Reviews: Real, Real Gone with Sanford and Townsend, Jimmy Griffin and Jackie Gleason
Long before Barry White, a rather different music maker was providing the soundtrack for a romantic rendezvous in the moonlight, but his name might be surprising to some: Jackie Gleason. Even if one can’t readily picture Ralph Kramden seducing Alice with its lush accompaniment, the American record buying public had no such reservations. The Great One’s 1952 Music for Lovers Only sold over half a million copies, and spent a still-unbeaten record of 153 (!) weeks in the U.S. Top 10 album chart. Real Gone Music has just lowered the lights and lit the candles for its return to CD, in the most complete edition yet (RGM-0082, 2012).
Yes, the times have undoubtedly changed since the album’s original release. Even its strikingly photographed cover today seems a remnant of another age: two lit cigarettes (unfiltered, natch!) reside on opposite sides of an ash tray as two nearby glasses cast a shadow. A woman’s purse is nearby, her glove draped over the edge of the table, and a key, significantly placed outside the purse. This urbane, sophisticated and altogether sensual image of days gone by sets the scene for the album’s music, a collection of slow, melodic and elegantly orchestrated ballads, all from the standard songbook: Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s “Alone Together,” George and Ira Gershwin’s “But Not For Me,” Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “I Only Have Eyes for You” (pre-Flamingos!), Mel Torme’s “A Stranger in Town.” There’s no swinging here, just exquisitely arranged and passionately played mood music. By most accounts, this is the album that coined the phrase, and the mood is love.
Just what the heck did comedian and actor extraordinaire Jackie Gleason have to do with the whole thing, anyway? Reissue producer Gordon Anderson’s liner notes explain all. Cornet player Bobby Hackett, featured prominently on the album, famously quipped, “He brought the checks” of Gleason. And Hackett’s (uncredited) musical contribution shouldn’t be overlooked, as he’s generally recognized as the album’s arranger and perhaps the bandleader, as well. But Anderson reveals that Gleason did much more, putting his own money on the line to record the album and see through his vision of the perfect romantic long-player. It seems that Gleason took conducting very seriously and even composed one song on the LP, its closing track “My Love for Carmen.” All sixteen songs are swathed in strings that would have made Gordon Jenkins (Sinatra’s arranger of choice for his most lush outings) proud. Many of these songs are still familiar today; their endurance speaks volumes for Gleason’s taste, as well.
The notes also shed light on the convoluted release history of the original record. The original mono 8-song album was released as both a 10-inch LP and a double 7-inch EP in 1952. Three years later, it was reissued in a 16-song version, still in mono, which is the version replicated on Real Gone’s CD edition. In 1958, however, Capitol enlisted Gleason to record a new 12-track version in stereo. This wasn’t an uncommon practice at the label. Even vocal stars were asked to do the same; hence the two versions of classic albums like June Christy’s Something Cool. At his former label, Collectors’ Choice Music, Anderson had reissued the 8-track mono album from ’52 (still following me here?) on a two-fer with the 12-track version of its “sequel” album, Music to Make You Misty. Four of the eight remaining mono tracks then were paired with another Gleason release, 1953’s soundtrack to the television ballet Tawny. This release marks the very first full reissue of the mono Music for Lovers Only. Maria Triana has remastered this beautifully-recorded set.
The languid Music for Lovers Only will sound great on your modern hi-fi. But I can’t recommend listening to it alone; you just might get depressed and shed a tear or two in the drink that should almost certainly be by your side. (I won’t blame you if you eschew the cigarettes, though.) So invite your significant other over and see if playing this sultry, classy and refined collection of orchestral ballads still works as well as it must have in 1952! You just might thank Mr. Gleason later.
After the jump: a pre-Bread James Griffin goes on a Summer Holiday, and there’s Smoke from a Distant Fire!
You could be forgiven for thinking that Jimmy (later James) Griffin’s 1963 Reprise album Summer Holiday was a soundtrack recording to a beach movie, or perhaps an Americanized version of the British film starring Cliff Richard in which the Shadows frontman borrows a double-decker bus and liberates it from the rainy streets of England, en route for the south of France. Though the album borrows its title, and title song, from that movie, the California kid, arranger Jack Nitzsche and producer Jimmy Bowen made “Summer Holiday” a distinctly SoCal affair, recorded at Los Angeles’ Western Studios. The cover image of Griffin caught on a sunny day between two beautiful young women on a boat indicated the carefree, breezy confection inside the sleeve. It was recorded for teenagers, and teenagers at heart! Jimmy Griffin’s Summer Holiday (RGM-0068) is back in an expanded edition from Real Gone Music with nine Reprise singles bonus tracks, all recorded between 1962 and 1964.
Griffin is best known today for his tenure as a member of seventies hitmaking group Bread. Though he penned many memorable songs for Bread, they usually took a back seat to David Gates’ AM radio-ready staples like “Baby I’m-a Want You,” “Make It with You” and “Everything I Own.” Griffin’s most fondly remembered song, co-written with Bread’s Robb Royer and composer Fred Karlin, is no doubt the Oscar-winning “For All We Know,” introduced in the film Lovers and Other Strangers and recorded by The Carpenters. Surprisingly, then, he didn’t write any of the songs on Summer Holiday, but all are well-selected pop nuggets.
Though Summer Holiday isn’t a concept album, it very loosely fits the bill, kicking off with the title track by Bruce Welch and Brian Bennett: “We’re all going on a summer holiday/No more working for a week or two/Fun and laughter on our summer holiday/No more worries for me or you!” Jack Nitzsche’s gentle arrangement recalls carefree days; there’s even a whistling interlude! The album’s other bookend is, appropriately, “Sealed with a Kiss,” a then-recent hit for Brian Hyland, from the Gary Geld/Peter Udell team: “Though we’ve gotta say goodbye for the summer…”
In between, Nat “King” Cole’s 1951 chart-topper “Too Young” gets the Nitzsche/Griffin treatment in a pleasantly beat-ish revival. It’s adorned with back-up girls, horns and a jaunty piano perhaps courtesy of Leon Russell, who played on the sessions. Glen Campbell was another Wrecking Crew stalwart who’s heard on Summer Holiday, and he even contributed two songs. They were both co-written with Jerry Capehart, Campbell’s collaborator on “Turn Around, Look at Me.” Both of their songs, “My Baby Made Me Cry” and “What Kind of Girl Are You?” will appeal to fans of the Brill Building pop delivered with such a memorable touch by Bobby Vee. Griffin even sounds a bit like Vee on the latter song, reminiscent of Goffin and King’s “Run to Him.” (More connections with Bobby: as a writer, Griffin later placed songs with Vee, and Brian Gari’s liner notes tell us that Vee’s girlfriend Mikki Jamison is the brunette on the album cover. She even became Griffin’s wife for a short-lived, four-month marriage!) Griffin is less at home on a tame version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” From Barry DeVorzon and Bodie Chandler of Barry and the Tamerlanes came the quirky, shuffling “You’re Tempting Me,” with a wild saxophone break.
The nine bonus mono singles complete this survey of Griffin’s recorded work at Reprise, and all are cut from the same teenage pop cloth. One single predates the LP, “Girls Grow Up Faster” b/w “It’s a Free Country.” Both sides were produced by Steve Venet, the first (“Oh why, oh why, must girls grow up faster than boys?”) a composition by Paul Evans and Fred Tobias. Both had collaborated, separately, with Burt Bacharach in his early songwriting days. (Tobias also wrote the album’s “She Used to Be Mine,” with Brill Building songsmith Leon Carr.) Mike Anthony and Paul Kaufman gave Johnny Tillotson “Poetry in Motion,” but “Free Country” was a bit more labored, with Griffin lamenting how the girl of his dreams will never be free. This single was sweet but unexceptional; the Summer Holiday LP has aged better, largely thanks to Nitzsche’s timeless arrangements. Sonny Bono delivered the catchy “Little Miss Cool” to Griffin, with its super-cool girl group-style backing vocals. Its flip, “Marie is Moving,” is a maudlin little ditty from Sid Jacobson and Lou Stallman. Gari guesses this side might have been left over from the Venet sessions, and its production seems to support that belief. Better is an early cover of The Beatles’ “All My Loving” (with some offbeat flourishes in the arrangement that set it apart from the Fabs’ original) and “Running to You,” a comparatively slight but melodic Tony Hatch song recorded in the U.K. by Mark Wynter. Most interesting might be a 1964 recording of “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You.” The next year, Dean Martin would take the 1944 song all the way to No. 24 Pop/No. 1 AC for the same Reprise label under the aegis of Jimmy Bowen. Ironically, Ernie Freeman’s arrangement for Dino was more modern than the backing on Griffin’s record!
Jimmy Griffin went on to bigger and better things, but as a fun slab of nostalgic pop to beat the summertime blues, you can’t go wrong by taking this Summer Holiday!
Blue-eyed soul is on the bill with the reissue of Sanford and Townsend’s first and third albums, Smoke from a Distant Fire (1976) and Nail Me to the Wall (1979) on one CD (RGM-0073). Session stalwarts Ed Sanford and John Townsend had their chance for immortality with “Smoke from a Distant Fire,” an irresistibly grooving song about a cheating woman called on the carpet. The song’s impact was far from distant; even today, it catches the listener’s ears immediately with its buoyant melody and tight rhythm. When it hit No. 9 on the Hot 100, Warner Bros. reissued the once self-titled debut album after its opening track as Smoke from a Distant Fire, the first of the two albums included here.
It’s hard to avoid comparisons with the most successful pop duo of all time, Daryl Hall and John Oates, especially because John Townsend evinces a timbre that’s very similar to Hall’s. Like Hall and Oates, both Sanford and Townsend were fine songwriters. (Every track on the LP was co-written by the duo, with a couple of tracks bringing on a third writer.) Though Ed and John’s vocal blend has a very similar quality to Daryl and John on songs like “Lou” and “Sunshine in My Heart Again,” the flavor here is of the south, not of Philadelphia. Both Sanford and Townsend hailed from Alabama, and the album was recorded by famed producer Jerry Wexler at Muscle Shoals, AL, with Barry Beckett sitting in on keyboards. The local flavor was ingrained in them, and at its best, Smoke from a Distant Fire is top-notch pop. It’s also what radio programmers might call “soft rock,” in the style of seventies Hall and Oates, the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers or Loggins and Messina. And in fact, Kenny Loggins provides vocals on Smoke, even co-writing the light and breezy “Oriental Gate” with its prominent flute lending a unique color. Almost as good as the title track is “Sunshine in My Heart Again” (“in the middle of all this rain”), an upbeat ode to positivity.
Smoke from a Distant Fire veers into less expected territory, too. “Moolah Moo Mazuma (Sin City Wahh-oo)” is a seamy look at the reality that “there ain’t no deal some dog won’t do/When he’s hustlin’ for a buck or two…” It’s set to a sinuous, Steely Dan-esque jazz melody. Jazz recurs on the ballad “Rainbows Colored in Blue” which closes the album. Its bright R&B vocals cleverly contrast with a smoky, piano-driven melody. “Squire James” is even more offbeat, a musical horror story with gothic overtones. It’s memorable, though. “Shake it to the Right” is less so, as its Latin percussion and yes, cowbell, can’t distract from lyrics like “I got ants in my pants and I just might dance all night!” For a debut album, the varied styles might have been a liability rather than an asset, especially for buyers expecting an entire platter’s worth of songs like “Smoke From a Distant Fire.” Follow-up album Duo Glide (already on CD and currently available on the Collectables label, perhaps the reason it was overlooked?) didn’t yield any singles to compete with “Smoke,” but Warner gave the duo another shot with 1979’s Nail Me to the Wall.
Its title track is too close for comfort to “Smoke,” with a similar saxophone riff from Otis Hale, big radio-ready drums, solid bass line and gleaming guitar lead…and that’s just the intro! Though the song is solid pop, it’s not as exciting as “Smoke” was, and the same goes for the album. Still, it has more than its share of stellar moments. There’s even more of a late-seventies Doobie Brothers feel this time around, on tracks like “Shady Grove” and “Just Another Lie,” both recalling the Doobies at their most musically upbeat. “Jubilee” (“That’s all I need, you and me baby/Keep me high flyin’”) is a joyous, even swinging ode to a lady of whom the singer simply can’t get enough, and “Gopher Broke” is exuberant, if punning of title! “Just a Fool” has a bluesy riff (a bit like “You Can Leave Your Hat On”), soaring vocals and credible lyrical reflection inspired by Townsend’s days patronizing Doug Weston’s famous Troubadour.
Real Gone has given these two albums the label’s customary classy treatment. Gene Sculatti writes fine new liner notes, and the original artwork for both albums (including lyrics) have been reprinted, but are far too small to read easily. Though “Smoke from a Distant Fire” consigned Sanford and Townsend to the territory of one-hit wonders, both remained successful as session musicians and songwriters, with Sanford co-writing Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’” a few years later. Thanks to Real Gone, however, you won’t forget the sweet music Sanford and Townsend made together on this pair of LPs.