A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs: Sh-Boom


The new episode of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs is now up! It’s on “Sh-Boom”, a song you may know from many 80s films. It’s also about racism, copyright law, the medieval origins of doo-wop, and a homeless bloke called Bip.

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Short Story: Stagger

(A content warning for this story. The narrator and principal character are both racist and express racist views. I hope it goes without saying that I don’t share those views. Also, this is a horror story, with all that that implies.)

They used to call it honky-tonk music. It’s not a style you get much any more, and you young folks won’t understand when I talk about it, but that was some powerful stuff. Music that could get you the way no other music would. And Luther Davenport was the king of that music, until he wasn’t.

Now, I know some of you young fellas think you know about honky-tonk music, but that shit you get now, that ain’t the same thing at all. That’s music made by some pretty boy from California or New York, pretends to be a bad boy from Arkansas and sings about trucks and murders when he’s come right outta Harvard.

Real honky-tonk music, the real stuff… that was made by men who wore suits and ties, nice as you like, and who would smile and would call you sir or ma’am. They was clean shaven, and when they got money they showed it. Shit, when they didn’t have money, they still acted like they had it. Luther Davenport, he had his name written in rhinestones on his fiddle when I first knew him. Didn’t own a second pair of underwear, but he had them rhinestones, because when you went out on that stage you had to give the folks who’d paid to come and see you a goddamn show, because if they wanted to see some poor boy didn’t have a change of underwear they could see that at home and save themselves a nickel. And Luther always wore a hat. Not a little cowboy hat like Hank Williams or someone would wear, this real big stetson. Never saw him take it off, and I knowed him for ten years. Because how he looked was important. People like Luther wouldn’t go on stage in blue jeans any more than they’d go to church on Sunday with their cock and balls hanging out for all to see.

Not that Luther went to church much. Not by the time I knew him. Because that’s the other thing about those men. These modern types, they’ve all got good big mouths on them, and they can talk about being bad men all day long. Not one of them’s a real hard man. Not the real type, the type you know if you say one word they don’t like, they’ll take a pool cue and ram it up your asshole til it comes out your mouth, and keep that aw-shucks shit-eatin’ grin on them the entire time like it ain’t nothin’, so sweet that you’re half convinced they’re doin’ you a favour even as the tip of the cue pokes you in the nose still stinkin’ of your own shit. That was Luther, and by God you knew if you met him that he was the real deal. But you ask those ladies in his audience — and Luther got the ladies all right, hoo boy did Luther get the ladies, even though he walked all funny cuz he’d had the rickets as a kid, almost like his legs was on backwards — and they’d tell you “no sir, not Luther Davenport, that’s a good man, a fine man, a charming man,” and you’d swear they believed it too, ceptin you’d see that look in their eyes that none of them was giving any real good, fine, charming men.

Oh, I’m sorry. You’re one of them enlightened sorts they’ve got now, ain’t you? The ones who think that women don’t like bad men. Well, maybe you’re right. What would I know? I’ve only spent eighty years knowin’ them. Maybe women like pussies. Could be you’re right. Certainly could be.

But anyway, I was tellin’ you about Luther, and here you go distractin’ me. I’m an old man and I don’t have time for distractions. And before you say anything, I know you didn’t say anything, but you were going to.

So anyway, Luther. I know he done some bad things, and maybe he even deserved what happened to him in the end. None of us can say exceptin’ God, and Lord knows I don’t think Luther was ever the Lord’s favourite person, so maybe he did deserve what happened. But still, that boy could sing, and he could play. He was the greatest fiddle player you ever heard, and he did something I never seen any other fiddle player do in all my life — he taped a phonograph needle to the body of his fiddle, and plugged it in to a guitar amplifier. My god the sound that thing made, it was like it was a fiddle and a guitar and a harmonica all in one. Your normal fiddle player, he goes skriddlededeede all like that, and no matter how hard he tries, you know it ain’t a man’s instrument. But Luther, his fiddle had balls.

And his voice… his voice shoulda been awful. I don’t know if you’ve heard any of Luther’s records — they don’t play ’em much on the radio since what happened, and I can’t say as I blame ’em — but he had this voice that was sorta low and sorta nasal at the same time, which you wouldn’t think was something that could happen if you hadn’t heard it. And he could not hit the notes. He was always about a quarter-tone flat, which was weird because he could obviously hear the notes right cuz he could play them on his fiddle. I once ribbed him about that — when I knew he was in a good mood and he hadn’t been drinking that day — and he told me “Buck, it just sounds different in my head than it does when it comes out,” and then he stared into the distance for a second and said “lotta things seem different in my head than outside it”, and I didn’t press the matter none, because my mama didn’t raise no suicides.

But the thing is, it didn’t make no odds that he had that godawful voice or that he couldn’t hit the notes, cuz he sounded real, he sounded like he meant every word, even when he was singing some shitkicking nonsense like “You can be my Dinah, and I can be your Mo/We’ll start the sparks a flyin’ and see where we can go”.

But the shitkickin’ weren’t what Luther was about, no, not by a long way.

You see, Luther was a hard-workin’ man. Again, you don’t get those any more, not really. Back then, life was hard and you had to work for everything you got, and even if you was a musician or a writer or something you had to work. Like you, boy, you’re a writer. You sit there at that little computer, you can just hit the back button if you got something wrong, you can type with those little bitty keys which move if you breathe on ’em. I knew a guy back in the fifties, used to be a writer, he’d write a new story every day, about cowboys or gangsters or whatever. Good stories they was, too. Well with that giant motherfucker of a typewriter, and him pounding away at it, and having to redo the whole page if he fucked up, he had arms like a steelworker’s. And it was like that for the musicians, too. Luther would ride in some shitty automobile with transmission so fucked up that you could feel every rat-turd the car drove over, and he’d try to sleep in the back seat while I drove for a few hours, and then we’d swap over, and we’d be driving fifteen hours to the next show, and then we’d play six, seven, eight, nine hours at a time.

And when you’re doing that, you need to learn every song that ever was writ, just so you got something to play, because there ain’t many people want to hear that Dinah-Moe shit when they’re trying to get drunk, no matter what the record men said. And so what Luther would do, every town he played, he’d find the oldest, meanest, mother he could, and he’d go up to him, and he’d ask him what old songs he knew. He’d get his fiddle out, and he’d play with the old fart for a while, and then he’d have the song in his head and he could play it perfect next time. He learned every song you could imagine, and some of them were real old-timey.

He especially liked murder ballads, and he could talk about them for hours. Luther wasn’t much of a man for talkin’ generally, and he wasn’t someone who’d got much schoolin’ — he said he could read a contract and add up well enough to know if he was getting screwed by a promoter, and he didn’t need more than that. But you get him talkin’ about these old murder ballads and he’d talk about them for hours. He’d talk the way I do now — he’d just keep talking and talking.

These murder ballads, you see, they’re songs about real people usually — people who killed their lady, or their wife, or their husband. Usually there’s some man, and he’s got a gal he’s sweet on, and he takes her for a walk by the river, and he fucks her, and then she gets in the family way, and she’s all “you gonna marry me, then?” and he’s thinkin’ about this, and then he thinks “what do I want with a wife and kid, when I’ve already got this big stick I can hit her with?”, so he hits her with the stick and throws her in the water, and then they hang him.

There’s somethin’ like ten million of these songs, because apparently there’s a lot of folks who think that hittin’ a woman on the head with a big stick sounds like more fun than looking after a kid, and most of them take place in the Old West, but according to Luther many of these songs dated back to the old country, to Ireland or Scotland or wherever, and they only changed the places in them when people moved. Like there was this one he learned, where he said it was originally from the 1500s.

And Luther had this theory that the songs went back even longer than that, just we don’t know about them because nobody writes this shit down — after all, there’s always another murder and another song.

But the one Luther was absolutely obsessed with was this song called “Stagger Lee”.

I don’t know if you know that song — I don’t know if you young folks know anything about your past, and given what I’m telling you today, maybe it’s a blessing if you don’t — but it’s this song about two men, Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons, who are playing poker and get into a fight. Stagger Lee gets angry and smashes up Billy’s hat, so Billy pulls Stagger’s hat off him and that gets Stagger pissed, so he goes home, gets his gun, and comes back to the bar. He shoots Billy.

In some versions of the song, he gets hanged, and he goes down to hell, and he’s such a bad motherfucker the Devil himself gives up his throne to Stagger Lee. That’s the version that Luther liked the best.

Now I know that they say they found who the real Stagger Lee was, and I’ve no doubt that’s true. No doubt at all there was a real Stagger Lee. But when Luther was thinking about this song, none of us knew nothing about that.

But that didn’t matter to Luther anyway. What he knew was that he loved that song, and then he found out it was about a … what do they call themselves now? A black fella, that’s it. And that just made Luther furious. Even more than everything made Luther furious

I didn’t think of Luther as racist, because back then everyone was racist, and don’t let them tell you no different. Even I know that, and I’m a racist old white man myself. But I never hated anyone. Never had the time for it. I just let them get on with their lives and I got on with mine, you know? I just loved the music, and I’d listen to anyone singing anything if it was good music.

And there was some fine, fine music made by black people back then, and half of it ended up in the honky tonk sound. You can’t have honky-tonk music without a touch of boogie-woogie thrown in. I know our pianner player, Donnell Wakeley, used to love all them negro players, and he used to say that the three best players in the world were Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Willie the Lion Smith. You couldn’t play honky tonk music without playing black music and white music together, all mixed up so you couldn’t tell which was what any more.

But Luther always said that no black man ever played a tune worth a damn, and that all the best music was the Appalachian music, that honky-tonk music was pure hillbilly, and no-one could persuade him otherwise. And so when he heard a version of “Stagger Lee” which called Stagger Lee a black man… well, he loved that song, and it just ate him up inside that anyone could write a song like that about a black man. I think he always thought of himself as Stagger Lee, as the kind of man who’d kill you over a hat, and he wanted it to be his song. And Luther was someone who hated everyone. Yeah, he hated black folks because they was black, but he also hated Jews, and rich white folks, and poor white folks, and Catholics, and… well, he was someone who would just find hisself a reason to hate you, and make one up if he couldn’t.

Oh sure, he hated me too. He tolerated me cuz I was useful to him. Weren’t many honky-tonk bands had a pedal steel player back then, and I added a touch of class to the whole proceedings, you know? But I don’t think he hated me as much as the rest, because he could see I loved him.

Oh you young’uns have such dirty minds, Jesus! No, not like that! It was the music I loved. Because that man was a musician’s musician, you understand? Musicians know when another player has chops, and them old honky-tonk players had some of the best chops you’d ever get. People rave about them jazz guys, and yeah, some of them are pretty impressive if you go for that sort of thing — it’s not my music at all, but I can listen to it and say “yeah, that cat can play” — but you ain’t never heard anyone as good as the best country players, the bluegrass guys with their mandolin runs so fast they could outrun an express train, them Nashville session cats who could cut twenty hit singles in three hours… just because the music’s simple, people think it’s not hard, and they couldn’t be more wrong. When it’s simple, you have to be that much better.

You had to work your ass off to be that good, and Luther worked his ass off, but there was something more to it than that — he was obsessed. And… I suppose this is where the story really starts, when we was running through “Stagger Lee” one time.

Now, the thing you have to understand about that song is it’s not just one song. It’s a whole load of songs about the same dude and his murder, and everyone does it different. Sometimes it has different words, and sometimes it has a different tune, but it’s all “Stagger Lee”, and Luther knew all those versions. I once saw him play “Stagger Lee” for three hours straight and never repeat a verse, just adding more and more details, bits from how the Fruit Jar Guzzlers used to do it, bits from Carson Robison, even bits from Duke Ellington, though he’d never admit that he listened to jazz.

But this time, Luther stopped playing and turned to me.

“Bud,” he says to me, “do you ever wonder about when Stagger Lee is gonna happen?”

I musta looked confused, because I had no clue what he was even talking about, cuz he straight away said “Never mind, it don’t matter” and picked his fiddle up agin as if to carry on.

“No, Luther,” I says to him, “what was it you was going to say?” Because I know Luther and he’s someone who thinks about things a lot more than he talks about them. If Luther had something to say, it was probably worth hearing.

“You don’t wanna know, I should just keep playin'”

Now, I was on dangerous ground here, because if Luther was tryin’ to get me to press him on this and I didn’t, then I’d get a whuppin’, and if I did press him and he wanted to drop it, I’d get a whuppin’. And if he was just pissed and wanted an excuse to give someone a whuppin’, I’d get a whuppin’ whichever I did. So I decided that, fuck it, I’d tell him to go on, because if there was something interestin to hear here I wanted to hear it.

“No, Luther, tell me what you meant. I really want to know.”

Well, thank the Lord for small mercies, because that turned out to be what Luther wanted me to say. And he got to talking.

“Don’t you think, Bud, that there’s prophecies in the world?”

“Well, Luther, I have to say as I do, because the Bible says it and I ain’t gonna argue with the Bible.”

“Well, don’t Stagger Lee feel to you like it’s a prophecy, not just a normal song?”

I try to figure out how to respond to this. I eventually settle on “Huh. Ain’t that a thing. I never thought of it that way before, Luther.”

He grins. “Shit, Bud, I know you ain’t thought of it before, because you ain’t done the studyin’ like I have. But I’m tellin’ ya. It has all the signs of being an honest-to-God prophecy. Why else would ol’ Stag be that much more popular than all them other murder songs? Why do people keep on writing about him? It ain’t because the story is that much better than all them other ones. Hell, them n____rs probably stole it from a white man in the first place, just like they stole country music and called it the blues, and just like Willie Lyons stole Stag’s hat and needed killin’. It’s because Stag is an avenging angel. He’s there to do justice and make righteousness prevail, and his horns are the symbol of his power.”

“Wait, horns?”

“Shit, don’t you even listen to the song? He’s a stag, of course he’s got horns. Why do you think he wears the hat? It’s so the rest of us don’t see his power.”

“Right, of course.”

“So, anyway, Stag’s a angel, that much is obvious. And Willie, well, ol’ Willie Lyons, he should be called Willie Liar, shouldn’t he? Because he’s the Devil himself. He tells Stag all sorts of lies, about havin a wife and kids and all sorts, just so Stag won’t kill him. But Stag sees through old Willie, doesn’t he?”

I nodded again. That ain’t how the song goes. In the song Stagger Lee is a bad motherfucker and he kills Willie Lyons because he just wants to kill a man, but Luther knew the words as well as I did so there weren’t no point in arguin’ with him. Just agree with whatever he said, and after all, it want as if any of this shit mattered, was it? It was only an old song.

It wasn’t until a long time later that I watched some old horror movie and saw them talking about the Horned God that I recollected this conversation, and when I did it sent shivers down my spine, let me tell you. Maybe Luther was even right, given what happened, maybe it was a prophecy. But me, I think it’s patterns. Maybe all them murder ballads are patterns. And maybe someone’s putting those patterns there. I dint used to think that, but now I’m pretty sure I do.

Though I could be wrong. I’m wrong about a lot of things.

When Luther started out tourin’, he was playin’ all them kinda songs I was talkin’ bout earlier, like that Dinah-Moe song, and he’d do all these comedy songs about women drivers and smokin’, and that one he used to do about how everyone was too busy listenin’ to the radio to make whoopee and that’s why there weren’t as many kids around any more. Heh. He used to change that one up when we got booked to do a sacred show instead of a secular one. Then it’d be about how people was too busy listenin’ to the radio to go to church, and that’s why there was so much sin and there were so many kids around now. Used to get the same laughs in the same places too, that one.

But it was when we played the Louisiana Hayride for the first time that things really started to change. If you don’t know about the Hayride, I don’t blame you, because this was a long, long time ago. But you’ve probably heard of the Grand Ole Opry at least, right? Glad to see you got some culture! I’m kidding you, don’t worry. Well, the Opry was the place everyone wanted to play, of course. If you were anyone you played the Opry, and if you were anyone else you listened to it. If you got up on that stage and Roy Acuff said your name, you knew you were going to get more bookings in the next month than you’d had in the previous five years, and they’d be better paid bookings too.

Well, if the Opry was the major leagues, there was other shows that was the bush leagues, and everyone played those all the time. You’d be in Buttfuck Nebraska and play the Buttfuck Hootenany or whatever, some show that wanted to be the Opry but wasn’t. And then you had a couple of farm teams, where the people who were good but not quite good enough yet would play. The Louisiana Hayride was one of those. It was where you went if you wanted to get on the Opry, or sometimes if you played the Opry one time and they hated you and wouldn’t book you again. Like Elvis, you know he only played the Opry once, right at the start of his career? They threw shit at that poor boy, he was basically dragged off stage. The very next week, he was on the Hayride instead, and he played there every week for two years, til his first motion picture came out.

But if you hadn’t been kicked off the Opry, the Hayride was where you went on the way up the ladder, and there we were, playing it, with a live radio audience of millions. But Luther said before we went on that he didn’t want to do none of them crowd-pleasers. He wanted to do something different, something special.

So when we went on that stage, we done one song about murder after another. Knoxville Girl, Rose Connelly, Transfusion Blues… we done all them songs one after another, and you know how I said that Luther made you believe whatever shitkickin’ song he was singing? Well, when it come to those murder songs, it really sounded like he was talkin’ about himself.

A course, the crowd went hog-wild over this. They’d heard all o’ them songs before of course, sung by the Louvin Brothers or Bill Munroe or Spade Cooley or what have you, but they’d never heard any of them sung like this, and with that electric wail from Luther’s fiddle.

I mean, the rest of us played pretty good that night. Yep, pretty good. But we might as well have not been there. Luther could have made that crowd sit up and beg just with his fiddle and his voice and that smile. He’d sing one o’ them songs about murderin’ some poor girl, and then straight away he’d go back to that shit-eatin’ grin and say “aw shucks, well thank you kindly friends, it’s such an honour to be here in the great state of Louisiana playin’ for the greatest audience a fiddle-player could ever hope for”, and all them Cajuns would whoop and holler like it was Jesus Christ himself on that there stage. And then he’d just go into the next song about a killin’, like that was just wonderful and well, didn’t every good ol’ boy do a bit o’ killin’ now and then?

And he ended the set with “Stagger Lee”, and my God you ain’t never heard that song until you heard Luther Davenport play that song that night on that stage. There’s a lot of people done that song a lot of different ways, but I can’t even listen to any of them no more. They’re not “Stagger Lee”, not like Luther sang it. Luther Davenport sang that song and made you feel like it was happenin’ right there in front of you, and you could see Willie the Lion lying there clutchin’ at his own gut, the blood pouring out of him and him screamin’ and dyin’ as Stagger Lee calmly steps up to him, pulls his hat off his dying head, sticks it on his own, and walks off, wiping Willie’s blood off his shoe on Willie’s face as he goes.

That audience… that audience went wild like you ain’t never heard, and I do believe they was still cheerin’ for us — for Luther — when the next week’s show started.

They was callin’ Luther up, beggin’ him to do more shows, and we played them — including the Opry itself, a few times — but something else changed with him that night. He’d never been what you might call a placid man — he had always been someone you’d not want to cross — but… well, I would say he was like a man possessed, but you might think that was a little too close to the truth.

And again, he’d never liked black folks none, but he took to rantin’ and carryin’ on about miscegenation, and about how they was pollutin’ white blood and suchlike. And I ain’t sayin’ many people didn’t agree with him at that time, because hell, it’s not as if we was some enlightened Harvard graduates or nothin’, but there is a big difference, and I’m sure you know it, between someone who just doesn’t like the black folks that much and someone who talks about nothin’ else but hatin’ them and killin’ them.

And he just kept on talkin’ about that, and about that song, and about how that song was the truth, and how Stag Lee was a white man and an avenging angel, not a black man with a bad attitude.

We should have seen the main event comin’ of course — and I suppose some of us did, in a way, but none of us could have imagined what happened after.

It was in St. Louis when it finally happened, and it was on Christmas night. Now, you might think we was having a good time of it, it being Christmas and all, but that is not the way it was. We was hundreds of miles away from our families, in Missouri where they got no love for good music anyway. Shit, name one country singer ever came from Missouri, other than Porter Wagoner? You can’t. And Porter Wagoner was hardly good honky tonk music, was he?

So we’re sat around in the bar where we’d played our first set. We’re on our break, and we’re going to do another set in an hour, but we might as well not bother since there were only three other people in the bar. We’re drinking whisky and playing poker and bitching about being away from our homes on Christmas day — and remember, back then, most of our families didn’t have no phones and there was no such thing as a long-distance call, not if you wanted to eat that month — when this shitheel comes up and starts sassing Luther.

Luther’d been talking like he did, about how all the best music came from the Appalachians, and that was because, in his opinion, that was where the only pure white folks were left, and you could tell that because the music was all old Irish and Scotch, and the Irish and Scotch did the only two things worth a good goddamn in this world, music and whisky, and I was allowing as that was the case, and talking about how my own Daddy was from Germany, and that the Germans made a good beer but never got the hang of whisky, and maybe that was why they never got drunk enough to make the real good music, only that longhair orchestra shit.

Although didn’t Daddy get a taste for whisky once he come over here? Oh my yes… but that’s a whole nother story.

Anyway, this shitheel comes up and starts telling Luther that the only good music is boogie woogie and that the only place you can get good boogie woogie is St Louis (and, he allows, maybe Chicago too, but nowhere else). And this riles Luther up more than I’ve ever seen him riled up before. I see him squeezing those cards in his hand so they’re all folded up til they look like the accordion that’s sat on the stage waiting for our next set. And he stands up, and those backwards-looking legs, they don’t straighten up as such, but they still make him look a good foot taller than he had before — and Luther was a tall man anyway, a long lanky beanpole of a fella. And I swear his eyes was actually shining with fury, and he sticks out his tongue and hisses, and I swear I ain’t never seen a tongue that long even on a cow.

So he’s standing there and hissing, and then he says to this good ole boy “Do you know who you’re talking to, boy?” and he says it real low, so deep that you could feel it rumbling in your guts, the way you could when J D Sumner would hit that low note on “Wayfarin’ Stranger”.

Now this boy must have had a death wish, either that or he didn’t have the sense he was born with, because he just says “yeah, I’m talkin’ to a shitkickin’ fiddle player who don’t know nuthin’ about good music”

“I learned the fiddle from Bill Chitwood hisself, boy. From the Georgia Yellow Hammers. Greatest fiddle player this country has ever seen. Well, second best, after me.”

I remembered him telling me, a few years back, before he got so ornery about black folks, that it had actually been Andrew Baxter he’d learned it from. Baxter was a black fella who’d sit in with the Yellow Hammers and played better than any of ’em. But if there’d ever been a good time to remind Luther Davenport that his favourite group had been integrated, this was not the time for it.

“Sayin’ someone’s the greatest fiddle player in the country is like saying they’s the world champion at eatin’ dogshit. It may be so, but only because no man in his right mind would want to beat him.”

Luther walks toward the boy. “You’re in for a whuppin, now, son. And by the time I finish with you, you’re going to be thanking me for it.”

The boy finally realises that he’s going to get his ass kicked, and he picks up a bottle and throws it at Luther’s head. He misses, and it hits Luther’s hat. Now normally, you’d expect the hat to just come off his head. That’s not what happened. The hat went up and back, but stayed on his head. And it stayed there because it was held there by a pair of horns.

And all I could think then was of the tales my daddy had told me about the Krampus, with his long tongue and his goat legs and his horns, and about how he’d come out at Christmas night to take the bad kids to hell.

The boy screamed, and fell to his knees.

“Please, God, don’t…”

“I asked if you know who I am, boy…”

“You’re… you’re the devil…”

No, I thought, he’s the Krampus.

“I ain’t the devil, boy. Shit, I could whup the devil’s ass just as easy as I could whup your’n.”

Luther pulled out his revolver.

“Please, please, don’t kill me! I’ve got a wife! I’ve got kids! Please…”

“Well, ain’t that swell? They’s gonna have a chance to get a better husband and father then, ain’t they? What a perfect Christmas present.”

He cocked the gun and pointed it at the boy.

“I’ll tell you who I am, son, I’m Stag Lee, I am the avenging angel of righteousness, and you can tell the devil when you see him that I’m coming for him next”.

He shot the boy in the guts, and stepped over his body as he lay screaming and walked toward the door. Then he turned back, took his hat off and dropped it on the boy’s face.

“Debt repaid”, he said as he walked off, with those bent legs making him lurch from side to side as he walked, and with those horns of his sticking out the top of his head. And when he opened that door, it din’t look like St. Louis out there. It looked like somewhere else. Somewhere full of fire,

I never saw Luther Davenport again after that, and nor did anyone else. Honky tonk music was going out of fashion anyway, and soon the only place I could get gigs playing my pedal steel was playing that Hawaiian shit, and I gave up altogether.

They say the Devil’s got all the best tunes, and maybe they’re right. But maybe, somewhere out there, there’s something worse than the Devil, and maybe that something has tunes that are even better. What would I know? I’m just an old German good ol’ boy. But I say my prayers a little louder these days, and I drink a little less, but I still don’t sleep much on Christmas night.

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New 500 Songs — “Money Honey”


The latest episode of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs is now up! We’re getting to music that people might be more familiar with, now, and this one is on “Money Honey” by the Drifters.

(I do intend to blog more soon, by the way. This isn’t just going to turn into me linking to the podcast and nothing else…)

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New 500 Songs Episode Up


A new episode of “A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs”, looking at Bill Haley’s first big hit, “Crazy Man Crazy”, and how it was connected to the Mafia, school assemblies, yodelling, and changes in radio regulations in 1946.

As always, this podcast exists because of the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

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A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs: Hound Dog


The new episode of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs is now up; on “Hound Dog”, Big Mama Thornton, and misogynoir

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A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night

Yes, believe it or not, I am still writing these and do still intend to finish the book on Nilsson. I had some major life stuff to deal with in 2018, but one way or another that’s all done now, so let’s get on with talking about what may be Nilsson’s finest work, shall we?

Nilsson’s last true absolute masterpiece is yet another change in direction. The third of the Schmilsson trilogy was not produced by Richard Perry, but by Derek Taylor, Nilsson’s old friend (who was known as a publicist but had limited production knowledge). However, Taylor’s role was far more limited than Perry’s had been, because whereas Perry had acted as arranger for the two rock albums that preceded this, here the arrangements were by Gordon Jenkins, who had previously been an orchestral arranger for most of the great crooners of the 1950s and 60s.

(This is not to say that Taylor had no creative input, as among other things he helped select the songs and also came up with the title, which was a play on a line from Shakespeare — “A little touch of Harry in the night”).

The reason Jenkins was chosen was simple — this wasn’t an album of Nilsson’s own material, and nor was it material by contemporaries like Lennon/McCartney or Randy Newman, like Nilsson had recorded before. Rather, this was an album of standards — the Great American Songbook — which Nilsson had always wanted to record, and he’d decided to do it at this point, he later said, because he could tell that his voice was at its peak.

And that was definitely true — we’ll see the unfortunate facts about Nilsson’s voice after this in the rest of these essays, but as of the recording of A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, it was arguable that Nilsson was in fact the finest singer working in popular music. He was in extraordinary voice at this point, singing with a combination of technical ability and vocal quality that would be the envy of any vocalist in any genre. He’s perhaps not *quite* as strong in the very top end as he had been during the recording of Harry, but there’s an effortless grace to these vocals that is quite wonderful to hear.

And grace really is the word here. This is singing that is absolutely unique in popular music — there’s none of the melismatic over-emoting of Nilsson’s peers from the rock and soul worlds, but nor does he shy away from vocal pyrotechnics when they’re appropriate as many of the older generation of singers would have done. Perhaps the closest comparison to Nilsson’s vocals here is Ella Fitzgerald, who like Nilsson would ornament the song and show off the capabilities of a staggeringly beautiful voice, but would do so with an absolute sense of taste and control.

(Indeed it’s instructive here to compare Fitzgerald’s recording of Nilsson’s “Open Your Window”, which was produced by Richard Perry. The two singers have such exquisite senses of timing and phrasing that it’s easy to consider them as equals as vocalists, and the similarity between the two is obvious, despite them both working in very different musical traditions.)

This was long before the fashion for rock musicians to record albums of standards — at the time most rock music was still interested in asserting its difference from the popular music loved by the Boomers’ parents, rather than the more recent trend of asserting continuity — and the album was met with some confusion, especially coming after the aggressive, assertive, Son of Schmilsson. But listening to it now, it’s absolutely a sensible part of the arc of Nilsson’s career. Nilsson had always been an artist who conjured up the popular music of his childhood, and who had a respect for songcraft — and he was someone who was known as a performer more than as a songwriter. Even though he was one of the great songwriters of his generation, most of his big commercial success had come as an interpreter of other people’s songs, so it made sense from that point of view to do a whole album of them.

Indeed, the music here is not just the music of Nilsson’s childhood — as we’ll see, many of the songs here are ones that were first made popular during Nilsson’s *mother’s* childhood, and which then got a second wind in the 1940s as a result of wartime nostalgia.

Every song here was one that meant something important to Nilsson, and it shows. Where Nilsson’s other albums are, without exception, inconsistent either stylistically or in terms of quality, there’s a clarity of purpose to this record, even in its expanded CD version, which is otherwise absent. This is a record where everyone involved was on exactly the same page, working to a singular purpose.

The tracks were all recorded live, with Nilsson singing along with the musicians, over a four day period — and shortly after the recording, Nilsson performed the songs live again, with the same musicians, for a BBC TV special. That special shows just how wonderfully Nilsson was singing at this point — and how effortlessly he was able to conjure up these performances. He’s almost casual as he sits there and turns in these performances, which Jenkins apparently claimed sounded much better than Sinatra (a claim I would tend to agree with). While we’d seen a tiny amount of strain in Nilsson’s voice on Son of Schmilsson, and the rot would truly set in with Pussy Cats, here he sounds as good as any singer has ever sounded singing these songs.

Far more songs were recorded during these sessions than could fit onto a single vinyl album, and many of the outtakes were later collected on a compilation called A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night. However, on most CD reissues of A Little Touch, those other tracks are included, and so here they have been placed in the same playing order as on the RCA collection CD, and treated as part of the album.

Lazy Moon
Songwriters: Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson

The oldest of the songs on this album by some way, “Lazy Moon” was originally published in 1905. Nilsson, however, probably knew the song because it was performed (unfortunately in blackface) by Oliver Hardy, a favourite comedian of Nilsson’s, in the 1931 film Pardon Us, Laurel and Hardy’s first feature film.

As with many of the songs Laurel and Hardy performed, this had a slight country feel to it, but that’s not really evident in this performance.

The song here opens with the first few lines of “As Time Goes By” — “You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is still a sigh/The fundamental things apply” — a statement of intent which works well for the whole album. This was, in the original tracklisting of the album, another example of Nilsson bookending his records with songs on a similar theme, as the original record ended with the full version of that song, although more recent expanded reissues do not.

This is followed by a short instrumental interlude (which seems to me to have a slight resemblance to “When I Fall In Love”, a song not recorded during these sessions but which would definitely have fit with them) and a moment of silence before the song proper starts.

Nilsson’s phrasing on here is less straight than on some of the other songs — the “light the way” in the opening verse is rather more melismatic than one would expect from a rendition of a song like this, and also has slightly odd note choices on Nilsson’s part, making it more dramatic than that section of the song normally sounds.

Jenkins’ arrangement is possibly a tad overdone here — this is one of the weaker songs on the album as a song, and it almost seems like he’s overcompensating somewhat — but this is still a nice little opener.

For Me and My Gal
Songwriters: Edgar Leslie, E. Ray Goetz, and George W. Meyer

A song from 1917, which had a spate of revived popularity in the 1940s thanks to its use in the film of the same name, where it’s performed by Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. Nilsson clearly liked the film, as along with this song he also recorded multiple versions of the song “Ballin’ the Jack” which also made an appearance in the same film.

Indeed, this is the first of many songs on the album to have been performed by Judy Garland in a film from between 1939 and 1941. Almost everything on the album was popularised in a film at one point or another, but there is a preponderance of material associated with Garland’s early career here, in a way that might surprise those who aren’t familiar with her work. One suspects that possibly Nilsson’s mother was a fan of Garland’s, or of course that Nilsson himself was.

The song is a quiet, gentle, ballad, very typical of the music popular in the World War I period in the USA, and, as with every song on the album, Nilsson’s vocal is exceptional.

It Had to Be You
Songwriters: Isham Jones and Gus Kahn

One of the best known songs on the whole album, this seems to segue perfectly from “For Me and My Gal”, and indeed there are some melodic similarities here (helped by the way that Jenkins would write musical segues between the songs, which often included passages from other songs recorded in these sessions).

“It Had to Be You”, like most of the songs here, had appeared in films — unlike the others, it appeared in so many that it’s hard to know which, if any, inspired Nilsson’s version of the song, although it’s probably fair to guess that it was Dooley Wilson’s performance in Casablanca, since “As Time Goes By” (which we’ve already heard a snippet of earlier, and which appears in full later) was also, famously, performed by Wilson in that film.

It’s a song which had no real definitive version, but which has nonetheless percolated deep into the popular culture, so that almost everyone knows the song.

This version of the song has a second chorus with a very different set of lyrics to those normally heard:

Some others I’ve seen, it had to be me
I’m five foot ten, a man among men
And you’re seven two
But all your faults
You I adore,
When you stand up
Your hands touch the floor,
It had to be me, unlucky me
It had to be me.

It’s been widely claimed that these lyrics were, like the better-known ones, written by Gus Kahn, but I’ve not found any conclusive evidence to prove that — and frankly, those lines sound more like Nilsson than they do Kahn (although Kahn was also capable of a delightful humorous cynicism, so it’s certainly possible it was him). They are, however, extremely funny, whoever wrote them — and, notably, it’s these lyrics that Nilsson busks through in the piano demo of “I’d Rather Be Dead” which can be heard on the Son of Schmilsson CD.

These songs, of course, change the whole tone of the song, making it not a song of love that was foreordained and could not be denied, which it is in the more well-known versions, but instead a weary sigh of resignation. Of course it had to be me who got lumbered with falling in love with you. Just my luck.

Between this song and the next, there’s a passage of “Over the Rainbow”, which works perfectly as linking material. This ends on a melodic phrase that is very reminiscent of Gershwin — who is, of course, along with Cole Porter the most glaring omission among the “great American songbook” composers here. (Those omissions, more than anything else, show that this was a true labour of love. No performer recording one of today’s cash-in songbook albums would omit them — only someone choosing his own favourites would consider it possible to leave out those two).

Songwriter: Irving Berlin

Most famous for its appearance in the Noel Coward comedy Blithe Spirit, this song was written by Irving Berlin for his then-fiancee as a wedding gift (rumours that it was originally intended for the Marx Brothers play and film The Cocoanuts are unfounded), and he gave her the royalties from the song. It’s a very simple, direct love song — “I’ll be loving you, always/with a love that’s true, always/When the things you’ve planned/Need a helping hand/I will understand, always”.

Berlin of course was one of the more simplistic of the pre-war songwriters, and while his competitors used to pride themselves on polysyllabic internal rhymes, he very rarely used a word over two syllables. His lyrics were plain and unsophisticated, but that doesn’t mean they were bad — rather it means that they used the normal vocabulary of the listener, and expressed emotions in the same way the average person would. (This is possibly because Berlin was not a native English speaker — he only learned English after moving to the USA from Russia at the age of five).

Musically, it’s a waltz, although not one with such a strong waltz pulse as to have been written for dancing, and Nilsson and Jenkins’ take deemphasises the rhythm as much as possible, giving it a languid feel, with Nilsson’s phrasing tending to stretch the melody, which is of course fitting for the title, and to come in slightly late, which again fits.

Makin’ Whoopee
Songwriters: Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson

This was Winston Churchill’s favourite song of all time — enough so that apparently when he met Eddie Cantor, the song’s original performer, more than a decade after the song was a hit, he treated (if that’s the right word) Cantor to a rendition of the whole thing. History does not record Cantor’s reaction to Churchill’s performance.

The song is one of the funnier songs of its period. While it starts out as if it’s going to be telling an idyllic love story — “another bride, another groom, another sunny afternoon” — although even there there’s a sense of weariness about another bride, another groom — and it seems to continue that way for a while, with its “picture a little love nest” — the song then goes on, in exactly the same placid, cheerful way, to describe the breakup of the marriage , the divorce court, and the horrified realisation of the husband that the judge intends for him to pay more in alimony than he’s actually earning. “You’d better keep her/ I think it’s cheaper/than making whoopee”.

As you will see, it’s entirely possible that Gus Kahn, who wrote these lyrics, could have written the alternate lyrics for “It Had to be You” that Nilsson sings.

One suspects that since Nilsson was himself currently going through a divorce (his second) the song might have had a more personal meaning for him than his calm, witty, performance would suggest.

The song, though, has had a lot of popularity over the years, usually with few people paying attention to the later, darker, lyrics, and just remembering the cheerful first verse and possibly the first bridge.

Nilsson’s friend Yoko Ono was also clearly an admirer of the song — her track “Yes I’m Your Angel”, on the Double Fantasy album from 1980, was later the subject of a lawsuit from “Makin’ Whoopee”‘s publishers, as it has an identical melody.

You Made Me Love You
Songwriters: James Monaco and Joseph McCarthy

Another song which originally came from the first world war era but had a renewed popularity in the forties thanks to Judy Garland, this was originally published in 1915, but its 1939 appearance as the B-side to Garland’s single of “Over the Rainbow” sparked a second wave of interest in it, and it became immensely popular in the 1940s, especially in Harry James’ 1941 version. (James was a trumpet player who had been one of the star players with Benny Goodman’s big band before forming his own group, and his version of “You Made Me Love You” is his most popular recording).

The song’s chorus — “you made me love you, I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to do it” — has made it one of the most well known popular songs of the war era. Nilsson takes the song much, much, slower than the song is normally performed, and tends to treat it almost as a torch song, where most versions of it are far more upbeat and bouncy. In Nilsson’s version, he really didn’t want to fall in love with the subject of the song. He strains at the top notes in desperation — falling in love with this person is a nightmare, and he wants the freedom of being loved by her in return. When he sings “you know you’ve got the kind of kisses I would die for”, it sounds like he really would die for them.

The song’s melody is surprisingly close to that of “Lazy Moon” in places, providing one of several internal callbacks we get over the course of the album.

Lullaby in Ragtime
Songwriter: Sylvia Fine

The most recently-written of these songs, this was written for the 1959 film The Five Pennies, starring Danny Kaye. Sylvia Fine, the writer of the song, was Kaye’s wife, and they worked together (and indeed stayed married to each other) for the rest of their careers even though they had separated in 1947.

In the film, this was sung by Kaye and Louis Armstrong, and while the film was made in 1959 it was intended to evoke an earlier age — the film was a Hollywoodised biography of the trumpeter Red Nichols, whose greatest period of popularity was in the 1920s — and so musically it fits very well with the pre-war era music that dominates the album. Indeed, the fact that it references ragtime, a style of music that had fallen out of popularity in favour of jazz by the time of Nichols’ success, shows in itself that this song from the rock era was one that was consciously trying to evoke the pre-rock era.

The song has a lazy syncopation that fits its title very well, and this is one of the sparsest, quietest arrangements on the album. During the verses, the accompaniment is mostly just a strummed acoustic guitar, with occasional touches of flute or piano — it’s only when the bridges come in that the strings and horns appear, and other than the instrumental verse (where the strings go into full lush Hollywood mode) everything is focused around Nilsson’s gentle vocal.

And it’s a stunning vocal, mostly sung in the baritone end of his range, but with occasional ventures into falsetto. It’s arguably the best vocal on the record, and on a record like this that’s saying something.

I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now
Songwriters: Joe Howard, Harold Orlob, Frank R. Adams, and Will M. Hough

Another song that was recorded by Danny Kaye, this is the oldest of the songs recorded for this album, dating as it does from 1909. Despite the credit, it was not actually written by Joseph Howard. Howard was a Broadway impressario who employed songwriter Harold Orlob to write songs for his shows, and then claimed credit himself. In the 1940s, long after the song’s original success, Orlob successfully sued Howard for credit (though not for royalties), but Howard’s co-composer credit was retained.

Like the previous song, but unlike most of the songs on the album, this one features relatively restrained orchestration, with much of the instrumental backing being acoustic guitar (a rare example on this album of an instrument that would normally be heard on a rock or pop record). Indeed the two songs would sound like they were intended as a single track, were it not for the introduction of this song, which is a bombastic interpolation of a few bars of “For Me and My Gal”.

But other than that, the arrangement is even sparser than that of “Lullaby of Ragtime” — while on that song, the instrumental verse had been played by an entire string section, here the equivalent passage is played by a single solo violin.

As with many of the songs on the album, Nilsson here cuts out the original verses, just singing the refrain, and thus turning the song into something whose structure would have been more immediately recognisable to his pop audience.

What’ll I Do?
Songwriter: Irving Berlin

A second Irving Berlin song, this was originally written in 1923. As with “Always”, it’s very simple and direct — “What’ll I do/when you/are far away/And I am blue/what’ll I do?” Indeed, it bears a very strong resemblance to “Always” melodically, with its languid waltz time and sustained notes. Lyrically, though, it’s almost the opposite — while “Always” deals with a love affair that we are assured will last for all time, this one deals with the broken heart that comes in the aftermath of an affair that has ended. Lyrically, in fact, it calls back to the previous song, with the narrator talking about what he’ll do when he’s “wondering who is kissing you”. For all that these songs seem at first glance merely to be a semi-random collection of classic songs from Nilsson’s childhood, they actually comment on and reflect each other in a myriad ways.

According to eyewitness reports, Berlin had been noodling with the theme for this song for a while, unable to finish it, until a party given by Dorothy Parker for Algonquin Round Table member Donald Ogden Stewart. Berlin had smuggled a couple of bottles of champagne to the party (which was during the prohibition era) and eventually became drunk and relaxed enough to finish writing the song during the party.

Here Nilsson does sing the part of the song that’s normally left out — “Gone is the romance that was so divine/’Tis broken and cannot be mended/You must go your way and I must go mine/But now that our love dreams have ended…” — though he doesn’t sing the second verse (“Do you remember a night filled with bliss?”)

This is one of the few songs on the album where Nilsson’s voice does sound very slightly strained — on the line “what’ll I do with just a photograph”, but it’s still an excellent performance. of an excellent song.

Nevertheless (I’m in Love with You)
Songwriters: Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby

This song was written by the songwriting team of Kalmar and Ruby, who are now probably best known for their songs for the Marx Brothers (they wrote “I’m Against It”, “Everyone Says I Love You” and “Hail Hail Freedonia”) and for “I Wanna Be Loved By You”. The song was a minor hit in 1931, but after being featured in the 1950 film Three Little Words, a biography of the songwriting team starring Fred Astaire and Red Skelton, had a renewed lease of popularity and was recorded by, among others, The Mills Brothers, Frank Sinatra, and Frankie Laine. The opening “maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m weak, maybe I’n strong” has a little of the resigned humour of some of their other work in it, although this song itself is much more straightforward and serious song than much of their most successful work.

This is another song which is based around acoustic guitar work on the verses — and the use of pizzicato strings in the middle eight can make it at times almost sound like late-period Buddy Holly. That said, Jenkins’ arrangement is still rooted in the lush orchestrations of the rest of the album, and as with many of the songs it includes an intro that references another song on the album — in this case picking up on a slight melodic similarity to “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and running with it, quoting that song in the intro before Nilsson’s voice comes in.

This is one of the songs where Nilsson’s vocal is at its most Nilsson — while on many of these songs he sings the song entirely straight, here there are quite a few of his idiosyncratic note choices and leaps into falsetto.

This Is All I Ask
Songwriter: Gordon Jenkins

Jenkins, the arranger of this album, had written this song for Nat “King” Cole in 1958, and had arranged many of the versions of the song that became popular in the subsequent decade. While Jenkins is better known as an arranger than as a songwriter, he did write many songs himself, and this one is probably his best known, having been recorded by, among others, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

The track opens with a couple of bars of “Always”, before Nilsson starts the famous verse “As I approach the prime of my life…”

The arrangement here is, oddly, one of the weaker ones, with Jenkins throwing the kitchen sink in and coming up with something which rather overwhelms the song in twiddles and filigree. Possibly he was less able to deal with his own material objectively than with others’. Which isn’t to say it’s bad, just that it’s not up to the exemplary standards of the best of the album.

As Time Goes By
Songwriter: Herman Hupfeld

This song was originally written in 1931, but like many of the songs Nilsson chose for this album it is most well known for its appearance in a film — in this case Casablanca, where its performance is one of the major events in the film. It was originally written, though, for a musical, Everybody’s Welcome, which had starred Rudy Valee — and Valee ended up having the hit with the song after Casablanca, as a musicians’ strike meant that Dooley Wilson, who had performed the song in the film, couldn’t record it, so people bought a reissued version of Valee’s recording.

Obviously, this is one of the most well-known songs on the album, perhaps second only to “Over the Rainbow” in its permeation of popular culture, and Nilsson doesn’t do anything unusual with the song — Wilson’s version is too strong in people’s memory to allow radical reinterpretation.

On the original issue of A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, this track was the closing track of the album, calling back to the quote of the track at the very beginning. This is lost in more recent issues, where multiple bonus tracks are included in the lineup.

I’m Always Chasing Rainbows
Songwriters: Harry Carroll and Joseph McCarthy

As with several of the songs on the album, this song had had two periods of popularity — once in 1918, when the song was originally written, and then later in the early 1940s when it was included in a film and got a second wind. In this case, the song gained renewed popularity in 1941 when Judy Garland performed it in Ziegfeld Girl, which given the preponderance of Garland material on the album one suspects is the version that inspired Nilsson to include this — although one should note that Gordon Jenkins had also recorded an instrumental version of the song under his own name.

While the music is credited to Harry Carroll, it’s actually a slight reworking of a piece by Chopin.

And of course, rainbows were very associated with Garland, and the rainbow, like the moon, is one of the lyrical motifs that pick up time and again in this collection of songs. While this one wasn’t included on the final album, so it’s possible to read too much into song selections, the fact that it was chosen at all, with those resonances and associations with the other songs, says a lot about the way in which Nilsson, Taylor, and Jenkins put together the album.

Make Believe
Songwriters: Oscar Hammerstein III and Jerome Kern

This song originally appeared in the musical Show Boat (probably best known for also introducing the song “Ol’ Man River”), in 1927. Kern and Hammerstein were not a regular songwriting team the way some others were — Kern collaborated with many lyricists (including Ira Gershwin, P.G. Wodehouse, and Yip Harburg) before his death in 1945, while Hammerstein also collaborated with many composers before starting the partnership that would define his later career, with Richard Rogers. But still, their work together produced some classic songs, although this is not one of their best.

Unusually for this album, Jenkins’ arrangement doesn’t start with a reference to any other songs, and the song is far more self-contained than much of the rest of the record, which is possibly one reason it wasn’t chosen for the original release — along with Nilsson’s voice sounding a little hoarser here than on the rest of the album. This is one of the weaker tracks from the sessions, and one of the weaker songs recorded for the album.

Trust in Me
Songwriters: Ned Wever, Milton Ager, and Jean Schwartz

One of the more obscure songs on the album, this 1937 song had been a minor hit for Mildred Bailey, and later for Eddie Fisher. However, given Nilsson’s appreciation of the music of Louis Jordan, it’s likely that Nilsson was inspired to include this song by Jordan’s 1951 version of the song.

It’s relatively easy to see why this one was left off the original album, as it’s one of those recordings that you seem to forget even while it’s happening. It’s perfectly pleasant to listen to, but has none of the power or beauty of much of the album proper, or even of many of these bonus tracks.

It’s Only a Paper Moon
Songwriters: Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg, and Billy Rose

This song was written in 1933, by the popular team of “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen, who also wrote, among many other songs, the songs for The Wizard of Oz and the Groucho Marx song “Lydia the Tatooed Lady”. Billy Rose, who is also credited as a co-lyricist, was a theatrical impressario who is a credited co-lyricist on many songs, but who wrote very few lyrics on his own, to the extent that it’s often assumed that he was a collaborator in name only, credited because of his ability to promote songs rather than to write them. Certainly the lyrics here have all the fingerprints of Harburg’s solo lyrics.

While the song was from the early 1930s, most of the hit versions of the song were recorded in the late 1940s. In particular, a version of it was included in the film “Too Young to Know”, whose storyline (about a man whose wife leaves him while he’s away fighting in the war, and gives away the son he doesn’t know about, but who later reunites with them both) may well have resonated strongly with Nilsson, given his own upbringing.

Nilsson clearly thought highly of this song — highly enough that he quoted a bit of it, both words and music (the line “it wouldn’t be make believe if you believe in me”), in the song “Puget Sound” on Duit on mon Dei. And this version is one of the highlights of the expanded album, with Nilsson singing across the rhythm of the pizzicato strings in the opening, the strings trying to drive the song forward while Nilsson lays back and sings as meditatively as the song requires. The song is taken at a much slower pace than most interpretations of it, and there are some wonderful touches in Nilsson’s vocal which no-one else would have done. Particularly impressive is his phrasing on the second time he sings “it’s a honky-tonk parade” — with that mention of a very different type of music, for the only time in this set of recordings he lets his voice go into something like a rock or R&B voice, evoking that honky-tonk feel for a couple of seconds.

Thanks for the Memory
Songwriters: Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin

Another film song, and once again from a classic comedy (Nilsson seemed to take most of these songs from lighter films, although that would in part be because those films were more likely to be musicals in the first place). This one was originally featured in the Bob Hope film The Big Broadcast of 1938, and was so popular at the time that another Hope film, the next year, was actually titled “Thanks for the Memory”, after the song.

Oddly, different singers seem to have sung radically different sets of lyrics for the song, with Bob Hope’s original, Frank Sinatra’s version, and this version differing so much they might as well be different songs, though all have the same theme of looking back at an old marriage that’s over (a theme that might well have meant a lot to Nilsson at that point). Indeed, Nilsson seems to be remembering lines from multiple different versions here, as quite often his verses don’t have the carefully rhymed structure of the other renditions of the song (and, oddly given the connections in the album, he misses out the memory “of rainbows on a wave”).

Over the Rainbow
Songwriters: Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg

And the CD version of the album finishes with yet another Judy Garland song — while Garland is not normally pointed to as a big influence on Nilsson, the sheer number of songs recorded during these sessions which she popularised or repopularised suggests that she was a favourite of his as a child.

Obviously this song is best known for featuring in The Wizard of Oz — although it was originally slated to be cut from the film and was only kept in at the insistence of the makers against the studio heads. That film was from 1939, so just at the start of the period from which most of these tracks are taken, although unlike many of the others here it was original to the film, not a wartime revival.

This is possibly the best known of all the songs on the album, largely because of the film, and it’s surprising that it wasn’t included on the original tracklist of the album.

Another song by Arlen and Harburg, the writers of “It’s Only A Paper Moon”, this became Garland’s signature tune for the rest of her life, and her version is the definitive one. Nilsson’s version cuts out the verse (“When all the world is a hopeless jumble”), which was also omitted from Garland’s version, sticking to the structure that the song had in the film. Opening with a soaring octave leap (on the word “somewhere”), the song has a rangey melody which Nilsson handles gracefully and delicately. There’s no trace here of the hoarseness which first appeared on Son of Schmilsson and which would plague him for the rest of his life — this is a man who is capable of taking on a song like this, which has an absolutely definitive performance which no-one could ever top, and yet making it his own with a sense of absolute confidence.

And that, more than anything else is what shines out throughout this album — a sense that Nilsson is in absolute command, and absolute control, of his voice. It would be the last time that was the case, but he rarely, if ever, sang better than on this album. If you can, I’d recommend getting hold of the video of Nilsson’s BBC session for this album (some of which is on the Who Is Harry Nilsson and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him? DVD) and just watching the casual way he turns in these magnificent, beautiful, vocals in single takes, with no drop-ins or fix-ups.

It might not be as personal an album as the ones on which he writes his own material, but as he had with Nilsson Sings Newman Nilsson seems freed by just being a singer, and turns in something quite, quite extraordinary. The beauty of the performances here only make it more tragic that he was about to destroy his voice forever.

By the time he recorded his next album, he wouldn’t be able to do anything like this any more, and we’d never again get Nilsson the great vocalist, but as a last example of Nilsson’s vocal artistry before his self-sabotage destroyed his voice forever, this could not be bettered.

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A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs Episode 14: Jambalaya


Sorry this one, on Hank Williams, is a day late. I used up all my buffer over the Xmas period and then had to deal with some family stuff on my normal recording day. Back to normal from next episode.

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