Saturday, December 15, 2012

Bert Berns' Seven-Year Itch

by Andy Schwartz

“Okay…so you scratch your head, you look at the guy who represents the company and he’s dead serious. Furthermore, he’s telling you all the sweet things a weary producer loves to hear:  ‘Money’s no object…Get all the down cats you need…Just give ‘em soul.’ So you finish scratching your head and you reach for the nearest phone. You’re cooking, you’re really cooking! So you call Teacho Wiltshire to make the arrangements, and he says ‘okay.’ Then you get tensed up because it hits you like a rock about all the things you’ll need – songs, the right artists, the right sounds…Give ‘em soul. The next couple of days your desk is piled up with all the great R&B records of the past, including a few original things which will knock everyone out. And then, right smack between all that sweet confusion, all the empty and grotesque coffee containers and crushed cigarette butts, it was there. I mean pow!” 

- Bert Berns, from his liner notes for Capitol LP George Hudson Presents Give ‘Em Soul

Really, it’s all there, in his own words – maybe not the details, but the atmosphere of a Bert Berns production. You feel the sense of near–desperate improvisation, the need to make something out of nothing. The desk “piled up with all the great R&B records of the past” – the better to pinch a time–tested hook, riff, or chorus. The “original things that will knock everyone out” – because after all, the same Berns original (or a variation of it) already knocked everyone out the previous two times he cut it with other singers, and if it didn’t…hey, third time’s the charm, right?

And always, the insatiable demands of Capital: To give ‘em soul, or a Western–flavored folk song, or a Latin boogaloo, or a dance named for a zoo animal because that’s what’s happening right now or at least what somebody thinks might be happening in about three weeks which is when they’re planning to release this record he’s trying to create from nothing. The red light is on in the control room, the union clock is running, the studio bills are starting to pile up, but Bert is cooking, he’s really cooking and…pow!

In this hothouse atmosphere, in a career that spanned just seven turbulent years, Bert Berns created a handful of songs and recordings that echo to the present day: “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers, “My Girl Sloopy” by The Vibrations, “Here Comes The Night” by Them, “Piece Of My Heart” by Erma Franklin, “Brown–Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, “Tell Him” by The Exciters.

“His unique voice as a songwriter, producer and record man is so deeply ingrained into the fabric of pop music, it has become common parlance,” writes veteran music journalist Joel Selvin in the introduction to his forthcoming biography Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns &; The Dirty Business Of Rhythm & Blues. Berns’ songs, says Selvin, “have been covered, quoted, cannibalized, used as salvage parts and recycled so many times, his touch has just dissolved into the literature. His name may be lost, but his music is everywhere.”

There are the records everyone knows. There are the records everyone should know but that arrived stillborn, or expired soon after delivery: “My Tears Are Dry” by Hoagy Lands, “It’s Been A Long, Long Time” by Dotty Clark, Ben E. King’s searing “It’s All Over,” Lulu’s towering rendition of “Here Comes The Night.” And then there are the records that make you scratch your head – like the guy in the Give ‘Em Soul liner notes – and wonder who thought that sounded like some kind of a hit.

Time: There never seemed to be enough of it for the child born to a Russian Jewish immigrant couple in the Bronx on November 8, 1929, to whom his free–thinking father gave the name Bertrand Russell Berns in honor of the renowned British philosopher. Bert was fourteen when he contracted rheumatic fever, a condition that he knew even then would shorten his life.

A bright but restless and inattentive student, he never graduated from his Miami boarding school. He liked to sing, play the piano, and strum his nylon–string acoustic guitar. Bert dug the big bands and Latin dance orchestras he heard at Grossinger’s, the fabled kosher Catskills resort where his parents were wed and where they spent every August for the rest of their lives. During a trip to Cuba in 1958, he immersed himself in the island’s rich musical culture: The chords of “Guantanamera” would form the basis for many a Bert Berns song to come. But at the age of 30, he was still living in his parents’ Bronx home, having failed at such music–related ventures as the first record by future Las Vegas lounge queen Eydie Gormé.

Things began to pop when an old–school music publisher, Robert Mellin, hired Bert to be his firm’s conduit to teenage music. Berns and the African–American songwriter Phil Medley came up with “Push Push,” recorded by Austin Taylor in a somewhat goofy but undeniably infectious production rife with Berns’ trademark Caribbean undertones. The Laurie Records release struggled to #90 on the Hot 100 – Bert’s first song to make the charts. September 1961 brought a career breakthrough when a Richmond VA group called the Jarmels made it all the way to #12 with his song “A Little Bit of Soap.”

Bum ticker be damned: Bert Berns was off and running. In the summer of ’62, he took the Isley Brothers all the way to #2 with “Twist and Shout,” a Berns/Medley song and a Bert Berns production. On February 11, 1963, it became the last song recorded by the Beatles in nearly nine hours of recording for their debut album Please Please Me. (“Twist And Shout” was later covered by Johnny Rivers, Mae West, Booker T. & the MGs, The Mamas & Papas, and Rodney Dangerfield, among others.)

All through the 1950s, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler (along with Ahmet’s brother Nesuhi Ertegun and the gifted engineer Tom Dowd) had made musical history and impressive profits at Atlantic Records. Yet by early 1961, the label had turned stone cold and for eight long months failed to produce one Top Ten single; its two biggest stars, Ray Charles and Bobby Darin, both had defected to other companies.

It was Bert Berns who brought Atlantic back from the brink. Beginning with the December ’61 session that produced “Cry To Me,” Berns produced five consecutive Top 20 R&B songs for Solomon Burke including “If You Need Me” and “You’re Good For Me.” He succeeded Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller as producer of The Drifters, and brought forth “Under The Boardwalk,” “At The Club,” and “Saturday Night At The Movies.” Other Berns productions for The Vibrations and Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles failed to hit big. But they served notice on the industry that Atlantic could still create great pop/r&b records in–house and not simply license masters from smaller labels (cf. Carla Thomas’ “Gee Whiz” on the fledgling Stax Records of Memphis).

When Bert Berns made his second trip to England in October ’64, his fame as the co–composer of “Twist and Shout” preceded him. The brash, chain–smoking, toupee–topped producer was “an American archetype, a species entirely unknown in Britain – the Broadway record man,” writes Joel Selvin. “He reeked of Marlboros, cheap cologne and hit records...Berns called the shots and Decca’s rules were out.” Through his contacts at Decca Records, he hooked up with a band of Belfast hard cases called Them and their sawed–off lead singer Van Morrison; together they spent four days in the studio knocking Berns’ “Here Comes The Night” into shape. The single shot to #2 in the UK and even breached the US Top 30.

Berns’ original Atlantic version of his “My Girl Sloopy” by The Vibrations (co–written with Wes Farrell) only reached #26 R&B in ‘64, but the following year a rewrite of the song would become The McCoys’ #1 Pop smash “Hang On Sloopy.” The McCoys were on BANG, a new label founded by Berns with financial backing from the Atlantic partners and thus named for Bert, Ahmet, Nesuhi, and Gerald.

BANG became the launching pad for a struggling Brooklyn singer/songwriter named Neil Diamond, lofting him into the Top 20 with five successive singles beginning with “Cherry Cherry” in the summer of ’66. Less than two years after “Here Comes The Night,” Them were yesterday’s papers – but Berns sensed the raw talent in Van Morrison, and produced the sessions that begat the Irishman’s US #10 hit “Brown Eyed Girl” and his BANG debut album Blowin’ Your Mind! – the one with the ugly pseudo– psychedelic cover and ten minutes of blues torment called “T.B. Sheets.”

In his relentless climb to the top of the pops, Bert Berns had many helpers. Some were label owners, some were co–writers and publishers, some were studio musicians and engineers…and some were straight-up gangsters, to whom the fast–moving, streetwise record man turned for friendship, financing, and muscle. There was Tommy Eboli a/k/a Tommy Ryan, a mainstay of the Genovese family going back to the reign of Lucky Luciano; the Columbo underboss John “Sonny” Franzese; and Patsy Pagano, Berns’ lead negotiator with Jerry Wexler when the BANG/Atlantic relationship turned sour.

We can only guess at the effect these dark eminences might have had on Bert Berns’ career in a post–Sgt. Pepper world. On December 30, 1967, he died of a massive heart attack at age 38, leaving behind his wife Ilene and three children, the youngest born just three weeks before.

In his 2011 book Save The Last Dance For Satan, Nick Tosches quotes Joe Smith of Warner Bros. Records on what it took to buy out Van Morrison’s contract from the tangled web of BANG that Berns left behind: “I had to meet a guy at six o’clock at night on the third floor of a warehouse on Tenth Avenue in Manhattan. The guy said to bring the money [$20,000]. I wasn’t feeling very good about that…” But the deal got done, no out–of–town record executives were killed or injured in the process, and in November 1968 Van Morrison released his Warner debut, Astral Weeks. To the best of my knowledge, Morrison has never spoken publicly about his relationship with Bert Berns, not even after “Brown Eyed Girl” was named to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004.

Neil Diamond likewise remains silent. When in 2011 Sony Legacy released the outstanding and long–overdue anthology Neil Diamond: The BANG Years, 1966–1968, the singer wrote a reflective essay that fills fourteen pages of the accompanying booklet. In his text, Diamond name–checks everyone from his high school singing partner Jack Packer to studio engineer Brooks Arthur, while Bert Berns is referred to only as “an ‘independent producer’ (who unbeknownst to me had some nefarious silent partners)…” Elsewhere, Diamond refers to being signed by Jerry Wexler and to “being an artist on Atlantic Records” (which distributed BANG – Diamond never made a record on the Atlantic label).

“In the end, Berns’ career almost perfectly encapsulated the height of the New York independent record scene,” Joel Selvin summarizes. “He walked onstage in those days after the emergence of rock and roll when the New York music business utterly dominated the pop music universe. When he died seven turbulent years later, the day was done. Corporations started buying up the few independents still standing. New songwriters and new songs stocked the hit parade. The pop music world turned a page.”

The man is gone, but the songs live on. No bullshit: They really do. L’shanah tovah and thank you, Bert Berns.


"Push Push" mp3
by Austin Taylor, 1960.
available on The Bert Berns Story Volume 1: Twist & Shout 1960-1964

"You'd Better" mp3
by Russell Byrd (Bert Berns), 1961.
available on The Bert Berns Story Volume 1: Twist & Shout 1960-1964

"If Your Pillow Could Talk" mp3
by The Edsels, 1962.
out of print

"Hully Gully Lamb" mp3
by The Renaults, 1962.
out of print

"Cry To Me" mp3
by Betty Harris, 1963.
Lost Soul Queen

"Raise Your Hand" mp3
by Junior Lewis, 1963.
out of print

"Come On And Stop" mp3
by Marv Johnson, 1963. 
Available on The Bert Berns Story Volume 1: Twist & Shout 1960-1964

"It's All Over" mp3
by Ben E. King, 1964.
available on Stand By Me

"If I Didn't Have A Dime" mp3
by The Furys, 1964.
out of print

"Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand" mp3
by Hoagy Lands, 1964.
out of print

"Hello Walls" mp3
by Little Esther, 1964.
available on The Best Of Esther Phillips (1962-1970)

"Here Comes The Night" mp3
by Lulu, 1964.
available on The Bert Berns Story Volume 1: Twist & Shout 1960-1964

"If I Would Marry You" mp3
by Tammy Montgomery, 1964.
available on The Bert Berns Story - Mr Success Volume 2: 1964-1967

"My Girl Sloopy" mp3
by The Vibrations, 1964.
available on Very Best Of The Vibrations

"There They Go" mp3
by The Exciters, 1965.
available on Something to Shout About!

"Ain't Gonna Cry No More" mp3
by LaVern Baker, 1965.
out of print

"Come Home Baby" mp3
by Wilson Pickett ( with Tami Lynn), 1965.
available on In the Midnight Hour

"A Little Bit Of Soap" mp3
by Garnet Mimms, 1966
available on Cry Baby

"Up In The Streets Of Harlem" mp3
by The Drifters, 1966.
available on Rockin & Driftin: Drifters Box

"Killer Joe" mp3
by The Kingsmen, 1966.
available on The Best of The Kingsmen

"Solitary Man" mp3
by Neil Diamond, 1966.
available on The Bang Years: 1966-1968

"I'm Gonna Run Away From You" mp3
by Tami Lynn, 1966.
available on Love Is Here & Now You're Gone

"Are You Lonely For Me Baby" mp3
by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, 1967.
available on King & Queen

"Madame George" mp3
by Van Morrison, 1967.
available on Bang Masters

"Baby Come Home" mp3
by Led Zeppelin, 1968.
available on The Complete Studio Recordings

Friday, December 14, 2012

Hell on Earth

by Ariella Stok

There is not much talk of fire and brimstone in Judaism, nor gruesome landscapes of eternal damnation and demonic torture. A vague concept of the afterlife was appended to the religion in later iterations, but it is not a focus nor is there much consensus of what it might entail. To the extent that hell is discussed in Jewish texts, it is often given as a state of being that one need not wait until after death to experience. Described as a feeling of intense shame that accompanies bad deeds, the condition of being on the outs with God, hell is readily available right here in the earthy realm.

In 1949, a Jewish Hell was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in the form of a baby boy named Richard Meyers, the son of parents who had met as graduate students in psychology at Columbia University. Although his mother was Methodist, it was his Jewish father’s New York-based family with whom he was close. In a new autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, due out on Ecco/Harper Collins in March, 2013, he writes of his family background:

"There wasn’t much awareness of family, or family history. I had no real understanding of what a Jew was, for instance, though I knew that my father’s family fit that description somehow. I thought Judaism was a religion, and we didn’t have any religion."

Instead, American pop culture of the 50s was his creed:

"We lived in the suburbs in America in the fifties. My roots are shallow. I’m a little jealous of people with strong ethnic and cultural roots. Lucky Martin Scorcese or Art Spiegelman or Dave Chappelle. I came from Hopalong Cassidy and Bugs Bunny and first grade at ordinary Maxwell Elementary."

He became a disciple of Saturday morning TV—Zorro and the Cisco Kid—and the cinema, via the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, and through these he arrived at a model that would inform his earliest identity as an artist:

"I grew up thinking men worked best in wandering small teams, usually two-man. You needed someone to conspire with, someone to help you maintain the nerve to carry out your ideas. Someone to know what you were thinking (otherwise your thinking didn’t really exist.) Someone who had qualities you wanted, maybe, too, and which you could acquire to some degree by association."

Among his earliest memories as a child was the impulse to run away, “of dreaming and conspiring in a hideout, beyond the pale.” After a string of minor infractions and foiled attempts he made his penultimate escape attempt with his latest best friend, Tom Miller, who he met while attending boarding school in Delaware. Heading south to Florida, the two-man team planned to become poets and live off the fat of the land. They made it as far as Alabama, where they were arrested for setting an open field ablaze with an out-of-control campfire, and sent back home. Upon return, Richard got a after-school job in a pornographic bookstore to save up for the bus ticket that took him to New York City two months later—his permanent escape, while Tom stayed behind to finish high school and a year of college before joining his friend in the city, where the two became inseparable partners in crime, staying up all night talking and then crashing on each other’s floors, frequenting the same artists bars like Max’s Kansas City, and working together at a film bookstore called Cinemabilia that was managed by future music entrepreneur, Terry Ork.

Although Richard had originally moved to New York to become a writer, he decided on a change of plans after he and Tom attended a performance at the Mercer Art Center by the New York Dolls—a band whose outsized influence was due in no small part to removing the barrier of skill from making music and replacing it with a wild, flamboyant energy that suggested the fantasy that rock stardom was in anyone’s grasp. Of his decision to cast his lot with rock and roll, he says in Legs McNeil’s oral history of punk, Please Kill Me:

"There was just so much more excitement in rock & roll than sitting home writing poetry. The possibilities were endless. I mean, I could deal with the same matters that I’d be sweating over alone in my room, to put out little mimeograph magazines that five people would ever see. And we definitely thought we were as cool as the next people, so why not get out there and sell it?"

Richard was able to persuade Tom, who had been up to this point sowing his musical oats playing acoustic guitar at a hootenanny night in the West Village every few months, to get together an electric band. Tom picked out a Danelectro bass for Richard, and taught him some simple lines. They start improvising and writing songs together, importing a drummer, Billy Ficca, who Tom knew from Delaware, forming the Neon Boys, and adopt their noms de plume—Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell. Taking their cues from Arthur Rimbaud and (for Hell) his self-destructive method for attaining poetic transcendence through a “derangement of the senses”, they embarked on their own Season in Hell. In 1973, The Neon Boys record their only EP, splitting writing duties between the five songs. Around this time, Hell pens a short novel of scabrous prose, called The Voidoid, whose narrator grapples with the needs of the body and the spirit, and imagines himself as living his life as though sleepwalking through a hellscape:

"Time to wash your bones. You pull the flesh over your head as the landscape simultaneously raises like a curtain to reveal swarming dirt and quivering organs of all shapes, sizes, and colors. The place is crawling with empty swimming pools. The dead leaves seem much stronger than usual. You sit and feel the wind blow through your ribs. You gaze at the sky as if you'd just come off the street into a movie house. All else is dark."

The Neon Boys put an ad in Creem: “Wanted: rhythm guitarist. Talent not necessary,” and auditioned a handful of candidates, including then unknown-to-them, Chris Stein (later of Blondie) and Dee Dee soon-to-be Ramone. When none possessed sufficient lack of talent, the band dissolved due to lack of momentum. A second chance, however, comes along when Verlaine and Hell’s boss (and future dope connection) Terry Ork offers to become the band’s benefactor, buying them equipment, helping to book shows, and setting them up with a second guitarist, Richard Lloyd, who, fresh from a stint at a mental institution, had hustled his way into living with Ork. The band is reborn as Television. 

In an interview on a talk show in 1993, Hell describes those early days:

"When we were starting out, we were lonely, hungry kids from the sticks in New York. We thought that the whole world looked all pompous, and sentimental, and dishonest. And it was reflected in the rock and roll that was going on at that time, too – big stadium bands going around in limousines, wearing velvet and shag haircuts and high-heeled boots, putting on these kind of fascist shows. Like Nuremberg with the lights flashing. We wanted to just cut through the shit and bring it back to the streets. That’s what rock and roll is supposed to be about: teenage reality."

In contrast to the glitzy aesthetics of glam rock, Television were spare and lean, in sound and appearance. Seeking a weekly residency where they could build a following, they propositioned the owner of a club on the Bowery, CBGB’s, erroneously convincing him that their music offered the country, bluegrass, and blues that gave the venue its name.  The shows were a hit, drawing crowds to the seedy bar, and creating a breeding ground for a music scene that would expand with the addition of The Ramones, Blondie, and The Talking Heads, among others. They received their first review in the Soho News, written by devotee, Patti Smith, who gushed, “A few non-believers murmur that they look like escapees from some mental ward but those tuned into TV know better. These boys are truly escapees from heaven."

According to Hell, for a year (or at least the first half of the year), Television was the greatest band in the world. It took roughly the same amount of time for power struggles over leadership of the band to erupt between Hell and Verlaine. Hell got fed up and left. That same week in 1975, Hell was propositioned by Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls to join him and fellow Doll, Jerry Nolan, in starting a new band, The Heartbreakers. It lasted eight months until once again Hell became disappointed by his lack of leadership in the group whose predilection for songs about going steady didn’t jive well with Hell’s aspirations towards the poetic and intelligent.

Once again a free man in 1976, Hell sets about building a new band—The Voidoids—of which he would be leader, finding his dream guitarist in Robert Quine, and adding Marc Bell and Ivan Julian. The first album, Blank Generation, released in 1977, mixed new material with songs borrowed and reworked from the repertoires of the Neon Boys and Television. Where Television was transcendental, soaring, cool, and measured, Hell’s Voidoids were corporeal, bleak, spastic, and uncontained. In contrast to the Heartbreakers, the lyrics were poetic, centering around themes of nihilism and dissipation, a life lived in a state of retreat, or a state of being marked by absence. The title song was an adaptation of a novelty song from 1959, “The Beat Generation,” whose hep cat narrator casts aspersions on American commodity culture in favor of a “one room pad where he can make the scene.” In Hell’s version, he imagines his time as “the ____ generation,” taking a stance of disaffection and detachment, leaving the assignation of meaning to the listener–-a guesture that is simultaneously one of rejection and empowerment.

In “Down at the Rock and Roll Club,” Hell describes his going-out ritual, which would become the blueprint for what would become labeled as punk: “I rip up my shirt/Watch the mirror it flirt/Yeah, I’m going out, out, inta sight.” This image proved fungible when Malcom McLaren imported Hell’s look and sound to London. “Richard Hell was a definite 100% inspiration,” McLaren admits in Please Kill Me. “I remember telling The Sex Pistols, “Write a song like ‘The Blank Generation,’ but write your own bloody version,” and their own version was ‘Pretty Vacant.’” Meanwhile the song “New Pleasure” paints a picture of life in/as Hell: “Too weak for life you have become—you can’t get dressed you’re too numb/But we assume sublime poses/deep in true to life in (hypnosis)/true to life in true to life in…”

The Voidoids recorded one other record, and it took them 5 years to do it. Destiny Street once again features guitar hero, Robert Quine, and offers an even deeper trip into the themes of loneliness and desperation than its predecessor. Highlights include “The Kid with the Replaceable Head,” a formidable attempt at a commercial pop song, the achingly sweet “Time,” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s ode to the end of the line, “Going, Going Gone.” As Hell writes in the liner notes to the 1991 reissue on Red Star:

"Sadness. Rock and roll as a way of turning sadness and loneliness and anger into something transcendentally beautiful, or at least energy-transmitting. I’m aware of the utter unredeemable idiocy of apologizing for —denigrating—one’s own work. But if  I’m going to imagine the record strongly enough to be able to write about it with any potency, accuracy, or insight, I must acknowledge that it is deformed, disturbed, and deprived."

Soon after the release of Destiny Street, the Voidoids broke up and Hell eventually returned to his original focus on writing. Although he retreated away from music, he made occasional forays back into it with the Sonic Youth side-project Dim Stars in 1992, and in 1996, published his first semi-autobiographical novel, Go Now. Like the New York School of poets with whom Hell affiliates himself, his artistic project is one of self-creation that blurs the boundaries between art and life. For Hell, the image he constructed for himself was one of a man turned inside-out. In a 1978 interview with Lester Bangs, he said, “That’s the dilemma I’m facing right now: whether I’ll die or whether I can find something I can affirm.” When a Jewish person dies, for 11 months the family is supposed to recite Kaddish to pray for the soul of the deceased to be granted entrance into the kingdom of heaven during the time when the soul is on trial. This period of uncertainty, of fighting for one’s life, and evaluating whether one can be redeemed or must start over again, is the state of hell from which Jews pray for release. For Richard Hell, this is life, art, and a state of permanent exile.


"Time" mp3 
by Richard Hell & The Voidoids, 1979.
available on Time

"Love Comes In Spurts" mp3
by The Heartbreakers, 1975.
available on  R.I.P. Roir Sessions

"(I Belong To The) Blank Generation" mp3
by Richard Hell & The Voidoids, 1976
available on Stiff Records Box Set

"Betrayal Takes Two" mp3
by Richard Hell & The Voidoids, 1977.
available on Blank Generation

"The Kid With The Replaceable Head" mp3
by Richard Hell & The Voidoids, 1978
available on Spurts: The Richard Hell Story

"Lowest Common Denominator" mp3
by Richard Hell & The Voidoids, 1982.
available on Destiny Street
out of print

"That's All I Know (Right Now)" mp3
by The Neon Boys, 1973.
available on Spurts: The Richard Hell Story

top photo: Stephanie Chernikowski
middle photo: Chris Makos
bottom photo: Roberta Bayley 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Stan Getz Was The Voice Of The Angels, and Stan Getz Was A Schmuck

"Stan Getz is bunch of nice guys" –Zoot Sims

Being a teenage dope-fiend and a raging alcoholic on a bender streching out over three decades can take a toll on a man. Despite being in posession of prodigious talent, even the strongest of men can be brought to their knees. Stan Getz succumbed to that, making him moody, violent and confrontational. Despite these shortcomings, he was a man whose talents were beyond reproach. After fooling around with a few instruments as a kid, he settled on saxophone. And although it can’t be substantiated, it’s said he mastered the instrument in four months. Stan had found his voice with the tenor saxophone. While correctly associated with the Lester Young School of the tenor, his playing always brought on a kind of distant howl like a shofer from the temple, reminiscent of his Jewish upbringing, a Jewish Prez if you will. It should be said to those who feel that he was just a Lester Young impersonator, Prez himself was always an admirer and champion of Getz. Stan had it all, movie star good looks, a beautiful home, a lovely family, a gorgeous wife and that supreme talent. He seemed to want it all, the normal life and the life of a Jazz star, but his demons always got the best of him. Stan Getz was a junkie, a bad drunk, a lousy husband, father and friend. I’m certain he was a crappy Jew as well, I’m not sure how often he frequented the synagogue, but I’m guessing not very often. Music was not always his number one priority. Women and drugs were usually the order of business that preceded all, um… musical business.

Stan and Steve Getz at the St. Louis Zoo, 1961.

So now we all know that Getz was a schmuck (much of the time), it should also be known that the man made some fine music, and to this day is arguably considered one of the top five tenor players in Jazz history. His break-out solo on Woody Herman’s “Early Autumn” started it all. Then came his great body of work for Roost, Verve, Prestige and those great European recordings of the 50’s. Getz will be best remembered for the Bossa Nova records with Charlie Byrd, Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfa, Laurindo Almeida and of course Astrid Gilberto. While all these recordings are anywhere from great to classic, his body of work from the last 10-15 years of his life may be his finest output. His choice of songs and personnel were beyond reproach. He could piss off his band mates, knowing that rehearsal was not something he needed. He could naturally pick up tunes and tempo without the effort that so many musicians have to practice for years. He had amazing dexterity, a fabulous sense of harmony and that unmistakable Getz sound. 

Stan stopped drinking in 1985. For the first time in his life he was going into the studio clean and sober with a clear mind and body. Despite his fears of recording without the aid of drink and drugs, the results were extraordinary. Although it was released posthumously the album Bossas and Ballads was his strongest effort in years and one of his all-time best. Getz was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1987, years of drug and alcohol abuse having finally caught up with him. Although the prognosis was dire, he kept working as well as teaching at Stanford. Aside from cleaning up and adding an herb diet, he spent the remainder of his life atoning his sins and making amends to all the family and friends he had wronged in the past. For some, it was too little too late, but to those close to him such as his band and family it was a rediscovery of the man they only saw on occasion. Getz died in 1991 at his home in Malibu, dozens of new recordings have surfaced since (all of them excellent) and his daughter Bev Getz curates a wonderful website devoted to Stan’s legacy. 


"Early Autumn" mp3
by Woody Herman Orchestra, 1948.
available on Keeper of Flame

"Night Rider" mp3
by Stan Getz & Eddie Sauter, 1961.
available on Focus

"O Grande Amor" mp3
by Stan Getz & João Gilberto, 1964.
available on  Getz/Gilberto

"Sweet Rain" mp3
by Stan Getz, 1967
available on  Sweet Rain (Dig)

"Soul Eyes" mp3
by Stan Getz, 1989.
available on Bossas & Ballads: The Lost Sessions

photographs by Bernie Thrasher, from the Euclid Records Archive

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Doc's Holiday Fever

My father, Jerome Solon Felder (aka Doc Pomus) was a super Jew to his core, but not at all religious. His rabbi died a week before he was to be Bar Mitzvahed, which he took at once to be a relief and an omen. His British mother Millie kept kosher, but practically encouraged her sons Jerome and Raoul to eat bacon outside the home, because she believed it had healing properties. The formalities of religion for him were not at all necessary. There was no battle between celebrating Chanukah and Christmas. He saw the holiday season as quite simply a festive opportunity and excuse to SHOP for others - to dole out large quantities of the year’s carefully accumulated stuff. The swag was always very well intentioned, but occasionally bordered on crap: trinkets, baubles and tchotchkies, for those nearest and dearest and sometimes real high-end goods too.  No matter the quality, people were genuinely moved by his very thoughtful gestures. But he was no saint, and he did not suffer fools.  Like his good friend Joel Dorn used to say to me, “If he didn’t dig you, man, could he ice you.”  Needless to say, he didn’t get gifts for everyone. 

Dad had a jones for shopping, an activity that a guy stuck in a wheelchair with wads of cash could easily handle. He could station himself inside of a favorite bookstore or record shop like Final Vinyl and be happy for hours. For himself, he bought large cowboy hats, flea market finds, exotic belt buckles, hand-made leather pouches, love potions and ointments, chunky turquoise-nugget rings, snake or lizard skin shoes, as well as endless books and records.  But mostly he loved shopping for gifts for others and always seemed to catch the Christmas/Chanukah fever right after Thanksgiving. He began by reviewing and always adding new names to his extensive Christmas card list, put together from saved cards he had received from old friends over the years: B.B. King, Phil Spector, Mr. & Mrs. Joe Turner, Ben E. King, Ellie Greenwich, Leiber and Stoller, Micky Baker, Gerry Goffin, and on, and on.

He loved the process of selecting the swag destined for family, friends, and flavors of the month. He lavished them with stuff he had stashed over the previous year, kept in specified drawers and cabinets, in plastic bags, and in little boxes earmarked for those he really liked: his favorite waitresses at each of the clubs and restaurants he frequented; secretaries at record companies, BMI, and Warner/Chappell; large bags of toys delivered to a downtown children’s hospital; for the the porters, doormen and the mailmen that he liked; or for Belle, the old lady down the hall. The extensive gifts ran the gamut - they might be inscribed, carefully selected books by Peter Guralnick, Jayne Ann Phillips, or Elmore Leonard; or a photobook by Walker Evans or Weegee. He often bought me photography or cookbooks and always inscribed them to me, his only daughter, as “to my favorite daughter” or conversely “to my least favorite daughter.”

Doc would also purchase a wide range of trinkets from an old-time salesman that he liked to throw business to named Sol Winkler. Sol came to his apartment on West 72nd Street, and had been coming to him since my father lived at the Forrest Hotel during the Brill Building days. He would open his pocket-lined coat, stuffed with pens, knives and two–in–one gadgets; and had suitcases filled with notions, frames, and wallets - everything always of questionable value. He might buy something from Sidney Mills of Mills publishing, who sold watches on the side, or from Carmine DeNoya (aka Wassel), a legendary music business and dear old wiseguy friend, who might offer him something fallen off the back of a truck or from a barter deal. Then there were the many flea market vendors selling jewelry or knick-knacks, both high end and low, that saw his electric wheelchair coming at them from a mile a way and salivated because they knew he was a big spender. Dr John sent him to a hidden botanica-type shop, where he would buy oils, gris gris and candles for special gifts.  He would send big gift baskets to Joe & Pat Turner in LA and a yearly salami to Phil Spector. (Pat Turner in turn always sent him lots of photos of their home at Christmas for my dad, who never had a chance to visit their LA pad, and Phil Spector would always send him a freezer-packed box of steaks.) When the loot was all wrapped and ready-to-go, he would send his driver to deliver Santa-Claus style to the various drop-off spots all over the city and parts beyond. This could sometimes take a few days. In the end, the size of his most recent royalty statement determined how much he would spend. My father lived simultaneously large and modestly in two small rooms. He did not invest in the stock market or own real estate and had a very high overhead to pay salaries for the small staff who worked for him. Shopping, going out to hear music, and ordering in food daily, were the only luxuries in which he indulged.

I have one specific memory from 1965, when we still lived in Lynbrook, Long Island in a ranch-style house with a big lawn and a pool. My mother, who is Catholic and also not at all religious, enjoyed over-the-top Christmases. Our tree was a giant silver tinsel number, sparkly and ornately decorated (these vintage decorations were all lost this year to Hurricane Sandy). My father asked his close friend Joe Morgan (Duke Ellington’s press agent), a big pudgy guy, to come out to our house where he would dress as Santa and descend from our attic to surprise my brother Geoffrey and me. My father’s mother Millie, brought vats of her homemade chicken soup with kreplach and kneidlach, and lamb shank stew from Brooklyn. We were over-gifted with a ridiculous amount of life-size toys that took over the living room. That is the last high-roller Christmas that I remember. Soon after, my parents were divorced and lost the house to the IRS.

My father kept his favorite records, mostly 78s and 45s, in special leather cases with handles.  Mac Rebennack always tells me that when he and my father were alone at night   they might occasionally fire up a joint. He had a record player at the foot of his bed, and my father was always very specific about which case Mac should go to, to pick out just the perfect record that he wanted him to hear.  That same music is what came out big-time for the holidays. It was Big Joe Turner maybe singing  "Still in Love," (Mac told me Pete Johnson’s piano playing on that was an important early influence for him) or maybe  “Love Roller Coaster” or "Don’t You Cry", or Gatemouth Moore singing Doc’s first recorded song “Love Doctor Blues,” or Jimmy Scott, Wynonie Harris, Big Maybelle etc. etc. Dad's favorite song was “Always,” written by the Jew, Irving Berlin, who also brought us “White Christmas.” After we exchanged our gifts, (Dad would open his with childlike enthusiasm) he would announce, “Lets get some Jew food!” And then, in the door from Fine and Shapiro, a Jewish deli up the street where he maintained an account, would come chopped liver, chicken in the pot, stuffed derma, calf's foot jelly, and kasha varnishkas. 

At which point he would proclaim: “Now, lets have some fun!”


"Don't You Cry" mp3
by Big Joe Turner, 1952.
available on All the Classic Hits 1938-52

"No One" mp3
by Doc Pomus, 1959.
available on It's Great to Be Young and in Love

"The Power and the Glory" mp3
by Benny Latimore, 1973.
available on The Early Years

"World I Never Made" mp3
by Dr. John, 2005.
available on Our New Orleans 

all photographs courtesy of Sharyn Felder