Nooks and Crannies in the Field of Light Music
An article by William Zucker
In the course over the years of collecting recordings of light music, reading books on the subject, or looking at YouTube postings, I became aware of the fact that exactly as with serious music, there are segments of this repertoire that remain unknown even to interested specialists, for which there are historically many reasons. Before going into these, I have to first point out that all forms of music, whether light or serious, are received by their recipients in widely divergent manners.
Some listen to these selections of whatever genre very attentively, carefully noting the various features and details along the way while others simply submerge themselves in a wash of sound without attending any further to the source, and be it noted, this latter method of reception, for want of a better word, may occur in more serious forms of music as well, particularly with the more impressionistic variety, exemplified by such composers as Debussy and Delius but not necessarily limited to those.
Without going further afield, I would like to examine the reasons why much of the music of the light music variety has remained a virtual closed book to many exploring this field. I should hasten to add a disclaimer that if any of my assumptions given herein are incorrect for any reason, I will welcome any explanatory comments to clarify any issues that I have raised. Also, I should point out that there may be a degree of overlap between the various categories that I have outlined below.
1 - Released on other than First Rank Labels. - If an artist recorded for other than one of the big name record labels, the chances are that he did not receive the same degree of promotion and publicity as might otherwise have been the case, so that many artists recording under such auspices might in time fall by the wayside, forgotten even to the specialist, regardless of any intrinsic merit in what the artist has produced.
One such artist who immediately comes to mind is Domeinco Savino, who was a venerated composer and arranger of light music selections well known and appreciated during the late 1930's through the early 1950's, composing music for films in addition. His recordings under his own name appeared on the Kapp label, which was in existence for a number of years but hardly to be described as front rank. Later on, some further selections of his appeared on the Camden label which was RCA Victor's budget label given to recordings that previously appeared under the artist's name but apparently for contractual reasons were given a "nom de disc" although alert record collectors could shrewdly guess the real names of the performers and orchestras.
In the case of Mr. Savino, he recorded for this Camden label using the name "David Whitehall," although anyone already familiar with his work on the Kapp label would immediately recognize his style and manner. In this opinion, the arrangements and many original compositions to be heard from these sources are of exemplary quality and are thoroughly recommendable. His masterpiece is undoubtedly a suite of selections entitled "Portraits of Italy," contained in a complete album, which by all odds should be listened to from beginning to end and not excerpted. Unfortunately, much of his accomplishments lie almost totally forgotten today. On YouTube one can catch a single solitary selection from one of his Kapp albums, indicating how interest in his work has unjustly waned over the years.
The Camden label also offered an album of rather ancient vintage, judging by the sound quality, of some wonderful selections presented by Dolf van der Linden which today have virtually disappeared from sight. I have had occasion to refer to some of the selections from this album in a recent article on this site; "Differing Versions of the Same Set Light Music Selections."
2 - Format Never Updated. - Many selections during the 1940's and early 1950's released as 45 or 78 RPM singles or albums of such singles under one bound album never made it to a 33 1/3 LP format or later type of presentation, but rather remained in their original format and thus unperpetuated for the benefit of later listeners and even interested specialists in light music. It covers a vast area, and regrettably, Reuben Musiker, in his otherwise excellent book on the subject of light music, declined to cover it, although in his defense, I would own that it is excessively large in extent; however, this omission would appear to accentuate the problem.
I will run quickly over some of the items that at this point would be overlooked by listeners and interested specialists of today.
Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler - three singles came out during the early 1950's featuring selections that never made it to LP despite their considerable merit, consisting of "Delicado" (Azevedo) with "Francesca" (Feller), "No Strings Attached" (Hayman) with "Wing Ding" (Singer), and "Song from Moulin Rouge" (Auric) with "Doo-Wacka-Doodle" (Singer). Three of these selections competed directly with versions by others which may have some bearing; nevertheless, all these settings were sufficiently outstanding in themselves to warrant greater familiarity, despite popularity charts extolling their competition.
Camarata - I refer here to the entire group of recordings he made on the London/Decca label, which existed in a singles album of 45/78 RPM discs, but were never transferred to LP. Although many of those in this group touched a more serious genre, the selections of interest here are Leroy Anderson's "Fiddle Faddle" in what may have been the piece's very first recording, along with Mr.Camarata's own "Rumbalero," "Rhapsody for Saxophone," and "Fingerbustin'," as well as Landes nee Hamner's "The Breeze," and an exemplary if drastically abbreviated version of Toye's "The Haunted Ballroom." None of these selections are in common currency today amongst light music specialists. On the American Decca label, there is one single disc I would mention: Mr. Camarata's own "The Fluter's Samba" with "Cuban Nightingale." Both of these selections use a chorus which adds to their attractiveness but neither has ever made it into an LP album to be perpetuated from the time they appeared.
David Rose - It may be surprising that this figure would even fall into this category, as virtually everything that he recorded, even his early attempts on RCA Victor, made it into an LP album or else some subsequent compilation, but nevertheless, there in fact are some recordings he made from his early MGM days that have faded into total oblivion, for no conceivable reason I can imagine. These were Friml's "Song of the Vagabonds" which wound up missing from just about every listing of his recordings; "Misirlou," made at about the same time, fared little better. Both of these are noteworthy arrangements that have deserved a better fate than virtual disappearance from catalogue listings and consequently, accessibility.
Victor Young - Some time during the 1930's or 1940's - hopefully I can obtain at some point an accurate date - Mr. Young collaborated with a lyricist, Edward Heyman, to produce a musical entitled "A La Carte." The musical excerpts from this production appeared in an album of single 78 RPM discs. One of the selections from this production, entitled "There's No Man Like A Snowman," has endeared itself to me to the point that I've thoroughly familiarized myself with it and can perform it handily. Unfortunately, here too it is a case of what I consider thoroughly meritorious material having never made it into an LP recording so that its perpetuation would be enabled.
Percy Faith - One disc here comes to mind - "Amorada" (original recording) with "Funny Fellow," a curious omission from any album of his exemplary work from his earlier years, especially when virtually everything else he recorded has been preserved in LP and subsequent albums.
Henri Rene - His wonderful setting of Pryor's "The Whistler and His Dog" I have had occasion to mention a few times already, tragically having fallen totally out of sight in the world of light music.
Mantovani - Here I refer to the numerous single discs he came out with in the earliest part of his career, which I will cover under the next category.
3 - Overshadowed by More Spectacular Accomplishments - In many cases, an artist commands attention for some factor in his work that tends to divert attention away from other and often equally if not more meritorious accomplishments, a situation in all parts of the musical field, with serious as well as light music that is far from uncommon.
Many years ago, I was conversing with a colleague in the serious field who happened to express an interest in light music of the sort under discussion (and who was enthusiastic about Robert Farnon in particular). I happened to bring up Mantovani in conversation, and his expression immediately changed, thinking almost reflexively of the cascading strings effect which has eternally been associated with Mantovani's name. It was a feature that he was less than enthusiastic about, and I must say that I am hardly a fan of it myself, finding it rather campy and even mawkish. My colleague was very surprised to find out about this artist's earlier recordings, made before he adopted that effect, and I encouraged him to listen to as many of those as he could lay his hands on, as I still do today to other light music specialists.
These early recordings to which I refer were all available here in the USA at the time they were released, although many listeners, apparently distracted by the novel string effect featured in the recordings that came out later, virtually ignored the earlier ones unjustly despite their considerable merit. A few of them did make it into LP albums but many did not, ultimately rendering them a closed book to those who would explore this field. Some dozen singles (including a few that were on 12" discs) were released during the late 40's and early 50's falling into this category - the list of selections is too large for a detailed listing to be provided here, but upon request I will be happy to furnish specifics.
It was almost a parallel situation with George Melachrino, with whom listeners automatically think of the Melachrino Strings, completely overlooking that many recordings he made used a full orchestra; moreover, he was a respectable composer of light music selections in his own right, as was Mantovani. However, in Melachrino's case, a good many of his singles remained on the HMV label and were not taken over into the American Victor catalogue, as a result of which they were never released in this country, quite unlike the situation with Mantovani. I was able to obtain for myself a very small number of these HMV singles from a specialty record store, but that aside, these recordings remained largely inaccessible here, many remaining unmissed, as most sought out the purely string selections. But one record dealer I visited happened to have an HMV catalogue on hand, and he permitted me to hand copy the listing of Melachrino HMV recordings, there being no copy machines in those days. The list I had thus assembled remained for me as a source of reference for many years.
Most of us when we hear the name of Victor Young automatically bring to mind the numerous film scores that he composed, but not many are aware today that he was a consummate composer and arranger of light music selections. And amongst this latter, not all of these were necessarily for strings alone as may be supposed; in quite a few of them a full orchestra including woodwinds and brass were featured. Here too my list is too extensive to include, but once again I would be more than happy to furnish specific details if requested.
The name Alfred Newman is even more firmly tied with Hollywood film scores, yet he did make a few recordings with an aggregate described as the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra in other genres, most of them of selections more in the serious field. However, two selections for me stand out - his rendition of Lecuona's "Malaguena" is one of the best performed that I know of, and I have mentioned a few times his presentation of Benjamin's "Jamaican Rhumba" in an arrangement by Herb Spencer and Earle Hagen that for me surpasses in interest even the composer's own original setting, let alone the complete transformation of the piece by Percy Faith which is in a category of its own.
Mr. Newman also wrote a piece entitled "Street Scene," which exists in two transmogrifications. The traditional one is far flung and goes through various vividly emotional episodes, and which may be heard in a recording by Morton Gould in his album "Manhattan Moods," and as I have done many times before, I advise the listener to stick with Mr. Gould's original recording on Columbia. However, I vastly prefer the simpler and more sedate setting for strings alone, under the title of "Street Scene - A Sentimental Rhapsody," which may be heard in a recording conducted by Mr. Newman himself. It first appeared in the late 1940s, and was a true classic in its day, but who even among light music enthusiasts is even slightly familiar with it nowadays?
4 - Overshadowed by the Work of Other Artists. - Many of us when dealing with serious classical music, whether we are professionals, amateurs, or simply lay listeners, tend to naturally give first attention to the big names - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc., and in more recent times perhaps Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and I could name a host of others. But if we delve further, going past masters of the second rank (remember that relative ranking is in the province of the individual listener of some experience), we come upon names of composers of genuine merit whose work has unfairly remained a closed book to most, such as Berwald, Svendsen, Halvorsen, Dohnanyi, Weiner, Glazunov, D'Indy, Finzi, Chadwick.
The same is true in the light music field. We automatically think of names like Leroy Anderson, Robert Farnon, Morton Gould, Andre Kostelanetz, David Rose and Percy Faith, and here too we could name several more of whom we might consider the big guns, so to speak. But again, if we dig a bit deeper, we will similarly find music of individuals that have remained largely unfamiliar, though their music might be found to be quite rewarding if one would take the trouble to explore further. The chief problem in many such cases is that they were not prolific and did not contribute much material that has remained available to us. It is in specific cases like this that the Guild series "The Golden Age of Light Music, " can become genuinely beneficial in promoting the work of these lesser known names, by the use of the existing format for such presentations. (I have always opted for single artist recordings for those artists whose contributions have been more voluminous.)
One such name that comes immediately to mind is that of Frank Perkins, whose light music contributions are of a very high quality and which I would readily recommend to enthusiasts of this music, especially to those in the UK who might not have been exposed to it, as this artist was a New Englander and worked entirely within the USA, so that in all likelihood his discs did not travel internationally as much as might be desired.
His song, "Stars Fell on Alabama," became immensely popular would appear to have overshadowed much else that he accomplished. The instrumental selection "Fandango" was also quite well known, though possibly not in his own setting (the Hugo Winterhalter version which made the charts, was quite decent even if widely different from the composer's own). But I would like to mention a 10" LP album "Premiere," which featured eight of his original compositions, perfectly matched so that this album can be enjoyed and listened to from beginning to end (the 12'' expanded LP album broke this continuity somewhat, which is why I refer to and prefer the original smaller format and smaller number of selections offered).
I personally find that this music is not something I have to be in a special mood to listen to, as is the case with the "big guns" I referred to at the beginning of this section. Here the music, while still containing much substance and very far from being superficial or anything like an empty background wash of sound, nevertheless offers its wares with a much lighter touch so that one can feel completely comfortable with it regardless of mood or state of mind. Those I named above would by comparison tend to dig a bit deeper into our sensibilities, almost to the degree of serious, classical music.
One of the many composers whom Dolf van der Linden featured in his numerous recordings was one Emile Deltour, known through Dolf's recordings of his "Fiddles and Bows" and "Polka for Strings" and a few other selections. Not generally known is the fact that Mr. Deltour made a light music album of his own, entitled "Continental Merry-Go- Round," which displayed the same engaging quality in the selections offered that we have come to expect from Dolf.
Norman Greene is a name virtually unknown to light music enthusiasts, and this artist produced extremely few recordings, easily to be overlooked and lost in the shuffle. There was a 10" LP album on an obscure label - Rexford - entitled "Colors by Greene," which consisted of simply routine arrangements of popular standards whose titles bore the names of colors. It was not successful in my opinion; nevertheless this artist still rates mention for a lone single produced on the MGM label with "Blue Porcelain" by Alex Alstone - an incredibly beautiful setting - coupled with Mr. Greene's own "Suspicion," a selection very attractive in its forcefulness and purposefulness. This is another item that should be included in the Guild series, "The Golden Age of Light Music."
And finally, an extremely obscure item that could easily be swept under the rug - I would have overlooked it myself if not for the fact that radio stations back in the 1950s were playing selections from this album, entitled "Musical Notes from a Tourist's Sketch Book," performed by an aggregate entitled, "The World Symphony Orchestra," conducted by one H. J. Lengsfelder. This recording had everything going against it in perpetuation despite the engaging qualities of some of the selections - the conductor and his orchestra being virtually unknown, the relatively small amount of material the group released, the far out of center record label - Request - and the generally meagre sound quality of the recording itself. However, I mention it because one of the selections in the album, frequently exposed in radio broadcasts, was a rather attractive piece entitled "The Typewriter Concerto,"which I will hasten to mention well predated Leroy Anderson's iconic selection, and may well have been the very first to use a typewriter within an orchestra. In my opinion, it does not deserve to take a back seat simply because Anderson's piece is so well known, as it has its own notable qualities.
5 - Inaccessibility. - Most of the factors here have already been covered in some way in previous articles, so that in a sense this is a summing up. I refer to the items from the Chappell Mood Library, many of which could be heard in radio broadcasts of programs of light music or as television signature themes or background music for documentaries. With a very few exceptions, exemplified by three albums of selections performed by the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra released in the USA under the titles "Concert of Popular Music," "Invitation to Romance," and "Very Very Dry," this material was not made commercially available to interested listeners. The three albums I mentioned were for me almost a tease, as from their content I was desperately anxious to obtain more from their source which of course was not forthcoming at the time. For my part, by continual listening to radio broadcasts of light music and noting the various uses on television such as signature themes and in documentaries, I became acquainted with many of these selections, and it was by happy chance that on some occasions I happened to stumble over opportunities to obtain further details such as name and composer.
In one case, a signature theme on television attracted me to such an extent ("Ecstasy" by Felton Rapley, as it turned out), that I decided to call the station to obtain such details, and was given the name of the selection and simply told that it was a Chappell recording. I guessed the composer by comparing it with his better known "Romantic Rhapsody" which I was already familiar with, but it seems a really sorry state of affairs that this was only available to radio and television broadcasting stations but not to the general public until only very recently. This situation is being slowly rectified today as the Chappell vaults are being dipped into bit by bit.
I had occasion above to mention the HMV recordings by George Melachrino that were never released in this country even though local radio stations here were continually broadcasting them on programs of light music despite their general commercial unavailability. But one could probably give plenty of other examples of recordings that for some reason did not travel in either direction across the Atlantic (and by the way, this would include the European continent as well), and if I thought about it for a while, I could probably come up with specific examples here as well. The overall point I am making is that these recordings were completely available to broadcasting companies for their own uses, and could be broadcast to the public, but not commercially released to the public in any manner or form, although some specialty record shops did have their own means of laying their hands on some of them for possible sale to interested purchasers.
This generally covers my survey of items within the light music repertoire that have remained obscure and largely unknown even to interested specialists. It covers a large area and as a consequence I could not hope to touch on everything or present anything that could be regarded as near complete. I will offer any apologies if any of my readers know of some items of this nature that I have not mentioned herein.
As always, I will welcome any comments. I have to very regretfully reflect that if I chanced to have written this article a few years ago, when David was still active at the helm of the RFS, he could have offered me some valuable insights into many of the issues I have raised. But it is only within the last month that I conceived of this idea and decided to put it in writing.
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