Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Ed Sullivan Show (1948 - 1973)

Fellow blogger and cyber-buddy Perplexio, publisher of two blogs, The Review Revue and Pieces of Perplexio, asked me to participate in a blog essay challenge posted by another blogger, pattinase, to write about our favorite TV shows. It’s an interesting proposition. However, despite my varied interests that include Major League Baseball and American History (especially the Revolution and World War Two eras), I never wanted this blog to be about anything but my main passion, music. So instead of writing about my all-time favorite shows that include All In The Family, M*A*S*H, The Sopranos, and very recently, AMC’s Mad Men I’m going to write about one of the most important shows in TV history, one of the most popular of my youth, and a show that was very important in the annals of pop music, The Ed Sullivan Show.

For those of you who don’t know, Sullivan’s show aired from the same theater that currently hosts The Late Show with David Letterman on Broadway in New York City. The program was on CBS from 1948 to 1973 and offered a lot of music even though it was a true variety program. Sullivan also featured comedians, dancers, magicians, acrobats, and even the occasional skit from Broadway plays.

Even though Southern sponsors and stations protested, without any hesitation Sullivan's show regularly included many Black performers, including comedians Bill Cosby and Flip Wilson, jazz all-stars Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, opera star Marian Anderson, Sly and the Family Stone, and Diana Ross and The Supremes who were guests well over a dozen times on his weekly "really big show." There were scores more.

During the program's heyday you could hear your favorite music on the radio, and see pictures of your favorite musical stars in magazines, but before PBS, cable, MTV, and the Internet it wasn’t easy to watch musicians play live unless you purchased a concert ticket. While most TV programs devoted to music often had the artists lip-synch to their own records, the otherwise very unhip host was somewhat revolutionary by allowing the biggest artists of their day to play music live. For most of us who came of age in the early days of the British Invasion the first and only time most of us saw a live performance of our favorite musical stars was on Sullivan’s Sunday night, CBS gig.

While music was only part of the hour-long extravaganzas, the show was an important stop for any musical act that wanted to generate a large audience. Local radio may have been able to play a particular record far more frequently but they could never deliver the monster exposure that even one appearance on the Sullivan show provided.

Sadly, The Ed Sullivan Show ended in the Spring of 1973. Unfortunately, because nobody knew at the time it would not be renewed for the following fall, there was no grand finale. The big three networks, most notably CBS, decided that simple ratings indicating the total number of viewers watching a program were no longer the best way to sell products to the audiences their sponsors coveted. Sullivan's audience was both dwindling and aging, so along with most of the network's other shows that failed to reach the right demographic, (mostly young, urban, and more educated professionals) the greatest variety show ever aired became history.

Musicians still perform live today on late night TV but there is little fanfare surrounding their appearances since those shows have much smaller audiences by percentage of viewers than Sullivan’s early evening time slot.

The only words left to say about The Ed Sullivan Show are the ones George Carlin uttered to end one of his monologues about the host: "Thanks Ed."

Here are some Sullivan live musical highlights:

The first time almost all Americans saw The Beatles was on their now famous Sullivan performance on February 9, 1964.

Elvis Presley’s career received a huge boost amid a controversy that developed because of The King’s hip gyrations that offended many.

The Doors were requested to change a controversial line of "Light My Fire." "Girl, we couldn't get much higher," was to be replaced with "Girl, we couldn't get much better." After Jim Morrison sang the lyrics as originally written the morally conservative Sullivan refused to shake the quartet's hands after they played. Morrison and the band were never invited back.

At the host’s request, The Rolling Stones did change "Let’s Spend The Night Together" to "Let’s Spend Some Time Together" thereby staying in Sullivan’s good graces.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Justin Levinson - Predetermined Fate (2009)

While singer-songwriter Justin Levinson, a Burlington, Vermont native, is not a household name he has started to generate some heat in New England and beyond. Levinson has won songwriting awards from Boston's famed Berklee College of Music as well as the award for Best New Male Artist of 2007 from the International Acoustic Music Awards. Predetermined Fate, his third CD of original material, shows us why.

Levinson's latest disc falls firmly into the country-rock genre and makes full usage of harmonicas, steel guitars, and fiddles along with the usual piano, electric rock guitar, and drums. His voice fits the material well and his arrangements are always mainstream yet eclectic. He writes intelligent lyrics without getting obscure so his eleven tunes are all highly accessible. Many of his self-written songs discuss the serious side of life and love. However, his often brisk arrangements prevent them from wallowing too deep in the quicksand of self pity that so many of his peers become mired in with predictable regularity.

Predetermined Fate is front loaded with the CD's best songs. "Everything's About You," the lyrically great "Bandaid On A Bullet Wound," "Hopelessness," and "Losing You To Tennessee" are the highlights of this thirty-seven minute disc that is concise enough not to wear out its welcome.

Kudos to Levinson who proves once again that fame and talent often do not meet at the musical fork in the road.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Diane di Stasio - Silent Night (Jimi Hendrix Mix)

In April I highly praised Diane di Stasio, an opera singer with a phenomenal voice who is taking her chances with rock and pop music on Vox Eterna, her debut CD. In May di Stasio gave Bloggerhythms an online interview that revealed much about her musical goals. Her operatic influenced vocals combined with the disc's rock arrangements give it an elegant edginess that is totally captivating.

Every Christmas I try to present music most people haven't heard before. So, as the holiday season approaches, let's listen to di Stasio's performance of "Silent Night" (Jimi Hendrix Mix) featuring her guitarist Brennan Smiley who plays a huge roll on both her CD and concerts. This video, originally posted as part of the interview in which she explains her thoughts about combining the two wildly different musical genres, is a unique take on this much loved Christmas carol.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Bob Dylan - Christmas In The Heart (2009)

I believe it's an easy assumption that lead vocals play a huge part in determining whether a listener enjoys a particular song or artist. This is particularly true of the more casual music fan. I remember a Philadelphia DJ making that same statement a few years ago while discussing 90s alt-rock band, Counting Crows. He said whether a listener is a fan of the band or not depends almost exclusively on how he or she views the voice of lead singer Adam Duritz. If you don’t find his vocals appealing the band is generally not your cup of tea regardless of whatever songwriting talent or musical chops the rest of the band may possess. I thought it ironic that Counting Crows was the band he used as an example because I've been quite opinionated about disliking Duritz's voice. I wrote the band off my list years ago for the sole reason I find his singing to be highly grating.

Most conventional pop music singers from the birth of recording to the dawn of rock and roll tended to sing, with only a few notable exceptions such as Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, with a melodic smoothness typically exemplified by stars like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

As music evolved so did the voices that accompanied the more modern sounds. Elvis Presley's powerful voice suited his early rock, as well as gospel, country, and even the Vegas lounge music he performed later. Would Presley be considered a good vocalist in the days of the big bands or would his more flamboyant and powerful vocals have been too much for listeners who were used to Sinatra, Crosby, and Perry Como?

Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the All Music Guide wrote the following on the online music site’s biography of Bob Dylan, "As a vocalist, he broke down the notion that a singer must have a conventionally good voice in order to perform, thereby redefining the vocalist's role in popular music." Erlewine is correct. Without Dylan’s groundbreaking success Tom Waits wouldn't have had the recording career he has enjoyed, nor would Marianne Faithful's later career received any attention, nor would have Duritz, and scores of other artists who attempt to vocalize on their records.

Why are so many people willing to listen to Dylan's voice because, no matter how you slice it, the man can not sing a lick? Is it because he offers us a lot more than just vocals and he therefore has acquired a license to express himself in ways a traditional vocalist can't? Does his less than attractive voice escape criticism because he is also recognized as an outstanding rock poet?

Is Dylan worth listening to if he only plays the part of a singer? It's a chance the folk-rock pioneer takes with the release of his Christmas CD, Christmas In The Heart. Listening to the songwriting icon cover hard to sing carols and songs such as "O Come All Ye Faithful," "The Christmas Song," The First Noel," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," can be excruciating. Dylan needs to remain the artist he has always been and leave the vocalizing to those who can. He was not born just to be a singer.

It's important to note that all of the proceeds from Christmas In The Heart are going to fight hunger in America this holiday season, and that is a very good thing, so I don't want to be too critical of the man. However, his disc makes me pose this question to all music lovers: what makes a good singer?