Memphis, Tennessee is the birthplace of rock and roll. It’s where the King of Rock & Roll lived and died. It’s where the Delta blues stopped for a drink on Beale Street before heading up to Chicago. And it’s where my late brother Peter managed the city’s finest luxury hotel, The Peabody. So, let’s celebrate Memphis in song…
1. Long Way from Memphis (The Automatics)
This cut is by a band of English ex-pats living in Los Angeles. The drummer (Paul Crowder) is friend of mine. He’s also a great video editor. I met him while working on “Behind The Music”. Saw him and the band play live at a club in Los Angeles and they opened with this fine rock & roll tune – which includes an Elvis sighting in Kalamazoo.
2. All the Way to Memphis (Mott the Hoople)
For years I loved this song – but I had no idea what Ian Hunter was singing about. The song was my favorite on the 1973 album “Mott”, which was the follow-up to “All The Young Dudes.” Listening to the song over and over, I can now tell that it’s about Hunter losing a guitar and having a hard time getting it returned to him. Never knew there was an Oriole, Kentucky – but it’s lucky for Ian, because Oriole rhymes with Rock & Roll if you pronounce it that way. The song’s best line? “It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll, from the Liverpool docks to the Hollywood Bowl.”
3. I’ve Been to Memphis (Lyle Lovett)
Of course Lyle Lovett’s been to Memphis. This song, like so many songs with a Memphis connection, mentions a lot of other towns – and women – along the way. I love the honky-tonk feel of this one.
4. Memphis In the Meantime (John Hiatt)
John Hiatt ditches Nashville so he and his lady can “get good and greasy” in Memphis. The band on this track is an all-star group: Hiatt (acoustic guitar), Ry Cooder (electric guitar), Nick Lowe (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums). Nice company, huh? Ronnie Milsap, it’s your loss.
5. Graceland (Paul Simon)
While John Hiatt goes to Memphis to enjoy the down and dirty rhythm and blues with some boozy babe, Paul Simon is traveling on a pilgrimage seeking benediction and redemption. The title track of one of Simon’s greatest albums, it has some of his finest lyrics – and Simon nails the allure and power of Memphis and The King’s mansion. I have just one quibble with Simon. The Mississippi delta can surely shine like a National guitar – but it’s not “the cradle of the Civil War.” That infamy belongs to South Carolina. Just ask General Sherman’s troops.
6. I’m Going to Memphis (Johnny Cash)
The Man in Black got his start in Memphis with Sam Phillips and Sun Records: part of the Million Dollar Quartet of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. In this song, credited to Alan Lomax and associated with Memphis Slim, Johnny is journeying to Memphis to see and do a lot of strange things. I don’t think Johnny’s on the same holy pilgrimage that Paul Simon is going on.
7. Going Back to Memphis (The Levon Helm Band)
Levon Helm and his band are having a great time on this rollicking, rocking track.
The whole thing is a party, led by Levon at his gravelly best.
One of rock and roll’s best examples of a guy who can lead a band from behind his drum kit, Levon takes another journey through song to the great musical Mecca on the Mississippi.
8. Memphis (Chuck Berry)
“Long-distance information, get me Memphis, Tennessee.” Thus, Chuck Berry begins one of the most oft-covered tunes ever written about Memphis. Chuck says he recorded this one at his office in St. Louis on an $80 Sears Roebuck reel-to-reel. (Although $80 was a lot of money in those days.) With its surprise ending, in which we learn that “Marie is only 6-years old,” this is one of those perfect rock and roll songs that Chuck Berry churned out so magically in the 1950’s. It’s another reason we’re all Chuck’s children.
9. Guitar Man (Elvis Presley)
This is a great comeback Elvis track, proving that the King of Rock & Roll had survived Hollywood and emerged with his voice and flawless sense of rhythm and dynamics intact. Jerry Reed, who wrote the song (and could also play guitar like a-ringin’ a bell) had a minor hit with the tune in 1967 — but Elvis’ cover (with Reed on guitar) became a chart topper. Recorded in Nashville in the late 1960’s, it was re-remixed and re-released four years after The King’s death, scoring him a posthumous #1 hit on the country charts in 1981.
Here’s a clip from the ’68 Comeback Special. There’s some fun stuff at the top, then Elvis tears into a bit of “Guitar Man”, proving he’s still the King of Rock & Roll.
10. Johnny Bye-Bye (Bruce Springsteen)
In this short, dark and complex song, Bruce ties Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry together. The Boss starts out with the opening lyrics of Chuck’s “Bye Bye Johnny,” (“She drew out all her money from the Southern Trust, and put her little boy aboard a Greyhound bus”) then pivots to a meditation on the death of Elvis, from his rise to stardom (“Leaving Memphis with a guitar in his hand, a one-way ticket to the promised land”) to his death at Graceland (“They found him slumped up against the drain, a whole lot of trouble running through his veins”).
11. King’s Call (Phil Lynott)
Another musical meditation on the death of Elvis Presley: this one’s a deeply personal tribute by Thin Lizzy’s lead singer, Phil Lynott – who also died tragically young, passing away at the age of 36 in 1986. “King’s Call” is a track from Lynott’s first solo album – and if the guitar playing sounds familiar, that’s because Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler sat in on guitar and backing vocals. I love this tune.
12. Memphis Monday Morning (Bobby “Blue” Bland)
As Phil Lynott sang in the previous track, “It was a rainy night, the night The King went down.” So perhaps Mr. Bobby Blue Bland is singing about that very night, as he takes us through this jazzy, bluesy walk through the late night/early morning streets of Memphis. Along the way, he name checks my brother’s hotel and several other Memphis locations. The musicianship on this track is awesome: a little cool jazz mixed with the blues for all you classy cats.
13. Big Train (From Memphis) (John Fogerty)
The great John Fogerty’s tribute to Sam Phillips and Sun records is dominated by the train imagery evoked in so many songs from and about Memphis. (By the way, I had the honor of meeting Sam Phillips in the late 1990’s when I interviewed him for Rick Nelson: Behind The Music. We sat at the same Formica kitchen table in Sam’s Memphis house where he sat with Elvis when he told the future King of Rock & Roll that he was selling his contract to RCA. No brag, just fact.) This song was on Fogerty’s hit 1985 “comeback album” Centerfield, and was covered the next year by the living Sun Records legends: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. Alas, only The Killer is still with us at the age of 79.
Somehow, Dean Martin makes everything he does sound groovy and utterly cool.
Given that Dean was one of Elvis’ biggest heroes – and that Elvis tried to emulate Dino’s sound – it’s only fitting that the King of Cool have his spot in this Memphis themed lineup.
15. Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (Bob Dylan)
In this fabulous track from Blonde on Blonde, Dylan puts together perhaps the greatest word collage in the history of rock & roll. And among all those words, he keeps referring to “the Memphis blues”, which he obviously has again – though he (and Jerry Reed’s guitar man) are stuck in Mobile, Alabama at the time. If this song had been sung by Ian Hunter it would be completely incomprehensible, but Dylan makes the words quite clear even if the meaning is elusive. Who cares? It’s great. It rocks. And it’s the last tune on this tribute to Memphis, Tennessee – the birthplace of rock & roll.
Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin dominated the American popular music landscape from the Jazz Age to the Rock & Roll Revolution of the 50’s. Listening to this collection of tunes (see below), it’s abundantly clear that in the mid-1920’s Bing was already plugged into black American jazz and rhythm and blues in the same way that Elvis Presley would later synthesize those same black influences – along with everything he learned from Bing, Frank (and in particular) Dean.
Among 20th century singers, a case can be made that Bing is King. The development of the microphone made Bing’s vocal style possible. At a time when vaudeville singers like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor were still belting it out to sing over the band, Bing caressed the microphone and used it to his advantage. Bing put a song across in deep, subtle, and dynamic ways that would not have been possible without electric amplification. Bing’s jazzy, relaxed and sophisticated vocal style influenced every pop, rock and jazz singer that followed – whether they knew it or not.
I thank my friend Dana for hipping me to Frank Sinatra back in our days at Northwestern University. In fact, the only song played on Dana’s Hi-Fi as often Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” was Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me.”
My resistance to Sinatra owed a lot to politics and Sinatra’s uneasy reaction to rock and roll. But I should’ve known better than to reject one of the great vocal stylists in popular music history — and a champion of great songwriters.
Elvis Presley, the King of Rock & Roll, was smarter than that.
Young Elvis was a big Dean Martin fan. Of course, he was. Dean was the epitome of cool – and Dean’s smooth, effortless, yet exciting style – with his signature, sexy dynamics and boozy note bending became part of Elvis’ vocal arsenal as well. I hear a ton of Dean on Elvis cuts like “Love Me Tender” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
All right, let’s get to the songs. Too bad nobody has a Hi-Fi anymore – because that’s how this music should be appreciated — with a mixed drink in hand, sharing it with your favorite girl. And/or your kids. It’s a BFD.
Click on the links below the song titles to hear the tunes.
1. Some of These Days (Bing)
This record is often cited as a prime example of Bing Crosby’s ability to sing jazz. In 1932, Bing recorded his take on this Shelton Brooks song written in 1910 specifically for Sophie Tucker. Bing is backed on this cut by the Lennie Hayton orchestra, featuring a great solo by Crosby favorite Eddie Lang. Listening to Bing swing in front of a classic jazz band, you can easily imagine this tune coming up with the credits after an episode of “Boardwalk Empire”. Bing was at home in front of bands of all sizes and styles. He cut his teeth with jazz bands in the 20’s before becoming a fixture of swing bands in the 30’s. These bands were all about dance music – and Bing knew his role, always giving the band’s players plenty of space to solo, rock and wail.
In Bing’s early days, dance bands didn’t always employ a vocalist. In fact, when Bing began singing with Paul Whiteman’s band, he was required to sit holding a dummy instrument so as not to look odd to the audience. By the time Frank Sinatra came along, it had recently become the fashion for bands to feature a regular vocalist. And the vocalists, and not the bandleaders, eventually became the stars. As usual, Bing was a trailblazer. Bandleader Tommy Dorsey told Sinatra that the one singer he should listen to was Bing Crosby. Duh. As a kid, Frank had a picture of Bing taped above his bed.
“Sure, I’m a Crosby fan. Everybody’s a Crosby fan.”
2. Stormy Weather (Frank)
“Frank Sinatra is the kind of singer who comes along once in a lifetime.
But why did it have to be my lifetime?”
Frank cut this Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler tune in L.A. in 1947 for a special V-Disc for the occupation troops overseas. Frank made a lot of V-Discs during the war. Ironically, the man with such an ear for melody was kept out of the war by a perforated eardrum, causing him to be classified 4-F (“Registrant not acceptable for military service”) by his draft board in ‘43. An FBI report released in 1998 showed that the doctors had also noted that Frank was a “neurotic” and “not acceptable material from a psychiatric standpoint.” This was omitted from his record to avoid “undue unpleasantness for both the selectee and the induction service.”
3. Memories Are Made Of This (Dean)
BTW — Dean was drafted into the army in 1944 and served a year in Akron, Ohio before being reclassified as 4-F and discharged, possibly because of a double hernia.
Now back to the music. On this recording, it’s easy to hear how Dean’s vocal style had such a profound effect on young Elvis Presley. Dean recorded “Memories Are Made Of This” with Dick Stabile and The Easy Riders. They cut the track on October 28, 1955 and it was released a month later. The record hit #1 on the charts on December 3rd — just a week after its release and less than two months after it was recorded. Those were the days, huh? Came you imagine a recording going from the studio to #1 in less than two months now? And this was at a time when Elvis was tearing up the charts. I love the stripped down instrumentation: just a guitar and an upright bass. Not even a drum. Totally cool. Totally relaxed. Totally Dean.
4. Shoo Shoo Baby (Bing)
Written by Phil Moore, “Shoo Shoo Baby” was a big hit for The Andrews Sisters. Bing recorded this live version with a big band for an Armed Forces Broadcast during World War Two. By the 1940’s, Bing had already enjoyed more than two decades of success in the music industry. In 1926, fledgling crooner Bing was singing on the vaudeville circuit in L.A. when he came to the attention of one of the greatest bandleaders of the era, Paul Whiteman (a.k.a. The King of Jazz), who hired him to join one of the most popular bands in America. Unlike the typical vaudeville shouters, Bing learned to work the mic (and the crowd), drawing listeners in with his groovy, jazzy, mellow dynamics. But Bing was evidently a bit of a rock star in his early days – and Whiteman had to fire his star vocalist in 1930 due to his repeated youthful peccadilloes. Bada Bing, Bing.
5. Ol’ Man River (Frank)
This Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein tune from the Broadway musical “Show Boat” was recorded by Frank on a CBS Radio Broadcast in Hollywood in April 1945 and included on a V-Disc sent to the troops in the last year of the war. By 1945, Frankmania was raging, with bobbysoxers swooning and throwing their underwear on stage during his gigs. In ‘44, his shows at the Paramount Theater in NYC sold out the 3,600 seats inside and left 30,000 fans outside dying to get in. As with Elvis and the Beatles, riots, hysteria and frenzied fandom drove a wedge between parents and their teenagers. Frank also sang the song in the 1945 film bio of Jerome Kern, “Till the Clouds Roll By”. Capitalizing on Frank’s appeal with teen audiences, the film included two versions of “Ol’ Man River” — the first a straightforward version sung by African-American actor-singer Caleb Peterson and the second a “crooner version” performed by Frank as the film’s grand finale. Trivia note: Bing’s 1928 recording of the song for Paul Whiteman’s band became his first #1 record as a vocalist.
6. You Was (Dean)
I love Dean’s playful duet with Peggy Lee on this song, written by Sonny Burke & Paul Francis Webster, and recorded on December 12, 1948. Who but Dean could deliver a lyric like “my heart is a spherical, lyrical miracle” with such easygoing self-assurance. (Dynamic moments like that – and performances like “Memories Are Made Of This” prove that Dean is the link between Bing and Elvis.) With his swinging playboy image, Dean was a master of the sexy male-female duet. If you dig this, check out Dean’s Christmas album classic, “Baby It’s Cold Outside”.
7. Pistol Packin’ Mama (Bing)
This 1943 recording by Bing and The Andrews Sisters was the first number record on the Juke Box Folk charts — followed onto the charts by the original version (recorded March 18, 1942) performed by Al Dexter, who also wrote the song.
8. Young At Heart (Frank)
Frank recorded this lovely, sentimental but swinging song, written by C. Leigh & J. Richards, for his 1953 album “This Is Sinatra”. Like so many classic Frank hits of the ‘50s, it was arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, who perfected the lush orchestrations that showcased Frank’s voice at the height of its power and subtlety.
9. Ain’t That A Kick In The Head (Dean)
If there’s a quintessential Rat Pack recording – this is it, baby! Composed in 1960 by Jimmy Van Heusen with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” was recorded by Dean on May 10, 1960 with Nelson Riddle conducting the orchestra. Dean performed the song in the Rat Pack movie “Ocean’s 11”.
10. Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? (Bing)
Along with “Ol Man River”, this powerful balled carries the sad but true tale of working men – black and white – from the 19th into the 20th century. Written in 1930 by lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and composer Jay Gorney, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” became one of the most popular American songs of the Great Depression, best known through recordings by Bing and Rudy Vallee. Both versions were released right before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election to the presidency in 1932 and both records topped the charts. Bing’s recording became the best-selling record of its time: “an anthem of the shattered dreams of the era.”
11. Where Or When (Frank)
This recording captures Frank in concert in 1966 at The Sands in Las Vegas with Count Basie and The Orchestra — arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones. Is that enough talent in one room? Frank originally recorded the song for his dark 1958 concept album “Only The Lonely”, a collection of songs that convey heartbreak and urban isolation with a moody film noir feel, including “One For My Baby” which closes out this post.
12. Open Up The Doghouse (Dean)
This one’s nothing but sheer, exuberant, naughty fun – if you can get past the utterly non-PC last verse. Dean recorded this song, written by R. Alfred & M. Fisher as a live duet with Nat King Cole, on September 7, 1954 with Billy May and Orchestra, arranged by Nelson Riddle. When I interviewed the great Wrecking Crew guitarist Glen Campbell for “Behind The Music”, he told me that when he played sessions for Dean at Capitol Records, Dean would show up after the band had rehearsed the tracks and knock his performances out quickly in front of a partying crowd of friends and entourage in the studio. Dean loved a live feel and came alive in front of an audience – and he liked to capture that vibe in the studio.
13. After You’ve Gone (Bing)
Bing’s enduring image as a softhearted movie priest and Christmas special crooner has unfortunately overshadowed his trailblazing work as a jazz cat. Bing’s 1946 single “After You’ve Gone” is one of his lesser-known records — but it puts to rest any notion that Bing was a square. The track is drenched in New Orleans/Dixieland jump and jive. The song, written in 1918 by Turner Layton with lyrics by Henry Creamer, had been covered many times before Bing cut this version with Eddie Condon & His Orchestra (with new lyrics by Eddie Condon). It was later included on Bings’s 1951 album, “Bing Crosby & Some Jazz Friends”. Bing’s jazz friends on this track include Eddie Condon (guitar), Bud Freeman (tenor saxophone), Joe Dixon (clarinet), Wild Bill Davison (cornet), Bob Haggart (bass) and George Wettling (drums).
14. Come Fly With Me (Frank)
Here’s the song Dana Olsen introduced me to all those years ago, written by James Van Heusen & Sammy Cahn, arranged and conducted by Billy May for Frank’s 1957 album, “Come Fly With Me”. This is Frank and his groovy, hipster best. Martini anyone?
15. I’d Cry Like A Baby (Dean)
Dean recorded this easygoing yet plaintive S. Gallop & H. Steiner song on August 13, 1953 with Dick Stabile and Orchestra, arranged by Nelson Riddle. Cool, casual, groovy.
16. Now You Has Jazz (Bing)
Cole Porter wrote this song for the 1956 film “High Society” (which co-starred Bing and Frank), where it was introduced by Bing and Louis Armstrong and his band. Name a prominent singer or bandleader — and chances are that Bing worked with them at one time or another during his long career. Bing was the Great Collaborator.
17. In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning (Frank)
I just love this song, written by Bob Hilliard & Dave Mann. It’s one of my very favorite Frank tracks, arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle for Frank’s 1955 album of the same name. The albums that Frank made with Nelson Riddle comprise the apex of his recording career: Songs for Young Lovers, Swing Easy, In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and Only the Lonely. Frank’s interpretations of the songs on these albums are so definitive that anyone who tried to cover these songs after him had to either consciously avoid sounding anything like Frank or give up and call their version a tribute. The singers who came before Frank, including Bing, found their interpretations erased from popular memory. Today’s best crooners, like Michael Bublé and Harry Connick, Jr. still can’t get out from under the weight of Frank’s indelible stylistic stamp.
18. You Belong To Me (Dean)
This is the suave, romantic Dino that every Italian-American woman in St. Rocco’s parish swooned over when his hits were played over the PA system during our annual Labor Day festival. Dean recorded this tune on June 12, 1952 with Dick Stabile and Orchestra, featuring Stabile on alto sax. Released only as a single, Dean’s recording reached #12 on the charts on September 6, 1952 – but it was still a hit at St. Rocco’s in the 60’s when I was a kid growing up. Of course, Dean and Frank were both Italian.
19. I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter (Bing)
Written in 1935 by Fred E. Ahlert with lyrics by Joe Young, this is the song from which Sir Paul got the phrase “kisses on the bottom” for the title of his 2012 album. Bing recorded it for “Bing With a Beat” — his 1957 concept album featuring “hot” jazz and Dixieland arrangements by Matty Matlock, played by Bob Scobey’s Frisco Jazz Band. Which leads to a second Beatles connection. In a TV interview on the 20th anniversary of John Lennon’s passing, John’s friend Elliot Mintz referred to this album while talking about John’s interest in Bing’s music. According to Mintz, “Yoko gave him this old-fashioned jukebox and John stocked it with Bing Crosby records. People kind of expected him to have rock ‘n’ roll records in there, but it was almost totally Crosby stuff. There were three songs which John played over and over. I still remember them. They were Crosby with a jazz quartet from the ’50s, I think. He would banter and talk in the songs and John thought that was just the end. The songs were “Whispering”, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”, and “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. Yeah, those were the songs, I can still see John listening to them.”
(Note: I checked to make sure, and yep – all three of those songs are on “Bing With a Beat”.)
20. I’ve Got The World On A String (Frank)
Written by Harold Arlen & Ted Koeler and recorded on April 30, 1953 for the album “This Is Sinatra”, this song is Frank’s first pairing with arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle. Riddle kept the band out of Frank’s way and used bass, reeds and horns to underscore and punctuate Frank’s phrasing. Working with Riddle, Frank honed his vocal style, connecting more with the emotional demands of each song and developing a self-assurance that allowed him to play with the melody and even change the songwriter’s words on occasion if it felt right. All of this is evident on “I’ve Got the World on a String.” Riddle opens with a big orchestral splash that quickly fades, leaving Frank to deliver the opening lines with spare accompaniment. Then – bang – the band jumps back in! And Riddle uses the drums in a way that seems to anticipate Rock & Roll’s backbeat. It’s a bold, dramatic start to one of the most successful collaborations in popular music.
21. Just In Time (Dean)
Dean recorded this song, with melody by Jule Styne and lyrics by Comden & Green, on May 17, 1960 for his album “This Time I’m Swingin”. The orchestra conducted by – who else? — Nelson Riddle. Judy Holliday and Dean sang the song in the 1960 film, “Bells Are Ringing”. Honestly, when you hear a song like this – and you imagine seeing and hearing Dino perform it live onstage with a big band – it’s easier to understand why men and women of a certain age in the late 50’s and early 60’s had no need (or ear) for rock and roll. They were swinging, baby. And damn. I miss those fabulous horns. Don’t you?
22. It’s Been A Long, Long Time (Bing)
This 1945 song, composed by Jule Styne with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, became a major hit at the end of World War Two, written from the perspective of someone welcoming home his significant other at the end of the war. A recording by Harry James and his band went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on November 24, 1945 while another version by Bing — accompanied by The Les Paul Trio — was also working its way up the charts. Bing’s record replaced Harry James’ version at No. 1 on December 8, 1945. By the way, this is the kind of guitar style that my first guitar teacher, no doubt a big Les Paul fan, tried to teach 12-year old me when I only wanted to rock. Like Bing, Les Paul makes all his brilliance, tuneful, tasteful phrasing and dazzling chops sound so effortless.
23. Nice And Easy (Frank)
The song’s title says it all. Frank recorded this tune, written by Lew Spence/Alan Bergman/Larry Keith, for his 1960 album of the same name. Arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle. (Have I heard that somewhere before?)
24. You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You (Dean)
Another dreamboat Dino song on the St. Rocco’s Labor Day Festival hit parade. Written by Russ Morgan, Larry Stock and James Cavanaugh and published in 1944, the song was first recorded by Morgan himself – but the best known version is by Dean, who recorded it for his 1964 album, “The Door Is Still Open to My Heart”. It reached #24 on the US pop chart, #1 on the easy listening chart — and #1A on the St. Rocco’s PA pop chart – next to “Volare” (1B) and “Everybody Loves Somebody” (1C).
25. Nice Work If You Can Get It (Bing)
Bing recorded this George & Ira Gershwin classic for his 1956 album, “Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings” – a collaboration between Bing and Buddy Bregman. At the time, Bregman was a 26-year old wunderkind arranger, record producer and composer. Bing was 53. (53? Yikes! That’s younger than I am!) The album was a stylistic departure for Bing: the first time he recorded an album with a hard-swinging orchestra like Frank was doing with Nelson Riddle at the same time. The songs on the album were among the rare few that Bing had never recorded before. Besides coming up with the idea of the album, Bregman also did the orchestrations and conducted a handpicked group of Hollywood’s best musicians to back Bing in the studio. The Variety reviewer wrote, “Altogether it is quite a musical package – muscular and tender, driving and romantic, pulsating and lyrical. For Bing Crosby, the artist, it is a somewhat different testament to add to the many already on record and, as you will hear, an ingeniously varied and durable one.” Time Magazine said, “After 22 years of making records for Decca — plus a few before even Decca latched onto him — Bing Crosby steps out with a handful of oldies on a new label, proves himself virtually indestructible.” Nice work if you can get it.
26. One For My Baby (And One More For The Road) (Frank)
Frank first recorded this boozy lament, written by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, for his melancholy masterpiece LP, Only The Lonely” in 1958. Eight years later, he recorded this live version at The Sands in Las Vegas with Count Basie and The Orchestra, arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones. I can’t think of a better way to wrap up this post. Set ‘em up, Frank. Let’s hear one more for the road.
Based on the number of hit records they played on over a quarter of a century, these four fabulous musicians just might be the best rock band ever assembled. But most people who bought those smash hit records in the late 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s had no idea.
Tommy Tedesco on guitar and Carol Kaye on bass (pictured at left), Hal Blaine on drums, and Glen Campbell on guitar: they were the cream of an incredible crop of L.A. studio musicians that came to be known (mostly to rock and roll insiders) as The Wrecking Crew.
Only a legendary group like The Wrecking Crew could have drawn me out into today’s torrential downpour. I drove down the Ventura Freeway through sheets of driving rain and 60 mph winds, past fallen trees and one emergency vehicle after another to Vitello’s Restaurant in Studio City. Come hell or high water – and the high water was already flooding the streets – I was taking my two rock & roll loving teenage daughters to see a screening of “The Wrecking Crew”, a documentary film by Tommy’s Tedesco’s son, Denny.
Denny Tedesco’s film is a wonderful, warm, musical, funny and revelatory labor of love. And, if you haven’t seen it yet, you can click here to see when and where there will be a private screening in your neck of the woods. These screenings are being held to raise money to pay for the music rights to all the fabulous songs in the film so it can be given a wide theatrical release. You can click on this link to find out more info about “The Wrecking Crew” and to make a donation to the worthy cause of getting this movie out to the masses.
The great Earl Palmer.
So, who were The Wrecking Crew?
Beyond the four luminaries listed above, there were also guitarists like Barney Kessel, Al Casey, James Burton and Bill Pittman; drummers Earl Palmer and Jim Gordon; sax players Jim Horn and Plas Johnson; keyboard men Leon Russell, Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John), Don Randi and Larry Knechtel; and bassists Joe Osborn and Chuck Berghofer; among others.
Brian Wilson plays Hal Blaine a song.
These guys (and Carol) played for everybody, from producers like Phil Spector, Jan Berry, Brian Wilson, Herb Alpert and Lou Adler to such varied artists as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, The Byrds, The Association, Jan & Dean, The Monkees, The Tijuana Brass, The Beach Boys, The Partridge Family, The Mamas and the Papas, Sonny & Cher, The Carpenters, John Denver, Simon and Garfunkel – and too many more to list. I mean, they played with EVERYBODY.
Chances are that the music you heard on a record by your favorite band in the 1960’s was actually played by The Wrecking Crew – especially if that record was recorded in Los Angeles.
I first became aware of the existence of studio musicians in the late 60’s when a controversy erupted over the shocking revelation that Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones didn’t play their own instruments on The Monkees’ albums. It seemed like a sinister thing to me at the time. After all, didn’t The Beatles play their own stuff? The Monkees rebelled and played their own instruments on Headquarters, which was released in May of 1967. Headquarters went straight to number one – until Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released the following week.
I had no idea at the time that it was The Wrecking Crew who were responsible for The Monkees sound, and The Beach Boys sound, and on and on and on…
I finally learned about The Wrecking Crew when I wrote and produced “Jan & Dean: Behind the Music”. Looking for people to interview, I made a habit of finding out who played on the albums – which led me to Hal Blaine and Glen Campbell. I knew a lot about Glen already, but I had no idea he had been a session guitarist before he became a huge star in his own right.
My interviews with Hal and Glen opened up a whole new world to me: this small group of amazing session musicians who spent their days going from session to session, from studio to studio, recording the soundtrack of my young life. When I interviewed early Jan & Dean producer Lou Adler (who later worked with The Mamas & Papas) he also hipped me to The Wrecking Crew.
Later, I wrote and produced “Behind the Music” episodes on Glen Campbell and The Monkees – and my Wrecking Crew education became more complete. (Though Denny’s movie certainly filled in a LOT of the blanks.) I fondly remember my conversations with Hal Blaine – and his generosity. He gave me so much of his time – and he lent me so many of his rare studio photos from those glorious sessions in the 1960’s.
A few years ago, Hal wrote a book about his legendary experiences: Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew: The Story of the World’s Most Recorded Musician.Buy it. Read it. Learn from the master.
If you love rock and roll like I do. Hell, if you love music at all – you owe it to yourself to learn more about The Wrecking Crew.
Tommy Tedesco & Hal Blaine. Incomparable.
For Baby Boomers like me, The Wrecking Crew laid down the marvelous groove that drove so much of our formative years. For my daughters’ generation, they are still an inspiration: a reminder of how all that great music on those cool oldies stations was made.
When I was a kid — before it became politically and socially incorrect — it was still okay to get laughs by playing a drunk.
Dick Van Dyke did it. Dean Martin did it. Jackie Gleason did it. Foster Brooks did it. Boy, did Foster Brooks do it.
Red Skelton did it, too. And he may have done it best.
Red was 73-years old in 1986 when I first saw him perform his classic “Guzzler’s Gin” sketch on the stage of The Chicago Theatre. That year, my wife Victoria was a member of the team led by Ray Shepardson (and our pal Drew McCoy) that rehabbed the venerable Chicago Theatre and reopened it on September 10, 1986 with a gala performance by Frank Sinatra. (Frank knew how to play a drunk, too.)
Soon after Sinatra opened the venue, Red Skelton was booked to perform. So, one day that memorable year, Shepardson called Victoria to say he needed someone to pick Red up at the airport and keep him company until his show that night. Are you kidding? Spend a day with a vaudeville, radio, film and TV legend: one of my comedy heroes? We jumped at the chance. (Someday I’ll tell you the whole story of that day — including what Red told me that George M. Cohan told him. Talk about oral history!)
Born to a former circus clown, Red was traveling with a medicine show by the age of 10, and he was in vaudeville at 15. Over the next quarter of a century, he rose to fame on stage, on radio, in film – and in the early days of television. A great slapstick clown, Red perfected his popular progressive drinking sketch “Guzzler’s Gin” over the years in vaudeville and in nightclubs. He performed “Guzzler’s Gin” at his 1940 screen test for MGM — and it was featured in the 1945 film The Ziegfeld Follies.
And here’s another bit of wonderful comedy lore…
Did you know that Red’s “Guzzler’s Gin” bit was the basis for Lucille Ball’s classic “Vitameatavegamin” routine? It’s true. Lucy and Red were both in The Ziegfeld Follies. They became friends — and Red let Lucy rework his sketch and make it her own.
By the time I saw Red do “Guzzler’s Gin” at The Chicago Theatre he’d been doing it for half a century. And it was still funny. Fall down funny.
Red Skelton and “Guzzler’s Gin” were still on my mind in January 2010 when Victoria and I began work on a sketch about the early Old West days in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, north of Santa Barbara – before it became genteel wine country.
I approached my drunken cowboy role with all the subtlety I’d learned from Red and Jackie and Foster and Dick and Dean. But mostly Red. Red played it so “smooooottthhhh!”
We performed “Whiskey Tasting” as part of “The Vic & Paul Show”, which we performed in June 2010 at Push Lounge in Woodland Hills, California.
Now, as it turns out, some people really do whisky tasting. (Evidently, there’s no guzzling involved. And no gin chasers!) You can read about how whisky tasting should be done here and here and here.
And finally, enjoy this classic Red Skelton moment, captured by the brilliant Ron Crawford.
“Here is a drawing I did at the Chicago Theater at the Red Skelton news conference (thanks to you guys). He looked at it and grabbed it away and signed it. I still can remember the feel of the warmth in that room radiating off that wonderful man.”