Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Eddie Dunstedter, We Hardly Knew Ye...

Three years ago, The King of Jingaling at offered one of the greatest Christmas albums of all time. Two years ago, I downloaded not one but two fantastic albums from our friend Ernie (not Bert) (which were re-offered last year). These three albums were recorded by the late, great Eddie Dunstedter and I never reviewed these albums at the yuleblog.

I promised Ernie that these albums would be the first ones to get the yuleblog treatment after my return from acting. However... the almighty Google keeps referring to Ernie's posts when you enter the name of Eddie Dunstedter and there is surprisingly little about the man online for research.

The few online facts that I found? Dunstedter discovered the vocal group The Merry Macs back in 1926, was the musical director of several radio shows back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and has one movie credit to his name - the music score for the 1953 schlock horror movie "Donovan's Brain" (with future First Lady Nancy Davis nee Reagan in the cast).

He had a very long recording career either as a featured organ player or with albums of his own (spanning from the 1930s to the 1960s). In the late 1950s, Dunstedter was signed by Capitol Records and recorded several pipe organ albums ("Pipes And Power", "Where Dreams Come True", "Pipe Organ Favorites").

Throughout the summer of 1959, Dunstedter was entrenched in the famous Capitol Studios building in Hollywood to record his first Christmas album - "The Bells Of Christmas".

(Click on image to enlarge)

We've had our fair share of Christmas organ and chime albums here at the yuleblog - some really great, some really awful. Most of the Christmas standards are covered on this album in a quiet, reverent way. At times Dunstedter's organ playing is so subtle, you hardly know it's there as the chimes take center stage.

Standout tracks include two medleys ("It Came Upon The Midnight Clear - O Little Town Of Bethlehem - Away In A Manger" and "Deck The Halls - Joy To The World"), a stand alone version of "Greensleeves", and "The March Of The Three Kings" takes on such a magnificence when heard on the mighty cathedral organ.

Released in both mono and "Full Dimensional Stereo" at Christmas, 1959, Dunstedter could have been content knowing his first Christmas album was a success. After several years of other releases, Capitol and Dunstedter thought the time was right for yet another Christmas album.

Throughout the summer of 1963, Dunstedter was yet again at the famous Capitol Studios building in Hollywood, busy arranging and recording his second Christmas album "The Bells Of Christmas Chime Again"

(Click on image to enlarge)

For this album, Eddie chose several standards and a few contemporary songs and gave it the same subtle approach as in the first "Bells Of Christmas" album. At times, it sounds like Dunstedter is playing a synthesizer rather than a huge cathedral organ.

Tracks of note on this album include "Angels We Have Heard On High", "Winter Wonderland", "Ring Christmas Bells" aka "Carol Of The Bells", "The Christmas Song", and "Happy Holiday" - all of which sound amazing on the cathedral organ. However, the standout track on this album is "In The Clock Store", a fabulously fun trip complete with clock noises that conjures up images of Santa's workshop.

Dunstedter had outdone the first album - a rare feat, especially in music. Capitol thought so too and was all set to push the album at Christmas, 1963. A month earlier, in Dallas, Texas, three shots rang out. The country's mood was so somber over the loss of President Kennedy that Christmas music was looked on as trivial.

Capitol went ahead and released the album. It sat on shelves untouched. Two months later (February, 1964), four lads from Liverpool came to America and the whole music landscape changed again. Dunstedter wanted one more chance at a Christmas album and spent the summer of 1965 recording "Christmas Candy".

(Click on image to enlarge)

If you read the liners on "Christmas Candy", it tells you that Dunstedter wanted to record jolly fare with this album. From the first track to the last, he gives you a sumptuous bossa nova feast of sounds that are indeed light but plenty filling to the ears.

If you've heard the "Christmas Cocktails" albums at all, you'll have heard several of these tracks before ("I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - Jingle Bells Bossa Nova" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! - Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer").

Seek out the non-cocktails tracks like "Silver Bells", the title track "Christmas Candy", "I'll Be Home For Christmas", and "Winter Wonderland" for some real good sound!

This album is a must in any Christmas music enthusiasts collection.

Some time after the release of this album at Christmas, 1965, Eddie Dunstedter said goodbye to Hollywood and took a teaching position at The MacPhail Center of Music in Minneapolis. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, he taught many a new organ player his special bag of tricks and sent them on their merry way before his death in 1974.

This yuleblog entry took some time because I wanted to hopefully do justice to Dunstedter's career. I tried to track down several books through my public library that had info on Eddie (which turned out to be very little) and even called the MacPhail Center of Music (it's called summer for a reason).

In any case, if anyone has additional info on the life and career of Dunstedter, please feel free to leave a comment and I'll be happy to post updates.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Hawaiian Christmas (TWO REVIEWS)

As far as I can remember, I've always had an affinity for Hawaiian music. Somewhere among my archives is a picture of me in a fourth grade school play where I play an obnoxious tourist flying to Hawaii.

If that ever surfaces (think Jimmy Hoffa), I'll be sure to post it...

Some time in high school, I began actively searching out Christmas music. I cannot recall what was the very first Hawaiian Christmas music album in my collection but I was hooked, lined, and sinkered onto that genre.

I tried to find as much Hawaiian holiday hulas as I could find. When the smoke cleared, it emerged as the largest sub-genre of my collection (until Christmas organ overtook it last year).

These sat on my upgrade list for quite awhile until two wonderful people named PDMan (from the FaLaLaLaLa community) and Ernie (of Ernie (Not Bert)) came through in a big way last year.

The first album (pictured above) by the Paradise Islanders was offered by PDMan at back last December and not only did it have complete artwork but it was in glorious STEREO!

I wish I could give you the background of the group but there's very little out there. According to the Goldmine Christmas Record Price Guide, "Christmas In Hawaii" was released, both in mono and stereo, in 1961 on Decca Records.

The album is strictly instrumental, contains lots of pedal steel guitar, vibraphone, and ukuleles - giving it the classical Hawaiian sound with a Christmas flavor.

Standout tracks include "Jingle Bell Rock", "Mele Kalikimaka" (might be the perfect instrumental version of this one), and two exceptional medleys ("The First Noel", "O Holy Night", and "Joy To The World" in the first medley, "Adeste Fideles", "Deck The Halls", and "Silent Night" in the second) that are perfect in conception and execution!

"Christmas In Hawaii" is perfect for the luau, the office boombox during Christmas time, a cold VFW dinner with relatives on a cold, December night, or any time you want to feel Hawaiian or Christmas-y.

The next album was offered by Ernie way back in 2005 (the first time I downloaded it). For some strange reason, I was missing the back cover on this one (an errant mouse click I believe). Ernie thankfully shared it again last year and presto! There was the sought after back cover and some much needed background info on the group! To quote:

"THE SURFERS are all native Hawaiians. 21-year old Clayton Naluai is leader of the group, singing tenor and baritone. Alan Kalani, age 20, sings high tenor. The 18-year old baritone voice heard is that of Pat Sylva and 19-year old Bernie Ching sings bass.

"The arrangements, which are all their own, give their voices the unusual quality of sounding like the brass section of an orchestra. When singing as a group their voices blend perfectly, with no one voice standing out in front of the others.

"With THE SURFERS are Harold Chang, who plays bongos and shakes mararas and sleigh bells for Santa Claus; James Kaopinki, who keeps the bass rhythm; and Jules Ah See, who comes in on chimes and plays a really clever Hawaiian steel guitar. Jules, at times, makes the electric steel guitar sound like an organ which with a bowed string bass is quite effective.

"If you like Christmas, you will find this album an unusual Christmas treat."

The understatement to end all understatements. The voices and harmonies are reminiscent of a barbershop quartet. Add in the Hawaiian element, then sprinkle Christmas all over it, and this is quite the San Honolulu treat!

Standout tracks? "Here Comes Santa In A Red Canoe" is the first song on the album and a Hawaiian Christmas song that should be right up there with "Mele Kalikimaka" - quaint, funny, and extremely catchy. You'll be humming this one for hours after you hear it.

Others include "Deck The Halls", "Hawaiian Santa" (another song that should be up there with "Mele Kalikimaka"), "Adeste Fideles" (in Hawaiian!), "Come Dance And Sing" (to the tune of "Carol Of The Bells"), "Jingle Bells", "Winter Wonderland" (with intro intact! WOW!), and a touching "Silent Night" (sung in Hawaiian).

This above the rest album was released in 1959 on HiFi Records. If these lads were in their early 20s then, that means most should be in their late 60s now - I would love to hear from any of the Surfers about their careers, other albums they recorded (Ernie reported he found at least one other from them), and what they've been up to since.

PDMan and Ernie, mahalo! Nice scores, gents!

UP NEXT: The first of 125+ Christmas albums I downloaded last Christmas!


Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Moog Machine - Christmas Becomes Electric

A funny thing happened on the way to the yuleblog this morning... a local power outage wiped out a majority of what I had previously saved in a first draft.

So... starting from scratch...

Here's another great Christmas album courtesy of Mr. Ernie from Ernie (Not Bert). He first offered this album back in 2005 which I gobbled up and quickly added to my collection.

But last year, Ernie decided to revisit the Moog Machine yet again. In his words:

"The sound should be better on this one than what I gave you last year, anyway. I know the cover of this one is in much better shape than the one I scanned last year. Also, I'm sharing stuff at a slightly higher bit rate this year, so even if the vinyl weren't cleaner (and it is), it will sound better."

Where do I start this review? How about Russia?

Back in 1919, a Russian inventor named Leon Theremin was fiddling around in his workshop with two radio frequency oscillators, two radio antennae, and a loudspeaker. Theremin found that when he would move his hands around the two antennae (one for frequency, the other for pitch) he created radio signals that were sent to the amplified loudspeaker and a crude form of music.

He had created the world's first electronic instrument and the first musical instrument designed to be played without being touched! It was so revolutionary that it was brought to Vladimir Lenin, the new leader of Russia and the leader of the original Russian Revolution. Lenin was so taken by the machine that he actually began to take theremin lessons!

Theremin began to take his invention around the world, first to Europe, then the United States. It was such a huge success that Theremin secured a patent to his invention in 1928 and gave RCA Victor production rights to mass produce theremins for home use.

Despite the stock market crash and the Great Depression, the theremin flourished for a brief time in the 1930s. This is largely due to the rise of Clara Rockmore, a classical violinist who was enthralled with the theremin, studied under Theremin himself, and became the instrument's first virtuoso.

At the end of the 1930s, Theremin was either sent back or forced back to Russia and promptly vanished. Did he die? Was he forced to work for Mother Russia? Seek out the amazing documentary called "Theremin - An Electronic Odyssey" for the rest of the story.

The musical instrument was largely forgotten until several major motion pictures began utilizing it in their movie scores. Rockmore felt the instrument wasn't designed to give movie music its distinct charm. The studios called on Dr. Samuel Hoffman to perform the theremin which he did in Alfred Hitchcock's psychological thriller "Spellbound" in 1945. Other films included "The Lost Weekend", "The Spiral Staircase", and a whole slew of sci-fi movies ranging from "The Thing (From Another World)" to "The Day The Earth Stood Still" ("Klaatu, barada, nikto!").

In 1953, a young 19 year old inventor named Robert Moog began his first company to manufacture theremin kits. Along the way, Moog became fascinated with new technology and was on his way to building the first electronic synthesizer. By the early 1960s, his company was completely devoted to mass producing Moog synthesizers.

Jac Holzman, the head of Arista Records, decided to create a project around the Moog synthesizer. Hiring the best session musicians he could find, they went into the recording studio and created a concept album revolving around an astrological chart. "Cosmic Sounds" by The Zodiac was released in November of 1967 - the first featured use of the Moog in music.

Pop quiz: What famous rock group was the first to feature the Moog on one of their albums?

Then in 1968, a budding Moog synth virtuoso named Wendy Carlos (then Walter Carlos) released a truly landmark album. "Switched On Bach" was a mammoth hit, selling over a million copies - the largest selling classical album of all time and the only classical album to go platinum!

Record labels all jumped on the bandwagon and began flooding the market with Moog albums: "Switched On Bach II", "Switched On The Beatles", "Switched On Country", "Switched On Bacharach", "Exotic Moog", "In The Moog", "Moog Party Time", you get the idea.

Two more switches to show: "Switched On Santa" was (and might still be) the best known Moog Christmas album (by Sy Mann and Jean Jacques Perrey). "Switched On Rock" by The Moog Machine - the very same group who released this Moog Christmas album you see before you.

Norman Dolph, the same record executive who helped start The Velvet Underground, brought together two others to form the Moog Machine - Kenny Ascher (keyboardist) and Alan Foust (arranger of the music). "Switched On Rock" covered many hits of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Motown and was a moderate success. They quickly turned their attention to Christmas music and issued this gem at Christmas, 1969.

It's a pretty straightforward Christmas album with mostly Christmas carol standards. The first track is the standout - "Jingle Bells". It leaps out of the speakers and creates a whole electronic wonderland. Other tracks of distinction: "The Little Drummer Boy", "O Holy Night", and "The Twelve Days Of Christmas".

Many of the remaining tracks (a majority which are under two minutes in length) are stately, snazzy, and all have that distinctive Moog fuzz sound. Like with "Switched On Santa", this album still sounds as fresh as it did 37 years ago and 37 years from now.

The Moog phenomenon probably peaked in 1971 with a major distinction. Stanley Kubrick chose Wendy Carlos to perform her now classic soundtrack to "A Clockwork Orange" - who can forget Beethoven's modulated Ninth Symphony with little Alex strapped into his chair, forced to watch ultraviolence? Since then, the Moog has popped up in many places with much distinction.

Any other Christmas Moog albums out there that I missed? I know of one which I found sealed in a Chicago record store that I'm planning on sharing next month...

Ernie, thanks for getting your Moog on and sharing out this album!

UP NEXT: Hawaiian Christmas (TWO REVIEWS)


P.S. Answer to the pop quiz question:
Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. by The Monkees!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Jan Garber & His Orchestra - Christmas Dance Party

Many moons ago, this elegantly lush album was offered at Christmas time at Basic Hip - one of the first vinyl sharity sites. It was a good rip of the mono version of this album, with a good scan of the front cover only.

(BTW, they still offer a great deal of rare, exotic, and incredibly strange albums via their Basic Hip Digital Gold service where I picked up the soundtrack to "Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls"!)

I searched high and low, both on the Internet and off, to find a copy of this album so I could acquire the back cover or perhaps (dare I say it) a stereo version!

Late last November, a member of the FaLaLaLaLa community named PDMan (he was once a program director in radio, hence PD, man!) stunned everyone when he shared a pristine copy of the STEREO version of this album with complete artwork!

The "Idol Of The Air Lanes" aka Jan Garber would have been mighty proud.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1894, Garber studied music at the Combs Conservatory in Philadelphia, hoping to enter the classical music field. Before his career began to take off, he was drafted into WWI. How many people have we talked about here at the yuleblog who were born in the 19th Century and a World War I doughboy?

While stationed at an Army training camp in Alabama, Garber formed a marching band and became fascinated with popular music. After his discharge, he wisely abandoned his classical career in favor of a job with bandleader/contractor Meyer Davis.

Garber was quickly made leader of one of the Davis orchestras, proved himself a crowd pleaser, so in 1920 left to form his own hot jazz outfit for a brief time. In 1921 he joined Milton Davis' Orchestra and rechristened the name to The Garber-Davis Orchestra.

For several years, the orchestra was the toast of the South, playing one successful tour after the other. But in 1924, Davis found himself in trouble. Seems a jealous husband threatened his life and Davis quickly sold out his half of the orchestra to Garber and headed north.

In 1932, Garber fell under the spell of Canadian bandleader Guy Lombardo. Garber was so smitten that he fired all the members of his present band except one and bought out the Freddie Large Orchestra, a Canadian orchestra to get that Lombardo feel. Large became Garber's lead saxophonist - a position he kept until his death in 1968!

The new group became quite successful, playing lush music, touring the country, and appearing on the "Burns & Allen" radio program where he acquired his colorful moniker "Idol Of The Air Lanes". How or why is still a mystery to me!

Around the start of World War II, Garber decided to switch gears again. He disbanded the dance orchestra and formed a swing band. It was bad timing since the big band/swing band era was just about dead and the recording ban of 1942-1943 hurt Garber's chances of becoming a success.

At the end of World War II, he formed a new dance orchestra which gained popularity and Garber never again tinkered with his orchestra. During the 1950s, Garber's group appeared regularly in Las Vegas and played the Southern horse show circuit.

According to the Goldmine Christmas Record Price Guide, Garber recorded and released as a single a version of "Blue Christmas" in 1950 on Capitol Records (Capitol F1257). Anyone have a copy? It would be nine years later when Garber - now recording for Decca Records - came out with this album - both in mono and full stereo in 1959.

The very first song is "Jumpin' Jiminy Christmas", a wonderful tune with chorus that bounces your right into the mood. Other standouts include "Jingle Bell Rock" (an obvious nod to rock n roll), "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer", and "Christmas Chopsticks".

Many of the instrumentals ("Sleigh Ride", "Silver Bells", "Winter Wonderland") have that old 1920s - 1930s Guy Lombardo sound to them. However, Garber elevates it to pure dance music, full of whimsy. This is a wonderful, elegant, fun Christmas album!

The Jan Garber Orchestra continued to record actively through the 1960s and tour into the 1970s. Garber retired from show business in 1971 and his daughter, Janis, led the band until 1973, when it disbanded. Jan Garber passed away in 1977.

However, the Orchestra continues on to this very day! It has an active website where you can learn more about Garber, the latest incarnation of the orchestra, and their schedule of performances - last month, it played some dates in the Indiana area - had I known, I would have made a road trip!

PDMan, thanks again for sharing this album (and a whole slew of others that I've yet to review - coming soon to a yuleblog near you)!

UP NEXT: The Moog Machine - Christmas Become Electric


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


Monday, June 11, 2007

Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas (2006)

This CD was given to me by my family last Christmas and has patiently sat next to my computer the longest in a stack of CDs that are upgrades to my personal collection.

This brand new album was reissued last Christmas and replaced a CDR copy of the original 1990 issue (see below) I obtained in a trade with another Christmas collector long ago.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Where do I begin?

Long before Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, long before Madonna, Stevie Nicks, and Janis Joplin... Long before Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, and Connie Francis, long before Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, and Billie Holiday... there was a woman named Ella.

Born in 1917, Ella didn't want to be a singer as a little girl. She wanted to be a dancer. After moving to New York, her mother was killed in an auto accident and went to live with her aunt - who died suddenly of a heart attack and she moved back to her native Virginia.

After dropping out of high school, Ella got two odd jobs - one was a lookout for a bordello, the other an assistant to a Mafia-affiliated numbers runner. The long arm of the law caught her, sent her to reform school, where she promptly escaped and headed back to New York City. For a brief time, the woman who would influence a whole generation of singers and be considered the "First Lady of Song" was homeless.

She still had dreams of dancing. On November 21, 1934, she travelled to Harlem and the Apollo Theater for one of their legendary "Amateur Nights". However, the Edward Sisters, a well known local dance duo, went on first and Ella quickly changed tactics from dancing to singing. She sang two songs, won the contest, and its prize of $25. It was the first time she has sung publicly and Ella had found her calling.

Two months later, Ella met an up-and-coming bandleader named Chick Webb. Webb was reluctant to hire her at first because of her innate shyness which all but disappeared when she sang behind a microphone. Ella's first salary under Webb? $12.50 a week.

For three years (1935-1938), Webb and Ella were the rage of Harlem. They toured frequently and began to record songs - most were "novelties and disposable pop fluff" in Ella's words. But some became huge successes. It was a nursery rhyme that made America stand up and take notice of Ella - "A-Tisket, A-Tasket", co-written by Ella and Webb, was the biggest song of 1938.

Fate stepped in again shortly thereafter. In June, 1939, Chick Webb died after a lifelong battle with congenital tuberculosis of the spine. The band was renamed "Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra", she became the de facto bandleader, and continued on until 1942 when World War II and the death of the Big Band Era broke the orchestra apart.

Going solo, Ella signed with Decca Records and began appearing regularly with the Jazz At The Philharmonic. However, be-bop was now the rage in the jazz scene and Ella remarkably and quickly adapted by "trying to do with my voice what I heard the horns in the band were doing." Her 1945 recording of "Flying Home" has long been considered a milepost in the jazz world, and her subsequent records were masterpieces as well.

By 1950, Ella was firmly established as one the greatest jazz singers of all time. So she could take chances on songs that had little or no commercial appeal. Such was the case on September 26, 1950 when she stepped in front of a microphone in New York City to record her very first Christmas record - a sly double entendre record that was reminiscent of her early pre-Decca recordings. That record was:

Ella's voice is so sweet that it takes the instant edge off the record and makes it a fun Christmas record. But radio stations refused to touch it and the single went unnoticed for many years after.

By the mid-1950s, Ella was recording and touring constantly and her popularity was yet to reach its peak. She was growing tired of recording every jazz record out there and giving it the bebop/scat feel. Her manager Norman Granz decided a major career move was in the works.

In 1956, Granz formed Verve Records around Ella and she moved to her new label in a big way. She recorded "Ella Sings The Cole Porter Songbook", the first of eight songbooks she would record of famous American composers between 1956 and 1964. The other songbooks? Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. Ella was now giving the pop world a run for their money.

One summer week in 1960, Ella went into the recording studios and laid down tracks for her first complete Christmas album. The end result was "Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas", released at Christmas, 1960 and one of the best jazz Christmas albums ever recorded.

This album was first issued on compact disc back in 1988 but thankfully in 2002, Verve issued a new, remastered version of this album on CD that added the original album artwork and six bonus tracks to the whole package. I highly recommend this album for any Christmas music enthusiast.

At the beginning of the 1960s, the pop scene was being transformed as rock and roll began to dominate the music charts. Ella pushed on, continued to record songbooks, other great jazz albums, and appear on television and in nightclubs. Around this time (varying Internet sources can't agree between 1960 - 1963), Verve was sold to MGM Records and when Ella's contract expired in 1966, MGM decided against renewing it.

She was quickly signed to Capitol Records and Ella went into their famous Hollywood studio to record an album of spirituals and gospel hymns entitled "Brighten The Corner". Released in 1967 during the summer of love, it barely registered on the landscape. That same summer, she began recording the album you see before you.

Recorded over a two day period (July 17-18, 1967), the theme chosen for this Christmas album was strictly standards. Ella's dynamic voice cuts through like a bow on a ship in the water. Backed by Ralph Carmichael's choir and orchestra, this is a fine, solemn album.

One of my favorite tracks is "Sleep, My Little Lord Jesus" which conjures up images of the infant swaddled in clothes lying in a manger. Ella's voice is so soft and clear that makes you smell the stable and you're looking over your shoulders waiting for some shepherds to show.

This album was released in 1967 and sold moderately well. It was issued on CD back in 1990, once again in 1996, and a third time in 2000, all using the same similar cover:

Using the pattern above (1990, 1996, 2000), a reissue was due in 2006. This new reissue contains no new Christmas songs, alternate takes, etc. What it does contain is the complete Christmas album and the aforementioned "Brighten The Corner" album on one CD - both albums Ella issued in 1967! Not a bad upgrade!

Sadly, this was the last time Ella ever recorded Christmas music. The rest of her career at Capitol, then Reprise Records found Ella recording a strange lot of music - "Savoy Truffle", "Sunshine Of Your Love", "Hey Jude", "I Heard It Through The Grapevine", even some country and western tunes! Ella was awash in a sea of dreck.

Norman Granz to the rescue again. He began a new jazz label called Pablo Records and Ella quickly signed on in 1970. From 1970 to 1989, Ella called Pablo home and continue to record, re-record, and re-re-record jazz songs and issue albums.

By the time Ella recorded some famous television commercials asking the question "Is it live or is it Memorex?" in the late 1970s, she was a bonafide living legend.

She continued to tour, record, and influence generations of young jazz singers like Patti Austin, Diane Schuur, and a young Diana Krall.

Problems with diabetes slowed her down in the mid-1980s. She recorded her last album in 1989 and played her final concert around 1991 or 1992. By then, her eyesight was almost gone and her legs needed to be amputated in 1993. Three years later, on June 15, 1996, diabetes took the rest of Ella Fitzgerald.

Her career spanned 57 years and she received thirteen Grammy awards. Her whole career was summed up very nicely by Ira Gershwin, brother of George and co-writer of many of their famous songs:

"I didn't realize our songs were so good until Ella sang them."

UP NEXT: The Don Les Harmonicats - Christmas With


Friday, June 08, 2007

Making The Upgrade

As usual, there are several stacks of CDs next to my computer. Some are waiting to be entered into my master spreadsheet, some are waiting to be reviewed here at the yuleblog, and some are waiting to be classified in both categories.

To ease back into the flow of things, next week I've decided to look at a small stack of CDs that are upgrades to my collection - either I've acquired better or complete artwork for my CD-R copies or I found an actual copy of the CD that replaces the CD-R altogether.

Most of these upgrades occurred last Christmas during the 2006 downloading season and came from our good friends Ernie at Ernie (not Bert) and FaLaLaLaLa member PDMan.

So here's the tentative schedule for next week:

Monday, June 11 - Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas
Tuesday, June 12 - The Don Les Harmonicats - Christmas With
Wednesday, June 13 - Jan Garber - Christmas Dance Party
Thursday, June 14 - The Moog Machine - Christmas Become Electric
Friday, June 15 - Hawaiian Christmas (TWO REVIEWS)

One final note: In about three weeks, it will be Christmas in July. While others barbeque, light off fireworks, and sweat in the summer sun, I'll be sitting in my air-conditioned home, listening to the Christmas melodies of Peggy Lee, The Mighty Echoes, and the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and celebrating Christmas early. I do have some surprises in store so stay tuned.


Opening Night

Last evening, we held our preview for the play I'm currently undertaking.  51 people showed up and so did our nerves... there were some mistakes, blown cues, dropped lines... but, that's why it's called a preview.

Tonight is Opening Night and we're expecting a slightly larger crowd. So to get my mind off of things, I've decided devoting some time to the yuleblog is the perfect way to do just that.

The local newspapers did a good job covering the show. For a good story and a few pictures of me resplendent in some of my Chicago Cub gear:

This whole play has taken up a good amount of my time but I've missed banging the keyboard and talking about Christmas music. Stay tuned... another small post to follow today!


Monday, June 04, 2007

The Yuleblog Days Of Summer

GREAT JUMPIN' ICEBERGS!!! Haven't typed that in a while so I figured
I'd get that out of the way.

Back in April, I announced that I was appearing onstage as an actor in a two man show about baseball (the main reason for the break). I figured six weeks off to commit to memory my lines for the play and I could again use the free time to devote to the yuleblog.

I originally planned on cranking out the reviews again around the time I posted the Kay Martin review in conjunction with my 365 Days contribution in mid May.

That was the plan.

However, when you have 40 pages of dialogue to memorize, then add my stay at home dad duties, end-of-the-school year shebangs like school picnics, programs, and field trips, plus a few trips to Wrigley Field in Chicago to see my beloved Chicago Cubs mostly lose, time sort of has its way with you.

We're just entered June, the play rehearsals are at the stage where I'm feeling extremely comfortable with the lines, movements, and emotions needed - at long last! Just in time for our opening at the end of this week!

Should prove to be a fun run: we have a special performance on a weeknight for a convention coming through Fort Wayne. They've requested 175 tickets so far - a far cry from the 80-90 average for a summer show at this theater!

The kids are settling into their summer routine, my schedule will be opening up in the coming weeks, and I'll be once again reviewing additions to my Christmas music collection.

Next thing you'll know, it will be July... Christmas in July... sighhh.