Happy Friday everyone! It’s my last day as your tour guide, and since I’ve been in rehearsals for two separate Christmas shows, I figured I would end with a Christmas song. Not only is the song one of my favorite holiday tunes, but it’s also the best-selling single of all time. I’m, of course, referring to Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t think my selection was a little cliché. I love Christmas music and have a large catalogue that ranges from the hits to very obscure compositions that most likely only appear on my iPhone. But then I sat back and thought about what one song truly captures that time of year to me. And the choice was easy. Written by the Jewish-American Berlin in 1940, it was first sung by Bing Crosby on The Kraft Music Hall. It went on to appear in the film Holiday Inn, won the Oscar for Best Original Song, and inspired the popular the film that shares the song’s name. It’s been noted that the song’s popularity sprang from the longing to be somewhere else for the holidays, a sentiment easily shared for listeners during WWII. The song would go on to sell 50 million copies.
When I was young, my family would always watch White Christmas at the start of the Christmas season. It always felt that was the moment that it was “officially” Christmas time. Now, that moment has changed for me. For the past eight years, it’s been around 10pm on a Monday night at 105th and Broadway. A Goyishe Christmas to You! has a very special place in my heart.It was the first thing that my wife saw me perform in, and even though we no longer live in NYC, it’s one of our favorite holiday traditions. I relish the performance each year, and love seeing my fellow performers who, although we only see each other about once a year, have become very close to me.
At the end of the evening, we all gather at the front of the piano and get to sing Mr. Berlin’s song. Then something magical happens. We hum in harmony and it feels as if, just for the briefest of moments, the rest of New York is silent. To me, then is it Christmas.
I didn’t grow up listening to the music that my grandparents would call “what the kids are listenin’ to these days”. I never seemed drawn to tune the radio to the station with the top 100 or follow the latest band or singer. Instead, I spent my time listening to Original Broadway Cast Recordings and the great standard singers, like Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, and Rosemary Clooney. But in college, I found a different singer that was just as good a storyteller as any cabaret luminary I had seen: Colin Hay.
If his name doesn’t immediately jump out at you, I wouldn’t be surprised. He probably wouldn’t be either. However, if I mentioned that he was the lead singer for Men at Work, the group responsible for such hits as “Down Under” or “Who Can It Be Now?”, it may bring back some 80’s nostalgia. I was introduced to him through an episode of the TV show “Scrubs”. During the episode, a girl who’s on the heart transplant list hopes that death is “like a big Broadway musical. Everyone’s all dressed and singing to the rafters and you go out with a real flourish.” Eventually, as she dies, the show switches styles to a musical and she sings “Waiting for my Real Life to Begin.” The hopeful song spoke to me, a college student at the time, about the excited feeling of the next step in life, but also learning to enjoy the anticipation. Needless to say, I was floored and immediately went on a quest to find everything that he’d written.
My quest proceeded to produce…not much. After Men at Work broke up in 1985, Hay was trying his hand as a solo artist. He released a few solo albums in the nineties and found himself playing small clubs and bars to try and build a base. When I was in college, I ventured down to the village with my best friend for the very first time to see him in person. Entering the basement of the club, I didn’t know what to expect. I still only knew him from “Scrubs” and his album “Man at Work”. He took the stage and immediately went into his song “Wayfaring Sons”. What followed for the rest of the evening was wonderful music and great stories told in such a way that made you feel you were in on a secret. I’ve now seen him perform a handful of times and have never been let down. He has earned the greatest honor in my iTunes collection I can bestow: a playlist that is simply titled with the artists name. To show off his work, I wanted to include not only the song which I love, but, also, the other Colin Hay I love, a raconteur with wonderful stories.
It’s Tuesday and for this blog entry, it’s Twos-day. That’s my way of saying I’m cheating a little and have selected two songs to focus on instead of one. They come from one of my favorite chanson composers, Henri Duparc.
Duparc was an interesting individual. Born and raised in Paris, he studied piano at the Jesuit college with Cesar Franck. Although Duparc was more interested in law, Franck could sense his innate musical talent and encouraged him by giving him scores of Bach and Beethoven to read. Soon he began composing himself and, during his early adult life, had a flourish of creativity, including the handful of songs he would be remembered. He was terrible self-critic, destroying most of his work. At 37, he was struck with a neurological disease and stopped composing all together.
“La Vie antérieure” and “L’invitation au voyage” are my favorites of Duparc’s compositions. Both are poems by Charles Baudelaire and complement each other. “La Vie antérieure” speaks of a past life, set in a picturesque grotto of sensuous delight. “L’invitation au voyage” speaks of future life, filled with order, beauty, and calm. I especially love a moment in the latter when Duparc chooses use change the accompaniment to large chords when the poem gets to “There, all is order and beauty.” I’ve always enjoyed pairing these two songs together in this order, where one remembers a beautiful, past life and then sings of trying to a new one, with hints of the old enjoyment.
Hi NYFOS Blog readers and Happy Monday! I’m so thrilled to spend this week with you, and to share some songs that I love and hopefully you will too!
When you are tasked with coming up with “Songs of the day”, it’s a little like being asked “Which child is your favorite?”. I wouldn’t have an immediate answer, but probably several clarifying questions. Which genre? What mood am I in? For the first day, I then turned to my trusty iTunes library and was completely overwhelmed. So, I turned to the one singer who has never let me down, for some guidance: Rosemary Clooney.
I fell in love with Rosemary Clooney when I was 18. She had just passed away (I know. Not great timing on my part). To impress a girl I was keen on, I bought a two-disc set of Rosemary’s entitled “Songs of a Girl Singer” and spanned her entire career. Born in Kentucky, she first started singing on the radio with her sister Betty, and soon, they were touring with a big band as a duo. After her sister retired, she launched her solo career and signed with Columbia Records, where she recorded her first hits such as “Come on-a my house” and “Hey There”. Soon followed her feature film credits including the holiday favorite White Christmas. Her career went downhill in the 60’s and she had a mental collapse, which she would spend years recovering from. She started performing again in small clubs and jazz venues and then signed with the newly formed Concord Jazz Label. She toured and recorded with Concord for the rest of her life until she passed away in 2002.
I played that two-disc set over and over. I couldn’t get over her natural phrasing of words and. the way she could change the mood with a simple shift of dynamics. I would later learn that she never learned to read music and preferred to learn by just hearing it. She felt this gave her a more natural delivery of the text of the song. I seemed to favor the selections that recorded later in life on the Concord label. Her voice is a little more smoky, exciting and juicy to my ear. Here is my favorite tune from that collection, Dave Frishberg’s “Do You Miss New York?”.
My living room has turned into a hormonal hive of Kinsey-esque creativity, as we work on A Modern Person’s Guide to Hooking Up and Breaking Up. The comic stuff is a riot–no surprises there–but the show is even richer than I had imagined; since almost everyone in the room is either married or engaged (including me), the cast is bringing a depth of experience and emotion to the songs that I was not anticipating. There are some pretty kinetic people in the room, and I’ll probably have to buy my downstairs neighbors some chocolates because of all the choreo….Now, if we just don’t get banned in Boston….
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