BRAIN SNOBS – Marilyn Armstrong

It isn’t just culture that divides us into classes. What we watch on television, see in the movies, and read also puts us into a category, often unfairly by people who don’t “get” why we like what we like.

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I read a post about how dreadful — yet gripping — romance novels can be. The not-so-subtle insinuation is that anyone who reads them is probably not too bright. While it’s true that romance novels are the potato chips of the literary world (bet you can’t eat just one) that’s not the point.

double dip in bookcase

As a former editor of the Doubleday Romance Library, I assure you that research showed readers of romance novels are better educated than most readers.

They read romance novels because they are pulp. Those readers aren’t looking to be informed or improved, to have their world expanded, reading-level or awareness raised. They want a book they can pick up, read, put down, and forget. If life gets in the way, they can just never finish the story — without regret.

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I read each 3-book volume, every month. Three romances: 2 modern manuscripts with a Gothic novel sandwiched in between. Every novel had the same plot, the same outcome. They sold gangbusters.

Regardless of what we, as writers, would prefer people to read, many people (including me!) don’t necessarily want to read “good” books. I void “good” books. I don’t want to go where that book would take me. I’m not stupid or lacking in culture. I just don’t want to read it. Don’t enjoy the subject matter. Don’t need to be further depressed by the ugly realities of life or history.

Good books can be too intense, too serious, or for too educational for this moment in time. Too close to reality. I read to be entertained. I’m not seeking enlightenment through literature. Perhaps I should rephrase that. I am no longer seeking enlightenment through literature. If I ain’t enlightened by now, I’m pretty sure it won’t happen in this lifetime.

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The wondrous thing about the world of books is there are so many. Enough genres, themes, and styles for everyone. An infinity of literature. No matter what your taste — low-brow, high-brow, middle-brow, no-brow — there are thousands of books waiting for you. That’s good. I’d rather see someone reading a bad book than no book.

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I’m not a culture snob. I think reading crappy novels is fine if you like them. Watching bad TV is fine too.

Snobs suck the fun out of reading. While I’m not a fan of romance novels, if you are, that’s okay with me. I love reading about vampires and witches. I’d be more than a hypocrite to act as if your taste is inferior to mine.

old favorite books

These days, I’m rarely in the mood for anything serious — except maybe a conversation. Tastes change over time. Life has been a very serious business for too many years. When I read, watch TV, or see a movie, I want to escape, Reality will still be there when I get back.

Finally, my favorite professor at the university I attended — a man I believe was profound and wise — was a big fan of Mickey Spillane. He said there was much truth in those books. I believe for him, there was.

IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR – RICH PASCHALL

She Wants More, More, More, by Rich Paschall


Perhaps that’s the Rebel Yell you hear in the midnight hour when the music picks up and the time to dance is at hand.  I had been wondering what to suggest as my top Midnight songs but the Midnight Memories kicked in and It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.  I observed that Midnight’s Another Day and the Top 10 list was revealed.  While you may think of many Midnight songs in The Shadows, I will be your Midnight Cowboy and give you my Top 10.

I go out walkin’ after midnight
Out in the moonlight
Just like we used to do

10. I’m A Midnight Mover, Bobby Womack.  Whether you hear the Womack version or Wilson Pickett’s growl infused version, you will think they are channeling James Brown.  Both recorded the song and it is a rhythm and blues special either way you go.  They have co-writing credit for the hit.

9.  Walkin’ After Midnight, Patsy Cline.  The country classic was originally offered by the writers to pop singer Kay Starr, but her record label rejected it.  Reportedly, Cline was not immediately impressed with the song but ended up with a mega-hit in 1957.

8.  Midnight Blue, Melissa Manchester.  This was the first song on which Manchester collaborated with famed songwriter Carole Bayer Sager. The 1973 composition was pitched to a producer for Dionne Warwick and later Manchester pitched it to Dusty Springfield who turned it down.  In 1975 it was the first single off Manchester’s first album for Arista records.

7.  Midnight Confessions, The Grass Roots.  The biggest hit for the band was released in 1968.  Recorded with a large group of studio musicians, reports are that the group did not actually play on the record but only did the vocals.  They did perform it live themselves.  I played in a band for a few years that performed this song regularly.

6.  Midnight Rider, The Allman Brothers.  The song first appeared on the Allman Brothers 1970 album, Idlewild South, and was released as a single in March 1971 without much success.  Composer Gregg Allman released it as a solo effort in 1973 and broke the top 20.  Versions by other artists have also found some success.

5.  Midnight Rambler, The Rolling Stones.  Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the song was released in 1969.  Mick provided lead vocals, of course, and harmonica, while Keith Richards recorded all of the various guitars heard on the original recording.  The song continues to appear in Stones’ concert and was recently on the playlist for the historic performance in Havana.  Here they play for just a million and a half people in Rio, the largest concert ever held.

4.  Midnight at the Oasis, Maria Muldaur.  Released in February of 1974 the song is certainly the best-known effort by Muldaur.  The soft-rock hit with its sexy lyric was made even more popular by the tease in her unique voice.  I absolutely loved this song at the time, still do.

3.  Midnight Train to Georgia, Gladys Knight, and the Pips.  The song was written and recorded by Jim Weatherly as Midnight Plane to Houston.  It was then passed on to Cissy Houston who recorded it as Midnight Train to Georgia.  Then Weatherly’s publisher passed it on to Gladys Knight and the Pips.  They won a performance Grammy with it.  Here the Pips are really workin’ it!

2.  Midnight Special, Johnny Rivers.  Creedence Clearwater Revival had a hit with the song, but it is hard for me to hear a CCR song and not think about the lead singer, John Fogerty.  Apparently, there is no arena big enough for his ego.  The Johnny Rivers version was used as the intro to the Midnight Special television programs featuring musical performances.  In my time zone, the train came through right on time, and Wolfman Jack was the conductor.  This performance is from Hullabaloo.

Eric Clapton

1. After Midnight, J.J. Cale or Eric Clapton.  Cale wrote the song and recorded it in 1966.  When Clapton covered it in 1970, Cale did not know about it until it was a hit on the radio.  At the time, he was broke and grateful for the song’s success.  He subsequently included it in a 1972 album.  Since they both have great versions out there, the only fair thing to do is show them playing it together, Cale on vocals.

To hear any of these Midnight songs, just click on the song title above.

GONNA BUILD A MOUNTAIN – RICH PASCHALL

From A Little Hill, by Rich Paschall

Gonna build me a mountain
‘Least I hope I will.

Anthony Newley

One of the best-known songs from Act One of “Stop The World – I Want To Get Off” is Gonna Build a Mountain. Both Anthony Newley, the composer, and Sammy Davis Jr. starred in the show. They also both had success with the song by itself. Each has it in the cast album, of course, but also on their own individual albums.  So who sang it best?  You be the judge.

Gonna build a mountain
Gonna build it high

I don’t know how I’m gonna do it
I only know I’m gonna try (yeah yeah)

For an extended version, see Sammy Davis Jr. perform in a production of Stop The World here. As there is no performance video of Newley in the show, it seemed best to give their album versions above.

Many people have recorded the song. “Google” it or search YouTube and you will find various versions. Just for fun, here are The Monkees Live in 1967.

See Also: “STOP THE WORLD“, I Want To Get Off,  SERENDIPITY (teepee12.com), January 26, 2020.

STOP THE WORLD – RICH PASCHALL

I Want To Get Off, Rich Paschall

Stop The World – I Want To Get Off

Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley scored big with their 1961 musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off . They opened “out of town” in Manchester but quickly moved to London’s West End where the show was a hit. Newley directed and starred in the show. In October of 1962 the production moved to Broadway for a long run. Again Newley starred as Littlechap, with the play moving through the years of the main character’s life. When things were not going his way, Littlechap would shout “Stop the world.” He was a selfish being, who sought success for himself and cared little for others. Does Littlechap ever learn learn his lessons of life and love as you follow him from birth on to the end? (Spoiler alert: If you watch the Davis video to the end you will see the conclusion of the play.)

Anna Quayle starred as the women in Littlechap’s life and won a Tony award for her work. Newley was nominated but lost out to Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Bricusse and Newley picked up three other Tony Award nominations.

There was a film adaptation in 1966. A short Broadway revival starring Sammy Davis, Jr. ran in 1978. The revival begat a television special starring Davis and Marian Mercer. In 1996 there was a television movie starring Peter Scolari. The Newley and Davis productions, as well as the 1966 movie version have cast albums available on Amazon.

What kind of fool am I
Who never fell in love
It seems that I’m the only one
That I have been thinking of

“What Kind of Fool Am I?” closes the second act of the play as Littlechap reflects back on his life. The Newley recording of the song received a Grammy for Song of the Year at the 5th Annual Grammy Awards for the song writers, Bricusse and Newley. Sammy Davis also had a hit with his version of the song released in 1962. Davis’ love of the show and its songs brought him to star in it years later.

What kind of man is this
An empty shell
A lonely cell in which
An empty heart must dwell

So who sang it better? The composer and stage performer Anthony Newley or the dynamic consumate performer Sammy Davis, Jr? You be the judge. Feel free to file your review below.

What kind of lips are these
That lied with every kiss
That whispered empty words of love
That left me alone like this

What kind of lips are these
That lied with every kiss
That whispered empty words of love
That left me alone like this

You Tube will also treat you to night club performances of the song by both artists. Just for fun, we offer this little vintage piece starring our favorite frog on the Ed Sullivan Show. That’s right, I said frog. You may recognize the other performer in this piece as well.

Sources include various Wikipedia articles including:
Stop The World – I Want To Get Off,” Wikipedia, the Free Encycopedia. en.wikipedia.org.

OVERCOMING MY NEWS ADDICTION – By ELLIN CURLEY

I confess. I became a news addict. A true junkie.

The first thing I did every morning is to reach for the phone and check out the Washington Post to see what Trump has done while I was sleeping. The headlines tell me whether I’m going to have a peaceful day focused on my own life, or a stressful day glued to the 24-hour news shows on TV.

My husband, Tom, is worse than I am. He has MSNBC on the TV or his computer playing in the background, if not the foreground, pretty much all day. He only takes a breather when he’s playing video games or Beat Saver (an exercise game). On a big news day, we often drop everything and watch one pundit heavy show after another. I’m not proud of this but it seems to make me feel more in control – like I actually have a handle on what’s going on. I am clearly suffering from Trump Trauma and Anxiety, which is a form of PTSD that psychiatrists are calling a real syndrome that they see regularly in their practices.

I didn’t think I’d be able to break my news habit. On some days I wondered how I had survived before 24-hour cable news came into being. When I had to run errands or have lunch with a friend, I’d listen to MSNBC on the radio and grill Tom when I got home to catch up on anything I might have missed while trying to have a life. I’m exaggerating a little, but unfortunately, not that much.

Weekends were not looked forward to but dreaded. We’re retired so the only difference for us between weekdays and weekends is that we can see our friends who work on the weekends and the cable news shows are mostly repeats. So we don’t get our weekday news fixes. We manage to get through most weekends without any ill effects, though we do long for our regular news anchor friends to return on Monday. Did I mention that I can tell what time it is by which anchor is hosting the MSNBC show of the moment? And I can do this from just the voices – I don’t even have to look at the TV! Again, not something I’m proud of, but there it is.

Then my daughter came to visit from LA for three glorious weeks in December. I didn’t realize that she would be my own personal twelve-step program. I wanted to spend every minute I could with her and she is well informed but not a news junky. So I had to go cold turkey. During the days we hung out, went visiting, shopping, and did projects around the house.

I played lots of gin and double solitaire. In the car, the radio was set to a music channel, not the news. In the evenings, we binge-watched Amazon and Netflix series and watched movies – no news. Not even my favorite, Rachel Maddow. I was having such a good time with Sarah, I didn’t miss the news at all. I noticed that when Tom mentioned some new development and I had no clue what he was talking about, I didn’t care!

“So this is how normal people live,” I thought.

Many of my Facebook friends are also Progressive/Liberal. They religiously keep abreast of what’s happening in the world and we regularly share articles of interest. We also share our outrage about Trump and what he is doing to our country. So I found myself skipping Facebook for days at a time. I got my daily quota of cute animal videos on YouTube.

My news blackout was complete, except for my morning survey of the newspaper headlines. I limited my reading to the headlines and didn’t read any articles.

Sarah and me, December 2019

I wish I could say my three-week detox program had a lasting positive effect on my behavior and my outlook. Or on my habits and my psyche. But it’s too early to tell. I do feel a bit calmer and more positive. Without the daily dose of man’s venality, mendacity, and hypocrisy, my general outlook may have a chance to revert to normal, which is sunnier and less pessimistic.

This is all good.

Sarah has only been gone for a short time and I haven’t watched cable news yet or obsessively read article after article in the papers. My radio in my car is still set to the ‘Broadway’ channel and I’ve decided to get back into baking when I see friends, instead of buying desserts as I have been doing for several years. Baking used to be something I loved, but since I was on Prednisone for over a year and a half and gained ten pounds, I have been on a constant diet and stayed away from cooking and baking as much as possible.

Now though, I wanted the fun of baking again. Of sharing my desserts with friends. I’ve also started working on updating my photo albums – a humongous task involving close to a thousand photos spanning sixteen years.

I see my new interest in these projects and activities as a way to enhance my life apart from the news. It’s good to focus on everyday things that I enjoy doing and bring my daily life back to ‘my’ world and not the national and international world represented by the news. I’m going to work on doing my own thing more and worrying less about our society and the planet plunging into darkness.

I hope my new perspective lasts past the next Trump crisis!

WHAT ARE YOU DOING NEW YEAR’S EVE?

Who Sang It Best? by Rich Paschall

Maybe it’s much too early in the game
Oh, but I thought I’d ask you just the same
What are you doing New Year’s?
New Year’s eve?

Wonder whose arms will hold you good and tight
When it’s exactly twelve o’clock that night
Welcoming in the New Year
New Year’s eve

Maybe I’m crazy to suppose
I’d ever be the one you chose
Out of a thousand invitations
You received

Oh, but in case I stand one little chance
Here comes the jackpot question in advance
What are you doing New Year’s?
New Year’s Eve?

Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls) wrote the song in 1947 and it was first recorded by Margaret Whiting that same year. You can hear it above, but we could find no actual video of her singing it.

The doo-wop group The Orieoles had a hit with it in 1949 which stayed on the charts into 1950. That is the second You Tube video above.

The perpetually cute Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt posted a rather amateur video of this in 2011 which has gone viral. It has well over 20 million views.  It is the third video above.

A few years ago we posted a New Year’s article that included Seth MacFarlane singing the song with an added intro that many have used. MacFarlane is the creator of some of your animated favorites and voices multiple characters on his show, Family Guy. The multi talented performer is quite a singer as well and you can check that out here.

Frank Loesser did not intend for the song to be a holiday tune. He was looking well off into the future, “Maybe it’s much too early in the game.” According to his daughter, Susan, “It always annoyed my father when the song was sung during the holidays.”

Who do you think sang it best?

Sources: Song facts, “What are you doing New Year’s Eve?song-facts.com
What are you doing New Year’s Eve?” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org

 

VIOLENCE, VIOLENCE! – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My husband is a sweet and gentle man. He is not aggressive and doesn’t have a violent bone in his body. Yet he spends hours a day watching violence on TV, in movies and actively participating in it with video games. What is going on? His appetite for onscreen blood and gore is unfathomable and unsettling to me.

He says that it’s all make believe, that none of it is real. But my problem is that to me, it’s all way too realistic. I have no tolerance whatsoever for any kind of on screen blood and guts. I can’t even watch realistic operating room scenes on my TV medical shows. The sight of someone getting an injection makes me cringe, let alone someone being sliced and diced, even by a pretend doctor. I am a total wuss.

I may have become more sensitive as I get older. Or maybe it’s just that the entertainment industry has taken onscreen violence to another level. It’s more extreme and more gruesome these days. It’s also more graphic and much more realistic looking.

Onscreen violence used to be more suggested and less in your face. When someone got shot or hit on the head, they just fell down and maybe bled a little. Now, wounds are gaping, flesh is torn, internal organs are everywhere and blood is all over everything.

I can’t handle it. I could deal with pretending that someone’s hand was cut off. But in a recent episode of my favorite show, “Outlander”, the cutting off of the hand looked so real I almost lost my dinner. This is true everywhere in the mainstream now, not just on the military, underworld, superhero or shoot ‘em up shows.

There is so much fighting and brutality on TV and in movies. People seem to be more inhuman to each other, and also more creative in their violence. Torture is portrayed, again realistically, all the time. People don’t just shoot each other or stab each other, they use more inventive and sicker ways to inflict pain and suffering.

The world is portrayed these days as a much more brutal place. Man’s inhumanity to man is front and center and perverse sadists are everywhere you look. Many shows are very dark. They are dark in theme as well as lighting. I can tolerate some, like “The Blacklist” and “Blindspot.” But some — like “Gotham” — are over the top for me.

They portray the underside of life, the worst of the worst, the ugliest of the ugly. The public’s appetite for darkness, crime, and plain meanness seem boundless.

Close to half the shows my husband watches on TV, he watches without me. I can’t stomach them. If I did try to watch them, I think I’d be depressed and anxious all the time. I know there is horrible stuff going on out there. But I can’t focus on it or wallow in it. I can’t even bear to read stories about cruelty to animals or children. If I think about it, I become obsessed with awful images and I literally feel sick.

I need to spend most of my time dealing with the normal and the positive. I get enough angst from reading and watching the news. I don’t need to add to that by watching sadism and butchery as entertainment. There is enough crazy and destructive going on in the government, I don’t need to watch pretend craziness and destruction on television in my downtime.

Please let me keep some of my illusions about people having common sense and caring about each other. If I can’t keep some of these fantasies alive, I don’t think I’ll ever make it out of bed.

WINTER IN THE AIR – Rich Paschall

Christmas Every Day, a review, Rich Paschall

Every year a heavenly host of stars puts out a Christmas album. Each hopes they will find some success with their versions of well known Christmas tunes. A few will give you some original music. We’ve already mentioned the “Chicago Christmas” album with seven new Christmas songs. There are other albums out there that might be of interest for their new songs.

David at City Winery

Late last year, American Idol alum, David Archuleta, put out a Christmas album, Winter In The Air.  Of the twelve songs included on the album were three written by David. In addition to the title tune, David has the lively Christmas Every Day. It is an uptempo way to lead off the set.

The video is high energy and fun to watch. It is one of those holiday tunes that deserves more play that it will ever receive. The old standbys continue to rule the waves. Of the secular tunes, I find it to be the best entry. Winter In The Air is also a fine addition to winter songs. It is thoughtful and reflective, more like his later work than his immediate post-Idol years.

While I think this is a fine album, I found the bounce back and forth between holiday tunes and religious tunes to be a bit odd. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the entire set. When David started into White Christmas, I thought he was going to go for The Drifters classic interpretation. Instead, he went to a version I had never heard. It was a pleasant surprise.

This year the “Deluxe Edition” was released. The first twelve songs were the same, but three more were added.  David has an a capella version of the folk tune Still, Still, Still. It finishes off the new release.

Added is a pleasant version of The Christmas Song. The Mel Torme, Bob Wells classic may have been done better, but you will find this video to be an enjoyable effort.  Released a little over a week ago, the video was put together with home movies contributed by fans, “Archies.”

Then there is this little story. David covered the ‘NSync hit, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays. In the video, he welcomes friends for a party, but a couple of surprise guests show up. Two of the original ‘NSync members, Lance Bass and Chris Kirkpatrick, try to make their way into the party. In addition to the video story below, you can find a “Making of” video on YouTube that will show you how it was done.

Happy Holidays. We hope you were singing along.

See also: “Chicago Christmas,” SERENDIPITY, November 24, 2019.
Something That Has Nothing To Do With Me,” SERENDIPITY, March 4, 2018.
Postcards In The Sky,” SERENDIPITY, May 5, 2019.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY OLE BLUE EYES – GARRY ARMSTRONG

It’s Frank Sinatra’s 104th birthday. Somewhere, Sinatra and his pals are smiling and ordering another round of the good stuff.

I recall another Sinatra birthday celebration. 1962. It was a very good year. ’62 was the year JFK met with a group of young reporters and told us we were making history. I’m not sure we understood.

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY: SINATRA, FRANK, 1953
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY: FRANK SINATRA, 1953

It was the year a bumbling team, the New York Mets, made their début as National League baseball returned to Gotham led by ringmaster, Casey Stengel.

It was the same year in which my Mom received a phone call from someone named Jilly. She was perplexed. That didn’t happen often.

“Garry”, Mom yelled, “Some strange man named Jilly is on the phone for you. Is he one of those drinking people I told you to stay away from”? I gave Mom an insolent look and curtly told her Jilly Rizzo was a confidante of Frank Sinatra. Mom gave me a look that indicated disbelief and anger. Payback later, I quietly concluded.

“Kid, is that you?”, Jilly croaked as I picked up the phone. “Geez, Your mom’s a pistol! No disrespect, Kid.” Jilly Rizzo, a nightclub confidante to Frank Sinatra and an “A” roster of celebrities, was apologizing to me about my Mom. I beamed inwardly.

Rizzo went on to explain “Frank” wanted me to join him and a few friends for a small party. I blurted out a thank you and got details.

For those who didn’t read an earlier story, I had met Frank Sinatra a few weeks earlier. It was a chance encounter during an interview I had done with Jilly Rizzo for our college radio station. For some reason, Sinatra liked what he heard and saw and we had a long conversation over drinks after the Rizzo interview. Sinatra even asked pals Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr, and Hank Henry to give us the table.

Go figure!

FrankSinatra9

We had chatted about personal stuff. I shared the difficulties of my hearing loss and ensuing diction problems. That apparently opened the door for Sinatra to talk about his own diction problems and his concentration on crisp phrasing of lyrics.

After the conversation was interrupted, Sinatra promised we’d get together again. I thought he was just being polite to an aspiring reporter. I was wrong!

Back at Jilly’s Nightclub again, I was greeted by Sinatra pal, Hank Henry who, without hesitation, handed me a double scotch neat and led me into a backroom. There were about a dozen people gathered around a large table. I blinked twice because I recognized almost everyone.

Dino, Sammy, Joey, Richard Conte, Joey Heatherton and radio icons like William B. Williams among others. There was a big birthday cake in the middle of food and booze on the table. The cake frosting was topped by a Sinatra figurine. The classic Frank Sinatra with raincoat slung over his shoulder. I just stared.

sinatra at mic

“Something wrong with the booze, kid?”, Sinatra asked, grinning as we shook hands. I nodded no and took a long slug of the scotch. Good stuff!! Sinatra beamed and led me over to the table introducing me as a friend. There were nods and smiles all around.

Across the room, the music began. Big band stuff. Instrumentals no vocals. It sounded like Tommy Dorsey. There were lots of jokes about Sinatra, his hair (it was very thin and receding), his affection for “renegade” talent and taunts that Eli Wallach was looking for him. By then, it was well-known that Sinatra had gotten his legendary “Maggio” role in “From Here To Eternity” with a little “help” even though Columbia Pictures had originally wanted Wallach for the role that earned Sinatra an Oscar and kick-started his comeback.

At some point, Sinatra pulled me aside and said he wanted me at his party because he liked my style. I was confused. Sinatra smiled and explained he wanted a young person around to remind him of his own youth and personal struggles. He said he’d appreciated that I didn’t try to get a scoop in our first meeting.

There was more chat about dealing with adversity, about how media was changing and the challenges he faced to stay relevant. I just nodded. He asked how things were going for me. I told him about my meeting with JFK and he grinned.

Pictured: Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra in a scene from FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, 1953.
Pictured: Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra in a scene from FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, 1953.

We talked about movies a bit. I mentioned I hadn’t seen “The Kissing Bandit”, a well-known Sinatra clunker. We shared our love of westerns. I started doing lines from “The Magnificent Seven” and he laughed. He told me about working with Steve McQueen in “Never So Few”. I did little bits of scene-stealing shtick as he discussed McQueen. Laughter all around as others listened in.

dean-martin-say-daiv-jr-frank-sinatra-456-021411

Sinatra finally was serenaded by Dino, Sammy, and the others with a raucous version of “Happy Birthday” laced with profanities.

I just sat smiling, sipping my scotch and not believing I was in the middle of all this. Later, as I got ready to leave, Sinatra approached with two more drinks and smiled, “Cheers, Kid!”.

They were still laughing and singing as I walked out.

FROM RUSSIA WITH MUSIC – Rich Paschall

Leonid and Friends, by Rich Paschall

There are lot of “cover bands.” You know, bands that “cover” (play) the music of famous bands. Some are good or very good. Some are bad or very bad. A few are amazing. Here in the midwest we can see bands all around the area who play as if they are the original band. We have a few who dress like the Beatles and are pretty good at it. I’ve seen cover bands play Led Zepplin and Black Sabbath that are also very accurate. These are different from nostalgia bands who play a variety of “oldies.” Cover bands desire to be exactly like the band whose music they are playing.

Leonid (right) and Friends

About a year ago a friend posted a video on facebook of a band “covering” Chicago (the band). “You’ve got to see these guys, they are amazing.” Of course, I was skeptical. I have many Chicago albums and have seen them a least a dozen times in concert. I have seen their television specials and guest appearances. I recently reviewed their latest “Chicago Christmas” album. I figure you have to be pretty darn good to try to pass yourselves off as Chicago. They are better than darn good, they are amazing.

The surprising thing about this collection of players is they are not local. They are not even from the USA. The group is mostly from Moscow, but are collected across a vast region to come together for their love of a different kind of music. They had posted a few videos previously, but their rendition of 25 or 6 to 4 (“Без 25 или без 26 минут 4”) on You Tube went viral and now has over 2.6 million views. In case you think they have not nailed it, listen to the original Chicago audio here.

Leonid Vorobyev, a musical director from Moscow, had reached the age of retirement (60) five years ago, but wanted to put together a studio project for a Chicago song. Chicago had never been to Russia. The sheet music was not available there. So Leonid listened to the song carefully and set out to write down the music and vocal harmonies, transcribing what he heard. “We have only audio records and videos (to help us learn Chicago songs),” Leonid told a reporter.

The plan was to create a studio recording that sounded exactly like the studio recording of Chicago. One project led to another. If you watch the early videos, you will see that he uses different musicians along the way. They had no thoughts of live performances and tours.

Then they became famous. Even members of Chicago liked the tribute. Leonid’s son joined on as manager and got some live performances for the intergenerational group. In early 2019 they brought the group to the US for a handful of shows. They were a hit. More invitations were received. That led to a Fall 2019 “Fancy Colours” tour.

Saint Charles
Arcada Theater, St. Charles, Illinois

Just west of Chicago, a little more than an hour from where I live (two in rush hour), is the town of St. Charles. It is home to the 897 seat Arcada Theater. Built in 1926, the theater building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since 2005 it is operated by the Onesti Entertainment Corporation. This group has been able to line up big name acts for the theater. They saw the Leonid videos and booked the group. The band was coming to Chicago…well, almost.

Leonid and Friends played some of Chicago’s biggest hits as well as some album tracks that Chicago does not play in concert. It is Leonid’s labor of love, and the group plays his choices. You can see the band is a diverse group, and they blend together well.

Leonid explained that finding someone to sing the parts originally performed by Peter Cetera  was a challenge. They ran an online competition to find the right person. Their choice was not in Russia but in Kiev, Ukraine. Serge Tiagniryadno (vocals, guitar) does a commendable job on the early Chicago tunes.

Just as in Chicago, Leonid and Friends uses a number of singers. Sergey Kashirin (vocals, guitar) covers some of the songs performed by Robert Lamm. He may not sound exactly like Lamm, but he has the delivery down perfectly. The inflections in each performance would make you believe he listened to some of the songs over and over.

In addition to playing guitar like Lamm does on Beginnings, he covers the Terry Kath guitar parts with an accuracy you can hardly believe. Kath was arguably one of the best rock guitar players ever, and his live performances can not be duplicated. The studio work must have taken many hours of practice, even for the well educated musician. At the St. Charles performance, Sergey was wearing a t-shirt that said “Kath” and contained the famed Chicago guitar player’s picture.

Leonid and Friends
Serge Tiagniryadno (left) and Sergey Kashirin

Roman Vorobyev acted like an emcee and introduced a few of the songs and gave some background of the band. Leonid, who also speaks good English, introduced the band members to the sold out theater audience.

Roman Vorobyev

At the intermission, a Russian gentlemen in my row said he had seen the group in Moscow. “You know how many groups are playing music like this in Russia?” he asked. I guess a few of us in the row just had blank faces for a response. “None!” he said. “No one else is doing this.” Actually, only one other group continues to play music like this here… Chicago, the band.

Sources: “How a group of guys from Moscow became an internationally renowned Chicago tribute band,” Los Angeles Daily News, January 11, 2019.
Leonid and Friends,” Official website.
Arcada Theater Building,” wikipedia.

See also: “Chicago Christmas“, SERENDIPITY, November 24, 2019.
Chicago NOW,” SERENDIPITY, November 13, 2016.
It Never Gets Old,” SERENDIPITY,  September 1, 2019.

TEN YEARS ONE NIGHT – Rich Paschall

An Idol on Tour, by Rich Paschall

It has been ten years since Kris Allen won American Idol. Despite a strong showing throughout, the win was considered quite an upset. Adam Lambert was expected to be the winner. Lambert had impressed the judges and received a lot of publicity for his flamboyant style. Nevertheless, Allen walked away with the award.

Just as previous contestants were contracted to do, Kris went out on an American Idol tour with other contestants. He made numerous personal appearances and recorded an album. His single “Live Like We’re Dying” climbed the charts and has been his biggest hit. His first album was self-titled. It included 9 songs that were written or co-written by Allen.

Kris Allen

In the years since Allen has recorded several albums, one of which (of course) is a Christmas album. This Christmas effort included five original tunes. including “Mommy, Is There More Than Just One Santa Claus?”

He has also engaged in any number of philanthropic and charitable ventures. He never achieved the overwhelming success that some of the Idol winners and runners-up have achieved, but he remains active and is a strong live performer.

This fall he has been out on his “10 Years 1 Night” Tour. His Chicago stop was at City Winery. I had mentioned this venue before when I saw another former American Idol star, runner up on season seven, David Archuleta. It was the Postcards In The Sky Tour that brought David to Chicago earlier in the year.

City Winery, a performance venue.

City Winery is a unique stop with a restaurant, wine bar, and concert venue. The entertainment room is more of a cabaret-style. It seats 300. Most of the tables are small, but large enough for your wine, or whatever, and a plate of food. Some arrive early for food and drink, while others show up just for the show. Some of the partons seem to sample quite a bit of whatever the winery is serving. This makes them feel like the performance is an interactive experience. Fortunately, Allen knew how to deal with this in good humor.

The two-hour show included a number of Idol reminiscences. One included the week when the performers were asked to do a disco hit. Allen was born after the disco era. He did not grow up hearing this type of music and was unsure what to do. Of course, the show provides suggestions and often steers contestants toward songs. Allen picked the hit from the disco queen, Donna Summer, “She Works Hard For The Money.” Since he really did not know that style of music, the song ended up with a more soulful treatment than it was given before.

In addition to performing this one for us, he reached back for other songs as well. The purpose of the night was to give us Idol memories along with others. The stories were entertaining and the songs were presented with a good dose of energy. It was just Kris and his guitar, plus an occasional assist from an electronic gadget that can provide percussion or repeat measures of music. Allen deftly worked the gadget with one foot as he performed. This added a fuller sound to a handful of songs. The diversity made for a better experience.

Not all performers have entertaining stories or even try to tell any. Kris sprinkled in some personal memories. The 34-year-old gushed about his wife, his high school sweetheart he has known half his life. He talked about winning over her parents after he was the winner of American Idol. That’s when they thought he could actually make a living at music.

Kris Allen in Chicago

He also got the crowd involved in singing along on a couple of songs. At one point he taught different parts to three different sections of the room. While this trick doesn’t always work for performers, the blend actually came out quite nicely in the end. Perhaps my opinion of that was shaded by the French wine.

Near the end of the show, Allen delivered his big hit. As you might expect the song was well received. He mentioned that he is aware there is a Tim McGraw song with the same title, but this one is his own.  You could hear many in the crowd singing along with the chorus:

We only got 86,400 seconds in a day to
Turn it all around or to throw it all away
We gotta tell them that we love them
While we got the chance to say
Gotta live like we’re dying

At the end of the show, Allen went around the front of the stage, shaking hands, and having pictures taken. At least one person got a selfie with Kris. Since I was close to the stage anyway, I moved up to the edge and shook his hand. He said something like, “Thanks for coming,” which he said to many. I guess I should have said, “Thanks for the good show.”

Then, it was time to use the Uber app on my phone.


Sources:

Kris Allen, en.wikipedia.org

City Winery enters a crowded music and restaurant market, by Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune, July 26, 2012.

Kris Allen Somethin’ About Christmas, discogs.com

Kris Allen Lyrics, Live Like We’re Dying, azlyrics.com

THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET – Rich Paschall

ATTEND THE TALE, by Rich Paschall

Broadway shows have always been a favorite of mine. I love to see a good live production. With a few notable exceptions (The Sound of Music, West Side Story, etc) I usually hate the movie treatment. This show has a good theater and movie version available on DVD. They are both tasty morsels.

Benjamin Barker is wrongly accused of a crime and sent away from England to a prison in Australia. His beautiful wife is taken by the judge to be his own, and his daughter is adopted by the same judge. Mrs. Lovett makes meat pies, and her shop has fallen on hard times.  Anthony, a sailor, picks up Sweeney Todd, who is adrift at sea. All of this is just for openers.

Todd returns to Fleet Street and his former home, where he encounters Mrs. Lovett.  The sailor comes across the beautiful Joanna, daughter of Todd (Barker), locked in her house by the evil judge.  Of course, Anthony falls in love with her beauty as seen from the window and with her voice.  The Beadle does the judge’s dirty work, which includes keeping people away from his ward.

Sweeney Todd
Sweeney Todd

One DVD version is the Tony and Emmy award-winning stage production with  original lead performers. The 1979 Broadway smash of the gruesome tale was recorded for television in 1982, starring Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and George Hearn as Sweeney Todd. Hearn had replaced Len Cariou (now on Blue Bloods) in the original stage production. Lansbury won a Tony award for her portrayal while Hearn picked up an Emmy.

As experienced theater performers, these two knew how to fill the house with their dynamic interpretations of Lovett and Todd.  They had to be both evil and somewhat sympathetic.  Todd is out for revenge and Lovett is doing her own conniving as well.  Some of the nature of her evil is immediately apparent.  She not only has designs for Mr. Todd, she also sees a way to improve the sale of her meat pies by getting some fresh meat.  If that needs further explanation, I will let you see one of these productions.

Sweeney-original cast

The music and lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim.  The composer of many Broadway shows has mixed a variety of styles here to score big, not just with awards, but with a long running show.  It is proof that a gruesome tale can mix drama and comedy, love and evil, revenge and murder with music and come out a winner.  It is this show that intrigued a young Tim Burton, who would bring us the movie version 25 years later.

sweeney-todd-broadway

In 2007 the silver screen version was released. Featuring most of the Sondheim score and original script, Burton was able to use film to bring more variety to the settings and more blood to the tale.  The gruesome revenge tale was certainly now more…uh, gruesome.

The surprise casting included Johnny Depp as the Demon Barber. Helena Bonham Carter played Mrs. Lovett. It certainly was easier to have some sympathy for the situations of these characters when they were portrayed by the well-known and well liked stars. The immediate question, however, was could they sing.

Alan Rickman (Severus Snape in Harry Potter) is the evil judge. Timothy Spall, who also appeared in many of the Harry Potter films, is the Beadle.  Sacha Baron Cohen is Adolfo Pirelli, the rival barber and con artist from early in the story. His young assistant, Tobias Ragg, is played by a small man with a tenor voice in the theater production, but is covered by 14-year-old Ed Sanders in the film. This is an important change as it more accurately fits the character.

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Gone from the movie is the Greek chorus offering warnings to the audience and an admonition to:

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again.

The Burton film saw no need for The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.  The song works well as a theater device and is used throughout the play.  With the movie being able to give you a stronger visual, you should not need the warnings of the chorus.

Also gone is the song “Kiss Me.” You never see in the movie version that the lovers Anthony and Johanna have actually met, while they spend enough time together in the play to do a musical number. Gone too is the “Wigmaker Sequence.” The explanation from Todd to Anthony on how he will rescue Johanna is almost completely missing.

These omissions along with shortened versions of songs leaves the movie at 116 minutes while the television production of the play did not cut anything and runs 139 minutes. The play does add in an “Intermission” so you can go to the refrigerator or wherever.

While it is no surprise to say that the crew of Broadway veterans delivered on their songs, you may wonder about the movie cast. Sondheim himself retained a right of refusal on casting choices for the main parts.

Sweeney-todd-twisted-characters

Though he feared a rock interpretation by Depp, he was pleased with the audition singing of the megastar. Helena Bonham Carter sent a dozen audition tapes to Sondheim.  As she was Tim Burton’s partner at the time, they wanted no hint of nepotism.

Cohen also auditioned extensively and is said to have sung just about everything from Fiddler on the Roof. Alan Rickman, a stage and screen veteran, delivers on the singing of the judge. The duet of “Pretty Women” with Depp rivals anything you may have seen on stage. Having teenager Ed Sanders sing the Toby part adds the poignancy the stage version may miss.

Depp claims never to have sung publicly before, yet he delivers as a brooding, vengeful Todd. Although Bonham Carter picked up awards for Mrs. Lovett, I find her song performance without life. I guess it would naturally suffer against a comparison with Lansbury.

Both productions have features to recommend. Purists of theater productions will opt for the Lansbury/Hearn portrayals. Those in favor of better effects and star power will enjoy the movie. In either case, be sure to “attend the tale.”