Saturday, November 29, 2008

Battle of the Decades

No one was happy about it, but Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, featuring the redoubtable Teddy Penergrass, won out. with 5 votes, with Hammer and Neneh Cherry each getting 2, and The Stripper one. I was the only one to vote for Mickey Mouse.

The new batch:

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and we can be thankful for having lived through (to varying degrees) the American Century in Music, one of the most fruitful, varied and innovative eras in the history of music. And you can be thankful for me, filling your ears and minds with some of the best and some of the worst in that tradition. And if, over the last couple of weeks, you've cursed me for some horrible selections, perhaps this one will remind you of how much more painful it is to have to choose between a selection of great and distinctive stylists.

40S ON 4
Glenn Miller
(I've Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo

50S ON 5
Everly Brothers
Devoted To You

60S ON 6
Sam Cooke
Chain Gang

70S ON 7
Baby, What A Big Surprise ('77)

80S ON 8
Debbie Gibson
Shake Your Love

90S ON 9
Black Box
Everybody Everybody

Well, we have three on the lower tier and three on the upper tier, and they divide where the fogey meets the road. None of the lower three are awful, though they all have aspects of awfulness. Chicago had a style and a sound that was considered original at the time -- jazz/rock -- but it was a sound that almost no one did well. Miles did, of course. Chicago blended the wimpy end of rock with the tame end of jazz, to no particular advantage. Does anybody really know what time they're going on for the next show? Does anybody really care? If anyone is interested in hearing what jazz/rock should have and could have become, amd you can find the album, check out Brute Force. Their only album was produced by Herbie Mann, and described by Downbeat as Pharaoh Saunders meets Sly and the Family Stone. The jazz was free and adventurous, the rock was gritty and groove-based. The great Stan Strickland was their tenor player.

Debbie Gibson was awful, but she was young and cute, and she was actually the youngest female artist ever to reach number one with a song she wrote, produced and performed. Needless to say, she didn't do any of them well, but she did in time develop into a pretty solid professional, and it's hard not to have a certain modest affection for someone who could say of her early pop idol career, "You never get a chance to be that cheesy again."

Black Box were Euro-House, which is different from Euro-Disco in that their records misdiagnosed a strange and near-fatal illness each week. They were awful in that they hired a supermodel to lip-synch their vocals on their videos, but otherwise they weren't bad.

OK, on to the good stuff. I'll do them chronologically, since choosing between them is so darn hard, and I'd rather put it off till the last minute.

Give yourself eight minutes of uninterrupted time to watch the Glenn Miller video, because it's that good. They go through the song once with Tex Beneke and the Modernaires. And that's good, though not great. Beneke's voice, like his saxophone, was the perfect vehicle for Miller's arrangements. He was whitebread, but he was the epitome of whitebread, and nobody ever did it better. Larry the Fluff has another opportunity to vote for him, as it turns out, and with another novelty song (I had this sneaking suspicion that we'd done 'Kalamazoo' before, but I can't find it in my files). Anyway, Tex Beneke looks like the archetype for Billy Batson and Captain Marvel, and he makes for a thoroughly enjoyable musical experience. Then, as he finishes, and you think the song si probably finished, the Nicholas Brothers show up. They sing as well as dance here, and I love their singing, too, but the dancing is on a whole other level. If Fred Astaire was the grace, and Gene Kelly the athleticism, the Nicholas Brothers were both. And if Glenn didn't swing like Basie, he swunbg enough to put the Nicholas Brothers into orbit. If you can't get enough of the Nicholas Brothers -- and who ever could? -- check them out with Cab Calloway here --

If this isn't the very best of the Everly Brothers, it's right up there close. The Everlys were as musically tight as Glenn Miller, and they were perfectionists to the same degree. I somewhere have a CD of Everly Brothers outtakes for those first Cadence sessions, and the versions of "Wake Up Little Susie" and "Bye Bye Love" that hit the charts were between their 15th and 20th takes -- these two young kids, trying to explain to seasoned professionals like Chet Atkins what they wanted, and finally getting through to him. The outtakes -- even up to the final outtakes -- are wonderful, and a lot of artists would have been satisfied with them. But they were wonderful in the way that earlier family harmony groups like the Delmores and the Louvins were wonderful. The final takes were a new sound, and it was all theirs.

Is this the best of Sam Cooke's songs? Who knows, who cares? Sam Cooke was such a triumph over his material. These mostly dumb little novelty songs that no one else could have made into great records. Or a chain gang song that's so clearly not out of any chain gang experience. If you want an actual great song, it's "Touch the Hem of His Garment." None of it mattered. It was Sam Cooke, and that's all that mattered, and our experience of his voice caressing those lyrics almost makes us believe that they were great songs.

I was pretty sure I was going to end up voting for Sam. But it's Glenn Miller and the Nicholas Brothers.

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