"Don't Take Away the Music
It's the only thing I've got
It's my piece of the rock..." - TAVARES
~ K. St Lewis, F. Perren and C. Yarian
Freddie Foy, the most recognized voice in broadcasting -- "Hi-Ho, Silver!" -- passed away not long ago at 89 and I was reminded that in 2011 radio still knocks me out.
The industry is a fighter. Right now, it's battling to get broadcast radio apps into media devices, smart-phones, and the like, so radio too can be player in the burgeoning popular song arena. Look out world.
And, lethargic Congress already approved legislation that allows thousands of low powered FM stations to do, legally, what underground pirate radio does under the radar.
Fight Number Three: Recording artist and performance royalties. For that argument see Nancy Sinatra's passionate The New York Times op-ed, August 2009.
Which brings me to this quandary: why can't I hear my favorite music on radio? The Recording Industry Association of America claims buyers over 45 years of age rose nearly 10% last decade from 24.7% in 1999 to 33.7% in 2009. Music consumers over 40 now account for nearly half of all "record" purchases. It appears young people download. Older folks plunk down hard cash for CDs.
I spent a lot of my childhood at my paternal grandparents' house with six sensually beautiful Italian aunts with popular music continually on the radio and the Victrola. In the summertime, my "zias" and I would spread out on the front lawn on worn cotton quilts and soak in the sun, a strong scent of Coppertone laced with iodine and baby oil in the atmosphere -- the sound of laughter and pop music filled the air.
Radio formats were looser back then: back to back, you could hear big bands, renowned vocalists, the noisy flavor-of-the-day, a novelty tune, a movie score -- all the Standards in the Great American Songbook, in no particular order. The current hits were repeated over and over and over, and I rarely tired of any of them. Like Julie London's "Cry Me a River," one of the strongest pieces of pop material ever penned to 5-lined staff paper. I wore out that disc.
The melodies and lyrics I'd listen to on those summer days didn't fade when autumn came. I absorbed them; they became a part of me.
Then one winter, my middle aunt, Anna-Marie, had a debilitating bout of rheumatic fever -- which damaged her young, weak, immune system. Not long after, she was packed off to Cleveland Clinic for an experimental heart valve replacement, never to return. The tragedy put a pall on a once-cheery Italian haven -- a household overflowing with music, cigarette smoke, simmering pasta sauce on the Magic Chef, sweet smells from the oven, and ice-cube-clicking cocktail glasses -- suddenly as quiet as the church yard at midnight. The music stopped. Radio was forbidden for a mandatory period of mourning and most of us wore black.
The silence was devastating. I sneaked hits of my records in other places: Hagan's Ice Cream parlor on Main Street, schoolmates' houses and Aunt Mary's on the other side Clarkburg, W. Va., the other side of the family.
The quiet in my house that winter only foreshadowed what was to become of my beloved Standards. In the 1972 monster pop hit "American Pie," singer-songwriter Don MacLean immortalized death, tears, smiles -- and repeated the lyrical line "the day the music died" a half-dozen times. He might well have been lamenting the passing of American Popular Standards as well as the demise of once-mighty radio itself. If we are to believe The New York Times, radio listening in the last ten years has declined more than 14 percent. (Another source, BIA Financial -- BIA estimates per-station revenues as well as hazards long-term trends -- and claims 2009 New York radio ad revenues fell a whopping 16 percent, thus continuing a five-year trend).
What both reports failed to point out is that American Standards all but disappeared from broadcast radio long before. My new hometown, New York City, has not been able to support a 24-hour-a-day "Traditional Music" radio station for 12 years -- AM or FM -- since WQEW (1560 AM) became Radio Disney in December 1998. (The Times leased the station to Radio Disney). When we yearn for "That Old Devil Moon," preferably by Rosemary Clooney, older, seasoned music lovers are stymied by the new bottom line.
Clearly, it's all about dinosaur demographics. Radio programmers and advertising agencies claim not enough mature folks tune in the "The Classics" to justify the advertising dollar. Imagine this: some "Oldies" station programmers even consider hits from the 1970s too passé to spin (an exception is Los Angeles' KRTH 101 -- Number One midday, playing 1970s hits). It's "The Theory of Disposability" in overdrive. Glass bottles, cotton diapers, Vinyl records, old computers, conventional TV sets, cassette players, tape machines, record stores, good barbers, tomatoes with taste, the original Herbal Essence Shampoo (and other favored brands), relationships -- have disappeared and now radio itself.
To music mavens, that's downright depressing. Weren't the radio airways designed for everyone? Is it not immoral, illegal and quite possibly unconstitutional to leave out a healthy segment of the general population simply because radio "top dogs" surmise older listeners don't spend enough money to justify broadcasting, the music they love?
High on my short list of simple pleasures in this relentlessly changing world is an obsession with American Standards -- the subject I know best and love most. (Generally speaking, a Standard is a lasting popular song that predates the mid-1950s arrival of rock and roll -- usually a chart hit, a Broadway show song, or a motion picture tune. Specifically, ANY song can become a standard when it's played, sung, and heard often enough to be fixed in the public's psyche). I believe recorded Standard songs are an art form, and as such deserve to be respected, played, heard, and treasured as any other work of art might be.
Lest you think I am stuck in the past, I'm here to tell you, I've always stayed on top of music's changing tune. When I was a sophomore and had a date with an angel, I put these lush and lugubrious Jackie Gleason 33 rpm's on the turn table -- Music to Make Her Change Her Mind, and Music to Make Her Misty -- heard in the film L.A. Confidential, sandwiched in with a cut or two from Johnny Mathis's Heavenly. These days, with CDs and the nifty random-search feature on my CD Player, I take my chances with highlights from Barry White randomly played, low volume with a delicate dollop of Johnny Hartman. Jazzman Hartman gets my vote on any tune he ever recorded. Highly recommended: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Hartman was the only vocalist to record with genius Coltrane, and the album is a masterpiece.
Which might bring us to my favorite song of all time. While watching CNN's Larry King interview ex-Beatle Paul McCartney one night, I fell out of the wingback when McCartney named his favorite song, "The Very Thought of You." That's my most loved, too. It was written back in 1934 by Ray Noble and was a chart hit for his orchestra that year. It then made the lists again with Vaughn Monroe (1944), Little Willie John (1961); and Ricky Nelson (1964). In between all that, it turned up in the background of "Casablanca" and on the records of every major recording artist in the business. On my "101-MP3-CD-Favorites-Ever" I have "The Very Thought of You" by Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett.
Which leads to my favorite albums of all time. From the top: A vote goes to Peggy Lee's If You Go, conducted by genius musician-arranger Quincy Jones, with its breathy version of the rogue-y Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well." My first copy was a gift from a platinum-blonde hair stylist from Clarksburg. The album still knocks me out; the hair stylist, on the other hand, left town. Also on this cherished album: "As Time Goes By" and "Smile," as well as a not-too-well-known Irving Berlin song "Maybe it's Because (I Love You too Much)." Sensational stuff.
But, my favorite favorite album of all time is (drum roll): Frances Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim -- a record album and CD I've given to countless friends. My most-coveted selection on Sinatra-Jobim is Irving Berlin's "Change Partners" which tells of a complicated romantic situation made easy in the days before cell phones. Brilliant, Mr. Berlin. The CD also offers: "The Girl from Ipanema," "Dindi," "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars," "How Insensitive," "Baubles, Bangles and Beads," "Once I Loved," and a boss cut of Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You." Frank's finest, my favorite.
(We) Lovers of Jazz and American Popular Standards are as passionate about song statistics as the heaviest baseball aficionado. Not long ago I had a heated-but-friendly argument with my old pal, columnist Liz Smith -- yes, she's still alive, in her 89th year, AND working on the Internet with her successful WOWOW, over a Sinatra favorite, the song "Fly Me to the Moon." I feel especially protective of this song -- originally called "In Other Words." I first heard "In Other Words," when I was in high school. A pale girl up the hill, Sandra Lily, introduced me to it on a Bethlehem long-playing album of Chris Connor's. I couldn't plunk my $3.99 fast enough for my own copy of CHRIS.
Liz Smith insists that British chanteuse Mable Mercer was the first to record "In Other Words," and that during the 1950 café society's heyday, she was spellbound night after night by Frank Sinatra "at the Blue Note nightclub" listening to -- and then "swiping" -- Mercer's "entire repertoire and style," including "In Other Words," according to Smith. Liz went on to say that "In Other Words" became "Fly Me to the Moon" with the moon landing in July 1969. Research confirms: The song "In Other Words," composed by Bart Howard, may indeed have been introduced by Mercer at the Blue Note, since Bart Howard was her piano accompanist at the time. But, it was first recorded by Kaye Ballard in 1954, followed by Sylvia Syms in 1955; Johnny Mathis, 1956; Portia Nelson, 1956; Chris Conner, 1957; Eydie Gorme, 1958; and Felicia Sanders in 1959. The song's big moment came with Peggy Lee's live Ed Sullivan Show performance in 1960. With Lee's urging, Bart Howard then changed the title of "In Other Words" to "Fly Me to the Moon" for her recording of the song that year. Next, Nat King Cole recorded "Fly Me to the Moon" in 1961. And soon after, in 1963, the first chart hit -- conductor-pianist Joe Harnell's instrumental-bossa nova, topped out at Number Four. That same year: Connie Francis' 1963 international hit -- in Italian. Also in 1963, Julie London and Patti Page recorded it; then Doris Day in 1964.
Finally, of course, came the most celebrated version -- Frank Sinatra's, with the Count Basie Orchestra, in 1964. Five years later, the song became synonymous with the Apollo moon landing -- Frank said it was his proudest moment -- and by then it was a bona fide Standard. When the spacecraft touched down, I was sitting up in bed on East 19th Street with my eyes glued to a 21-inch black-and-white television, humming along with "Fly Me to the Moon." I failed to convince Liz Smith. Smith repeated her version on her newly celebrated website WOWOW. Okay Liz, you owe me lunch.
Heigh-ho. It saddens me to think that Jazz and American Popular Standards (and the accompanying Socratic debates that end with free lunches) are relics to those who control the airwaves, as opposed to the living, breathing, vibrant creations they really are. But maybe there's a solution: What if, in every major American city, there were a subsidized, commercial-free, public radio station that played only the finest Standards, spun expressly for mature listeners and young jazz enthusiasts. Then there never has to be a Day the Music Died. As Teresa Brewer suggested (brightly):
Put some nickels in/
And keep that old Nickelodeon playing/
Music, Music, Music..." !
P.S. TO ALL THAT: When I was about to enter junior high, we were evicted. I got a newspaper delivery route or two, and always found the ninety-eight cents to buy a 45 rpm. (Every Dean Martin cut that invariably turned up later as background in Hollywood movies). In high school, I juggled Rock n' roll, Jazz and American Popular Standards, 45 rpm's and long playing albums...
The bungalow and our new home on Dennison Lane sat up and over about a hundred yards from an indifferently muddy creek and a lazily gurgling waterfall right below my bedroom window. Of a summer's evening, I could plop on the bed, reach over, switch on the Philco and listen to the coolly smooth Nat "King" Cole croon "Mona Liza, Mona Lisa ... men have named you ..."
College? I worked ten hour days in a supermarket while carrying a full credit load and still found money to buy lp's. And what lp's they were, then and now: Ella Fitzgerald "Like Someone in Love." Frank Sinatra: Sinatra and Jobim, followed by his remake of the Dorsey standards (arranged by savvy Sy Oliver). Next: Frank's "Nice 'n Easy." Dakota Staton's "Crazy, He Calls Me," right behind "Late, Late Show." Miss Peggy Lee's "If You Go" and still swingy "Latin Ala Lee." Ahmad Jamal's mesmerizing, never tiring "Poinciana." Every single cut by jazz trumpeter-vocalist, Chet Baker. Finally, "Margaret Whiting Sings Jerome Kern."
The very day I took my last college final, I was on a three o'clock plane to New York City, those lps in tow... Once established, I got a job (my start as writer as well as music business introduction) doing promotional ads and a music column for Billboard Magazine, "Music on Campus."
Not long after, I made my own contribution to pop culture writing songs (with Twin Peaks' Angelo Badalamenti) and producing records (with musical-actress Melba Moore), both with some success.
Then, CDs debuted. At first, I resisted -- only to give in and become overrun with a new collection as well as duplications of my old lp collection.
Time zipped on. Soon I found myself in mid-life, and I could no longer turn on the radio and listen to the treasured Jazz and Pop Standards of my youth -- unless I was willing to pay for the privilege, due to the aforementioned damnable practice of traditional radio stations' concentrating solely on advertiser-friendly, youth-oriented demographics.
One day I discovered some hopeful signs -- thanks to the World Wide Web. Suddenly, a music aficionado had access to a huge "Radio Universe." Some 14,000 free radio stations popped up on the Internet. Your favorites, and mine, could be switched on and enjoyed merely by accessing the Web. What's more, the genres appeared limitless: Popular Standards, Oldies, Classical, Top 40, Gospel, Country, Talk, etc., etc., etc.
Sure, I'm happy to be able to switch on the computer and surf to the music I love with a click of the mouse. But, booting up the Hewlett-Packard, clicking on a Web site, selecting a genre -- somehow, it's just not the same.