Latest News

Friday Song, Rudy Vallee, LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF CHERRIES (Ray Henderson and Lew Brown, 1931)

Here's an odd one. Until a few years ago, I thought I couldn't stand the song I have now chosen as my Friday Song. I found it schmaltzy, melodically uninteresting  - the worst kind of middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser. I defy anyone to listen to  the Judy Garland version or the song, or Dean Martin and  Bing Crosby, without their mouse-finger involuntarily twitching for the next track. Then one day, listening to a compilation record, I heard an early version of it by Rudy Vallee. It was a revelation. Still a Tin Pan Alley song to its core, its tune was written by Ray Henderson, among whose credits is the amazing 'Bye-Bye Blackbird' , and its lyrics are by Lew Brown. Together they wrote 'Roll Out the Barrel' and one of my favourite 1920s songs 'I Want To Be Bad' . What makes the Vallee version different, apart from his great voice, ...

read more →

Friday Song: Harry Nilsson, WITHOUT HER (1967)

When he died in 1994 at the age of 52, Harry Nilsson left behind several versions of himself. There was the almost spookily pure-voiced singer of 'Everybody's Talkin' (written by Fred Neil) for the film Midnight Cowboy; or the fringe figure who appears in documentaries about as the Beatles' favourite American band; or the misfit, swimming against every musical tide throughout his career; or the poster-boy for 1970s excess and self-destructiveness in the company of Keith Moon and John Lennon. None of that, so precious to pop historians, really matters. It is the songs that count. That's why Nilsson is re-discovered every five years or so as another director gives his or her film a lift by including one of his songs, and another generation of listeners ask themselves, 'Who is this and why isn't he a household name?' Even at the peak of his career, Harry Nilsson seemed destined...

read more →

Friday Song: Andrew Bird, HOW YOU GONNA KEEP THEM DOWN ON THE FARM? (Young, Lewis and Donaldson, 1918)

Something rather interesting happens when a good contemporary artist decides to cover a song from the distant past.  When James Taylor sang 'Oh! Susanna!', a Stephen Foster from the mid nineteenth century came out out like a modern(-ish) folk song. Jen Chapin's version of 'Over There' the stirring patriotic song from 1917 turns it into something weirdly unsettling and threatening. Mavis Staples' 'Hard Times, Come Again No More' gives the original a political edge. None of them is quite as strange as this week's Friday Song, a novelty knees-up number from a century ago given a weird, otherworldly treatment by Andrew Bird. 'How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm' was written in 1918 as the troops were coming home from battle.  For many of those men, nothing was going to be the same again - conflict and travel had opened their eyes. 'Reuben, Reuben, I've been thinking Said...

read more →

Friday Song: Eddie Cantor, HUNGRY WOMEN (Jack Yellen and Milton Ager, 1928)

Should there be a trigger warning for listeners of this week'd Friday Song? Almost certainly. It makes gender assumptions that some might find offensive. Its premise is based on the patronising assumption that, on a date,  men will pay for dinner. And was it really acceptable to make a joke about hunger when the Great Depression was but a year away? No, it's undeniable. This is a song which has low- to mid-grade inappropriateness on almost every line. But, what the hell, for me  'Hungry Women' is still an innocent and gloriously funny song. 'Broke again, gentlemen I am ruined now. Wall Street's not to blame Nor the racing game. I have spent every cent, Let me tell you how. Listen one and all To the cause of my downfall...' The song dates from the golden year in the history of Tin Pan Alley, 1928,  and was written Jack Yellen...

read more →

Friday Song: Clara Sanabras, THE DANCE OF SOLITUDE (DANCA DA SOLIDAO, 1972)

One of the more unusual CDs in my collection - and one of the most frequently played - is Clara and the Real Lowdown by Clara Sanabras,  which was produced by her musician husband Harvey Brough. It was this album which introduced me to the genius of Paolo Conte, a previous Friday songster, whose 'Sparring Partner' is covered on the CD. It also reminded me of that terrific song 'Put the Blame on Mame', written by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher for Rita Hayworth in the 1946 film Gilda. But my favourite track on the  album is 'Dance of Solitude', an English version of 'Dança da Solidão' from the first album by the Brazilian guitarist and songwriter Paulinho da Viola. In purist terms, I probably should have chosen the excellent version by Marisa Monte, who has performed it with da Viola, but I prefer Harvey's and Clara's production  - the...

read more →

Friday Song: Paul Simon, STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (1975)

If ever there were a song which showed how far songwriting travelled in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it is Paul Simon's extraordinary, enigmatic 'Still Crazy After All These Years'. In its story, its melody, the atmosphere it evokes,  its general air of mysterious confession, it is in my view one of the best songs of its type ever written. With most first-person songs, you know where you are. The singer/narrator feels this, thinks that, and tells you how he or she got there. With this song, the very opposite is true: its whole point is ambiguity of feeling and fact. The lyrics start with what seems like a bit of conventional nostalgia. 'I met my old lover on the street last night She seemed so glad to see me, I just smiled. And we talked about some old times And we drank ourselves some beers Still crazy after...

read more →

Friday Song: Gene Austin, I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING (Fats Waller, Harry Link and Billy Rose, 1929)

Fats Waller was quite often in trouble. A man who lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle back in the 1920s, he had impressive appetites  -  gin, food, women, cars - and was mind-bogglingly hopeless in the making and losing of money. The word 'unreliable' doesn't begin to cover his eventful career. And in late 1929, he was in jail. He had for the umpteenth time failed to support his ex-wife and their family  - or, as his son Maurice put it in a 1977 memoir of his father, 'Dad suffered from a relapse of amnesia and totally forgot about Edith's alimony.' The normal sources of financial support  were unable to help this time.  Even the producer/gangster Arnold Rothstein ('the Brain', Damon Runyon called him), who owed Fats back royalties, was inconveniently shot dead  by a rival at just the wrong time for Fats. To add to his travails while he...

read more →

Friday Song: Dan Hicks, BOTTOMS UP (1994)

How did I miss Dan Hicks? His seductive blend of gypsy jazz and bluegrass, his cool and sassy lyrics, his bloody-minded determination not to fit it into any particular genre  - all of that is tailor-made for me. Yet, until a couple of years ago, he was no more than a fringe figure to me. i discovered his songs, and how much I liked them, at around about the time he died, aged 74, from liver cancer. I blame Paris. I lived there briefly in the early 1970s and missed out on a number of interesting but short-lived songwriters (Steve Goodman, Gram Parsons, Judee Sill) who were emerging in that golden age of the singer-songwriter. Hicks was briefly quite a big star  - he was a Rolling Stone  cover story twice - but in around 1974 he drove his career off the road. His group Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks...

read more →

Friday Song, Georges Brassens, FERNANDE (1972)

This week's Friday Song will be a great encouragement to those brave British patriots who fear that too great a proximity to Europe will corrupt and pollute our glorious culture. The story of Georges Brassens, and more specifically his song 'Fernande', is proof that across the English Channel,  a world exists that, in matters of taste and tolerance,  is a long, long way from our land of disapproval and the Daily Mail. Let's start with language. Never has national difference between Britain a and France been more perfectly exemplified than in the lyrics of 'Fernande'. Its chorus starts: 'Quand je pense à Fernande, Je bande, je bande...' Using David Yendley's excellent website Brassens With English (90 songs translated, with notes and videos), we learn that this means: 'When I think of Fernande, It's so hard, it's so hard....' Yes  (children, please look away now), this is a musical celebration of the...

read more →

Hoagy Carmichael, HONG KONG BLUES (1939)

The killer words 'Tin Pan Alley' frequently appear in  accounts of Hoagy Carmichael's career. That seems to me inaccurate. He was in many ways one of the first authentic singer-songwriters. Whereas the often brilliant Tin Pan Alley composers were writing songs for a market - they could be sung by anyone -  Carmichael had a distinctive character, voice and style, which were expressed in the way he wrote and performed. It felt personal. Elsewhere in the wood,  Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Rodgers, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell and others were writing their songs, but it was Carmichael who took the first steps on a road that led to Randy Newman, Paul McCartney, Carole King and Ben Folds. For me, he is the complete package as a songwriter. His melodies are extraordinary ('Star Dust', 'My Resistance Is Low, 'Georgia On My Mind'), he had a wide range of influences and styles. He...

read more →