Wednesday, September 09, 2015

SWAMP GIRL! (Frankie Laine and Loulie Jean Norman)

Are you like me, do you pick a book off your shelf and just browse now and then?

It's ok to admit it. I didn't ask, "Do you like me," just "ARE you like me."

When it comes to non-fiction and especially biography, I might thumb through to the parts of a person's life that particularly interest me, and leave the rest. It's rare that the whole book is so compelling, and so full of anecdotes, that I read it straight through.

In the case of Frankie Laine's "That Lucky Old Sun," I did both. At first I just thumbed through for references to favorite songs. Then later on I found myself interested in going back to get the full story from beginning to end. And now, now and then, his is one of those books that I'll pick up in order to re-read an amusing story.

A few weeks ago, I re-read his recollection on "Swamp Girl," one of the greatest, and most bizarre songs in his catalog.

Mitch Miller had changed Frankie's career. Laine had been known as a jazz singer, a big-band guy. Some of his songs, like "Shine," even had listeners thinking he might be black. But when the peculiar Mr. Miller began producing Frankie, he had new ideas. He gave Frankie a western song to try. Laine thought the guy was nuts. "Mule Train" became a huge hit. Miller brought in another million-seller when he had Laine record "The Cry of the Wild Goose," with a typically overboard, bombastic arrangement.

Next, "we found another big hit in "Swamp Girl," a very offbeat song by a writer of specialty material named Michael Brown. It was all about a Lorelei of the marshes who lured men there to meet their doom, and it was out of line with anything I'd been doing up to that time. It still sounds avant garde today."

Indeed, of all the Laine songs, "Swamp Girl" might be a first choice to get a person involved in the amazing world of Frankie Laine. It might be a stretch, but it can be argued that Frankie Laine was THE GREATEST AMERICAN MALE VOCALIST OF ALL TIME.

Yes, you read that right. How do I place him above Sinatra?

Easy. Sinatra had two gears: ring-a-ding and morose. Yes, he had great phrasing, and some of his versions are definitive. He also had a tremendously fascinating private life. But if he wasn't doing some stupid fucking finger-snapping "Fly Me to the Moon," then he was moping about "It Was a Very Good Year" or "There Will Never Be Another You."

Laine? Laine could sing jazz damn well, from noir pieces like "Satan Wears a Satin Gown" to standards such as "Sunny Side of the Street." Unlike Sinatra, he could also sing a huge full-throated ballad like "Lord, You Gave me a Mountain." Could Sinatra put over a sappy religious ballad like "I Believe" or an over-baked bit of nutsery like "Annabel Lee" or "Blazing Saddles?" Hell no.

Oh yes...Frankie was a bit chubbier than Frank and had a more worse toupee.

But Francesco LoVecchio should be considered a damn strong contender to Francis Sinatra.

PS, as much as Sinatra needed a good arranger behind him (Gordon Jenkins or Nelson Riddle), Frankie Laine also was helped by strong production. If you listen to some of Laine's best work, you'll note that he had some of the finest producers in the business, and in his book he mentions how often he worked very hard with a full orchestra and take after take to get things right. The legendary "whip crack" noise on "Rawhide" took some ingenuity. And on "Swamp Girl," one of the key factors in making it brilliant is the ethereal vocalise work of Loulie Jean Norman. Loulie would later add strange counterpoint to "Lion Sleeps Tonight" by The Tokens, and was the soaring voice behind the original "Star Trek" theme.

"Swamp Girl" straddles the fragrant bog between Laine's romantic and jazz side, and his often blinding flare for the dramatic. He was a great man.


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