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I remember Glenn Yarbrough from his mid-60s solo hit, “Baby The Rain Must Fall,” the title track of the Steve McQueen-Lee Remick movie of the same name. The movie was a commercial and critical flop, but Yarbrough’s recording was not, making it to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 List in 1965. (And it’s still bouncing around in my brain 50 years later.)
Before this, he had already tasted success with The Limeliters, a folk group formed in 1959. Yarbrough, a guitarist and tenor, and Alex Hassilev, a bassist and bass-baritone, were performing together at Hollywood’s Cosmo Alley nightclub, where they were seen by Lou Gottlieb, a composer, arranger and newly-minted musicology PhD. He suggested they join up and make some demos for The Kingston Trio, but they liked their own output so much, they decided to go it alone as a trio.
Before long they had a string of well-received albums, TV appearances and as many as 310 live performances a year.
Yarbrough (January 12, 1930-August 11, 2016) also collaborated with pop-poet Rod McKuen. Among their projects were The Lonely Things and Glenn Yarbrough Sings the Rod McKuen Songbook.
Yarbrough was ambivalent about fame and on several occasions retreated from the music industry altogether. In a 1961 interview with Saturday Evening Post, cited in his New York Times obituary, he said “The only thing that success has taught me is that success is meaningless…An audience is like a lynch mob. Three years ago they were walking out on me. Now that they know we’ve been on the Sullivan show, they come and cheer.”
Penny Lang was a fixture of the 1960s folk scene, but did not break through into mainstream popularity, perhaps due to her unwillingness to follow musical fashion. When MCA Records approached her to do a recording of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, she declined because they insisted on electric instruments being part of the arrangement. (Judy Collins would later record the song and boosted both her–and Cohen’s–fame.)
Lang (July 15, 1942-July 31, 2016) began her career backing up her father on rhythm guitar. They played Legion halls in Montreal, prisons, hospitals–wherever their variety act could get gigs. As a young woman, she went solo and performed in many folk clubs in both Canada and the US, including Montreal’s Café André, New York’s Gerdes Folk City and the Bitter End, Toronto’s Riverboat and Ottawa’s Le Hibou. She also appeared at major folk festivals such as Mariposa and the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
As folk gave way to rock in the 1970s, Lang took a hiatus, but returned to performing, writing and recording in the late 1980s-early 1990s. Beginning in 1989, she recorded nine albums with the She-Wolf and Borealis labels.
In addition to being blessed with a natural-born talent, it doesn’t hurt to have parents who are more than willing to indulge its cultivation. Such was the case with Patrice Munsel (May 14, 1925-August 4, 2016).
As a little girl, enthralled by whistling characters in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, her parents sought out a whistling teacher (I never knew there was such a thing). At 15, after Patrice started listening to Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, her parents took her to New York for voice lessons. By the time she was 17, she’d earned a contract with the Metropolitan, the youngest singer ever to do so.
She would appear 225 times with the Met and was especially known for her role as the maid in Die Fledermaus. New York Times critic Olin Downes praised her for her “virtuoso singing” and “very amusing acting.” (He had been considerably less charitable in reviewing her debut performance in Mignon.)
In addition to the Met, Munsel’s career took her to the Las Vegas strip, to ABC and The Patrice Munsel Show and to musical theater, where she appeared in touring productions of The Sound of Music and The King and I.
My mother was a choir director and music teacher with a life-long love of orchestral choral music. I regret that I didn’t share her love for the genre while she was alive, nor did I seek to gain a better appreciation for it with her help. Perhaps this post is partial atonement, in honor of her memory.
Robert Page (April 27, 1927-August 7, 2016) conducted choruses for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Symphony. His last academic appointment was with Carnegie Mellon University (my mother’s alma mater) from which he retired in 2013. CMU published this tribute in recognition of his many years of service to the university.
Page believed singers should be treated as professionals, not merely as volunteers. He created The Robert Page Singers in part to establish paid positions for vocalists.
He won two Grammy Awards for recordings of choral works by Carl Orff: “Catulli Carmina” with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (1968) and “Carmina Burana” with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Cleveland Orchestra (1976).
When I was a kid in the 1960s, there were jazz musicians who I came to know. Not because I actually listened to their music, but through some popular culture osmosis. Maybe I saw them on variety shows like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Maybe their faces showed up on the promotional record sleeves that accompanied my sister’s Columbia Records Club collection. Names like Al Hirt, Boots Randolph–and Pete Fountain, who passed last week–were somehow, some way familiar to me.
I suppose their typically upbeat music was unobjectionable enough to thrive in a 3-network world. Like a Kraft cheese single, they were packaged for mainstream tastes. But they were all accomplished musicians.
Fountain (July 3, 1930-August 6, 2016) took up the clarinet as a kid, in part to strengthen weak lungs. From the time he was in his teens he played in New Orleans clubs. A talent scout for Lawrence Welk spotted him at Pier 600 and enticed him to move to LA, where he was a member of the Welk orchestra for a few years before returning to New Orleans.
Fountain’s fame resulted in New Orleans declaring a “Pete Fountain Day” in 1959, and he went on to perform with a number of bands and run his own clubs. He was founder of the “Half-Fast Walking Club,” a fixture of the annual Mardi Gras Parade.
Forget six degrees of separation. If you’ve lived in Minneapolis since the late 1970s, you’re likely connected to Prince by two, maybe three degrees. It seems everybody knows–or knows someone who knows- a photographer, musician, club owner, music writer, costume designer, or ad agency exec who had a direct connection to Prince.
I arrived in Minneapolis in 1977, and it was around the time when you’d see articles in the local entertainment weekly, The Reader, about Prince Rogers Nelson, a local teenage prodigy, who had a mind-blowing talent to cross genres and play guitar with a skill compared to Hendrix. I’m not sure I saw it coming, but others (at least in retrospect) say they predicted his rise to the highest strata of artists–right up there with Elvis, Dylan and the Beatles. I knew his passing was a big deal, but I was not quite prepared for the non-stop coverage it has received in the past days–not just from the local media, but internationally. Typical Minnesota humility, I suppose, but even Super Bowl performances, Oscar wins and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame status couldn’t quite convince us that a global superstar was among us.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction
And he was. It’s now common knowledge that he frequented the Electric Fetus record store and the Dakota jazz club. Local acts still can find their way onto the stage at First Avenue, made famous for its role in “Purple Rain.” I used to drive by Paisley Park in the innocuous white-bread suburb of Chanhassen on my way to my son’s baseball games. The building was white, but otherwise not noteworthy–hardly the architectural counterpart to Prince’s camera-magnet wardrobe.
Maybe I’m a homer, but there’s something about this state that seems to breed creative originals. In addition to Prince, there’s Dylan, of course, but also the Coen Brothers and Garrison Keillor, to name a few. These are people who rewrite the rules of their art, who originate whole genres, who refuse to fall into predictable paths. A Swedish creative director I know, who worked for a time in Minneapolis, speculated that people from Nordic climates have more time to ruminate, imagine, experiment, perfect. A long, dark winter is a better environment for creative introspection than a sunny surf beach.
I imagine Prince Rogers Nelson, who went to high school 20 blocks north of me, spent his time this way, listening intently to music and tinkering with the pianos and guitars that came his way. Breakthrough artists often come from unlikely places–Liverpool, Tupelo, Lubbock, Hibbing. Prince was one of the true originals. In the past few days, I’ve heard him called our generation’s Mozart, the one artist who will still be talked about 50, 100 years from now. For once, it doesn’t sound like hyperbole.
Much of rock traces its roots to the blues, but not all. Keith Emerson was one rocker who looked to other sources–in his case, classical music–for inspiration. His group Emerson, Lake & Palmer even went so far as to name an album after Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and cover a few pieces from that work.
There are mixed views of ELP’s approach. To Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, “these guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans.” To Tom Miller, author of 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, the group’s “Brain Salad Surgery” was worth a serious listen, to “pick up the intellect and sensitivity behind the technique.”
Emerson’s technique was remarkable enough to earn him a place in the Hammond Hall of Fame and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Orchestra Kentucky of Bowling Green. He was an early populizer of the Moog synthesizer, occasionally played on pipe organs and suffered injuries from playing a spinning piano that misfunctioned in several concerts. ELP concerts became so elaborate that 30 tons of equipment had to be carted from show to show.
I’ve gone back and forth on whether to include producers and have generally preferred to focus on the performers instead. But it’s hard not to make an exception for Sir George Martin, the producer known affectionately as the “Fifth Beatle.” Throughout the group’s short but prolific career, he mentored, collaborated with and helped the group reach the pinnacle of rock stardom. It’s hard to think of another celebrity producer so adept at morphing to an artist’s changing tastes and doing it with such mastery.
Martin, a classical and jazz producer (with a few comedy albums to boot!), was not initially interested in overseeing a pop band. But he graciously agreed to hear them in the studio, and he saw enough raw talent to give it a go. He ushered them through their initial hits–the songs that sparked the British Invasion and launched Beatlemania. But as they pushed themselves away from being teen idols to experiment with new kinds of songs and recording, he had the musical knowledge and expertise to help them along.
It’s amazing when you stop to think that only a handful of years separated “Meet The Beatles” from “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper’s.” Martin was the wizard in the control room who helped make the group’s creative dreams come true. He added strings to “Yesterday,” over the initial objections of Paul McCartney. He showed them the effects of playing tape backwards and even cutting up and reassembling sounds, techniques that can be heard in songs like “I Am the Walrus” and “A Day in the Life.” With each Beatles album, new heights were reached and the rest of the rock world scrambled to stay relevant, often trying to mimic the sounds, instrumentation, recording techniques and attitudes that The Beatles originated in Sir George’s lab.
John Chilton was a British jazz trumpeter, perhaps best known as the leader of John Chilton’s Feetwarmers, the backup band for singer George Melly. Their partnership lasted nearly 30 years.
In addition to being a musician, Chilton (July 16, 1932-February 25, 2016) was a prolific jazz writer and won a Grammy in 1983 for his liner notes for a Bunny Berigan album. Notes for a Lester Young record got him nominated again in 2000. Chilton’s Who’s Who in Jazz was considered one of the “essential jazz books” by none other than poet Philip Larkin, according to his obituary in The Telegraph.
“You Call It Joggin'”
Chilton also composed songs, and his “Give Her a Little Drop More” was included in the 1985 film St. Elmo’s Fire.