Vocalists

6. Just One of Those Things

ColeRecord: Just One of Those Things
Artist: Nat "King" Cole
Released: Capitol Records, 1957

Once upon a time there was no more common rite of passage for a teenager than the creation of a mixtape. You'd fill a sixty- or ninety-minute cassette with favorite songs from your collection, maybe from your friend's, and you had a soundtrack for your summer. It was usually just a collection of the best songs from your favorite bands, but sometimes there was a theme of some sort -- British new wave, bands with female leads, classic rock guitar legends. (Rob Sheffield wrote a great book about this that I highly recommend, Love Is a Mixtape.)

Which brings us to the pinnacle of the art form, the romantic mixtape. Never did we spend so much time finding just the right songs with just the right lyrics and putting them in just the right order as when we were crafting a collection of songs to present to someone we loved and hoped would love us back. I still have the mixtape my wife made for me when we first started dating almost a quarter century ago, and even though I no longer have a cassette player and don't even know where I'd get one, I'll keep that tape forever.

None of that was possible for young lovers sixty years ago, so the music industry obliged. There were any number of options for those looking to set a romantic mood, and all the crooners of the day -- Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett -- regularly released collections of love songs that were no doubt played over candlelight dinners everywhere.

Nat "King" Cole was one of the legendary singers of that or any era, and here he presents a collection of ballads lamenting lost love. In "A Cottage for Sale," a man comes across a home where he once lived with his true love and discovers that though it looks the same, everything is different.

From every single window, I see your face
But when I reach a window, there's an empty space.
The key's in the mailbox, the same as before,
But no one is waiting for me anymore.

The lyrics are from Larry Conley, and the song has been recorded dozens of times by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Judy Garland to Willie Nelson, but Cole's phrasing here is perfect as he expresses a longing for something he can no longer reach.

Continuing with the theme of heartbreak, Cole tackles another standard, "These Foolish Things." Of all the tracks on the record, none has been recorded by as many different legends. There are versions from the people you'd expect -- Sinatra, Holiday, Fitzgerald -- but it's also appealed to modern singers from different genres, like Aaron Neville, Rod Stewart, and Bob Dylan. The first time I came across the song it was the Bryan Ferry version, which isn't surprising because I'm sure Ferry would've been right at home singing standards back in the 1950s.

The lyrics are simple but poignant.

A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces,An airline ticket to romantic places,A fairgrounds painted swings,These foolish things remind me of you.
 
A tinkling piano in the next apartment,Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant,And still my heart has wings.These foolish things remind me of you.
 
You came, you saw, you conquered me.When you did that to me, I knew somehowIt had to be.
 
The winds of March that make my heart a dancer,A telephone that rings but who's to answer?Oh, how the thought of you clings.These foolish things remind me of you.
Who among us hasn't experienced something like this? The surprise that comes when a common object triggers a flood of memories. A pack of gum might remind you of your high school boyfriend, a child's hairbrush can bring your newborn baby back into your arms. Or the feel of an old cassette tape can remind you of what it was like to fall in love.
 
If my father were sitting with me this morning, listening to this record, I wonder what foolish things the music might bring to his mind. Maybe they wouldn't be foolish at all.

Cole2

Side 1
When Your Lover Has Gone
A Cottage for Sale
Who's Sorry Now?
Once in a While
These Foolish Things Remind Me of You
Just for the Fun of It

Side 2
Don't Get Around Much Anymore
I Understand
Just One of Those Things
The Song Is Ended
I Should Care
The Party's Over


4. Sinatra-Basie

SinatraBasieRecord: Sinatra-Basie
Artist: Frank Sinatra and Count Basie
Released: Reprise Records, 1962

I bought my first true stereo in the summer of 1990, and few purchases before or since have given me as much pleasure. Until then my music had come from single-speaker clock radios, cassette tapes played through a boom box, or the CD players of college roommates. 

But when I gladly parted with six hundred dollars of my summer earnings and came home from Rogers Sound Labs with a receiver, a five-disc CD changer, and a set of speakers, everything changed. Suddenly I needed to have every song I'd ever loved in my CD collection, and even some that I didn't love just because someone else might want to hear it.

If only my twenty-year-old self had known about the world of streaming that was just a few decades away. Today I can stand in my kitchen and ask Alexa to play any song ever recorded, and within seconds I can be singing along while dicing an onion. It's a brave new wonderful world, but one thing we've lost is the joy of the search and the thrill of discovery.

During that first summer I had a detailed list of CDs that I wanted (needed) to add to my collection. Most weekends I'd spend a few hours with a likeminded friend scouring the racks at a used record store, searching for nuggets hidden in the stacks. The CDs were organized alphabetically, but only loosely, so the only method was to flip through -- flip through them all.

That rhythm of the cases clicking together as my index and middle fingers walked up the stack was hypnotic, and I don't have to look too deeply into my memories to hear the sound of the plastic click, click, click, clicking. And then you'd find one. Sometimes it was a CD you'd been searching for for weeks, but sometimes it was even better -- a CD you didn't even know existed. A bootleg recording of a live concert or the European edition of a CD you already owned. (You'd buy it anyway because it might have different artwork and an extra track.) I miss the search. I miss the discovery.

It wasn't immediately that I connected my love of music with my father's, nor my growing CD collection to his vinyl, but that would come. When I wanted to expand my jazz collection, I looked to my father for guidance and opened his record chests with intent. It was similar to my Saturday CD runs. Some of the names were familiar, but others were brand new. I flipped through the records, pulling one album out at a time, and I added titles to my list.

This record, Sinatra-Basie, was one of the first to show up in my collection, and it's still one of my favorites. I don't remember for sure, but I'm guessing I was drawn to it because of Frank Sinatra, who was one of my mother's favorites, probably her only favorite. 

My whole life was in front of me when I was in my early twenties and first listening to this record, and no track spoke to that like the fourth song on the first side.

"Lookin' at the world through rose-colored glasses
Everything is rosy now
Lookin' at the world and everything that passes
Seems a rosy hue somehow..."

If my life had been a movie, I imagined, this was the song playing in the opening credits. A few scenes later, when life took its first turn, there would be Sinatra again with a track from side two, "Learnin' the Blues," this time gently explaining the pain of lost love. He gently croons,

"When you're at home alone, the blues will taunt you constantly.
When you're out in a crowd, those blues will haunt your memory."

People often refer to one album or another as being the soundtrack of their lives, and I think that's telling. Music speaks to us, and great music speaks to all of us. What Sinatra and Basie have done here is combine Basie's orchestra with Sinatra's singing, and the result is a record the must've spoken to by father sixty years ago, certainly spoke to me thirty years ago, and still swings today. That's genius.

SinatraBasieVinyl


Side 1
Pennies from Heaven
Please Be Kind
(Love Is) The Tender Trap
Looking at the World thru Rose Colored Glasses
My Kind of Girl

Side 2
I Only Have Eyes for You
Nice Work If You Can Get It
Learnin' the Blues
I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter
I Won't Dance


3. Billie Holiday

LadyDayRecord: Billie Holiday
Artist: Billie Holiday (with Ray Ellis and His Orchestra)
Released: MGM Records, 1959

Quite simply, there's no one like Billie Holiday. This isn't her finest work, but it's important because it's her last work; she died four months after these songs were recorded. If you were to look for this album today, you'd find it as Last Recording, with that new title added to the album artwork, but the record I'm listening to this morning must be from the first print run. It's just Billie Holiday.

How to describe Lady Day? It's difficult to find a comparison to someone as legendary as Ms. Holiday, but I can say that Norah Jones reminds me of her, though Jones is a bit more sultry, and Madeleine Peyroux is another musical descendant, but there's something unique about Holiday. 

The artist does not need to be pained, but some of our greatest artists channel their pain into their work, either directly or indirectly. But when Holiday sings on this record, "I'll never smile again, until I smile at you. I'll never laugh again, what good would it do?" these aren't her lyrics but it is her pain, an apparent contradiction that highlights a key difference between how standards in the music industry have changed.

Artists today must write their own songs to be taken seriously, and some -- like Taylor Swift -- are criticized even if they collaborate with another songwriter. That was never the case before. The great singers from the last century -- Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams -- almost never wrote their own songs. They were performers, and that they were singing someone else's songs could never diminish their genius. There was only one Sinatra, after all. No one could duplicate Ella Fitzgerald.

And so what Holiday does with these songs is something no other artist could have done. In the liner notes for this album, Leonard Feather describes how different she was in 1959 as compared to her earlier years, but he doesn't go into specifics. The truth is that Holiday had spent her thirty-year career chasing away pain with alcohol and heroin, and so when we listen to these final recordings, we're listening to a voice that's been damaged and a soul that's been ravaged. And yet, it's all so beautiful.

This morning was the first time I've listened to this record, but I smiled to hear her renditions of two timeless classics, "All the Way" ("When somebody loves you, it's no good unless he loves you, all the way") and the Louie Armstrong standard "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." Both songs are someone else's, both songs are familiar, but Holiday makes them her own.

The best example of this is in one of the most important songs ever recorded, "Strange Fruit." I don't think my father had that in his collection, but we can't talk about Billie Holiday without discussing her haunting version of a song that helped plant the seeds for the Civil Rights movement by taking an unflinching look at the dark history of lynching in the American South. Consider the lyrics, then watch this video of Holiday performing the song in 1959.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
 
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
 
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
 
Again, these are not Holiday's words. The lyrics were adapted from a poem written by Abel Meeropol in response to an infamous photo of a double lynching in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. (You can read about that history here.) But just as she did throughout her career, Lady Day took those words and elevated them. That, I think, is what true genius is. The elevation of a truth that the rest of us already knew.
 

LadyDay2Side 1
All of You
Sometimes I'm Happy
You Took Advantage of Me
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
There'll Be Some Changes Made
'Deed I Do

Side 2
Don't Worry 'bout Me
All the Way
Just One More Chance
It's Not for Me to Say
I'll Never Smile Again
Baby Won't You Please Come Home