Passion Flower

Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra, Bluebird 30-0817, 1944

If you haven’t listened to this record before, you may be startled like I was after the first eight bars, when Johnny Hodges’ alto sax leaps up out of the horn section’s measured, blended ensemble with its eerie, keening cries. Jarring, and then profoundly beautiful.
There was no better pairing of instrumentalist and songwriter in all of popular music than Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn. Hodges was an Ellington stalwart on sax for decades, and was a key component in the Ellington Orchestra’s sound. But he was particularly suited to the ballads of Mr. Strayhorn, Mr. Ellington’s right-hand composer-arranger-accompanist.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a disproportionate number of Strayhorn’s slow-to-medium-tempo compositions were named after flowers

Strayhorn’s most well-known composition is the bouncy, up-tempo Ellington Orchestra theme song “Take the ‘A’ Train.” But his ballads especially draw me in, with their deep, dark, alluring beauty. His moody, complex “Lush Life” made it into Will Friedwald’s Stardust Melodies: A Biography of 12 of America’s Most Popular Songs, right alongside “Mac the Knife,” “My Funny Valentine,” and, of course, “Stardust.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a disproportionate number of Strayhorn’s slow-to-medium-tempo compositions were named after flowers: “Lotus Blossom,” “Lament for an Orchid,” “Ballad for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters,” “Violet Blue,” “In a Blue Summer Garden.” Best of all of these, though—right up there with “Daydream” and “Chelsea Bridge”—were “Passion Flower” (1944) and “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” (1947).

Others have covered these songs. Strayhorn himself recorded them in Paris in 1961, on The Peaceful Side. (Incredibly, on this, his only album as leader, Strayhorn is not given writing credits for these songs! “Passion Flower” is shown as being by E. Coates and G. Wiskin, and “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is credited to Duke Ellington. According to David Hajdu, in his Billy bio Lush Life, Strayhorn wrote in his name on copies he gave to friends.) The recordings are truly beautiful, with assists from the vocal group The Paris Blue Notes and a string quartet. But we miss Johnny Hodges.

Hodges introduced both of these songs on side projects, as Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra. The “Orchestra” playing on “Passion Flower” comprised Ellington players Jimmy Blanton, Sonny Greer, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nance, and the Duke himself. A mostly different set of Ellingtonians played on “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” and Billy Strayhorn himself handled piano duties. Nice backup bands, yes, to allow Hodges’ alto to careen and wail so untethered, so plaintively that the immense emotional depth of Strayhorn as channeled through Hodges is overwhelming. How fortuitous it was that these two were brought together musically.

Paper Cup

5th Dimension , Soul City SCR-760, 1967, #32 Pop

You may be inclined to lump 5th Dimension into the “soft rock” category, Their outfits matched, and tended toward leisure suits with flared pants. They did at least one cornball variety special with lame skits and showbiz guests. They sang a little more legit than edgy. Their rock wasn’t rockin’; their soul wasn’t soulful.

Perhaps I’m just a little too sensitive about the term soft rock.

But they went beyond soft rock: They all were great singers and always had interesting harmonies, inventive arrangements. As coverers and not songwriters, they made some very good choices of songwriters to cover, notably Laura Nyro, but also Bacharach & David, and Jimmy Webb, composer of my favorite 5D song, “Paper Cup,” as well as their first hit, “Up, Up and Away.”

“Paper Cup,” in fact, comes from The Magic Garden, a collection of Jimmy Webb songs the group issued in ’67 as its second album. The song is the best sort of ear candy, very bright and upbeat, with unison singing breaking up into harmonies and echoes. It’s quintessential sunshine pop, and it far outshines the rest of the album, which—OK—may be rock of the somewhat soft sort. (The other songs include the sappy, drippy “The Worst That Could Happen,” which was a hit for Brooklyn Bridge. Now there—there is a soft rock group.)

Perhaps I’m just a little too sensitive about the term soft rock. About twenty years ago, my stepdaughter Alicia put a call in to Super-Psychic Sylvia Browne. For $50, Sylvia herself would get on the phone and spend a few minutes discussing the caller’s problem, and would throw in a quick answer to one question about three other family members. The question Alicia asked Sylvia Browne on my behalf was, “Will my stepdad ever make it in music?” Sylvia’s immediate response: “Yes, he’s going to have a successful career in music playing soft rock.” Great, thanks a bunch, Sylvia. My wife took to calling me Soft Rock Steve.

A singer friend named Gary recently recruited me to form a duo, which he called Timeless. Hundreds of music acts must’ve already used that name before us, but it seemed to fit, and it’s not like we were aiming for any notoriety. We did a mix of songs from the thirties through the seventies. It was American Songbook swingy numbers, some doo-wop, some country. We did have several of those ‘70s songs some like to call soft rock in our repertoire, but it was really just a small fraction of the list.

We had been doing a weekly gig at a café for a few weeks when we got booked at a club, a listening place that wanted to promote our appearance with a poster. Gary put one together and forwarded it for my OK. I opened the PDF, and there it was across the top: “Enjoy the soft rock stylings of Timeless.” Oh boy. Not only were we soft-rockers, but we had “stylings.” I diplomatically responded to Gary that for a lot of people our age, soft rock is a pejorative term, a putdown. Sigh, Now I really am Soft Rock Steve.

Soft Rock. It’s an oxymoron. Rock’s gone a lot of directions since Chuck Berry and friends formalized it, but when it has gone soft, it has become something other than rock. Chuck Berry would never play soft rock. Even in his eighties, his rock was not soft. (Of course, “My Ding-a-Ling” didn’t rock, softly or otherwise. But it was a novelty number, an aberration in the Chuck Berry canon, albeit his only #1 hit.)

There’s rock music, and then there’s the soft stuff—easy listening, countrypolitan, mellow sounds, adult contemporary. Soft or rock, but not soft and rock.

Before the psychic hotline call and since, I’ve played many kinds of music, but for the most part managed to avoid the type of MOR stuff that is referred to as soft rock. (Also managed to avoid “having a successful career in music.”) But I have occasionally, as I listened to 5th Dimension’s “Paper Cup” or “Puppet Man,” fantasized about getting a few music pals together, getting matching bright-colored outfits, and harmonizing a la 5th Dimension.

I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys , Columbia 20459, 1947

This song helped dislodge several prejudices I’d long had against bluegrass music. I’d listened to and enjoyed quite a few Bill Monroe records over the years, including “Little Georgia Rose,” “Gotta Travel On,” and the original ¾-time “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” but never owned any and never sought any out. Then I came across the 78 of “Little Cabin on the Hill” and “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling” and brought it home for a spin. I enjoyed “Cabin” about like I had other bluegrass songs, appreciating the instrumental breaks, tapping along to the steady beat. But when I turned the record over, it stayed there for a while.

It’s one of the most enchanting passages of music I’ve ever heard in a pop recording, and it’s from the world of bluegrass.

The song starts out with pretty ordinary musical structure on the verses. Bill Monroe, taking the lead vocals with his sharp tenor, out-Dickenses Dickens’ melodramatic Little Nell scene as he pines about a young girl on her deathbed trying to console her bereft parents. “Tell Mommy to come to me quickly / I want to kiss you both then go.” That piqued my interest.

But then a series of escalating surprises unfolds during the chorus. First, the instruments drop way down, and three vocal parts come in, with Bill on top. Next, on the second line of the chorus, the voices swoop way up, with Monroe on a high B, and the effect is startling. Then, on line three, the vocalists entwine themselves in a “steel-guitar” harmony, going in and then out of discordance. Line four brings us back to reality, and the instruments rejoin for verses four and five. Every time I listen to the record and it gets to those last two verses, I know that three-part-harmony chorus is about to come around one more time, and I’m spellbound waiting for it. It’s one of the most enchanting passages of music I’ve ever heard in a pop recording, and it’s from the world of bluegrass. What a revelation!

Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys during this key period included Lester Flatt on vocals and guitar and Earl Scruggs on banjo. They were soon to break away to become a bluegrass-novelty act of great renown. In fact, when I was growing up, I was familiar with Flatt & Scruggs, thanks to their theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies, and their appearance on the show as themselves, come to visit old flame Pearl. But I don’t think I was aware of the great Bill Monroe until way into my adulthood. If he’d only made an appearance on Petticoat Junction…but I don’t reckon t’were Bill’s kinda thang, do you?

Before the few Bill Monroe 78s I recently acquired, I owned no bluegrass music, other than a Dave Grisman LP or two and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album. But now I listen to bluegrass a little differently, and I’m at long last a Bill Monroe convert.

Iko Iko

Dixie Cups, Red Bird 024, 1965, #20 Pop and #20 R&B
(My copy is a 1987 Antilles reissue that tied in with the movie The Big Easy.)

I love New Orleans. My most vivid memory from all of my visits to New Orleans is that of my wife Sweets sitting on the window ledge of a French Quarter building almost three decades ago, cradling our one-year-old in her lap. Sweets is slurping from an upended bottle of beer, while upending a baby bottle of milk for Li’l Sweets. Nice slice of American family tourist life. When the wife and I went to New Orleans for our 25th anniversary, we stayed in the same guest house where we’d stayed then, The Lamothe House on Esplanade Avenue, and it seemed not to have changed at all. (But we’ve changed; for one thing, the wife no longer drinks beer, and my grown-up daughter no longer drinks milk.)

…it’s the sweet and affectless voices of “Chapel of Love,” in street-parader mode, that produced the version of the song that has the enduring charm.

It’s believed that the actual family name of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton was Lamothe. I’d like to think he may somehow be connected to the place we stayed. (Well, he was born a few blocks up Esplanade.) Jelly Roll was the first great composer-performer of New Orleans, and he knew it. He always said it was he who invented jazz. Whatever his role, his music is the sound of New Orleans—the place to start—from “Wolverine Blues” to “Grandpa’s Spells.”

A few decades later, The Dixie Cups made music that was every bit as N’Awlins as Jelly Roll’s. The single format suits their song “Iko Iko” perfectly. It sounds spontaneous and incomplete, like an inadvertently captured moment that became documented and preserved. And, as a matter of fact, the recording was impromptu happenstance. Sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson had recently come out of New Orleans (and out of nowhere) with a Ronettes reject, “The Chapel of Love,” which ended up knocking The Beatles out of the top spot on the charts. Their producers, the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, had been trying to match that initial success with follow-ups.

One day, the sisters sat in the recording studio, reminiscing about their grandma’s Mardi Gras Indian chants, and, with cousin Joan Marie, started singing while tapping on ashtrays and folding chairs and whatever else was on hand. The trio didn’t realize they were singing variations on Sugar Boy Crawford’s song “Jock-A-Mo,” which Grandma had heard back in 1953. Crawford’s song has almost the same tune and lyrics, full of the lore of the Indians, with spy boys and flag boys, kings out for blood, and the distinctive patois of the marching tribes. Sugar Boy sued the Dixie Cups and won, kind of. He got little financial reward and little recognition. (The songwriter credits on the 1965 single are B. Hawkins, R. Hawkins, and J. Johnson, The Dixie Cups; the credits on the 1987 reissue add Joe Jones, their former manager, and his family members, who claimed authorship. The Dixie Cups sued in 2002, got all the rights back, and are once again listed as the songwriters. Still no Sugar Boy Crawford.) Any way, you look at it, though, it’s the sweet and affectless voices of “Chapel of Love,” in street-parader mode, that produced the version of the song that has the enduring charm.

At the end of the song, near the fade, you can hear that the girls weren’t sure whether or not to keep singing. Leiber and Stoller, in the right place at the right time (the studio board), got it all on tape, and the resulting single, retitled “Iko Iko,” is perfect New Orleans-heritage pop—made in New York City. It only got to #20, but is a far more distinctive record than “Chapel of Love.”

“Iko Iko” appears on another top-shelf document of New Orleans, the 1972 album Dr. John’s Gumbo. Dr. John not only delivers a revved up, horn-driven version of The Dixie Cups’ song, landing a single of it on the charts again, but pulls out a potpourri of other New Orleans gems, from “Little Liza Jane” to Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina” to a medley of Huey “Piano” Smith hits. It’s seamlessly entertaining, and it’s 100% New Orleans, just like Jelly Roll, The Dixie Cups, and, yes, poor Sugar Boy Crawford.

September Song

Walter Huston, Decca DU 40001, 1945 (?)

Kurt Weill had a special knack for intriguing, alluring melodies, and was able to find lyricists to partner with whose words added to the effect rather than taking anything away. Weill’s songs are so strong that quite a few non-singers have done a little magic with them. Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya was not so much a singer as an actress, but her recordings of Weill songs from his German as well as his American musicals are considered definitive. She originated the role of Polly Peacham in Weill’s best-known work, The Three-Penny Opera (lyrics by Bertolt Brecht), which introduced “Mackie Messer”—known in the US as “Mac the Knife.” Her “Surabaya Johnny” (from Happy End, with lyrics by Brecht), sung in German, is chilling, even if you don’t understand German.

Also worth finding is Burgess Meredith singing “Johnny’s Song” from a 1956 recording of the songs from the 1936 musical Johnny Johnson (lyrics by Paul Green), Weill’s first American show after leaving Germany. The Penguin wasn’t a singer, but he acts his way through Weill’s complex melody, and it works.

Not so great was Lou Reed’s take on “September Song,” from Hal Willner’s Weill tribute album Lost in the Stars. Croaker Marianne Faithfull and growler Tom Waits are both suited to the material and make out better than Lou, who gives the exquisitely melodic Kurt Weill the Velvet Underground monotone treatment. (Hal Willner’s tribute projects are all uneven but provocative, and three of his choices of composers to salute are three of my favorite songwriters—Weill, plus Thelonious Monk, with That’s the Way I Feel Now, from 1984, and Nino Rota, with Amarcord Nino Rota, from 1981.)

Walter Huston is best-remembered for his role as the old gold-panner who puts Bogart’s character in his place in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. If you’re only familiar with the actor from this role, you may be unable to imagine him crooning emotional ballads. This record presents that other side.

Huston wasn’t a singer, but there is so much feeling built into “September Song”’s melody and lyrics (by Maxwell Anderson) that a great actor can wring a lot of emotional response from it. I’d enjoyed Walter Huston’s version of “September Song” on a cast album for Knickerbocker Holiday, and was thrilled to find it on shellac. He comes through, delivering a big emotional punch, and then does it again on the B-side.

I had no idea Walter Huston had done a version of “Lost in the Stars,” which was the bonus I discovered on the flip side of this record. Of all of Kurt Weill’s beautiful melodies, “Lost in the Stars” (from the musical of the same name, also with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson) is probably the most haunting. Huston’s version doesn’t top Tony Bennett’s version with The Count Basie Orchestra, but it is poignant and, in its own way, beautiful. These two recordings seem to be absolutely ideally suited to the 78 rpm format; I can’t really imagine listening to them any other way.

There is a mystery about the recording that I haven’t yet solved. The musical Lost in the Stars was completed in 1948 and debuted in 1949. I can find no mention of the title song existing prior to the collaboration of Weill and Anderson. Yet everything I can find regarding this recording states it was made in 1944. Since Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s book upon which the musical was based, wasn’t published until 1948, my guess is that the info about the recording date is wrong. But I suppose it’s possible that Weill and Anderson collaborated on the song before they knew where they’d put it. As deliberate as Weill was, though, and as perfect the song is in the show, I doubt that was the case.

Once Upon a Time

Rochell & the Candles, Swingin’ 623, 1961, #26 Pop and #20 R&B

A true head-spinner is Rochell & the Candles’ “Once Upon a Time,” from 1961. When I discovered it last year, I couldn’t recall ever having heard it before. But the sound of the 45 was electrifying, and I play it often. It’s among my very favorite doo-wop recordings, despite its melody and structure being pedestrian and repetitive. What catapults the song into the top tier? The lead vocal.

The smooth falsetto voice that glides clearly and sweetly throughout the song, along with the name Rochell, may cause a listener to think that this was among the rare doo-wop groups fronted by a woman. (In fact, it’s similar to the great 1958 hit “Maybe” by The Chantels, led by Arlene Smith.) But group-leader Rochell (Henderson) was male, as was the entire group. Rochell did not sing lead on this number; that duty fell to first-tenor Johnny Wyatt, whose falsetto is a doo-wop-era diamond.

There’s a cliché sound to the doo-wop ballads of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most of them, like “Once Upon a Time,” feature “ice cream changes”—the 1 / 6 minor / 4 / 5 chord pattern of “Heart and Soul”—and piano triplets. It doesn’t help that the lyrics are, like those of “Once Upon a Time,” usually sappy and unoriginal.

There are a couple of options that can help a doo-wop ballad transcend the genre. One is to doo-wopicize a song from the American Songbook era—remaking it with all of the rhythmic and vocal trappings. Fine examples of this include The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (written by Jerome Kern & Otto Harbach in 1933), The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” (written by Harry Warren & Al Dubin in 1934), and Dion and the Belmonts’ “Where Or When” (written by Rodgers & Hart in 1937).

Another pretty surefire way to rise “out of the commonplace, into the rare” was to inject a sharp, clear falsetto vocal into the mix. There are many fine falsetto turns in doo-wop, of course, that are better-known than Rochell & the Candles’ “Once Upon a Time”: Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs’ “Stay,” Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” (one of my first 45s), “Gloria,” by The Cadillacs. And The Marcels, with “Blue Moon,” pulled off the hat trick to hit #1: they took another Rodgers and Hart American Songbook favorite, written in ’34, and added a bright falsetto.

As much as I love the Rochell & the Candles record, there’s another falsetto feature that wins my Most Dramatic Effect Award.

I snagged a copy of The Fiestas’ debut single “So Fine,” which hit #11 on Billboard in 1959, because I wanted to learn it for a group I was in. It was several years before I thought to listen to its flipside, “Last Night I Dreamed.” (Apparently, quite a few people never thought to listen to the B-side when the record came out.) Through the first two lines of its verse, “Last Night I Dreamed” seems like the cliché ice cream-changes doo-wop number. And then, on the fourth word of line three, the divine happens: an out-of-nowhere two-octave leap by singer Tommy Bullock that thrills and chills. I don’t think I’ve played “So Fine” since I discovered its flip.

The doo-wop falsetto is often parodied and derided, and it’s pigeon-holed into a brief, long-gone period in American pop music. But the best songs of Rochell & the Candles, The Fiestas, The Diablos, and others are among the greatest creations in pop music, and deserve to be heard as timeless classics—not as out-of-date curiosities.

Little Green Bag

George Baker Selection, Colossus C 112, 1969, #21 Pop

“Little Green Bag” is one crazy little international record. It was a 1970 debut release by George Baker Selection that became a hit in the US. But George Baker was actually Johannes Bouwens, of the Netherlands, where the song was recorded. Mr. Bouwens cowrote the song with Jan Visser. The song reached #1 in Japan, has been used as a theme song on a South American soap opera, was covered by Italians and Canadians, and has been heard on British and Turkish television programs. A Spanish-language song, “Paloma Blanca,” was George Baker Selection’s only other top hit.

And who knows what the repetitive lyrics are about? Who cares?

The music of “Little Green Bag” is eccentric, to say the least, and very modishly entertaining, with amped-up bass riffs, twelve-string guitars, and percussion galore. Burt Bacharach meets the Tijuana Brass. The vocals are the epitome of grooviness. When I listen to it, I’m seeing lots of sideburns, tinted prescription glasses, mustard-colored Apache scarves, and large-pane plaid flairs. And somehow, for the duration of this song, that’s a good thing.

And who knows what the repetitive lyrics are about? Who cares?The Netherlandish, Eurovision kind of air about the song may go a long way toward explaining why it seems one-of-a-kind in the US pop pantheon, but still I’m thinking “Little Green Bag,” in all its demented pop frivolity, should’ve led to a profusion of Euro-pop-rockers on our charts. The group ABBA, which won the Eurovision contest one year, doesn’t count. Their string of slick, saccharine megahits were so ubiquitous in ‘70s American pop that they were a key element in defining what seventies American pop was. Not like the previous decade’s British Invasion groups, which always seemed to counter American beach pop, Motown, and hippie music rather than meld with it.

Like so many other records in my collection, the unclassifiability of “Little Green Bag” is its primary asset.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band

The Boswell Sisters , Vocalion 4239, 1938, #4 Pop

As a harmony nut, I find I’m often drawn to the music of sibling-harmony groups. Way back before the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers and the Roches, around the same time as the Mills Brothers, there were the Boswell Sisters, still unrivalled in their vocal harmony arrangements, which were heavily influenced by the music of New Orleans, where they grew up. They made quite a few recordings that are among my favorites, with nary a disappointment in their entire recorded output.

…you get the idea that they developed a psychic connection that allowed them to anticipate every swoop, every tempo or rhythm change…

There’s certainly something to be said for the blend of contrasting voices (like the smoky baritone-against-brassy tenor of the Righteous Brothers—who weren’t brothers—or rough Lennon against smooth McCartney), but the complementary voices of Connie on the bottom, Martha in the middle, and Vet on top made the Boswell Sisters’ commingled syncopated phrasing impossible to imitate. Many have tried, including The Pfister Sisters and The Puppini Sisters (neither group actually sisters), and are enjoyable—but not Boswellian. The Sisters were very close, spending hours singing together from an early age, and you get the idea that they developed a psychic connection that allowed them to anticipate every swoop, every tempo or rhythm change, every pause, arranging songs on the spot as they went along. (Of course, I know their arrangements were carefully worked out and rehearsed, but I imagine the process was organic and smooth.)

The Boswell Sisters, the most musical of pop artists, recorded at least one great song about music in every year of their brief career as a trio: “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (1930); “Sing a Little Jingle” (1931); “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932); “That’s How Rhythm Was Born” (1933); “Rock and Roll” (yes, “Rock and Roll”—in 1934!); “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1935); and “The Music Goes Round and Round” (1936). All fabulous!

Any of these songs—or any other Boswells recording—could represent this group’s special charms, but I settled on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” because that’s the only single of theirs I own. (I have it all on LP and/or CD, but, yes, folks, it’s at 78 rpm that the Sisters really shine.) It’s a 1938 reissue of their hit 1935 recording, with another 1935 hit, “Dinah,” as its A-side. You’ve never heard any other version of either song anything like the Bozzies’ renditions.

Another reason to use this recording to represent the Boswells is the New Orleans connection: Composer Irving Berlin wrote the song, his first big hit (in 1911), about an actual New Orleans bandleader named Alexander.

Now, Alexander Watzke was white, but Berlin’s song’s music owes a lot to black styles and innovations and the lyrics are in black vernacular. The white Boswell Sisters listened to and learned from black musicians and performers around New Orleans while developing their sound, which is hipper—“blacker”—than what any other white singers were doing at the time. (And their N’Awlins accents enhanced the effect.) Unfortunately, though, like Alexander Watzke’s band, the Boswells’ bands were always all-white. It was a reflection of the time: Bessie Smith got Louis Armstrong and James P. Johnson; The Boswells got Benny Goodman and the Dorseys.

Did the Bozzies want it that way? I like to imagine that they would’ve loved to work with black musicians and were open-minded enough to dream of a time, like their black counterparts often did, when black and white music-makers could make their music together, without apologies, without secrecy, without censure and rejection. I’ll probably never know the answer to that one, but I’m happy that the cathartic, expansive music of the Boswells was preserved long enough to be enjoyed in a more enlightened age.

Baby, We’re Really in Love

Hank Williams with His Drifting Cowboys, MGM K11100, 1951, #4 Country

My Aunt Kay had left a few 78 rpm records at her parents’ house—my Grandpa and Grandma Wilson’s farmhouse. Grandma gave me one of them to take home: Hank Williams’ “Baby, We’re Really in Love,” with “I’d Still Want You” on the B-side. I loved both songs, and played them on my little record player often. One day, I played the record for my neighborhood friends. Donny picked it up off the turntable after we’d listened and read on the disc “This Is a Non-Breakable Record.” He said, “Non-breakable? Cool!” and tossed it against the wall, where it shattered into a dozen pieces.

no one else writes simple so perfectly

I did recently find a 45 of the record, and it sits proudly in my little collection. “Baby, We’re Really in Love” is a fine song (favorite couplet: “I run around in circles and laugh at fire alarms / I’m nutty as a fruitcake when you’re not in my arms”), and the flip side, “I’d Still Want You,” is just as wonderful. Of all the singer-songwriters whose work I cherish, Hanks’s songs are the ones whose value and appeal I’m least able to explain. They’re not that different in substance from countless other three-chord songs with catchy hooks. I think: so simple—anyone could write that stuff! They are simple, yes—but no one else writes simple so perfectly. The best of his songs are like elements: They are basic but solid and unimprovable. And it doesn’t have to be Hank delivering them. Great covers have been recorded by singers outside the C&W field. I think of Tony Bennett’s “Cold, Cold Heart” (or Norah Jones’ version), Ray Charles’ “You Win Again” and “Hey, Good Lookin’,” Al Green’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Two of Hank’s best involve trains. I, like so many others, have always felt the mystique of trains (although I’ve only traveled by train once, long, long ago), possibly because my dad and both of my grandfathers worked for the railroad. That used to be a much more common occupation than it is these days. (Kinda like a kid today saying, “My dad and both of my grandpas are computer programmers.”)

“(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle” (the Hank hit that preceded “Baby, We’re Really in Love”) and “Ramblin’ Man,” which Hank recorded as Luke the Drifter, are train songs, but trains have little to do with my preference for them. Trains, though, may have inspired Hank to do some of his best work, a major-key song and a minor-key song that both convey a regretful resignation to fate. “I can settle down and be doin’ just fine / ‘til I hear an old freight rollin’ down the line…”

A friend recently bought an anthology of Hank Williams’ Luke the Drifter songs. In the liner notes, the song “Just Waitin’” was credited to “Bob Gazzaway of Happy, Texas.” My friend knew that my wife’s maiden name is Gazzaway, and I knew that an uncle of hers had prepared a nice genealogy of the family. I checked it out and was able to find a Bobby Rankin Gazzaway who had lived with his family in Happy, Texas. This had to be Hank’s collaborator, and it turns out that he and my wife’s grandpa Homer were cousins. When I told my father-in-law this news, he was pleasantly surprised (although, he says, he was never much of a Hank Williams fan). He then said that many years back there’d been a rumor that a Gazzaway had written a lot of Hank’s songs and not received any credit.

Among Hank Williams’ stellar output, “Just Waitin’” is no great shakes. It’s a narrative song, with Hank speaking over a basic repeated 1-4-5-1 pattern. Its simple message is that everybody’s just waitin’ on something, and never gettin’ anything done. A series of examples drive the point home. “The farmer’s daughter’s just waitin’ for the travelin’ salesman to take her into town / The city slicker’s just waitin’ for the country boy to lay all his money down.”

But here’s to Bob Gazzaway. I’m just waitin’ to hear the whole story about how he crossed paths with the great Hank Williams. Or maybe how he and Hank were longtime pals who wrote songs together, but the evil Hank stole all of Bob’s credit and royalties, leaving him to languish, unhappy, in Happy, Texas.

Cab Driver

The Mills Brothers, Dot 17041, 1968, #23 Pop

Just to say that something is hip marks one as being unhip. Even hipsters don’t say things are hip. (What do they say? I’m happy to say I’m too out of it to know.)

Some people, I realize, do not think The Mills Brothers were cool.

The least-hip thing Peter, Paul, and Mary ever did was record “I Dig Rock and Roll Music.” It was 1967, Rock music had supplanted folk music, and the trio wasn’t any too pleased about that. Paul co-wrote the song, which is a combination pandering exercise and critique of The Mamas and the Papas, The Beatles, and others who had taken PP&M’s spots on the charts. Sure enough, the song got them on the pop charts, at number nine.

The late sixties and early seventies were a tough time for folkies, and were even worse for the pre-rock acts whose labels were struggling to remain hip. Rock-song covers by Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and other Golden-Era warblers make up a goodly portion of the tracks on later album anthologies of bad covers. The Mills Brothers had to line up in the rock-song queue, too. They covered “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” accompanied by Count Basie and his Orchestra. I know they probably were forced by some A&R guy to include it, a promo man who really believed he could connect the Brothers to the hip set. I presume that they emphatically did not dig rock ‘n’ roll music, but I still thought it was pretty dang groovy. So incongruous that it truly was hip.

Some people, I realize, do not think The Mills Brothers, John, Herbert, Harry, and Don, were cool. Others concede that they were at least somewhat cool in their early days, the thirties. They were jazz then and hadn’t yet been exiled to the easy listening category. I love the ‘30s songs of The Mills Brothers—“Sweet and Slow,” “I’ve Found a New Baby,” “Rockin’ Chair.” That earliest era may qualify as cool music because it was long-enough ago that it has some retro cachet. And, well, it is really great stuff. I also love their big hits of the ‘40s and ‘50s, like “Paper Doll” and “Glow Worm” and “Lazy River,” but by that time they were a little too MOR, alongside rising R&B and jump-swing artists. I’m afraid the Mills Brothers’ “Glow Worm” would’ve been driven off the stage pretty quickly if Louis Jordan & His Tympani Five had cranked up “Saturday Night Fish Fry.”

After that came their leisure-suit era and the big 1968 easy-listening hit “Cab Driver,” with its snap-along “do-doot-‘n’-do-doot” parts. I love this late stuff, too! It was in this waning period that the Brothers recorded “I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.”

I had the opportunity to see The Mills Brothers at The Venetian Room when I was in my early twenties. The Venetian Room was at the Fairmont Hotel in Downtown Dallas. (“Downtown Dallas” was a magical place to me when I was a kid. My mom told me that when our family was traveling I’d get homesick and say, “I wanna go to Downtown Dallas.” No matter that we didn’t live downtown, or even in Dallas; we lived in a suburb. But I wanted to go home to Downtown Dallas.)

In 1969, when the Venetian Room opened, I was a teenager too young to appreciate their brand of entertainer. The Venetian and its ilk were very, very un-hip. I was listening to a lot of Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane and Mungo Jerry while Tony Bennett and Lou Rawls and Miss Peggy Lee were gracing that local stage. Within twenty years, as times changed, the Venetian discontinued its big-name line-ups. The Dallas history journal Legacies quotes Tina Turner, who performed there in the ‘80s, as saying the place had become “a graveyard for burnt-out entertainers.”

I did see two classic shows there in the late ‘70s, though, thanks to the fact that my friend and bandmate Wildcat had parents who were big on seeing lounge shows. They had become fast friends with my parents while coming to see Wildcat and me on gigs. Our first excursion to The Venetian was to see Ella Fitzgerald, aging and frail but still warbling like a schoolgirl. The second was The Mills Brothers, also toward the end of their many-decade performing careers. (They had singles out from 1931 to 1968!)

I had passed on seeing The Police live in order to see the Brothers Mills. I was torn about it at the time, but I know now that I made the right choice. After all, four decades later I still see Sting everywhere I look. Is Sting hip? I think not. He plays Celtic Woman music!

The Mills Bro’s—they’re the hip ones. As I recall, they did a hip-as-all-get-out rendition of “Cab Driver” that night. (It was their last hit, after all; well, there was one later that year that got to #83 called “The Ol’ Race Track,” but do you remember that one at all? I thought not).

So I put on the 45 of “Cab Driver” now and then and revel in our mutual unhipness as the Brothers croon: “Cab driver, take me ‘round the block.”