Category Archives: 1950s

Vol.34: The Drunk in the Shiny Suit (Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass”)

Webb Pierce's Decca single, "There Stands the Glass"

The exact opposite of one of Pierce’s “silver dollar” Cadillacs.

Webb Pierce – There Stands the Glass (1953, Decca)

Why It’s Perfect: How would you describe Webb Pierce’s voice? Even in a genre known for yodelers, warblers and other pitch eccentrics, Pierce had a unique instrument. He didn’t so much sing as play his sinuses like a pedal steel. Compared to other genres, country music has always had a high tolerance for strange looks, strange behaviours and strange voices so long as they were convincingly Southern looks, Southern behaviours and Southern voices singing good, Southern songs. Thus, Webb Pierce and his enormous ears, mesmerizingly tacky Nudie suits and Theremin-like throat, became arguably the biggest country star of the 1950s. 1953’s There Stands the Glass was released in the first year of Pierce’s star run at the Grand Ole Opry when everything Pierce touched turned to gold but, like most great country songs, seems to be about a man whose life has totally gone to shit. Continue reading

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Vol.27: How High the Moon


Les Paul & Mary Ford – How High the Moon (1951, Capitol)

(This video is actually Paul and Ford playing live over the original recording. I include it because it includes a bit of Paul explaining how the song was recorded.)

Why It’s Perfect: How High the Moon is a single from 1951, but it doesn’t sound like it’s only sixty years old. It’s like a radio transmission that’s travelled far beyond our solar system, the signal decaying imperceptibly over the lightyears until only the highest, whitest musical frequencies remain. A sort of ghost image of a pop song.

How High the Moon’s trebly lunar sound is a result of guitarist and recording genius Les Paul’s meticulous, labour-intensive way of making records. At a time when most performances were usually recorded to a single track and overdubbing was almost unheard of, a man of Paul’s talents could easily have made his way in the business purely on the strength of his musical ability. But Paul was a recording nut, and he loved to work with the newest audio technology in order push it beyond its makers’ intentions. Continue reading

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Vol.25: Shake, Rattle and Roll

Ass-shaking rock n' roll, brought to you by, uh, Grimace.


Big Joe Turner – Shake, Rattle and Roll (1954, Atlantic Records)

Why It’s Perfect: This is rock n’ roll, regardless of what Peter Frampton and his pasty ilk might have you believe. It’s kind of mindblowing that adjective-less “rock” has been bleached to the point many discerning music fans avoid it like the plague, because the driving boogie at its heart remains irresistible in the right hands. Big Joe Turner’s take on Shake, Rattle and Roll is a milestone recording, a watershed in both the evolution of the genre and in the development of swagger. I mean, goddamn does this man have his swag on or what? He wakes up in the morning, tells his woman to clean herself up and start cooking, calls her the devil and then shake, rattle and rolls her again. If just one day in my life could unfold like that, I’d be twice the man I am today. Thrice, possibly.

Shake, Rattle and Roll was state of the art rock n’ roll and a breakthrough recording for Big Joe, but he’d been active on various regional circuits since the late ‘20s, and he hadn’t yet met a rhythm he couldn’t comfortably shout over. The musical foundation here is Turner’s familiar jump blues, a springy, horn-based R&B sound that just makes you want to sway along on the balls of your feet with your hips swinging ridiculously* (* may be just a “me” thing), but it all seems to roll in some new, un-blues way, the simple handclap n’ snare percussion landing on a different dance beat. There isn’t much guitar I can detect, but between the percolating piano and heaving brass you don’t really notice, while Sam “The Man” Taylor’s shit-hot sax solo thunders up the middle like a leatherheaded running back.

It’s easy to ridicule the moral crisis early rock n’ roll incited given how tame this all sounds now, but there was an unabashed sexual joie de vivre to this stuff that frightened the buttoned-down white culture of the time. I mean, by the standards of the time Shake, Rattle and Roll is absolutely filthy. “I’m like a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store” has to be on any list of rock’s greatest double entendres (One-eyed… like you know, his… oh, never mind), and the way Turner just about licks the line “I can look at you till you ain’t no child no more” buries R. Kelly in the smut sweepstakes. Edgier still (and notably absent from later, cracker renditions) is the line “I’ve been holdin’ it in, way down underneath / You make me roll my eyes, even make me grit my teeth”, which Turner particularly slurs so as not to incur the censor’s wrath. But he’s definitely making reference to his staying power. By which I mean, his ability to withhold ejaculation while under the tender duress of a vagina. I love living in 2011.

Shake, Rattle and Roll was written by the only black man on Atlantic Records’ payroll, the rock n’ roll songwriting pioneer Jesse Stone (under a pseudonym), became Turner’s signature hit, and helped shape the music we all listen to today. As if I care; I jam this just about every week because it’s just a damn fine pop song, and I encourage you to do the same.

Defining Moment: Has to be the “one-eyed cat” verse. It’s a perfectly skewed turn of phrase.

Other Great Songs by Big Joe Turner: Big Joe recorded for nigh on sixty years, so his catalogue is formidable, if not all that diverse. To borrow a term from the awesome George Starostin, Big Joe Turner was King of “Creepy Black Guy Music.” If you were to condense his best stuff into one disc, it’d blow away most any other record of its time(s). Between the fierce piano boogie of “Roll ‘Em Pete,” “Cafe Society Rag,” “Around the Clock,” “Corrine, Corrina,” and “(I’m Gonna) Jump for Joy,” you’ve got a great set of jump blues primers.

Here’s a TV appearance of the man performing his song. Great fun! (Does anyone under 60 say ‘great fun’?)

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Vol.16: Mack the Knife

This was smoulderingly sexy in 1959.


Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife (1959, Atlantic)

Why It’s Perfect: There are two kinds of killers in pop culture – the type you hate and pity, and the type you can’t help but admire, regardless of the morally suspect nature of their actions. Our boy Mack has managed to elude capture for almost three-hundred years on the strength of his rakish charm and callous cruelty, but it hasn’t done it without help. Bobby Darin’s career-highlight 1959 rendition of Mack the Knife is considered the definitive pop reading of the Brecht/Weill classic, and even today it oozes enough cool that, if said cool could be bottled and sold as an over-the-counter aphrodisiac, it could get the entire chess club laid. Darin’s version eschews the sinister, carnivalesque atmosphere of Lotte Lenya’s famous Threepenny Opera take, presenting instead a take on our killer that’s more in line with John Gay’s irascible Macheath than Brecht’s vicious Mackie Messer. You can tell that Bobby’s enjoying himself from the way he seems to savour the flavour of the pulpy lyrics, rolling each word around his mouth a little before consenting to report each new indiscretion. It sounds like every word is breathed through a grin.

Conductor Richard Wess’ sashaying big band arrangement is tailor-made for Darin’s trademark croon, the sparse percussion-driven intro leaving the man all sorts of room to get a little intimate with the listener before the brass builds to its show-stopping climax. Great jazz vocalists have a rapport with the band uncommon in other forms of pop music which seems to me to be derived from the way jazz ensembles work with a featured soloist. There is an agreed-upon tone and basic structure to start with, but the real task of the band is to be sensitive to their leader’s interpretive choices and to find the best way to complement them. When it works, as it does with Mack the Knife, there’s a wild spontaneity to the music, a spontaneity in this case worthy of its title character. Bobby Darin’s on his game, folks; the line forms on the right.

Defining Moment: Gotta be that wild finale, Darin in full voice hollering “Mackie’s back in tooooooooowwwwnnnn,” as the brass section windmills itself into a lather behind him. It’s one of the grandest finishes in all swing, and then Darin caps it off, no sweat: “Lookoutol’Mackieisback!” It’s the moment that made him a legend, and for a new generation of listeners, continued the legend of the irresistibly dangerous Macheath.

On a personal note, it’s also the one part I always butcher in my otherwise respectable karaoke versions. Can’t win ’em all, Francheteau, can’t win ’em all.

Other Great Songs by Bobby Darin: Often reckoned as something of an also-ran, Bobby Darin in fact had many hits through the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Some of my favourites include the adrenalized melodrama of Artificial Flowers and soft focus rock ‘n’ roll classic Dream Lover, which is for my money one of the catchiest songs of all time. And of course there’s Beyond the Sea, his sublime swing version of the Chanson classic La Mer. Beyond the Sea itself is a sure-shot Perfect Pop Single by any measure, pure brass class and effortlessly smooth romance.

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Vol. 11: All I Have to Do is Dream

The boys to warm your (grand)mother's heart.


The Everly Brothers – All I Have to Do is Dream (1958, Cadence)

Why It’s Perfect: All I Have to Do is Dream is a perfect circle. It begins as it ends, and doesn’t change a great deal in between. Very little happens only once; moments are paired, reflected, returned to. Far from being a failure, this is the essence of the song’s brilliance. It finds from its outset this beautiful sense of tidal drift, calm and regular as a sleeper’s breath and simply stays the course. It’s a song about lazing wistfully; it doesn’t capture the intensity of need, but rather those moments when melancholy is its own end, when you say “I love you so, that I could die” solely for the sentiment. The key theme of this song is not found in “I love you so” but in the ennui of “I’m dreaming my life away…” Although you could certainly read the lyric and focus on its lusty subtext, the arrangement here is among the most chaste and stately in the pop canon. The Everlys eschew emotional pathos in favour of a sort of bittersweet reserve. It’s beautiful and vaguely sad, but almost abstractly, as if responding to the very idea of being sad as opposed to the specific scenario in the lyric.

All I Have to Do is Dream was an early example of the new “Nashville sound” which dominated country music in the ‘60s. The idea was to pare away all the folksy elements of country (fiddles, pipes etc.) in order to make the music more palatable to pop audiences. Listening to the structure of All I Have to Do is Dream with this in mind, it becomes clear that it is formally a classic country ballad which has been fine-tuned to suit the Everlys distinctive pop harmonies. Legendary country guitarist Chet Atkins contributes the song’s distinctive yet distant lead riff, and like the Everlys his performance is more about texture and mood than emotion. Though its chord progression and unhurried pace is pure South, Atkins’ strumming doesn’t so much twang as hang momentarily before drifting into the ether. The sparseness of the entire arrangement only furthers its weightless beauty. You can’t grasp All I Have to Do is Dream. You only long to hear it again.

Defining Moment: “Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream”

The way Don and Phil shift their tone just slightly to weight that “you” takes the hook to another level. One of the greatest things about concise forms like pop singles is that the smallest detail can be crucial. As written by the awesomely-named (Diadorius) Bourdleaux Bryant and his wife Felice, All I Have to Do is Dream could’ve disappeared without a trace. By any standard, it’s a fairly slight song. But the Everly Brothers find the moments in it, the pockets that imbue it with a truly captivating grace.

Other Great Songs by The Everly Brothers: The Everlys were among the most consistent hitmakers of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Mining a territory somewhere between Buddy Holly’s countrified rock and the older crooner tradition, they churned out a steady stream of classic singles like Bye Bye Love, Let it Be Me, Wake Up Little Susie and Cathy’s Clown, as well as a number of excellent album tracks like Sleepless Nights. I strongly recommend anyone with a taste for oldies pop to pick up one of their numerous hits collections, as the Everlys were up there with the best of the pre-British Invasion stars.

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