What Kind of Fool Am I and the David Bowie – Anthony Newley link

What Kind of Fool Am I and the David Bowie – Anthony Newley link

“What Kind of Fool Am I” sung by Peter Bennett



I headed over to New Vista, a home in Sunland, a little piece of “Small Town America” at the top of Los Angeles, nestled in the western extremity of the San Gabriel Mountains, I took a quick snap after I loaded up the car as I left:

New Vista, Sunland
New Vista, Sunland

Today had two firsts – declarations of love from one of the audience, as in several ‘I love you’s’ from one Paulina, thanks P… and my first live rendition of What Kind of Fool Am I, a song by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, written in 1961 for the musical Stop The World I Want To Get Off. Newley and Bricusse became the first Britons to win ‘Best Song’ Grammies in 1963 with it. It brought the house down yesterday, straight-up!
Anthony Newley in the film 'Let's Get Married'
Anthony Newley in the film ‘Let’s Get Married’

David Bowie who sadly died in January this year, was heavily influenced by Newley, as far as sounding a lot like him especially early in his career, a kind of ‘cheeky cockney’ style that Newley perhaps drew from music hall stars of his childhood but developed into a ‘Swinging Sixties’ version. I love Newley’s theatrical presentations of songs, a fine actor, he fused both skills into his performance.

It surprised me how well it went today – the ‘Broadway’ section of my sets has become perhaps the most powerful part and people seem to have an innate understanding of the low to high ‘builds’ and ‘drama’ of these Broadway style songs – the good news is there are plenty more to find!

I recorded a vocal to the song yesterday evening, my version ‘tops and tails’ this post. Thanks for listening!

“What Kind of Fool Am I” sung by Peter Bennett


Back to the Future

I’m gaining a growing respect for popular music of the late 19th century, there be nothing like keeping your finger on the pulse 😉 Two songs in particular one from old, one from new world. From Naples, Italy came ‘O Sole Mio’ repopularised by Elvis as ‘It’s Now or Never’ – everyone seems to love that, it crosses generations really well. I’m hoping the same for this one which I’m learning in the original Spanish, from Mexico, 1881, here sung by the great Pedro Infante who crystallized his image at his height by sadly crashing his plane in 1957. Cielito Lindo – here the subject of some big-hat rivalry, the song just about surviving 🙂

I played at City of Hope, Duarte, California last week and a guy there, about 18 years old with a kind of ‘latino gamer’ look, amazed me by being all over Pedro Infante, quoting me how many films he’d been in etc. Una sorpresa muy agradable!

Why I Love Assisted Living Gigs

plantsMy first love is music. From school choirs to guitar to the drums to singing and fronting bands, singing and playing harmonica and guitar, a brief stint as a record producer (I got great UK national press reviews – The Times, The Guardian etc – for Billy Jenkins ‘When The Crowds Have Gone’) and now assisted living gigs! Along the way I had an IT career, but a recent serious illness has curtailed that pretty much, not so much through incapacity as loss of desire! Looking for a new career to set my heart on, I hit upon performing at assisted living locations nearby. I had recent experience booking Yoga sessions for a friend David Ibrahim ( http://www.divineyogala.com ), and accompanied him to about 4 of them, that was in the summer of 2012. I greatly enjoyed the experience, it felt great to be genuinely helping the residents with their health and sense of purpose, they enjoyed the attention and care and at the end of each session I walk around and have a few words, shake or hold hands, hear a few stories…

I’m not sure when the idea of playing music first sparked. It may have been after I regained contact with a friend in England I had been to college with. He mentioned a guy he knew called ‘Dave Elvis’ an elderly Elvis impersonator, saying how dedicated he was to what he did, citing an example where they had both walked out of a supermarket, bags in hand, and some people recognised Dave and asked for a song a request he happily and enthusiastically obliged! My friend was so impressed with his dedication to the role, and I guess, his ‘service’.

What followed was a learning experience…. The first couple of gigs I did with no amplification at all just me and a guitar, I think I thought it would help me ‘connect’ with the audience in a more intimate way. At the second gig, someone said they couldn’t hear it, and one of the carers there quickly brought out a mini guitar amp, mic and stand. It wasn’t an amazing sound system, but we did ‘rock out’ a bit, and I could feel the difference. I was like ‘duh’, there is a distinct possibility of AL residents having limited hearing, and I wasn’t meeting that need with no amp. I had most of the gear I needed, great speakers, mics and stands but I needed a ‘mixer amp’ and a friend, Ralph, came to my aid with the loan of a great ‘Acoustic ™’ pa head.
music
While working on my new set another aspect struck me, I perform several different genres, I’d expected to do quite a bit of the Great American Songbook in something of a Frank Sinatra style, and at the first gig there had been a general request for ‘Western songs’ so there would be country along with Elvis, Beatles etc. In addition I had learned some Mexican Boleros in Spanish – ‘Sabor a Mi’, ‘Historia de un Amor’ to help involve and show respect and compassion for Spanish speakers in the audience. I figured it would help to use backing tracks to ‘set the scene’ for the different genres, swinging band sounds for Frank Sinatra, Mariachi horns for the boleros and so on. Playing with new setup was truly amazing, the beat, louder voice with the mic. I sometimes feel that I haven’t ‘served my apprenticeship’ with guitar on stage, my early live music career was playing drums, I did play when fronting bands but just on a few songs. It was great to be relieved of that duty on the more difficult jazz standards especially, allowing me to focus on singing and communicating. I feature a fully acoustic section in the show, and also play along with country songs etc. The new setup also allowed me to play harmonica freely on a few numbers, I’m pretty hot on the harmonica doing blues style solos etc, and so much the better to be able to focus solely on it when playing.

Sooo… what’s so great about it? Well there are some humdrum things – It’s good to play nearby and during the day, helps with the traveling. And I’m not knocking it, but it is refreshing to be away from guys drinking at the bar! Things ramp up when I feel I’m contributing to the local community. I also love mid-20th century material. In a way it is ‘before my time’, but I have such respect for those Great American Songbook writers, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins – on many levels they were geniuses – the harmonic and melodic subtlety and complexity, the poetic lyricality, the swinging beats all add up to something magical, something that I’ve wanted to celebrate since listening to Django Reinhardt records in my teens! I have actually sung some over the years on stage, but not the extent I can now. It’s been wonderful to open up to the worlds of 50’s/60’s boleros and to help my learning Spanish by singing it in the songs and to revisit the Elvis, Glen Campbell and country classics, but most of all it is the people.

The audience, the people. It is wider than you might imagine, as well as the residents, there are staff and usually a few visitors who widen out the demographic of the audience. A big surprise is that some residents who may suffer advanced dementia, and seem quite unaware, can ‘come to life’ with feet tapping out the beat, a wide smile on their face and arms waving in the air! Some of the guests can get up and dance, with or without the help of carers, bring back old times, feel more ‘normal’ and even elated for a while. Residents in these homes can generally withdraw into a shell, become wallflower like, I’ve often heard old age referred to as becoming ‘invisible’. It is my job to bring back ‘visibilitiy’, joy, smiles, the joy of dance, remembrance of great times and maybe more important something to look forward to!

Peace

And, along with the residents, there are always some staff and visitors in the audience, loving it, and for the visitors especially, the feeling that I’m there doing my best, and showing the greatest love and care to their loved ones!

Classic Songs – My Funny Valentine

My Funny Valentine is getting some unfavourable comment these days, there’s almost an Internet meme about the lyrics, which are less than complementary to the ‘other’… “is your figure less than Greek” and “is your mouth a little weak” seeming odd in a romantic song. Understandably some criticism takes a feminist turn, when sung by a male singer, so a question to ask is whether ‘the other’ is actually female. Is Valentine a female name? Not really, there’s a long tradition of it being used by both sexes in those valentine’s cards. So perhaps a look in more depth will turn up some clues.

Photo of Richard Rogers & Lorenze Hart, 1938
Richard Rogers & Lorenze Hart, 1938
The song was written by Richard Rogers (music) and Lorenze Hart (lyrics) for the 1937 musical ‘Babes in Arms’. Richard Rogers is perhaps the foremost composer for musical theater during its heyday, acheiving great success with another lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein III, with whom he wrote ‘The Sound of Music’, but the first partnership he had was with Lorenz Hart – it lasted for 20 years, until Hart’s early death. Their list of hit songs is stupendous, with so many still remembered and played, it includes ‘Blue Moon’, ‘The Lady is a Tramp’, ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ and ‘Isn’t it Romantic’.

By all accounts Lorenz Hart led a troubled life, succumbing to alcoholism, and dying at 48 years old. He was also thought to be gay, which I’ve seen referenced as being significant to understanding the creative thinking behind the lyric of this song. As was almost compulsory at that time, he was ‘in the closet’, and it has been speculated that this contributed to his troubles.

‘Babes in Arms’ was an unusually political musical for the Broadway theater of the time. Liner notes for an original cast recording from 1989, located on the Internet at http://www.newworldrecords.org/linernotes/80386.pdf is a mine of information about the musical and serves as a source which helps us nail some facts, containing a synopsis and information about the the singer and the song and the identity of the Valentine. Note that there was a later 1950’s depoliticised (if that’s a word!) version of the musical produced – the liner notes refer to the original 1937 version.

In brief, the musical is an early version of the ‘kids putting on a show for charity’ meme, which has been used many times since. Two people get the ball rolling – Valentine and Billie. The politicism begins when a ‘southern bigot’ called Lee, who is amongst those putting the show together, offers to finance the production but only if two black children are not included in it. This causes a rift between Valentine and Billie and that leads to the song ‘My Funny Valentine’, sung by Billie. So far so good. The thing is that Valentine is male, and Billie female, so the song is definitely intended as a song sung by a female to her male lover. The lyrics are unflattering, but the song follows in the wake of a fierce row, and somehow fits the post row sentiments that Billie might have, a mix of criticism and fondness that the lyric conveys superbly, illustrating Hart’s brilliance. Somehow makes me happier to sing it, and maybe you happier to hear it… Thanks!

My Funny Valentine

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My simple guitar/vocal version.

Classic Songs – Wichita Lineman

One of the great things about playing ‘covers’ is that you get the pick of each artist’s greatest work. For every Beatles or Richard Rodgers who had lots of great songs there are many bands/writers who just come up with one or two great songs which go on to be hits. In some cases, they’re not big hits at the time but go into history as great examples of the art. ‘Song for the Siren’ by Tim Buckley is a favourite of mine in that category. The songwriter Jimmy Webb sits between these extremes, coming up with at least a handful of great hit songs – Wichita Lineman,Galveston and By the Time I Get to Phoenix (Glen Campbell), Up, Up and Away (The 5th Dimension), Do What You Gotta Do (Nina Simone and others) and MacArthur Park (actor Richard Harris, and later, Donna Summer).

Jimmy Webb hit the big time in the 60’s and had his first songwriting hit ‘Up, Up and Away’ when he was just 21. From the start there was some originality and ‘quirkiness’ to the lyrics of his songs, while the music stayed more mainstream. I vividly remember a friend recalling a song that he and his college friends had fallen about laughing to, he recalled the line ‘someone left the cake out in the rain’, saying that was a main line in the song and I failed to understand how that could be, it seemed absurd. The song was, of course, MacArthur Park. I found actor Richard Harris’s single of the song in a jumble sale and listened with interest to the song which turned out to be quite an epic, a stirring orchestral workout bookended by the actual song, as a whole a very effective piece. And, in context, it sounded pretty good, but the analogy between a failed love and a cake left out in the rain will always be, well, ‘weird’! Another of his songs, recorded by Glen Campbell, was Where’s The Playground Suzie suffered similar issues with the lyrics.

Where it all came together, without flaw, is Wichita Lineman, with its classic, haunting melody and original lyrics. The title, referring to an electricity supply worker in the Mid-West is unusual, and the lyrics are based on that unusual premise but are not too eccentric. Two threads run through the song – one being the day to day duties of a lineman and the other being brief references to an unknown love. The two verses in the song each have one line of reference to this love and in each case the line is dropped in without preamble or conclusion, and this is the winning trick of the song, being strikingly moving. The first verse goes thus:

I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singing in the wire, I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

When we first hear the line ‘I hear you singing in the wire, I can hear you through the wine’, it’s not really clear that a person is being referred to, the song references ‘wire’ and ‘whine’ and it could be that the reference to the wind, understandable in that the song is set in the Great Plains where wind is a frequent companion as well as hazard.

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My simple vocal/guitar version of this classic song.

The second verse continues the workaday theme, detailing the protagonist’s job concerns until, almost from nowhere, is the line ‘and I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time’…

I know I need a small vacation, but it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

…I still recall the shiver and goosebumps when this first sunk in although I remember no details of where or when. It is the juxtaposition of this line against the worldly detail which produces this effect. A song starting with ‘I need you more than want you and I want you for all time’ could work, but sounds like just another love song. Wichita instead encapsulates in in a gritty realism and so gets the effect. When thinking of other songs which use this effect it’s hard to identify any that do it so distinctly. The Smiths’ ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ is similar in the change of mood when the titular line arrives in the song, but it’s in the context of being a passenger in the loved one’s car in the rest of the song. So far I’ve drawn a blank – if you come up with anything, please post below in ‘comments’…

A new blog!

Better write something soon…

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