Excerpts by composer and band: “Skyliner” – Barnet / Charlie Barnet; “Take the A Train” – Billy Strayhorn and vocalist Joya Sherrill / Duke Ellington; “Let’s Dance” – Gregory Stone (based on von Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance”, orchestrated by Hector Berlioz) / Benny Goodman; “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” – Irving Berlin / Ray Noble; “Begin the Beguine” – Cole Porter / Artie Shaw; “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” – Ned Washington and George Bassman / Tommy Dorsey; “Midnight Sun” – Hampton and Sonny Burke / Lionel Hampton; “You Made Me Love You” – Monaco and McCarthy / Harry James; “Moonlight Serenade” – Miller / Glenn Miller; “Peanut Vendor” – Moisés Simons / Stan Kenton; “Woodchoppers Ball” – Joe Bishop / Woody Herman; “One O’Clock Jump” – Count Basie / Count Basie. Orchestral arrangement by composer Andrew Cottee.
About 15 years ago, I was somebody’s plus-one on an industry pass to go to a preview of Beyond the Sea, which was being shown in a really good theater with an above-average sound system. I wasn’t a particular fan of Bobby Darin or even of Kevin Spacey (for all that he is the definitive Jamie Tyrone of our generation and frankly I don’t care about anything else); actually I just wanted to find out how cheesy the production could get. Well honestly, it did start off pretty cheesily, every element that should’ve contributed some genuine worth—like, you know, the lead acting, the directing, design, (makeup! prosthesis!) etc—was utter bad-phoney, not good-phoney, bullcrap…and then they struck up the soundtrack orchestra…
If I could’ve exclaimed “Holy mackerel!” out loud the moment that gorgeous snap hit my ears I would’ve exclaimed it out loud, but you don’t do that at an industry screening, so I exclaimed it in my mind. I hadn’t heard a commitment like that coming from a track orchestra in a very long time. This was no pick-up crew, this was one tight unit, and they were hitting the musical values like nobody’s business. I vowed to remember the name of this bright new conductor-arranger—which of course I promptly forgot (There are a lot of John Wilsons in the world, as Anthony Burgess would be the first to tell you) and didn’t remember again until last May. A 2005 Grammy nominee. Available on Rhino Records, that notorious niche label, and I really must find out who at Warners moved it to that catalog.
From Who I Am: A Memoir by Pete Townshend (Harper, 2012):
The Squadronaires, “Rock’n’Roll Boogie”, 1956.
“In 1945 popular music had a serious purpose: to defy postwar depression and revitalize the romantic and hopeful aspirations of an exhausted people. My infancy was steeped in awareness of the mystery and romance of my father’s music, which was so important to him and Mum that it seemed the centre of the universe. There was laughter and optimism: the war was over. The music Dad played was called Swing. It was what people wanted to hear. I was there. …”
“As the son of a clarinettist and saxophonist in the Squadronaires, the prototypical British Swing band, I had been nourished by my love for that music, a love I would betray for a new passion: rock‘n’roll, the music that came to destroy it.”
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” below); 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) 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??
Lance Ellington is the son of English bandleader/singer Ray Ellington, who I know only as that weird singer on The Goon Show who mangled my favorite Charles Trenet song, “Boum”, even though I yelled at him not to do it through the computer screen. Lance is great, though. He teamed up with John and Orchestra for their 2014 Cole Porter album doing the song “Now You Has Jazz” and that album won the Echo Klassik Music Without Borders Prize. (John’s big smile at 4:23.)
Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley are the American lovers in Richard Rodgers’s No Strings, 1962.
No Strings opened on Broadway in 1962 and ran for 580 performances. Rodgers got the idea for casting a black actress in the star role after seeing model-turned-actress Diahann Carroll on The Tonight Show, feeling that the casting spoke for itself and any specific references to race in the play were unnecessary. “Rather than shrinking from the issue of race,” said Rodgers, “such an approach would demonstrate our respect for the audience’s ability to accept our theme free from rhetoric or sermons.” The script was by Samuel A. Taylor, who wrote the play Sabrina Fair and adapted the book D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac for the Hitchcock film, Vertigo.
Considered too risky by Broadway investors, the first production was almost entirely financed by Rodgers himself. Following out-of-town engagements in Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland and New Haven, No Strings finally opened at the 54th Street Theater on 15 March 1962. It was generally welcomed by the New York critics; at season’s end, it was nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning three: for Joe Layton as choreographer, for Diahann Carroll as Best Actress in a Musical, and for Rodgers for his score.
Upon seeing the 2003 No Strings revival at Encores! The New York Times‘s Ben Brantley wrote: “The revelation of No Strings is that one of songwriting’s greatest collaborators had it in him to fly high on his own. And fly high he did. No Strings deserves to be better known than it is. The music is youthful and jazzy, almost a throwback to the Rodgers of Rodgers & Hart. The lyrics range, frankly, from serviceable to as good as they get. The relationship between the two leading characters at the heart of this musical is in the fine tradition of the attracting opposites found in all the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, and the emotional stakes are as real today as they were in 1962.”
As the title hints, there’s no string section in this pit. In fact there’s no pit: The musicians are all on stage, playing and occasionally making appearances in the story. The orchestrator Ralph Burns eventually did record an orchestration with strings for his own band, but I haven’t heard it.