Wednesday, May 29, 2013

10 PIECES FOR CHILDREN - Dmitri Kabalevsky

10 songs in about six minutes?

That shouldn't tax anyone's attention span, even a child's. What you'll hear may sound more like piano for a Charlie Chaplin short than "classical music." No wonder. Kabalevsky began his career at the keyboard in St. Petersburg theaters, adding music to silent movies!

The reason for an all-classical set this time? Well, the blog IS designed to shine a light on obscure stuff that is actually worth hearing in any category. Well, any category I care about. This entry may also have nostalgia appeal as well. For many piano students, Dmitri (not Dimitri) Kabalevsky was the first composer they could master.

While the guy couldn't exactly compete with past masters Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, neither could anyone else. By the last half of the 20th Century, "classical" music was done. Along with painting and sculpture, all that most moderns could do was fuck things up with discord, bizarre shit and experimentation. No way could they add to the perfection of previous centuries, so they just pushed Darwin on his ass and began doing stuff that had observers grumbling, "hey, even a child could do that!" It's called "art" but rarely is. Kab, at least, who passed away fairly recently for a great master (1987) tried something more creative. He composed a lot of legitimately good classical music FOR a child to play. Or even more advanced students. These are probably the most popular things he composed, along with "The Comedians Suite." But the days of attempting a symphony that could compare with the masters…that was over. (With a nod to Kab's contemporary Prokofiev, best known not for any symphony or concerto but accessible suites involving "Three Oranges" and "Lt. Kije.")

There was never a shortage of classical pieces for kids to practice with, but before Kabalevsky most of this was simplified versions of "The Moonlight Sonata" or bare-bones arrangements of symphonic melodies. While it was nice to be able to fool some relative with what sounded like Mozart, it was a little more satisfying to play something not so well known, and a bit more fresh and contemporary. I know this from experience…as I enjoyed playing some of the Kabalevsky pieces in the download below….along with things like "The Wild Horseman" and "The Happy Farmer," both from Robert Schumann, one of the few major composers to give his pupils some exciting but easy compositions to play.

The ten easy pieces below (and Kab wrote dozens more of them) starts with a favorite of mine, "A Sad Tale," which is far sadder the way I play it. There's just a brief pause between each 40 or 50 second tune, most intended to educate a kid on a particular music form (like "Rondo" or "Scherzo," which seemed the same to me). Some little songs led potential kiddie-composers to perhaps try and illustrate an emotion or activity with their own tune, though the result was probably more "Clowning" than anything else. The complete rundown:

A Sad Tale, Old Dance, Cradle Song, Little Fable, Clowning, Rondo, Toccatina, A Little Prank, Scherzo, and March.

Once we all mastered this stuff, we either gave up, or moved on to "real" piano playing, seeking out the actual manuscripts a Horowitz or Brendel used in the recording of a "real" sonata. And along with Vladimir and Alfred, we somehow never thought to play our sweet Kiddie Klassics ever again in front of an audience. That's why it's not easy to find Kabalevsky's student-oriented piano studies on vinyl or compact disc. The ten here come from an old Musical Heritage 12 inch, as performed by Armenian-Turkish pianist and Victor Borge sidekick Sahan Arzruni.

TEN EASY PIECES Dmitri Kabalevsky

INKI AND THE MINAH BIRD - BIRD-BRAINED MENDELSSOHN

Banned by broadcast TV and not on official DVDs, the Warner Bros. "Inki" cartoon series is often dimly remembered as some kind of hallucination. No words. Some strange philosophy behind life and death or thought and action. And...that music...the trademark loping classical refrain any time the grim minah bird hopped into the scene. Unfortunately his co-star was "Inki," a little African native boy that in name and features some find politically incorrect. It's kept the meager "Inki" cartoon series a cult item for decades now.

Some seventy years ago, "Inki and the Minah Bird" was received well enough to sputter a few sequels, years apart, before being abandoned entirely in favor of the more popular Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck stuff. Nothing remotely as baffling, intellectual or mysteriously appealing would come out of the Warners cartoon mill till "One Froggy Evening" many years later. That one, ironically, was also memorable in part for the music, including the original 20's-flavored song "Michigan Rag."

With no dialogue (or dialect, fortunately), each "Inki" cartoon was a meditation on the frantic violence of a savage world (usually a ferocious lion chasing Inki) and the stoic attempts of the bird, like Poe's Raven, to ignore it with "NEVERMORE" determination and eyes cast downward. Looking more like a distant crow relative of Heckle and Jeckle, he was one of the more intriguing and subtle characters in the Warners stable, especially considering a minah is known as a good talker and they had Mel Blanc ready at the microphone. But…whether to get some peace and quiet, or to see to it that good triumphs over bad, the minah bird would silently choose when to turn from stoic observer into a violently active participant. There was also some question over whether he was on one side or the other, or a total misanthrope bearing allegiance to nobody but himself.

For some, the Warner Bros. cartoon soundtracks were early introductions to classical music. Their music department brilliantly adapted Mendelssohn's "Hebrides Overture," for their minah bird.

It's ironic that a composer who is alternately claimed as both Jewish and Protestant/Lutheran (converting made life less stressful in Hamburg) and sometimes listed as Jakob Felix Mendelssohn or Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, should have several titles associated with his best symphonic work. It's still known alternately as both "The Hebrides Overture" and "Fingal's Cave."

Barely out of his 20's, Hamburger Felix was already a sophisticated composer and a world traveler. In 1830 he visited the Hebrides in Scotland, and was awed by the sight of Fingal's 35 foot high cave. He sketched a tone poem that he called "The Lonely Island." The moody, roiling turbulence in the piece seemed to capture some of the seasickness that made getting to the island less than fun.

By 1832 the finished, more substantial work was now called "The Hebrides." It ended up being categorized as an "overture" even though it isn't. Just to confuse things further, when the piece was actually published for orchestras around the world to play, it was printed up as "Fingal's Cave," apparently due to Felix once again revising the title. No less a genius than Brahms himself declared his love of this salty suite: "“I would gladly give all my works if I had succeeded in composing a piece like the Hebrides Overture."

Below?

I've created a four minute version of "Inki and the Minah Bird" from the original soundtrack, editing out some of the dead air, and sound effects that are just noisy and wouldn't mean anything.

You also get a "real" version of the original "Hebrides Overture" for comparison.

Felix cartooned: Four Minute "Cartoon Audio" Single: INKI AND THE MINAH BIRD by Ill Folks

HEBRIDES OVERTURE - FINGAL'S CAVE Bamberg Symphony Orchestra

SATIE on the HARMONICA - via CLAUDE GARDEN

This unusually esoteric "all classical" set of new additions to the blog ends with….the lowly harmonica brought to the high art of quality music.

"Claude Garden!" "What, the cat has been pulling up the grass in the back yard again?"

Perhaps in France Claude's better known than Larry Adler among famous name harmonica players. Maybe this blog will change all that. Not. He did issue a few albums, and even a pop single of that annoying ditty "Nola."

Garden's obscure French pressing of romantic toots to modern composers Satie, Faure, Debussy, Milhaud and Bartok sounds like music, not a gimmick. The odd Frenchie is joined by silly piano accompaniment. Oh. Typo. The woman's name isn't Silly, it's Catherine Silie. And to make it a three-way, there's Marielle Nordmann on "harp" (which is pretty ironic if you think about how many people now call a harmonica a "harp." It's not just me and Bobby McGee.)

Probably because classical music is an acquired taste, and not easy listening (in the James Last way…something overweight Dutchmen can tearfully smile and sob to), there are often unfortunate attempts to trick people into listening. There's "Pops" concerts and "Greatest Hits" albums that simplify the music, jazz artists "swinging" the classics, and "trick instrument" deals where somebody figures you might dig Bach if it's played on a koto or a moog synthesizer. But Claude's harmonica versions aren't too bastardy, even if he does play safe and choose very melodic stuff that NPR radio stations like so much. Fortunately, no Pachelbel here, but yes, warm and fuzzy Faure and minor key snake charmer Satie.

Saving bandwidth so the blog can offer a wide variety of samples is the main reason the download is restricted to one cut, "Maniere de Commencement des 3 Morceaux en forme de Poire." Yeah, even if you translate the Satie title and notice "pear-shaped pieces" in there, it's not quite as catchy as "Flabby Preludes for a Dog" or some of his other whimsies. But...Vive le musique…and now you know that the harmonica is capable of doing more than spitting "Red River Valley" or "Clementine" via a hyper child or hillbilly, or being blasted by Bob Dylan or gooned by Max Geldray

Claude Garden Monsieur, you Satie on a Harmonica?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

HOLT AND JONAH - THE RISE OF MOVIEVILLE (Brecht & Weill, NOT)

This, the blog of less renown (so obscure most people don't even get the Les Brown reference) once again offers you information and a download on a music act you never heard of; one that should've had a better fate.

In the early 60's, Nichols and May became famous and went to Broadway with their acerbic, neurotic brand of satire. Taking the opposite approach, Stiller and Meara soon became famous (and "The Ed Sullivan Show" regulars) with broader, more human comedy on the differences between man and woman and Jew and Gentile. All four would eventually have successes in solo careers. (Mike Nichols has directed many a brilliant film and play, Elaine May has also written and directed some remarkable work. Comic actors Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara are still married, and yeah, spawned Ben Stiller.)

Also playing the same clubs, but not reaching TV or Broadway, Holt and Jonah were a synthesis of the other two acts. Like Mike Nichols, Will Holt tended to play it uptight and brittle. In his case, WASPy as well. Like Anne Meara, or even Jerry Stiller, Dolly Jonah was blunt and at times boisterous.

They did make one album for Atlantic, called "On the Brink." Which we now know was not the brink of success. The cover pose had them dressed as sophisticates while standing in the rubble of a destroyed building.

Back in the late 50's and early 60's, nightclubs flourished, and urban clubs in Chicago, New York, St. Louis, San Francisco and elsewhere gave the "intelligentsia" sophisticated and challenging humor that could at least match Fred Allen of radio, or Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley of the magazine world. Audiences were expected to "get" the references to literature, art and history, and in the case of Holt and Jonah's closing showpiece, Brecht and Weill.

An evening of Holt and Jonah touched ground in many areas. The dynamic in their best routines was the down-to-earth broad giving an elbow in the ribs to Mr. Hung-up. There was also room for songs (Will Holt having been a solo folk singer for years, and the first to record "The M.T.A." comic ballad about a guy unable to get off a Boston train).

Let's just say it was a great (lost) age when people came to a nightclub to hear challenging, brainy material, be it poems (Henry Gibson), rambling political riffs (Mort Sahl), fake lectures (Professor Irwin Corey), dark meditations (Brother Theodore), theatrical monology touching on Freud and Kafka (Shelley Berman), or…this rather daring and ambitious serio-comic mini-musical Hollywood satire incorporating the stylings of "Threepenny Opera."

Will Holt went on to write lyrics for a few successful off-Broadway and Broadway shows. As previously mentioned here, he put lyrics to "Lemon Tree," which was a hit for Trini Lopez, and wrote "One Of Those Songs," a catchy vaudevillian novelty which was a favorite of belting-bozos like Jimmy Durante. Sadly, Dolly Jonah, who acted in the films "The Pawnbroker" and "Harry and Tonto," and performed solo in cabaret, died back in 1983. She was only 53 years old. Her ebullience is well-captured on the track below, which brims with both a joyous and wicked sense of humor.

Holt and Jonah The Rise and Fall of the City of MOVIEVILLE

JULIUS MONK REVUE : THE HOLY MAN AND THE NEW YORKER

Before there was "Saturday Night Live" in America, or "That Was The Week That Was" in Great Britain…there was the late 50's.

Before your time, and mine, intelligent audiences couldn't find topical, sophisticated or thoughtful humor on late night television. Not anything close. There wasn't much on even the most avant-garde indie radio station, either. What did they do?

They went to a now almost-extinct form of nightclub entertainment called the "revue." Or cabaret. Or review. This was where sketch comedy was droll, and following in the less polished footsteps of Noel Coward and Cole Porter, one might find a singer offering a witty ballad. Many top songwriters began by submitting material to these shows, from the Americans Schmidt and Jones (alias the authors of "The Fantasticks") to the British team of Flanders and Swann.

Though there was plenty of "shoestring" and "new faces" competition (from Bagley, Sillman and other producers), Julius Monk made his shows a favorite among New York theater fans, especially for those who had already pored through the week's New Yorker cartoons, loving both the grim (Chas Addams) and the obscure (William Steig). Each season, offbeat off-Broadway fans went to see the latest edition (each with an ascending numerical title) "Four Below" or "Take Five" or "Demi-Dozen," enjoying material that was witty and usually in good taste. [Ronny Graham's cheerful "hep smoke a reefer" bit drew the jealous ire of hipster Lenny Bruce...one of the few times a Monk revue monologue strayed into bohemian concerns.] In other words, if it was the subject of a New Yorker cartoon, it might be worthy of a Monk sketch...and an evening at a Monk show got you six performers instead of just one comic and a folk trio.

"Demi Dozen" was probably the best Monk show, featuring a controversial sketch about Madison Avenue mad men trying to spin away the news that cigarettes cause cancer (written by pre-Jose Jimenez Bill Dana), and a frisky song, "The Race of the Lexington Avenue Express" sung by comic diva Jane Connell. Also, the change-up: "The Holy Man and the New Yorker," performed by Gerry Matthews (later getting a good paycheck as the voice of Sugar Bear, a cereal spokes-creature in TV commercials). Like Flanders & Swann, who offered "20 Tons of TNT" and "Slow Train," or even downtown beatnik Shel Silverstein (who performed the sad "Unicorn" along with the raucous "It Does Not Pay to Be Hip') a good love song or a bit of comic-drama was welcomed to make for a varied evening.

As these blog entries tend to go on too long anyway, let's end the discussion of Mr. Monk and his revues here (no surprise he and the entire genre disappeared by the late 60's when decent late night TV became available) and let you discover "The Holy Man and the New Yorker" for yourself.

HOLY MAN AND THE NEW YORKER performed by Gerry Matthews

JULIUS MONK REVUE: "CON EDISON" RAP

"That's so old," Professor Moriarty (as portrayed by Henry Daniell) sneered, "it's new."

If he was around today, he'd refer to "hip hop" that way, as a prime example of something diabolical…of the fiendish way dangerously ignorant people took nursery rhyme and melded it to rotten percussion. "Hip Hop" -- sounds like a dance taught to mentally slow children around Easter. And yet these simple-minded idiots with "bling" on their teeth would tell you "hip hop" is new and cutting edge...not a fouling of nursery rhyme and the most simple and mindless of rhythms.

Old folkies will claim that Bob Dylan's "Homesick Subterranean Blues" was the first popular rap. But older folkies would tell you that Bob only rocked the well-known "talking blues," a style of monologue-with-music heard for over a century.

Uptown from Greenwich Village clubs that booked Dylan was a place called "Upstairs at the Downstairs." That part of town, the West 50's, was known for Broadway theaters, chic nightclubs, and a variety of "cult" establishments where you could listen to jazz and/or "sick comics" turning stand-up comedy on its head.

At "Upstairs at the Downstairs," impresario Julius Monk booked fresh young talent. This included promising singers and comics such as Tammy Grimes, Dorothy Loudon, Ronny Graham and Mary Louise Wilson. I'd name more, but you probably would not have heard of them, as most chose to graduate to Broadway, not to movies or television. Wilson's list of credits over the years is remarkable for someone most have never heard of.

Each season, Monk would throw together a new show of sketches and comedy songs aimed at the affluent upper middle-class. He was not out to offend, nor was he very political. His sense of humor was very much like most of the New Yorker cartoons of the day…preoccupied with the PTA, fashion, the vagaries of Madison Avenue, or being anyone whose job at the office might lead to taking tranquilizers.

One of the lesser shows, "Dressed to the Nines," (1960), does have some odd tracks. There's one about a teenage junkie getting a fix from her nanny, a silly novelty about celebrities getting married (if Sybil Thorndike married Ish Kabibble she'd become Sybil Kabibble - ha ha, tra la), and a quick sketch about a neurotic consulting his shrink — who happens to be his girlfriend's father. Buried in the mix is "Con Edison," which might be the first "comedy rap."

Except….at that time the audience knew the source material: Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo," which was sort of "rap" without any music beyond the rhythm of the words. The joke (then) was a bunch of sophisticated New Yorkers reduced to rapping about the city's electricity provider the same way Lindsay chanted about jungle creatures. Some of Lindsay's experiments in sound were recorded back in 1931...most notably his attempt to mimic feline noises ("Proud Mysterious Cat") and his epic "The Congo," now quite un-PC in noting the "basic savagery" of the black race…as well as the excitement of their culture, glory of their percussion and the soulfulness of their vocalizing. Anyway…"Con Edison" appropriates the rap-percussion and expands on it…poking fun and eardrums at the way the utility fucked up the streets (and still does).

Maybe you'll be amused because…it's so old, now it's new.

DRESSED TO THE NINES CON EDISON

Thursday, May 09, 2013

ILL-USTRATED Songs #22: ON THE ROAD TO MANDALAY - FRANKIE LAINE

Submitted for your approval…"On the Road to Mandalay," yet another of those great over-the-top songs belted by Frankie Laine. The man could do no wrong, whether it was whooping it up about Poe's "Annabel Lee," whipping out "Blazing Saddles," or telling everyone where the "Wild Goose" goes.

Most any good narrator of the poem will growl disgust over the paving stones of "civilization" and speak softly of the wonders in nature. Jazz singer Frankie keeps to one groovy pace. Still, you get the idea he'd trade a smokey nightclub and boozing till 3 am for a place to cook up a few flyin' fishes for breakfast and watch "the dawn come up like thunder."

The original poem touched on a soldier's frustrations with war, religious cultism, and, back home, the "reward" of dreary, monotonous life in the average city.

And what's happened since Kipling wrote the poem? We still have insane war and much of it caused by religious fanatics. City life is excruciatingly stressful. There ain't no Burma anymore. There ain't no Frankie Laine either. As for finding a guileless gal who will be a good companion, today's British soldier is more likely to go off to Thailand and find a ladyboy in a brothel than a sexy obedient girl named "Supi-yaw-lat."

Ladyboys and religious fanatics where flying fishes used to play? The original poem had the soldier want to go where "there are no ten commandments!" (In Frankie's version, the Christian-friendly re-write is "where there are no regulations.") OK. This part of the poem is now true!

In 2013 there are no ten commandments. At least, not ten that anyone follows. Any good advice in the New Testament, the Koran or any other "holy" book is being ignored.. Soon enough, thanks to climate change, there won't be flying fish anywhere at all, and nowhere to find a "neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land." And when "the dawn comes up like thunder," it's probably going to be a nuclear bomb detonated by some religious fanatic. But dig that last explosive note from the fabulous Frankie Laine! Hold onto your platter of fish and chips, mate, this guy's bombastic voice could make that fish take off and fly through the air...right to China, cross the bay.

Enjoy the twisted climate change caused when Rudyard Kipling's words get swung through the mighty lungs of an Italian jazz singer. Yessir, the best IS like the worst.

Swingin' them flyin' fishes... Frankie Laine on THE ROAD TO MANDALAY

OWEN BRANNIGAN - Broom Buzzems to Dick Deadeye (NORTHUMBRIA)

Tomorrow will mark the 40th anniversary of Owen Brannigan's death (March 10, 1908-May 10, 1973).

Yes, he's now un-Owen, and, to flog the Agatha Christie pun, also unknown. To most. In other words, I doubt I'd get much for the autographed Owen Brannigan card if I put it on eBay.

In his era (the 1940's) Owen Brannigan was the premiere British baritone. He was in the original Sadler's Wells production of "Peter Grimes." Benjamin Britten wrote several opera parts with Owen in mind, including "Bottom" in "Midsummer Night's Dream." My first encounter with him was when he played Dick Deadeye on the classic "HMS Pinafore" two-record set issued by Angel in the 50's and featuring the Pro Arte Orchestra and Glyndebourne Festival Chorus. For me he was the first and the definitive Dick Deadeye.

A talent with less lofty notes than opera and operetta, the "Tynesider" from Annitsford, Northumberland was justly proud of his area's popular songs and folk tradition, and a pleasing result can be found on "Brannigan's Northumbria." Quite a few tunes are sung in a rather impenetrable dialect. The samples below are among the best tracks.

1. BUY BROOM BUZZEMS sounds quite rude, doesn't it? Never fear, it's based on another regional tune, "Green Brown Besoms," which may have originated in Newcastle.

2. CA' HAWKIE THRO' THE WATER is a stirring example of Brannigan's vocal abilities, whether you catch all the words or not. The "Ca" is a cow, and the singer is having a lot of problems getting the clunky animal across a stream. You wouldn't think the subject of the song was so mundane, based on the ominous music. Then again, the minor key music may be a warning to be careful where you step when you've got a cow around.

3. THE COLLIER'S RANT is from Durham, and wouldn't it be nice if there was subtitles for this? The song is about two guys who meet the Devil himself down in a mine, and go after the evil one's horns.

4. WHERE IVVER YE GAN YOU'RE SURE TO FIND A GEORDIE is pretty easy to figure out. Owen sings with grand pride, and by the end, you get the fun that only a baritone or bass can have….dropping the last notes oh…so…LOW

5-8. HMS PINAFORE EXCERPTS. Here are the great scenes featuring cynical realist Dick Deadeye. Learning that the hero's been spurned, he laughs out loud, and scornfully reminds one and all that a mere "slave" deck hand shouldn't woo the "gallant captain's daughter." Called a "vermin," Deadeye skulks away, only to be driven into a blacker mood when the captain's daughter has the damn nerve to change her mind…and prevent the hero from killing himself! While everyone rejoices, Deadeye growls his revenge…which involves ratting out the happy couple to the captain himself! Does the captain want his virginal daughter to become "less coy in many various ways?" Wouldn't it be better to take a cat o' nine tails to the lustful sailor instead? As happy endings are SO disgusting, we leave Dick Deadeye and the Captain at this point. The great moments of Dick Deadeye in "HMS Pinafore" only run six or eight minutes…but remain (for SOME of us) the highlights of the entire operetta.

Brannigan is featured on many Gilbert & Sullivan recordings, Benjamin Britten opera CDs, and there's more old vinyl out there, including "Kipling in Song." Most of Owen's solo albums are pretty hard to find except on British eBay.

Geordies, British folk fans, opera buffs and Gilbert & Sullivan fans....these are the ones most likely to know the name "Owen Brannigan" from a theater program or record album. Now, thanks to the Internet...Geordies, British folk fans, opera buffs and Gilbert & Sullivan fans are still the ones most likely to know or care about the name "Owen Brannigan." Owe well.

OWEN BRANNIGAN NORTHUMBRIA and PINAFORE zip file.

WHEN LES PAUL BACKED W.C. FIELDS; AND HOW DID FIELDS DIE?

It happened before Eminem rapped in the middle of a Dido song.

It happened before Les Crane narrated "Desiderata" to musical backing.

W.C. Fields recorded monologues with music over 60 years ago...and who better to accompany the genius of enunciation than that master of the guitar…Les Paul?

Someone wanted to get Fields on wax if it was the last thing he did. And it was.

In 1936, The Great Man had health problems that left him with radio as his only option, delighting fans with his unique voice and cadence. He eventually was well enough to make movies again, but by 1946 alcohol and aging had sent him to a sanitarium.

Hoping to keep his spirits up (no, not spiritus fermenti), Fields' friend Bill Morrow arranged for a visit to Les Paul's new home recording studio. On a hot day in July, hobbling on a cane, and wearing shoes split open to ease the pain in his badly swollen feet, Fields made his appearance. He eyed the way Les Paul was fiddling around amid double-track equipment and control boards, and called him an "octopus." Paul was amused, and named his new machine OCT, short for octopus. Soon after, the recording genius expanded his studio to include a true "octopus," a pioneering 8-track tape recorder.

Fields drank some booze and squinted at the familiar lines he'd performed on radio, but his deteriorating eyesight, and very pickled gray matter, made recording impossible. The lines had to be literally re-written, LARGE, on a set of cards, so he could handle the strain. Uncle Bill's sight-reading errors could be funny in front of an audience, but not on disc. On radio, he once delivered a boozy version of "The Temperance Lecture" fumbling "pocket-picking school" into "picket-pocking school." The line "I stumbled across a case of bourbon," got mangled enough for him to chuckle and say "I stumbled across that…"

Thanks to the huge cards, Fields was able to get through the session, one that was such a dim memory that Les Paul couldn't recall who the pianist was on "Temperance Lecture," or the names of the actor and actress who helped out in the "Day I Drank a Glass of Water" sketch (for which he ad-libbed guitar accompaniment).

The most exhaustive recent biography of Fields, by James Curtis (2003) digs up a lot of obscure information on Fields, but there are some errors, or at least, some fuzzy recollections, including Les Paul "strumming the guitar" on "The Temperance Lecture," when the background was piano. Guitar was only on "The Day I Drank a Glass of Water." Curtis doesn't mention the two supporting players in that routine. Curtis did affirm that Les Paul handled all the recording, and "set the level, dropped the needle down, ran back into the studio and…started to record" because "Nobody else was engineering that day."

Fields sounds robust enough on these recordings, but this was the last time the public would ever hear his familiar voice. Five months later, he was dead. There had been hope, around Thanksgiving, that Fields could navigate a wheelchair over to Bing Crosby's radio show for a broadcast scheduled on December 22nd. He never made it. The first biography of Fields, by Robert Lewis Taylor in 1949, describes the comedian's sad condition:

"…he had periods of delirium. Occasionally he cursed and railed at things…and once out of a blue sky, he sang what appeared to be a kind of love song…Shortly before midnight (December 25th), Miss Monti took his hand and began calling to him. While she pleaded, he opened his eyes, and, noting the people in the room put a finger to his lips and winked. A few minutes later, as bells over the city announced the arrival of Christmas morning, he suffered a violent hemorrhage of the stomach. The blood bubbled thickly out of his lips, he drew several long sighs, and lay still. "

You'd think this account would be the most accurate, written only a few years after Bill Fields died, and with access to Bill's two closest female friends, Magda Michael and Carlotta Monti.

Monti, Fields' secretary and on-and-off mistress (in his late 60's he was more off than on), published her own book in 1973. Her version has him alive and cursing well past midnight:

"On Christmas Day, shortly before noon, he said to me, "Grab everything and run. The vultures are coming…" At three minutes past noon he…cursed forcefully, his face twisted with pain. "Goddamn," he repeated, his eyes opened wider than I'd ever seen them. His voice was the rusting and crackling of dry leaves. "Goddamn the whole friggin' world and everyone in it but you, Carlotta."

"Those were his last words. He was shaken by a violent stomach hemorrhage. Moments later he was dead, at the age of sixty-eight."

Other biographers say Carlotta Monti wasn't even there when Fields died. The Curtis bio says Monti merely sent a card that arrived before Christmas day: "My outside men tell me your [sic] the same as ever. And I am always the same as ever - Truly yours, Carlotta."

Curtis writes that Fields was in a coma and "Magda stayed with him through Christmas Eve, maintaining a vigil at his bedside. Denied all powers of communication and the singular wit that had sustained him for nearly sixty-seven years, this most independent of men was now unable to perform even the simplest of tasks for himself, and it must have come as a relief when, at 12:03 on a rainy Christmas afternoon, Death gave him an old-fashioned hug."

Ronald Fields, W.C.'s grandson, also says Monti wasn't around. And in the bio (more a cut-and-paste job) by fanboy Simon Louvish, we read: "Later in the month, he lapsed into a coma. Magda Michael and the nurses kept the death watch. On the morning of Christmas Day…according to Ronald Fields, he awoke. Only Magda Michael and a nurse were in the room. Wrote Ronald: "He brought his forefinger to his lips to signify quiet, winked, then closed his eyes…"

Curtis writes that Carlotta Monti did appear at the sanitarium after Fields died, along with W.C.'s estranged son and wife. Amid the tumult, Fields' son insisted, "I did not strike Miss Monti. I merely pushed her…"

There was no push for copies of Fields' last recordings (issued on Les Paul's own indie label). It had been nearly six years since "The Bank Dick," his last screen success. Billboard's review when the records finally came out in March of 1947:

"Since the recent passing of comic W. C. Fields, many will want to own this six-sided disc book, if for nothing else, for memento's sake. The recordings…are far from being Fields at his best. Written and directed by Bill Morrow (Bing Crosby show's scribe), material is corny despite the sales efforts of the famed bourbon buffoon. Timing with few exceptions, was apparently ignored by scripter Morrow so that too often, the build-up for an obvious gag reveals the punch line long before it comes. As is the case with any waxed humor, after the first spinning there's no desire for replays…"

In the long-play era, the recordings got quiet re-issues on 10 inch (from Jay Records, top corner left in the first photo for this entry) and 12 inch format (Proscenium Records, with Fields on one side, Mae West vocals on the other). Finally, with "Laugh-In" and Tiny Tim popular in the late 60's, nostalgia made a comeback. Dubbed "anti-establishment," the Marx Brothers and the misanthropic W.C. Fields were hotter than ever, and even Laurel & Hardy got re-categorized as"Naturally High," for a Douglas Records album of voicetracks from their films. Decca issued Marx Brothers, Mae West and W.C. FIelds voicetracks (with "Laugh-In" announcer Gary Owens supplying narration). Blue Thumb's 1968 release "Original and Authentic Recording by the great W.C. Fields" didn't tell consumers what exactly they were buying. One might consider this in the spirit of Mr. Fields, who once said "Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump!"

Being one of the chumps, I bought the album, only to discover I'd been rooked into buying the familiar two Les Paul recordings. The label added Mae West singing "Come Up an See Me Sometime" at the end of the side that had "The Day I Drank A Glass Of Water"…maybe forgetting where to cut the tape on the old Proscenium master.

The album does have a fairly decent colorized shot of W.C. Fields on the cover. Ironically, this time the Billboard reviewer declared it to be "vintage Fields, containing some of his best lines."

Of all the various releases, only the original Varsity Records 78 rpm package has liner notes worth noting. On the front inner sleeve is a photo of Fields along with "The Story of My Life," a scant four paragraphs that mostly talk about how he left home, learned to juggle, toured the world, and ended up in the Ziegfeld Follies…."and finally nosed my way into motion pictures and then into radio. And there you have it." And you have the "ultimo," W.C. Fields' last creative gasps…two recordings, one of them with the uncredited (modest fellow…his name is nowhere to be found as producer, engineer or performer) guitarist Les Paul.

W.C. FIELDS THE TEMPERANCE LECTURE

THE DAY I DRANK A GLASS OF WATER