Christmas can be a time when you find out who your best friends are. I mentioned in passing to an acquaintance, a while back, that I’d been looking for a long-deleted 1985 album, The Lady’s In Love With You / Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Burton Lane. To my astonishment it arrived at my address, in CD format, just in time for Christmas
I could only find one track (‘On A Clear Day You Can See Forever’) from the album on Youtube, but it gives a pretty good flavour.
Part of the joy of this CD reissue (apart from Maxine’s singing, of course) is the extensive liner-notation by experts Will Friedwald (on Maxine) and Edward Jablonski (on Lane). There’s even a word from Burton Lane himself:
Dear Maxine, To quote a Yip Harburg lyric from this album: ‘Poor You / I’m sorry you’re not me / For you will never know’ … what it is like to be the composer of these songs and have a singer as wonderful as you to sing them.
You’re really something special.
THE SINGER by Will Friedwald
“I had no choice, I had to swing it.”
Maxine Sullivan was telling The New York Time’s John S. Wilson about her first important gig, in 1934, singing to piano accompaniment at a Pittsburgh after-hours hangout called the Benjamin Harrison Literary Club – an establishment given its name, to be sure, during Prohibition.
Apparently the club’s idea of literature was Joyce Kilmer, and Maxine got handed “Trees.” She responded by putting the ode into jazz time. As she explained to Wilson, “I just couldn’t sing it straight.”
The statement serves as a characteristically pithy summation of Maxine Sullivan’s career, which over 50 years took anything but predictable turns. In the late 1930s, she became a worldwide star transporting airs of earlier centuries (“Loch Lomond,” “Annie Laurie,” “Molly Malone”) to the swing era. In the mid-1950s, upstaged by flashier singers and determined to raise a daughter away from the pressures of show business, she took early retirement.
But 10 years later, in 1967, at the age of 56, she came back and her career unexpectedly boomed. At the time of her death on April 7, 1987, she was recording and performing more prolifically than ever before.
Of course, Maxine’s whole approach to jazz was unconventional. Most singers of her idiom, like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, alternated between small back-up groups with no arrangements and big bands with tight charts that were often embellished with strings. Maxine preferred more offbeat ensembles. Her best recordings combined the flexible economy of a septet or octet with a sensitive arranger — one who understood the sound of an artist whom Leonard Feather once praised as “a wonder of simplicity and understatement.” With the proper accompaniment, Maxine’s singing — already graced by a warm tone — projected a certain swing that was awesome in its gentleness,. But after her early success with Claude Thornhill and John Kirby, her career suffered because attempts to wean her away from the folk songs that had thrust her into stardom threw the baby out with the bath water. Too many producers and arrangers missed the point: that she could handle any good material if the setting complemented her distinctive style. Between the jam session and the symphony lay a middle ground.
Much of Maxine’s comeback career, as well, was similarly sabotaged by well-meaning producers who failed to recognize her idiosyncrasies and inserted her instead into traditional jazz backings that did nothing for her. Thankfully, Maxine spent both the beginning and the end of this last phase in the company of musical auteurs who knew what she was about. Bob Wilber, Dick Hyman and especially Keith Ingham had absorbed Maxine’s trailblazing work of two generations earlier, and thus could serve her particularly well during a period when she was ready and willing to stretch out.
That willingness, too, was unexpected. Maxine’s early singing had been marked by a somewhat withdrawn stance (underscoring her empathy with Thornhill), but by the time she reached her 60s, she had adopted a looser, freer sound. In the three albums they created for her, producers Ken Bloom, Bill Rudman and Keith Ingham (who doubled as arranger) carefully considered her new aura, capturing a fine singer at her all-time peak.
They also reached a high-water mark in the vastly misunderstood craft of selecting repertoire. A miraculous flow unites each of these songbook cycles: The Great Songs From the Cotton Club by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (1984); this album, which honours the composer Burton Lane; and Together: Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Julie Styne (1987), the final studio session before her death. The mix of classic and little-known tunes is not only fascinating but perfectly tailored for Maxine, and within the small-group format Ingham offers an endless variety of background textures.
Still. the disc’s most enduring contributions appropriately come from the singer. Maxine is a terror on the up-tempos and Swing Era rhythm tunes (which, ironically, she rarely had the chance to sing in the 1930s and 40s). But oh, the ballads! “Everything I have Is Yours” is so touching, so vulnerable, especially as backed by the lyrical tenor saxophone of the late Al Klink. And Maxine’s reading of “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?” responds to the universality in E.Y. Harburg’s words. It’s not just a song about Ireland; she makes it about longing, aching, missing — the sorrow for that which has passed.
The song now describes the singer as well. But though Maxine is gone, the treasure that is her recoded legacy assures us that there will always be fine days in Glocca Morra. These performances are an essential — and altogether beautiful –part of that legacy — Will Friedwald
Below: not from the ‘Burton Lane’ album, but a beautiful example of Maxine singing right at the end of her career and life:
In general, I’m one of those listeners who objects to music on Radio 4 – especially the infuriating Mastertapes with the annoying rock fan John Wilson, who – frankly – should just fuck off to Radio 2, where he belongs. However, I’m happy to make an exception for Soul Music, which this week featured the strangely melancholic Christmas song, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.’
It was written in 1944 by one Hugh Martin for the film Meet Me In St. Louis, in which it was sung by the film’s star, Judy Garland. It comes at a particularly sad moment in the film, and Garland felt its original lyrics (read out for us in the Radio 4 programme) were altogether too depressing, and eventually Martin was persuaded to replace them with slightly more upbeat (but still hardly jolly) words. Later on Frank Sinatra got Martin to change them again, this time replacing “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
As always with Soul Music, the programme discusses not just the song’s lyrics, but also its (surprisingly sophisticated) harmonic structure and chord changes, interspersed with the thoughts and reminiscences of people for whom it carries a special meaning and/or memories. James Taylor’s pensive version, recorded shortly after 9/11, quite rightly receives a special mention:
My favourite version, by Ella Fitzgerald, doesn’t feature in the programme, perhaps because Ella’s voice is almost too good and (combined with the relatively up-tempo swing arrangement) doesn’t quite convey the pathos that the lyrics seem to demand. Never mind: it’s Ella and it’s beautiful. So here’s wishing A Merry Little Christmas to all of you!
Eric Lee of LabourStart sends an urgent message:
In the last couple of days, our worst fears about the railway strike in South Korea have come true.
Severe repression has kicked in as police stormed the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) — for the first time since the union became legal back in 1999.
Smashing down glass doors, spraying pepper gas, the police arrested well over 100 union activists — but didn’t find the leaders of the striking railway workers they’d come to arrest.
The KCTU has decided to call a general strike for December 28th.
These Korean workers, fighting against privatization and for the basic human right to strike, are now on the very front lines of the battle against neo-liberalism and for human dignity.
I know that many of you will not see this message until after the Christmas holiday.
I also know that 90% of the people receiving this message have not yet sent off their messages of protest and solidarity. If you’re part of that 90%, please take a moment right now to send off your message demanding that the Korean government allow the railway workers to peacefully strike:
If have already send off your message, please try to recruit just one more person who’s not done so. If everyone who supported this campaign recruited just one more person, it would be the largest online campaign LabourStart has ever waged.
In addition, I’m going to ask you to do one more thing.
The mainstream media, incredibly, is completely ignoring this important struggle. LabourStart has tons of links to news stories, but these are largely from Korean media.
If you visit the websites of the BBC, CNN, and Sky News, you won’t see a single word about the strike, the repression, and so on.
I’ve just written to all of them asking them why they’re not covering the Korean strike. I think it would help if you added your voices to mine.
Thanks very much — and a very festive holiday season to all of you.
This comes courtesy of Jimmy Kimmel, via Gene at That Place. The entire clip is worth watching (dealing, at first, with the burning question: “is Santa white?”), but the classic film trailer starts at around 2.10:
Below: clip from dangerous leftist subversive Frank Capra’s 1946 ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ before it became the ideologically acceptable ‘Mr Potter and the Commies of Bedford Falls’ (NB: children and impressionable adults should not be allowed to watch this unsupervised):
Casting the money-lenders out of the temple
What follows is from The Militant, paper of the American SWP (nothing to do with the Brit organisation of the same name) of April 26, 1947*. I’m never sure about attempts to claim Jesus for the left, but this is a good effort, written with panache and brimming with righteous anger:
What Do They Know About Jesus?
By James P. Cannon
Did you see what I saw in the paper this morning? Thursday, April 17? It took the taste out of my breakfast. The Wall Street money-sharks, pressing their anti-labor drive on all fronts, now claim they have lined up God and Jesus Christ for the open shop. The New York Times reports: “Six hundred thirty-seven clergymen attached to various Protestant churches have joined in attacking the closed shop as a violation of basic teachings of the Bible, the American Council of Christian Churches, 15 Park Row, announced today.”
What do you know about that? And how do you think it happened? I wasn’t present when the deal was cooked up, but knowing whom these theological bunk-shooters serve and from whom they gets their orders, I can visualize the proceedings and tell how it happened, in essence if not in precise detail.
The top profit-hogs very probably had a meeting of their board of stategy down in Wall Street the other day and counted up the forces they had mobilized in the grand crusade to break up the unions and beat down the workers who are trying so desperately to make their wages catch up with the increasing cost of living. They checked off Congress, both the House and the Senate. They checked off the President and the courts. They checked off the daily newspapers, from one end of the country to the other, and found a 100 percent score on that front. Then they called the roll of radio commentators, and made a note to put pressure for the firing of the remaining two or three half-liberal “news analysts” on the air who are not going along 100 per cent.
On the whole their situation looked pretty good, but they had to acknowledge to themselves that public opinion is not yet responding to the union-busting program with any great enthusiasm. Then one of the union-busters — most probably one of their “idea-men” — got a bright idea. “Let’s send someone around the corner to the American Council of Christian Churches at 15 Park Row”, he said, “and tell them to start singing for their supper. Tell them to put God in the statement, and be sure to ring in Jesus Christ.”
No sooner said than done — but good. Now comes the public statement signed by 637 clerical finks who state that the closed shop (they mean the union shop) violates freedom of conscience and the Eight Commandement, “Thou shalt not steal”. They appeal to Christ on the ground that the union shop violates “the individual’s responsibility to God” and obliges Christain men to be “yoked together with unbelievers”. This, they say is wrong and not according to Jesus.
Well, I feel like saying to these strikebreaking sky-pilots what Carl Sandberg once said to an anti-labour evangelist 30 years ago: “Here you come tearing your shirt, yelling about Jesus. I want to know what in the hell you know about Jesus.” I don’t know too much myself, but if the only accounts of him we have are true, they called him “the Carpenter”; and he once took a whip and drove the money-lenders out of the temple. “Ye have made it a den of thieves”, he shouted, in white-hot anger.
And what have you done, you 637 fake-pious pulpit pounders who serve the moneyed interests against the people? You have made it a den of theives and liars too. You have the gall to represent the lowly Nazerene as a scab-herder; and to tell the Christian workers, who revere Him as the friend and associate of the publicans and sinners, of all the poor and the lowly, that they should not be “yoked together with unbelievers” in a union to protect their common interests. That’s a lie and a defamation. You’re simply trying to serve the rich against the poor, to help the rich in their campaign to break up the unions, which are the only protection the poor people have.
And don’t try to fool anybody with the statement that you are in favor of unions “properly conducted” — under open-shop conditions. We know what you mean by this mealy-mouthed formulation. Such unions, as Mr. Dooley once said, are unions which have no strikes, no dues and very few members.
And leave Jesus out of your lying propaganda, you scribes and pharisees, full of hypocrisy and iniquity. Every time you mention His name you libel Him, regardless of whether the story of His life and death be taken as literal truth or legend. The Carpenter of Nazareth has been badly misrepresented in many ways for many years, but your attempt to pass Him off as a union-buster goes just a little bit too far. It is just about the dirtiest trick that has ever been played on Jesus Christ since the crucifiction.
*Republished in ‘Notebook Of An Agitator’, Pathfinder Press, 1958 and 1973.
Merry Christmas, everyone:
The best-known Christmas song of all, performed here not by Der Bingle but by the (these days) nearly forgotten Connee (aka Connie) Boswell, a middle-class white gal (1907-1976), from New Orleans, who was a major influence on the young Ella Fitzgerald. Connee’s best jazz was recorded in the early-to-mid thirties with her sisters Martha and Vet (both of whom left the music business, leaving Connee to soldier on as a soloist), but this, recorded in 1958, is pretty good and shows she still had a powerful, jazz and blues- drenched voice, even on a commercial session at the very end of her career:
Click on that link (above: “best jazz”) to the Boswell Sisters’ highly-sophisticated yet bluesy version of ‘There’ll Be Some Changes Made’ and as well as hearing some fabulous, ‘modern’ close-harmony singing, you’ll see a secret that the carefully-posed official publicity photos of the time (as with FDR) kept hidden: Connee was wheelchair-bound.
No tinsel or chestnuts here, but it is a Christmas song of sorts, as Jimmy Rushing pleads with ”Sannee Claus” to bring his baby back to him.
This was the Basie Band in 1937, fresh out of Kansas City, still a bit rough around the edges and yet to hit the big-time. They sure could play the blues, though.
Waller was a master of subversion, taking standard (often very corny) tunes and turning them inside out with his mocking vocals and masterly stride piano. Here Fats and the boys (including Herman ‘Yard Dog’ Autrey on trumpet, Gene Sedric on sax and Al Casey on guitar) are giving ‘Jingle Bells’ the treatment. It was recorded on November 29, 1936 and it sounds like they’d already started celebrating:
Paul Whiteman’s elephantine orchestra usually contained some good jazz players, even if their role was that of (in Eddie Condon’s phrase), “a jigger of whisky in a pint of milk.”
This 1934 recording features vocals by Jack Teagarden and Johnny Mercer, both extolling the joys of Christmas in “that ol’ colored neighborhood.” These are lyrics that would not be used today (and especially not performed by white vocalists), but were clearly well intentioned at the time, and sung by the pair without the slightest hint of condescention.
Interesting to note, as well, that neither Teagarden nor Mercer were first and foremost vocalists: Mr Tea was best known as a trombonist and Mercer was, of course, a song-writer. Anyway, here they are, with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and ‘Christmas Night In Harlem’: