Saturday, August 22, 2015

Please Please Me/Introducing the Beatles/The Early Beatles - The Beatles

Please Please Me
The Beatles
Parlophone PCS 3042

Introducing the Beatles
The Beatles
Vee-Jay Records SR 1062

The Early Beatles
The Beatles
Apple Records ST 2309

I recently watched the documentary "Good Ol' Freda" which is about Freda Kelly, Brian Epstein's secretary who ran the Beatles' official fan club.  I loved the film, she seems like a really good person and her stories were fantastic, especially the ones about the early days when the group was just becoming famous.  I've always wished that I could have witnessed Beatlemania first hand and Kelly's perspective on it fascinated me.  Thus I pulled out the Fabs' first album to experience a little bit of those heady days myself. "Please Please Me" is far from my favorite Beatles' album, but I dig its youthful exuberance and innocence.  It is best experienced in the Parlophone version which has the most songs and a classic cover picture.  Mine is a reissue from the early 1980s I believe, I no longer remember when I bought it.  The Vee-Jay version was the first Beatles album released in America.  Vee-Jay got it when the idiots at Capitol Records passed on it.  I have a counterfeit version.  Originals are not hard to find but I don't think they are worth their exorbitant cost.  I bought mine in a chain record store around 1974.  It was among the first Beatles albums that I bought, I chose it because it was cheaper than the Capitol/Apple albums.  The cover says stereo but the record sounds mono to me, which I prefer.  It follows the running order of the Parlophone album but drops "Please Please Me" and "Ask Me Why."  Capitol belatedly issued "The Early Beatles" to replace the Vee-Jay album when Vee-Jay's license to the material expired.  Capitol crudely jumbled up the running order and released only 11 of the original 14 tracks on the Parlophone version.  This version restores "Please Please Me" and "Ask Me Why" but drops "I Saw Her Standing There," "Misery" and "There's A Place."  I have an Apple reissue that I bought in the mid-1970s because I couldn't find a copy of the Parlophone album living out in the suburbs and shopping at crummy chain record stores.  The Parlophone album is the one I play when I want to hear this music.  I keep the other two only as a dumb collector thing.  The album opens with the Lennon/McCartney composition "I Saw Her Standing There" which is one of the Beatles' most successful rock and roll songs.  I've always loved it and I think it ranks with the best work of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Buddy Holly as one of the definitive statements of the genre.  McCartney's urgent vocal and that irresistible, shuffling riff still thrill me 40 years after I first heard them.  The Vee-Jay album omits McCartney's count-in to the song which invariably irks me on the rare occasions that I give it a spin.  Lennon and McCartney's "Misery" is a bit maudlin but the expressive joint McCartney and Lennon vocal makes it palatable for me.  Arthur Alexander's "Anna" is one of the strongest tracks on the record thanks to a mesmerizing and sensitive vocal from Lennon.  The group's cover of the Cookies' Goffin/King hit "Chains" suffers from a weak George Harrison vocal although the harmony vocals (always a Beatles strength) are very pleasing.  Ringo does better with a rocking cover of the Shirelles' "Boys" that benefits from his enthusiasm as well as a superbly messy guitar solo from Harrison.  "Ask Me Why" is a Lennon/McCartney original that features another strong Lennon vocal that makes it sound deeper than it really is.  Side one concludes with "Please Please Me" the group's classic breakthrough single.  More than 50 years after its original release, the song still sparkles with inventiveness and brilliance.  As a kid I failed to recognize the sexual undertone to the song, which makes it seem even bolder given the repressed era in which it first appeared.  Side two opens with the group's debut single "Love Me Do."  Even as a child I thought the song was inane but I'm won over by the joint vocal and Lennon's harmonica playing as well.  "P. S. I Love You" shows off McCartney's romantic side to great effect.  From the very beginning the man has had a gift for silly love songs.  The band turns to the Shirelles again for a cover of "Baby It's You" that is given a tremendous dramatic interpretation by Lennon that shreds the original.  The Lennon/McCartney original "Do You Want to Know a Secret" proves to be a good vehicle for Harrison suiting the limitations of his range and his natural understated and laconic style.  McCartney pulls out all the stops for a romantic interpretation of "A Taste of Honey" worthy of a pop crooner.  The final Lennon/McCartney original is "There's a Place" which is notable for its introspective lyrics and its churning, distinctively British Invasion sound.  The side ends with the band's explosive interpretation of "Twist and Shout" which thanks to Lennon's throat shredding performance is an eternal rock classic, rivaling the best work of James Brown and Little Richard in its intensity and passion.  If the Beatles had never recorded another album, they'd still have a place in rock history for this wonderful record, one of the very best of its era.  I can only imagine how exciting it must have been when people heard it for the first time, how I envy them that thrill.  Recommended to people who wish they could have seen the Beatles at the Cavern Club.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

I Left My Heart in San Francisco - Tony Bennett

I Left My Heart in San Francisco
Tony Bennett
Columbia CS 8669

Here is a post for Ralph Sharon who died back in March.  Sharon played piano and did arrangements for Tony Bennett for many years and was credited by him with introducing him to his trademark song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."  I rhapsodized about my long love affair with this song in my post on "Tony's Greatest Hits Volume III" so I won't repeat that here.  It is easily the best song on the record and Sharon's delicate piano lines contribute greatly to the song's atmospheric effect.  The song was written by George Cory and Douglass Cross who gave the song to Sharon who forgot about it for awhile.  He came across it again prior to Bennett's 1961 appearance at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and worked up an arrangement.  They did the song and predictably it went over big.  In early 1962 Bennett went into the studio with Marty Manning and recorded the song as a single.  It was originally the b-side to the sappy show tune "Once Upon a Time" recorded at the same session and also on this album.  Bennett sang up a storm on that song, but it can't hold a candle to the greatness of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" so inevitably DJs flipped over the single and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" became a massive hit.  In response Columbia cobbled together this album using older tracks.  The oldest is Cole Porter's "Love For Sale" recorded using a Sharon arrangement in 1957.  This is one of my favorite tracks.  Sharon employed an exotic samba style approach to the song and Bennett gave it a swinging interpretation that enlivened the cynical lyrics.  Sharon also arranged "Taking a Chance on Love" which Bennett recorded with Count Basie and his Band in 1958.  This is another favorite.  I'm a fan of Basie and he gave the song a swinging jazzy sound.  Bennett is a great crooner, but I like him best as jazz singer and this song allows him to show his chops.  These two songs exemplify the special relationship between Sharon and Bennett, he brought out the best in Bennett's style.  Charles Chaplin's classic "Smile" was recorded and released as a single by Bennett in 1959.  It is a sentimental song that invites a melodramatic interpretation, but fortunately that isn't Bennett's style.  Despite a mawkish arrangement from Frank Burns, Bennett sings strongly but with emotional restraint, one of the better versions of this song that I've heard.  A 1960 session with Frank DeVol yielded "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows."  It is a show tune from 1917 adapted from Chopin and originally performed on stage by the Dolly Sisters.  DeVol's arrangement is typically heavy-handed with mushy strings and ethereal background singers, but Bennett's vocal is strong enough to cut through most of the goop.  He makes the song sound almost contemporary with his wistful, romantic style.  Another 1960 session with Cy Coleman produced "Marry Young" and "The Best is Yet to Come" which was released as a single that year.  Coleman wrote both songs with Carolyn Leigh.  "Marry Young" is a lovely romantic song with a very warm vocal from Bennett.  "The Best is Yet to Come" is one of Bennett's best songs.  The swinging arrangement supports Bennett's swaggering vocal.  It is a classic performance.  Coleman and Leigh's "Rules of the Road" was recorded in 1961 with Ralph Burns conducting and arranging.  It is a terrific song given a gently swinging setting that puts it right in Bennett's wheelhouse.  Bennett forcefully sings the worldly lyrics as if he really relates to them.  Later in 1961 Bennett recorded "Candy Kisses" and "Tender is the Night" with Marty Manning.  "Tender is the Night" was written for the movie of the same name and was even nominated for a best song Academy Award.  It is appropriately dramatic but also kind of dreary despite Bennett's resonant vocal.  The country song "Candy Kisses" is a lot better.  Bennett sings with a lot of feeling despite Manning's stiff accompaniment.  Manning also arranged and conducted "Have I Told You Lately" at the same session where Bennett recorded "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."  It was written by Harold Rome for the Broadway show "I Can Get It For You Wholesale" which made Barbra Streisand a star.  I think the arrangement is too slow and stodgy but Bennett sings it with a lot of enthusiasm.  Despite the hodge podge construction of this album and the multitude of arrangers, it has a cohesive and consistent sound to it.  I think that is a tribute to Bennett's style and vision, which is strong enough to overcome weak arrangements or indifferent material.  The title track is an immortal classic and the three Coleman/Leigh tunes are first rate.  I also really like "Love For Sale" and "Taking a Chance on Love."  So that's six strong tracks out of twelve and the remaining six all have some merit.  I mostly bought this record because I dug the cover, but it turned out to be a really good album as well.  Recommended for staring out at the San Francisco Bay on a foggy day.