Author Archive for Ray Speen

17
Sep
17

Skeeter Davis “Sings The End of the World”

This 1963 LP starts out with Skeeter Davis’ 1962 hit single, “The End of the World,” written by Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee. The song was a huge hit, recorded by tons of people over the years (including the Carpenters), and used in countless movies and TV shows. You’ve probably heard it. I still like this version of it best (of those I’ve heard). The album, then, like most of her LPs, has six two to three minute country and pop songs per side. They’re all good. This is a solid Skeeter Davis record, through and through. If you were going to buy only one of her records, this could be the one.

There’s a picture of her on the back, in the studio with Chet Atkins, who produced a lot of her records. He looks like a bad-ass. The three B&W photos of Skeeter on the front and back of the album cover look like three different people—and two of them remind me strongly of other people. She had a lot of different looks over the years, and online now you can find about a million images of her; there must be other people out there as obsessed with Skeeter Davis as I am. The liner notes, by (it doesn’t say), start out talking about the thirteenth and sixth letters of the alphabet—M and F—and the significance of these letters, in standing both for “Many Fans” and “Mary Frances” (Skeeter’s given name). Those letters bring something else to my mind—yes, “My Friend”—which might be the best way to describe the way I feel when I listen to Skeeter Davis sing.

Had I read these liner notes in 1963 (and been a few years older), I might have been crushed to discover that SD was married to country music DJ, Ralph Emery (or maybe delighted to find out she had a Pekingese named Tinker)—and this may well have been the first time I put together the idea of equating the heartbreak of lost love with Armageddon. I appreciate, even now, the strength of the sentiment, but the years have only revealed the selfishness of this sentiment. You’re going to get over the heartbreak—no reason to upset the game-board for all of humanity. Though—only a year after this record—someone very close to me took this “all or nothing” crap very literally; not to get too personal, but it sickens me to this day. Not to end this review on such a grim note: my favorite songs (as well as the title song), here, are “Mine Is a Lonely Life,” “Why I’m Walkin’,” “Longing to Hold You Again,” and “(I Want to Go) Where Nobody Knows Me.” Yes, the sad ones—it’s always the sad ones for me.

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15
Sep
17

Phil McLean “Small Sad Sam / Chicken”

I guess this is considered a “novelty record”—it’s a humorous, story song, backed with music. It seems like if you just pick up 45’s at random, like at yard sales and thrift-stores, you’re as likely to get novelty records as anything (like with Christmas records, for LP’s). Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound good and is not funny enough for me to have even focused on the story. I’ll try again. Okay. It’s the boring tale of a small guy who didn’t do something heroic. The B-side is called “Chicken”—which would normally be more promising, but it’s corny music with an annoying harmonica, and just going on and on—sounding like a musical interlude in a redneck moonshine and smokey movie—and then it pauses and Phil McLean’s low voice says: “I say you’re chicken.” It’s not funny and not weird enough to be interesting. On the other hand, there are much worse novelty records out there. The internet says it’s from 1961, and Phil McLean was a DJ on WERE radio in Cleveland, and this was put out as a parody of Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.” I suppose if you heard this on the radio when you were little, this might strike you as nostalgic—or it might just bring back annoying memories. If anyone wants this, I’ll fling it in your direction.

13
Sep
17

Randy Barlow “Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa”

I bought this 45 due to the weakness I have for buying records by any artist with the first name “Randy”—which has actually done pretty well by me in the past—Randy is kind of a goofball name, not necessarily someone you’d want to spend your life with, but well-equipped for theatrics, unhealthy deep-fried rings of sweet dough, or odd-ball songs with questionable lyrics. In my fiction writing, I named a character (based on me) Randy, and another (based on me) Barlow—so naturally, the name Randy Barlow intrigued me. I’d never heard of him, but it turns out he was fairly successful in country music, from the Sixties into the Eighties. He’s still out there, maybe still playing. Originally from Detroit, he was born Randall Moore, but I suppose that sounds like a guy who is sipping tea and writing sonnets, so he changed it to Randy Barlow. He’s got a solid singing voice. The label is Gazelle Records, which has a really nice logo where there the two L’s make the horns on a simple drawing of the gazelle. This record came out in 1976.

“Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa” is a Burt Bacharach/Hal David tune, but I don’t really like it—it sounds like something that would have been on the AM radio when I was in grade school, like “Knock Three Times,”—it’s not terrible, but I picked up this record entirely because of the intriguing title of the B-side: “The Bottle Took His Mother (And My Wife)”— which struck me as kind of insane sounding—a bit of a brain-twister trying to figure out what that means. Offhand, it makes you think it’s going to be a situation like in Chinatown (1974 movie) (“My sister, my daughter… she’s my sister and my daughter!”)—but then when you listen to it and realize the “he” in the title is the singer’s kid… it’s like, oh, okay, my kid’s mother and my wife, right. Kind of boring. Though the bottle still took her. The song pretty much spells it out: The guy took the kid and left his wife, because of her drinking. She didn’t die, though, so I don’t know… it seems like he’s more upset because her drinking is exceeding what he deems Christian-level drinking. In a way, it’s fairly reprehensible—I get the feeling it’s a little selfish. I know that it’s not easy to deal with an alcoholic, but it’s not like she started drinking after you married her. Essentially, this song should he called, “Because the Bottle took My Wife, I took our Kid (and now we’re making the lawyers rich in this extended custody battle).”

10
Sep
17

Porter Wagoner and Skeeter Davis “Sing Duets”

I have more records by Skeeter Davis than any other recording artist, but I don’t have even half of the albums she released in a long career. If I had to name a favorite singer (please don’t make me do that) I would not hesitate to say Skeeter Davis. For some reason I can’t explain, she has a special place in my heart. And that is just based on the recorded music of hers I’ve been lucky enough to hear. She is firmly based in country and western, but crossed over to pop, and always sounds to me like a little of both, so maybe that’s part of the appeal. But mostly I just love her voice. It always strikes me as having an underlying sadness to it, but also an outward expression of hope, joy, and happiness. But there also is just a quality of someone singing at home, maybe, just one person to another. Or maybe in church, or while working. Her voice always strikes me as the opposite of slick, professional, over-produced. I guess in some sense, there is the same essence of what is essential to me about punk music in her voice, and that is at the heart of the music I love—that quality of “I’m doing it my way”—even when the smoother road might have been strongly suggested as the easier path to success.

This record, from 1962, is one of her earliest albums, and it’s a duet record with Porter Wagoner, who is, of course, one of the giants of country music. I’ve always been aware of him, but never a big fan, which doesn’t mean I might not be someday, if I’d take the time to get to know his music through and through. It starts out with a song that—if this was the song I was to judge Skeeter Davis on, that’d be my loss—not my kind of song. If there was one word I’d use to describe a style of music (any music) I don’t like, it would be “jaunty”—and so much do I despise jaunty music, it makes me wonder about the sanity and even human quality of fans of the jaunty (as in, are they pod people, or Stepford wives?) After that alarming start, though, they settle into really beautifully sung versions of some classic country songs—sweet, introspective, and melancholy. My favorites here are: “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” “Heaven Help Me,” “Sorrow’s Tearing Down the House (That Happiness Built),” and “There’s Always One (Who Loves a Lot)”—but really, they’re all good.

This is on the RCA Victor label (with the dog looking down the Gramophone horn) and has a very old-fashioned, color drawing of the two singers on the cover, in a style that makes me think of a young adult romance series book. The blond woman in a blue dress doesn’t match that much any likeness to any Skeeter Davis photo I’ve seen. A sliver of photograph on back (of part of the recording studio control board) accompanies some extensive liner notes in typewriter font by Bill Porter (legendary Nashville recording engineer) where he goes on about how much he loves these songs, but also thinks highly of the artists. It’s very nice, really, but then he goes on about especially one song, which happens to be the jaunty song on here I don’t like (“Rock-A-Bye Boogie”). Oh, well, I guess it’s all a matter of taste, and that’s what makes the world interesting. As I continue to listen, it strikes me—as well as these two voices compliment each other, Porter Wagoner’s is so straight-up country, that—and especially on the kind of duet where he sings a verse, and then she does—you really hear a contrast in their voices—and the quality of her voice (that’s an ongoing obsession with me, trying to understand why I love it so much) it occurs to me that it sounds a little unhinged—if you know what I mean. You probably don’t, but I mean that in the best way.

09
Sep
17

Donnie Brooks “Mission Bell / Do It For Me”

I decided that I will write about 45s, as well, on this site (DJ Farraginous)—singles, seven inch records—as well as 7 inch 33 RPM records, 12 inch singles, EPs, 10 inch records—anything I can play, as long as it’s vinyl. I have a box of 45s that’s even more random than my LP records… I have no idea where half of them came from. Anyway, I made a random system to chose what I’d write about—and the first one up is this beat to hell, old Donnie Brooks single on Era Records (whose logo is a kind of cool atomic symbol). I’ve never heard this record before, and if you asked me if I had it, I’d have said “I don’t think so.” I really have no idea what’s in this box. It plays pretty well, though, sounds good. Both songs are pretty wimpy, but “Mission Bell” is the better of the two, and I guess it was a hit record in 1960. I can see how it might grow on you—there are backup singers, and bells ringing in the ether—a very poppy love song, with cornball lyrics—kind of Pat Boone sounding, I guess, or Bobby Darin? I don’t know. I have no knowledge or real interest in these 1960-era pop singers.

Anyway, Donnie’s real name was John Dee Abohosh, which is kind of a great name, but he went by several different performing names, including Dick Bush! “Donnybrook” is the name for a fight, or brawl—I’ve heard it most used for those baseball brawls—you know where they all get puffed up and red-faced and everyone comes pouring from the dugout, but no one thinks to use a baseball bat? Also, apparently, he played the role of Jesus in the rock opera, Truth of Truths, in 1971, which I’d love to get a recording of, if it exists. It strikes me as interesting that he was born the same year as my mom (1936—and they both passed away at almost the same time, too), and this record, which I now, somehow, find myself listening to for the first time, came out the same year I was born—when Donnie Brooks and my mom were like 24. Not that young or old to have a kid, or a hit single, I guess, but when I think about people I know having a baby at 24 it kind of freaks me out. I know a lot of people are emotionally equipped for it at that age, but I certainly would not have been, at 24—staying up for days at a time, drinking Night Train Express, waking up in “how did I get here?” vestibules of… was it looking-for-love desperation, or just the out of control sugar/alcohol regions of my brain?

08
Sep
17

Tom Waits “Nighthawks at the Diner”

This is a very early Tom Waits record, though I can’t remember exactly when I first heard it or where I got it, but it’s always been one of my favorites—of his, and favorite records period—and without a doubt my favorite live record—though it turns out—according to the internet—that it’s not really a live record after all. Apparently it was recorded at the Record Plant, in LA, in front of an invited audience used to replicate the sound and feeling of an intimate jazz club or piano bar. It’s really well done—they had me fooled. I always pictured this kind of sleazy, Sunset Strip nightclub, and throughout, he does refer to the Ivar Theatre repeatedly, and also “Rafael’s Silver Cloud Lounge,” and though I always figured he was kind of spinning tales, I still assumed this was in a legitimate club—you can almost smell the bourbon, vomit, and cigarette smoke bathed in red neon. Now, when I found out that I had been totally fooled, do you think I got angry? No. Because I have a high intellect, and I can enjoy being fooled, and I appreciate something so well executed.

His monologues before many of the songs are amazing in themselves; the one before “Eggs and Sausage” is particularly good and would make the record, even if that’s all there was. But there’s more, of course; in fact it’s a double record, and all the monologues and songs kind of blend seamlessly. Okay—now I notice—on the back of the album cover it says, right there, that it was recorded at The Record Plant. I guess I never bothered to read it. I also just noticed that there’s extensive lyrics on the inside, when you open it up—these are some long songs. I guess I never read along with the lyrics because you can pretty much make out every word—even though he’s doing a real Tom Waits-like, rough nightclub singer voice, he’s also clear as a bell. The lyrics are crucial. I can recall listening to this record in the spring of 1986, in Columbus, Ohio, while I painted my kitchen. So even to this day it feels like it’s the ideal record to listen to while painting a kitchen.

It would take me pages and pages to even kind of go over my favorite songs and excerpt my favorite lyrics. There are only two or three songs per side, but it all kind runs together, feeling like one live show, and it’s dense and extensive. Tom Waits must have been only in his mid-twenties when he recorded this, but he sounds convincing as an old-timer who’s been around forever. That’s part of the act. The cover photograph is of Tom Waits in a booth of a diner, photographed through a window—it could possibly be something an art department set up—but could also be a real diner—it would have been easy to find this diner in 1975. There’s nothing in that picture that doesn’t ring true. There are also seven people in the picture, in the diner, with him. I suppose I could scour the internet to find out if it’s known who they are—it could be the musicians, or friends, or real people in a real diner, who knows? Someone knows. It would be pretty cool to be one of those people. I just noticed, for the first time ever!—on the very bottom right of the cover, lying face-down in front of the diner window, is a person wearing a leather jacket. How did I never see that before? It’s kind of freaking me out—what else, in this lifetime—have I also not ever noticed? A lot, I’m sure.

01
Sep
17

Mama Cass “Dream a Little Dream”

I picked up this record because I’m a huge fan of The Mamas & The Papas—it came out in 1968, and I guess it was her first solo record after they broke up—and I love Cass Elliot’s singing—and there’s a formidable list of songwriter credits—John Simon, John Sebastian, Richard Manuel, Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash, and more. The cover is a nice photo of her with a little kid on a Norton motorcycle, which is (as is the back cover photo) collaged and altered in a kind of sloppy, drug-addled (or seemingly), hippie-art style.

It’s a frustrating record because some of it so good you want to keep playing it, and some so off-putting you want to never put it on again. “Dream a Little Dream” is what you’d expect, and then a John Hartford song called “California Earthquake” is excellent. The song after that, with the intriguing title of “The Room Nobody Lives In,” is odd, kind of like: “We’re now in a musical!” “Talkin’ to Your Toothbrush” is another nice one, but then “Blues for Breakfast,” (one of my favorite songs from The Basement Tapes) is sped up and jaunty, in a kind of musical review style, not good at all, and it’s a song I love, so that’s sad. Finally, “You Know Who I Am,” manages to start out being soulful, and then falter into a style that sounds like it’s an overblown production number from a TV special. Side two is similar (and I’m not going through it song by song) in that it wavers between excellent and annoying, from song to song, and even in the middle of the same song, from verse to chorus—even from instrument to instrument. Kind of a frustrating record overall. On one hand, I want to donate it to my thrift store, and on the other, I want to keep it, so I can forget it, and then have this whole frustrating experience over again someday.




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