  I bought that collection with two hard-earned quarters from my allowance, and was instantly hooked.  I read all the stories, and -- because I knew what the number '3' meant -- managed to locate the first two volumes and devour those.  For the next few years, every trip to the bookstore meant checking to see if the next collection had been released.  Long before it was easy and convenient to know when books would come out, the excitement in seeing the next collection on the shelf is a feeling I can recall fondly today. Eventually there would be twelve numbered volumes in all, plus a novelization combining the two Harry Mudd episodes.  Turns out a lot of the later stuff was actually written by Blish's wife.

Naturally, reading the stories made me more interested in seeing the TV episodes.  Sometimes, I'd watch an episode and recognize it from a story I'd read.  Sometimes, that particular episode hadn't been adapted yet and I followed it for the first time.  Over time, as the episodes reran again and again, I'd start paying attention to the differences between the Blish stories (which were often based on earlier drafts of a script) and the TV adventures.  Ultimately, I became a fan.

In addition to the adaptations, Blish was also the first writer to craft an original Star Trek novel for grown-ups, putting the familiar characters into new situations and expanding the universe beyond those 79 precious original episodes.  Somewhat poignantly, given the events of today, that original novel was called Spock Must Die.  What began with Blish has grown to an industry of hundreds of authorized novels, covering not only the original series but all the Star Trek series that followed, and even expanding upon the universe to feature characters not seen in any of the series.  To this day, anytime I find myself in a used book store, I instinctively (my wife would say 'compulsively') gravitate to the sci-fi paperbacks, in search of a Star Trek novel I haven't read or -- more likely these days -- read once upon a time and forgot about.  There's also countless fan fiction and, increasingly, fascinating fan-made original episodes available for viewing on You Tube.  

I realize very little of that has to do with Leonard Nimoy, who died today at the age of 83, except to the degree that it is totally impossible to picture Mr. Spock, whether on screen or in the pages of an adaptation, without picturing the actor who originally brought him to life.  And though eulogies in the coming days will strain to tell of his other work (he directed the eighties comedy Three Men and a Baby!), he'll always be remembered for that iconic character.

Ultimately, he seemed to embrace that fact.  He especially seemed to have a sense of humor about his place in the pop culture pantheon when it came to commercials.  The website for Advertising Age has amusingly gathered some of them (be sure to check out the German-only one for Volkswagen!) but there are plenty of others.

Much like George Takei, Nimoy had even embraced new technology -- to a degree.  He didn't use his Twitter account (@TheRealNimoy) as frequently as other show-biz legends with more than a million followers, but every one of his tweets ended with the letters LLAP, shorthand for the traditional Vulcan greeting he introduced.  His last tweet, anticipating his death, read, "A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP."

He did.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Are You Lonesome Tonight? - Ten Facts, Ten Covers

Every once in a while, I like to gather up a variety of takes on one popular song.  I got the idea from one of my favorite music bloggers, Any Major Dude with Half a Heart, who calls it a "song swarm."
One of Elvis Presley's biggest hits actually predates Elvis' recording of it by more than three decades.   Are You Lonesome Tonight? was originally written in 1926 by composer Lou Handman and lyricist Roy Turk.  It was immediately popular, with several early recordings within a year or so of its publication.     

1.  Are You Lonesome Tonight? is not nearly the oldest song Elvis made into a huge hit. The music for Love Me Tender is from a Civil War era ballad called Aura Lee.

2. According to Elvis legend, Presley recorded Are You Lonesome Tonight? at the insistence of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.  It was reportedly a favorite of Parker's wife.

3. Are You Lonesome Tonight? was the title of a 1985 British play about the life of Elvis Presley. Released the same year as Les Miserables, it did not have the staying power of that far more famous show.  A later Broadway show, All Shook Up, was a "jukebox musical" that featured Elvis songs in an original story having nothing to do with The King.

4.  The spoken word interlude ("Someone said all the world's a stage...") was introduced later, but still predates Elvis' version.  See the Blue Barron link below.

5. "All the world's a stage..." is the beginning to a well-known speech in Shakespeare's As You Like It.  After that familiar phrase, the spoken-word section of the song is quite loosely adapted from the original.

6. Speaking of loose adaptations, the underrated 1982 movie Top Secret! (from the same team of writer-directors who gave us Airplane! and The Naked Gun) featured an Elvis-like singer (played by Val Kilmer) getting mixed up with Eastern European spies.  In that film, Are You Lonesome Tonight? is reworked into a jingle for Macy's.

7. The earliest recording of the song is thought to be by Bob Haring and The Cameo Dance Orchestra.  However, no copy of that recording survives today.

8.  Elvis recorded his version in a totally dark studio.  Near the end,  Elvis stumbled into a chair, knocking it over.  Supposedly, that sound can be heard on the recording if you listen closely enough.

 9. Are You Lonesome Tonight was also the title of a 1992 TV-movie starring Jane Seymour and Parker Stevenson.  According to its IMDB description, "A rich wife who is searching for her missing husband, seeks help from a private eye and her husband's call girl."

10.  Among the cover artists not mentioned below are Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Connie Francis, Donny Osmond and Pat Boone. The song has been translated into many languages, including Serbo-Croatian.

For those familiar only with the Elvis hit, it's somewhat jarring to hear the song preserved in the tinny, over-enunciated, static-filled sound of those old 78rpm recordings.  Born as Harry Haley McClaskey, Henry Burr was a Canadian tenor who (by his own estimate) made more than 12,000 recordings in his lifetime, under a variety of pseudonyms.  His is one of the earliest surviving recordings, but there are several others also available from that era
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Henry Burr 1927)

In an era before mass media, "covers" of songs could get distorted almost beyond recognition.  In 1936, the original Carter Family recorded their folk version of the song with a substantially different melody:
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Carter Family 1936)

The version that was probably the biggest influence on Elvis' take was this one from 1950 by Blue Barron and His Orchestra.  For one thing, it was the first recording that introduced the spoken-word interlude that became standard after Elvis incorporated it for his version  In this one, the vocalist (Bobby Beers) and the speaker (John McCormick) are two different people.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Blue Barron and His Orchestra 1950)

Country music legends Homer and Jethro were recording parodies of popular hits before Weird Al Yankovic was even born.  Sometimes lost in the often corny silliness was what good musicians they were.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Homer & Jethro 1960)

"Answer songs" are essentially the music world's version of sequels.  Usually obscure novelties, they approach a hit record from a different perspective, often a gender reversal.  From 1960, here's Dodie Stevens with her answer to Elvis.
Yes, I'm Lonesome Tonight (Dodie Stevens 1960)

Billy Vaughn was a musician and bandleader whose specialty was instrumental covers of old standards and popular songs. He and his orchestra were preposterously prolific from the late fifties through the sixties, releasing dozens and dozens of albums.  His take on our song is pretty typical of his light, breezy style, starting in a traditional vein before becoming looser halfway through.
Are You Lonesome Tonight (Billy Vaughn 1961)

To break up the monotony of his live performances, Elvis would sometimes sing alternate comic lyrics to his popular hits, often dissolving into giggles at his own antics.  Long popular as underground, bootleg tracks, one such version of Lonesome, recorded at a 1969 Vegas concert, actually got a commercial release as part of a 1980 tribute box set.  BTW, the solo obligato heard over Elvis' spoken word section is by Cissy Houston, the mother of Whitney. 
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Elvis Live in Vegas 1969)

Sam Kinison was a popular standup comic of the late 80s and early 90s whose promising career was cut short by a fatal 1992 car crash.  Known for his high-energy, screaming rants, he could also display a good (if not great) singing voice.  Both are on display in this appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Sam Kinison 1986)

The soundtrack to the 1992 film Honeymoon in Vegas used modern artists covering various Elvis tunes.  (A current stage version of the film features original songs.) Most sounded a lot like the Elvis originals, but Bryan Ferry created a moody, haunting version of Lonesome quite different than the usual approach.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Bryan Ferry 1992)

Finally, one of the better modern takes on this 88-year-old standard is performed by Kacey Musgraves from a live 2013 performance at the Grand Ole Opry.  Note the impressive steel guitar interlude!
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Kacey Musgraves 2013)

Saturday, January 31, 2015

After the Super Bowl

For years, the major networks that air the Super Bowl have used the time slot following the game to launch a promising new series or give greater exposure to an established one.  NBC will use the time this year for an episode of The Blacklist.  The exposure hasn't always worked.  Shows such as Extreme (a 1995 adventure series with James Brolin), The Last Precinct (a 1986 police sitcom starring Adam West) and The Good Life (a 1994 sitcom featuring Drew Carey, one year before his eponymous series debuted) all failed to connect with audiences.  The ones below did better.  Most of them, anyway.

All you need to do is match the series (listed below, alphabetically) to the episode of that series which aired in the coveted post-Super-Bowl time slot (listed further below, also alphabetically).  And if you're saying "Episode titles? I have no idea about episode titles!", just pay attention and use the clues.  I don't think this is really difficult if you know a little about the shows.

All in the Family
The New Perry Mason
The Office
The Simpsons
3rd Rock from the Sun
Undercover Boss

"Archie and the Super Bowl"
"The Case of the Tortured Titan"
"The Deductionist"
"Homer and Ned's Hail Mary Pass"
"The One After the Super Bowl"
"Shadow of the Hawke"
"Stress Relief"
"The Sue Sylvester Shuffle"
"36! 24! 36! Dick!"
"Waste Management"

Thursday, January 29, 2015

What's the Connection?

What is the connection between all the images?
How many of them can you identify?
Why, specifically, does one picture appear twice? 
(No, it's not a mistake.)