Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Dumbo, Superman, Robin Hood, and a gigolo

The Joe Mooney Quartet
By the time I was seven, my collection of 78s included songs from Dumbo and Pinocchio, eight marches by John Philip Sousa, Burl Ives singing Jimmy Crack Corn, radio's Uncle Don singing The Green Grass Grew All 'Round, someone named Crane Calder singing I am the very model of a modern major-general, and three story albums: Superman's Christmas Adventure starring Bud Collyer who played the man of steel on the radio, a dramatic re-enactment of the sinking of the battleship Maine and Admiral Dewey's victory at Manila Harbor ("You may fire when ready, Gridley"), and a mini-operetta version of the Robin Hood story with songs such as this:

Two by two and three by three,
What a merry band are we;
We are outlaws only in name, hi-ho,
Helping others is our aim, hi-ho!

Not satisfied with my collection, I craved and sought more records (thus establishing a pattern of behavior to which I've faithfully adhered). So occasionally I'd rummage through the records accumulated by my parents and grandparents, an eclectic mix going back to the days of one-sided 78s. Bypassing the classical music (that passion would come later) and relics like Alice Blue Gown and comic monologues by Julius Tannen, I culled and appropriated a few favorites from their shelves, including Paul Robeson singing Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho and By and By, Larry Clinton and his orchestra doing Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the 1946 recording of Just a Gigolo by the Joe Mooney Quartet. (The quartet had its brief moment of fame as the result of a rave review in The New Yorker. Mom was a subscriber, so this must be how Mooney came to my parents' attention.)

The quartet's Just a Gigolo fascinated me. It was a Decca record, badly cracked but still playable. I didn't know anything about Joe Mooney, the blind accordionist-singer-songwriter whose story is well told hereI didn't know or care what a gigolo was. I had no idea that this was a radical revision of an old song, a hipster's reinvention whose lyrics were as much Mooney's as Irving Caesar's. (It would be another twenty-plus years before I'd hear Bing Crosby's definitive 1931 recording.) And who knew what hipness was?

The flip side of the record was September Song, but Gigolo got the major play-time on my Victrola. (September Song's subtle beauties, including its allusions to Debussy's Clair de lune, would reveal themselves to me to me years later.) I learned every note of Gigolo, accepting and parroting, without questioning or understanding, lines like:

Every day a different chick
Makes him sick,
But he can't kick
Because they're puttin' down dough.

Who cared what the words meant -- I loved the playfulness and the crisp precision of it all. Listening now, I realize I was responding to the extraordinary musicianship and inventiveness of Mooney and his colleagues: Andy Fitzgerald, clarinet; Jack Hotop, guitar; Gaetan "Gate" Friga, bass.

So here -- partly for old times' sake, partly to introduce some readers to the unjustly neglected Joe Mooney -- is today's musical selection (mercifully sans crack). As a bonus, I've appended the quartet's sensational From Monday On.

It sure beats Uncle Don.

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