Category Archives: US pop songs

The war moved on as the USA took a hand

The United States had carefully kept out of the conflict in Europe while being helpful to the sufferers.  In 1917 the British intercepted and decoded a telegram from the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to Mexico urging that country to enter into war against the United States. The American states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico were to be offered to the Mexican government in return for such assistance.

On a wider front unrestricted U-boat warfare was renewed with all allied and neutral ships to be sunk on sight. Over the next month close to a million tons of shipping would be lost and on 3rd February the United States of America severed diplomatic ties with Germany.

As U.S. president, it was Woodrow Wilson who made the key policy decisions over foreign affairs: while the country was at peace, the domestic economy ran on a laissez-faire basis, with American banks making huge loans to Britain and France — funds that were in large part used to buy munitions, raw materials, and food from across the Atlantic. Until 1917, Wilson made minimal preparations for a land war and kept the United States Army on a small peacetime footing, despite increasing demands for enhanced preparedness.

On 24th February the Cunard passenger liner S.S. Laconia sailing from New York to Liverpool was sunk off the Irish coast by a German U-boat and, on 2nd April 1917, the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress and asked the House of Representatives to declare war on Germany and, on 6th April 1917, the United States of America declares war on Germany.  On 26th June 1917 the first U.S. troops, men of the 1st Division, begin to arrive in France.

In October, the first American soldiers entered combat, in France. That December, the U.S. declared war against Austria-Hungary with U.S. troops arriving on the Western Front in large numbers in 1918.  When the war concluded in November 1918, with a victory for the Allies, more than 2 million U.S. troops had served at the Western Front in Europe, and more than 50,000 of them died.

Looking at the American involvement from a different slant we find that they also brought their music with them!  The most significant song was “Over There“, a 1917 hit song written by George Cohan, that was popular with the United States military and public during both this and the 1939/45 war. It was a patriotic song designed to galvanize American young men to enlist in the army and fight the “Hun”. The song is best remembered for a line in its chorus: “The Yanks are coming.”

It was Cohan’s biggest hit recording and was performed by the American Quartet. The American Quartet consisted of Billy Murray, John Young, Steve Porter and Donald Chalmers and recorded the song on June 28, 1917. There were many singers singing ‘Over There’ –  Enrico Caruso’s version of Over There, sung partly in French, was a major hit just before the end of the war in November 1918.  By the end of the conflict the song had sold over a million records and two million copies of sheet music. George Cohan was awarded a medal of honour by Congress in 1936 for writing You’re a Grand Old Flag and Over There. His sequel to Over There, ‘When You Come Back (and You Will Come Back)’, was a hit for John McCormack and for the Orpheus Quartet in early 1919:

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.  Take it on the run, on the run, on the run.   Hear them calling you and me, Every Son of Liberty.  Hurry right away, no delay, go today.  Make your Daddy glad to have had such a lad.  Tell your sweetheart not to pine, To be proud her boy’s in line.

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun.  Johnny, show the “Hun” you’re a son-of-a-gun.  Hoist the flag and let her fly; Yankee Doodle do or die.  Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit.  Yankee to the ranks from the towns and the tanks. Make your Mother proud of you and the old red-white-and-blue.

Over there, over there, send the word, send the word over there that the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming – the drums rum-tumming everywhere.  So prepare, say a prayer, send the word, send the word to beware – we’ll be over, we’re coming over, and we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.

The conflict was over and the music did begin again.  The first – in 1918 – was ‘Tiger Rag’ by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  Close behind as the best from 1919 we have ‘After You’ve Gone’ by Marion Harris.

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The world is changing – and perhaps not for the better

It’s the second decade of the 20th century and the world continues to develop and change.

At this time Great Britain was at the centre of the world’s largest empire, a beneficiary of colonial resources and trade.  It occupied territory on four different continents and was at the centre of a vast trading and commercial empire.  However, domestically, 19th century Britain was often unsettled by demands for improved conditions and political reform.  British rulers had engaged in imperial expansion over the years but had sought to avoid war – a policy dubbed ‘splendid isolation’.  However – this policy approach was waning in the early 1900s as British interest concentrated on events in Europe, particularly the unification of Germany and the expansionist policies adopted by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

In the USA Sophie Tucker was singing of ‘Some of These Days’; Arthur Collins & Byron Harlan were telling us all about ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’.  We also have the American Quartet group singing  ‘Moonlight Bay’; Billy Murray telling the story of ‘Casey Jones’ while Al Jolson was singing ‘You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)’ to the US population at large.

By 1914 Britain was no longer the dominant economic power in Europe. It still had the world’s largest shipbuilding industry but in other areas such as coal, iron, chemicals and light engineering, Britain was being out-performed by Germany.

Britain was a constitutional monarchy under George V with a government formed by the majority party of the House of Commons with members being elected by some 8 million registered male voters. The aristocratic House of Lords had limited power to veto legislation.

Since the later part of the 19th century the British government had considered Germany to be the main threat to its empire. This was reinforced by Germany’s decision in 1882 to form a Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy – an alliance to support each other if attacked by either France or Russia.  France felt threatened by the Triple Alliance and was concerned by the growth in the German Navy and, in 1904, the two countries had signed the Entente Cordiale (friendly understanding) with the objective of the alliance was to encourage co-operation against the perceived German threat. Three years later Russia, who also feared the growth of the German Army, joined Britain and France – and the ‘Triple Entente’ was formed.

By August 1914, Britain had 247,432 regular troops. About 120,000 of these were in the British Expeditionary Army and the rest were stationed abroad. There were soldiers in all Britain’s overseas possessions except the white dominions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada.  The USA had no links with either side at this time.

Despite everything, there was music to generate some cheerfulness.  One such number was ‘Pack up your troubles in your old Kit Bag – and Smile, Smile, Smile’ written in 1915 by Welsh brothers Felix Powell – an army staff sergeant – and George Henry Powell who became a conscientious objector.  A later play presented by the National Theatre recounts how these music hall stars rescued the song from their rejects pile and re-scored it to win a wartime competition for a marching song.  In its many ways it became very popular and boosted British morale despite the horrors of that war. It was one of a large number of music hall songs aimed at maintaining morale, recruiting for the forces, or defending Britain’s war aims. Here are the words if you want to turn back those challenging times:

Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag, and smile, smile, smile. While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag, smile, boys, that’s the style.  What’s the use of worrying?  It never was worthwhile, so pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag, and smile, smile, smile.

Another of these songs, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ was so similar in musical structure that the two were sometimes sung side by side.

Music at an Art Fair that became a Festival

It’s Monday 18th August 1969 and the legendary Woodstock Music Festival – actually named as the ‘Woodstock Music & Art Fair’ – has come to an end.  Scheduled to run for three days on a New York dairy farm it has actually run for four and attracted an audience of more than 400,000 people – some with tickets – some without – with traffic jams for miles in every direction!

During a sometimes rainy weekend over 30 acts performed outdoors including the likes of Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Ravi Shankar.

The whole event then symbolized the 60s era of flower power; hippies; peace & love; marijuana and protests about the Vietnam War that is happening the other side of the world.  That ‘feeling’ remains still today to those that went to the Fair and those that wished that they had.

The newspapers of the day referred to the event as days and nights of ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’.  Later it was widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history.  This year – 2017 – the festival site has been listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.

 

We can ‘Rock Around the Clock’ BEFORE the USA!

It was on this day – Monday 12th April 1954 – that Bill Haley and the Comets recorded ‘Rock Around the Clock’.  It was a song written by Max Freedman and Jimmy Deknight. Bill Haley recorded it at the Decca studios. It wasn’t the first rock’n’roll song, and Bill Haley wasn’t the first to record it. But somehow his version caught the mood of the moment. It is considered to be the song that brought rock and roll into mainstream culture all over the world. The song went to Number One in the UK and USA, and it was Bill Haley’s biggest hit.  Many fans consider this band to be as revolutionary as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and they were most certainly the earliest group of white musicians to bring rock and roll to the attention of America and the rest of the world.

Bill had left Essex Records in the spring of 1954 and signed for Decca and the band’s first recording session was set for April 12, 1954 at the Pythian Temple studios in New York City. The recording session almost failed to take place because the band was traveling on a ferry that got stuck on a sandbar on the way to New York from Philadelphia. Once at the studio, producer Milt Gabler insisted that the band work on a song entitled “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)” that he wanted to promote as the A-side on the group’s first Decca single.  Near the end of the session, the band finally recorded a take of “Rock Around the Clock” but Bill’s vocals were drowned out by the band. A quick second take was made with minimal accompaniment.  Why the ‘minimal?’ – Sammy Davis Jr was waiting outside the studio for his turn behind the mike!

It is said that the Decca engineers later combined the two versions together into one version but Johnny Grande, the Comets piano player, tells a slightly different version, claiming that the only reason a second take was recorded was that the drummer made an error!

Whatever is the truth – ‘Rock’ took the lead with the ‘Thirteen Women’ on the flip side and ‘Rock around the Clock’ became the first of the group’s nine singles in the Top 20 between then and 1956.

Many musicians have claimed that they performed on the recording session for “Rock Around the Clock” but, according to the official record sheet from the session, the musicians on the famous recording were:  Bill Haley on vocals and rhythm guitar; Marshall Lyle on string bass; Franny Beecher on guitar; Joey Ambrose [aka Joey D’Ambrosio] on tenor saxophone; Billy Williamson on steel guitar; Johnny Grande on piano; Billy Gussak on drums and Danny Cedrone on electric guitar.

It was on Friday 9th July 1955 that “Rock Around the Clock” became the first rock and roll recording to hit the top of the US Billboard’s Pop charts, a feat it repeated on charts around the world.  On Billboard the song stayed at the top for eight weeks.

However – in the UK the record was released on Brunswick Records and reached number 17 on the UK Singles Chart in January 1955 – four months before it first entered the US pop charts!  This wasn’t the only entry it had in the UK because it re-entered the UK chart and hit number one in November 1955 for three weeks, dropped off the top for three weeks and then returned to the top for another two weeks in January 1956.  It made another re-entry in September 1956, reaching number 5. The track was re-issued in 1968 and made number 20, and again in 1974, when it reached number 12. The song’s original release saw it become the UK’s first million selling single and it went on to sell over 1.4 million copies in total!

My box of records

‘Do you really need to keep this box with all these records?’  The challenge so many of a certain age dread.

‘Of course I do.  They will be worth money in years to come.’  It’s a standard answer, but it cuts little ice.  Perhaps I should give the real reason – my teenage years are kept safe in this box.  Well, actually there are some other boxes around as well.  All full with 45rpm singles and EPs and LPs – oh – and some 78s!

Flipping through the contents the memories come flooding back.

There are all Elvis’ HMV releases here – starting with the May 1956 release of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.  Also here is the HMV 10” compilation LP that describes it as ‘that blues tinged opus in agony’.  For me these are still ‘real’ Elvis.

Matching these are the full set of singles from Buddy Holly and the Crickets – starting with ‘That’ll be the day’, the distinctive black Coral label with the push-out triangular centre still there – now held in place by some ancient white glue.

There’s Lonnie Donegan’s Decca EP, released while he was still with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band.  While the band had a break, Donegan and two/three of the band had jammed in a folksy style that leant on American Blues.  ‘Digging my Potatoes’ is typical of this cross-over and, as far as I can remember, was banned by the BBC because of its double entendre!  It was through these breaks that Skiffle was born – and Lonnie Donegan was the name that everyone remembered.

However – there are others here in my memory box.  Nancy Whiskey – the only female vocalist to make a break through – fronting Chas McDevitt’s skiffle group with ‘Freight Train’; Wally Wyton – later to become a fixture on the radio – and the Vipers with ‘Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O’ and ‘Streamline Train’.  Donegan had the bigger hit with ‘Daddy-O’ but I preferred the Vipers’ version.

The track, though, that made Donegan’s name was the US Country style ‘Rock Island Line’ that was released by Decca Records in January 1956.  While it made Donegan’s name it did not make him his fortune.  He was paid a flat recording fee – I believe it was £25!  The track was also released in the US – and it made the charts there as well.

There was, perhaps, another – unexpected – step in the popular success of ‘Rock Island Line’ and Lonnie Donegan himself; and that was a US funny man called Stan Freberg.  He’s in my box as well – well actually twice.  I have two disks with Stan’s fantastic version of ‘Rock Island Line’.  On the other side of one – the US version – is a take on Harry Belafonte’s ‘Banana Boat Song’.  The ‘British’ disc has Lonnie on one side but he has to put up with a take on Mr Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.  What a mix!

I think this is enough for today.  We’ll have another dip in my Records Box same day next week.

However – were you of this era?  Are my memories the same as yours?  If you & they are – why not let me know?

You can post your memories here or to my e-mail address of talkinghistory@msn.com