Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Big Record (CBS-TV, 11/27/57)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show we watched last night was The Big Record, a November 27, 1957 (the day before Thanksgiving, and not surprisingly turkeys got mentioned on the show) episode of  a short-lived CBS-TV series featuring the biggest recording stars of the time — or at least the biggest ones they could get and they believed would be good TV. The host was Patti Page, who kicked off the show with a version of Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” with a swinging big band arrangement by Vic Schoen (the Andrews Sisters’ former musical director) behind her — only, as great as she was, Patti Page was not a jazz singer and one ached for what Peggy Lee (just to keep the comparison fair — statuesque white blonde vs. statuesque white blonde) could have done with that chart behind her. The musical guests were an eerily assorted bunch, including Johnnie Ray as second lead (basically) — he sang a medley of his breakthrough hit “Cry” (much less forcefully than he had on his Okeh record six years earlier, almost as if he were getting bored with the damned thing) and his then-current record, “Soliloquy of a Fool” (one of those quirky not-quite-ballads, not-quite-rockers with which he was trying to regain his previous pop success), and later in the program he and Page sang a duet of “Walking My Baby Back Home” in which they dissolved in laughter often and were quite clearly having a good time. One of the attractions in watching old music programs like this is hearing artists who were under contract to different labels and therefore couldn’t record together sing duets, and while Patti Page and Johnnie Ray on “Walking My Baby Back Home” is hardly in the league of the contemporaneous Nat “King” Cole/Ella Fitzgerald duet on Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right with Me” from the Cole TV show (the first of Ella’s two appearances on it), it’s still a lot of fun and a welcome blending of two quite good voices who were taken for granted back then (though Page made a stunning artistic comeback in 2000 when he recorded the CD Brand New Tennessee Waltz for Mike Curb’s label, beginning the album with the title song by Jesse Winchester that had also been covered by Joan Baez, and ending it with the original “Tennessee Waltz” I found more moving than her hit version on Mercury — alas, almost no one actually bought this marvelous record).

Also on the show were Georgia Gibbs, singing a medley of her cover of Etta James’ “The Wallflower” (retitled “Dance with Me, Henry” and bowdlerized to get on white radio — Gibbs sang “Dance with me, Henry/You gotta dance with me while the music rolls on,” where James had sung “Roll with me, Henry/You gotta get it while the getting is good”!), her cover of LaVern Baker’s “Tweedlee Dee,” her recording of “Kiss of Fire” (actually an old tango called “El Choclo” to which some Tin Pan Alley tunesmith had added lyrics) and a new song called “I Miss You” that was by far the best of the four in her medley — basically a big-band number with a few feints towards rock (a country-ish vocal line, a discreet electric guitar and a bit of pumpin’ piano and doo-wop backing vocals) that showcased her voice better than the R&B covers. (At that I can’t help but think “I Miss You” would have been even better sung by a Black artist — and I know who it should have been, too: Dinah Washington.) Erroll Garner was the biggest surprise (and the only African-American in the show), first performing “Where or When” from his 1956 live album Concert by the Sea (introduced as the biggest-selling jazz album of the year, which it very well might have been) and then bringing up the tail end of a medley in which three pianists each took their turn at “Tea for Two.” First was Billy Maxted, whom I’d heard of before only as a Dixieland bandleader, doing a quite nice boogie-woogie version of Vincent Youmans’ tune; then came easy-listening pianist Ralph Font, wearing a black suit with an outcropping of white ruffles so overpowering one got the impression that the next time he sent the suit out to be cleaned he should have had it weeded as well (I imagine him meeting with the tailor who sold him this atrocity and the tailor saying, “I’m sorry, but we’ve already sold all our good flamboyant outfits to Liberace!”) and turning in a nondescript version of the tune; and finally Erroll Garner came back on and blew the other two guys away with the help of his trio (the bassist and drummer were unidentified but they’re quite likely the accompanists from Concert by the Sea, Eddie Calhoun on bass and the marvelous Denzil DaCosta-Best on drums — he began as an early bebop trumpeter, got tuberculosis, recovered but no longer had the breath control or stamina to play trumpet so he took up drums and co-authored a number of Thelonious Monk’s early songs).

Also in the cast were Walter Slezak, singing a song from the musical Fanny (all about how much he loved his wife even after over 20 years of marriage, but with a rap break in the middle that trashes the overall content and makes some rather misogynistic jokes about it all) — his voice was hardly in the same league as his father’s (star operatic tenor Leo Slezak) but it’s still quite pleasant and serviceable); French singer Guylaine Guy, whose aggressive rock style probably threw people in the 1957 audience whose idea of a French woman pop singer was Edith Piaf and who also got to do a bit of a duet with Page in English; and the ghastliest attraction (if you can call them that) on the show, the Shepherd Sisters, who were the featured attraction in the so-called teenagers’ portion (set in something that was supposed to be a coffeehouse but looked more like a fraternity clubhouse to me, complete with football for the inmates — oops, I mean the guests — to play catch with) and who were introduced as singing a song called “Alone.” At first my fear was that it would be an attempt to rock up the great ballad Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed wrote for the dock scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, but no-o-o-o-o: it actually turned out to be worse than that, with the four Shepherds literally barking at the camera (and when the two middle Shepherds finally taking up the normal melody and lyric in the middle, they were miked so badly that the two outer Shepherds, still barking in whoever wrote the arrangement’s pitiful excuse for a backing vocal part, were drowning the leads out). This atrocious number was obviously the concoction of some record producer who’d heard of rock ’n’ roll, hadn’t a clue what it sounded like but knew it was selling, and all I could think of was, “Ladies, if you bark at people that way all the time, no wonder you’re alone!”

In both its strong and weak points, The Big Record is a pretty good sample of mainstream entertainment TV of its time, and blessedly this print included the original commercials (including some for the 1958 Oldsmobiles, one of which came equipped with a radio that you could not only remove from the car but actually use as a self-contained portable radio when the car wasn’t moving). Patti Page’s numbers were variable but her best singing in the program came at the very end, when she revived a beautiful early-1930’s song called “Home (Where Shadows Fall),” otherwise known to me only from Louis Armstrong’s 1932 version and a cover by Jimmy Rushing on his last album (recorded in 1970 and released in 1971, the year Rushing died), The You and Me That Used to Be. Where the jazz and pop numbers earlier in the show had thrown her, this ballad brought out the soul in her voice and showcased her at her best. Alas, this seems to be the only episode of The Big Record has in its collection — I found myself drooling with envy over the prospect of seeing the next in the series, the one Patti Page was promoting at the end with the promise of Benny Goodman as the featured guest (or at least as the token jazz artist); D. Russell Connor’s Goodman discography lists him as singing a vocal duet with Page on “Gotta Be This or That,” playing a medley with his trio (“Somebody Loves Me,” “Body and Soul,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and “Sweet Georgia Brown”) as well as a separate version of “St. Louis Blues” with the trio (Hank Jones on piano and Bobby Donaldson on drums), which also accompanied Page on “Basin Street Blues” and the Will Mastin Trio (Will Mastin was Sammy Davis, Jr.’s uncle; Sammy Davis, Jr. was the second and “featured” member and the third of the trio was Sammy Davis, Sr.) on tap-danced versions of “China Boy” and “The Birth of the Blues.” Let’s hope that one surfaces someday!