Monday, September 22, 2008
If there's a site online that sells Christmas CDs or records, I have notifications that come in to alert me of new items for sale. Every morning, I'm alerted by eBay, GEMM, and Musicstack to many new items - some good, some bad, and some I've seen too many times (people still think those Goodyear & Firestone Christmas LPs will sell online!).
So it came as a shock when two months ago, I received a notification for this very CD you're looking at from the good folks at Half.com. I used to go visit Half many years ago - even sold some VHS tapes when VHS was still in vogue over there - and made some quality purchases along the way.
When eBay purchased Half.com back in 2000, they planned to integrate it into eBay and eventually close down Half.com. But eBay chose to keep it running separate primarily for the textbook market and (travesty of all travesties) Half does not accept PayPal - credit card only.
Needless to say, when this showed on Half, I went digging for my credit card. I wasn't gonna pass on this one again (more on that later).
Arthur Ferrante and Louis Teicher met while studying at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Musical prodigies, they began performing as a piano duo while still in school. After graduating, they both joined the Juilliard faculty.
They became a popular act on the "pops" symphony circuit. At the same time, they began experimenting with modifications to pianos, inserting objects into the stringbed, playing on the stringbed, striking keys or strings with blocks, and generally striving to figure out how to get the strangest possible sounds. Working before the first synthesizer, they succeeded in producing phenomenal, almost electronic sounds.
In fact, throughout this period, the duo was accused of using more than just pianos to produce these sounds, and they had to produce an affidavit to convince Columbia Records before the label released their first single by two independent witnesses that pianos were the only instruments on the recordings!
Their unusual sounds caught the eyes and ears of many early television pioneers such as Steve Allen, Dave Garroway, and Ernie Kovacs and asked F & T to appear on their shows:
Back in 1956, F & T released their first full-length Christmas album entitled "Adventures In Carols". Featuring a cover that has Santa straddling a rocket shot into the stratosphere, they used stuffed wads of paper, sticks, rubber stops, masonite strings, cardboard wedges, and sandpaper into the pianos to conjure up weird effects resembling gongs, castanets, drums, xylophone, and harpsichord.
Strangely enough, it works with Christmas very nicely. "Sleigh Ride", then a new Leroy Anderson composition making the rounds, benefits immensely from the F & T treatment and it was rumored that this was Leroy Anderson's favorite version of his song!
It's a remarkable album. Back when the King of Jingaling began FaLaLaLaLa.com in 2004, this was one of his first featured albums at that site (and it's still available at FLLLL so go get it!).
By the end of the 1950s, most of their albums were entirely comprised of prepared piano pieces. Despite the innovative workmanship on these albums, it wasn't translating into commercial success.
They left Westminster Records for the larger United Artists Records in 1959 and caught a major break. Their parent company, United Artists Pictures was filming a new Billy Wilder / Jack Lemmon movie called "The Apartment" and needed a catchy tune.
Their instrumental version of "The Apartment" was a smash. These recordings put them atop the easy listening charts and suddenly they were playing to packed concert halls across the country. They quickly became one of the best-selling instrumental easy listening groups of the 1960s.
In 1962, F & T released "Snowbound" just in time for Christmas - the first album on this 2-for-1 compilation from 1992. About half of the twelve songs on this album are "true" Christmas songs ("Let It Snow", "Jingle Bells", "Winter Wonderland") while some are standard winter songs ("Snowbound", "Happy Sleigh Ride", "June In January") while others make you scratch your head and ask "why?" ("Moonlight Serenade", "Moonlight in Vermont").
There's no mistaking the Ferrante & Teicher sound when it comes to the pianos, but this album is quite a letdown from the exotic sounds of "Adventures In Carols".
Several of the songs are dominated by a lush strings from a full orchestra and choir. This makes it hard to know what the duo pianos are playing inbetween (or if they sound you think is from the piano is actually from the piano).
The other tracks feature the trademark duo piano sound from F & T but there's no danger or the unexpected here. Listen to "Adventures In Carols" and you'll never know what your going to hear next. Here it's Christmas 101 - follow the lush accompaniment to the end with no room for experimentation of the once former unique F & T sound.
In 1966, F & T visited Christmas a third time with their album "We Wish You A Merry Christmas". This epic album is an opera compared to "Adventures In Carols". Imagine the lushest, biggest, fullest orchestra & piano sound you've ever heard on any Christmas album, then triple it. You might just come close to what this entire album sounds like.
Every production dollar United Artist spent on this album is within earshot. Nothing was held back on this album. The well-arranged medleys cram in even more Christmas songs than before. It's massive, it's spectacular, it's screams Christmas.
And I hate it. Every stinking note.
I have attempted to listen to this album from beginning to end since I picked it up and I just can't do it. Having known where these guys started with "Adventures In Carols" and where they ended up with... this... it's heartbreaking and earsplitting.
I'm guessing the deal F & T made with the devil to become wealthy, internationally successful recording stars was to record drek like this. Between 1960 and 1973, they averaged four albums a year for United Artists, often playing to packed concert houses, appearing up to 100 times a year at their peak.
They adopted near-identical hairstyles and mustaches, wore matching big "birth control" glasses, and loud tuxes, giving even Liberace a run for their money:
By the late 1970s, the duo were still recording and touring when they decided to leave United Artists to form their own label. Named Avant-Garde, they now recorded twin piano arrangements only, leaving the orchestra far behind. They continued to release newly interpreted versions of songs like "Wind Beneath My Wings" and all of Andrew Lloyd Webber's signature tunes while continuing to perform concerts across the world.
Every rainbow has an end and it came at the end of the 1980s when they retired and went to Florida. Ferrante and Teicher lived within a few miles of each other and were content living off the royalties for several years.
When the lounge craze hit back in the late 90s, they were in demand again. F & T hired a new manager, dusted off the glasses and blazers, and began to record again while reissuing older catalog material.
That's where 2000's "Christmas Is So Special" falls. A repackage of this CD, it eliminates the two "Moon" songs from "Snowbound", adds a version of "Ave Maria", and presto! Used copies can be found of this CD at Amazon.com in the $35 - $50 range.
A single new CD was released entitled "Denizens Of The Deep" hit the stores in 2001 but by then, the lounge craze was over and F & T went back to Florida. Last year, Lou Teicher died of heart failure at the age of 83.
When I managed several CD store in the early 1990s, I had one copy of this album in one of my stores and it sat there for a majority of the time I worked there. Before I left that job, I nearly cleaned out every one of their Christmas CDs. Can you guess which CD I left behind?
At long last, welcome home, F & T.
BONUS VIDEO: F & T play "Brazilian Sleigh Bells" on "The Dean Martin Show":