Tag Archives: Birthdays

Eartha Kitt and feline metaphors

eartha-kitt

From practically the beginning, critics gushed over Eartha Kitt with every feline term imaginable: her voice “purred” or was “like catnip”, she was a “sex kitten” who “slinked” or was “on the prowl” across the stage, sometimes “flashing her claws”, and her career was often said to have had “nine lives”.

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Appropriately, she was tapped to play Catwoman in the 1960s TV series Batman, bringing feral, compact energy to the role (insert, click to enlarge).

Throughout her six-decade career Kitt remained a fixture on the cabaret circuit, maintaining her voice and figure through a vigorous fitness regimen. Even after learning that she had cancer, she triumphantly opened the newly renovated Café Carlyle in September 2007; The New York times reviewer wrote that Ms. Kitt’s voice was “in full growl”.

This according to “Eartha Kitt, a seducer of audiences, dies at 81” by Rob Hoerburger (The New York times CLVIII/54,536 [26 December 2008] p. 37).

Today would have been Kitt’s 90th birthday! Below, in one of her signature songs, purring in French (one of the seven languages that she sang in).

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Filed under Animals, Performers, Popular music

Zuzana Růžičková, survivor

zuzana-ruzickova

Zuzana Růžičková endured three concentration camps and was persecuted by communists in the following years. Nevertheless, she went on to become one of the world’s leading harpsichordists.

Born in Czechoslovakia to a prosperous Jewish family, Růžičková had a happy childhood but was sickly, suffering from tuberculosis. One day, as a reward for getting better from her illness, she asked her parents for a piano and piano lessons. Though doctors had ordered her to rest, she eventually got her way, and her teacher was so impressed that she encouraged her to go to France to study with the world’s top harpsichordist.

But in 1939 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia; Růžičková was unable to continue her studies in France, and three years later she and her family were deported to the Terezin labor camp. “My childhood ended there,” she says.

Music helped her to survive. She remembers writing down a small section of Bach’s English Suite No 5 on a scrap of paper when she left Terezin in a cattle truck bound for Auschwitz. “I wanted to have a piece of Bach with me as a sort of talisman because I didn’t know what was awaiting us.”

Růžičková was due to be gassed on 6 June 1944, but she was saved by the D-Day landings, which took place early that day. She then endured forced labor in Germany before being sent to the Bergen-Belsen death camp in 1945, where she contracted bubonic plague.

When she finally returned home to Czechoslovakia her hands were badly damaged from working in the fields and hauling bricks. She was advised to abandon any ambition for a musical career. But, she says, “I couldn’t live without music,” and she practiced the piano for twelve hours a day to make up for lost time.

Despite continued persecution by the communist government, Růžičková went on to forge a distinguished career as a harpsichordist. Her international breakthrough came in 1956 when she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich, and she was allowed to perform in competitions and concerts around the world because she was a lucrative source of foreign currency for the state. Between 1965 and 1975 she became the first person to record Bach’s complete keyboard works.

She remains grateful to the composer, who, she says, “played a big role in my recovering from my terrible experiences…Bach is very soothing. You always feel in his music that God is present somehow.”

This according to “The miraculous life of Zuzana Ruzickova” by Rebecca Jones (BBC news 19 December 2016).

Today is Růžičková’ 90th birthday! Below, performing Bach’s English suite no. 5, her early talisman.

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Filed under Baroque era, Performers

Fred McDowell and “You gotta move”

fred-mcdowell

Although he was nicknamed “Mississippi”, Fred McDowell was born in Tennessee, and lived in Memphis for more than thirty years. He worked at various factories and farms, and played guitar at weekend dances.

McDowell’s “You gotta move” was covered by The Rolling Stones on their 1971 album Sticky fingers and appeared in their film Gimme shelter (1970) as well as on their Love you live album (1977). The jazz singer Cassandra Wilson also covered “You gotta move” in 2002. McDowell himself recorded three versions of the song: acoustic (1965), electric (1971), and with the Hunter’s Chapel Singers of Como, Mississippi (1966).

This according to “McDowell, Fred” by  Yves Laberge (Encyclopedia of the blues II [2006] pp. 670); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is McDowell’s 111th birthday! Below, his seminal 1965 recording.

BONUS: The Stones, around the time of Sticky fingers.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

(Re)discovering Sam Chatmon

sam-chatmon

Around 1910 Sam Chatmon formed a family string band with seven of his siblings that would later develop into the Mississippi Sheiks.

In 1936 Sam and his brother Lonnie made twelve recordings as the Chatman [sic] Brothers; Sam did not record again for twenty-four years. During that time he worked as a farmer, a night watchman, and a plantation supervisor.

In 1960 Chris Strachwitz rediscovered Chatmon and recorded him; four of the songs recorded were included on the Arhoolie LP I have to paint my face. In 1966 he was rediscovered again by the blues enthusiast Ken Swerilas, who persuaded him to move to San Diego, where he began playing in clubs and became a local favorite. Soon he was performing around the country at folk festivals and clubs, gaining notoriety as one of the few surviving first-generation Mississippi bluesmen. He made his last professional appearance at the 1982 Mississippi Delta Blues Festival.

This according to “Chatmon, Sam” by Andrew Leach (Encyclopedia of the blues II [2006] p. 195); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Chatmon’s 120th birthday! A discography is here. Below, ca. 1978.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Patti Smith and rock heroics

patti-smith

From her time as a young performance poet in New York in the late 1960s to her current position as punk rock’s éminence grise, Patti Smith has foregrounded the image of the poet as privileged seer.

Smith’s romantic impulses can be viewed within the context of her activity in the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church, the preeminent public face of the East Village poetry scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Her complex negotiations between her understanding of the poet as visionary and the adamantly playful, diffuse, and collaborative aesthetic characterizing downtown New York’s poetic community fed into the development of her performative stance as proto-punk rock icon.

This according to “‘Nor did I socialise with their people’: Patti Smith, rock heroics and the poetics of sociability” by Daniel Kane (Popular music XXXI/1 [January 2012] pp. 105–23).

Today is Smith’s 70th birthday! Above, performing in the early 1970s; below, her iconic 1974 recording of Hey Joe.

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Filed under Literature, Performers, Popular music

Oscar Levant, composer

oscar-levant

Today Oscar Levant is widely remembered for his mordant wit, his virtuoso interpretations of George Gershwin’s piano music, and his cameo appearances in numerous films. Fewer people realize that he was also a highly regarded composer who had studied with Arnold Schoenberg.

Levant’s hero worship of Gershwin stunted his confidence as a songwriter and a classical composer, though one of his pop songs, Blame it on my youth, has become a standard. Colleagues including Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson all considered him an immensely gifted composer.

This according to A talent for genius: The life and times of Oscar Levant by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (New York: Villard, 1994; reprint Los Angeles: Silman-James, 1998).

Today would have been Levant’s 110th birthday! Below, Nat Cole’s classic recording of Blame it on my youth.

BONUS: The 1942 premiere of Levant’s piano concerto.

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

Eddie Palmieri and La Perfecta

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Eddie Palmieri recalled the early days of his band La Perfecta in 2013, on the eve of his acceptance of an NEA Jazz Masters award.

The year was 1961, and the group had scheduled a three-day recording session—but it turned out that the budget shrank each day, so the band had to follow suit. On the first day the horn section comprised four trumpets; on the second day Palmieri could afford only two trumpets and two less-expensive trombones; and on the third day he had to settle for a single trombone and a flute.

For a few months after the record was released, Palmieri barked in the street outside the small Midtown Manhattan club where La Perfecta was playing, trying to divert foot traffic from the nearby Palladium Ballroom where his more famous rivals were performing. “Not there, folks!” he remembers shouting, “Over here, folks!” But soon La Perfecta was hot, and Palmieri’s guerilla tactics paid off with a 90-day Palladium booking.

This according to “Eddie Palmieri: Rebellious perfection” by Giovanni Russonello (JazzTimes XLIII/1 [January–February 2013] pp. 28–33).

Today is Palmieri’s 80th birthday! Above, the group’s first album; below, a more recent incarnation of La Perfecta, still featuring a modest brass section and a flute.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Falla in Britain

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Manuel de Falla first visited the U.K. in May 1911, when he participated in a concert of Spanish music given by the pianist Franz Liebich. (The concert received tepid reviews and was little noticed.)

In 1919 the composer spent a month in London to prepare with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for the premiere of his ballet El sombrero de tres picos; the performance took place to great acclaim on 22 July 1919. Unfortunately Falla had had to leave Britain the day before due to family matters, but several of the friendships formed during that sojourn were long-lasting, notably with his hostess, the Swedish soprano Louise Alvar, and with the composer and conductor Eugène Goossens.

In 1921 Falla stayed with Alvar and her husband again to play the piano in the British premiere of Noches en los jardines de España. He was back in London for a week in June 1927 for the U.K. premiere of his harpsichord concerto and to conduct the London Chamber Orchestra in El amor brujo and the London premiere of El retablo de maese Pedro. His last visit, in 1931, was for a BBC concert program of his music. The composer saw little of Britain outside London and had no English, but he enjoyed the British enthusiasm for his music.

This according to “Falla in Britain” by Chris Collins (The musical times CXLIV/1883 [summer 2003] pp. 33–48). This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Today is Falla’s 140th birthday! Above, Pablo Picasso’s costumes and set for the 1919 premiere of El sombrero; below, a more recent London performance of the work.

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Filed under Reception, Romantic era

Weber and “Der Freischütz”

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In 1821 the German operatic scene was dominated by foreign composers. Carl Maria von Weber was known as a gifted composer of songs and instrumental music, but his earlier operas had not been undisputed successes, and for the last ten years he had done nothing at all in that line; the premiere of his new opera, Der Freischütz, was anticipated with widespread suspense and excitement.

The composer could not but feel that much was at stake, both for himself and for the cause of German art. His friends feared that this new work would not have a chance; but Weber alone, as if with a presentiment of the event, was always in good spirits. The performance was fixed for 18 June, a day hailed by the composer as a good omen, being the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo.

Weber’s presentiment did not fail him; the occasion was as great a triumph as ever fell to the lot of a musician. The applause of a house filled to the very last seat was such as had never been heard before in Germany. That this magnificent homage was no outcome of mere nationalism was shown by the fact that it was the same wherever Der Freischütz was heard. After conducting a performance in Vienna in March 1822 the composer wrote that “Greater enthusiasm there cannot be, and I tremble to think of the future, for it is scarcely possible to rise higher than this. To God alone the praise!”

This according to “Weber, Carl Maria Friedrich Ernest, Freiherr von” in A dictionary of music and musicians, A.D. 1450–1889 (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser, 1895, IV/387–429); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Weber’s 230th birthday! Above, the composer ca. 1825; below, an excerpt from the 2010 film by Jens Neubert.

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Filed under Opera, Reception, Romantic era

Jay Ungar and “Ashokan farewell”

jay-ungar

While they may not know the title or the composer, millions recognize Jay Ungar’s Ashokan farewell as the melodic centerpiece of the soundtrack for Ken Burns’s celebrated television series The Civil War.

Still fewer of those who love the tune realize that the title refers to a site that is now known as  The Ashokan Center, an outdoor education, conference, and retreat located in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York that Ungar—together with his wife and musical partner, Molly Mason—was using for summer traditional music and dance camps.

Decades after Ungar composed Ashokan farwell, and following his performance of it at the White House and in various U.S. ceremonial settings, Ungar managed to leverage its emotional connections in a successful effort to preserve the location and create a $7.25 million campus there dedicated to traditional music, Catskill history, environmental education, and local arts and crafts.

This according to “Catskill cultural center saved, and renewed, thanks to a fiddler’s tune” by Dennis Gaffney (The New York times 12 May 2013, p. A15).

Today is Ungar’s 70th birthday! Below, a performance with Mason and some friends.

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Filed under Curiosities, North America, Reception