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Justin Miller, guitar and mandolin: Stories

MISSION: HIGHLY IMPROBABLE - June 16, 2013

Many influential composers intended to become anything but.


Take Fletcher Henderson, the great arranger and bandleader who devised the fundamental orchestration of the big bands but had trained to become a chemist. Or Sy Oliver, one of the most influential arrangers in the history of swing music (and composer of the classic "Opus One"), who had been determined to practice law. Or bandleader and composer Stan Kenton who dropped out of medical school three times. And then there is Antonio Carlo Jobim whose "Girl From Ipanema" is among the most recorded songs of all time but who first struggled to make a living as an architect. 


My own favorite among their number is the Argentine Boris Claudio (Lalo) Schifrin. Though he had taken piano lessons since turning 6 years old, Schifrin was studying law at the University of Buenos Aires when he applied for a scholarship to the Paris Conservatoire. His days were spent in music classes, his nights playing jazz piano, the law long forgotten.


Between 1956 and 1962 Lalo worked on and off with legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, sometimes playing piano, sometimes scribing long-form big band suites for Dizzy. Because of Gillespie, Lalo moved from Buenos Aires to New York where he was contracted by MGM to write his first movie score for "Rhino!" (which will likely be remembered by film history buffs largely because it was released in the same year that it's female lead, Shirley Eaton, was painted head-to-toe with gold paint in the Bond movie "Goldfinger").


Lalo composed dozens of movie themes including quite a few for Clint Eastwood films including "Kelly's Heroes", "Dirty Harry", "Coogan's Bluff", "Magnum Force", "Joe Kidd" and "The Beguiled". But I think his legacy really begins with Schifrin's arrangement of the Jerry Goldsmith's theme for the TV series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." for which Schifrin used percussion instruments common to Brazil but exotic to North American ears to spice up the score and employed flutes where Henry Mancini (see: "Peter Gunn") had used saxes.


For the next several years, hardly a cop or spy appeared on the small screen without a thrilling Lalo Schifrin theme propelling the action and underscoring the suspense. Though my own favorite is the lilting jazz-waltz for "Mannix", the Schifrin theme most of us hum to this day is "Mission: Impossible" with—just as in "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."—Latin percussion and flutes. 


The original TV theme for "Mission: Impossible" was set in 5/4 which sounds just a skosh off-balance, threatening to collapse, each measure lurching into the next. It is delightfully ever-so-slightly off-balance. . . just like the plot of a "Mission: Impossible" episode. (If the concept of 5/4 time bothers you, just hum Dave Brubeck's "Take 5" or count ""1, 2, 3, 1, 2".)


My arrangement of "Mission: Impossible" starts and ends, like the original, in 5/4 but veers into 6/4 ["1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3"] while my improvised guitar solo is backed by the band in 4/4, not because I can't count but because it is easier to rehearse with backing musicians as we often have only 90 minutes to prepare an hour-long show, leaving little time to go over tricky passages. 


There is one episode in Lalo Schifrin's career that has become the stuff of legend. Hired to compose the score for William Friedkin's "The Exorcist", Schifrin devised six minutes of music for the film's promotional trailer. Trial audiences found that music so terrifying that Warner Brothers told Friedkin to demand that Schifrin soften the music. As I've heard it told, Friedkin never did relay those instructions to Schifrin. The upshot was that this electrifying score was chucked out in the studio's parking lot and has never been heard. Being too timid to watch "The Exorcist" even without Schifrin's music, had I seen that original trailer I would probably have run screaming into the night.


I sure am glad, though, that Lalo never did become a lawyer. Now that would be terrifying!

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME WOULD SOUND AS SWEET - October 18, 2012

There are three names at the top of my list of great Italian composers. In the 18th century we were blessed with Antonio Vivaldi; in the 19th century, Giuseppe Verdi; in the 20th century, Giaccomo Puccini.


These names sound so romantic in Italian — Antonio, Giuseppe and Giaccomo — but their English equivalents are a skosh more prosaic: Tony, Joe and Jack.


But please indulge a personal addendum: Enrico Nicola. (I won't give away his surname just yet.)


Enrico's father, Quinto, was a steelworker, who made sure that little Enrico learned to play the piccolo so that they could march together in a band which performed around Pittsburgh, largely for their Italian-American compatriots.


Enrico joined  the US Army during WWII, went to Juilliard for one year, and then became the piano player for the Glenn Miller Orchestra then lead by Tex Beneke. Moving to Hollywood, Enrico wrote the music for several movies including [insert slightly facetious tone here:] the cinematic icons "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" and "It Came from Outer Space". Having worked for the Miller band, Enrico was commissioned to adapt — that is, shorten — some of the longer Glen Miller arrangements for use in the 1954 film "The Glen Miller Story". 


And then Enrico met William Blake Crump.


So far, this tale might not sound too promising. . . unless you happen to know that Bill Crump changed his name to Blake Edwards, the hugely successful television and movie producer, and that Enrico Nicola is better known as . . . Henry Mancini.


Though Mancini would win back-to-back Academy Awards for "Moon River" and "Days of Wine and Roses", my own favorites are scores Mancini penned for Edwards, "Peter Gunn" and "The Pink Panther". 


Later this year  I will begin performing a soufflé of these delicious themes in my shows, set for just small combo and one of my G&L "Phyllis" (aka "Blondie") STDs [Stratocaster-type-devices] or a 2011 Fender American Standard Telecaster. 

NOW PITCHING . . . FOR THE GARGANTUANS - February 11, 2010

Few would dispute the historic significance of April 15, 1947 when then-first baseman Jackie Robinson made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. His fame was such that just two years later "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" hit the charts, rising to #13. Many big bands performed that novelty hit but none with more aplomb than Count Basie.

 

But the the post-WWII Brooklyn Dodgers was not the first racially integrated baseball team. In the 1930s several baseball teams featured white and black players working the field in perfect harmony. That's a pun (I know, it's a pretty bad one) because the these were teams fielded by the big bands!

 

Throughout the '30s, many bands formed their own teams as a way of relieving the tension of constant touring. Life on the road could be tough, driving day in, day out, often over unpaved roads, sleeping sitting up on the bus and hoping for an occasional hot meal. (Peggy Lee once said that the hardest thing about touring with a big band was learning how to iron her dresses while standing up on a bus riding over country roads.) And the few racially integrated bands had it even tougher as white and black musicians often had to stay in separate — and hardly equal—hotels, use different rest-rooms, and worse. 

 

For some of the bands, baseball was not just for relaxation; it was an obsession. When Harry James left Benny Goodman's great ensemble in December of 1938, one of Goodman's players opined, "We've got other hot trumpets but where do we find a better pitcher?" James once carried season tickets to both the Boston Red Sox and Saint Louis Cardinals, explaining that even though he rarely got to see either team as long as he had the tickets he felt he wasn't missing everything.

 

During interviews with former members of James's own band I learned that he would tip policemen to reserve a baseball diamond for Saturday mornings in a local park so that the band could take the field to unwind after Friday night shows. Though a pitcher — the team once had a 14-0 record with James on the mound — he was proud of his hitting, competing, while still with Benny Goodman, with drummer Gene Krupa who also swung a mean bat.

 

The big bands' teams formed an informal league of their own, each team sporting its own monicker. Some are obvious, like Glen Miller's "Millers" and Woody Herman's "Herd". But some are a hoot: Count Basie's "Bad Boys" (also termed the "Bulldogs"), Gene Krupa's "Kangaroos" (alternatively called the "Killer Dillers"), and my personal favorite, Benny Goodman's "Gargantuans". The teams' rivalries equalled those between major league units. 

 

On January 16, 1938, Goodman's band gave the epochal concert at Carnegie Hall, establishing once and for all that Swing was not just dance music but also an art form. Not coincidentally, the show was integrated as members of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands performed alongside Goodman's musicians.

 

That night the smash hits were "Loch Lomond" (earning multiple reprises) and "Sing, Sing, Sing". But I believe — though I cannot prove this — that Goodman allowed only one brief encore at the end of the concert. . . because his team was slated to play against Basie's the next morning!

 

And they did play that game, with Goodman's team trouncing Basie's. There is a surviving copy of the scorecard as evidence.

 

While it's fun to imagine the game, years ago I noticed a strange discrepancy. Almost all big band leaders played prominent positions on the field. But not Basie, who was relegated to coaching at 3rd base. As it happens, Basie had been asked about this before and replied that "I've got short arms and legs, can't run, can't hit, can't throw, but I'm OK with coaching 3rd. Hey, any fool knows when to run home!"

THE BIG BANDS & THE BEETLES - February 9, 2010

In the summer of 1935 Benny Goodman and his glorious big band featuring drummer Gene Krupa started a long, tedious, miserable tour westward across the United States, playing to indifferent audiences, coping with patronizing theater managers, and losing spirit with each performance. 


Even though the band's recent record of "King Porter Stomp" had earned high praise from reviewers, the kids just didn't seem to want to dance. As the band drove on and on their spirits sunk lower and lower. And then in late August they played McFaddens's Ballroom in Oakland, California. The kids went wild.


But the very next night Goodman & Company were greeted with the same lackluster reception they'd come to expect. Just when all the effort seemed pointless, the band arrived at the Palomar Ballroom in L.A. A local DJ had been playing their records and the newly-named "jitterbugs" danced in the aisles!


The Big Band Era lasted from that night in 1935 until the early winter of 1945-46 when no fewer than eight of the greatest dance orchestras in history all disbanded (some temporarily). That amazing explosion of excitement, joy, silliness and sophistication was over.


Why? What ended the Big Band Era?


Music historians have identified more than a dozen events and trends that brought about the end of the era. The list includes cabaret taxes that made it too expensive for teens to afford tickets, WWII enlistment which diluted the quality of the pool of available musicians and dispersed band members all over the globe (the military did not allow big bands to serve together), the rise of bebop (in 1943-45, partly due to frustration with the lower standards of musicianship in the big bands), and many more.


But there's one cause that is so rarely mentioned and sounds so improbable you might think I made it up: a shortage of crushed Malaysian beetle shells.


At the outset of WWII the Japanese were quick to secure the rubber plantations of south Asia and the western Pacific islands. Armies and air corps couldn't run without wheels and wheels require tires and tires require rubber. But the same places where rubber trees grow are often infested with beetles. 


The shell of the beetle was the main ingredient in the stew that produces shellac. And shellac was that lovely black substance we all know as the coating on a phonograph record. (For those of you under the age of 40, in 1877 Thomas Edison and his mechanic John Kreusi invented. . . oh, never mind.)


Now a big band record often featured a wide dynamic range, soft softs and loud louds. And that required a thick coating of shellac for the phonograph needle. The American record industry used tons and tons of shellac to keep the records spinning.


The problem was that someone else needed the shellac and that someone else had first dibs: the War Office. (The Department of War was so named from the late 18th century until 1949 when the word "War" was replaced with "Defense".) 


You see, the U.S. relied on two machines to undertake high-altitude daytime raids during WWII: the B-17 Flying Fortress and it's bombsight, a complex device invented by a Dutchman named Carl Norden.


The Norden bombsight was deemed so essential that American bombardiers were required to swear an oath to protect it's secrets with their lives. If there was even a chance that the bombsight might fall into enemy hands the bombardier was trained to pull out his sidearm and blast the bombsight to smithereens!


The whole idea was to fly high above enemy anti-aircraft fire and use the Norden bombsight to pinpoint targets. But flying that high meant that there was cold-air condensation which could obscure the view through the bombsight. And one ingredient was essential to keeping the bombsight clear of condensation, shellac, made from the same crushed Malaysian beetle shells required to make the phonograph records and now largely available only to the Japanese.


The big record companies quickly realized that the thick shellac coating required for big band discs would be in very short supply, what with the War Department requisitioning all the shellac it could acquire.


But records featuring crooners and canaries (the "boy" and "girl" singers featured by the big bands) required much less shellac. So the companies featured the singers — without the bands— and encouraged the nice, sentimental ballads that both suited the mood at home and, perhaps more important, used much less shellac. Which meant they could sell a lot more records and still keep the B-17s flying.


And so it was, at least in my reading of history, that a shortage of millions of beetles helped the crooners replace the big bands. Isn't it ironic that the era of the crooners was itself ended by Beatles? (It took just four of them.)

FIDDLING WITH ANDREW JACKSON - January 15, 2010

Before partisan pundits had their own cable venues, newsletters, web sites and blogs, they had songs. "Broadsheets" — published lyrics, usually set to familiar tunes — promoted the favored candidate and spoofed the opposition.

Many tunes we now think of as "traditional" or simply "folk tunes" became popular because of politics. The "Eighth of January" commemorates General Andrew Jackson's feat in 1815 when he lead a motley band against overwhelming British forces in a stunning victory. Jackson's ragtag bunch suffered fewer than two dozen casualties while the British losses counted in the thousands. (Oh, all right; so the numbers are likely exaggerated, but they were reported this way throughout the world and boosted the image of the still-young United States.)

History buffs know that Jackson's great day did nothing to change the course of the War of 1812 as, weeks prior, a peace treaty had been negotiated between the Yanks and Brits. News of the treaty did not reach New Orleans in time to forestall the battle. But the song "Eighth of January" was played throughout the land, reminding all of Jackson's victory and so helped him to win the presidency.

You might recall Johnny Horton's chart-topping record from 1959, "The Ballad of New Orleans". The tune for that hit was adapted by James Morris (aka Jimmy Driftwood) from the "Eighth of January", though performed far slower than most bluegrass renditions.

The old time fiddle tune and bluegrass classic "Salt Creek" is somewhat trickier to decipher.

Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, had already recorded a song with a somewhat similar title when he decided to wax a century-old number named "Salt River". The song's title was changed so that prospective record buyers would not get confused, thinking they already owned Monroe's new record. Hence, "Salt River" became "Salt Creek."

"Salt River" referred to an offshoot of the Ohio River — which native-born Kenuckian Bill Monroe certainly knew — but it also has several connotations. One is political and (depending on the telling) goes like this. . . .

In 1832 Andrew Jackson (yup, he's back) fought Henry Clay for the presidency. Clay paid a riverboat pilot to navigate the Ohio River to bring him to Louisville to give a campaign speech. The boatman, who supported Jackson, intentionally took a wrong turn on the Ohio, steering Clay up the Salt River and away from Louisville. Thus the song "Salt River" might be another celebration of General Jackson, or at least a fond reminiscence of a 19th century political dirty trick. For the duration of the century the phrase "Salt River" came to mean a dead end, a futile gesture, a policy bound to fail, or simply the likelihood of getting fleeced by a smooth operator.

From time to time I perform a short suite of old-time fiddle tunes — on the mandolin, of course — including both of these great tunes, "Eighth of January" and "Salt Creek." Though in concert I often tell the stories behind the songs, these tales are a little too complex to assay on stage but I thought you might enjoy them here.

FROM A TAXI IN TURKEY... - December 2, 2009

Last month in Batumi, Turkey, I was standing outside a shoe shop awaiting the emergence of my wife — an occupation shared by many husbands — when I heard a strangely familiar sound coming from a taxi. The cab's radio was playing a solo performance on an oud, an ancestor of the modern guitar. Not that I knew the tune but I'd heard that scale, that sequence of notes, before.

I hummed the notes over and over until I recognized the sound. It's called the double harmonic scale. If you've got an instrument nearby, give it a whirl: C-Db-E-F-G-Ab-B. To our ears it sounds exotic, not just Oriental but specifically Middle Eastern. And with good reason; it's a variant of the Hijaz Kar mode common in Arab music.

(I won't pretend that I knew this; I had to look it up. And, as long as we are gathered here inside a parenthetical remark, it's close to the Phrygian dominant mode all jazz musicians know well but there the B would be played as a Bb.)

Why bother with all this nomenclature? Because the sound was so darn familiar, echoing like a phantom from a vaguely recalled dream. And then memory served and I knew where I'd heard it before. But let me explain....

Many cities on the Mediterranean coast of Asia Minor were founded by the ancient Greeks and Macedonians. In the 1920s the modern nation of Turkey was created from the remains of the former Ottoman Empire and quite a few folks of Greek heritage moved to Greece, bringing Turkish and Arabic music with them called, in Greece, rebetika songs.

In 1927 an Athenian rebetika band recorded a song about a Muslim lady from Egypt. The Greek slang for such a damsel was misirlou.

We now leap ten years and five thousand miles to Boston where Richard Monsour was born to a Polish mother and Lebanese father who played none other than the oud.

While a teenager, Richard accompanied his father to nightclubs throughout New England that specialized in the music of the Near and Middle East. Though many, perhaps most, of the clubs were owned by Greek Americans, the repertoire typically included songs not only from Greece but also from Armenia, Turkey, Morocco and Arabia. Here, and from his father's oud playing, Richard learned the Hijaz Kar mode I'd heard in the streets of Batumi.

In the early '50s the Monsours moved to Southern California where Richard learned to play guitar. In '61 with his band, the Del-Tones, he recorded what pop historians generally term the first "surf" instrumental, "Let's Go Trippin'". By now many of you can guess the new name a DJ assigned to Richard Monsour: Dick Dale.

According to legend [I've never asked Dick Dale if this is true], when performing in a club, Dale was challenged by a patron to play a tune entirely on one string of the guitar. Remembering that his father had played "Misirlou" on just one course of double-strings on the oud (which would translate to one guitar string), Dale played that Greco-Turkish number but at a much faster clip than the sultry tempo of the 1927 original. For his recording, Dale changed one vowel in the title, hence the classic track is spelled "Miserlou".

And that's where I'd heard the mode streaming from the taxi outside the shoe store in Batumi. On returning home to Louisville I wrote the arrangement now in some of my shows, sometimes playing classical (nylon string) and sometimes electric steel string guitar for the lead. Just for fun, I've added a few counter-themes which are more or less Israeli plus a faux-flamenco section towards the end. But as "Miserlou" has been waxed over and over again I doubt I'll ever record my version.

Oh, eventually my wife emerged from the shoe store. She loves her Turkish leather over-the-knee black boots. Now I get to wait outside of stores in Louisville while she hunts for the right "in the boot" pants to wear with them.

OBRIGADO, CHARLIE! - May 31, 2009

When most of us think of Brazilian music we think of the sultry bossa nova. Though the bossa nova movement — in Brazil it was far more important than just a musical fad — lasted in Brazil only from around 1957 or '58 until 1963, bossas are treasured still. But it's world-wide popularity was hardly inevitable . . . .

During WWII, Charlie Byrd was drafted into the Army. While stationed in Paris at the war's end, Byrd heard gypsy jazz guitar for the first time; it was a revelation.

After his release from the service, Byrd used the G.I. Bill to study jazz guitar in Manhattan and then began to perform in northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. where he studied classical guitar on the side. And then he heard the master, Andres Segovia.

Although we all think of Segovia as the great icon of Spanish guitar, Segovia was so opposed to the regime of General Franco that he left Spain and lived most of his life in Uruguay and Italy, only returning to Spain after Franco's death and the coronation of King Juan Carlos. Thus Charlie Byrd followed the Spanish master not to Spain but to Italy to study classical guitar. This must not have been easy as Segovia was famed not only for his glorious playing but also for terrifying many of his pupils, one of whom said Segovia "taught by fear".

Byrd then resumed his performing career, sometimes playing one set of jazz tunes followed by another from the classical repertoire. In effect, the two sides of his musical life took turns.

And then in '61 the U.S. State Department sponsored Byrd for a South American concert tour. In Brazil he heard the bossa nova and that changed everything, But why was the bossa so appealing to Byrd? Most brief music histories say that bossa nova married the rhythms of the samba with the lyrics and melodies of choro (an earlier style of Brazilian ballad, typically songs of longing, yearning and even loneliness).

But my study of the life of Antonio Carlos Jobim tells a much more nuanced and much more interesting tale.

Jobim — the composer of "Girl from Ipanema", "Meditation", "Wave", "How Insensitive", "Quiet Night of Quiet Stars" (Corcovado), and dozens of other glorious songs — grew up listening to records owned by his father and uncle. His father preferred the orchestral works of Debussy and Ravel. His uncle liked the small combo jazz of Gerry Mulligan. (I think it likely that releases from Mulligan's record label, Pacific Jazz, were the only American jazz records then readily available in Brazil.)

The Gerry Mulligan recordings of 1953 feature the now-legendary "piano-less quartet". There was no guitar, piano or vibes to play chords, just sax, bass and drums, and Chet Baker on trumpet. So, the young Jobim, trying his hand at guitar and piano, could play along with the records of the "piano-less quartet" without clashing with another instrument.

But Jobim did not know jazz harmony so he played the harmonies he had learned from Ravel and Debussy.

And that, to me, is part of what makes bossa nova so special: the spicy rhythms of the samba (slowed down, of course), the soulful, melancholy of the lyrics of choro. . . plus the atmosphere of a small American jazz combo. . . plus the rich and surprising harmonies of 20th century French classical composers! Hence, Charlie Byrd found that his love of both jazz and classics found a common home in this wonderful new music.

Byrd's LP "Jazz Samba", recorded in a Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., was issued in the Spring of 1962. In '63 the album went to #1, Byrd's collaborator saxist Stan Getz won a Grammy for Jobim's "Desafinado", and the world loved the bossa! As it happens, the most famous bossa nova recording in history was also born of happy accidents, serendipity and coincidence.

Because of the commercial success of "Jazz Samba", in 1964 many of the formative bossa nova composers, almost all of whom were also performers, were invited to appear together to give one concert in New York City. With all this genuine Brazilian talent in town, Stan Getz wanted to put together a truly international all-star concert featuring Jobim on piano and Joao Gilberto, Jobim's foremost interpreter, on vocals and guitar. They recorded one of Jobim's lovely songs with Gilberto singing in his native Portuguese. But, they thought, wouldn't it be great to sing it in English?

Joao Gliberto's interpreter, who spoke some English, was his wife. Riding in the taxi to the recording session, someone suggested that she sing the English lyrics herself. And yes, that's her, Astrud Gilberto, singing in English on the international hit, "The Girl from Ipanema". One last, coincidence: Astrud Gilberto has frequently named Chet Baker as her favorite singer, the same Chet Baker who played trumpet in the "piano-less quartet" in '52.

My love for the bossa is hardly a secret: I've interpreted the Beatles' "And I Love Her", Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly", Johnny Mercer's "Dream" and Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" as bossas. Several of my own compositions — the title tracks of my first two CDs, "Los Arcos" and "West of the Moon", plus, of course, "Red and Blue Bossa" on the CD "Rio Tigre" — are bossa/jazz hybrids.

All concert performers know that their first number is somewhat wasted because the audience is just settling into their seats and getting used to the sound and look of the show. But, nine times out ten, I open with a bossa, either by Luis Bonfa or by Jobim. The reason is simple: I find that playing that wonderful music on a nylon-string guitar "centers" me, musically and emotionally. Thanks, Charlie!

FROM ALLOWAY TO JERUSALEM RIDGE - May 22, 2009

Which song is sung at funerals in Hong Kong, at football matches in Italy, and at military academy graduations throughout much of Asia? It has been recorded by B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Barbra Streisand, The Beach Boys and by the U.S. Coast Guard Band.

No clue? Here are two: 1) Dick Clark's "Rockin' New Year's Eve" show 2) Guy Lombardo (who first recorded this song in 1929 and performed it hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times before his passing in 1977)

Of course, it's "Auld Lang Syne".

"Auld Lang Syne" (in modern English, "old long time" or "old long since") is attributed to the great Scottish poet Robert Burns who is said to have written the song in 1788 when Burns was only 29 years old. But neither the melody nor the lyric began with Burns. Though most of the words are Burns', some — including the title "Auld Lang Syne" and the very first line, "Should auld acquaintance be forgot" — are found in at least one earlier poem. Musicologists believe that the tune was based on a traditional tune which was usually played much faster as a brisk Scottish dance. (Burns may have used the same melody to set a later poem, "Can Ye Labour Lea", written four years after "Auld Lang Syne".)

Now, while looking for ways to illustrate the variety of mandolin techniques in my shows, I've played Russian folk songs, excerpts from Italian operas, Beethoven's mandolin sonata — yes, Beethoven wrote for the mandolin! — and many more, but my choice now is "Auld Lang Syne". I begin by performing it as a ballad, the way we are all so used to hearing it, and then break into a ferocious bluegrass version, complete with the double-stops [two notes played simultaneously on adjacent strings] typical of bluegrass fiddle playing. I thought I'd come up with something both fun and novel . . . until I realized that the great Bill Monroe, the founder of bluegrass music in the 1930s, performed "Auld Lang Syne" almost the same way more than half a century ago! I shouldn't have been surprised: bluegrass is rooted in the Scots-Irish musical tradition of Monroe's family in Jerusalem Ridge, Kentucky.

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May 29, 2010

I recently received word from Sandy Rothman, bluegrass guitarist extraordinaire and one of Bill Monroe's musicians, that the version of "Auld Lang Syne" I have attributed to Bill Monroe was actually a feature for banjo great Bill Keith (who joined Monroe in '63). If I'm going to be caught in an error at least it's by the best. Thanks, Sandy!

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July 17, 2010

Today I was able to speak to Bill Keith in person just after he finished presenting a superb banjo workshop at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. He confirmed that I had gotten the story dead wrong: he developed his signature bluegrass version of "Auld Lang Syne" after leaving Bill Monroe's band. Sandy was absolutely right to correct me.

SURF'S UP! - August 27, 2008

In 1957, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly were all at the top of their game. Rock & roll seemed indestructible. But by 1959. Elvis was in the U.S. Army in Germany. Little Richard was in Bible College. Chuck Berry was in the dock, indicted for violating the Mann Act. Jerry Lee Lewis was in disgrace for marrying his 13 year old cousin. And Buddy Holly had perished in a plane crash.

Thus, the next five years (until the Beatles were catapulted into superstardom) are sometimes called the "Lost Years" of rock. But not for guitar pickers! Why? Because those years gave us The Ventures' "Walk Don't Run" (a hit both in '60 and '64), Dick Dale's "Misirlou" ('62), The Tornado's "Telstar" ('62; the first hit record in the U.S. by a British group), The Chantays' "Pipeline" ('63), The Surfari's "Wipe Out" ('63, originally entitled "Switchblade") and, in the U.K., a flurry of hits by Cliff Richards' sometime-backing band, The Shadows. In short, "Surf's up!"

I have long featured a suite of surf guitar hits in my shows, Though I have only recently started performing "Apache", I first memorized "Apache" from The Ventures Play 'Telstar' ('63). When I realized that The Ventures often recorded their own versions of other groups' hits I began to wonder about the origins of "Apache". And so begins the following, rather tangled, yarn. . . .

By 1960 a chap from West London, Jeremiah Patrick Lordan, had served in the RAF, failed as a singer, as a comedian, in advertising, and at heaven knows what else. But, using his advertising business contacts, Jerry Lordan was able to audition a tune of his own devising for a record producer. The record flopped in the U.K. but Lordan's song was then recorded by an American rockabilly singer, Dale Hawkins.

Now, Dale Hawkins, mostly remembered for his huge "swamp rock" record "Suzie Q.", is the cousin of Ronnie Hawkins whose backing band, The Hawks, later backed Bob Dylan and became known as The Band. Which, of course, has nothing to do with my story here. But the following scrap of dreadful dialogue does:

"Will they not say that growing corn is woman's work?"

"I am a warrior. What I do can never be woman's work."

Those are the only lines I can recall from a Hollywood Western starring Burt Lancaster in 1954, a movie set just after Geromino's surrender. When, years later, the film opened in London, Jerry Lordan went to see it and was mightily impressed by the score composed by David Raksin (who would eventually write the music for than one hundred movies!) The name of the flick is, of course, "Apache".

Thus inspired, Lordan devised a faux Native American tune of his own and played his new number—not surprisingly entitled "Apache"—on a ukulele for Jet Harris, the bass player in The Shadows. The Shadows recorded it in July, 1960. In just a few weeks it landed on the top spot in the English hit parade. But that record did not "cross the pond" to the U.S.

Americans know "Apache" because in the following year, 1961, it was recorded again, this time by a Danish jazz guitarist named Jorgen Ingmann. His cover version went straight to #2 in the U.S. and #4 in Canada. (Ingmann is also the guitarist on The Champs' "Tequila".)

So our tale which begins with Geronimo passes through Hollywood, England and Denmark and at last arrives on American airwaves. And, almost fifty years later, in my shows. But it doesn't stop there: "Apache" has been a hit for home-grown bands in Germany, The Netherlands, France, and even Chile!

THE RUSSIAN COWBOY - June 11, 2008

What do "The Alamo", "High Noon", "Red River" and "Rio Bravo" have in common?

Yes, of course, they are all Westerns, all cowboy movies. But what do they share with "Lost Horizon", "Dial M for Murder", "You Can't Take It With You", "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It's A Wonderful Life"?

Herein lies a tale. . . .

In the 1910s, a Russian piano student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory hung out at a local cafe called "The Homeless Dog." There he heard American ragtime and blues, and was knocked out by a recording of Irving Berlin's recent hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band." After WWI, this young man studied in Germany and performed piano concertos in Paris. There he played Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" for a sold-out house —wherein sat none other than George Gershwin! And there he met a Russian who had become a Broadway producer and who invited him to join a vaudeville show in New York. But when the stock market crashed in '29, he, like so many others, went to California to look for work. . . and found it composing scores for Hollywood.

Dimitri Zinovich Tiomkin would write the music for more than 100 movies, working with many of the greatest directors in Hollywood including Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra. Tiomkin received about two dozen Oscar nominations (and won four in just six years) during a career spanning almost half of the 20th century.

It may seem odd that a Russian composed "Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin'" for "High Noon" but 'tis true.

On rare occasions I perform Tiomkin's theme song for the 1961 flick "Town Without Pity". The song was a vocal hit for Gene Pitney but there is a thrilling, almost symphonic, version set for electric guitar performed by Ronnie Montrose on the album "Open Fire." Unfortunately that recording can be very hard to find as it was released only in Japan and may not have been 100% kosher, issued without the artist's consent.

A SHAKESPEAREAN MUSICAL MYSTERY - July 22, 2007

There are many songs in Shakespeare's plays, most boasting lyrics set to music by regular collaborators associated with Shakespeare's theater company. These composers also devised musical interludes and the "jig" performed at play's end. (Most plays in Elizabethan England concluded with a dance featuring members of the cast, each performing his signature routine.)

Shakespeare mentions only one well-known popular song of the day by title, "Greensleeves". And he cites it not just once but twice in his play "The Merry Wives of Windsor" [Act 2, Scene 1 and Act 5, Scene 5].

What was so special about "Greensleeves" that Shakespeare gave it such prominence?

"Greensleeves" was registered with the London Stationer's Company in 1580 under the name "A New Northern Ditty of the Lady Greensleeves". But according to English folk legend, the song was composed by Henry VIII in the early 1530s while courting the young lass who in 1533 would become his second wife, Anne Boleyn. In the 1590s Shakespeare wrote two wildly popular plays, "Henry IV, Part I" and "Henry IV, Part II", each featuring Sir John Falstaff, a witty wonder, the fat, boastful and utterly marvelous drinking companion of the young Prince Hal (the wastrel who would grow up to become the heroic Henry V).

Falstaff was wildly popular with audiences. Even Queen Elizabeth I was said to have adored that character so much that she asked Shakespeare to please write a new play in which Falstaff falls in love. So commanded, the tradition continues, he wrote "The Merry Wives of Windsor" which was almost certainly performed at court in 1602.

Today "The Merry Wives" is not considered one of Shakespeare's best works. It has a rather nasty, almost vindictive tone and much of the humor does not thrill modern audiences as does the wit of "Much Ado About Nothing" or "As You Like It", plays written during the same period, the late 1590s.

But why mention "Greensleeves", and why twice?

I think the answer is that Shakespeare knew that his audiences believed the song to have been written by Queen Elizabeth's father, Henry, while wooing her mother, Anne. Anne was executed after being accused of practicing witchcraft (along with other nefarious doings) in order to seduce Henry. Once in her Anne's thrall, Henry shed his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, the mother of Elizabeth's older (half-) sister Mary who would become Elizabeth's predecessor, Queen Mary I. But after Anne was convicted her own daughter, Elizabeth, was declared illegitimate.

Now, in the song "Greensleeves" the singer declares that his beloved has "cast me off discourteously". If, as the audience believed, the singer/composer was Henry VIII and the object of his affection Anne Boleyn, then the song's lyrics bear witness to Anne's innocence: she could hardly be a witch, scheming to entrap Henry, to seduce him into marriage, if she had refused his affections. And if Anne was innocent then her offspring, Elizabeth, should certainly be considered legitimate.

Thus, I believe that Shakespeare cited the song (twice!) in "The Merry Wives" in order to curry favor with Queen Elizabeth by suggesting her legitimacy and her mother's innocence. After all, he could be certain that the queen would see the play as she had suggested that he write it in the first place.

You will find a recording of "Greensleeves" on my third CD, "RIO TIGRE," performed on "Shorty", a 12-string guitar tuned one octave higher than a normal guitar, and on one of my beloved Rigel mandolins.

That recording also includes "Scarborough Fair", a melody far older than that of "Greensleeves" as the song "Scarborough Fair" may date from the late Middle Ages!

Scarborough, once a Viking settlement and now a quiet resort town, sits on the southern tip of the North York moors. But as a medieval trading village, Scarborough was home to one of the great fairs. This "fair" was more than a carnival; it was a seasonal exposition lasting from August until October to which merchants and artisans would come from both England and continental Europe to trade raw materials like wool and flax and to show their finished goods.

And that is why in the lyrics of "Scarborough Fair" the singer asks his lady friend to make him a coat or a shirt, precisely the kind of activity typical of medieval fair.

RECIPE FOR A ROSE - June 28, 2007

Jim Rob loved Mexican dancing, minstrel shows, big band swing and the blues singing of Bessie Smith, once riding fifty miles on horseback to hear her perform. He delivered bread, preached the Bible, sold insurance and attended barber college.

While working as a barber in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas he heard Mexican dance music on the radio and fell in love its vibrant energy. Though he'd learned violin from his father, a champion fiddler, he knew he wasn't as good as his dad, He would never be a virtuoso, let alone be able to play the swing jazz he loved. But he'd seen what happened when Cain's Dancing Academy in Tulsa implanted springs under the dance floor. So, he founded a group to play for dances, often using two fiddles in place of the saxes employed by the big bands. (His bands in the early 1930s, like those of Milton Brown's Musical Brownies, included trumpets and saxophones.)

Like the big bands, Jim Rob's featured marvelous soloists but his might play mandolin or steel guitar. As Jim Rob liked the uniforms, the discipline and the professionalism of the big bands he did not want his band to have a hillbilly image. Hence he changed his name from Jim Rob to Bob. . .Bob Wills.

Cutting hair in Roy, New Mexico, Bob played for local dances on Saturday nights, composing his own number "Spanish Two Step." In 1935 he recorded "Two Step" for Columbia records. In '38, now in Dallas, Columbia's representative asked Bob if he had another song like "Spanish Two Step." Bob said he didn't but that he'd come up with one in just a few minutes. He did, quickly composing the classic "San Antonio Rose." When he added lyrics in '40 he changed the title to "The New San Antonio Rose" so—to be precise—the song should have that longer name whenever it is sung but the shorter name when it is performed without a vocalist.

Though I've never put it an a record, I often perform "San Antonio Rose" during the mandolin section of my concerts but I usually play it bluegrass style, not with the lovely lilting swing of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. By the by, though Bob eventually became a shrewd businessman he was known as a "soft touch" for a sad story. After giving money to a supplicant, he turned to a friend and said, "That guy's probably lyin', but I can't take the chance." What an open-hearted philosophy!

POLLY'S SHAWL AND THE SAILORS - June 1, 2007

For centuries, sailors plying both the high seas and America's rivers developed a body of songs designed to help them at their chores. These were called chanteys or shanties, perhaps from the English word "chant", perhaps from the French command "Chantez!" which instructed the sailors to sing together. Songs suitable for short bursts of activity are called "short haul shanties", those for heavier work, "halyard shanties", and those for long repetitive tasks, "capstan shanties".

While most of the famous shanties are English or Dutch in origin, here's the story of one that is truly an American original.

During the long, cold winter of 1777-78, General George Washington struggled to preserve his army at Valley Forge. The troops were freezing and, perhaps worse, in danger of starvation, when a delegation of Oneidas brought 600 bushels of corn to aid the colonials. The problem: the troops did not know how to prepare the corn.

An Oneida named Polly Cooper taught the starving soldiers how to fix the corn, refusing all offers of payment from the grateful soldiers. As a token of gratitude, none other than Martha Washington gave Polly a bonnet and shawl (which is still treasured by the Oneida and often displayed at the Oneida Nation's cultural center). The name of the Oneida chief whose generosity saved the colonial army from extinction is Skenandoah (yes, it is spelled with a "k") from which we get the names for the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, for towns throughout the midwest, and whose daughter is the object of affection in the beautiful song, "Shenandoah".

While there is nothing inherently nautical about the song "Shenandoah", it was so loved by sailors plying the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi rivers during the 1840s that it was adapted to serve as a capstan shanty which a group of sailors would sing while turning the great wheel that raised the anchor. When the riverboat sailors landed in the great trade ports of Mobile and New Orleans they met English and Dutch deep-water sailors who carried "Shenandoah" back to Europe. (That's why many Brits today think that the melody, with different lyrics, originated in England.)

And so the kindness of a Native American woman during the War of Independence and the generosity of her chief became the lyrical subject of a sailors' work song sung around the globe.

My mandolin arrangement of "Shenandoah" is featured on my third album, "Rio Tigre".

A GRAND OLD RAG - February 18, 2006

In 1904, a 26 year old from Providence, Rhode Island — George Michael Cohan — wrote and starred in a musical, "Little Johnny Jones." Though the show closed early the next year after hardly more than fifty performances, it featured two new Cohan songs which quickly became nationwide hits: "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway."

As 1905 commemorated the 40th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, a parade was held in New York for Civil war veterans and, because of those two songs, George was invited to serve as Grand Marshal of the parade.

Cohan rode in the parade beside a veteran of the battle of Gettysburg who cradled a tattered flag on his lap. The old soldier commented, "She's a grand old rag." As ragtime music was then a national obsession, Cohan —an experienced business manager as well as songwriter and performer — saw the possibilities, wrote a song for his next show, "George Washington, Jr." and entitled his new composition. . . you guessed it. . . "You're a Grand Old Rag."

Cohan was so certain that his new song would be a smash that sheet music and recordings (on Edison cylinders) were released even before the show opened on February 6,1906. The new song was wildly popular, just as Cohan had hoped. But it sparked outrage with everyone from the Daughters of the American Revolution to President Teddy Roosevelt waxing wroth.

Why?

They objected that calling the Stars and Stripes a "rag" was unpatriotic.

Though George M. Cohan was as hard-headed as anyone in Broadway history, he knew when he was licked and changed the title (and lyric) to "You're a Grand Old Flag". Cohan ordered the recall of all the sheet music and Edison cylanders (recordings) but a few survived and are now valued collector's items. Still, the newly retitled song became the first in history to sell more than 1,000,000 copies of sheet music!

If you've seen my live shows you might hear my ragtime version on classical guitar with chords, bass and melody all played at the same time after the style of Chet Atkins.

AN "AMERICAN" CLASSIC THAT ISN'T (AMERICAN) - December 27, 2005

One of the most popular fiddle tunes in American history is "Fisher's Hornpipe".

As far back as 1783, just after the Revolutionary War, a gent named John Greenwood transcribed the melody into his musical copybook (though set for the "German flute", not the violin). We know that surveyor Moses Cleaveland -- for whom Cleveland, Ohio is named -- always traveled with a fiddler in his company. When they first pitched camp on the banks of the Cuyahoga river in July, 1796 the happy campers danced while the fiddler played "Fisher's Hornpipe".

Fiddlers' contests often require that contestants perform "category tunes", songs that every fiddler should know (rather like the compulsory exercises gymnasts must execute before they can show off their personal creativity in the final events). "Fisher's Hornpipe" was one of those "category tunes" as far back as the 1800s.

At the fiddlers contest in Gallatin, Texas in 1899 the prize went to the best performance of -- you guessed it -- "Fisher's Hornpipe".

But who was "Fisher"?

Some believe Fisher to have been the song's composer but no one is quite sure who that was. Perhaps he was Johann Christian Fischer, a German friend of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Perhaps he was James Fishar, an English conductor and ballet master at Covent Garden who certainly did compose hornpipes.

My own arrangment of "Fisher's Hornpipe" (which I sometimes perform in concert on mandolin and sometimes on guitar) was especially fun to write as I change the harmony every single time the melody comes around and give it something of a "Riverdance"-ish treatment.

THE STREETCARS THAT MADE BIG BAND HISTORY - May 18, 2005

Like many cities in the 1920s and '30s, Birmingham, Alabama was crisscrossed by streetcar lines.

Two, the Pratt City and Wylam streetcars, terminated at 20th Street and Ensley Avenue, the site of the Nixon Building which boasted a wonderful dance hall on the 2nd floor.

At day's end, folks would disembark the streetcars still dressed in their work clothes. As they were hardly attired for the evening, a local clothing store rented them dressy outfits (holding their work togs as collateral).

Hence, the nickname. . . Tuxedo Junction!

A local boy, trumpeter Erskine Hawkins, attended the State Teachers College in Montgomery, just over an hour's drive from Birmingham. To help the College survive financial straits during the Depression, Hawkins lead the Bama State Collegians jazz band on a tour, raising funds for the school. In '34 when the band arrived in New York City it became the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, even playing Harlem's famed Savoy Ballroom.

In 1939, now living in New York year-round, Hawkins composed the music for the song that celebrated his home town, Birmingham: "Tuxedo Junction."

On Christmas Eve at the Savoy, the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra shared the bill with a new band, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, playing to a record-breaking crowd of 4,000. The Miller band couldn't help noticing that the audience loved Hawkins' new tune so Glenn's musicians borrowed a lead sheet (just melody and chords) from one of Hawkins' sax players. Miller's arranger, Jerry Gray, worked up a bare-bones sketch of the tune and passed it around so that the Miller musos could add their own embellishments.

Though Erskine Hawkins' record of "Tuxedo Junction" was hardly a flop, it was the Miller band's platter, recorded in February of 1940, which sold 115,000 copies... in just one week!

As the song is really a gussied up blues, my own arrangement — which I sometimes perform as a solo guitar piece — takes "Tuxedo Junction" back to its roots in Alabama.

WHAT A WONDERFUL MISTAKE - April 28, 2005

Several songs have become hit records more than once but there's one song that was successful on five different records all in the same year!

In 1942 this song was a hit in the U.S. for Kay Kyser, Glen Miller, Sammy Kaye, Jimmy Dorsey and Kate Smith.

Any guesses?

Here's a clue: it was recorded that same year in the U.K. by Vera Lynn and has ever since been associated with her.

Right, the classic "White Cliffs of Dover."

In 1940-41 Nat Burton, an American inspired by the courage of RAF pilots during the Battle of Britain, wrote a lyric which looks forward to a time of peace and happiness.

Set to music by another American, Walter Kent, Burton's opening line contains a wonderful ornithological error. Bluebirds are common in North America but are seen nowhere near Dover in England. Nat Burton could hardly be blamed for his mistake; you see, he had never visited England. He first saw Dover with his own eyes in 1985, forty years after the end of WWII.

I added my own arrangement of "White Cliffs of Dover" to my guitar concerts in time for the 60th anniversary of D-Day but have rarely performed it since then.

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