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Too Hip for the Room

At the end of the last post I referred to Harry “the Hipster” Gibson, and once he’s onstage it’s hard to get him off. Here then a brief tribute to the man who invented the word “hipster” and played the piano like — well, as you see….

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Gibson was the craziest white boy working the clubs in Harlem back in the day. He was spotted there by Fats Waller, who hailed him as a kindred spirit, brought him down to Swing Street in midtown Manhattan and spent night after night stuffing his tip jar with five dollar bills. Harry blazed as bright as anybody for a while — a musical Eval Knievel, he knew no fear (part temperament, part drugs) — and wrote his own songs as well, the most famous among them  “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” It was a great recording but a bad career move. The song got him banned from the radio in the late 40s and, since history is written by the censors, he’s been reduced in jazz lore to a wisp of smoke.

To be fair, a man whose core repertoire included his revise of —

 

I Want To Go Back to My Little Grass Shack

 

— about smoking your house to get high, was never going to make the Hit Parade. But the way he played the piano, as a full-contact sport, puts him a decade ahead of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. One of the world’s dumbest debates is over who invented rock n roll, so let’s just say Harry was in the mix as much as anybody. Cleveland, are you listening?

 

4-F Ferdinand (film) 

 

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Smokin’ Peggy Lee

Late in her life I saw Peggy Lee perform at a club in New York. She was chair-bound, but surrounded by 5 of the finest in jazz (drummer Grady Tate I remember was one), she radiated like the queen of the night on her throne. Somewhere during the set, for what must have been for her the crushingly umpteenth time, she sang “Why Don’t You Do Right,” the song that put her on the map in 1942 and which, next to “Fever,” became her signature song (if you can have two). She put it over like a pro, and I was glad I was there to hear it. I’ve always loved WDYDR, which is bluesy for real as opposed to “Fever,” a Little Willie John cover, with the hipster finger snaps.

Anyway, I didn’t know at the time just how knocked-out loaded WDYDR really is. Turns out it started life as a different song altogether, “Weed Smoker’s Dream,” recorded by the Harlem Hamfats in 1936. Even the drums are stoned:

Weed Smoker’s Dream

The Hamfats themselves had an interesting origin: they weren’t naturally occurring but deliberately assembled by a producer with a commercial eye, like Peter, Paul & Mary or the Monkees. They weren’t even from Harlem. Once they got together though they made some very real recordings as songs like “Root, Hog or Die,” and “Let’s Get Drunk and Truck” attest. “Weed Smoker’s Dream,” written by their guitarist, Kansas Joe McCoy, was another hit for them, conveying the sound advice that it’s hard to do well selling grass when you’re high on the stuff yourself. Unlike the Hamfats’ other material though this number broke out of its woozy netherworld because the tune was so damn good. In its original form (music and lyrics) the song appeared as soundtrack to an extremely far-out 1930s cartoon, a portion of which you can find here:

 

Skeleton Takes a Bath

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Then, retrofitted with new lyrics by McCoy himself, it floated into the white world via Peggy Lee. See and hear:

With Dave Barbour, circa 1950

Maybe it’s her delivery, but I wouldn’t call that sanitized.

Sometimes inspiration flows the other way. Harry “the Hipster” Gibson found “Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” insufficiently trippy and recast it as “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?”

Who Put the Benzedrine….?

But that’s another story.

 

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Try a Little Tenderness or I’ll Kill You

Toward the end of the show last night I went into a death spiral with Spotify and so didn’t get to play the tune I’d lined up for the outro, namely, Try a Little Tenderness. It was not the version by Otis Redding, who today owns it outright, but the one sung by Bing Crosby in 1933. I wasn’t aware until recently that there was such a thing. Once I was, I explored further and discovered songwriter Harry M. Woods. He’s one of those guys whose names have vanished while the songs live on — in his case, tunes like When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along (major hit for Jolson), What a Little Moonlight Can Do and Side by Side. In life Woods was known for a couple of other things too, like having no fingers on his left hand and being a mean drunk. The story goes that he had a guy down on the floor of a bar one night delivering pile-driver blows with his stump. When somebody said, “Who’s that maniac?” somebody else brightly replied, “He wrote Try a Little Tenderness.” What I still don’t know is how Otis and Isaac Hayes got onto it 30 years later and created their amazing inside-out cover. At first blush the song’s not any more promising as Otis material than Red, Red Robin or Side by Side — although imagining him singing either of those is strangely interesting. Come to think of it, it’s too bad he and Carla Thomas didn’t do Side by Side as the flip side of Tramp.

Bing Crosby — Try a Little Tenderness (1933)

 

 

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Nina Simone and the Inexplicable Grammy

On last night’s show I played the title cut from Nina Simone’s debut album, Little Girl Blue (1958). It’s a Rodgers and Hart song introduced in the 1935 Broadway show Jumbo in which, at the conclusion of each performance, Jimmy Durante lay on the stage and an elephant put its foot on his head. Shorn of Jumbo, the song has had a long, long life as a favorite of jazz greats, but Simone’s version is especially striking because it’s done as a quodlibet. This — as I learned two days ago — is an interweaving of melodies from different songs to create a new whole (a sophisticated mash-up, in other words). In her case, she combines Rodgers’ melody with that of the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas. It is a thing of strange and surpassing beauty:

Little Girl Blue                                                       maxresdefault

I realized then that I had another quodlibet in my stock of tunes which I’ve played from time to time, far different from Simone’s. It is in fact the cheesiest quodlibet ever conceived — by Bing Crosby’s musical director, Alan Copeland — and a Grammy winner in the category of Best Contemporary Performance by a Chorus in 1969:
You have to think the judges heard it once and then couldn’t get it out of their heads. Or maybe that’s just me.

 

Life on Tomorrow's Moon

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Why My Family Fled From Shame