The Boys in the Band

Last evening I went out to see The Emperors, one of my favorite local bands.

I saw them for the first time at a high school dance in 1963. I was a new Californian, awkward and shy. I was aware that there was such a thing as dance steps, but I didn’t know any of them. I’m not sure why I went to that dance, but looking back I think I must have been cajoled into it by some friends who had my best interest at heart and thought it would do me good to get out of my shell.

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In the Name of Love

Mary Wilson, a former member of The Supremes, is escorted after singing the national anthem in Detroit on April 4, 2019.
Photo: Carlos Osorio / AP

Today a loving goodbye to Ms. Mary Wilson, who has died at the age of 76.

I’ve been hearing snippets of her work with The Supremes all day, and it reminded me again the importance of the Motown contribution to the music so many millions of us grew up with. It was, as they said, “The Sound of Young America. Wilson “only” sang backup behind Diana Ross, but she did it perfectly, with poise and grace as the group cranked out hit after hit in the 60s and 70s. That’s her in the foreground of the thumbnail below, although in the video she’s on the right (Diana’s left). We miss you already, Mary.

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Leaving The Table

I have loved the music and words of Leonard Cohen since I first encountered him in 1964.

I used to joke that if you dared to listen to a whole Leonard Cohen album at one sitting you’d have to have a counselor on hand, because you would become so sad you might decide to take your life.

Today, however, I am listening to DJ Chris Douridas’ sweet tribute to Leonard on KCRW in Los Angeles. My heart is in pieces, but the music is graceful and healing, melancholy and uplifting. I’m grateful that Leonard was in the world at the same time as me, and that his spirit was woven through my life in the best and worst of it, and that he shared with us his graceful sadness and his gentle smiles.

I say goodbye today, but I will return to him for the rest of my life.


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Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

In keeping with my annual practice of choosing a song that I can’t really sing…

and then struggling to get it right in time for Christmas, I present my 2014 effort, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” It was written in the war year of 1944 by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for the movie “Meet Me In St. Louis,” although later Martin told everyone Blane had nothing to do with it. I have personal experience with this kind of rebuff, so my sympathies lie with Mr. Blane.

This one was hard to sing. It’s not my style at all, and I have new respect for all those — cheesy and otherwise — who have recorded it before me. Except for Buble. He just pisses me off.

I think this is my fifth time to record a song for the holiday. At this rate my new album, “A Clinically Depressed Christmas,” should be ready in another seven or eight years. I know: that joke never gets old.

You might notice that I have used a slightly older version of the lyric here. Frank Sinatra made Hugh Martin “jolly up” one line for Sinatra’s album “A Jolly Christmas With Frank Sinatra.” The song had already been fixed up for Judy Garland to sing in the movie, after several copyists had attempted suicide while working on the early versions of the song, including the line “Have yourself a merry little Christmas; it may be your last.” So I didn’t go all the way with the historical rendering of the song, but I like the line about muddling through, and that’s the one you may not recognize from most of the popular recordings. Because of Frank Sinatra.

The pictures in the movie are the homes of my neighbors here in Bixby Knolls. They don’t know they’re in the video, so keep it under your hats, OK?

Merry Christmas, everybody! My heart beats only for you.

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Please Come Home For Christmas

I’m a sap for all things Christmas.

The commercial trappings notwithstanding, I get all warm and affectionate toward my fellow man, and I suspect a lot of folks feel the same way. So Christmas is all right with me.

Here’s my Christmas song for this year. I spent about a week recording it, playing and singing all the parts, and I took the pictures myself, strolling around my neighborhood at Christmas time. The pix were taken last year, but all my neighbors are using pretty much the same decorations this year, so I think we’re cool.

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It’s Up to Your Knees Out There

In keeping with my holiday tradition of trying to perform music that is beyond my abilities, I have made another Christmas recording for you, the Precious Few.Blinking-Tree

This is my fourth such presentation here on the blog, so I figure at this rate in about eight more years I’ll have a complete half-assed Christmas album. In the meantime you could, if you were so inclined, listen to the entire collection by clicking on the “Categories” menu in the right sidebar over there, selecting “Musix,” and scrolling down to whatever looks Christmas-ey.

I do almost all my writing and recording all by myself. I like to work that way because I can do things at my own pace and make all the final decisions myself without having to argue with anybody about it. Mind you, I don’t claim that all my decisions are the “right” ones. It’s just that I’m no longer trying to make hit records or satisfy music publishers or record companies, so why shouldn’t I give myself the final, undisputed say on how the project sounds?

This year, however, I decided to try “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which is a duet, so by definition I’m not alone on this one. Frank Loesser wrote this song in 1944, and sang it at parties with his wife, Lynn, for years. But Frank, being a professional songwriter, eventually sold it to MGM for a movie. According to the story, Lynn was furious, because she considered it “their song.” On the other hand, it won an Oscar for Best Original Song in 1949, and Frank could always write another song for him and Lynn.

I’ve always been amused at the story underlying the words to this song. The girl is acting as if she can’t and won’t stay with the guy, but even she knows that she will in the end. And the guy seems pretty sure of himself, too, though he continues to make his case all the way to the end, as if the outcome is in doubt. Personally I like the charade.

My singing partner is my friend Kitti Lynn Pagano. I love her sweet voice and her perfect pitch. I called her during the summer and asked if she wanted to sing a Christmas song with me. She might have thought I was kidding or crazy, but she agreed. Then before I knew it it was almost Thanksgiving, and time to get started.

First I called Kitti and suggested we make sure we agreed on a good key for us both to sing in. To my relief she not only remembered, she said she’d been about to call me! I sent her a couple of MP3’s of different versions of the song, but it turns out there are many, many versions of it on YouTube, and she found one that was just right for her. Turns out it is a little low for me, but I can hit all the notes, at least theoretically, so we went with it (It’s B-flat if you’re keeping score).

I recorded a rhythm guitar part, and immediately started regretting my choice of song, the deadline that I had (Christmas!), and occasionally even being born. This kind of music is not in my wheelhouse. I love it, but I’m no good at it. Add to that the fact that I do not play piano — and there is a piano part on this — and I was not feeling very good about the endeavor.

But it was too late to back out, and finally I had enough music recorded to invite Kitti over to sing. I had already sung a rough version of the boy vocal part and sent it to her, so she’d know what she was getting into. Kitti’s not a recording artist, so when she came to the house I tried to make her feel at home, gave her some Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice tea (I highly recommend this, especially at the holidays), schmoozed her for a while, let her choose from four different headsets to wear, and generally tried to put her at ease.

I need not have gone to the trouble. As soon as I pressed record Kitti delivered a series of near-perfect takes, and while I did try to coach her about her delivery, in the end I felt as if I could use any one of them as the “final.” Still, I’ve worked with a lot of singers in the studio, and they always want to “correct” something after they’ve gone home and listened to the rough mix for a while. So when we were finished for the evening I told her I’d email her a rough mix and she could come back in a week and sing it again if she wanted.

I was about half right: When I spoke to her on the phone a few days later she did want to come back and fix something. But when we got back together the following weekend it turned out that what she wanted to do was go back and sing it the way she sang it before I coached her. And so she did, and she was right. I shouldn’t have been meddling with such a sweet sound in the first place. I’m lucky Kitti ignored my “help,” and went with her instinct.

After that I sang my own part again, enough times to convince myself that it wasn’t going to get any better, and then returned attention to the music track. The problem was that it didn’t have much spark or bounce. The piano playing sounded like a junior high school teacher accompanying a student recital. I brought in the great Don Wittsten to play bass, and he added some jazzy motion to the track with his homemade Schecter fretless bass, but maybe not enough to cover my own amateur playing on everything else.

I kept messing with the mix and trying different guitar parts. I think I ended up keeping four guitars, the piano, drums and bass, plus the charmingly out-of-tune synthesizer bells. I learned a lot during this project. I probably should have started doing this kind of thing decades ago. Then I might be able to pull it off better by now.

At last, here it is: Baby, It’s Cold Outside. I hope you enjoy it, even with the blemishes that I couldn’t fix. It’s a little awkward, but it’s heartfelt, and so is my wish that you all have a very merry Christmas.

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Run, Rudolph!

A happy, rockin’ Solstice season to all!Rudolph

I love this time of year. I like the short days, the long shadows, the cold weather (I know, I know, you people in Minnesota could tell me a thing or two about cold weather). I love the way my neighbors put lights all over their houses and yards, and the way the hardest hearts soften just a little. Even my own heart beats more warmly for this cold, cold world.

To celebrate I have recorded a holiday rock’n’roll song, my third such effort in three years. I should have my Christmas album finished in time for the 2019 holiday season, so stay tuned for that.

The other day I heard a segment on NPR about Senator Orrin Hatch’s Chanukah song, and when the question arose Why were there not more Chanukah songs? the answer was that all the Jewish songwriters were probably too busy writing Christmas songs.

This was exactly what Johnny Marks was doing. He was a Jewish songwriter who wrote a ton of Christmas songs, including “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, ” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and the awful “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” currently in heavy and sickening rotation on KOST-103.5 in Los Angeles.

But he totally redeemed himself by creating this gem for Chuck Berry, which is not only a Christmas song by a guy who should have taken more time out to write a few Chanukah songs, but sounds so much like a song that Chuck himself would write that even I was fooled until I looked it up. I now present my version of “Run, Rudolph, Run.”

It’s an ambitious project. My ambition was to get it posted here before Blue Girl and Neddie Jingo post their annual Christmas collaboration, which, if this were a competition, they might win, but they won’t, because it’s not, and I’m not competing. (I don’t know about them, though.) If you notice any shortcomings in the playing or singing, you can put it down to me trying to get finished in time to beat them to the internet. [UPDATE: BG & NJ finally posted their Christmas song, and the links above now point directly to it.] I did play and sing all the parts, except the drums, which I programmed, and the bass, which was played by the great Don Wittsten. Thanks, Don!

Just press “play,” and have a rockin’ holiday.

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Cherchez La Femme

How many girl singers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Answer: Just one, because the whole world revolves around them.

On the small-time cover band level that I’m on, girl singers are a mixed blessing. True, they allow you to perform Sheryl Crowe songs and lots of other material not easily adaptable to being sung by guys. You have to face it — when you’re doing covers, sooner or later you’re bound to run into an audience that wants to hear something by Alanis Morisette. Naturally, you’d say no to that request under pretty much any circumstances, but what about Tracy Chapman or Fleetwood Mac? No matter how much pride you have in your musicianship or the integrity of your song selection, eventually you’ll at least have to consider such requests.

I stopped working with girl singers 30 years ago, not on purpose, but it just worked out that way. When I worked with them, they always arrived late, left early, and carried nothing but their own microphone and maybe a tambourine. On the road they always got their own room, while the rest of us shared. On stage, they were always the complete center of attention, even though musically everyone else in the band had equally important parts. During performances they could never hear enough of their own voice in the monitors. In those days we were lucky even to have monitors, much less separate monitor mixes, so we all had to listen mainly to her.

To be fair, some of them had great voices, some of them had great looks, some of them worked hard to front the band and entertain the people. Self-centered whiner that I am, though, I grew resentful of them. I had to learn an instrument in order to be in the band. I had to buy an instrument to be in the band. And when I sang, I still had to keep playing the guitar. So it didn’t seem fair to me that the girl didn’t have to bring anything to the table but her voice, which she was born with and — in most cases — was completely untrained. Then during the breaks people would say to her something like “You’ve got a good band,” as if somehow the band — and I — belonged to her or were taught how to play by her. In my bitterness I turned to strong drink.

Childish, I know.

So to penalize me now, at this late hour of my life, the universe has thrown another girl singer at me. It’s temporary — just for one show — but things don’t seem to have changed much. We only had time to rehearse with her once, and she arrived almost an hour late for a three-hour rehearsal, and she didn’t even bring a microphone or a tambourine. Then it turned out that she hadn’t had time to listen to the CD I made for her or look over the lyric sheets I gave her. All true to form as I remember it.

It will be fine, of course. We invited her to sing with us because we think she has a following around town from her extensive work in karaoke bars, and frankly, we need to put some butts in the seats. This compromise of my principles is nothing compared to what I would do for a chance to play with Aretha or Tina Turner or Linda Ronstadt.

Our girl didn’t knock my socks off at the rehearsal, but I can see she has the pipes, and nothing focuses you like an impending gig in front of a live audience. The show is Wednesday this week, and she’ll have a microphone, a tambouine and her own separate monitor mix. I expect she will practice her parts like crazy until then, and come out rockin’.

And then the whole world will revolve around her.

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