By the late 1970s my life had gotten into a pretty steady groove. Or was it the beginning of stagnation? I was prepared to stay right where I was in Berkeley, perhaps for the rest of my life. I hadn’t stopped drinking, but I was getting better at laying off for longer and longer periods of time.
Our place had a nice bay window with plenty of sun, and for a period Sally had gotten into growing all kinds of different things. One day she took a shot at germinating some pot seeds from my current stash. I wasn’t relying on pot to draw all that much anymore, but I was still smoking the stuff. Well, that particular experiment was a roaring success and I soon took it over. It seemed to have awakened a latent farmer within me. I absolutely had a green thumb and soon had more good pot growing than I knew what to do with! I didn’t start selling it but gave a lot of it away and started swapping with it as well. Al Dodge picked up on this pretty soon. First he swapped me a tuxedo, which I looked great in. More significantly, one afternoon, unannounced, he brought over a battered looking wind-up Victor talking machine he wanted to trade for weed. It didn’t look like much, but it played great and I still have it. Old acoustic 78s (those made mostly before 1925) sound great on it. There is an eerie presence that it gives to those old sides that has to be heard to be believed.
It is easy to see how these machines, which stayed largely unchanged for a generation, did so much to popularize the whole idea of records. The downside is that the machine has a heavy pick up. You really have to put a new steel needle in for every play and even then, it does wear records out. And this highlights a key problem of collecting 78s. You need a certain amount of pricey, high maintenance equipment to really do it right. You don’t want to play anything too rare on one of those old talking machines. Old opera records, though, were pretty popular and even now are mostly not all that pricey. You put a Caruso record on one of those things and, surface noise aside, it sounds like he’s right there in the room with you!
Well, one day Sally came home after some record hunting; she mostly found old dance band stuff, but on a whim she’d also bought a 1916 record of “O Sole Mio”, by Enrico Caruso. You all know the song. Elvis did it in the ’60s under the title “It’s Now Or Never.” We put it on. It was an amazing record; a fairly intimate arrangement with lots of mandolin. It was an exciting, vibrant record and sounded fantastic on our old crank up talking machine.
Of course, one thing about “O Sole Mio”: It’s not opera. It’s an old Italian folk song and it turned out that Caruso and his contemporaries recorded many of these along with the standard opera repertoire. So I started digging up more records of Caruso doing folk songs. This turned out to be a mixed bag. I dwindled away from this detour for a while.
However, on a tape I was making to send my old man of mostly jazz and dance band stuff I included the Caruso, “O Sole Mio” side on a whim. He wrote back saying he really liked the tape but, for him, hands down, the greatest thing on it was the Caruso side; “He sings like a bird!” he wrote. This was all the encouragement I needed (and wasn’t getting anywhere else). I started sniffing out more old sides by Caruso and other old-time opera greats, but this time dove right into the standard opera repertoire. What can I say? It was starting to blow my mind. I once read a standard history of the development of recorded music called The Fabulous Phonograph. In it the author said that of the early records, the first ones that were of lasting musical value were the records Caruso made at a studio in Carnegie Hall in 1904 and 1905. I would have to say that there is probably something to that, except to also site some 1901 ragtime-tinged tunes by Sousa’s band featuring the virtuoso trombone playing of Arthur Prior. Brass bands were recorded well by the old non-electric acoustical process. This had much to do with the popularity of early jazz band records a little later. But getting back to those ’04 and ’05 Caruso records: They are amazing. It’s so early in his recorded career that he is accompanied only by piano. But this just adds to the fascinating and exciting quality of these well-recorded sides. You can really hear young Caruso going to town on them in his rip-roaring prime! In 1906 they began to add more instrumental backing. There is a 1906 record of the Donizetti area, “Spirito Gentile” that features some really ambitious pizzicato violin playing that must have been a sensation back then and still sounds great today. I was going through an evolution that I definitely didn’t see coming. My favorite singer had gone from Bing Crosby to Enrico Caruso in pretty short order.
Sally was starting to feel like she’d created a Frankenstein when she brought home that disk of “O Sole Mio”. One day when I was polishing up a newly acquired 12-incher of “Martha” by Caruso Al Dodge looked at me balefully and said, “Don’t become an opera fan”, with all the another good man gone bad inflection he could throw at it. Well, I couldn’t help it! I started more seriously looking over Caruso’s competition. There was Beniamino Gigli, who sang with sweeter tone than Caruso in his prime. Tito Schippa didn’t have much vocal range, but sang with great feeling. For the time being at least I was confining my studies to tenors only: It seemed like they consistently seemed to get most of the best songs.
This is not to say that I was no longer listening to old jazz and dance bands. I was and I was still listening to the FM radio station KMPX, which played it all the time too. One interesting thing that happened there was that Bing Crosby, who lived in the Bay Area, began to occasionally show up there and do interviews. But generally speaking the interviews weren’t all that interesting. All his stories seemed like little set pieces, and one got the feeling that he really wasn’t all that into talking about the old days.
But there was one time that seemed different. Somehow he slipped past Paul Whiteman, Jolson, Bix, etc. and was talking about his early childhood and some of the things he listened to as a kid. And he landed on John McCormack. Well, I knew who John McCormack was. I had been passing over single-sided red Victors by this hugely popular tenor for years. He struck me as just about the squarest, dullest thing going. In fact I had been giving all those straight laced tenors like him, Henry Burr, Lewis James and Franklyn Baur the go-by for years (Well, a few sides by those last two had crept in as vocal refrains on otherwise peppy dance band sides). But, Bing just wasn’t letting go of McCormack that day on the radio, and was showing real enthusiasm, which mostly these interviews of his lacked. He described McCormack as the singer’s singer — a man who could do it all. He said that above and beyond the pop and Irish ditties that McCormack did, he was also an accomplished opera singer of the highest order. That was news! I never noticed any McCormack opera sides in old record piles, but then I hadn’t been looking for them either. I started picking up McCormack sides when I saw them and I was beginning to like a lot of them.
One thing that crossing the opera divide did was to open me up to being able to appreciate those various old fashioned pop tenors. McCormack’s record of “Roses Of Picardy” was a killer. In fact, there were any number of really great ones. Then one day I located an LP of all-opera McCormack stuff. Oh man! This was the best McCormack of all! He takes that old Verdi song from Rigoletto, “Questo a Quella” and floats it in the air in a way I’d never heard it done before. Everything comes down to personal taste in the end, but in my humble opinion McCormack was better than Caruso. I think he could do more things really well than Caruso ever dreamed of doing.
There is an aria in Mozart’s opera Don Giovani called “Il Mio Tesoro”. It is a tough song to put over. Caruso never even recorded it. Gigli made a big fat mess out of it. I’m guessing McCormack was somewhat hard pressed to put it over as well, because he only recorded it once, in 1916, and from a fidelity standpoint, it is not all that well recorded. But it has never been equaled by any other singer’s recording of it before or since. If McCormack’s reputation had to stand or fall on the basis of one side, this would have to be the one. Listen to that record in just the right mood and you feel like you’re just a shot away from the Holy Grail. So now my favorite singer arc was Crosby-to-Caruso-to the great McCormack.
Meanwhile, Sally’s old music quest was taking its own interesting turn. A young attractive girl collecting these old sides… well it was inevitable that a lot of the old high-end collectors started taking a shine to her. Through them she began to make contact with some of the original old crooners who were still around. Even Bing himself showed up one afternoon to do a TV spot at the studio she worked at. She gave me the high sign on that too and apparently Bing was in a good mood that day, signing old sheet music and records. I was too hung over to get my sorry ass over there. What a jerk! A few months later he dropped dead on a golf course in Spain. But I digress.
One of the old crooners Sally located was none other than Chick Bullock himself! He wasn’t nearby, but she got him on the phone and Chick, old romantic that he was, told her, “I am sure we will meet some day.” God bless them. I hope they did. One crooner that she became actual friends with was Smith Ballew. He had been a banjo player and then a a band singer through most of the 1920s, and even led his own band into the 30s. Tall and good looking along Gary Cooper lines, he had also been a singing cowboy for a while in the movies. Smith was now in his late 70s and living in a retirement community somewhere in Texas.
Sally and Smith hit it off and she was soon making frequent visits out to Texas to visit him. Was I jealous? No. The guy was crowding 80! I was more interested than anything else. However Smith was soon advising her about the ups and downs of her relationship with me! We were having our ups and downs and I found even that aspect of her relationship with this guy to be more interesting than anything else. I’ll never forget picking up the phone one time and hearing that very familiar Texas drawl saying, “Hello, can Ah speak to Sally?” Spooky, but fascinating!
Okay. An odd pattern seemed to be developing. Sally germinated a few pot seeds, my thumb turned green and I became a flourishing pot farmer. She brought home a Caruso record and I became a raging opera fan. So one day she brought home an album of 78 records by Henry Burr that some old duffer had loaned her. In his day, Henry Burr was huge on records, but it was all for the most part a phenomenon of the acoustical era of the teens and early 20s. What made the sides on this album so interesting was that they were all electric records (sides made after mid-1925) when Burr was already fast becoming a back number. Be that as it may, these records were collectively quite stunning, with beautiful, lush arrangements. Some of the titles were “Are You Lonesome Tonight” (which Elvis had such a hit with in the ’60s), “I’m All Alone In A Palace Of Stone” — a kind of bird in a guided cage type of thing. And there was an awesome record of that great Irving Berlin ballad “Always”.
Hmm! I asked Sally to see if the guy was willing to sell or trade them. No dice. I had to satisfy myself for the time being with dubbing them onto reel-to-reel tape. So I started buying Henry Burr records, at first trying to confine it to the electric era, but that dam didn’t hold long. I never saw it coming, but now I was out the window for, of all people, Henry Burr!
When I started studying up a little on Burr, I discovered that one series of records he made that were well regarded in some circles were team-ups with the sax player Rudy Weidoft. Weidoft was interesting in that he was a player who often played lots of tricky syncopated things, but they were by no means jazzy. He had greatness but it was more along the lines of curious and interesting Americana. I think the idea of teaming him up with Burr was sort of an attempt to update Burr. I’m not sure that it exactly accomplished that but it made for some interesting and sometimes very wonderful sides. One with Weidoft that I got off a Record Research auction was an early electric of the song “Alone At Last”. I knew the song chiefly from an uptempo dance band version by the Coon Sanders band. And I later came across a Fletcher Henderson band version with Louis Armstrong soloing on it. More on that last tidbit in a minute. The Burr/Weidoft record is incredible. It had this mystically transforming effect on me from the first time I heard it and remains one of my favorite records. It’s not jazz but it has a quintessential ’20s sound that I just love.
But let’s get back to jazz for a minute. There are a lot more diverse influences within it than are immediately apparent. It is a known fact that Louis Armstrong was an avid record collector all his life. Well, he was born in 1901, so if that statement is true he must have been collecting records even before there were any jazz records to collect. Someone once put that to him, and it was interesting: He must have heard the Burr/Weidoft “Alone At Last” because he sited Henry Burr among those that he collected. He was also a big opera fan. When pressed on that point he said that some of his opera favorites were, “Caruso, Tetrazinni, and John McCormack fo’ phrasing” Well gosh, John McCormack was a lot of things but no one ever accused him of being a jazz singer. Just the same, listen to his barn burning record of “Il Mio Tesoro” some time. It may not be jazz, but it sure has rhythm.