Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Julius La Rosa: Perry Como Show (CBS-TV, February 28-March 11, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I screened two of the six TV programs I had recently downloaded from archive.org featuring recently deceased singer Julius La Rosa, who had a brief flash of fame in the early 1950’s. He was one of the many people first boosted and then screwed over by Arthur Godfrey, who put him on his popular radio and TV shows in the early 1950’s until one day in 1953, while announcing La Rosa, he said — to La Rosa’s total surprise — “This is his last appearance on our program.” It later turned out he had fired La Rosa because La Rosa had hired an agent to get him other jobs, and for some quirky, bizarre reason Godfrey interpreted that as a sign of disloyalty. (Godfrey became so notorious that even while he was still on the air, at least two movies — The Great Man and A Face in the Crowd — were made in which characters that were thinly disguised versions of him were depicted as total S.O.B.’s. He also was the first person to demand a helipad on the roof of a building; he had just got a helicopter and he was having so much fun with his new toy that he announced to the CBS executives that from then on he was going to fly to work on his helicopter, so CBS had to convert the roof of their studio building to a helipad so Godfrey could land.)

La Rosa’s career continued O.K. — he still had a recording contract with RCA Victor (the only record of his I can remember hearing was a snippet of him doing a swing version of the song “No Love, No Nothin’,” introduced by Alice Faye in the film The Gang’s All Here and heart-rendingly recorded by Judy Garland at the time) and managed to have a career as a nightclub and lounge singer through much of the 1950’s. In February and March 1955 he was tabbed by the CBS network to take over Perry Como’s thrice-weekly 15-minute show, which followed the CBS nightly news show — itself also only 15 minutes long back then. The program was sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes and their affiliated brand, L&M (it featured singing commercials for both brands) — and yes, it’s jarring to see cigarettes being advertised on TV since it’s been so long since they have been. We watched the first two shows in the series with La Rosa, one on February 28, 1955 and the other from March 2. Based on this admittedly unrepresentative sample of his work (archive.org used to have some of La Rosa’s audio recordings but they’re no longer there, probably due to copyright-related takedowns), La Rosa seems to have been a perfectly serviceable crooner in an era that had plenty of them, including the still-active Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra at the peak of his powers, Tony Bennett riding his early success on Columbia with some unconventional song choices (like Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart”) and the person La Rosa was replacing, Perry Como.

I’ve never been a Como fan — he seemed so unemotional, uninvolved and content to be Just Another Pretty Voice that impressionists doing Como frequently mimed him falling asleep during one of his own songs — and if anything I like La Rosa better, but (perhaps because of the context he was in) he was doing pretty much the “mix” of material Como was in 1955: uptempo swing numbers, ballads, and bizarre attempts to do R&B. In February 1955 rock ’n’ roll was just starting to advance onto the charts but plenty of non-rock artists were still selling, and sometimes — especially in the work of singers like La Rosa who were rooted in the older styles of American pop vocal music but could see rock growing in popularity and were trying to adapt to it without losing the older non-rock audience in the process. While some white singers who did Black R&B songs showed some degree of imagination and creativity — Peggy Lee, for example, completely recast Lil Green’s R&B hit “Why Don’t You Do Right?” in her own style (sassy instead of dirge-like) and did an even more radical rewrite of Little Willie John’s “Fever,” both times coming up with records as good or better than the Black originals — most were content to churn out pale (in both senses) copies of the Black versions. On February 28 La Rosa opened his show with “Tweedlee Dee,” originally recorded by Black singer Lavern Baker on Atlantic and then covered by white singer Georgia Gibbs,” while on March 2 he did two other covers of other white artists’ covers of Black songs: the Moonglows’ “Sincerely” (the white cover hit was by the McGuire Sisters, though it’s a song that frankly works better sung by men like the Moonglows and La Rosa) and Gene and Eunice’s “Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So).” Gene (Wilson) and Eunice (Levy) were a Black male-female duo and a real-life couple to boot (they were engaged when they wrote and recorded “Ko Ko Mo” and got married later), and while no fewer than 17 cover versions were made in the first few months after Gene and Eunice introduced it on the Combo and Aladdin labels (including one with both Black and white singers: Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby’s son Gary), the white hit was by the man La Rosa was replacing, Perry Como. Como’s label, RCA Victor, even took out ads in the trade papers boasting, “‘Ko Ko Mo’ Belongs to Como.”

The February 28 show opens with the “Tweedlee Dee” cover, then a Chesterfield singing commercial, then La Rosa singing a ballad called “Melody of Love,” which he does quite well but one misses (as we do with Como as well) the eloquent phrasing and soul with which Frank Sinatra approached this sort of material. Each show had a guest artist, and on February 28 that was Les Paul and Mary Ford doing a then-new Capitol single called “Sung in Blue” — and while it was obvious they were just synchronizing to their record (the song is full of elaborate overdubs on both his guitar and her voice, and performing it “live” and duplicating the sound of the record would have been as impossible as it would have been for Queen to do “Bohemian Rhapsody” on stage), their level of talent and imagination soar above La Rosa’s. Though he was only pretending to play, it’s fascinating to watch Les Paul’s fingers — and it’s also nice that we can see the original Les Paul electric guitar: he designed and custom-built it himself and then licensed it to the Gibson company to mass-produce. Les Paul’s debt to Django Reinhardt (which he acknowledged) is also evident on this clip; when Les Paul and Mary Ford recorded “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” in 1952 his solo was almost a note-for-note copy of the one Reinhardt had recorded on the same song three years earlier. After that La Rosa returns and does “That Old Feeling,” a song from the Walter Wanger musical Vogues of 1938 (a movie that took so long to make its working title was Vogues of 1937) which didn’t become a standard until Frank Sinatra recorded it in the 1940’s — and once again, La Rosa’s version is pleasant and moving but can’t compare to the Chairman’s.

The March 2 show began with a jazz number, “Mobile,” which I’d heard otherwise only on a record by Bob Scobey’s Dixieland band, with banjoist Clancy Hayes doing the vocal (Hayes “sings like a man with sinus trouble,” wrote Richard Hadlock in his Jazz Review article “The State of Dixieland”), so it was easy enough for La Rosa to outsing him and come up with a quite infectious version even though the song itself is an all too obvious ripoff of “The Birth of the Blues.” Then, after a repeat of the singing Chesterfield commercial from the first show, La Rosa did his version of “Sincerely” (I liked him better than the McGuire Sisters but the Moonglows are in another universe altogether) and then brought on his guest star, Joni James, to sing “How Important Can It Be?” I’m familiar with James’ version because it was used in the soundtrack to L.A. Confidential, and unlike the Les Paul and Mary Ford “Sung in Blue” from episode one James was obviously singing live — she didn’t have the heavy vocal echo she did on the record, and there are minor but unmistakable difference in the phrasing that indicate this was a fresh performance — and then James came on with La Rosa and did a hot jitterbug dance during the “Ko Ko Mo” number but, alas, didn’t sing it with him. (Given that the original had been a male-female duet, there’s no reason she couldn’t have.) One oddity was that the closing credits featured slides appealing to viewers to make charitable donations, and while the ones for March 2 were politically innocuous ones like the Red Cross, the one for February 28 bad audiences at home to give money to something called “Fight Communism with Truth Dollars.” Charles did a quick Internet search and found it was a campaign of Radio Free Europe, which ostensibly was an independent nonprofit beaming U.S. propaganda to the so-called “captive nations” of eastern Europe but was actually a front for the CIA. (I remember ads for Radio Free Europe on radio and TV when I was growing up.) — 5/19/16


Charles and I watched the next two shows in the sequence of six singer Julius LaRosa did over two weeks in February and March 1955 as a replacement for Perry Como, who was on vacation (though he supplied a recorded greeting at the beginning of the March 4 show thanking LaRosa for filling in for him). These proved to be quite interesting and entertaining 15-minute programs which, with one exception, avoided the feints towards rock ’n’ roll that had marred the previous shows on February 28 and March 2. These shows were from March 4 and 7, and the March 4 show opened with LaRosa doing a rather silly song called “Open Up Your Heart” that turned out to be a very bleached-white pseudo-spiritual about how the devil wants people to frown so you can ward him off by smiling. (Charles was amused by the fact that LaRosa’s backup singers were called “The Ray Charles Singers” — this was, of course, the white Ray Charles, who when he was musical director on The Muppets Show in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s actually had himself credited as “[The Other] Ray Charles.”) Fortunately, the material got better after that; after the Chesterfield singing cigarette commercial LaRosa’s next song was “Teach Me Tonight,” a much better piece of material than you’d guess from the almost terminally shrill version by the DeCastro Sisters, who had the hit on it. LaRosa sang it as a ballad and phrased it eloquently (he was far better at phrasing than the singer he was replacing!), though to my mind Phoebe Snow’s 1970’s cover remains the best version.

LaRosa’s guest was a female singer named Terri Stevens (I’m guessing at the spelling of the name), who sang a quite compelling song called “Unsuspecting Heart” in a style that was basically easy-listening but had hints of both R&B and country (one could readily imagine either Dinah Washington or Patsy Cline covering this song) with an unusual staging: she stood against a backdrop of a photo of herself lying languorously on some sort of bed or couch — I presumed that was the cover of her record album — but towards the end the eyes on the image of her in the background started to blink, and eventually the backdrop image of Stevens smiled on the real one as she finished the song. (I presume the background image was pre-filmed and the two were blended together — an easy enough effect to do on film at the time but difficult on live TV.) LaRosa closed the show with a version of Harold Arlen’s “The Gal That Got Away” — written, of course, as “The Man That Got Away” for Judy Garland to sing in the film A Star Is Born, and while his version didn’t have either the wrenching power of Garland’s nor the brassy insouciance of Frank Sinatra’s (by far the best ever recorded by a man), he did the song full justice. I was amused at the differences in the last line: Judy’s was “a one-man woman looking for the man that got away,” Sinatra’s was “a long-lost loser looking for the gal that got away,” and LaRosa’s was “a disappointed guy looking for the gal that got away.” The March 7 show had its own charms; it began with LaRosa and the (female) Ray Charles Singers doing a cover of “Mr. Sandman” and, as he’d done with “Teach Me Tonight” in the previous program, making it more musical than the original artists had — though part of the charm of the Chordettes’ version is precisely in how straight-ahead  their phrasing is and how appealingly limited their voices were.

This time, after the Chesterfield jingle, LaRosa’s next song was “But Not for Me,” also a song with Gershwin and Garland connections (Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics to “The Man That Got Away” and “But Not for Me” was, of course, by both Gershwin brothers, and both were sung in films by Judy Garland; “The Man That Got Away” in A Star Is Born and “But Not for Me” in Strike Up the Band) and one which drew from LaRosa his best singing in either program even though, once again, he’s still behind both Garland and Sinatra for eloquence and raw emotion. Then it was time for the rock ’n’ roll compromise, in this case Mindy Carson (a singer I’d heard of before only as the woman who recorded a separate song on Frank Sinatra’s last Columbia Records session in 1952 — it was called a “split date”) doing a song called “The Fish” about a dance, which seemed like the sort of thing that was popular in the wake of the Twist craze in 1961, six years after this show aired. It’s not much of a song, and frankly I’d like to hear Mindy Carson in more standard material rather than trying to be a rock singer (there weren’t that many white women rockers then but both Wanda Jackson and Jo Ann Campbell could have done this one more justice). Fortunately the show ended with LaRosa doing justice to another standard, Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” — I still love Kenny Hagood’s record with spiky modern-jazz accompaniment by a studio group with Thelonious Monk and Milt Jackson, but for a “straight” version LaRosa’s is quite good and a lot of fun. Charles and I downloaded these shows as a memorial to LaRosa, who lived for years in retirement before dying earlier this year, and on the basis of them he’s a quite good crooner with a flair for jazz (not as much of a flair for jazz as Sinatra or Tony Bennett, the obvious comparisons, but still more than Como ever had!) and an appealing voice which should have made him a major star and probably would have if the competition for his sort of voice hadn’t been so fierce at the time. — 6/14/16


Charles and I finally screened the last two 15-minute TV shows in that rather odd sequence of CBS programs in February and March 1955 in which Perry Como went on vacation, and his replacement for his 15-minute show, aired three nights per week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday), was Julius La Rosa. I’d been interested in watching this because La Rosa died earlier this year (on May 12, at age 86) — though the loss of so many other, more recent musical greats like David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Prince totally overshadowed it — and though archive.org didn’t have any of La Rosa’s records they did have these six shows (February 28 through March 11, 1955) and I downloaded them and burned them to DVD. Charles and I had already watched the first four shows in the sequence, so last night we screened the final two —which proved to be surprisingly good. Frankly, though La Rosa didn’t have the long-term success of Como, I think he was a better singer; Como had a pretty voice but used it dully and didn’t seem to have a clue about phrasing, but La Rosa had skills in phrasing as well as a genuine feel for jazz that comes through even on some of the gimmicky and badly dated novelty songs that got trotted out for him on these shows. The format was an opening song by La Rosa, a jingle for Chesterfield cigarettes (the tobacco company that made Chesterfield and L&M cigarettes was the sponsor of the program), another song by La Rosa, a song by a guest artist, a duet between La Rosa and the guest, another Chesterfield commercial (this one a rather silly piece even by the standards of 1950’s advertising, featuring an electronic gizmo that looks like something a hobbyist would have turned out from a kit but which is hailed as the “Quality Detective” that ensures all Chesterfield cigarettes will be good), another La Rosa number and a final commercial for L&M (and Charles got the impression the company was marketing L&M specifically to women, since the Chesterfield commercials featured characters of both sexes but the L&M commercial was almost all women).

The March 9 show begins with a quite hot, jazzy version of “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” that shows what a loose and swinging singer La Rosa could be — as does his next number, “My Lifetime Sweetheart,” whose sentimentality is blessedly undercut by La Rosa’s light approach. Then he brings on Pee Wee King, a country-music act with traces of the Western swing style even though King didn’t use any horns, who does his big hit “Slowpoke” and then duets with La Rosa on a quite exciting version of “Tweedle Dee” — no, these white boys don’t tear through this song with quite the abandon of La Vern Baker’s version on Atlantic (Baker hated singing novelties like this and responded by doing them as all-out soul, singing far more intensely than the songs required), but they swing and are clearly having fun with it. After that La Rosa performs his latest record on Cadence, “Pass It On,” which he’d done a snippet of on the previous Monday’s show but here sings complete — and it’s a pretty good pay-it-forward number made engaging by La Rosa’s light-hearted delivery, his refusal to take it seriously the way, say, Frankie Laine would have. Then he does a “teaser” of the record’s flip side, “At Home Tonight,” much the way he’d done the “teaser” of “Pass It On” on the March 7 show.

The March 11 program had a more appropriate guest star, singer Jaye P. Morgan (a great talent who, like La Rosa, got lost in the shuffle simply because there were so many singers like her out there in the 1950’s), and though the opener, “Ever-Lovin’,” is a new song (then) that doesn’t have the panache of “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” La Rosa is still clearly having fun with it and giving it an infectious, swinging reading. Morgan then steps up for her solo spot — a song she’d just recorded for RCA Victor (Perry Como’s label and, later, La Rosa’s as well) called “Danger — Heartbreak Ahead,” which sounds like a bastard hybridization of Billie Holiday’s “Detour Ahead” and Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” (which was still a year in the future when this show was aired!). The La Rosa-Morgan duet is a bizarre song called “The Finger of Suspicion Points to You,” an odd piece that attempts to depict a love affair as a criminal investigation (I’m not making this up, you know!) — it’s not much of a piece but it is fun (a word that keeps coming to mind about this show), after which La Rosa takes the show, and his all too brief stint as Como’s replacement, out with a complete version of “At Home Tonight” (a quite nice romantic ballad which could do with revival). The rest of Julius La Rosa’s career was overshadowed by his relationship with the popular but notoriously tyrannical Arthur Godfrey, who launched La Rosa’s career in 1951 and abruptly fired him in 1953 when La Rosa, citing a family emergency, refused to attend a dance class Godfrey required of all his performers. La Rosa understandably got tired of being asked about the Godfrey incident in later years — it seemed to be all anyone remembered about him — though his performances throughout this show indicate he was a genuinely talented singer who deserved a better break — no, he wasn’t at the level of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett or Mel Tormé (the greatest white male pop singers of his generation), but he was a damned sight better than the man he was replacing, the overrated Perry Como, and had he reached his career peak in the 1940’s or the 1960’s instead of the 1950’s he might have got to do better songs than the novelty crap that dominated the charts in the era just before rock ’n’ roll. — 9/20/16