Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Ecstasy and the Agony Down Under: Frank Sinatra

Francis Albert Sinatra

In 1959 Frank Sinatra was at the top of his game.  He’d recorded a series of hit albums (Come Fly With Me, Songs for Swinging Lovers, In the Wee Small Hours) that remain among the best regarded in the American musicsphere.   In 1953 he had won an Oscar for Best Actor and was redefining what it meant to be a Star in Vegas. It was a time when as one card recalled, “Sinatra said 'cigarette' and nine lighters came out."

In 1959 there was no bigger performing artist in the world.  Sinatra, accompanied by the Red Norvo Quintet toured Down Under that year and while in Melbourne his show was put on tape.  Live in Australia 1959 was only released in 1997, the year before he passed away but for fans has become an instant classic. In the words of the gurus at All Music Guide, Sinatra's loose, swinging performance is a startling revelation after years of being submerged in the Rat Pack mythology. Even on his swing records from the late '50s, he never cut loose quite as freely as he does here. Norvo's quintet swings gracefully and Sinatra uses it as a cue to deliver one of the wildest performances he has ever recorded.” (

At the beginning of the set Red Norvo gushes about how much he really loves Melbourne (even getting the pronunciation right). Sinatra, for his part, is very relaxed and is obviously very happy, tossing snappy asides to an adoring audience.   It was a real love fest and the album is indeed a fantabulous one.

Fast forward 15 years to 1974. Sinatra has had a rough go in the 60s. The rock n’ roll he so scornfully dismissed is all the rage. The media seem more interested in his failed marriages and links with the Mafia. Though he had some of his biggest hits (cue, My Way) in the 60’s he was of no interest to anybody but the middle aged and nostalgic.

In 1974 he’s back in Australia.  And the proverbial fan is hit by the equally proverbial shit. No one is at Melbourne airport to meet him. He has to break into his own press conference! During his first show he’s displaying his not-so-charming side and takes a couple stabs at the local journalistic fraternity. The men are ‘bums’ and the female journalists are ‘a buck and half whores’. 


No one is permitted to call Aussie shielas names except Aussie men, thank you very much.  The boozy, philandering leader of the Union movement, one Bob Hawke, sends the word out to his troops: Ol’ Blue Eyes gets no service until he apologizes to our women folk.  Frank lets Bob know he can fuck off. “I never apologize,” he storms as he and his wife hang out in a hotel room.  And there they stayed with nothing more than some Jack Daniels. Room service didn’t answer. His private plane wouldn’t get any fuel. He finally managed to sneak aboard a Qantas flight to Sydney but even there remained stuck in his hotel.  At one point, the historians tell us, thought was given to calling in the US Navy to rescue him.  The story is taken up by Shane Maloney.

Eventually, he agreed to negotiate.
On 11 July, the two men met in Sinatra’s suite. Over four hours, an agreement was hammered out. In return for a statement that Sinatra “did not intend any general reflection upon the moral character of working members of the Australian media”, Hawke was prepared to green-light his remaining concerts.
Back in the US, it was joked that Sinatra was only allowed out of Australia because the union boss woke one morning with a kangaroo’s head on his pillow. (

Hawke, of course, went on to become one of our most loved raconteurs and Prime Ministers. Sinatra went on with his life and never returned to the land down under where he had given one of the performances of his life.

            Track Listing:
            01 – Perdido (Red Norvo Quintet)
02 - Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea (Red Norvo Quintet)
03 - I Could Have Danced All Night
04 - Just One Of Those Things
05 - I Get A Kick Out Of You
06 - At Long Last Love
07 - Willow Weep For Me
08 - I've Got You Under My Skin
09 - Moonlight In Vermont
10 - The Lady Is A Tramp
11 - Sinatra Speaks
12 - Angel Eyes
13 - Come Fly With Me
14 - All The Way
15 - Dancing In The Dark
16 - One For My Baby
17 - All Of Me
18 - On The Road To Mandalay
19 - Night And Day
Listen here.

How to Piss Off Hugh Hefner: Chet Baker and Art Pepper

Hugh Hefner

Chet Baker is the trumpeter with the Little Boy Blue features and a horrific heroin habit. His singing voice retained a vulnerable innocence throughout his career, endearing him to so many fans.  He teams up with Art Pepper another heroin grappler who spent considerable time in and out of the American penal archipelago, including a couple stints in San Quentin.  (By the by, speaking of the American penal archipelago: More Americans are under ‘correctional supervision’ at the current time then were imprisoned by Stalin in the Gulags of the Soviet Union in its heyday! True.)

A couple of rough diamonds you’d think would never be able to blow such wonderful music. But wow, this album swings sweet and low. The interplay of trumpet and alto sax is seamless and one is left with the impression that these are two old mates, perhaps identical twins who know everything about the other.

Playboys is a sweet, silly and silky. The sweetness resides in the non-stop swing and melodies and the silk is the tone Pepper gets on the alto and Baker on his horn. Every lively plunge of the valves brings joy. The silliness comes on the cover. An age of American innocence pin up of a model teasingly covering her bosoms with two children’s hand puppets. Must have some oblique reference to the wonderful opening track, For Minors Only. Whatever, Hugh Hefner sued when the album came out forcing a quick change to the cover and title.  Luckily the CD reissue realigned the universe with the original artwork.

This is a stunner. To be enjoyed with a G&T or simply a cup of T. 

            Track Listing:
            01 For Minors Only
02 Minor - Yours
03 Resonant Emotions
04 Tynan Tyme
05 Picture Of Heath
06 For Miles And Miles

Listen here.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Smokin' on the Zambezi: Edwin "Smokey" Haangala

Tonight’s featured artist achieved greatness as a musician in Zambia in the 1970s and 1980s. But you could also mount the argument that with a name like Smokey, he was born to greatness. Born Edwin Haakulipa Haangala, in 1950 in what appears to be a fairly well off family, he did the right thing by his parents. He completed high school and did well enough to enter university where he studied for a career in Public Administration and English. During these years he kept his love of the electric guitar and music under control.  But things got worse as the years passed by. That damned guitar just wouldn’t stop tempting him. 

"If anything my greatest blow was when I could not sit for my final examinations at the university and knowing fully well that I had no one to blame, let alone myself. I was unreasonable to think that I could be a musician and full-time student and still be successful both ways," he half heartedly lamented in the mid 1970s when he was enjoying some considerable success in Zambia for his sweet vocals and accordion infused kalindula music. And even though people danced to his records and he got radio airplay he had to make a living which he did by working for a while in the Civil Service and as a journalist.  

His songs, sung in local Zambian languages like Tonga, spoke out against social evils like witchcraft and promoted family and other positive values.  Though he died at the age of 38 in 1988 his niece, Lulu Haangala and brother, Swithin, continue to keep the family name alive in the public arena. Swithin is the owner of Zambezi FM radio station and Lulu something of a local celebrity.

This collection of songs comes from the fantastic Zambia National Broadcasting Company (ZNBC) Zambian Legends Series.  Smokey’s voice is mellifluous  and his guitar picking (both electric and acoustic) energetic but not flashy.  What I particularly appreciate is the wonderful blending in of the accordion and electric organ and even what sounds like a harmonium in some cuts.  And let us not overlook his whistling too! Another excellent slice of Zambia which deserves a much wider audience.

            Track Listing
            01 Mandalena Mazabuka
02 Daina Mongu
03 Kuza Mwanaka
04 Ma Kwacha
05 Bana Bangu
06 Ku Maala
07 Petulo
08 Mandalena Kasama
09 Saaguna Ulyoolole
10 Bbalangombe
11 Ba Kuluna
12 Ndausa
13 Bo Lisabeti
14 Chifutefute
Listen  here.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Happy Birthday Songs for George Harrison: Bonzo Dog Band and K.S. Chitra

George Harrison

Yesterday was George Harrison’s birthday. If he were alive he would be 69 years old.  I recently saw Martin Scorcese’s Harrison bio-pic, Living in the Material World, which had nary a dull moment in the entire three and half hours.  As a kid I thought George to be the most handsome Beatle.  His chiseled features, full moustache and long hair reminded me of my eldest brother and it was a look I tried to emulate for (too) many years.  But beyond his good looks I had little appreciation for him as a musician and man.  By the end of the film I was deeply impressed not just with his ace guitar playing but his spirituality, which he approached with seriousness and good humor, and his catholic interests.  Everything from Formula 1 to filmmaking, to gardening and Monty Python.

In honor of the Quiet Beatle I post two albums that reflect two different sides of his personality.

When the producers of Monty Python’s Life of Brian pulled out of the project at the final moment, George Harrison came to the rescue, mortgaged his house and started a long and successful career as a film producer. He loved the Python’s and before them, he and his Beatle mates were pally with the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band,  the musical equivalent of the Pythons.

Besides, perhaps, the Mothers of Invention (with whom they were sometimes compared), the Bonzo Dog Band were the most successful group to combine rock music and comedy. Starting off as the Bonzo Dog Dada Band, then becoming the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and then finally just the Bonzo Dog Band, the group was started by British art college students in the mid-'60s. Initially they were inclined toward trad jazz and vaudevillian routines, but by the time of their 1967 debut album, they were leaning further in pop and rock directions. A brief appearance in the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour film bolstered their visibility, and Paul McCartney (under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth) produced their single "I'm the Urban Spaceman," which reached the British Top Five in 1968. The Bonzos really hit their stride with their second and third albums, which found them adding elements of psychedelia to their already-absurdist mix of pop, cabaret, and Dada. The Bonzos could be side-splitting, but their records held up well because they were also capable musicians and songwriters, paced by Neil Innes and Viv Stanshall (both of whom wrote the lion's share of their best material). The group attempted to move into more serious and musical realms with their 1969 LP Keynsham, which, unsurprisingly, was acclaimed as their weakest effort. They broke up shortly afterward; Viv Stanshall made some obscure solo recordings (he was also the grandstanding narrator on Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells"). Neil Innes collaborated with members of Monty Python, upon whom the Bonzos were a large influence, as well as writing the songs for and performing in the Beatles documentary spoof, The Rutles. (AMG)

This collection includes many (not all, sadly) of their best sides and from the opening track to the end you’ll be guffawing, smiling and snickering.  My faves: Shirt, Intro and Outro, Hunting Tigers Out in INDIAH  and Can Blue Men Sing the Whites? But so many great songs here.

            Track Listing:
            01 The Intro And The Outro
02 Ali Baba's Camel
03 Hello Mabel
04 Kama Sutra
05 Hunting Tigers Out In 'INDIAH'
06 Shirt
07 I'm Bored
08 Rockaliser Baby
09 Rhinocratic Oaths
10 Tent
11 Beautiful Zelda
12 Can Blue Men Sing The Whites
13 The Bride Stripped Bare By 'Bachelors'
14 Look At Me, I'm Wonderful
15 Canyons Of Your Mind
16 Mr. Apollo
17 Trouser Press
18 Ready-Mades
19 We Are Normal
20 I'm The Urban Spaceman
21 Trouser Freak
22 The Sound Of Music
23 Suspicion
24 Big Shot

Listen here

George Harrison’s life long commitment to Hindu philosophy and mystical practice is honored by a collection of Krishna bhajans by the Malayali singer K.S. Chitra. Born on July 27, 1963, in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, into a family of musicians, Chitra’s talent was recognized and nurtured from an early age by her father, the late Krishnan Nair. He was also her first guru (teacher). Her elder sister K. S. Beena is also a singer who has performed in many films as a playback singer.
Chitra received her extensive training in Carnatic music from Dr. K. Omanakutty, and got a Masters in Music from the University of Kerala. She was selected for the National Talent Search Scholarship from the Central Government from 1978–1984.

Chitra has enjoyed a strong career as a playback singer in South Indian films but is equally recognized for her devotional and classical repertoire. This record is from a live concert and gives an excellent demonstration of her beautiful vocals.

            Track Listing:
Chitha Chora
Ganesha Sloka Madhuramu Kada
Jai Jai Jai Sai Janani
Koi Kahio Re
Krishna Nee Begane Baro
Mhara Re Giridhar Gopal
Nach Rahi Meera
Pashupati Tanaya

Listen here.