Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Jose Melis - Christmas With Melis

Yesterday I was scrounging around in a Goodwill store and found this album - which freaked me out because I was due to write about it today - talk about coincidence!

This was yet another album brought to us by our pal Ernie (downloaded at his blog on November 29th, 2006 at 11:57 PM). Ernie was going through a Latin phase at the time - the other Christmas albums he shared around this time were from Menudo and Charo!

If you're still wondering "who is Jose Melis?", then take a trip with me to a time when there were only five channels on your B&W television.

Jose Melis was born in Havana, Cuba on February 27, 1920. He aspired to be a classical pianist and this took him to the Havana Conservatory of Music. When he was 16, he arrived in the United States and attended the Longy School of Music at first, then the Juilliard School of Music in New York. While he attended Juilliard, Melis began appearing in clubs around New York as a lounge pianist.

World War II broke out and the draft claimed Jose in 1943. His musical abilities were put to good use as the musical director for the USO's New York City branch. This gave Melis his first taste of show business and he played for many of the major stars who volunteered at the Stage Door Canteen.

It was at this club where Melis met a young comic fresh out of the Special Services named Jack Paar. The two hit it off well and they remained in touch over the next several years. When Paar got a shot on radio, he asked Melis to be the musical director. It wouldn't be the last time Paar asked Melis that question.

Paar was the host of two TV game shows - Up With Paar (1952) and Bank On The Stars (1953) and Melis was along for the ride. Their TV career looked bleak when CBS called and asked if they would be interested in a "Today" type of show in the morning. Entitled "The Morning Show", it went on the air in 1954 - their newsreader was Walter Cronkite!

After a failed radio show for ABC in 1956, Paar and Melis were ready to call it quits. They had been together for ten years and weren't getting any big breaks either in radio or TV. That changed when Paar appeared on several episodes of Jack Benny's TV show and made an impression on NBC.

NBC offered Paar "The Tonight Show" in 1957 - which had been floundering since Steve Allen's departure as host. Paar again asked Melis to be the musical director. They grabbed a desk, a few chairs, and set up a format that has been copied on nearly every talk show since.

The show became a phenomenon - the first water-cooler show in TV history. People were staying up late to watch and Paar made sure Melis played a vital part. Paar put Melis' orchestra on the stage - rather than in the pit - and he included Jose in the on-camera patter that became one of the trademarks of the show.

This new exposure brought Jose a recording contract through Seeco Records, a label devoted to Latin music. Melis recorded several albums for Seeco ("The Many Moods of Jose Melis", "Tonight - Jose Melis", "The Jack Paar Show - And Other TV Themes"), including the album you are looking at.

Throughout his career, many people mistook Melis for that other famous Latin musical genius / wizard Esquivel. Whereas Esquivel's music was gigantic, bold, and overwhelming, Melis' music was more sedate, structured, and soothing.

This album is just that - there are accents and flourishes but nothing that goes overboard. Melis plays it cool and calm on such songs as "Winter Wonderland", "Silent Night", and "Adeste Fideles" but doesn't forget to have fun on songs like "Sleigh Ride" (titled "Sleigh Bells"), "Jingle Bells", and "Toy Piano" - yes, a real toy piano was used!

However, the most endearing songs are the two on which Jose talk-sings. "The Story Of Christmas" was first performed on "The Morning Show" four years prior to this recording. Every Christmas since, Melis got mailbags full of requests to repeat the song - this being in the days when everything went out live (no reruns, no TiVo).

The other song is "Merry Christmas Music" - written with his guitar player especially for this album. Melis reminds us that Christmas would be nothing without the music. Amen.

Each one of these are touching - Melis' accent adds to the charm and he holds you spellbound with its simple melody. These will find a home down the road on my annual Christmas CDs.

Several years after the release of this album, Melis switched to Mercury Records and released several other albums while moonlighting as Paar's musical director. It was around this time that the emotional Paar was feuding with Walter Winchell and famously walked off his program over the term "water-closet".

Melis stayed with Paar until the end of their tenure on "The Tonight Show" in 1962. Melis went out on his own, appearing in nightclubs and concert halls alike. He eventually went on tour with Mel Torme, then Frank Sinatra on several occasions. His popularity began to wane and Melis settled into retirement.

In the mid-1970s, he suffered a serious vision loss followed by his hearing a decade later. In 2003, he moved from Bronxville, New York - the very same house he'd lived in since the "Tonight Show" days - to Sun City, Arizona where his son Michael cared for him. On April 7, 2005, Melis died from a respiratory infection.

Melis was the original Paul Shaffer - thanks for sharing this with us Ernie!



Ernie said...

I'm wondering why I seem to have included a mono cover with my stereo record... Odd... I think the stereo cover said STEREO across it in big letters, probably obscuring something I thought was important at the time.

Thanks for the review, Captain, always a pleasure.

Christmas-Lights said...

This Christmas Site is Awesome

CaptainOT said...

Ernie - It says "Stereo" in small letters on the back cover - on your copy and the LP I picked up. Hmmm...

Christmas Lights - Thanks for the awesome compliment!