My musical time travels

I have never made a secret of my love for old ballads, and torch songs. Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, with my Dad working in the music industry from 1959 to 1974, I was always aware of the songs that had come before, as well as the explosion in pop music that had arrived. Watching old musical films, listening to recordings of Broadway shows, I was immersed in the history of the love song, from a very young age.

When I was old enough to be able to afford to buy my own records, my first instinct was to go back in time, and to collect the records of the stars of the 1920s, up to the war years. I never tired of watching the films of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, or Astaire and Rogers, revelling in the memories of those classic soundtracks, and wonderful old songs. Research showed me that many of the songs were much older than I had imagined, and had been covered countless times. I soon discovered Helen Morgan, Ruth Etting, Al Bowlly, Helen Kane, and Ruby Keeler. Alongside my contemporary passion for Soul music, and Tamla Motown, I was regularly travelling back in time, enjoying the sounds of yesteryear too.

Here’s Helen Morgan, from the 1929 musical production, ‘Great Day’.

In 1968, Barbra Streisand had a huge hit with the film ‘Funny Girl’. She was playing the real-life Broadway star, Fanny Brice. Everyone loved the songs in the film, and relished Barbra’s performance too. The big torch song from the film was ‘My Man’. That had audiences shedding a tear at the end of the film. But I already had a 1921 recording of that song, by Fanny Brice herself.

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were child stars, and made many films together. The films featured some classic songs, often beautifully rendered by the young Judy. ‘Babes In Arms’ was one of those films, released in 1939. It featured the emotional love song ‘Where Or When’, written for the 1937 stage version by Rogers and Hart. By the time I was 17 years old, I owned the cast recording on vinyl, sourced by my Dad from who knows where. This is the version from the film.

In 1955, Doris Day starred alongside James Cagney, in the film ‘Love Me or Leave Me’. This was a biopic about the life of Ruth Etting, who had been a huge star decades earlier. When I was a teenager, almost everyone had heard of Doris Day, but few could remember Ruth Etting. I did though, and owned two of her albums, including one with this song on it, from 1927.

Most of us of a certain age will recall the cartoon character, Betty Boop. With her dog Pudgy, this saucy jazz-age flapper got up to all sorts of adventures in the short films that featured her. She was inspired by the hugely popular singer, Helen Kane, and this song, from 1928. Before I was aware of the cartoon, I owned Helen’s records.

And here’s Betty, with her version.

Whenever I am in a certain mood, I love to travel back in time with great songs like these. I hope that you enjoyed coming back with me.

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Significant Songs (154)

Cry Me A River

In 2002, I noticed a new version of the song ‘Cry Me A River’ was in the charts. It was performed by the American pop idol, Justin Timberlake. This 1953 song was one of my all-time favourites, especially the jazzy 1955 version, by Julie London. I was intrigued that a young man like Justin had recorded this vintage torch song, and keen to hear his take on it.

Not long after, I saw his promotional video for the song, and immediately realised that it was not a new version of the old classic, but a modern song with the same title, composed in part by Timberlake, and supposedly about his much-publicised break-up with Britney Spears. I was disapointed that I was not about to hear my much-loved old song, but stuck with it.

I surprised myself, by really liking it. The video was excellent, and the production first class. I was not the target market for that song at all, as I was 50 years old in 2002. But as I always say here, you can’t deny talent, and the song really got into my head, and under my skin.

It’s still there.

Significant Songs (153)

Never Can Tell

When I was young, family house parties were very much the thing. Most weekends, and every seasonal occasion, would see my family gathered at my grandmother’s house, or in the home of an aunt or uncle. All of us kids would amuse ourselves while the adults were off having a drink at the local pub, waiting for them to come back, merry with booze, and ready to party. At first, these would be sing-along parties, with someone playing the piano that stood in the corner. Later on, modern pop records would also supplement the entertainment, and provide the music for dancing.

I watched this from a chair, or stood in a corner, as older relatives jived around the room. The smart ladies in their stocking feet, beehive hairstyles, and a little too much make-up. The men with jackets off, and shirt sleeves rolled up. They had jitterbugged in the war years, and were now embracing The Jive. And they all danced so well, with natural rhythm, it seemed to me. In rooms clouded by smoke, full of happy laughter, I longed for the day when I would be up on the floor, not just watching.

But when that time came, I discovered that I had little flair for dancing, and no natural rhythm at all. My efforts to jive with older women were pitiful, and I could never seem to get the steps right, or find their hand after a spin. I stopped accepting their offers to get up and dance with them, and returned to being an onlooker. Until one night, when I was at a party in the house of my Mum’s younger brother, and a record came on. I was about seventeen years old, fully-grown, and acting above my years. So when his wife urged me to dance with her, I couldn’t really say no.

Just that once, I got it right. Assisted by the patience of an aunt who was not a great deal older than me, I finally managed a jive. It felt just great, even though it never happened again.

This was that record.

Significant Songs (152)

Memphis In June

This one is taking us way back. First recorded in 1947 by Hoagy Carmichael, who wrote the lyrics.

When I first heard this, I was very young. I didn’t know where Memphis was then, and I had never tasted a blueberry, let alone a blueberry pie. I had no experience of sitting on a shady veranda under a Sunday blue sky, and also had no idea that Oleander was the name of a fragrant shrub.

But as I listened to Hoagy’s relaxed crooning, I could picture myself in that unknown location, smelling the fragrance of a plant I had never heard of, and anticipating the taste of cousin Miranda’s blueberry pie.

That’s what a great song does, it takes you into the experience. And you never forget it.

Memphis in June
A shady veranda under a Sunday blue sky
Memphis in June
And my cousin Miranda she’s making a blueberry pie

I can see the clock outside a ticking and a tocking
Everything so peaceful and dandy
I can see my grandmama ‘cross the street still a rocking
Watching all the neighbours go by oh my

Memphis in June
Sweet oleander blowing perfume in the air everywhere
Up jumps the moon to make it so much grander
It’s paradise honey take my advice honey
Cos there’s nothing like old Memphis in June

(In this version, it was changed to cousin Amanda, and she’s making a rhubarb pie. 🙂 )

Significant Songs (151)

Dreams

Back in 1977, I bought a copy of the new album from Fleetwood Mac. It was called ‘Rumours’. Some time later, I didn’t know anyone who didn’t have a copy on their record shelf, or propped up beside their record player. Small wonder that this sold an amazing fifty million copies, and is still being bought today, on CD and download.

I have featured the group before, both in their earlier Blues incarnation, and later on with ‘Big Love’. But ‘Rumours’ is worth a look on its own, as there are few recordings in history that have crossed so many genres, and appealed to a vast array of music fans. This was always my favourite track. It suits Stevie Nicks’ voice to perfection, and strikes the right mood in so many ways. The lyrics are worth adding in full, on this occasion. They meant something to the band at the time, with all their personal upheavals. Forty years later, they are still powerful to read.

Now here you go again, you say
You want your freedom
Well who am I to keep you down
It’s only right that you should
Play the way you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound
Of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost, and what you had, and what you lost
Thunder only happens when it’s raining
Players only love you when they’re playing
Say women they will come and they will go
When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know, you’ll know
Now here I go again, I see the crystal visions
I keep my visions to myself, it’s only me
Who wants to wrap around your dreams and,
Have you any dreams you’d like to sell?
Dreams of loneliness,
Like a heartbeat, drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering, what you had,
And what you lost and what you had and what you lost
Thunder only happens when it’s raining
Players only love you when they’re playing
Women, they will come and they will go
When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know
Thunder only happens when it’s raining
Players only love you when they’re playing
Say, women, they will come and they will go
When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know
You’ll know, you will know, you’ll know

Significant Songs (150)

Anything For You

I have an on/off relationship with the singer, Gloria Estefan. I like her ballads, but I am less enamoured with her faster records. They lack the soulful feel of her Cuban roots, despite her best efforts. She is also outspoken against the Cuban regime, from her comfortable life in Florida. That political aspect of her career doesn’t sit well with me at all.

However, in this series I always give credit for talent. And if I like a song, I am prepared to forgive any negatives about the performer, on almost every occasion. When I first heard this ballad in 1988, I was entranced by both her voice, and the lyrics. On the surface, it is nothing special. But it really got inside me, and if anything I like it even more as I have got older. One to keep, and always a joy to listen to.

Significant Songs (149)

Storm In A Teacup

Many years ago now, I used to enjoy ‘music evenings’ with my dearly-departed great friend, Billy O’Neill. We shared our favourites, and introduced each other to new singers and songs, not always agreeing of course. On occasion, we would relish a night of playing our ‘guilty pleasures’. These were unfashionable cheesy songs, lacking in street cred, or wider appeal.

Very rarely, we both loved the same one, and this was just such a record, released by the British group The Fortunes in 1972. It was written by the talented singer/songwriter Lynsey de Paul, who later recorded her own version. Whenever either myself or Billy wanted to hear it, we just had to say “Pitter Patter, Pitter, Patter”, and we both knew. Fond memories, of happier days…

This one’s for you, Billy. R.I.P. old friend.