Tag Archives: Birthdays

Johnny Mercer, America’s troubadour

 

Raised in Savannah, Johnny Mercer brought a quintessentially southern style to both his life in New York and to his lyrics, which often evoked the landscapes and mood of his youth (Moon river, In the cool, cool, cool of the evening).

Mercer also absorbed the music of southern blacks—the lullabies his nurse sang to him as a baby and the spirituals of Savannah’s churches—and that cool smooth lyrical style informed some of his best-known songs, such as That old black magic.

Mercer took Hollywood by storm in the midst of the Great Depression; putting words to some of the most famous tunes of the time, he wrote one hit after another, from You must have been a beautiful baby to Jeepers creepers. But it was also in Hollywood that Mercer’s dark underside emerged. When he drank, Mercer tore into friends and strangers alike with vicious abuse.

During World War II Mercer served as America’s troubadour, turning out such uplifting songs as My shining hour. He also helped to create Capitol Records, the first major West Coast recording company, where he launched the careers of many talented singers, including Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole. During this period, he also began an intense affair with Judy Garland, which rekindled time and again for the rest of their lives. Garland became Mercer’s muse and inspired some of his most sensuous and heartbreaking lyrics, such as Blues in the night, One for my baby, and Come rain or come shine.

This according to Skylark: The life and times of Johnny Mercer by Philip Furia (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).

Today is Mercer’s 110th birthday! Above, a publicity shot from around 1947; below, the Moon river sequence from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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George Crumb and “Black angels”

In the 1960s and early 1970s George Crumb explored new sonorities on conventional instruments and embedded quotations from historical Western classical music into new compositions. These techniques, along with his use of the concert stage as theater, come together in one of his best-known works—the string quartet Black angels, initially titled A quartet in time of war.

In the spring prior to its premiere, the nation had witnessed several devastating events surrounding the Vietnam War, which led to his inscription “finished on Friday the thirteenth, March 1970 (in tempore belli).” Crumb’s liner notes for the work’s first recording provided further context:

Black angels was conceived as a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary world. The numerous quasi-programmatic allusions in the work are therefore symbolic, although the essential polarity—God versus Devil—implies more than a purely metaphysical reality. The image of the ‘black angel’ was a conventional device used by early painters to symbolize the fallen angel.”

“The work portrays a voyage of the soul. The three stages of this voyage are Departure (fall from grace), Absence (spiritual annihilation), and Return (redemption).”

This according to “George Crumb and Black angels: A quartet in time of war”, an entry in Music in the USA: A documentary companion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008 pp. 658–60).

Today is Crumb’s 90th birthday! Above, an excerpt from Crumb’s score; below, a performance by Ensemble InterContemporain.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music

Jon Higgins and Karnatak music

Jon B. Higgins first encountered Karnatak music as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in 1962. He was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 1964 to begin study in India, and was granted an unprecedented third year extension based on the seriousness of his efforts. His first public appearance at the Tyāgarāja ārādhana at Tiruvaiyaru in 1965 was the beginning of many successful concerts to follow.

Over the next 20 years he distinguished himself as an accomplished performer, earning a sizeable and appreciative audience both in India and North America. He began teaching in 1971, finally settling at Wesleyan in 1978, where, along with his many administrative responsibilities, his singing and his interest in South India remained a constant preoccupation.

His interest and love for Karnatak music was a passionate one that fed into the strong belief that the best way to understand a music—either to talk or to write about—is to know it well from the inside.

This according to “Jon B. Higgins (1939–84)” by Tanjore Viswanathan (Ethnomusicology XXX/1 [winter 1986] pp. 113–114).

Today would have been Higgins’s 80th birthday! Below, one of his studio recordings.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Performers

Kitty Wells’s persona

While Kitty Wells’s publicity depicted her as sweet and subservient, her performances told a different story; her steel-blade voice conveyed a maturity and temerity that was impossible to misread.

Confident but not flashy, plaintive but not abject, Wells tapped into a rich vein of deeply loyal fans who heard the grit and forbearance of her experience as she sang to and about them. A role model for women who felt both fidelity and frustration toward family values, she was a transitional figure who represented changing times: a fierce traditionalist with her band, the career wife in an otherwise traditional marriage, and the voice of women who predated the feminist movement but still embraced women’s universal desire to be heard.

Projecting a toughness and stamina honed by 16 years as a professional musician, Wells forged feminine stereotypes into tools of power and strength. She built her reputation on this contradiction: She would not make waves and she would open doors.

This according to “Kitty Wells, queen of denial” by Georgia Christgau, an essay included in Country boys and redneck women: New essays in gender and country music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, pp. 211–30).

Today would have been Wells’s 100th birthday! Below, her signature hit It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels.

BONUS: A classic cover of the song.

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Filed under Popular music, Women's studies

Hitchcock and music

 

Alfred Hitchcock held an ambivalent position toward the sound elements of cinema. He remained faithful to the idea of pure cinema realized through shots and sequences, and considered dialogue as a lesser expressive resource due to its tendency to break down the narrative tension gained by the images.

On the other hand, he considered sound effects and music to be highly effective devices, with their ability to modify the rhythm of the action, or to voice the depth of characters and the hidden forces of dramatic situations. He often gave sound effects and music central roles in dramaturgy and structure.

The 1956 version of The man who knew too much is a film completely pervaded by music. The recurring song Que sera, sera is one of Hitchcock’s most remarkable examples of diegetic music, informing the audiovisual structures in concurrence with concepts developed by Gilles Deleuze in L’image-mouvement.

This according to “Immagine, suono, relazione mentale in The man who knew too much (1956) di Alfred Hitchcock” by Matteo Giuggioli (Philomusica on-line XI [2007]).

Tomorrow is Hitchcock’s 120th birthday! Above and below, Doris Day’s iconic performance in The man who knew too much.

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Filed under Film music

Georgij Mušel’ and Uzbek traditional music

 

The Soviet composer Georgij Aleksandrovič Mušel’ was deeply influenced by Uzbek traditional music and Central Asian musical culture.

While his arrangements of Uzbek traditional songs display the most characteristic aspects of his style, this influence is also evident in his three symphonies, seven concertos, and nine other orchestral pieces, as well as in his chamber music and stage works, securing him a unique place among Russian composers.

This according to Творчество Г.А. Мушеля в аспекте проблемы взаимосвязей музыкальныx культур братских народов (The music of G.A. Mušel’ in connection with the interchange of musical cultures among the Soviet republics) by Galina Vasil’evna Kuznecova, a dissertation accepted by the Taškentskaja Gosudarstvennaja Konservatorija in 1974.

Today would have been Mušel’s 110th birthday! Below, a performance of one of his piano works.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music

Norman Lewis’s “pure eye music”

The African American artist Norman Lewis’s artistic background was similar to those of the abstract expressionists; but with abstract expressionism defined chiefly by white male artists and critics, Lewis’s contributions to the movement were ignored.

Abstract expressionism valued originality apart from European influence, yet Lewis borrowed ideas from Picasso, Mondrian, Klee, and Kandinsky to recontextualize into his work. Lewis also changed styles frequently. From Musicians (1945), through Jazz musicians (1948, above), to Jazz band (1948, below), a development can be traced—from depicting overt human forms merging with musical instruments, through human forms gradually more abstracted, to emphasis on visual interpretation of musical lines, sound, embellishments, and rhythms (called “pure eye music” by the critic Henry McBride).

While Lewis’s blending and recombining of many artistic influences may have run against the abstract expressionism aesthetic, his recontextualizing of styles parallels the innovative borrowing from standard tunes and chord substitution that were characteristics of bebop.

This according to “‘Pure eye music’: Norman Lewis, abstract expressionism, and bebop” by Sara K. Wood, an essay included in The hearing eye: Jazz & blues influences in African American visual art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 95–119).

Today would have been Lewis’s 110th birthday! Below, a brief documentary chronicles his artistic development, including references to his jazz-influenced works.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Visual art

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and “I put a spell on you”

 

Selected as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, “I put a spell on you”—written, composed, and performed by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—proved to make him one of the early pioneers of both goth rock and shock rock.

Hawkins originally intended the song to be a relatively innocuous love ballad, but, as he recalled in an interview, the recording producer “brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk, and we came out with this weird version…Before, I was just a normal blues singer; I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death.”

Quoted in Contemporary musicians. VIII: Profiles of the people in music (Detroit: Gale, 1993, p. 117).

Today would have been Hawkins’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 1979; below, the original 1956 recording.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music

Cathy Berberian and pop art

 

In the 1950s and 1960s the musical avant-garde developed a new type of vocal composition that incorporated everyday vocal sounds, such as gestural utterances or expressions of affect, into aesthetic parameters. Cathy Berberian took center stage in this development thanks to the extraordinary range of her vocal capabilities; she inspired numerous composers to write in this emerging style, and was herself engaged in the creative process.

Berberian’s composition Stripsody (1966), a sounding glossary of typical onomatopoeia of comic strips, can be understood as a musical pendant to the paintings of pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Her creative process was closely intertwined with input from the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, who was a close friend of Berberian and her former husband, the composer Luciano Berio. Eco encouraged her to create a composition out of her interest for comic onomatopoeia, and he acquainted her with the Italian artist Eugenio Carmi, who created the first visual transformation of her vocal glossary.

The connection to pop art, however, is not restricted to the aesthetic approach; in form and content, Berberian and her Stripsody relate to pop art characteristics on several levels: (1) with her appearance, performances, and image, Berberian stylized herself as a pop icon; (2) with Stripsody, she took exactly the same path that Umberto Eco described in Apocalypse postponed, from avant-garde music through pop art to comic strips; (3) several components of Stripsody allude directly to typical popular themes that can also be found in the works of contemporaneous pop artists; and (4) the work directly quotes comics that enjoyed pop-icon status.

This according to “Musical pop art: Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody (1966)” by Marie Louise Herzfeld-Schild, an essay included in Music and figurative arts in the twentieth century (Turnhout: Brepols, 2016, pp. 150–65).

Today is Berberian’s birthday! Above and below, performing Stripsody.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Humor, Performers

Benny Goodman goes classical

 

Benny Goodman was only 28 years old when he reached the pinnacle of his career, bringing his big band to Carnegie Hall in January 1938.

Joseph Szigeti, who took an interest in jazz and admired Goodman’s playing for its expressiveness and technical proficiency, was present at that tremendously successful historic concert. That same year, he suggested the idea to Goodman to underwrite a commission for a short concert piece by Bela Bartók for clarinet, violin, and piano, with virtuoso candenzas in the vein of the violin rhapsodies.

Bartók completed the piece in September 1938, and Goodman returned to Carnegie Hall a year after his famous jazz concert with the premiere of two movements of Bartók’s work. The reviews of the sound recording of Contrasts, made during the composer’s visit to the United States in the spring of 1940, were unequivocal in their praise of Goodman’s performance.

This according to “Bartók: Kontrasztok, Benny Goodman és a szabad előadásmód” by Vera Lampert (Magyar zene: Zenetudományi folyóirat LIII/1 [február 2015] pp. 48–65).

Today would have been Goodman’s 110th birthday! Above and below, the 1940 session.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Performers