Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fat Tuesday Music With James Booker

The man, the pianist, the vocalist, the master of New Orleans music, the Bayou Maharajah himself - the incomparable James Carroll Booker the 3rd!

Sweet.


And extra sweet.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Burt Bacharach Day

Jerry Orbach's rendition of Promises Promises - a tune with more modulations and tempo changes than words - is one of the ages. This recording confirms what the bards on Broadway knew: Orbach, known for his formidable acting chops, may have been even better as a singer.



While Dionne Warwick does not sing Promises Promises at the furious tempo of the Broadway show version, her recording of the song is pretty amazing in its own right.



Then again, Ms. Warwick's hallmark in music was to make a song that would be between difficult and impossible to perform look easy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

New On DVD - And As Randy As Ever: Wheeler & Woolsey



Before I could spring for the upcoming, much-awaited UPA and Paramount cartoon DVD sets, Warner Archive beat 'em to the punch by releasing four vintage comedies starring RKO Radio Pictures' ever-wisecracking 1930's team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey.




Tops among the quartet is Diplomaniacs, which pre-dates the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and shares with that opus the distinction of "most nose-thumbing, convention and gender-bending, take-no-prisoners American feature comedy" until Mel Brooks' The Producers and Blazing Saddles decades later.


Those who are easily offended or view ancient movies strictly on Level One, PLEASE, don't even bother taking the plastic cover off the DVD on this one. The film's modus operandi is to get away with as much as humanly possible - A.K.A. barbeque sacred cows to a crisp, offend everyone and have tons of fun in the process.



Diplomaniacs was written by Joseph L. Manckiewicz - yep, the same guy who deliciously skewered the world of showbiz in All About Eve - during his "insane pre-Code comedy" phase that began with the following memorable 1932 Paramount Pictures opus, Million Dollar Legs.



Next in line and the only release of this quartet that isn't from a newly restored master is one of three W&W features released in 1934, Kentucky Kernels.




Co-starring in Kentucky Kernels is Our Gang star George "Spanky" McFarland, a pint-sized comedian if there ever was one. While Spanky is quite the scene stealer, he has his work cut out for him sharing the screen with Bert and Bob!



The Rainmakers (1935) and On Again Off Again (1937) present a different proposition: a sanitized, post-Code W&W, as vigorous Production Code enforcement began on July 1, 1934. I personally find both films very funny and entertaining, but enforcement of the hated Production Code arguably harmed Wheeler & Woolsey even more than it straitjacketed Mae West; good-natured lechery was as much a cornerstone of W&W as sexy one-liners defined Miss West





The Rainmakers is also the last Wheeler & Woolsey comedy to cast Dorothy Lee in her invaluable supporting role as pert ingenue. Dorothy brought an incalculable degree of spunk, charm, fun, good humor and likeability to the W&W films and is remembered today as an unofficial third member of the team.

Dorothy left the series after Silly Billies in 1936, and by the time the team began shooting in 1937, Robert Woolsey was increasingly suffering from kidney disease.



Robert makes a go of it under difficult circumstances in On-Again-Off-Again, but looked clearly ailing in the subsequent High Flyers.



Although Wheeler and Woolsey stopped making movies in 1937, the team still has devoted fans.


For example, here in 2012, there is a Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey tribute group on Facebook!


L to R: Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey, Milton Berle, Joe Penner, Victor Moore, Benny Rubin

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Remembering Jack Benny On His 39th Birthday

by Paul F. Etcheverry


Hugely popular in his day, Jack Benny seems under-rated and somewhat forgotten now, primarily because of the microscopic attention span of our current pop culture, and the fact that his comedy doesn't even show up even on cable TV any more. Could Jack Benny, for decades a king of show business, be on his way to becoming about as well-known as Joe Cook and Lloyd Hamilton? Maybe. Maybe not.



To refresh our memories dulled by "gnats on methamphetamines" attention-spans, here's a clip that demonstrates Jack's ability to get big laughs with a motion, stance or expression - or sometimes by doing nothing - with Groucho Marx.



By the time Benny's popular radio show, which hit the airwaves in 1932, hit television, his characterization - vain, self-obsessed, foppish, insecure and above all, cheap - was very well established. Among the carryovers from the radio shows are his wonderfully appalled reactions to the supporting comics, such true 'third bananas' as Frank Nelson.



Jack's television show, appropriately titled The Jack Benny Program, ran for 244 episodes, from 1950 through the 1964-65 season, and has braved the test of time quite well. The best episodes are hilarious, the equal of the great silent and early talkie short comedies from Hal Roach and RKO. The series differs from Benny's radio work or later TV specials in featuring some wonderful way-out sight gags, enhanced by Benny's reactions and recalling later generations of comics (Ernie Kovacs, Peter Sellers) and such cartoonists as Tex Avery more than Jack's contemporaries.



Paramount among the way-out gags were the show's willingness to "break the fourth wall" and toy with the pop culture images of Jack and his guest stars. While George Burns and Bob Hope also enjoyed revealing that it's all make believe and watched by an audience out there in movie/TV land, Jack and his writers break that fourth wall constantly.



Some of the funniest shows in the series combine both elements, such as one where Raymond Burr, representing Jack as uber-lawyer Perry Mason, is both inarticulate and inept; Perry explains the gross discrepancy by snapping to Jack, "my writers are better than yours!"








The January 22, 1963 episode featuring Peter Lorre opens with Jack assuring all that Peter only plays a sicko onscreen, but is a nice guy off-screen. Peter subsequently . . . well, let's not describe it, let's show it.



Often up-and-coming comedians were the guest stars on Jack's show. Here's one featuring Johnny Carson, not long after he started hosting The Tonight Show.





Jack often incorporated the fact that he didn't make a huge splash as a star of feature films as a joke in his act. He particularly enjoyed making fun of his much-maligned starring vehicle The Horn Blows At Midnight.


While, granted, Jack's milieu was a half-hour program executed with the precision of a race driver, seen today, The Horn Blows At Midnight - Jack's bĂȘte noire - has its moments. In stretches, it's quite charming and funny. Perhaps the bar line for comedy was a lot higher then.



Jack did have one prominent feather in his cap in his movie career: his witty performance with Carole Lombard in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be.



An overdue reevaluation and revival can begin with Jack Benny's prolific radio and television work and include a 35mm archival print of To Be Or Not To Be. Until then, here's a terrific 1992 tribute to Mr. Benny produced by HBO.








Tuesday, February 07, 2012

This Blog Supports This Worthy Fundraiser

Byron Vaughns and Borge Ring, two stalwart animators we know and love at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, are dealing with catastrophic medical expenses and the destruction of their homes via fire. Fundraisers have been established on their behalf. I donated, and hope lots more movie and animation fans follow suit.

Among other films, Byron directed the very funny Nickelodeon series Johnny Bravo, which is among my favorite animation shows since John K's Ren & Stimpy completed its original 1990's run.



He also wrote and directed some terrific work for the Oh Yeah series.



If you've seen any of Borge Ring's films, you know what an outstanding and witty draftsman he is. And if you haven't, you're in for a treat. So enjoy the following three treats: Oh My Darling, Anna & Bella and Run Of The Mill.







Here are links to the fundraising efforts for Byron and Betty Vaughns and Borge and Joanika Ring - thanks!

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Happy Super Bowl Sunday From Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog

How shall we celebrate the wonderful NFL gladiator spectacle of the Super Bowl? With my favorite comedy clips and classic cartoons involving football, thank you very much. We'll start with The Four Marx Brothers!



And now to Our Gang. . .



Next up: the pride of Canada, SCTV. While Saturday Night Live was busy melting down publicly and gruesomely in 1980-1982, the performers and writing staff on SCTV took their formidable game to the next level. Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas moved on in 1982, soon to be followed by Catherine O' Hara, but Martin Short came on board and Eugene Levy, John Candy, Andrea Martin, John Candy and Joe Flaherty were still there and creating great, classic comedy, week after week.





And now for some classic cartoons, courtesy of stalwart comedy creators Tex Avery and Jack Kinney.





We finish with some sage wisdom from standup philosopher George Carlin.



Thursday, February 02, 2012

Remembering Alfred Lion (1908-1987)

"Alfred Lion knew just what he wanted and he took the time to get it," Rudy Van Gelder, recording engineer for Blue Note Records


"Any particular style of playing which represents an authentic way of musical feeling is genuine expression. Hot jazz, therefore, is expression and communication, a musical and social manifestation, and Blue Note records are concerned with identifying its impulse, not its sensational and commercial adornments." Alfred Lion (1908-1987)

Alfred Lion, with ever-ebullient jazz legend Dexter Gordon and Francis Woolf


As Black History Month in 2012 started in a truly rotten way with the tragic deaths of gospel and R&B singer David Peaston and "Soul Train" host/founder Don Cornelius, I will bring attention to an individual who also was tremendously important to African American culture and music. He passed away 25 years ago today: Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records. The very well-written and comprehensive New York Times obit is still available online, and yet just scratches the surface of Mr. Lion's influence and impact.

Alfred Lion, with Francis Woolf and ace soundman Rudy Van Gelder, was personally responsible for producing a gargantuan chunk of 20th century recorded music and innovative, hard swinging jazz history.

The story began when Mr. Lion attended the Carnegie Hall Spirituals to Swing Concert on December 23, 1938. The concert changed Albert's life; utterly blown away by the two-fisted piano heroics of boogie-woogie gurus Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, he arranged to record the duo. Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis were recorded session on Jan. 9, 1939, and a few dozen pressings were made. The word got out and he had to press more, then followed the recordings up with an album by Sidney Bechet leading the Port Of Harlem Jazzmen. With Bechet's masterful version of "Summertime", Blue Note Records was off and running.

Fast forward a few years, after Mr. Lion's WW2 service and discharge from the Army. Lion and partner Francis Woolf re-started Blue Note and got the ball rolling in 1947 by recording one of the most innovative, original musicians and composers of all: Thelonious Sphere Monk.






The label soon followed this up with equally groundbreaking recordings by the cutting-edge musicians of the day: Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron, Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Herbie Nichols.

Blue Note, to a significant degree, made its reputation in the hard-driving genre known as hard bop: the red-hot unholy spawn of blues, gospel and bebop.



The originators of hard bop, powerful and charismatic drummer Art Blakey and pianist Horace Silver, played at fever-pitch intensity, with style and panache to match. Former members of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Silver's bands - Johnny Griffin, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan - would carry the hard-swinging torch in their solo albums (which often featured Art himself on the drums).















The list of outstanding musicians who recorded for Blue Note is a Who's Who of 20th century jazz: pianists Monk, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Herbie Nichols, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor; trumpeters Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan; saxophonists John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, Ike Quebec, George Coleman and Gato Barbieri; bassists Paul Chambers, Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison; drummers Tony Williams, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Joe Chambers; among many others.

In the 1950's, Blue Note pioneered a blend of gritty r&B and jazz, powered by the mighty Hammond B-3. These were smokin' virtuosos who could rip up and down the keyboard with their hands while tapping out a walking bassline worthy of Ray Brown with their feet. Jimmy Smith, Big John Patton, Baby Face Willette and the innovative Larry Young were four Blue Note artists who could make that Hammond B-3 sing. Offering inspired support: guitarists Grant Green and Kenny Burrell.















In the early 1960's, Blue Note started taking on modern jazz. The recordings weren't as far out as those incendiary leaps into the unknown by saxophonist Albert Ayler, but got quite a bit of bold, groundbreaking experimentation into the mix. Many featured sidemen from the Miles Davis and John Coltrane Quintets. In particular, the recordings of multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers and pianist Andrew Hill took listeners on quite a wild sonic ride. Brilliant keyboardist Larry Young took the mighty Hammond B-3, threw some Trane style "sheets of sound" into the mix and took the funky instrument in a completely different modernist direction with his provocative yet propulsive recordings, both as a leader and with guitarist Grant Green.



Original thinkers and diehard modernists Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor would join the label in 1965 and throw down the gauntlet yet further.



The label was bought and sold several times, but thankfully still exists. Heroes Charlie Lourie and Michael Cuscuna formed Mosaic Records and got to work immediately on archival re-issues of unreleased masterpieces by Monk, Powell, Nichols, Hill and more. Many of the classic Blue Note albums have been reissued.

In recent years, such superb artists as guitarist Charlie Hunter have valiantly carried the torch, but it's a different era now, more corporate - and much more hostile - to both improvisational jazz and the fearless "out-of-the-box" trailblazing that created this music in the first place.

Now, more than 45 years later, nobody is doing anything like this, except in the indie and DIY recording world. Nobody.