Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Don Les Harmonicats - Christmas With

Our friend Ernie, whose astoundingly fantastic blog Ernie (Not Bert) always has something for everyone, offered this last Christmas and I was able to snag it for an upgrade.

This version replaced a previous one I acquired from Ernie two years ago when he wasn't fully prepared to share this album out. He sent me the music but no artwork so I had to improvise (see below).

To quote from Ernie's hilarious notes:

"This is a group founded by one of the members of that original group, Don Les. The group leader was Jerry Murad, and he seems to have been the one that had most of the talent...

"And on top of all that, it's a pretty crummy label. One of the songs listed on the the cover, Upon The House Top (sic), is not even on the LP. Instead, you get O Little Town Of Bethlehem.

"Also, if you look at the Christmas ornaments on the cover, you can see the reflection of the photographer and his tripod, over and over and over again. Not to mention the whole thing is printed crooked! Come on, people.

"And the recording? Let's just say that I swear I can hear the microphone bump a harmonica more than once. Those noises are on the record, folks, it's not my crappy recording. But now that I've bad-mouthed it, do you still want to download "Christmas With The Don Les Harmonicats" (Halo 1005)?"

Obviously many people did, including me! And as always, Ernie was right on the mark about Jerry Murad and Don Les (what do you mean, Capt?).

Flashback to 1937. Thanks to FDR's "New Deal" and the WPA (Works Progress Administration), programs aimed at the inner city are making in-roads. During a WPA harmonica program in Chicago's Eckert Park, two friends named Jerry Murad (chromatic lead harmonica) and Pete Pedersen (chromatic) are playing their harmonicas when they notice a tubby kid named Al Fiore playing an oversized chord harmonica.

They immediately form a trio (later quartet, even quintet) named the Harmonica Madcaps. They play all over Chicago in nightclubs, a few radio shows, and outdoor festivals before Murad and Fiore join up with Borrah Minevitch's famed harmonica orchestra during World War II.

In 1944, Murad and Fiore decided to go solo and contact Pedersen about reforming the Madcaps. Pedersen offers his help but never becomes a full time member so they hire a bass harmonica player in Minevitch's orchestra named Don Les. Before one of their first shows, it is Don Les who suggests a name change from "Madcaps" to "Harmonicats".

While booked into a six-month gig in Chicago, where they share the stage with various newcomers like George Gobel and Patti Page, a recording engineer named Bill Putnam of Universal Recording Studios catches their act and asks the Harmonicats if they'd like to make a record.

One late night in 1947, shortly after their final show of the night (2 AM), they creep upstairs to the 43rd floor of the Civic Opera House and record four tracks using new phrasing, echo techniques (harmonicas aimed at walls in a men's bathroom), and with a guitarist and bassist along for accompaniment.

The group feels the strongest number is "Fantasie Impromptu," which they agree will be the A-side on a 78-rpm record. They also agree "Peg O' My Heart" is good enough for the B-side. They shop the record around to Chicago disc jockeys who dislike the A side. However, the B side catches on - a number one smash!

In 1947, the harmonica is not recognized as a musical instrument in the eyes of the American Federation of Musicians, headed by James C. Petrillo. During a recording ban ordered by Petrillo in 1948, the Harmonicats can continue to capitalize on their emerging success and begin to make recordings for Columbia Records. For a brief time, they are the darlings of the recording industry.

Unfortunately, there isn't an extensive Internet discography on the Harmonicats. What is known is that they recorded for Columbia Records until the mid-1950s, switched over to Mercury Records for a few years, changed their name to "Jerry Murad's Harmonicats", and then went back to Columbia again where they recorded well into the late 1960s!

Around 1971 or 1972, Don Les decided to go solo and quickly formed The Don Les Harmonicats. Despite his good bass harmonica, the other members of the group were well below the playing of a Jerry Murad or Al Fiore. In any case, they pressed on and sometime along the way, they recorded this Christmas album.

It's not a bad album. If you're looking for a simple Christmas album with a harmonica sound, then this is it. But if you're looking for great flourishes, hot harmonicas, and some lively play, then this isn't it.

I was a little disappointed that most of the songs take on a leisurely, stately pace. I can expect that with songs like "White Christmas", "O Little Town Of Bethlehem", and "Silent Night". But when "Jingle Bells" starts off at a funeral procession's pace and speeds up to a trot, you gotta wonder what type of downer's these guys were taking in the recording studio.

"Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" is the only Christmas song that starts and finishes strong. The only other song that has signs of life and energy is "The March Of The Three Kings" which is a clever re-title for Bizet's "Farandelle".

Overall, a nice change of pace that I'll pull out occasionally and listen to.

Throughout the 1970s, you had two groups: Jerry Murad's Original Harmonicats (with Al Fiore) and the Don Les Harmonicats. Each group played concerts, recorded albums, and the like until around 1980 when Don Les folded his group. Les settled into retirement and died in 1994.

Al Fiore left Jerry Murad in 1982 and settled into retirement. Murad and his new lineup of Harmonicats continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, playing pops concerts and writing harmonica instruction books up until his death in May, 1996. Five months later, Fiore died as well. At long last, the Harmonicats were reunited.

When I got this album originally, it had no album artwork so I whipped out a cover using a stock photo of the Harmonicats and a LIFE magazine photo of Rockefeller Center at Christmas time:

It was one of my first forays into PhotoShop and I don't think it's a bad cover. Nor do I think it's a great cover. In many ways, it's very much like this album.

To my knowledge, the original lineup of Harmonicats never released a full Christmas album. I hope I'm wrong and it will show up one day. Perhaps Ernie can track it down for us... Thanks for the album and upgrade, Ernie!

This leads me to ask: are there any good harmonica Christmas albums out there? If you know of one, leave a comment and be sure to let me know!

UP NEXT: Jan Garber - Christmas Dance Party



stubbysfears said...

Well, if you harken back to your reviews in March (27th?), there's Bruce Kurnow's "Holidays In Harmonicaland".

Here's the CDBaby link:

It's a bit uneven, and a couple of the songs are new agey piano. But, as harmonica Christmas albums go...well, gee, there aren't a whole lot.

Ernie said...

Don't forget the 'Cats version of Winter Wonderland. It's just a little taste of what a great album these guys could have put out in their prime.


CaptainOT said...

Stubby - I'm kinda leery about the CD now (or Kurnow in this case). New agey piano and harmonica don't really sound all that good!

Ernie - Ahh, yes! Thanks for tracking down those obscure, one-off, Christmas songs!

Be sure to click that link folks! Ernie's got some treasures over at his blog!


Snack49 said...

Is there something wrong with me - I really like the Don Les Christmas album. I found the cassette in a bargain bin somewhere I guess and keep hoping they put it on CD.
The original Harmonicats were fine; I especially enjoyed some( or was it only one?) of the Mercury albums.