Monday 29 August 2011

A little Red McKenzie for BB

Brooklyn Baby was (I'm guessing) about seven years old. I had just purchased an LP and was giving it plenty of turntable time, so the music formed part of the soundtrack of BB's growing-up years. I hope this post will bring her a pleasant little nostalgia rush on her birthday.

The LP consisted of McKenzie-Berigan sessions from 1935-36, said McKenzie being Red McKenzie, ex-jockey, ex-bellhop, crooner, and hot comb player supreme. On the selection playable below, Red is sans comb-and-paper but avec his Mound City Blue Blowers, who on this occasion were Bunny Berigan, trumpet; Eddie Miller, clarinet; Al Philburn, trombone; Gil Bowers, piano; Nappy Lamare, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Ray Bauduc, drums.

Maestro McKenzie and Bunny Berigan, with Forrest Crawford,  Morty Stuhlmaker,
Eddie Condon, and a young, young Joe Bushkin at the piano.

Brooklyn Baby is sure to remember Red's rendition of She's a Latin from Manhattan, music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin, an exposé of that faux-Cuban terpsichorean Susie Donahue:

She can take a tambourine and whack it,
But with her it's just a racket,
She's a hoofer from Tenth Avenoo!

Not that Brooklyn Baby has anything in common with Señorita Donahue. BB doesn't pretend to be anything but what she is. And what she is, is this: the best daughter one could wish for. Not to mention a wife, mother, and quilter extraordinaire, and a person of substantial accomplishment in her field. Brooklyn Girl and I couldn't be prouder.

Happy birthday, Brooklyn Baby. Take it Red.

Saturday 20 August 2011

The Spirits of Rhythm

In an astute, perceptive comment on my Ink Spots post, a certain S.R. Shoes, who speaks with authority on all things strummed, speculates about the instrumental accompaniment to Your Feet's Too Big. I'm certain about "Hoppy" Jones' pizzicato cello, but as for the strummed instrument Mr. Shoes writes:

That might be a ukulele, but to me it sounds more like a tipple -- which I think had twelve strings and was often part of the Spirits of Rhythm recordings. The Spirits are contemporaneous with the Mills Brothers (the Mills clan exploded as stars in 1931; the Spirits first recorded in 1933 and never made it in the same way).

All the more reason, then, to revisit the Spirits of Rhythm now. The selection playable below is, by happy coincidence, called Rhythm. It's from 1933 and includes the inimitable scat-singer Leo Watson, Wilbur Daniels, and Douglas Daniels playing tipples, Virgil Scoggins on homemade percussion, and the estimable Teddy Bunn, about whom a much-loved jazz scholar and commentator once wrote, "The world would be a better place if more people knew about guitarist/singer Teddy Bunn."

This one's for you, Mr. Shoes. Feel free to play air tipple while you listen.

And an encore: the Spirits of Rhythm with Red McKenzie.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Bunthorne lives!

Gilbert and Sullivan's 1881 comic opera Patience may not be their greatest work (for me, Iolanthe and The Mikado show the collaborators in peak form) but it may be the funniest to a modern audience. In my experience, Patience, when well acted and sung, gets the most laughs -- not the ritual, obligatory chuckles from G&S buffs who've memorized every word of every Savoy Opera, but genuine laughs from those who never heard the opera before.

For many years it was assumed that the appeal of Patience would be short-lived; the object of Gilbert's satire was thought to be too topical, too much of its time, for future generations to get the joke. Gilbert himself worried about this. Patience pokes fun at the Aesthetic Movement, a literary and artistic craze which had been raging in England for twenty years before Patience's premiere. The plot involves two rival poets, Reginald Bunthorne, "a long-haired Aesthetic," and Archibald Grosvenor, and a company of Dragoon Guards, all vying for the affections of the milkmaid Patience and a chorus of twenty lovesick maidens. Bunthorne loves Patience but his love is unrequited. The Dragoons want to win over the lovesick maidens, who are hopelessly, rapturously, and unanimously infatuated with Bunthorne, the "melancholy literary man." Actually, the maidens were once engaged to the Dragoon Guards, but now hold them in disdain.

LADY ANGELA: The 35th Dragoon Guards!
LADY SAPHIR: They are fleshly men, of full habit!
LADY ELLA: We care nothing for Dragoon Guards!
PATIENCE: But, bless me, you were all engaged to them a year ago!
LADY ANGELA: My poor child, you don't understand these things. A year ago they were very well in our eyes, but since then our tastes have been etherealized, our perceptions exalted.

The maidens' current emotional state is summarized by Lady Saphir:

There is a transcendentality of delirium -- an acute accentuation of supremest ecstasy -- which the earthly might easily mistake for indigestion. But it is not indigestion -- it is aesthetic transfiguration!

Rival poets Bunthorne and Grosvenor.

"Twenty lovesick maidens we." (I count just 18.)

And a chorus of "heavy Dragoons."

The particulars of the Aesthetic Movement, and the plot-twists of the opera, don't really matter. Patience is full of obscure, topical references that would require a heavily annotated libretto to explain. While familiar and hilarious to a London audience of 1881, the excesses of the Aesthetic Movement mean little or nothing to most of us now.

Then why (he asked) is Patience still funny?

Because (he replied) in Bunthorne we see a type we all recognize: the cultural con man.
In Act One, in order to impress Patience, Bunthorne is seen in the agonies of creation, composing a poem:

BUNTHORNE: It is a wild, weird, fleshly thing; yet very tender, very yearning, very precious. It is called "'Oh, Hollow! Hollow! Hollow!"
PATIENCE: Is it a hunting song?
BUNTHORNE: No, it is not a hunting song. It is the wail of the poet's heart on discovering that everything is commonplace. To understand it, cling passionately to one another and think of faint lilies.

Having recited his opaque poem, Bunthorne finds he has wowed the lovesick maidens but left Patience unmoved:

LADY ANGELA: How purely fragrant!
LADY SAPHIR: How earnestly precious!
PATIENCE: Well, it seems to me to be nonsense.
LADY SAPHIR: Nonsense, yes, perhaps -- but oh, what precious nonsense!

Later, Bunthorne is left alone on the stage and his demeanor suddenly changes. In a mock-melodramatic recitative (Sullivan was a skillful, clever parodist of grand opera and oratorio) the poet confidentially reveals all to us:

Am I alone
And unobserved? I am.
Then let me own,
I'm an Aesthetic sham!

This air severe
Is but a mere
This cynic smile
Is but a wile
Of guile.
This costume chaste
Is but good taste

Let me confess:
A languid love for lilies does not blight me;
Lank limbs and haggard cheeks do
not delight me;
I do
not care for dirty greens by any means;
I do
not long for all one sees that's Japanese;
I am not fond of uttering platitudes
In stained-glass attitudes;
In short, my mediævalism's affectation,
Born of a morbid love of admiration!

He follows with a song (two-thirds of which I reproduce here) advising us how to play the Aesthete and impress the Philistines:

If you're anxious for to shine in the high Aesthetic line as a man of culture rare,
You must get up all the germs of the transcendental terms and plant them ev'rywhere.
You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases of your complicated state of mind;
The meaning doesn't matter if it's only idle chatter of a transcendental kind.
And ev'ryone will say,
As you walk your mystic way,
"If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!"

Then a sentimental passion of a vegetable fashion must excite your languid spleen,
An attachment à la Plato for a bashful young potato or a not-too-French French bean!
Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high Aesthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediæval hand.
And ev'ryone will say,
As you walk your flowery way,
"If he's content with a vegetable love which would certainly not suit me,
Why, what a most particularly pure young man this pure young man must be!"

Bunthorne was originally played as a composite spoof of Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinburne; I've read that the character was originally costumed to resemble the painter Whistler. Knowing full well he was one of its targets, Wilde attended a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's latest hit at the then-new Savoy Theatre -- flower in hand, of course, for maximum attention and publicity -- and enjoyed it immensely.

Act Two contains a surprising coup de théâtre which never fails to get laughs. Having failed to win the maidens' hearts with their martial bearing and resplendent military uniforms, the Dragoons change costumes and do their best to go all Aesthetic. (They'll do anything to get chicks!)

If this is not exactly right, we hope you won't upbraid;
You can't get high Aesthetic tastes, like trousers, ready-made.
True views on Mediævalism time alone will bring,
But as far as we can judge, it's something like this sort of thing:
You hold yourself like this,
You hold yourself like that,
By hook and crook you try to look both angular and flat.
To cultivate the trim
Rigidity of limb,
You ought to get a marionette and form your style on him!

It's been almost sixty years since I first learned Patience from LPs and performances by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company on tour in New York. Since then I've been reminded of Bunthorne countless times. Whenever I hear an avant-gardist explicating some inexplicable work of art, I think of him. Whenever I see a perfectly ordinary, pleasant, upper-middle-class kid affecting a scary punk uniform of torn jeans, spiked hair, piercings, and tattoos, Bunthorne springs to mind. Bunthornes seem to be everywhere on the music scene, strutting and preening (when not brooding cryptically) on the concert stage, producing their own twenty-first-century brand of "precious nonsense." A hundred and thirty years after Patience's premiere, "affectation born of a morbid love of admiration" is still in ample supply. And there's no shortage of credulous lovesick maidens, both male and female.

This is why Patience remains apt and funny to me, despite the fact that the object of its satire is long gone. Artistic movements come and go, but b.s. is forever.

As far as i'm concerned, Martyn Green, principal D'Oyly Carte comedian from 1934 to 1951, owned Bunthorne's "If you're anxious for to shine..." but I don't have Green's recording handy. In this concert version, Michael Ball does a good job with it. It lacks atmosphere, costume, and context, but it'll give you the flavor of Bunthorne's recitative and song.

Monday 15 August 2011

"Your Feet's Too Big" by... the Ink Spots?

I was doubly surprised when I first heard this one years ago. Fats Waller's recording of Your Feet's Too Big is so well-known, so funny, and so identified with him that I'd always assumed it was one of the hundreds of songs he composed. It wasn't; it was written by two fellows named Benson and Fisher.
The Ink Spots were one of the top singing groups of the 1940s with a succession of Top Ten hits, starting with their famous theme song If I Didn't Care recorded in 1939, and including My Prayer, Address Unknown, The Gypsy, Whispering Grass, I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire and many more. (When the Platters' version of My Prayer became a rock 'n' roll hit in the mid-50s, we kids thought it was a new song.) The Ink Spots' records, almost always ballads, followed a set routine that verged on campy self-parody: a guitar intro (always the same one) and a syrupy, falsetto vocal by tenor Bill Kenny at the beginning and end, surrounding a spoken middle section by the bass (often punctuated by the phrase "honey child"). Their trademark routine was so stylized and so familiar that comedians who did impressions loved to do the Ink Spots. Even we kids on 71st Street used to do impressions of them.

What I didn't know is that before Kenny joined the group in 1939, the Ink Spots were a jive group, as demonstrated here. This record was made sometime between 1935 and 1938. The singers are Ivory "Deek" Watson, Orville "Hoppy" Jones, Jerry Daniels, and Charlie Fuqua, accompanied by Daniels' ukelele and Jones' pizzicato cello. So here they are, the Ink Spots, before they were the Ink Spots.

Cushfoot, bladderfoot, slewfoot... flatfoot! 

Friday 12 August 2011

The games we played: spaldeens and sewers

The sewer was a hugely important factor in our street play of the 1940s and 50s.

It must be explained that there were two kinds of sewers. One was a unit of measurement, the other a menace. First the benign kind, used for measurement:

This sewer (or manhole cover) was located in the middle of the street. It was home plate in stickball. If you could hit a ball on the fly to the next sewer, you were a one-sewer man. I was a good contact hitter, even after switching from left- to right-handed hitting. That was important because one swing-and-a-miss and you were out. But for distance, I maxed out at a little more than one sewer. The massively rotund Jackie Magnussen was the only legitimate two-sewer man who lived on the block. His swing seemed slow and effortless, but it had all that avoirdupois behind it and his drives were awesome. I can still see Jackie standing at home plate chuckling as some poor sap went chasing one of his Ruthian clouts beyond the apartment house on Colonial Road.

I've heard unconfirmed reports from other Brooklyn precincts with claims of three-sewer shots. I'm skeptical. On 71st Street that would not be possible, even with a brand-new atomic-powered spaldeen. On this subject one correspondent has written:

I don't believe that a "sewer" was ever a standardized measurement. It's like the dark ages, when measurements were different from town to town, or like early music, before A was standardized at 440 and had different values in every city in Europe, causing major tuning problems. I'm going to guess that an East 9th Street sewer was about 100 ft.

If sewers are spaced differently in different neighborhoods, then there's no basis for comparison when it comes to hitting for distance, and statistical chaos reigns. Until proven otherwise, I'm going to file these three-sewer claims, along with the story that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, under M for myth. But that won't be the end of it. Only an exhaustive analysis of street diagrams buried in the archives of New York City's sewage and water supply departments, or a fact-finding mission to the actual sites, will put this controversy to rest.

Now to the evil kind of sewer, the open sewer by the curb:

Most of us were familiar with the Songs of Safety, lyrics by Irving Caesar (lyricist of Tea for Two, Swanee, Crazy Rhythm, Sometimes I'm Happy and other pop hits), music by Gerald Marks (composer of All of Me, Is It True What They Say About Dixie? etc.). Songs of Safety were intended for use in classrooms. The most famous of them, the song we all learned in school, was Let the Ball Roll. You can listen to it here.

The only problem with letting the ball roll was that sometimes it rolled into one of those dreaded open sewers. Unless a replacement ball was immediately available, this meant instant death to any game. A spaldeen rolling into an open sewer in the middle of a good game was like the sudden, unanticipated rainstorm that washes out a major-league game. Whenever we saw our precious pink ball rolling its way to sewer-oblivion, I -- the make-believe play-by-play announcer -- would say, "Here comes the rain!" It was a bad, sinking feeling.

Then along came "Sewer Boy." Little did we know it when Angelo and family moved into their house down the block, but the reign of open-sewer terror was about to end. Angelo was a wonder. He earned his sobriquet by cleverly fashioning from wire coat hangers a long contraption with a loop at the end, perfectly sized to cradle a lost ball in the depths of the sewer. Somehow, with a long reach and a surgeon's delicacy of touch, he managed to raise and rescue many a spaldeen, thus saving many a game. After a brief intermission for a power-washing in Angelo's father's garage, the no-longer-pristine-pink ball looked like it had been to hell and back, but, mirabile dictu, it was stickball-worthy again. No longer would the open sewer be a sword of Damocles hanging over our games.

This was about the time Nat "King" Cole's Nature Boy was becoming a big hit, so whenever we saw "Sewer Boy" coming we'd all start singing in tribute: "There was a boy, a strange, enchanted sewer boy..." Granted, "Sewer Boy" wasn't as neat a nickname as "Slats" or "Sparky," but the nickname and our song-parody were the sincerest forms of admiration and gratitude we could muster.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

The games we played on 71st Street

No, that's not 71st Street -- it's Breugel's 1560 painting, Kinderspiele, of children at play in dozens of different games, listed here alphabetically from ball games to whirligig. (Thanks to Atlanta Guy for bringing the painting and list to my attention.) My learned friend Dr. M. also reminds me that Rabelais' writing (same century) contains hundreds of references to games, real and imagined, including games of chance. I don't have any Rabelais handy, but according to The Rabelais Encyclopedia, "the most elaborate mention of games is found in the list of 217 games Gargantua plays."

A Kinderspiele updated to 1940s-50s 71st Street in Bay Ridge would look just as busy as the original. When I remember the details of my boyhood, I'm amazed how much of our after-school and weekend time was spent in the street. How we managed to cram so many different games into our limited street time is beyond me. I lived it, yet thinking about it now, I don't see how it was possible.

Admittedly my list is incomplete, as I cannot write with authority about the games girls played. I had no sisters, and frankly, for reasons beyond the scope of this report, girls made me a bit nervous in those days. Except for games of Hide and Seek, our playtime was strictly segregated along gender lines. Rachel Marie, who lived across the street, was the only girl who preferred our boys' games. She could hold her own in any of them. (Rachel Marie eventually became a nun.) I do remember other girls playing hopscotch, jacks, and various ball-bouncing and rope-jumping games, accompanied by a chant that went, "A my name is Anna, my husband's name is Albert, we live in Alabama, and we raise apricots. B my name is Betty, my husband's name is Bill, we live in Boston, and we raise bananas..." and so forth. For us boys, future spouses and the raising of produce were not yet on our radar screens. Competition was all.

I'll confine my list to street and alley games, leaving aside the nightly ping-pong games in the basement with Dad, and such sedentary indoor/outdoor pursuits as dice baseball, flipping bubblegum cards, board games, word games, and card games. Including all of them would bloat this post to Rabelaisian proportions.

The non-baseball-related street games:
Hide and Seek
I Declare War
Three Steps to Germany (it retained its name even after World War Two)
Red Light, Green Light
Red Rover
Kick the Can
Hit the Penny (or Hit the Popsicle Stick, depending on availability)
Chinese Handball
King's, a variant of Chinese handball
Boxball, the handball variety (another game also called Boxball falls in the baseball-related category)
Touchtackle, as opposed to Roughtackle (i.e. football)
Roller Hockey, played with those awful clamp-on roller skates

Two street games I scrupulously avoided:
1. Poison Ball, an especially vicious game played by the older, rougher kids. If you relished getting drilled in the head or some more sensitive area with a hard rubber ball thrown with maximum force by a sneering opponent, this was the game for you.
2. Buck-Buck, in which (it seemed to me) one boy hunched over while another boy jumped violently onto his back. I'm not sure what the object of Buck-Buck was, except to cause maximum mayhem and provide a good, steady living for a future generation of back specialists.

Then there were "the fads." That's what we called them: fads. A fad would appear mysteriously out of nowhere and soon everyone, including me, was doing it obsessively. One year it was yo-yo's; the next year marbles; the next year cap pistols; the next year those small wooden paddles, each with a rubber ball attached by a rubber band; the next year it would be tops that you unleashed with a string and sent spinning and careening out into the street. Joe Triniello's top, "The Traveler," was a legendary performer until it got flattened by a passing car. The local candy store (Brooklynese for soda shop/variety store) was where you bought all your fad paraphernalia. Maybe the fads weren't spontaneous after all. Maybe they were artificially concocted by an insidious, all-powerful, borough-wide consortium of candy-store owners.

Now to the meat of this report, the baseball-related games, to which most of our street time was devoted. Parks -- nice ones -- were nearby, and we used them for weekend games of real baseball on real grass, or for an occasional challenge game against another neighborhood; but as a rule, the street, the sidewalks, the alley, and our front stoops were our playing-fields of choice for:
Running Bases (two basemen and a runner in a "pickle")
Slapball; only we never called it that. Played with four bases, it was called Boxball. If personnel was limited because some kid's mother made him go to the grocery store, it was played with three bases and called Triangle.

Until the summer of 1950, 71st Street was pale blue cobblestones, which for a ballplayer meant lots of frustrating bad hops. The Great Paving of 1950 ushered in the golden age of stickball on 71st Street. A one-way street with little traffic, 71st became stickball Mecca, drawing many "ringers" from surrounding streets. As is well known, the game was best played with a spaldeen, i.e. a Spalding Hi-Bounce pink rubber ball (25c at better candy stores everywhere). When new, a spaldeen was incredibly lively. Any stickball player who has ever connected solidly with a brand-new spaldeen and sent it a mile knows that sweet sensation: it made you feel like Babe Ruth. If a spaldeen was unavailable -- or if the game spaldeen had rolled into a sewer and no one had a quarter to spring for a new one -- a tennis ball could also be used. Hitting a tennis ball wasn't nearly as satisfying. Hitting a wet tennis ball made it feel like you were playing in the deadball era, c. 1908.

Stickball came in three varieties:
1. Straight "stick" in which the batter threw the ball in the air, let it bounce once,  and swatted it.
2. Pitching-in-on-a-bounce. (Couldn't we have come up with a more imaginative name?) The main problem with p.i.o.a.b. was too many delays: if the ball got past the catcher, someone had to run all the way down to Narrows Avenue to fetch it, a chore no one wanted.
3. Catch-a-fly-yer-up; derived, I believe, from the ancient game of One-O'Cat.

The most magical time of year for all street players, accompanied by surging feelings of exhilaration and liberation, was the onset of Daylight Savings Time, meaning we could go out and play after supper. Which brings us to one final street game, for which we had no name. It's what we played when it was too late and too dark to play anything else. Competitors would gather under a streetlight; then Joe Triniello, who had a gun of an arm, would throw the ball straight up as high as he could -- a cosmic pop-up disappearing in the nighttime sky. On the ball's return from the blackness, it would suddenly become visible as it re-entered the glow of the streetlight, which was approximately one-millionth of a second before you had to catch it. I managed to catch two during my career.

A 71st Street Breugel of the 1940s and 50s would devote little or no space in his painting to parents. Grown-ups were mere bit players in our street-game dramas, appearing only to call us in for supper. During the pre-television 1940s, they didn't even have to do that. We were pre-teenagers then and 5:00 p.m. meant you went home to listen to "the stories." These were the 15- or 30-minute radio programs between 5:00 and 6:00 while Mom was cooking. If you were a WOR loyalist, as I was, this meant Sky King, Superman (sponsored by Kellogg's Pep), Captain Midnight (Ovaltine), and Tom Mix. If you were a WJZ man, your pre-dinner program consisted of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy (Wheaties) and Dick Tracy. By the 1950s when stickball had become serious business, our parents really did have to call us in, or else we'd never have eaten. One father down the block used to call his son by emitting a loud, piercing whistle. I always thought that strange because he would call his dog by name.

No 71st Street version of Kinderspiele would be complete without three additional, and crucial, visual elements: sewers, ice cream trucks, and "crabs." These will be the subjects of future posts -- far too important for any self-respecting chronicler to omit.