Glorious Failure Personified: The Eternal Reverberations of Thunderclap Newman

Thunderclap LP cover

by David N. Lewis

The announcement I posted on my facebook account noting the death of pianist Andy “Thunderclap” Newman at the age of 73 elicited little interest or comment. I’m not surprised; it’s in keeping with his group Thunderclap Newman’s history of underachieving un-success, despite introducing a song that represents a key tenet of the counterculture revolution and including — in addition to Newman himself — two of the major talents of the British music scene of the 1960s. Moreover, Thunderclap Newman was fostered by none other than The Who’s Pete Townsend in a project undertaken while he was working on the rock opera “Tommy” in what was likely his finest creative period.

I first came into contact with Thunderclap Newman around 1979 when I found their lone album, “Hollywood Dream,” in the 99 cent bin of a used record store. I didn’t know anything about them, but their LP was on Track Records which I knew because I already owned “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown” and the Heartbreakers’ “L.A.M.F.,” both on Track. In America, Atlantic treated Track Records as an afterthought and pressed their LPs on cheap, styrene injection molded crap usually reserved for singles, though the much later “L.A.M.F.” was on genuine vinyl for all of the good it did in terms of the sound of that record; the singles drawn from it — still injection molded, even in the U.K. — actually sounded better. The Thunderclap Newman album sounded excellent despite its poor carrier, and I was attracted to “Hollywood Dream” as it really didn’t sound like rock music; it had elements of vaudeville, lyrical sleight-of-hand and an assemblage-like character — Newman referred to it as a “mosaic” — shot through with typically dry English wit. It was definitely something not for our market.

The group was itself an assemblage, pulled together, Monkees-style, by Townsend at the suggestion of producer Kit Lambert. Andy Newman was a gifted, self-taught amateur that had tipped into the British trad scene, and Jimmy McCulloch was a Scottish kid and hotshot guitarist already active in a long list of British Invasion groups that never invaded. John “Speedy” Keen was a songwriter and a unique talent; his songs were quirky, witty, irreverent and obviously the product of a quick, intelligent mind. Speedy didn’t have the most attractive singing voice and was a keyboardist; not so usefully, given the presence of Newman in the group, so he played drums. Townsend wanted to do solo projects with all three, but as he was by then deep into “Tommy,” Kit Lambert encouraged Townsend to coalesce the trio’s oil-water-vinegar talents into a single unit, ultimately named after Newman and his given nickname of “Thunderclap.”

They are often described as ‘one-hit wonders’, but I don’t think this is apt; they were more of a wonder that managed to have a hit. “Something in the Air” was a gentle Speedy Keen song that reached No. 1 in the British charts and No. 37 — somewhat later — in the U.S. Though it’s not my favorite Thunderclap Newman song, I feel that it’s undeniably effective; it has a certain atmosphere of innocence and naïveté while conveying a sentiment that chimed in with the general feeling of the counterculture in 1969 — “we have got to get it together, because the revolution’s here.” With Woodstock and Apollo 11 just around the corner, it must’ve really felt that way; the Kent State shootings in May 1970 would teach us all otherwise. The title of the song was originally “Revolution,” but Keen was forced to change it in the wake of The Beatles’ hit by that name; I’m sure that Phil Collins had “Something in the Air” in the back of his mind when he wrote the 80s hit “In the Air Tonight.”

“Accidents” — Thunderclap Newman’s follow up to “Something in the Air” as transformed into a ten-minute suite on the “Hollywood Dream” album — was far more to my taste. It’s full of oddball chord changes and harmonic combinations and it is typified by patchwork transitions from one texture into another in a loose and improvisational manner. A lot of it conveys the general feeling of The Who, reflecting preferences of its producer, but it’s far more adventurous and variable — it’s not of a whole cloth, but of several stitched together. The first side of “Hollywood Dream” strikes me as especially interesting and memorable; the second side less so, but overall I can’t think of another album from 1969 that’s quite like it. And I love Andy Newman’s janky, spirited and utterly unpredictable piano improvisations; leading here, leading there and never really landing but touching on interesting spots along the way.

“Something in the Air” climbing the charts took the whole band by surprise, and soon they were obliged to play live dates, even to tour. Folding in a bass player other than Townsend and ultimately a drummer – at first, Jimmy’s older brother Jack – Thunderclap played their first live date before a packed house, for which they barely rehearsed. Soon they were supporting Deep Purple and Leon Russell on tour, and were slated to tour Scotland on their own as a headliner, when the end arrived; in April 1971, Thunderclap Newman came apart. It wasn’t slated to stand together; Andy Newman liked Speedy Keen’s songwriting but didn’t much care for him personally, and it was in retrospect that Newman developed a personal admiration for his former musical partner. While Andy did like Jimmy McCulloch, Jimmy’s extremely flexible sense of rhythm — which ambled both ahead of and behind the beat, always looking for a hole to fall into — was difficult to play along with. “Hollywood Dream” was, and is, Thunderclap Newman’s only album and, as far as I know, other than the three single releases that preceded it, they didn’t have anything else in the can and never embarked on another recording project.

Music was never the main event as far as Andy Newman was concerned and he went off to other pursuits. After his solo album “Rainbow” appeared in 1971, and participating in the making of Roger Ruskin Spear’s album “Electric Shocks,” Newman got out of the business. A “new” Thunderclap Newman formed to play a one-off gig in Sussex in 2010 and subsequently toured, though this experiment proved short-lived. I remember being given a big box of singles from a radio station around 1974 and Speedy Keen’s “Let Us In” was among them; it didn’t impress me then, and it doesn’t now. I feel that Speedy Keen was under pressure to produce something that was as successful as “Something in the Air,” but couldn’t remember the formula or didn’t have a sense for it that he could draw from. Just being Speedy was the best thing he could’ve done, and that was the hardest thing to do because it was not really commercial — his was a vague talent that drew from flashes of inspiration that perhaps had stopped coming by 1974. Keen did have acumen of a certain kind as a record producer; he could make a solid, basic rock record without too much in the way of intervention and keep difficult artists in the studio and working; that should have kept him busy ever onward, but it didn’t. One would think him a natural choice for The Heartbreakers’ “L.A.M.F”; they played a few songs pretty much the same way every time, and it wouldn’t seem like a hard job at the outset. But as the CD that collects all of the various surviving mixes of “L.A.M.F.” demonstrates, the project was an exercise in misery, with noisy mix after noisier mix failing to capture the beating heart of The Heartbreakers. Keen also produced the first sessions by echt-new wave metal band Motörhead a bit before that. Keen didn’t long survive in music past The Heartbreakers, though his early death at age 56 in 2002 still came as a bit of a shock.

Jimmy McCulloch, though, had the saddest and strangest end of anyone in Thunderclap Newman. After Thunderclap, he went through a series of bands, including Stone the Crows, before landing a three-year stint in Wings, the longest of all of his associations. And it was lucrative, though one could imagine unsatisfying, as he had to play second fiddle to taste-challenged — but endeared to band’s leader Paul McCartney — guitarist Denny Laine, in addition to picking up bass duties when Macca was playing the piano or guitar. Jimmy had been long out of Wings when he died on September 27, 1979 at age 26 of a deadly cocktail of either heroin or morphine mixed with alcohol consumption. This has led to Jimmy gaining a reputation as a “druggie;” not fair, as he maintained an anti-drug stance in his life and his work. I’m not an expert on it, and don’t really want to know the details, but I think what may have happened to Jimmy was similar to what took away my friend Charlie Ondras, who had never tried hard drugs before his first time, which turned out to be the last, as he caught hold of a bad strain. At the time he died, McCulloch was involved in The Dukes, an utterly unremarkable British band that to my ears sounded like a cross between Wings and The Doobie Brothers, though packaged in a New-Wavey album cover.

In the 80s, for some reason MCA repackaged “Hollywood Dream” as a reissue LP with a new cover featuring a cardboard standup of Speedy Keen with the image of the Hollywood Hills in the background. I got it because I had lost my old injection-molded Track LP and was anxious to recover the music for myself, though I noted that the new cover made no sense. On “Hollywood #1”, Keen sang “I wish there was a Hollywood just like there used to be…”; just like there used to be, not Hollywood as it was in the 80s. In Keen’s lyric, he is feeling a pang of nostalgia for something he never could’ve experienced, and that typifies much of what goes on here, from McCulloch’s bluesy crescendos to Newman’s ragtime-fueled piano pumping. Yet that’s still in keeping with the whole Thunderclap Newman project in that none of it makes sense; not the combination of talent, the success of “Something in the Air,” their subsequent history or even Lambert’s notion as to why they should’ve been put together in the first place. And I guess that’s why I like it so much; “Hollywood Dream” shouldn’t work, but parts of it do.

Thunderclap reissue LP

Failure makes for strange bedfellows, and Thunderclap Newman is one of the strangest beds yet; their partnership is certainly the equal of Jackie Gleason meets Salvador Dalì or the album Tex Ritter made with the Stan Kenton orchestra. Nevertheless, there is a kind of gloriousness to the failure/sort-of success that “Hollywood Dream” represents that I find lacking in these other ill-conceived combinations of talent, and it’s the only Pete Townsend project outside of The Who that I find admirable at all. I guess if a man falls down a flight of stairs five times in the course of day and doesn’t break his neck, then that’s a sort of miracle. That is the kind of miracle that “Hollywood Dream” is; hence my admiration for it.

— Uncle Dave Lewis, Hamilton Ohio April 2, 2016

Thunderclap Newman: Accidents

 

Remembering Max

max-linder-a

One person in film that I research is French director Louis Gasnier, whose biography I contributed to Wikipedia at Louis Gasnier Biography. Gasnier worked closely with, and is said to have discovered, silent film comedian Max Linder (1883-1925). Back in the ‘Naughties I worked as an editor for a major media information site and contributed to them a piece about Linder. Yesterday I discovered this text in an old email, and checked their site only to discover that the poor biography this was designed to replace is still there; perhaps mine was never added. Although I have readied several blog posts for this Halloween season I suspect I might not be able to get any of them up this particular Halloween as I am swamped. This Max Linder piece, though, was written in 2009 and I’d prefer that it not go unpublished.

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French actor-director Max Linder was the earliest comedian in the movies to enjoy international fame. Linder’s gracious and agile command of slapstick and rudimentary, but significant, explorations of the interaction between comedy and dramatic elements were a direct influence on further silent film comics; first and most importantly Charlie Chaplin, whose threadbare tramp costume was the polar opposite of Linder’s natty, top hatted gentleman.

A native of the Gironde region in France, Linder was already an established stage actor when he entered the cinema with Pathé Frères in 1905. Among his early directors was Louis J. Gasnier, who made Max Learns to Skate (1907), the film in which Linder introduced the character known to moviegoers as “Max,” in his trademark silk top hat, suit, walking stick and manicured moustache. This film and Troubles of a Grasswidower (1912) are the most frequently seen of Linder’s short comedies, and in their time these titles were popular throughout the world; in 1912, Linder was the most highly paid actor on the screen. Troubles of a Grasswidower was directed by Linder himself; from 1908 he began to direct some of his own films, though after 1912 he preferred to do so with the help of an assistant. Not all of Linder’s films were necessarily comedies; some had a semi-documentary flavor in which the character Max would interact with non-actors, and others had a serious components, with Max panicking, trying to kill himself or having an intense emotional reaction to something, or being placed in a situation of real danger – with Linder doing his own stunts. European audiences were so fascinated with the character that at the peak of his popularity they followed him in whatever he did.

Linder was already high-strung and unstable psychologically by the time World War I broke out, but nevertheless left the movies in 1914 in order to join the war effort. Linder was wounded very seriously at least twice; being gassed in one instance and managing to survive when a shell hit the car he was driving as a volunteer. Ultimately, the French Army refused to allow Linder to return to active duty; the experience left him in poor health both physically and emotionally. Although he made a few films during this time, he found it difficult to return to his profession. The American Essanay Company stepped in at this juncture; their top comedy star, Charlie Chaplin, had left them and they were looking for Linder to replace him. Linder’s made three two reelers for Essanay, his first American films, but they were better received in Europe than in the United States, and Essanay swiftly cancelled his contract.

Linder resumed his career in Europe, but suffered a nervous breakdown and spent most of 1918-19 in a Swiss sanatorium. In 1921, he returned to Hollywood, founded his own production company and made three features of which the first, Seven Years Bad Luck (1921) is the most frequently shown – its “mirror sequence” was later famously co-opted by The Marx Brothers, though Linder may have cribbed it from Chaplin. Although it is a virtuoso comic turn, Linder was already confiding to friends by this time that he no longer thought he was funny.

Notwithstanding, Linder enjoyed one more extraordinary artistic success upon his return to Europe with Au Secours! (1924) a short film made in collaboration with his old friend Abel Gance that combined elements of comedy, horror and experimental film techniques. That year, Linder also married, had a daughter, and it appeared that his life was back on track. Tragically, on Halloween 1925, Linder and his young wife perished in an agonizing double suicide (or murder/suicide; the truth is not known even today), an event which sent shock waves throughout the industry and for a long time irreparably damaged Linder’s reputation as a comic and movie star. The daughter, however, survived, and Maud Linder lived to play a critical role in Linder’s rehabilitation, first through producing the compilation film Laugh with Max Linder (1963) and then in directing the documentary The Man in the Silk Hat (1983), both devoted to her father. Max Linder made at least 200 films; some sources claim a figure closer to 500, but the true figure remains as yet unknown. Linder directed half of his known output: about a hundred of his films survive and continue to be seen in Europe, particularly in France, but only a handful are seen with any regularity elsewhere. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis

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At that time there was a YouTube channel called “notremaxnational” which hosted about 75 Max Linder videos, and I regret that I did not see them all before the site was taken down. After Keystone, in Chaplin one notes a growing unanimity of style; the Little Tramp’s adventures and character are gradually refined down to the smallest detail in a vision that grows increasingly limited, though not without making gains in poignancy, depth, comic effect and great cinematic skill. What typifies Max Linder is a sense of variety; sometimes his films are comedies, sometimes not. But what unifies many of them is his desire to epatér le bourgeois which came long before the surrealists; the constant tribulations and follies of his prosperous, and panicky, character contained a grain of truth and satire. He knew that the dapper bourgeois of his day was doomed, but to the detriment of his health he sought to protect the society that he knew so well. I think of Max around Halloween; that his life ended as the self-destructive monster he became is not something I’ll ever fully understand, much as I comprehend and accept that his lesser contemporary Billie Ritchie was a self-centered jerk who was his own worst enemy. Knowing these things do not prevent me from enjoying either Ritchie or Linder, though in Linder’s case I do feel an additional kind of sadness; his work seldom gets much attention though his accomplishments were huge, and the nature of his fate will always keep some viewers away from his door. Nevertheless, Linder’s prodigious body of work is what it is, and I think everyone who cares about film should at least be aware of him. For those who are willing to follow the adventures of the “Man in the Silk Top Hat” there is a lot to discover and enjoy; Max Linder’s output is unique. — David Neal Lewis, Hamilton, OH 10-27-2015

Le chapeau de Max (1913)

Cracking the Continental Code

Masterseal MSLP 5013, "Hi-Fi Jazz Session," 1957
Masterseal MSLP 5013, “Hi-Fi Jazz Session,” 1957

Cracking the Continental Code
By Uncle Dave Lewis

When Rebecca and I were celebrating our Honeymoon in Logan, Ohio a few weeks ago, we did a little record shopping (my birthday was the following Monday) and found a treasure I’d sought for many moons, “Hi-Fi Jazz Session” (Masterseal MSLP 5013, 1957). I had known of it since I was a child, since my parents owned MS-1001, “Hi-Fi Sampler,” the ultra-cheap sampler LP drawn from the Masterseal catalog. “Hi-Fi Jazz Session” was pictured on the back, along with other albums, and I was interested. Even though it was a common, inexpensive album, I never seemed to have success in turning it up. Back in the 80s I found the jacket without a record in it, and used it to store another jazz album I owned that didn’t have a cover. The copy we found in Logan, thankfully, was well cared for, in a plastic outer sleeve and with a paper inner. Whoever owned it before me valued it.

Diving into the content, I soon discovered that it was hardly “Hi-Fi” — the vinyl was thankfully quiet, not always the case with the Gabors, but the recordings were all pretty old by the time the master tape was compiled, and extra reverb adds that artificial “Hi-Fi” touch. I’ve also owned some Continental 78s, some of which sounded pretty wretched, so I’m not doing too much complaining here. But there is no proper track listing on the jacket, and the liner notes by Joseph P. Muranyi identifies the various pieces in a chatty way, with partial personnel listings and seldom mentioning which groups really did these things. Titles are changed, identities are concealed and it is hard to know what you’re really listening to.

So I took a couple of hours and basically have it all worked out save one track. This is a guide to actually what’s on the album. Someone at Discogs went through the trouble of copying personnel listings from Muranyi’s notes, which may be found here: http://www.discogs.com/Various-Hi-Fi-Jazz-Session/release/1377584 The accuracy of this listing, unfortunately, falls on the sword of the material provided in Muranyi, and I may update it sometime, but my project deals more with provenance of the recordings, all of which were made in New York except where noted.

"Hi-Fi Jazz Session" side 1
“Hi-Fi Jazz Session” side 1

A1. Sarah Vaughan with Dizzy Gillespie Septet: Mean to Me, recorded May 25, 1945, original release Continental 6024
A2. Timmie Rosenkrantz and his Barons: Bouncy, recorded December 1944, original release Continental 6012
A3. Timmie Rosenkrantz and his Barons: Blues at Dawn, recorded December 1944, original release Continental 6012
A4. Clyde Hart’s All Stars: What(‘s the Matter Now), recorded January 4, 1945, original release Continental 6013
A5. Clyde Hart’s All Stars: (I Want) Every Bit (of It), recorded January 4, 1945, original release Continental 6013
A6. H. Carel’s Combo: Rose Noire, no other information

"Hi-Fi Jazz Session," side 2
“Hi-Fi Jazz Session,” side 2

B1. Cozy Cole’s All Stars: Look Here, recorded November 14, 1944, original release Continental 6000 (not “Comes the Don,” as shown on the album)
B2. Cozy Cole’s All Stars: Timmie’s Time (aka “The Beat,” “Beat Bounce”), recorded 1945, original release Continental 6014 (credited on later Gabor releases to Red Norvo)
B3. Freddie Mitchell (as Hen Gates Combo); Doby’s Boogie (aka “Cravin'”), recorded in Detroit, 1950, original release Derby 713
B4. Dorothy Donegan: Kilroy Was Here, recorded 1946, original release Continental 6056
B5. Sabby Lewis and his Orchestra: Edna, recorded 1946, original release Continental 6035
B6. Eddie South Trio: Swinging the Blues, recorded 1947. original release Continental 604?

A few things about Don Gabor’s jazz program. Gabor immigrated to the United States in 1938 and got a job as a stock boy at RCA Victor, and within two years he was working as a supervisor in RCA’s foreign division. Lots of staffers at RCA ran their own labels, and Gabor started Continental in 1941, at first issuing recordings of composer Bela Bartók in addition to polkas and various ethnic fare; I have owned some of the early Continentals, pressed at RCA Victor, and they sound really nice, though he eventually moved to cheaper pressing materials. Gabor started his jazz program in 1944 and ended it around 1947; Leonard Feather was the initial A&R on this project, though Timmie Rosenkrantz would have produced his own recording as that is what he did, and perhaps others helmed this series as it progressed. As far as I know it consisted of 61 couplings in a 6000 series with another nine in a short lived 10000 series and perhaps three more couplings in yet other series, though it is harder to tell if those were made by Continental or came from outside. I’ve never seen a complete listing of them, but the 146 masters indicated seem to be the extent of what Gabor achieved in jazz recording; most, maybe all, of the jazz masters that appeared on his various labels afterward were acquired from labels that had gone under, and there were many to choose from in the years 1947-1954.

Apparently the only photo of pianist Clyde Hart (1910-1945), via The Remington Site
Apparently the only photo of pianist Clyde Hart (1910-1945), via The Remington Site

Don Gabor’s personal expertise was solidly in classical music and what we now call “world;” not in jazz, and at first that was an advantage, as he picked his talent from what was going on around him. What that was in 1944 was the 52nd Street bebop revolution which had just begun, and Continental was one of the very first companies to record it. At the time, this was music that almost no one else wanted; for the year 1945, the only other labels in New York recording bebop were tiny ones like Continental: Manor, Guild, Comet and Herman Lubinsky’s slightly more established Savoy label. The Sarah Vaughan track that opens this album comes from the second studio recording session she ever had, and her first was for Continental also. Clyde Hart was a pianist who died, at age 35, in March 1945, and his sessions for Continental and Manor were the only ones he led. Hart isn’t even mentioned in the notes of the “Hi-Fi Jazz Session” album, even though two of the tracks are his. Charlie Parker is all over these sides, playing in an interesting, formative style still in development. There is a piece of a home recorded tape well known to Charlie Parker fans where he humorously describes what happened to singer Henry “Rubberlegs” Williams when he got hold of a tab of Benzedrine; perhaps the Hart session is where that incident happened, as Rubberlegs takes crazy vocal choruses on both Clyde Hart tracks.

Original Continental 78 label for Sabby Lewis's "Edna"
Original Continental 78 label for Sabby Lewis’s “Edna”

Not all that glitters here is gold: the Eddie South track, which features Detroit-based pianist Hank Jones, is a little bit of a letdown. It’s underpowered, and Eddie’s vocal is somewhat off his best. While Muranyi quips that the rare track by little known Boston bandleader Sabby Lewis is “a typical riff-oriented big band tune of the forties,” in my view it is one of the highlights of the album. None of the Sabby Lewis sidemen are mentioned on “Hi-Fi Jazz Session,” but the original Continental 78 rpm label lists a tenor saxophonist by the name of “Paul Gonsalez,” really Paul Gonsalves who set the latter-day Duke Ellington orchestra ablaze in the 50s and 60s. This track shows that, even with Sabby Lewis, Gonsalves was already kindling his personal flame. Boogie Woogie specialist Dorothy Donegan made several fine Continentals, some of which I used to have; “Kilroy was Here” is in keeping with her dynamic, pumping style of boogie. Red Norvo is also prominently heard on this album; in 1945, he had just picked up the vibes after years of stubborn dedication to the xylophone and was making hair-raising note choices and exploring an astonishing variety of rhythmic ideas. Coleman Hawkins turns up on the first Cozy Cole track, Dizzy Gillespie is heard with Sarah and Clyde Hart; Slam Stewart, Tiny Grimes, Johnny Guarnieri, Don Byas, Charlie Shavers, Trummy Young, Charlie Ventura, Johnny Bothwell etc. etc. etc. are heard here and there. This is fabulous stuff, and you’ve got to wonder why on earth it would be collected onto an album that cost $1.49.

In 1954, Don Gabor bought the Derby Records label off the receiver’s index, and picked up much of Freddie Mitchell’s best work with it. Freddie was an R&B saxophonist whose discs are very loose, raw, clearly mostly improvised and quite similar to one another — I LOVE these records! I do believe that Freddie Mitchell contributed to the development of rock ‘n roll and that, along with John Lee Hooker, he was one of the only guys in Detroit who was doing that as early as he did. But to say that his Derby Records, made in 1950-51, ARE rock ‘n roll is not an entirely responsible way to approach them. That did not deter Don Gabor, who repackaged a bunch of the Derbys into album called “Let’s Go Dancing to Rock ‘n Roll” (Masterseal MSLP 5005, 1957) and put it in the bins at $1.49. He changed the name of the talent to “Hen Gates and his Gaters” and the ‘Hen Gates’ track here was something Derby released as “Doby’s Boogie” in 1950. Muranyi justifies the inclusion of this screaming honker into this ‘jazz’ album as “This […] proves that there’s nothing new under the sun, not even in Rock and Roll.” Man, were these guys ever out of touch!

Finally, that leaves H. Carel, whose name might have been “Carels,” and his combo. I have no idea what this is; the name might be changed, and it sounds vaguely European. Or not. It’s trumpet, baritone sax, piano and rhythm and if you can figure out what it is, I’d love to know. The bari sounds a little like Gerry Mulligan, but is nowhere near as good as he was.

Although its first, classical releases appeared in 1951 — and the name “Masterseal” deliberately chosen to create confusion with “Columbia Masterworks” — Masterseal was mainly a latter-day Don Gabor enterprise, starting in 1957 and ending around 1963. “Hi-Fi Jazz Session” had an identical predecessor on one of Gabor’s other labels called “Sarah & Dizzy” (Plymouth P 12-146, 1956) and it was also included in Gabor’s “Music Appreciation Library,” verbatim, as “A Jam Session by Sarah Vaughan and other Jazz Stars” (Paris International DG-120, ca. 1958). While I can’t seem to find a reference for it at present, Gabor also issued an LP that was half this album and half another album. He didn’t even try to disguise it; all of the matrix numbers for these various sides are the same.

I guess there is still every reason to want “Hi-Fi Jazz Session” in you can find it in better than good condition. The Danish label Storyville has issued three CDs devoted to what they call the “Continental Sessions” which collects much of the bebop stuff in discographical order, and they may as well do that (see http://www.bluebeatmusic.com/product_info.php?cPath=15&products_id=3237). Not long before Don Gabor died in 1980, he sold his entire operation to a fellow with connections to organized crime, later convicted on federal charges. The new owner was carted off to jail, and the former Don Gabor vault seized by the FBI. Recently this lead was checked out and none of that material now exists in any federal lockup; all of it was either discarded or destroyed. So it is doubtful that we will ever hear this music in much higher-fi than what comes from a well-kept copy of “Hi-Fi Jazz Session.” Although Don Gabor made some superb jazz recordings, he didn’t really care about them — his various packages of this material proves that — and I don’t think that he understood them. Nevertheless, judging from all of the words I have expended on this album, I am very happy that my two bucks spent in Logan brought it home, and perhaps some this read this will be less inclined to toss it aside once found. It really isn’t junk, and if you know what you’re listening to, it’s much, much easier to enjoy. — Uncle Dave Lewis, Hamilton, Ohio 9-9-2015

Links

The gumshoe work on Don Gabor has been truly done, for all of us, by Rudolf A. Bruil. Set aside some time and check out the awesome Remington site.

http://www.soundfountain.org/rem/remgabor.html

The following discographies also helped me realize different aspects of this project:

http://www.78discography.com/Continental40.htm

http://www.jazzdisco.org/charlie-parker/

http://www.jazzdisco.org/dizzy-gillespie/

http://www.discogs.com/label/93128-Masterseal

http://www.sepiajazz-vinyl.com/page/page/800704.htm

William McEwan: The Feisty Scot that Pioneered American Gospel Recording

I have been working close to eight years now on a project involving early Gospel recordings with some friends, and for the moment that is about all that I can say about it. However, it will be very comprehensive in regard to Gospel recording up through 1900.  Homer Rodeheaver’s recording career opened up a new chapter in Gospel recording and transformed it from a limited, occasional undertaking to part of the regular diet of the record companies. But Homer did not set foot into recording studio until 1913; what of the singers that were recording Gospel between Sankey’s last cylinder — circa 1900 — and Homer’s first test?

A couple of weeks ago Rebecca and I went to New York’s City College to deliver a talk on bandleader Hal Kemp, sponsored by the ARSC New York Chapter. On my way back, we stopped in Western Pennsylvania and picked up right around a hundred records, ranging from Uncle Josh to The Monkees. I was thinking of featuring many of them here, but Rebecca warned that sometimes the small projects that I undertake take time away from the big ones, and that she feels sometimes that I do them in order to avoid the big ones. It’s a wise observation, and I feel I should temper my enthusiasm about our finds with a sense of knowing what’s really important.

This one does, I think, pass muster:

William McEwan, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in its American release, recorded in London November 1911.
William McEwan, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in its American release, recorded in London November 1911.

William McEwan — Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1911)

I had never heard of William McEwan, despite all of the years that I have put into studying early Gospel records. McEwan was a Scottish singer who took over for Homer Rodeheaver in the William E. Biederwulf campaigns in 1909 when Rody joined Billy Sunday that year. McEwan also beat Rody into the studio by nearly two years, recording several of the same hymns Rody himself would do starting in 1913. Finding him, at first, proved a difficult matter. Rebecca — who is of Scottish extraction, and would know — told me that the name “William McEwan” was rather common among the Scots, and my first candidate was a brewer, born in the 1820s, and certainly not my guy. The Scottish folksinger Mark Thompson, however, has posted a blog that contains most of McEwan’s story:

100 Years of William McEwan

I say “most of” as it breaks off just before McEwan enters into the studio for the second time in 1922; he is said to have made 82 recordings, which have been compiled onto cassettes or CDs already in some form. As the first 24 of them were waxed in 1911 then the remaining 58 must’ve been made from 1922-1942.

Gipsy Smith in his Salvation Army uniform. Dismissed in 1882, he went on as a traveling evangelist for another 65 (!) years.
Gypsy Smith in his Salvation Army uniform. Dismissed in 1882, he went on as a traveling evangelist for another 65 (!) years.

This is not designed to be a long blog post, and before I close I wanted to address some of the claims Thompson makes in regard to Gospel recording between Sankey and Rodeheaver. General William Booth’s few recordings, made in 1905, are notable, but not musical. Gipsy Smith (1860-1947) recorded 13 sides for Columbia in 1910 and, like McEwan, made no more until 1922; four additional titles for Columbia, followed by five more at the Richmond, Indiana Starr Piano Company studio in a 1923 session probably set up by Homer Rodeheaver. I know of no more recordings of Gipsy Smith, though if anyone knows of more I would be happy to hear about them.

There are two figures that Thompson leaves out that are worth mentioning. First is singer Henry Burr (1882-1941), the most prolific recording artist in world history, narrowly edging out Bollywood playback singer Lata Mangheshkar. Homer Rodeheaver credited Burr with being his inspiration and acknowledged him as his direct forerunner in recording Gospel songs. Although some may have trouble distinguishing the significance of Burr’s sacred output from the thousands of other recordings he made, I think Rody is right here. One thing we have learned from the project that I mentioned at the start of this post is that the early record industry maintained a rather cool attitude towards Gospel and didn’t go out of its way to embrace it, despite ample public sentiment in favor of it. Burr’s persistence in recording Gospel was significant, and it paid off, eventually; he began making records in 1902 and made sacred records from the very beginning. Homer’s own battered copy of “Throw Out the Lifeline” featuring Burr and Frank C. Stanley — on Standard, and from 1908 — still resides at the Winona History Center. Burr had basically retired from recording when Rodeheaver persuaded him to join in on a session in 1927; though Burr would go on to a long career singing on the WLS National Barn Dance in his last years, this duet with Rodeheaver and organist Mark Andrews was his ca. 14,000th and final commercial recording.

Henry Burr's last record, with Homer Rodeheaver, 1927
Henry Burr’s last record, with Homer Rodeheaver, 1927

Homer Rodeheaver & Henry Burr: Where the Gates Swing Outward Never (1927)

Note that both audio selections, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Where the Gates Swing Outward Never” were composed by Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932). Rodeheaver recorded “Where the Gates” several times with Gabriel himself as the second voice for Rainbow, but alas, never made an electrical recording of it with Gabriel as he did with Burr.

Finally there is the matter of Charles M. Alexander (1867-1920), whose scant output of recording I have long known about, thanks to my friend Norman Field’s website.

Charles Alexander

By rights we ought not to have Alexander’s voice at all, despite his importance in evangelism; he didn’t really accept recording with enthusiasm, and most of what he did was not published. However, as with General Booth, what little we have we ought to be grateful for, as I am grateful now to know of William McEwan and his place among early Gospel recordists.

— Uncle Dave Lewis Hamiton, OH 6-30-2015

Found at Last: The Orloff Trio

The Orlaff Trio played on this side and three other Rainbows, but were never credited on the label. Author's collection,
The Orloff Trio played on this side and three other Rainbows, but were never credited on the label. Author’s collection.

It has been more than ten years since I went through the Rainbow Records catalogs of the 1920s, looking for a way to reconcile the confusing number series that Homer Rodeheaver employed, a mystery to that time that no one seemed able to unravel. One important clue to the answer was the listed accompaniments; Rainbow catalogs were quite careful in connoting the specific kinds of accompaniments on records, if not the people playing them. In the 7 or 800 Rainbow records that I have handled since that project, I found only one instance where the catalog listings were in error in regard to accompaniment. I deduced that if the accompaniment had changed, then the record had been remade, and this has helped to open the door to understanding the Rainbow label’s output as a whole.

In some instances, the accompanists were identified by name. It was relatively easy to find the Smith-Spring-Holmes Orchestral Quartet, a busy instrumental act on the Chautauqua circuit of the 1920’s that featured cellist Lotus Flower Spring, a sort of a sex symbol to the religious-minded of that era and a figure that elicited much gossip in sacred magazines of that time. Clay Smith, her husband, was a noted composer and a legend in the field of saxophone pedagogy. So these folks were pretty easy to research, and it was fruitful, as they played on many Rainbow Records; their odd blend of instruments was easy to identify.

Not so the “Orlaff”, or Orloff, Trio. They were only listed in Rainbow catalogs, and not on record labels so far as I could tell. Their few recordings belonged to a tight group of Rainbows made during the Billy Sunday Crusade in Cincinnati in April, 1921. I was able to confirm their presence at this event from local newspaper coverage of the crusade, but I did not learn much else; not for years, though their standard instrumentation was evident from the first: violin, cello and piano.

Last night, I was going through my Rainbow catalog for the gazillionth time, examining the Cincinnati section towards a project intended for the Public Library of Cincinnati and making small corrections. I realized for the first time that in copying out the Rainbow catalogs that I had two spellings for the group: “Orlaff” and “Orloff.” It occurred to me that I had only ever looked up the “Orlaff” spelling, so I tried “Orloff” instead and discovered that the “laff” was on me. There, from an obscure 1920 issue of the John Herron Art Institute Bulletin of Indianapolis was mention of a Sunday concert series given by the Orloff Trio: Jean (or Jeanette) Orloff, violin; Genevieve Hughel, cello and Mrs. Clarence Coffin, pianist.

This would not be the end of my spelling bee; I found that Genevieve was also spelled “Geneve” with any number of variants for her last name, and that Mrs. Clarence was either Leonora or Lenora, though the spelling of “Coffin” was pretty persistent. I figured that I needed to call RS Forste onto the case, and that was the right thing to do, as she swiftly found dozens upon dozens of newspaper articles on the Orloff Trio for me, including this:

January 16, 1921. Courtesy of RS Forste.
January 16, 1921. Courtesy of RS Forste.

These ladies were not amateurs, playing for pleasure at the church social or at vacuous dinners held by prominent Indianapolis housewives. Jean Orloff had studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and then went to England to learn with the great German violinist and teacher, August Wilhelmj. Although I do not know yet where Lenora Coffin studied, it was away, as a 1918 article mentions that she has just returned from abroad, and was setting up in Indianapolis as a piano teacher. Genevieve Hughel, or “Hueghel” is mentioned as “a real Indiana gal” of Dutch ancestry, which meant a lot in the context of the cello of that day; it still does today, in fact. Considering her company, I’d be willing to bet that Hughel also had European training. The Orloff Trio began in 1918 with another cellist, but Hughel made such a difference in their sound that when she joined in 1919, Jean Orloff announced her trio as a “new group.”

May 28, 1919. Courtesy of RS Forste.
May 28, 1919. Courtesy of RS Forste.

They were very busy, from the start, playing up to three times a day in different locales. Newspaper advertising places them nearly every day at the Rainbow Room of the Hotel Severin, in addition to the bi-weekly concerts at the Herron Institute through which I found them and appearances at the Teachers College of Indianapolis. RS Forste turned up so many newspaper items on the Orloff Trio that we couldn’t ingest them all; their concert programs were routinely published in the newspaper! Generally, they played pretty lightweight stuff; Greig’s short pieces were often on their programs, as was the “Méditation” from Thaïs — a common violin showpiece — and other bon mots that the audience in Indianapolis would’ve found easy to take. However, they did play a lot of current music of their time; Victor Herbert was a favorite, and they played a wide variety of his pieces, and on one “Scandanavian” concert they played works of Jean Sibelius and of Finnish composer and cellist Herman Sandby, a close friend of Percy Grainger whose work isn’t heard much today. They’d play a “Minuetto” of Haydn, but as far as I could tell, none of his great piano trios whole. Yet, occasionally on special concerts they would program long works, such as the “Dumky” trio of Dvorák.

The Orloff Trio toured, providing incidental music for a play produced by Stuart Walker called “The Book of Job” which is where I think Homer Rodeheaver must’ve encountered them. They are heard on at least four Rainbows; it is “at least” because not all of the 1921 Rainbows have turned up, and the Orloff Trio may also be on items not yet located. They provide two accompaniments to legendary Welsh tenor Dan Beddoe (1863-1937), probably the most famous singer the other side of Kathleen Battle to be resident in Cincinnati, then the head of the voice department at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Beddoe was a big name, and Rodeheaver was lucky to have him on the label; Beddoe’s recording career began in 1911. The other two accompaniments back up Homer Rodeheaver in his duo with Virginia Asher (1869-1938), a key figure in evangelism (and feminism) who was a popular personality in the Billy Sunday campaigns.

11149
Orloff Trio Gennett Records card, courtesy of Gennett Collection at the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers – Newark.

In July and October 1922, the Orloff Trio made six further recordings at the Starr Piano Company studio in Richmond, Indiana. Unfortunately these recordings were made at a time when Gennett really wasn’t doing a good job of filling in their recording cards, though none of the Orloff cards indicate that any of the takes were mastered. Nevertheless, these still could survive as Personal recordings, which is what they probably were, sold hand to hand or given away, made in tiny quantities. Most discs of this kind ended their short lives on the shellac scrap heaps of World War II, but there is always reason to hope.

September 3, 1921. Courtesy of RS Forste
September 3, 1921. Courtesy of RS Forste

In 1923, Genevieve Hughel left the Orloff Trio and was replaced by another cellist; newspaper mentions of the group continue through 1930. Jean Orloff is still listed a professional musician in Indianapolis in 1943, and she died there in 1967 at the age of 87. Although Mrs. Coffin’s husband appears to have died in 1944, by 1947 she was writing the program notes for Indianapolis Symphony concerts. She ultimately did marry a man named Smith and moved to San Diego where she died in 1958.

Cup my ear and strain, as I may, I cannot hear the public clamoring for Hoosier female classical musicians of the 1920s. Nevertheless, these women were central to the cultural life of Indianapolis in their time, and very popular; a benefit they played for the Public Library in Indianapolis to raise money for the book budget brought in 600 1919 dollars, $8,568.31 today. The urgency and drama found in their Rainbow accompaniments suggest that their Gennetts might be a good deal more exciting than typical salon records like those of the Taylor Trio or the various “Florentine” groups on Victor. I for one shout “hip! hip! Hooray!!” that the Orloff Trio have been found; from here there is nothing left but discovery, and I’m happy to ring the curtain down on the wonder and nagging mystery of it all. — Uncle Dave Lewis

May 24, 1919. Courtesy of RS Forste
May 24, 1919. Courtesy of RS Forste

I would like to thank RS Forste and Charlie Dahan for their help with this article, but also Chris Zwarg whose Trusound Transfer this is. He sent it to me via email a number of years ago, and while I have the disc I don’t do as good a job as Chris. 

Dan Beddoe and the Orloff Trio – Gethsemane

Wes Montgomery’s “A Day in the Life:” Some Thoughts, and Hopefully Fresh Perspectives on a Familiar Favorite

Wes day front

By Uncle Dave Lewis

Wes Montgomery’s A Day in the Life is an album that has figured prominently in my life at certain points; tracks from it at first, and the whole album later. It participated in the background of my childhood, and as an adult I’ve tried to stay in touch with it. The vast majority of my record collection disappeared some years ago thanks to the deceptive and unscrupulous machinations of the manager of a storage facility, and since then I have slowly been rebuilding what I can of essential things that I must have. Over the weekend I found my third, and hopefully last, LP copy of A Day in the Life at the Northside Record Fair. Listening to it again brings along thoughts that I’d like to share here.

Wes Montgomery (1923-1968) and his brothers Monk and Buddy are related to my main research area, as they were major movers in the Indianapolis jazz scene of the 1950s. Some of the records which emerged from that scene were pressed in Cincinnati, though the only recording that the Montgomerys made in their hometown, The Montgomery Brothers and Five Others, came out on World Pacific, a west coast imprint (PJ-1240). Montgomery developed a signature style on the electric guitar based out of his contact with Charlie Christian’s records of the early 1940s; though his octaves – difficult to execute, by the way; I’ve tried – constitute the most frequently cited technique associated with him, Montgomery’s sound incorporates a lot of different figures; flamenco-like flailing, bluesy gestures and scales running up and down, etc. I read mention of his use of block chording, but actually I don’t note as much of that in listening to him; perhaps I’m missing it or my ears are on wrong. The prevailing attitude among many jazz critics in regard to Wes Montgomery is that his 1959-63 Riverside recordings carry forward the best of his efforts, and that afterward he gradually became mired into a pop context that sapped his creativity and spoiled his potential as an artist.

You know, I haven’t any idea what they’re talking about, and genuinely wonder if these folks are listening to the same album that I am.  For me, every note of A Day in the Life is jazz, though my former colleague Scott Yanow at allmusic.com writes that, in this case, “the jazz content is almost nil.” That comment, for an album which uses a consistent backline of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Grady Tate? This was the first of three LPs that Wes Montgomery made for A&M, a label that genuinely cared about jazz and sought to market it to a broader audience base than labels which regarded jazz as a cottage industry. Two of my favorite jazz albums of the 1970s – Charlie Haden’s The Golden Number and Don Cherry’s Brown Rice — first appeared, at least to me, on A&M.  I like the pop albums that A&M made in the 1960s and very much appreciate the stab they made at incorporating punk and new wave into their stable around 1980. However, for me A Day in the Life is not a pop album, but jazz which incorporates extended language and notions of genre; if you want to find examples of that elsewhere in jazz, look no further than the 1920s, when jazz bands freely incorporated material from classical, opera and folk music into their mix. What I consider to be the first “free jazz” solo is a whimsical chorus played all rhythm, with no coherent ‘notes,’ by Louis Armstrong on “Go Long Mule,” a country song popularized by Jones and Hare and heard during the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ – hardly a jazz standard. It starts at 1:47

I guess that some of these jazz writers are thinking “string section equals no jazz interest,” even though Charlie Parker with Strings is one of the most revered jazz albums, and Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller all got a lot of mileage out of bringing string sections into jazz with success. Also, Montgomery’s transition to A&M in particular is seen as his moving from the pop frying pan into hell fire in comparison to his previous period with Verve. Discographies really put the lie to this; they show that Montgomery’s contract was simply taken over as is, and that he worked for A&M with exactly the same resources he had at Verve – same arranger (Don Sebesky), same producer (Creed Taylor), same studio and engineer (Rudy Van Gelder). One 1960s album I simply cannot listen to is Sebesky’s first solo outing, for Verve, Don Sebesky and the Jazz-Rock Syndrome – I think that was the first time the term “Jazz-Rock” was ever used for anything. But I do think Sebesky’s arrangements for Wes Montgomery are on point; I love the section in “A Day in the Life” (the track) that follows Montgomery playing the equivalent to The Beatles’ “… and somebody spoke and I went into a dream …” It reminds me of Christmas at shopping malls when I was a kid, where that very piece was heard over loudspeakers as my family made our way through the assembled multitudes. The weird, psychedelic section at the end of [Montgomery’s] “A Day in the Life” always transformed my Christmas surroundings into a surreal wonderland, which I loved, though it was always a little scary.

One of the authors of Montgomery’s Wiki writes of the A&M albums that “these records were the most commercially successful of his career, but featured the least jazz improvisation.” I note that a Wiki editor has added a “[citation needed]” tag next to that statement, and indeed, it needs one. A Day in the Life – the album – is loaded with improvised sections. Gunther Schuller, through a secondary source, says that “[Wes Montgomery’s] playing at its peak becomes unbearably exciting, to the point where one feels unable to muster sufficient physical endurance to outlast it.” Indeed, you hear some of that on “California Nights” on this album – the high-flying, breathtaking Wes Montgomery solo where he goes and goes and you think it will never stop. It’s just not as long a jam as the one on “Bumpin’,” but it’s there. What put Wes Montgomery into the malls was not his alleged compromise to the Mammon of commerce but A&M’s savvy marketing strategies. They were getting their music around everywhere. After my parents broke up, my mom briefly dated a man named Mike, whom I thought was an ass. But he had a splendid 8-track system in his car, and as he was too cheap to buy an 8-track to listen to, always played the one that came with the machine, an A&M sampler. It had several Wes Montgomery tracks on it, and I was always glad to hear them; “I Say a Little Prayer” sounded great in that car.

Some have pointed to Wes Montgomery as a pioneer of “smooth jazz.” I like me some smooth, and I greatly respect some of those players, but if I hadn’t read this inference the thought would never have occurred to me. I think we are confusing smooth with what was once called ‘Easy Listening,’ a term banished from the vocabulary in some quarters but nonetheless one that has some relevance in regard to Wes Montgomery. His later albums did figure in those playlists, on those radio stations and it’s another reason why his music made it into the malls. Wes’ approach was a softer touch on those 60s hits than the originals, and there was a market for that: my mother once complained that she had a co-worker at the University of Cincinnati who told her that when The Beatles did their own songs it was evil music, but when 101 Strings and the groups he liked did the same songs it was “okay.” Some folks had such convictions on religious grounds as well; rock music was “garbage can music” but the songs by themselves were not so bad.

The copy of A Day in the Life I found in Northside is a later pressing with the gray and olive label used from 1973 to 1988; its inner sleeve has releases from 1973 on it. The vinyl during this period was a little better than what had been used by A&M in 1967. My first copy, found in a thrift store in San Jose in 1979, I had to leave behind when I left suddenly on my 18th birthday. It was fairly battered, and I found a better one in a record store I used to frequent in Santa Monica in the 90s, but lost that with the storage locker, so I am glad to have this one. It is far from being a rare album, and is easy to find; Montgomery’s two other A&Ms are a bit more scarce, but not terribly so. Best to have any of them on vinyl, as practically all A&M CDs are shoddily prepared and have wretched sound; Alpert and Moss sold the company to the future UMG just as digital came in, and had little control or say as to the quality of CDs before being edged out of the company in 1993.

Wes Day back

Filmmaker Jud Yalkut introduced me, about 1980, to the Sakurazawa Nyoiti book You Are All Sanpaku which describes the condition of whites of the eye visible below the pupil as a sign of illness and fatalism. As I read, my mind turned to the picture of Wes Montgomery on the back of “A Day in the Life” with its grim, unsmiling portrait of the guitarist, clearly sanpaku, if you believe in that sort of thing; perhaps Wes could’ve used a little of Don Cherry’s “Brown Rice.” Flip the album over and you are greeted with a huge, close up shot of spent cigarettes which is hardly the most attractive cover image one could imagine; how many of us spend our time staring into ashtrays? And of course, Wes Montgomery only outlived the October 1967 release of A Day in the Life by about eight months, dying suddenly of a heart attack in Indianapolis on June 15, 1968. At the time it made me wonder if, indeed, Wes was dogged by the fatalistic demon that Nyoiti described, but now, I think not. I suspect the album design was in keeping with the project, that Wes Montgomery had something serious to say about then-current popular music, wondrous and different from old standards like “Willow Weep for Me” which he’d always played. It seemed to me then, and seems more so now, that his intentions were completely sincere.

Just as we no longer think of The Monkees as “the Pre-fab four,” I think we ought to discard notions like this – I think it’s old, pre-edited Yanow – shown on All About Jazz, “By the time Montgomery released his first album for A&M Records, he had seemingly totally abandoned the straightforward jazz of his earlier career for the more lucrative pop market.” I think Pat Metheny, writing on his own site, is more on the money: “Wes was a carrier of the flame residing in each major player that has illuminated the essential jazz tradition. He was an embodiment of the forward-thinking improvising musician, who looked with wisdom and curiosity into the heart of his own moment in time, and played a music that commented upon the nature of that cultural moment through the prism that the sophistication of the form at its highest level mandates.” Amen, brother.

David “Uncle Dave” Lewis Hamilton, Ohio 11-24-2014

Discovering André Caplet

capletboston

One intensely involved special interest of mine is discovering, evaluating and — often — enjoying the music of classical composers who haven’t a gotten a fair shake in terms of posterior reputation. For those anti-posterior composers — present company included — it is hard enough to make any headway in a world which no longer seems to care much about classical music. It was always a cultivated taste, and it remains popular in some quarters, primarily in Europe and in Japan. But let’s face it; classicists are not going to beat the time of guitar-slung fellas that sing about girls, trucks and girls and trucks. So if you are a composer of the dead variety, and are unknown, so much the worse for you.

Actually, André Caplet (1878-1925) ought not to be unknown at all, and in a sense IS known outside of his native France, but for some practical transformations he made of the works of a composer friend far better known than he. In the broadcast segment included below — more about which we’ll hear in a minute — I erred in saying that Caplet’s worklist is small; I was relying on the one in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the only one available to me at the time. Since then, some online worklists have surfaced that demonstrate Caplet was quite busy as a composer in addition to conducting and fixing up the music of others. Born in Le Havre in 1878 (or ’79, depending on the source), Caplet began to compose at the age of 12 and went to Paris to commence formal study in 1895. In 1901, he won the prestigious Prix de Rome of the Paris Conservatory with his cantata Myrrha, beating out his slightly older contemporary Maurice Ravel. Shortly afterward, Caplet began a long friendship with Claude Debussy and orchestrated several of Debussy’s later works, including parts of Le martyre de Saint Sébastien; not my favorite Debussy project, but one much admired by Olivier Messaien. Also, Caplet gained traction as a reputable conductor and was appointed to the staff of the Boston Opera in 1910; he was named music director in 1912. But with the outbreak of World War I he left his post and signed up for the French Army. Gassed in the trenches, Caplet barely survived and his last years were marked by declining health, though these also witness a steady stream of compositions including the cantata Le miroir de Jésus, mystères du Rosaire (1923), said to be his masterpiece; I’ve never heard it, but I used to stock recordings of it when I was in classical retail.

The radio show linked below was an “Anti-Halloween” show I did in Ann Arbor, October 23, 2008, the week before Halloween; “Mr. Hunchback,” i.e. Keith Larsen, covered the Halloween show proper the following week. I comment, from the perspective of 2008, how 9/11 led to a decrease of interest in the holiday, and I am happy to report that since it has bounced back. I suspect that its value as a marketing tool ultimately won the day rather than any other factor in its favor, and this year Halloween products were on the shelves as early as late August. Caplet’s Conte fantastique is about as ideal a Halloween piece as anyone could expect from classical music, but it is very seldom heard outside of the advocacy that harp players have made for it. Caplet made two versions of it; the second, for harp and orchestra, was created in 1919 (or 1923, depending on the source you read) and it was the first music of Caplet I ever heard back in the 1980s, included as filler on an LP otherwise devoted to the furtive fragments of Debussy’s attempt to convert Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher” into an opera. Even as superb as the Debussy is, the Caplet really caught my attention, with its rapping on the harp and soaring glissandi in an indefinable combination of keys. I have since come to prefer the earlier chamber version, written in 1908.

The hideous cover image used on the original 1985 US Capitol/Angel release of Debussy's "The Fall of the House of Usher." I've never this cover on the web; EMI CDs use the image from the French release.
The hideous cover image used on the original 1985 US Capitol/Angel release of Debussy’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” I’ve never seen this cover on the web; EMI CDs use the image from the French release.

When listening to Conte fantastique, it is helpful to know what else was going around it. 1908 was something of a watershed year in the development of modernism, particularly as Arnold Schoenberg composed his Three Piano Pieces Op. 11 that year, the works in which it is generally said that Schoenberg ushered in the practice of “free atonality” or music written outside of a key signature. That year also witnessed Schoenberg’s student Anton Webern’s Op. 1, the Passacaglia for orchestra, Charles Ives wrote The Unanswered Question, Bela Bartók wrote his Ten Easy Pieces, including “Bear Dance,” Stravinsky his Four Etudes Op. 8 and Scriabin completed his Poem of Ecstasy. Finally, Debussy wrote his light and eternally popular Children’s Corner that year, which Caplet later orchestrated, and Ravel his Gaspard de la nuit. Prokofiev would not begin to publish until the following year.

In terms of modernity and advancement of musical language, Conte fantastique would rank very high on this list; short sections of it veer close to atonality and, while French impressionism remains the basic recipe, Caplet is finding new ways to bake the cake. While it is customary to award the French impressionists, and Debussy in particular, for ushering in the era of modernism in music, there is likewise an idea that after 1905 that impressionism is already rather derrière-garde; that the front lines of modernism cedes to other, less fanciful figures writing less piquant and elegant — and therefore, tougher music. Indeed, I well remember a French CD which included Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin as played from a piano roll in a program of upper middle class Café concert music. Was impressionism really considered so de riguer already in 1908? And didn’t it continue to move forward in its own way, in the music of Tournemire, Cyril Scott, Messaien, and Dutilleux? Henri Dutilleux, by the way, was a great admirer of Caplet’s Epiphanie for cello and orchestra (1922) and asked that it be included as filler on a recording of his own Tout un monde lointain … (1970).

The discography at andre-caplet.fr makes it clear that his work has been adequately recorded, albeit mostly on French labels exported into the United States on an erratic basis. I have seen many of these releases but have not heard a great many. The 1935 Quatour Calvet French HMV recording of Caplet’s 1909 Septuor à cordes vocales et instrumentales for three sopranos and string quartet is one of the weirdest historical classical recordings I’ve ever heard, and his practice of writing for wordless vocal groups anticipates by nearly a decade pieces like Milhaud’s L’homme et son désir, which was still viewed as cutting edge when first heard in 1923. All of this makes an enterprising mind like mine wonder where Caplet fits in the development of modernism and in twentieth century music in general. Does Caplet form an essential link between the impressionists born before 1900 and later French composers working in a more advanced style, or was he simply a minor figure who orchestrated Debussy because the great — but by 1909, terminally ill — man was unable to do so himself? I suspect it isn’t easy to know the answer, but it is something that makes me curious.

In regard to the broadcast, it runs 55 minutes, and the Caplet starts at about 31 minutes in. If you don’t care for the mostly Baroque music that precedes it, then by all means, skip ahead. — Uncle Dave Lewis, Hamilton, OH 9-14-2014

The Uncle Dave Show: Anti-Halloween Part 1 10-23-2008 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, Michigan

https://app.box.com/s/wrn8znm6nx62yolm64ar

Nice Caplet Summary with Album Reviews in Badly Translated English

http://www.geocities.co.jp/MusicHall/6119/museum/caplet/english.html

French page with concise worklist, great pictures

http://www.musicologie.org/Biographies/c/caplet_andre.html

Comprehensive, multi-level website for Caplet; great, contains whatever you’d want to know about him, but you need to know at least some French

http://www.andre-caplet.fr/index.htm