I like to post short little items like this when I’m in the middle of big writing, which is where you find me now. This tune was tremendously popular in the jukeboxes of the Castro, circa late 1970s, before and after AIDS first hit. So ubiquitous was Jane Olivor’s rendition novelist Armistead Maupin couldn’t ignore it—this was the song that brought Michael “The Mouse” Tolliver to tears in the first volume of Tales of the City. Put this on and there isn’t a dry eye in the room, whether you’re thinking of a dead lover or a living one. I think of both.
Above: “Some Enchanted Evening” written for the 1947 stage musical South Pacific, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. A song has lyrics, John my love. This is how I speak to you.
When you’re awake
The things you think
Come from the dreams you dream
Thought has wings
And lots of things
Are seldom what they seem
Another love song to you, John Wilson my darling, my bonny, my Tyneside lad. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Warner Bros 1974), Scorsese’s fourth feature, my favorite actress in the world Ellen Burstyn plays Alice Hyatt, a New Mexico housewife suddenly widowed and left without means of support, who decides to try to return to her childhood home of Monterey, California and make a go of it again as a professional singer.
Weak and breathy as her voice is, she keeps the tune and the beat throughout the entire song—Scorsese has her sing the entire song, with intro—and something about the way Edna Rae (Burstyn’s original name) sings (imitating Peggy Lee above) appeals to me so much I come back to this scene again and again. Maybe it’s that her through-line is surprisingly strong. By the way, you do notice the sheet music for Oklahoma! on the piano…
John, I know you know this song because you arranged it for your 2011 BBC Proms “Hooray for Hollywood” Overture—the loveliest orchestral version of this tune I’ve ever heard, by the way. If I hadn’t been in love with you before, my love, this would’ve clinched it.
“Long Ago (and Far Away)” is a popular, Oscar-nominated song with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Ira Gershwin from the Technicolor film musical Cover Girl starring Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly (Columbia, 1944). Charting versions were recorded almost simultaneously by Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Jo Stafford.
Above: The Jo Stafford recording was released by Capitol Records; the record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on 4 May, 1944 and lasted 12 weeks on the chart, peaking at #6.
Above the cast of Broadway Originals, first broadcast 23 August 1990) : “All the Things You Are” sung by all (Rebecca Luker, Jason Graae, Davis Gaines, Paige O’Hara, Judy Kaye, Kim Criswell, Brent Barrett, Chris Groenendaal, Shelley Freydont, and Gary Pierce). Boston Pops Orchestra and Chorus conducted by John McGlinn. And here’s the complete audio recording of this concert.
You are the promised kiss of springtime That makes the lonely winter seem long You are the breathless hush of evening That trembles on the brink of a lovely song You are the angel glow that lights a star
The dearest things I know are what you are
BBC’s resident singer/interviewer Clare Teal welcomes Proms stalwart and all-around “shouty scary” (her description) conductor John Wilson to the studio to talk about his new CD album Cole Porter in Hollywood and his orchestra’s 2014 tour, as well as spin a few swing platters, none of which we hear in entirety. Toward the end of the interview John Wilson Orchestra drummer Matt Skelton rips through “Begin the Beguine”.
Clare Teal and Conductor John Wilson, 28 September 2014. Above John and Clare: Pete Townshend sings “Begin the Beguine“.
“Begin the Beguine” is a song written by Cole Porter (a song is music with WORDS John, you know?) who composed it at the piano in the bar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. The beguine comes from the Caribbean; it’s a combination of French ballroom dance and Latin folk dance and was popular in Paris at the time Porter was writing.
The song is notable for its 108-measure length, departing drastically from the conventional thirty-two-bar form. Where a typical standard popular song of its time was written in a fairly strict 32-measure form consisting of two or three eight-measure subjects generally arranged in the form A-A-B-A or A-B-A-C, “Begin the Beguine” employs the form A-A-B-A-C1-C2 with each phrase being sixteen measures in length rather than the usual eight. The final C2 section is stretched beyond its 16 measures an additional twelve bars for a total of 28 measures, with the twelve additional measures providing a sense of finality to the long form. The slight differences in each of the A sections, along with the song’s long phrases and final elongated C2 section at the end, give it unique character and complexity. The fact that the song’s individual parts hold up melodically and harmonically over such a long form also attests to Porter’s talent and ability as a songwriter.
Porter reportedly once said of the song, “I can never remember it—if I want to play I need to see the music in front of me!” Alec Wilder described it in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950 as “a maverick, an unprecedented experiment and one which, to this day, after hearing it hundreds of times, I cannot sing or whistle or play from start to finish without the printed music”.
Pete Townshend “Begin the Beguine” Cole Porter, words+music Another Scoop (1987) Pete Townshend Catalog
When they begin the beguine It brings back the sound of music so tender It brings back a night of tropical splendor It brings back a memory ever green
I’m with you once more under the stars And down by the shore an orchestra’s playing And even the palms seem to be swaying When they begin the beguine
To live it again is past all endeavor Except when that tune clutches my heart And there we are, swearing to love forever And promising never, never to part
What moments divine, what rapture serene Til clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted I know but too well what they mean
So don’t let them begin the beguine Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember When they begin the beguine
Oh yes, let them begin the beguine, make them play ‘Til the stars that were there before return above you ‘Til you whisper to me once more Darling, I love you
And we suddenly know what heaven we’re in When they begin the beguine When they begin the beguine
O sieh, wie klar das Weltall schimmert! / Es ist ein Glanz um alles her / Du treibst mit mir auf kaltem Meer / doch eine eigne Wärme flimmert von Dir in mich von mir in Dich… ~Richard Dehmel
Look, how brightly the universe shines! / Splendour falls on everything around / you are voyaging with me on a cold sea / but there is the glow of an inner warmth from you in me / from me in you…
Above my beloved: Leopold Stokowski conducts the 1943, final and most popular composer’s edit of the string orchestra version of this exquisite one-movement sextet based on Richard Dehmel’s poem. (The 1924 version was conducted by Edward Clark of the BBC in Newcastle that year.) Find the Hollywood String Quartet’s version here.
It was not a revelation, I knew John was going to be wonderful and the orchestra was going to be wonderful. I’d heard the “Mars” part of Holst’s The Planets that he conducted in Leeds with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (see John above wearing the bright blue NYOGB hoodie) and was impressed with its energy. RAM trumpet Rebecca Toal (heard in Brett Dean’s “Komarov’s Fall”) had this to say about my dear one:
“John is particularly generous with his energy and he’s so committed. I think I’ve done one project with him before, and both times he’s just thrown himself into the projects. It’s so nice to have people come in from the outside and completely splash their energy everywhere and leave you feeling on a high and motivated, even after they’ve left.”
JOHANNES BRAHMS Variations on a Theme of Josef Haydn “The Philharmonia 75th anniversary CD box set contains some really thrilling performances from a dazzling array of soloists and conductors—Karajan, Giulini, Klemperer, Kletzki and Cantelli among them—but the ones I’m most fascinated by are the concerts Toscanini gave with the orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in 1952 which provide a wonderful snapshot of the Philharmonia Orchestra live on stage in its first decade.” / John’s right on this one, can’t do better than Arturo Toscanini at the RFH in ’52 with the Philharmonia
MAURICE RAVEL Daphnis et Chloe Suite no 2 “Once it became apparent that we would all be spending our days at home, I decided to embark on a project I had been putting off for years:correcting all of the many thousands of errors in Ravel’s masterpiece, Daphnis et Chloe. I soon became thoroughly absorbed in this rather epic task and ended up completing a brand new edition of the whole ballet which I will be recording next year. Here’s the peerless Charles Munch conducting the Second Suite.” / Here’s Simon Rattle instead doing this ravishing Ravel suite with the Berlin Philharmonic
EDWARD ELGAR The Dream of Gerontius “I’ve been making my way through all 109 discs of the new Warner Classics Barbirolli box set—a conductor whose work I come back to time and time again. There’s a fervour and intensity to his music making that is utterly compelling and this legendary performance of Elgar’s greatest work has, for me, no equal.” / Elgar, a devout Roman Catholic, was something of a religious mystic and this is evident in his much of his work, no more so than in this looong, stately but yummy setting to Cardinal Newman’s musing on death and redemption
TEDDY WILSON Don’t Blame Me by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields “I love, love, love Teddy Wilson’s piano playing—I’ve had his solo piano discs on a loop for days…” / Nah. If you want to hear one of the greatest swing* pianists ever at his best, here he is doing “I Got Rhythm” by the Gershwin brothers
KEELY SMITH Cocktails for Two by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow “Songs—in all their guises(!!!)**—have always been at the centre of my musical life. The great American songwriters from the first half of the last century gave us so many treasures and I’d never want to be without them. Last week my trombonist friend, Andy Wood, reminded me just how great Keely Smith is.” / When I was a little tiny teeny girl, I thought listening to Keely Smith singing this lush Charles Trenet / Albert Beach songbook standard “I Wish You Love” on the radio was like walking through an enchanted forest
*I am astonished that John actually, correctly, described Teddy Wilson as a Swing musician rather than put him into the catchall Jazz bag, which I’d have expected him to do, considering who was his teacher. His teacher was Richard Rodney Bennett. My teacher (at CUNY) was YUSEF LATEEF (download his 1957 album Jazz Mood here in full).
**John, are you conflating song with melody, or what? Only asking as a humble member of your audience.
That snooty critic fart Andrew Sarris once mock-praised my old boss Rouben Mamoulian for his early cinema innovations that never quite caught on. Hah! When’s the last time you were so proud of your old boss’s work you wanted to make sure the world never forgot it? So—here’s the most audacious musical film sequence ever directed, which magically links up the movie’s two singing stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald:
As I once pledged, I will go almost anywhere my beloved conductor John Wilson leads me; and so it was a remark of his that led me to this movie, which in the mid-90s was an estimable hit in the UK, though not so much here in the States. When asked by The Telegraph about his early musical influences, said John, “Brass bands. Coming from a working-class background, the tradition of amateur music-making was important to me…”
There’ve been a couple of other, better known (in the US) British films, The Full Monty and Billy Elliot (here’s Billy’s angry dance), which also address the economic/unemployment crisis in Britain that, back in the 80s, did its part to whittle away at arts education throughout the country, particularly in the north. Like I said, my beloved conductor’s remarks in recent interviews about his early influences started me thinking not only about his musical but general education growing up in Gateshead in the 80s. I’ll take this on in an upcoming post. The contrasts / similarities between his musical influences and school training—as a northern Brit through most of the 80s—and mine—as a midwestern American in Minneapolis through the mid 60s-early 70s—I find worth examining, and not just because I’m hopelessly in love with the bloke.
For now, this is what I take away from anecdotal evidence like Brassed Off and John’s childhood memories: The British, in general, seem to be more used to the sound of brass ensembles than Americans. Now, we like to think we know all about brass ensemble music because, being Americans, military marches and Sousa seem to stalk us everywhere we go in this great land of ours. But really, it’s not the same kind of music. I’ll discuss this in my review.
But let me just say this here: I will try to cut John a little more slack when it comes to his choices in orchestration for The Great American Songbook. I mean, if that’s really the way he hears it in his head…
I started collecting these Moments after getting right annoyed, not when I first heard my beloved Geordie lad John Wilson cheerfully dismissing Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics as being “needless”, not after the 2010 BBC Proms (an R+H tribute) or even the 2017 BBC Proms (Oklahoma! for God’s sake), but later on when I read about John in Brighton trying to conduct a sing-along with his concert audience in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” the way Liverpool soccer club fans like to sing it when they’re winning—a song cue I HATE HATE HATE and would like to strangle the group responsible, Gerry and the Pacemakers, for.
The rule for bringing up a Rodgers & Hammerstein song in a Moment is simple: You sing it spontaneously—knowing the words and understanding and conveying its sentimental message—at the right moment. You have to read the moment, John. In the Jack Benny scene the humor is clear because everybody knows the words to “Getting to Know You” and everybody knows about Jack’s musical vanity vs his excessive courtliness toward pretty talented women; in the Cheers scene, Diane’s song cue is truly meant to comfort and inspire, and so makes for a genuine moment for characters and audience together; in 3rd Rock, well, “Oklahoma!” is just the ultimate rouser. You don’t even have to sing it well. (So a much better sing-along song actually.)
So it kind of heartens me, John, that you won’t be going back to mangling The Great American Songbook for awhile. Here’s hoping you take a long vacation in Bermuda, my Tyneside darling. Get a tan, get laid. And when you come back, commit yourself to the orchestral repertoire you do best.
The thing I first noticed first about this disc was the total commitment of the interpretations. A year later, a second volume appeared also devoted to the delightful compositions of Eric Coates. Once again I was struck by the deep understanding and respect show to these often unfamiliar scores, something which isn’t always the cast when this music is performed by orchestras and conductors who just do not seem to understand the idiom.
A little later I learnt that John was preparing a complete edition of the works of Eric Coates, so no wonder he is so completely “inside” this lovely music.
Born in Gateshead in 1972, John Wilson studied composition and conducting at the Royal College of Music, where he graduated in 1995 winning all the main prizes, and also where he was awarded the prestigious Tagore Gold Medal, the highest award attainable by a student at the college.
In 1996 John formed The Sinfonia of Westminster, a group comprised of the pick of the outstanding musicians from leading soloists and chamber groups. But John also enjoys a parallel career conducting The John Wilson Orchestra, which is comprised of young musicians devoted to keeping alive the music of The Great American Songbook, including arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Robert Farnon, Paul Weston and Conrad Salinger. The orchestra has given concerts in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall to great acclaim. He also appears regularly at Pizza in the Park and is the youngest conductor to broadcast on Radio 2’s long running Friday Night Is Music Night programme. John is also a prolific arranger himself, producing numerous orchestrations for film and television and he was also responsible for arranging all the music for the Hong Kong handover celebrations. The first two CDs to appear featuring The John Wilson Orchestra come from two different labels. The first one from Velvetone comprises 19 titles recorded at the CTS Studios in Wembley in 1998. Sarah Moule is the sensitive vocalist on eight tracks including “I Concentrate on You” and “Words Can’t Describe”, a little-known song once recorded by Sarah Vaughan. The rest is all orchestral, my favourites being “Skyliner” and “Cherokee”, both arranged by Neil Richardson, and Bob Farnon’s superb reworking of David Raksin’s classic “Laura”, which for me is worth the price of the disc alone!
John’s most recent CD is a first from Michael Dutton’s Vocalion Digital label. Previously this label has concentrated on re-issues of classic dance band and jazz recordings. They are now embarking on a series of original recordings made specially for the label, and John’s CD Orchestral Jazz is included in the first release. Using 24 strings, 4 winds, 5 rhythm and piano, this disc sounds superb and no wonder, featuring as it does on Richard Rodney Bennett playing piano on 4 tracks and providing arrangements for 8 tracks including “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, “Lush Life” and “Melancholy Baby”.
The remaining arrangements are shared between John himself and Neil Richardson.
Listen out for Ian Moffat’s superb trombone, also Enrico Tomasso on trumpet and Luke Annesley doubling on sax and clarinet. This issue should be snapped up by all who enjoy the very best in orchestral jazz. If you enjoy Nelson Riddle’s recordings then you should love this CD.
One wonders what the future has in store for John Wilson. Personally I would welcome a disc devoted to the music of Robert Farnon, and what about a CD of the great arrangements of the unsung hero of MGM musicals, Conrad Salinger. But whatever, the name John Wilson will ensure that the great music of the twentieth century will be kept alive, played and presented superbly by a young master interpreter.
Between 2000 and 2005 John recorded 8 albums for the venerable jazz/swing/dance band label Vocalion. Whereas four months ago I had none, I now have 6 of them. I have that awful Orchestral Jazz he did with Richard Rodney Bennett; his 2 albums of Angela Morley’s work; his Paul Weston and his Geraldo (see “Geraldo Among the Filipinos, 1963”); and I just ordered Dance Date.
There are two other albums I haven’t gotten yet: One is with a pleasant but unimaginative crooner named Gary Williams (who I suspect was the chap who enabled John to increase the size of his orchestra—“He just turned up one day at my door with a pot of money and said, ‘Will you put together a great big orchestra for me to sing to?’ And that was the start of it,” said my blinky winsome John in a 2011 interview at the BFI) but it doesn’t sound interesting enough to drop fifteen bucks on.
But this one, Lessons In Love, sounds perfectly gorgeous, the little I heard—it’s classic Songbook stuff—and I’m dying to have it. It’s Lance Ellington’s strong clear vocals and fundamental John Wilson Orchestra through and through. Trouble is, it apparently went through a limited pressing so available copies run from 115 American bucks upward. How can a record only 13 years old be a collector’s item already??
From August, 2018. Cantara, former ASCAP solfeggist and 70s porn actress turned screenplay writer, has fallen hopelessly in love with a man at the other end of the world, an English, middle-ranking orchestra conductor—who plays, on the side, Golden Age of Hollywood music and The Great American Songbook—by the name of John Wilson.
So what is it about him?* I’ve only been aware of his existence since 30 April and in love with him since 4 May, 2018; since then my feelings have been an insane mixture of tenderness, gratitude, annoyance, and lust. The tenderness I understand: I’ve spent enough time in Hollywood to understand the position he’s in… As far as gratitude, just listen to “The Trolley Song”. Even the raging lust I get.
But whenever John gets himself in the way of the music it drives me nuts. It’s crystal clear to me the times he does this because I’m in love with him, dammit, and because he’s a musician I pay attention to the music. Truth to tell, the only times John really gets himself in the way are when he’s conducting his own hand-picked group which is dedicated mostly to music from Golden Hollywood & The Great American Songbook, and cannily named The John Wilson Orchestra.
Whether he gets himself in the way indeliberately or on purpose I cannot entirely tell, but I’m starting to. With a little patience he isn’t that hard to read, my bonny John Wilson. After countless times listening to his recordings and broadcasts; pouring over his interviews; watching him conduct (in video clips, mainly from the annual BBC Proms); watching him conduct other orchestras besides his own (ditto); and, most important, learning to separate the showman from the musician, I’m starting to understand his type of intelligence and his musical capability, which is actually pretty sizeable. His ear (the way he hears things, not his purported perfect pitch) is intriguing and his industriousness is admirable. I am definitely not buying into the PR excess—he is not “a superstar”, “a guru”, “charismatic”, “legendary”, “a conducting icon” or, God help us, as proclaimed by the BBC, “the nation’s favorite” (!!!). But his musicianship at times is kiiind of brilliant.