|Bob Thompson Music|
What ultimately is the value of something? Is it the price tag? Is it the fact that it is valuable to others? Or is value something the heart knows that cannot be quantify? And why do some folks put a value on some objects others would find valueless? And what exactly does money pay FOR?
These are the questions that come to mind when you sit down to read Hubert’s Freaks. The author is a writer and antiquated book dealer and his subject is a friend and fellow dealer, Bob (whom he calls an :American Palindrome:). Bob is a restless young man in the early 70s who actually “lived like Keroac” while others just talked the talk. He developed an early fascination with collecting records and then moved to books. Book dealing is an odd business, where knowlege of how much something is worth is a guarded secret. In a sense, the person that parts with an old book may be screwed if she does not do her homework. Collecting also provides what the author calls a “down the rabbit hole” experience or two for Bob.
As Bob matured into the manager of a antiquated book shop in Philadelphia, he began collecting African American ephemera. His interests let him to a find of materials from a Times Square institution from the 30s to 60s, Hubert’s. It was part museum, part freak show where an AfAm man, Charlie Lucas, and his wife, “Woogie,” ran and put on shows for the visitors. Then a down the rabbit hole moment, he discovers what appears to be Diane Arbus photos, original prints.
From here the book reads like a good thriller. How much can they be worth? Are they authentic? How does one value photographs? Will Bob overcome this feeling that he always sells for too low? Will bob overcome depression, divorce, and more?
I won’t ruin it but the piece also brings you to the word of outsiders that Diane Arbus took as her subject, and by association the outsider status of people like Bob.
The rabbit hole opens up further, Bob makes a strange outing to Florida to get more materials from Hubert’s, finds an Arbus subject wheeling himself round the block near the bookshop, and gets grifted by relatives of Hubert’s long-deceased manager.
The climax of the book links the low life outsider world with the snobby world of art museums, and Bob with his spirtual doppleganger from Hubert’s.
“I was born a poor black child.” So begins the Jerk, a movie about a very “white” person played by Steve Martin who goes on to some romantic and material success (for a while). What’s funny about this opening line is that it is obviously false ethnically, but culturally as well. The film cuts to Martin lamely trying to clap along with his singing family. (I'll leave alone whether or not the scene is racist.)
Whether culture and art, ethnicity and music, can be pulled apart is being debated. I will invent a statement and see if it has for me mitigating factors: White people should not play or in any way borrow from African-American-created music.
Martin discovers his rhythm when uber-square dance music from Lawrence Welk comes on the radio. His fingers start to snap and he marvels at his newly discovered potential. The other joke is the cliché that white people find salvation in music that is not their own. This was much like my father’s story, who was in a rural California town who was basically hit by jazz music like a tractor beam pulling the Enterprise onto a Vulcan planet. This was back in the Radio Days. That is why hearing that jazz is property and is by nature trespassed by a white presence is kind of heartbreaking.
Are their mitigating factors to white appropriation of African -American music, if any?
I understand the attitude of “hands off my body, my property, my art” as 100% valid. This is why I have conflicting feelings here. I am not comfortable with saying “art is entirely universal” and leaving it at that, although I hear an intentional universality coming out of Coltrane's horn on Love Supreme.
My father reported being the only white person at parties in the early 40s in a matter of fact way to me. This was part of the experience for my father, although the white taste for the "exoticism" of African-American culture has been ridiculed. From his frame of reference, it was freedom and the only way to get it.
Because of my experience with my dad, the appropriation issue is not just about art as a thing, but artists as people. Artists get a special pass from me, at least. Do artists, who many time seek refuge in the arts, have the same motivations as business people or enslavers? Are these intentions a mitigating factor? I feel so. The idea that white people’s intentions matter at all is rejected by some. In fact, the idea of good intentions is in itself is taken as offensive in its own right.
You could also make the musicological argument that appropriation is the currency of the creation of art. Jazz does have some white influences (although it’s a long history) on a song by song or sub-genre basis. I am not sure the Blues is a 100 percent African invention (musically) but it is an invention that is pretty much inseparable from what I understand as the African-American experience in Southern Delta. I am not sure what African music is so it's hard to know for me.
There is a difference between tending a garden and ripping out the flowers for your kitchen table.
And then there’s Bruce Willis, as his alter-ego "Bruno." Here he is in Little Richard / Louis Jordan mode!
I think there is a dichotomy between thievery and ignorance on one hand, and honor and respect on the other. Can appropriation be done well or badly, and is this a mitigating factor? I’d say yes. There is a 1 to 10 authenticity scale, and Bruce is holding up the 1 end of things quite well. Appropriation can be done technically badly or emotionally badly. There is a difference between tending a garden and ripping out the flowers for your kitchen table. Tom Waits I think succeeds in tending the garden. "Tom Waits" is sort of a persona (a mish-mash of awesome impulses and abilities) but I do think it is him. Or is gravel-voice "Tom Waits" another "Bruno"? I don't think so. Reverence and respect matter and I think mitigate appropriation. Does coming from the heart or "appearing to get it" matter? Or is turnabout fair play and white people have to "know their place" in the musical world.
Some jazz, but not all, created by African-American people that is so close to their collective story that a white person should not go near it. I hope I never hear Gwyneth Paltrow singing Strange Fruit. Can some African-American music be less separable from the African-American experience than others? I think the Afro-Jazz movement and Mingus suggests that to be the case. I think they are trying to create appropriation-proof music. As a white person am I in any position to judge what is the blackest music?
Another technical argument is that pure examples of any, especially white music, are hard to find. Many classical music composers were always stealing from “folk” music, which although not of a different ethnicity in all cases, was so in the sense of class. Gregorian Chants are white? Perhaps Nordic Folk Music is the safest bet?
The technical argument that “jazz is African-American music with European Harmonies” is true in a crude, a musicological point of view. As the son of a white jazz musician I’d like to have it both ways thank you very much.
If you want to argue that it takes a huge amount of devotion to craft and the presence of an extraordinary person at an instrument to make great art, you might point people to the documentary Seymour: An Introduction. A classical pianist, Seymour Bernstein was struck by agonizing stage fright. Despite rave reviews, he quit performing and began teaching. In the following decades, he taught his students how to build a bridge between technique and emotion, between the sacred and profane, between the marks on the paper and the sound from the keyboard, and between their breathing rhythm and how they touch the keys.
His realization that a career in music was destructive to his authenticity was the other prompt for his "withdrawal." An artist like Glen Gould, who crossed his legs to get attention, is an object of Seymour’s gentle disdain. He says that he hears the personality more than the music in Gould's playing.
What is lost in the grandeur of performance is gained in a deeper Eros between teacher and student. The most magical moments of Seymour: An Introduction show accomplished students having breakthroughs, as if they were finding "the music in the music" for the first time. In the confines of Seymour's tiny New York apartment, it is as if the "Music of the Spheres"--a term used by the ancients to express celestial harmony--is ringing out.
The "rehearsal versus performance" dynamic represents a parallel chasm. An old musician's joke goes like this: A big band comes off the stage having burned the hell out of the set. “That was great” someone says. The response, “You should have heard the rehearsal!”
Perhaps ironically, Hollywood star Ethan Hawke brought Seymour Bernstein to life on screen. A chance encounter with Seymour frees Hawke from his I'm-famous-yet-unfulfilled dilemma. The documentary crescendos when Hawke convinces Seymour to perform for his theater group. Is Hawke trying to "cure" Seymour of the stage fright that pulled him out of concert halls; or showing that one must be "seen in public" to be artistically complete? I forgive Hawke for his narcissism, because he earnestly tries to touch the Authentic in his art. Most of us can only try--in life as well as in art.
Unlike an actor projecting from a stage, Seymour's voice sounds like music. He puts just the right amount of touch on every syllable; and the phrases come out like a gentle stream of water. He is unaffected and carries a touch of the feminine, which led his father to remark, "I have two daughters and a musician." Seymour explains that the feminine side of music animates the art, recounting that Beethoven's peers cried when they heard his new voice in the Moonlight Sonata.
A Kindred Spirit in Jazz: Lennie Tristano
The Jazz piano player Lennie Tristano also (largely) stopped performing around the same time as Seymour and shares his anti-careerist attitude.
Why did Lennie Tristano stop performing?
Although the music swings, there are all kinds of ideas and odd harmonies bubbling around his be-bop phrases (listen to "Wow," above). Tristano, despite the braininess of his compositions, emphasized the primacy of feeling again in his documentary Manhattan Studio. That complexity and craft serve feeling--and not the other way around--is an ardent belief for both musicians.
Sensing and participating in the artists’ state of mind is part of the pleasure of music. To aspire to the Music of the Spheres, an extraordinary being must be present. Seymour is such a being.
Original albums released by RCA Records, 1958-1959
Bachelor Pad Music (also known as Space Age Pop or Space Age Bachelor Pad Music) is a multi-faceted collection of genres that represents, to quote the Music For a Bachelor’s Den (1995) compilation’s liner notes, “the type of easy listening music bachelors listened to, and entertained with, during the golden age of hi-fi and the dawn of stereo.” This umbrella title includes some of the most sensual as well as the and exciting and progressive music of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Bachelor Pad Music often positions itself in those magical moments of initial interaction between the genders, and in an atmosphere of down-to-earth sophistication that has plenty of room for imagination and, most importantly, fun. This is the place where Bob Thompson’s classic albums Just For Kicks (1958), Mmm, Nice! (1959), and On the Rocks (1959) take us.
With its subtle balance of sophisticated party music (think Henry Mancini), bouncy hi-fi stereo tester music (think Enoch Light), and Vintage television and movie music (think the Bewitched theme), with a dash of Exotica thrown in (think Martin Denny and Les Baxter), Just for Kicks, Mmm, Nice!, and On the Rocks work as some of the better examples of a “ground zero” Bachelor Pad Music sound and therefore are a good place to start exploring Bachelor Pad Music.
W-NEW Theme in the Style of Bob Thompson
About Bob Thompson
Bob Thompson is a Hollywood composer who was in demand in the 1950’s and 1960’s for his abilities as a TV and commercial music producer. Born in San Jose, California in 1924, Thompson discovered an old piano when he was a child and started trying to play it. This blossomed into his taking music lessons, which he continued to do through high school.
In his college years at the University of California at Berkeley, Thompson became a fan of the radio. He interned at a radio station in San Francisco upon his graduation, and eventually was promoted to being a composer and arranger for the station’s on-staff band. He then went through a “wilderness period” working in Paris, going on the road, and finally settling in Los Angeles, initially working on demo tracks for songs that were pitched to major labels. The independent startup label Zephyr Records released two Bob Thompson 45’s, which then led to a record deal from RCA, who signed Thompson for a five-record deal.
RCA intended Thompson to be their in-house competitor to Columbia’s Ray Conniff. Although Thompson did not care for Conniff’s music, he rose to meet the opportunity with what RCA liner notes aptly call “a jazz-influenced choral-orchestral sound he could justifiably call his own.”
About the Bob Thompson Sound
From the liner notes of an RCA release, "Bob Thompson had a firm belief that the unexpected is exciting. If music is going to be fun—he reasoned—it ought to have surprises.” Thompson accomplishes this on these albums with an impeccable sense of balance and an over-the-top sense of fun that embodies the vibrant excitement that we tend to think of when the 1950’s comes to mind.
From Bob Thompson's Just for Kicks (1958), here's
the rollicking, bursting with joy,
and fun "On the Street Where You Live"
When we in the 21st century think of an “orchestra”, we usually think of a classical symphony orchestra. Likewise, when we think of a “chorus”, we tend to think of something along the lines of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Because of this, the artist name of “Bob Thompson, His Orchestra and Chorus” unfortunately paints a misleading picture for modern day listeners. Thompson's “orchestra” is more like an extremely lively big band—so largely devoid of strings but heavy on the brass instruments. His "orchestra" is further augmented with flutes, vibraphone, and percussion, and holds down a solid rhythm section consisting of string bass and drums. (Some of the drum work on these albums comes courtesy of the great jazz drummer Shelley Manne.)
The voices that make up the “chorus” sound like the down-to-earth vocals from 1950’s TV commercials, with purring and cooing from the gals added for spice and extra lady presence. The voices work partially as instrumental textures, and partially to ghost the lyrics of the songs that they are interpreting. Because current audiences already knew many the popular songs on these albums (e.g. “Makin’ Whoopee”, “Do It Again”, and “There’s a Small Hotel”), all the vocalists needed to do was provide points of melody so the listener’s mind could connect the dots. The chorus vocals usually start out sparingly, and then fill in the blanks more as the arrangement develops, until they eventually become the backing vocalists for a lead melody that is actually playing in the listener’s mind.
Thompson also managed to negotiate the use of some of his own compositions for the albums. The Thompson originals are even more minimalist lyrically, and tend to evoke the sense that a curvy, flirtatious woman or two are on the premises. This trend of a few Thompson originals on the album, with one of them serving as the title track, would hold for the duration of the series.
RCA seemed to think that they had a hit on their hands with Mmm, Nice! and did a large pressing of the album to meet the expected demand, only for the album to fail expectations and end up becoming a bargain bin filler. A disappointed RCA decided to scale back the budget for the third album, On The Rocks, by having Thompson and Co. record it in-house at RCA Victor Studios, also in Hollywood, in October and November of 1959.
Although On the Rocks sounds like it’s lost a little of the wind in its sails, it still continues the joyous, bouncy sound of the first two albums. The album feels a little more reminiscent of the radio and TV advertisements of the time than does the first two (likely due in part to the sound quality), and has more of a tendency to play it safe and stay close to the previously-established formula. Regardless, On the Rocks grows on the listener when allowed to speak on its own terms and apart from the albums that preceded it. “Happy Talk,” “Breezin’ Along With the Breeze”, and “Just You, Just Me” are examples of songs that are a load of fun and grab the listener with repeated listens.
Bob Thompson’s albums started to be rediscovered in the 1980’s, and were then critically reassessed in the 1990’s when Bachelor Pad Music had a full-on revival of interest. Thompson’s son Spenser Thompson launched a Bob Thompson website in the late 1990’s that has been an Internet staple for those researching Bachelor Pad Music; it is filled in many otherwise unavailable details on Thompson’s life story and the music he created. Thompson’s son’s devotion to retelling his father's story, plus the accidental abundance of LP copies of Mmm, Nice! left over from its initial overpressing, are two happy accidents that have made Thompson one of the better-remembered Bachelor Pad Music artists in a genre that he contributed to relatively sparingly.
Ah to be as erudite, witty, and smart (but not as insane) as Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr.! In an intellectual "Thrilla in Manilla", the verbal virtuosos of the left and right wings faced off during the Democratic & Republican Conventions of 1968. As much as things have changed, they duke it out over the same things we do now: foreign wars, empire, race, police brutality, sexual freedom, and economic equality.
There is "blood" in the ABC studio, although not the "real" kind on the streets where protesters waved the North Korean flag and were beaten by cops. The potential for a revolution in the US seemed to be a point of agreement, and Buckley was desperate to stop it and Vidal seemed willing to witness it with a knowing smirk.
Vidal calls Buckley a "crypto-Nazi". Buckley, like a blonde Great White Shark, snarls in response: "Now listen, you queeeeeeeer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered." The reserved aristocrat had become an animal, exhibiting savagery with eloquence (save the gay slur). By not escalating the fight, a la Ali'sRope-a-Dope, Vital let his opponent punch himself out...to the horror of many in the audience and it turns out Buckley himself.
The pair had eerie similarities as pointed out in the excellent documentary Best of Enemies (2015). Both had were high-born (more so in the case of Vidal), hyper-eloquent, understood of the emerging power of TV as a medium, and a failed to gain elected office. The documentary plays out as a mutual tragedy where each falls victim to his own shadow (to borrow the Jungian term) and remain entwined in an sadomasochistic, psychosexual embrace. It is if the bile of each is destroying them and they cannot let go of each other, as evidenced by angry essays about each other and Buckley's slander lawsuit that dragged on for years.
If debate and politics are simply an alternative to war, so be it. In the "sock you in your goddam face" moment we see the violence behind words.
[The stories here come from the Rosemary Clooney autobiography with my memories thrown in where indicated. -ST]
For Rosemary Clooney, the words of a song were the bridge to the audience and just as important as the music. In her autobiography, Girl Singer, she says: "I only knew one way to sing a song. The words had to mean something and you had to be sure you knew what they meant before you started to sing." This attitude helped her connect with audiences and contributed to her becoming one of the most famous people on the planet in the 50s and 60s, as big as her nephew George is now. She was presented as the Girl Next Door by the record companies and she knew who she was musically. Rosie calls herself "a sweet singer with a big band sensibility.“
Bob Thompson was one of Rosemary Clooney's arrangers and touring bandleader in the 1960s. His big band background, light touch, and inventiveness with a pop orchestra made them a musical match--as you can hear an RCA album they recorded together called Clap Hands! Here Comes Rosie.
Rosie preferred Sinatra to the country music she had heard in her small Kentucky hometown, "[admiring] his beautiful, clear diction: He dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s in every word.“ That’s what I hear in the way she splashes in to the word "fresh" in my favorite Bob and Rosie number: "Aren’t You Glad You’re You."
Every time you're near a rose
aren't you glad you've got a nose?
And if the dawn is fresh with dew,
aren't you glad you're you!“
The song is a bubbly, but not silly, and crisp as a spring morning. The flutes flap along like butterflies.
Ella Fitzgerald was the master of breaking up a song into a hundreds of syllables where each note seemed to have its own identity. She was another influence on Rosie, although once her uncle (and manager) danced by the stage and shouted "Go Ella!“. Rosie said she never tried to imitate anyone again after that moment. Of Ella she said, "...that sound flowed out with no effort at all. If I had never believed in God before, I believed when I listened to her sing.“
The Push to Pop
A song Rosie didn’t want to sing – "Come On-a My House" - was her breakthrough song. Rosie considers her signature song to be "Tenderly" (neither recorded with Bob). She was pushed in to "Come on-a...:" by her manager even though she had resisted it as a "novelty" song with a corny accent written into the lyrics! You can also here the push to pop in the title track of the Bob-arranged Clap Hands! Here comes Rosie! It was most likely a flop and features Bob’s game attempt at using – you guessed it – clapping hands in the background. This try-hard number reminds me of Frank Sinatra’s attempt at the title track of Nice and Easy, which is a brilliant LP the rest of the way. "You Go to My Head" from that record is on heavy rotation at my house. In the mid to late 60s many jazz and pop musicians started to cover Beatles songs, contributing to a glut of "Yesterdays."
The Love and Art of Music Arranging
Three of the best pop arrangers in the world were working for RCA in the early 60s: Bob, Billy Mae, and Nelson Riddle. (Bob told me that he and Rosie accompanied Billy Mae on a date, where she was obliged to play the role of the beard.)
Rosie admitted in her autobiography that she developed crushes on many of her bandleaders. My mom used to roll her eyes and say: "Of course she liked him! She’d write notes to him that said, 'Bobbie darling'". Rosie had a prosperous love life even though she was marketed as the 1950s Girl Next Store. Although there were no sparks between Rosie and Bob, she and master arranger Nelson Riddle had a love affair. When they recorded Love together, tears came down Rosie’s face as sang a song while watching Nelson from across the room. The songwriter (not Bob) was disappointed to hear it was not his song that moved her!
We also treasure a note from Rosie that says "Bobby Dear you are one hell of an arranger“ and in the book she calls Bob "a top notch musician who studied music theory.“ Rosie is what my dad would call a "real musician who knew how to swing" and was never - in my dad’s most damning phrase - "a showboat.“
The title Girl Singer takes its name from a pejorative term for big band ladies that were treated as window dressing. That wasn't Rosie. Seeing her voice as part of larger musical presentation, Rosie as a girl she would sing a capella in the house and pause for a number of bars when the orchestra "played."
About Bob she said:
"[Bob] has no illusions about the chaos arrangers have to run into order. [He said] you sit down and make parts for every player who is sitting there and hopefully out of that mess will come something pleasing."
If you knew Bob the tendency to describe everything in negative terms is evident in that quote!
"A good arranger reads the words and knows exactly what the song should convey. He knows which words the orchestration should support and what mood it should create.“
You can hear that sensibility in the solo cello that mournfully announces the song "Black Coffee," on the second-and-last Bob/Rosie collaboration, Thanks for Nothing.
Bob's arrangement of Black Coffee
When Love was re-released on CD decades later, RCA included "Black Coffee." Unfortunately, that is the only cut from Thanks for Nothing that made the cut; both Rosie and Michael Feinstein say that LP is not her best work. She always had sounded light, not lugubrious, and the stone-faced cover just doesn't seem like her. Her husband’s infidelity and the end of the Riddle affair had gotten to her. Denial and downers were the easy answer. Once pointed out, I can hear the drugs in this album but "Black Coffee" really does sound great.
Bob’s single inclusion in the reissue of Love – side-by-side with Nelson's arrangements – captures what I call the "almost“ nature of Bob’s career and its redemption at the same time. It’s clear from her book that Rosie’s favorite arranger was Nelson. Although he writes wondrous musical tapestries, I feel he‘s too extravagant and lugubrious at times. But I am the ultimate interested party!
Ups and Downs
Bob and Rosie's LPs were recorded after her initial rise to fame. Sales were declining sales as the Rock era began. Bob saw Elvis in the halls of a recording studio and described them as "hudlums." In Rosie's book Bob describes Rock as "the end of music as we know it." At the same time – the early 60s – Bob’s solo orchestral albums more or less flopped and "they couldn't figure out what to do with me."
Rosie sang every possible kind of song, children’s songs, a few novelties (like "Come on-a..."), standards, show tunes, and American Song Book. Bob was called in to orchestrate a record where she was paired with Bing Crosby in the unremarkable How the West was Won: a collection of western tunes. Bing was not Bob’s favorite artistically, and representative of a sensibility that Bob wanted to leave behind. Bob said he would sing anything for a buck and was not the warmest person. Rosie describes Bing turning and quietly facing the wall when too many people were in the recording studio. Sounds about right!
The Long Road
Bob and Rosie had similar roots as country folk, with origins in Shasta County and Kentucky respectively. Rosie began her in high school, singing at a local radio station with her sister. Radio stations back then were little media centers, with musicians, broadcasters, and radio shows. Bob did his first arrangements at a radio station in San Francisco‘s Marina district at the time, living in the basement of an apartment of one of the station managers.
It‘s a long way from the country to the Copa – one of the most elegant rooms in new York – and they both made the journey. They toured around the world; and my dad, the small town kid, was thrilled. I also believe they played for some of the Kennedys at a fundraiser. At home we had the program for the event covered in red wax drippings. Must have been a lot of drinking involved.
Rosie’s rise to celebrity was Sputnik-like: from singing on the local radio to to getting a call from the White House, throwing on a strapless Edith Head dress with a low neckline, and meeting JFK who asked how the dress stayed up. Pretty glamorous. She seems totally guileless and comfortable with meeting everybody from her friend Marlene Dietrich to Marlon Brando who walked in to a party cradling his pet raccoon. (Sounds about right, too.)
Bob spoke kindly of the man who convinced Rosie to record Come on-a My House, Jose Ferrer. He was just the kind of man that Bob got excited about – very highly educated, high energy, and man of the world. Jose told Rosie about the intellectual underpinnings of the song being Armenian folk songs that were accompanied by a plucked instrument which you can hear on the arrangement (not Bob’s). Bob had an intellectual voraciousness that came from his feeling of deprivation in his home town. I can imagine Bob almost wagging his tail with excitement, quizzing Jose about his acting and all that he knew.
Jose was rarely on the road with Rosie – contributing to their estrangement – but in one case they were in Ireland with Bob. A mutual friend told Jose and Rosie to keep their distance from Samuel Beckett because of the writer‘s "aversion to adulation“. Things didn’t go as planned according to a 1978 biography of Beckett:
"[Bob] however was so surprised to meet Beckett that he lavished praise on him and then fired questions about his writing. As always the question turned to the question of Beckett’s indebtedness to Joyce: Yes I did a great deal of work for Mr. Joyce...a man for whom I hold enormous respect.‘ Then as if he wanted to be sure that Thompson understood what he was saying, enunciating carefully Beckett replied at length to the question...“
I am sure he did. Bob pulled out some of his own stationary and had Beckett write "Wait for Godot“ rather than the title of his absurdist play Waiting for Godot. Well, he signed it insulted, puzzled, or not! With Bob were always waiting for his “Come on-a…”; we had a little statue of Sisyphus at the house.
The Greatest Generation
I was also pleased to read in Girl Singer about Bob trying to help Rosie at a time when her career was waning and she was broken up about a much-younger lover in her band. He also urged her to jump under the table when the shots rang out in the Ambassador hotel. Bob told me he told Rosie that the gunshots that killed RFK were a car backfiring. She pretty much lost it.
The word I would use to best describe Rosemary Clooney's singing is tasteful. I am grateful that Bob was there for and that he was mentioned in a book where he is not the star - a tasteful thing to do.
Irwin Chusid is a DJ on WFMU, author, producer, music historian, and landmark preservationist who has been a champion of the music of Bob Thompson for over 20 years. He has educated and delighted his audience on an array of artists - some outsiders, some one of-a-kind anomalies - that otherwise would have been lost to history or unappreciated.
How do you discover music that virtually no one has heard?
Looking in all the wrong places. I’m a connoisseur of marginalia. When I used to visit record stores (pre-internet), I rarely looked in the bins. I looked under the bins. And those stores were rarely in big cities. They were in outlying suburbs and rural areas. I hunted. Flea markets, thrift shops, tag sales. I’d thumb through the collections of friends. Any house I visited, I was distracted by the record shelves.
After I’d gained a reputation for discovering obscure treasures, unsolicited recommendations began arriving. That helped, but 90% of those submissions weren’t interesting, and of those which were interesting, few were monumental. The Langley Schools recordings were discovered on a mix CD sent from a fellow in Canada. He sent "Space Oddity," along with 19 tracks by other artists. I don't recall any of the other 19.
Has the way you discovered new music changed over the years?
The methodology has changed over the past 20 years because of the web, which requires a different sort of diligence. Competition is more fierce. If something odd is called to my attention, I can search the web for it. But something odd and rare can be snatched away on Ebay with a mouse click or an outbid. Rarities that would circulate slowly in pre-web days can instantly go viral thru Dangerous Minds, Boing Boing, the Free Music Archive, or dozens of sites which thrive on weird cultural archaeology.
Can you speak in general terms about rescuing music or art from obscurity? Can you describe the satisfaction?
The satisfaction derives from discovery and sharing. But that initial discovery has to generate some kind of excitement—a physical and emotional reaction. I’ve always approached radio (41 years on WFMU) the same way. "Hey—I found this, I loved it, maybe some of you listeners will too." At heart it’s a narcissistic, self-indulgent means of attention-getting — I’m an arrested adolescent, albeit with an adult sense of responsibility — which manifests itself through establishing a reputation for being a tastemaker on the margins.
However, I’ve never worked for a record label because I’m a terrible barometer of popular taste. No one can or should bank on my musical or artistic preferences. Half of the artists I champion and whose catalogs, works, and legacies I actively administer, don’t generate revenue. Those are labors of love. They pay the psychic rent. The ones who do help pay the bills (e.g., Sun Ra, Raymond Scott, Esquivel, Sam Rivers, Jim Flora, Wendy & Bonnie) began as labors of love. A fascinating discovery led to business opportunities. But that’s making a very long story short.
By whom was Space Age Pop re-discovered in your orbit?
Byron Werner, first and foremost. I was an early adopter, but Byron was way ahead of us. He got his buddy Matt Groening into Esquivel years before anyone knew about Esquivel (or about Matt Groening). Byron is an artist and a collector. He’s not in the music business, never has been. He also introduced me to the music of Raymond Scott, whose late 1930s Quintette recordings didn’t really fit into the SABPM genre, but at the time were strange and obscure enough to be included on Byron's cassette comps.
At first, I assumed the interest in my father's music was ironic and was pleased that it was not. Why do you think it was taken seriously?
Bob was a craftsman. He’s the perfect embodiment of what is now known as Space Age Pop. He composed, arranged, conducted, and created evocative moods. His recordings reflect then-state-of-the-art Hi-Fi. There was a playfulness about his arrangements, a sexiness, a smoothness, a sophistication. And like the best artists in any field, nothing was overdone. He exercised restraint with his orchestra, yet there was power in reserve. Bob knew how to shift dynamics, how to surprise and delight.
I’ve often thought of him as Esquivel without the Latin flavors. As I understand it, he even used many of the same L.A. musicians, in the same studios, and recorded for the same label (RCA Victor). And like Esquivel his albums were 80% arranged standards and 20% original compositions. (The Sound of Speed is an exception, since Bob composed and arranged, but did not conduct, and it wasn’t on RCA. But it’s unquestionably a Space Age Pop classic.)
What does Space Age Pop mean?
Space Age Pop refers to a sparkling strain of instrumental pop that came to prominence in the post World War II high fidelity era, starting in the mid-1950s, and which ran thru the late 1960s, by which time electronics (particularly the Moog) began seeping in. Some consider those electronica-spiced albums part of Space Age Pop. I never found them quite so captivating. This period roughly corresponds to the era of space exploration, which of course commenced before we actually propelled astronauts into space.
I coined the phrase Space Age Pop, but it was a shortening of Byron Werner’s phrase Space Age Bachelor Pad Music. Byron coined that in the early 1980s—possibly even in the late 1970s — when no one was taking this music seriously. He was a dogged collector and evangelist for Bob Thompson, Russ Garcia, Arthur Lyman, Esquivel, Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Henri Rene — all these forgotten '50s icons whose scuffed LPs could be scavenged for 25 cents a pop, if you looked UNDER the bins.
Can you describe the chain of events leading RCA to realize that reissues would be in their interest?
It wasn’t easy convincing them. I proposed reissuing Esquivel recordings in 1993, but RCA-BMG had no interest. However, they said if I could find an indie label that was interested in taking the gamble, they’d license out the material and handle manufacturing—as long as that indie agreed to pay for 5,000 copies, regardless of how many actually sold.
After I played a cassette of LP transfers for Bar/None, they loved it and decided to take the risk. By then there was a lot of buzz about Esquivel, and Bar/None had pre-orders for 5,000 CDs before the album was even released. That was followed by an avalanche of sales for the album, which I compiled and iconically titled Space Age Bachelor Pad Music.
After I compiled a sequel (Music from a Sparkling Planet) with Bar/None, BMG realized there was a market for this stuff, and they called me in to compile Cabaret Mañana and the Space Age Pop multi-artist compilation series. But then there were some departures in the exec suites, and the folks who loved Esquivel were replaced by guys who mostly thought what the public needed was more recycled Elvis. Since I’d sparked the Esquivel breakout, I was invited up to a meeting with a new exec, who wanted to hear my ideas for future releases from RCA’s vaults. I brought a list—The Three Suns were on it, more thematic Space Age Pop comps, I don’t recall what else. After explaining each proposed project and why it was worthy, there was silence in the room. The exec leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, looked at me with intent, and said, "You know what I think would be great? 'The Best of Esquivel'." I left that meeting utterly defeated, and that was the end of my involvement.
I imagine there is a connection between your politically incorrect politics and politically incorrect music that you have brought to life?
I don’t care about the political aspects of any particular recording artist. If their music interests me, it doesn’t matter if it’s politically correct or incorrect. My leanings are libertarian, but that doesn’t affect how I listen to music. I’ve found fascinating outsider recordings that ridiculed Reagan, lauded Nixon, championed Carter, advocated one-world government, or were vehemently anti-Communist. Some were pro-military, others anti-war. Hippies and pious church-goers. Ideology doesn’t matter. It’s in the listening.
Were you interested in the business side of undiscovered gems early on?
No. I had no business background, and no college degree. I was just a collector, DJ, writer, historian, fan. I never had any idea what to do for a living until my mid-30s, and even then it didn’t occur to me that I could make a living out of my hobbies. That’s another story, and a complex one.
Although a generation apart, I think there are similarities between Van Dyke Parks and Bob Thompson, who were friends. By all accounts of they are/were under-appreciated and under-compensated--to their own consternation and that of fans, family, friends, and (in Van Dyke Park's case) the many musicians inspired by his work.
Both are both serious students of all forms of American music and that is reflected in the musical refinement and inventiveness of their writing (although the results are never dour). As people they share a humility and way of expressing themselves that is sly, self-consciously florid, and full of delightful "overtones." Good musicians make me laugh.
Van Dyke Parks and Bob Thompson distinguished themselves as composers and arrangers, as you can hear in Van Dyke's self-released Arrangements Vol 1. I was curious about Van Dyke's thoughts about arranging and how it is actually done.
What is the art of arranging for other people?
Not to be noticed. Yet, to seem necessary, once present.
What makes an arrangement interesting?
It's horseshit to think that arranging, as an art-form, needs new "creative" ideas. Arranging requires a fundamentally reactive bent. To qualify for the task, you need superior powers of observation. Your ears (unless yer Beethoven) are your best instrument.
"Not to be noticed. Yet, to seem
If you're a string fanatic, divide your strings thusly, to get a transparency, physical complexity, a mass of a Mendelsohn: Use 3 violin lines, 2 viola lines, 1 cello, 1 dedicated bowed upright and 1 dedicated pizz bass (the latter, to address the casual observers, and bring them in). This preferred voicing requires 7 players, minimum. N.B.: The phenom of strings: "Less is More: More is Less "True!
Film composer Alfred Newman once told me that the quietest sound that can be heard is a Philharmonic Orchestra. That may entail 96 players. On retrospect, I agree. Witness any string quartet. All is up-close and personal. Viz "Eleanor Rigby" or "Yesterday" by the Beatles, or the indispensable quartets of Smetena, Dvorák, Ravel, Debussy, or Gershwin: Every line speaks, whether confidential or projected---all is audible. As string numbers increase, the quality of opacity leads to an incomparable transparency of sound.
In arranging, often an ideal is reached in such quality for an irreducible number of string players achieves a real orchestral clarity.
Time and experience have revealed that minimum to be (vlns): 4/3/3; (vlas): 2/2. Cello and bass may survive and balance perfectly these upper-register vlns/vlas.
Using a minimum of 3 vlns per line reduces intonational problems. Two violins in unison invites dangers that three violins reduce. The violas (enjoying less prominence by nature of their principally alto range) don't suffer such scrutiny.
All ideas, whether rhythmic or melodic, may be thrown into the strings, with any blown or struck instruments simply enunciating aspects of what has been bowed and plucked.
To complete construction of such a chamber ensemble with truly orchestral temperament, eith frugality foremost, I may add 5 wood winds (2 flutes that double, a dedicated oboe, 1 clarinet, 1 bass-clari). I also try to afford one brass--and of that field, choose French horn.
Why French horn? One of my brothers played it ably, and went to Andover in full scholarship, just because he played horn masterfully. Horn has such sentimental attachment for me. Yet, without digression, I must note that French horn has the widest compass in the brass section. It may make full-out flatulent bass-leaden explosions, or ascent to soloistic treble heights. It offers the easiest subtly cohesive quality as well---while one trumpet can easily wipe out a modest string ensemble, one horn can offer surreptitious support with langorous whole notes. If you have bucks for one brass--consider making it a horn. ---
Additives to these principal ingredients? One Harp--- (worth the cartage fees, if necessary). Note that harp is capable of more than wet-dream arpeggios and glissandos. Harp may "secco"--all dry-bones, and butch enough to be a physical force, in flight-formation with violas' rhythmic hypnotica, or as a vital ally in punctuating the resolves of string ascents.
Mallets and other Percussion
"Tuneful Percussion"-is the balliwick of jazz andnpop idioms (as well as noted in Britten's "Young Peoples' Guide To Orchestra" or Saint Saens' "Carnival of the Animals"...)
If you get a chance (and know your section players have the goods from head-to-hand), try cannibalizing occasional rhythms and/or long lines etc. from your active strings.
Marimbas may offer subtle support, or strike abrasively. Vibes may offer sustained harmonic centrality with an economy of notation.
Tympani--like piano and most accoustic percussion options, just can't be duplicated synthetically. Yet, cartage costs come into play, only when deep pockets are there to be dug. (Like for computer game soundtracks and deodorant commercials, nationally televised).
1. Use restraint: Like great musical composition for TV or film, great music supervision supports the visual presentation like the foundation of a house. Songs should influence the audience in an almost subliminal way. Of course, musically-minded people will always notice the music. The exception to this rule is when songs are used as a punch line to (or comment about) what is happening in the dramatic action. This should be avoided unless it comes from the impetus of the director or it is cleared with the producers first.
5. Have a couple of options: Always have a number of genres and songs ready in case the producers change their minds. This will often happen at the last minute during post production where music is swapped, changed, or suddenly seems not to work. For example, 70s California Rock or Reggae might fit the same scene equally well.
(The music in Wes Anderson's movies has been broken down by Flavorwire.)
Ricky Bobby and the Gold Ol' Boys of Taledega Nights.
8. Respect the artists and their reps: Demonstrate that you know that music is a commodity created by talented professionals and administered by hardworking publishers. You want to be fairly compensated for your supervision work—and know that they do too. Come up with an agreement that pleases all concerned and does not insult anyone or close any doors for the future. Like anything, you get what you pay for.
from Duke Ellington.
10. Work with experts: Often various record labels have licensors who are full-time advocates for a body of work they know fairly well. The reality is that labels and conglomerates own a lot of the good stuff. However, do not be sucked in by one mega licensor or be swayed by a personal relationship there. Talk to music nerds, DJs, and musicians who have no stake in your final choices. Music supervision is a team sport.
Those are my top-10 ideas based on what I've learned by casual study and my efforts toward placing Bob Thompson's compositions in TV and film. His music has appeared on Sex and The City, Old Navy commercials, and a soundtrack or two.
--RCA promotional material
The resurgence of the genre, in small part due to Irwin Chusid of WFMU and other enthusiasts such as Tony Wilds and Byron Wener, was not based on irony but an interest in quality, experimentation, and a welcome glimpse into a pre-rock of a culture in which Playboy was considered daring and sexual liberation was just getting off the launching pad. The coy, relaxed flirtiness of Bob's tunes like MMM Nice! and Peek-a-Boo, represent an antidote to a world where porn is as close as HBO.
I like to think of my Dad's work as the jazz wing of Space Age Pop for a couple of reasons, and would go as far as calling it White Jazz - although one fan I talked to wouldn't buy it. You can hear the Jazz stamp on a handful of original compositions such as Joie de Vivre - my favorite Bob song - and the selection of material from Duke Ellington on the RCA Records.
Jazz was very close to the heart and mind of my father; and he was an accomplished piano player who sat in with a member of Duke's band, Barney Bigard. His favorites were Duke Ellington, Bill Evans (no relation to Gil), and Thelonious Monk. Hearing his original music from 1959-1960 like Starfire was a jarring because it was (seemingly) so unlike Jazz. It was uncool rather than Out of the Cool. A few deep listens and I discovered this was not the case.
On the RCA records - Just for Kicks. MMM Nice!, and On the Rocks - we hear Jazz-literate who was asked to make pop records to answer the stiff stylings of Les Baxter - whom he disliked. RCA got something very different and three bomb albums. As Bob put with deep irony: "My direct competition was How Much is that Doggie in the Window!"
Spenser Thompson shares anecdotes, music, and videos from Bob Thompson's music career plus thoughts on artists from Duke to Devo.
Brush With Greatness
Just For Kicks
On The Rocks