Saturday, March 09, 2013

HEAVEN HAS A BALL - Kenny Ball dies at 82 (Your Mother Should Know)

The song choice to commemorate Kenny Ball is "Your Mother Should Know." She probably remembers Kenny's #1 hit, "Midnight in Moscow," and might even be able to name it, or hum along to it, if you found it among her old 45's.

In recalling Ball (May 22, 1930– March 7, 2013) we hark, if not bark, back to the long lost age of the instrumental. At one time it was not unusual for a song without lyrics to be on the charts along with "It's Not Unusual." Why, even foreign language pieces such as "Volare" and "Sukiyaki" were welcome, and without having to follow the bouncing ball to sing along, ballrooms played the singles of Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk, and even the dreaded Percy Faith.

What happened? Have we simply run out of melodies? Is that why instrumentals rarely get anywhere anymore? Might be. How many Top 10 singles from last year can you sing? Not many, huh? Because there's no melody. The lyrics are crap, too. At best, you might know the chorus which could be "Fuck You" from Cee-lo or "Umbrella-ella-ella" from Rihanna-anna-nanna or some shit or other about wanting or not wanting to be your girlfriend, coming from Avril or Taylor.

You'll also note that it's rare when there's a good instrumental movie or TV theme. Quick, hum the theme song for Jay Leno's "Tonight Show." Back in Kenny Ball's day, there was "Theme From a Summer Place," and in a less corny mode, a wide variety of rockin' twangin' instrumentals from The Ventures and Duane Eddy among others, plus evocative melodies such as "Telstar." Herb Alpert had a ton of hits. There was a market for oddball ethnic tunes including "Petite Fleur" from Chris Barber's Jazz Band, "African Waltz" from Johnny Dankworth, "Afrikaan Beat" by Bert Kaempfert, and…getting back to the subject at hand, or rather six feet under…"Midnight in Moscow" from Kenny Ball.

Although Kenny Ball could've told you, "I'm from ESSEX, in case you couldn't tell…" his heart was in Dixieland, and the trumpet player formed his own group in 1958 to modernize the stylings of Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, and others. He caused a stir with his version of the Cole Porter tune "Samantha" in 1961, and the following year had his biggest hit with "Midnight in Moscow," which sounded like he was taking Kruschev to the nudie bars of New Orleans. It sure as hell could not have been the reverse…cold, nasty Moscow actually seeming jovial around Midnight! At that time, swingin' a slavic minor key melody could probably get you a year in a labor camp.

[Parenthetically noted: ironically, another "One Shot Wonder" who only had one #1 hit in America died the same day as Kenny Ball. His #1 hit was even in the the same year as Kenny's. The late, 90 year-old Claude King sang "Wolverton Mountain" which was popular in the summer of 1962…three months after "Midnight in Moscow" was a Spring success.]

Ball's next 1962 single was also Top 10 in the UK (but not in America), "March of the Siamese Children," and he had another Top 10 in 1963 for an instrumental version of "Sukiyaki." Fans got to see Kenny and his band in the 1963 film "Sing and Swing" (aka "Live it Up") which featured Joe Meek's music and performances by Gene Vincent, Jennifer Moss, Trisha Noble, Steve Marriott, Ritchie Blackmore (part of "The Outlaws") and others. Kenny would have sporadic hits through the 60's and 70's in the U.K. and even supplied music at the wedding reception for that loving couple, Prince Charles and Diana.

As is often the case with jazz musicians, Kenny Ball did not retire and his enthusiasm did not diminish. He was still touring with his Jazzmen when he took ill with pneumonia, leaving a rather petite list of surviving instrumental greats, including some guys he was often co-billed with, Chris Barber, and that "Stranger on the Shore," Mr. Acker Bilk. Kenny's classics…well, yes, your mother should know all about them. And in some cases…so should you.

KENNY BALL Your Mother Should Know

1 comment:

Duncanmusic said...

Did you ever notice how much the intro and basic melody of 'Midnight in Moscow' & 'Washington Square' by the Village Stompers (which I believe was also concurrent with 'Might In Moscow'...American counter-strike, perhaps?) are nearly the same?