MY FAVORITE WESTERN THEME (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

Movies only…we’ll leave this, by a long ways the best TV western theme, aside…

..and stick to the cinema entries.

First, a little history:

Narration: Though High Noon opened to universal praise in late July, 1952, one of its early previews has proved disastrous. 

Fred Zinneman, Jr.: What was wrong with the preview was that there was wall-to-wall music in it and what people were responding to was the amount of music. After it was over, people–all the executives–were forming into little groups, whispering, and I just went into the bathroom, where two other executives were, and I heard one of them say to the other, “Well, what does a European Jew know about making westerns anyway?”

From Inside High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Frank Langella, narration)

Stanley Kramer:  He (Columbia studio head, Harry Cohn) said “What difference does it make? So I ran it. It’s a piece of junk anyway”

Narration: Now, in fairness to Harry Cohn, the print that he saw of High Noon was missing a crucial element: music. You don’t have to be an expert to know how much music can add to a movie. But in this case the music was so unusual, so revolutionary, in fact, for its time, it added a whole dimension to the picture. Most movies of the 1950s opened with a fanfare, a big orchestra. Here’s what you heard at the beginning of High Noon…as spare and low-key as the film itself:

(From The Making of High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Leonard Maltin, narration)

Not that those sometimes fanfares went away entirely….either from not so famous movies…

or extremely famous ones…

Or that you couldn’t split the difference:

Still, the makers of High Noon–having gone with too little music and too much–were onto something when they found the right mix. In the western, at least, vocals added something.

But there were only a few great ones. Some spare and low-key, some operatic.

And some of them didn’t make it to the movie. Well, one of them anyway:

Sometimes, a shoulda’ been didn’t make the movie either…

…that’s from the cutting floor of Rio Bravo, which, if it’s missed, is not as missed as it might have been, thanks to what is there.

This couldn’t have been a theme, exactly….

But this actually was…(well, a piece of it was, anyway)

So you can see (or hear), where they might have had a hard time choosing. And why they had a high bar to meet when they “remade” it (fanfare and all)…

And, by the late sixties, there was even at least one instance of a theme that blossomed out into a soundtrack (i.e., an ongoing ballad that ran through the whole movie, with endlessly witty variations, the gist of which are barely hinted at up front):

But, really, when it’s all said and done, there are three that stand head and shoulders above the rest.

One has the advantage of being from the greatest movie ever made:

One has the advantage of being both the greatest vocal and the best song ever recorded for a western theme.

But, down at the end, there’s something about the ground-breaker…Tex Ritter’s proudest moment, and one which he knew how to deliver more ways than one. My favorite is the one I played first, but this is a great variation. And there’s no more elegant or mysterious phrase in the English language than…”Wait along.”

 

NOT SUCH A FOOL (Great Quotations)

EDDIEANDSHARON

(Eddie Cochran and Sharon Sheeley. At eighteen, Sheeley was the first solo female songwriter to write a #1 record for the Billboard Pop Chart. (It was Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool.” She stalled her car in front of his house and, when he came out to help her, convinced him she was on her way to deliver the song to Elvis and would he like to hear it first?) She was riding next to Cochran–by some accounts as his fiance–in England, when he was killed in a car crash in April, 1960. After recovering from severe injuries herself, she teamed with Jackie DeShannon to form the first (and, frankly, only**) successful all-female songwriting team in the history of American music. You wonder why I keep chipping away at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Because it’s a worthwhile institution overall and I cling to the hope that, some day, if enough small voices do the same, they’ll get it right, especially where women and secret heroes are concerned.)

This is from Joel Selvin’s obituary for Sheeley, (quoted in Real Life Rock, Greil Marcus, 2015, originally printed at Salon.com June 10, 2002):

“Although Sheeley lived 42 more years, she never got over Eddie,” writes Selvin, author of “Ricky Nelson: Idol for a Generation” and the unforgiving “Summer of Love.” “She was never able to stay with another man for long. Cochran loomed over her life. She will be buried in a plot next to him.”

“‘Poor Little Fool’ provided a modest annual stipend,” Selvin concluded. “She lived quietly with her grown son, across the street from her sister. She entertained visitors with hilarious anecdotes and reminiscences, peppered with sly humor and innuendo. Sheeley was the original Riot Grrrl, even if those in her debt never knew. One young music business secretary sighed to Sheeley about Cochran’s good looks a few years ago. ‘Honey,’ Sheeley said, ‘you should have seen him when he was breathing.’”

(“Somethin’ Else” was co-written by Sheeley and Bob Cochran, Eddie’s brother. I’ll have a good deal more to say about her ability to write from a rather different, specifically male, perspective in an upcoming post.)

(**In the Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building, song-mill sense, and I’ll just add that Sheeley and DeShannon did so as true free-lancers, without that kind of support system.)

[NOTE: This life-affirming post was in lieu of a negativity-fueled rant I had practically written in my head concerning the crit-illuminati wetting themselves celebrating the new Star Wars’ movie’s “diversity” because they’ve added Stepin Fetchit and Katniss Everdeen to the franchise. I don’t want anybody coming around here trying to collect any Pollyanna dues from me for at least a year.]

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Wilbert Harrison and Dale Hawkins Demonstrate–Yet Again–That the Revolution was Bottomless)

North of fifty, it’s exceedingly rare to find myself listening to anything “new” with the old addictive spirit of youth. This week it happened twice.

The month’s entertainment budget went to acquiring a couple of 1969 releases by one-hit wonders from the fifties, one of which I’d been chasing for thirty-plus years, the other I just heard about a few weeks ago.

Wouldn’t you know they link up, there in the shadows–though not as obviously as I might have suspected if I was into suspecting things.

After “Susie Q” (circa 1957) Dale Hawkins released a string of follow-ups that–after the manner of the insanely competitive times–didn’t go anywhere. His original guitarist, James Burton (all of fifteen when he played “Susie Q”’s classic riff) soon hooked up with Ricky Nelson on his way to Merle Haggard, Elvis and a career’s worth of legend-building session work. Hawkins went behind the scenes (promotion, production, the usual) and knocked around the music industry for most of the new decade, waiting, as it turned out, for his sound to come back in style.

By the late sixties, it had.

Creedence kicked off their staggering run of mind-blowing singles with a revival of Hawkins’ hit. A sub-genre called “swamp rock,” which in theory was updated rockabilly, but in practice reached as far as Joe South and Vegas-era Elvis, was soon in full swing. That–plus his decade’s worth of contacts in the Music Biz–was no doubt why Hawkins was able to convince somebody to let him make an album, called L.A., Memphis and Tyler, Texas, after the three cities he recorded it in.

I never heard about it until a few weeks ago when Kim Morgan wrote about one of its tracks here. Having lived with it a bit now, I can’t say I’m as taken with Dale’s version of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” as she is, but it’s certainly interesting and I’m grateful for her take in any case because it led me to the rest of this. Hawkins wasn’t the greatest singer in the world, but he was committed. His was one of those voices rock and roll had let through the gate and it’s to his credit that, after a decade spent wandering around inside the castle walls, he had not reached a point of taking anything for granted.

You can hear the peak of the result here (I’m pretty sure ZZ Top got their entire career out of the opening riff), but the whole album’s a grabber:

Wilbert Harrison’s path was more than a little similar to Hawkins’. He was a bit older and he was hard-core R&B where Hawkins was hard-core rockabilly, which meant he had a place to go when he, too, failed to follow up an epic hit (“Kansas City”) with any chart success at all. He was able to make a living on the one-nighter-in-the-local-bucket-of-blood trail that is always available to anybody with a hit in their shady past who is willing to stick with it. Eventually he turned himself into a one-man band–presumably to cut expenses–and his persistence finally paid off in a chance to make an album with New York record man Juggy Murray, one of those independent hustler/promoter types who Dale Hawkins might have become with only the smallest twist of the Fate Dial.

I got onto the resulting album, Let’s Work Together, the way I suspect a lot of people did–in the “Treasure Island” portion of Greil Marcus’ Stranded, first published in 1979. There are albums on that list I still haven’t heard but every once in a while, no matter how broke I am, I get in a certain “Hey thirty-four years is long enough and it’s cheap on Amazon” kind of mood. I figured it would make a nice double bill with Hawkins and it does.

But they run in opposite directions.

While Hawkins’ LP is a clear (and successful) attempt to update his basic ethos–to move forward–Harrison went back beyond the beginning.

I don’t know what exactly possessed him to reach back behind the hard-driving, urban R&B that had once made him famous (however briefly) and drop an album-length field holler–complete with a version of Fats Domino’s segregation-era “Blue Monday” that sounds both ancient and prescient, as though Jim Crow had never really ended (ancient) and never really would (prescient)–into the Age of Aquarius.

Maybe it was just good old artistic integrity. It’s sure hard to believe anybody meant to sell records that way in 1969.

But sell records he did.

Despite (I don’t think there was any “because”) a vocal which utterly belies the optimism of its presumed message, the title track became one of the most unlikely hits (#32 on the Hot 100) of the entire revolution and, in its full album version (see below), it, along with the rest of the album, proved one of history’s oldest lessons.

If you want to look forward, look back.

“Let’s Work Together” is the furthest thing from slick imaginable. It makes even Dale Hawkins sound like Mel Torme. Heck, it makes the Wilbert Harrison of “Kansas City” sound like Mel Torme. But, in 1969 and now, it served/serves as a nice reminder that the basics upon which the disco-fied, hip-hopping future would be built went back much further than James Brown, or Fats Domino, or, for that matter, Jim Crow.

And, no matter how well I think I’ve learned these lessons, it’s always nice to be reminded by something that has a good beat to it even if I can’t dance a lick.

 

THE THREAT….ELVIS CROSSOVER (Part 6)

…Or, “Yes, There Was a Reason They Drafted Him…However Coincidentally”

A few weeks turned out to be a few months, but I’m finally getting around to continuing the discussion of Elvis Presley’s unprecedented impact in the fifties. Parts 1 through 5 can be accessed in the “Concerning Elvis” category on the right (you’ll have to scroll down a bit–I’ve been busier than I thought). I indicated at the end of Part 5 that I would use this as a sort of philosophical summation, but I realized in the intervening gap that I had left out one important statistical component of my basic argument–and that it was perhaps the most important one!–so I’m inserting it here. It’s a little shorter than previous posts but I think it covers some necessary ground.

(NOTE: Up until November 10, 1958, Billboard’s Pop Chart was divided into multiple lists–for a time, as many as four per week. For historical purposes, any record that made it to the top of any of these charts is generally considered a #1 hit. Thus, there may be significantly more than fifty-two weeks’ worth of “#1″ records in any given year from 1954 to 1958.)

(SECOND NOTE: Within the definition of “rock and roll” below, I stretched to include the rather dubious likes of Charlie Gracie and Paul Anka–that is to say I even included artists who might well have enjoyed very similar levels of success with very similar sounding records had rock and roll never happened but who nonetheless can at least tangentially be called “rock and roll” acts. I also included those ballads, like Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All In The Game,” which at least get played on rock and roll oldies stations. I did, however, exclude “novelty” records, which tend to thrive in defiance of purely musical trends.)

So to begin, let’s consider the rise of Rock and Roll in three not entirely arbitrary stages:

Stage 1: July 19, 1954–April 21, 1956 (Elvis’ first official release on Sun to the week when his first major label release, “Heartbreak Hotel,” reached the top of the national pop charts)

Stage 2: April 21, 1956–March 24, 1958 (Elvis’ first national chart #1 to his induction in the Army)

Stage 3: March 24, 1958–April 25, 1960 (Army induction to his first post-Army release, “Stuck On You,” reaching the top of the national charts)

Now some statistics:

STAGE ONE (7/54–4/56):

Total weeks at #1–all artists: 125
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists only: 10 (8% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 0 (0% of Rock total)

STAGE TWO (4/56–3/58):

Total weeks at #1–all artists: 152
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists only: 83 (55% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 56 (67% of Rock total)

STAGE THREE (3/58–4/60):

Total weeks at #1–all artists: 119
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists: 71 (60% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 4 (6% of Rock total)

Followed by some quick thoughts:

Studying these numbers, a few things become obvious.

Rock and roll took off into the stratosphere and moved to the very center of American culture in the two years before Elvis went into the Army, (in the time frame which I’ve called “Stage 2”).

It took off into the stratosphere and moved to the very center of American culture (as opposed to becoming a real hot fad in the music business) because of–and only because of–Elvis Presley’s extraordinary success.

Elvis spent more than twice as many weeks at #1 in Stage 2 as all other rock and roll acts combined–even if “rock and roll” is stretched to its furthest possible definition. (Meaning, incidentally, the definition Elvis’ success gave it.)

As one method of considering rock and roll’s impact without Elvis: Pat Boone alone spent 18 weeks at #1 in Stage 2….all rock and roll acts not named Elvis Presley spent a total of 27 weeks at #1.

As another more straightforward method of consideration: Without Elvis, rock and roll only takes up about 28% of the total weeks at #1 in this all important and likely decisive stage.

That’s a long way from nothing. It’s a pretty big deal, moving from 10% to 28%. But, without Elvis, it’s not even close to being a Revolution. (Never mind that, absent Elvis, even the 28% would certainly be lower–he brought a lot of his competition with him.)

When we look at Stage 3, we find that Rock and Roll, broadly defined, really had become the dominant music (in the very era when rock historians have typically written it off), which it would remain until the rise of Hip Hop in the nineties. But that’s mostly because literally every record company in America had made a point of getting in on the act in the wake of Elvis’s extraordinary success, which was of a measure that no savvy businessman could afford to ignore.

Hence, what we find in Stage 3 is a string of #1 hits by Elvis surrogates: Bobby Darin, Conway Twitty, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka…even Johnny Preston and Mark Dinning (not to mention Nashville acts like the Everly Brothers and Johnny Horton and Marty Robbins who were still benefiting from the phenomena I discussed at length in Part 5, though that was about to end). These young men who might not have had recording contracts without Elvis re-directing the music business–and who certainly would have been singing a different kind of music–held the line until the main force returned (whence he immediately spent sixteen of the next thirty-seven weeks at #1 himself and spearheaded a “velvet revolution” in ballad singing that would flip the script so thoroughly that following developments–be it the Beatles or Dylan or Hendrix or Aretha or Johnny Rotten–became predictable in their broad outlines, however unforeseeable they were in their specifics. About that, more later, as we move into Elvis’ post-Army career.)

I wanted to present these numbers in simple, stark form, because I think they make the case more clearly than any amount of anecdotal evidence could, that, without Elvis Presley, the cultural narrative of the post-war era would be remarkably different. I’ll go into that more deeply in Part 7 before I move on to his return from the army.