Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Did Kurt Cobain and Rod McKuen write songs together?


"I did some writing with Kurt Cobain," Rod McKuen says in the 2006 Dutch documentary Rod McKuen, A Man Alone. (He says it at 3:38 in the video below.)




That portion of the documentary also aired on American television when McKuen appeared on Patti Gribow's PG Show. (The statement in question is at 1:49.)

 

I was extremely surprised—incredulous, even—when I heard this claim that McKuen and Cobain wrote something together, so I tried to find out more about this very unusual alleged collaboration between 1960s/70s pop poet Rod McKuen and grunge icon Kurt Cobain. 

On his website, McKuen talks a little bit about Cobain but seems to contradict what he says in the video:

I was pleased that Kurt liked my work and the feeling was certainly mutual. He had a way of finding the unusual in every day things and writing about them in a very unique way. We had even kicked around the idea of writing something together. I had spoken with him on the telephone not long before his death so I was really stunned at the news. What a loss. To my way of thinking he was just beginning to find his legs as a songwriter.

The link between McKuen and Cobain is pretty tenuous, but a few examples exist, apart from their aforementioned telephone conversation.

Nirvana once half-assedly performed "Seasons in the Sun," a Jacques Brel song that McKuen adapted into English. The song was recorded by McKuen himself and the Kingston Trio in the 1960s but didn't become a hit until Terry Jacks recorded it in 1973. Cobain told interviewers that the song, which is sung from the perspective of a dying man, made him cry when he was a child, and Songfacts claims that Terry Jacks' version was the first record that the young Cobain ever bought. Nirvana's informal performance of "Seasons in the Sun" was included on the DVD that came with the 2004 Nirvana box set With the Lights Out.


Dave Grohl, in a satirical account of his first encounter with Cobain and Krist Novoselic, said, "Krist walked around with these poetry books by Rod McKuen, and Kurt would do interpretive dances while Krist recited Rod McKuen's poetry."

Charles R. Cross, in his book Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain, quotes a Boston Globe critic who described Nirvana's lyrics as "moronic ramblings by singer-lyricist Cobain, who has an idiotic tendency to sound like the Rod McKuen of hard rock." 

That's the extent of their "collaboration." I hate to question McKuen's veracity, but there's no evidence that he and Cobain ever wrote anything together.

Cobain wasn't the only indie-rock guy to harbor a strange fascination with Rod McKuen. Yours truly has a big collection of McKuen's albums, and I even corresponded with him briefly in the 2000s when I was trying to arrange for Collectors' Choice Music to reissue some of his recordings. (Gordon Anderson from Collectors' Choice later started Real Gone Music, which reissued McKuen's albums Listen to the Warm and Sold Out at Carnegie Hall in 2013.) And Aaron Freeman, AKA Gene Ween, recorded an entire album of Rod McKuen's songs, Marvelous Clouds, in 2012.

I wish that Cobain had stuck around to write some songs with Rod McKuen. Frank Sinatra and Glenn Yarbrough recorded entire albums of McKuen's songs, and Madonna co-wrote a song with McKuen, so Cobain would have been in good company.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gene Sullivan's "Please Pass the Biscuits" (1958)


Wiley Walker and Gene Sullivan

I saw that Acrobat Records in the UK recently released a four-disc box set called The Greatest Country Hits of 1958, and Gene Sullivan's "Please Pass the Biscuits" was the only song on it that I didn't already own. I was familiar with the song from Jimmy Dean's version, but I had never even heard Sullivan's version, even though it was a Top 10 country hit—and even though 1958 might be my favorite year for music. 

Before "Please Pass the Biscuits," Sullivan was half of the country duo Wiley & Gene with Wiley Walker. In 1940-41, the two of them wrote and recorded "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again," which Elvis Presley popularized in 1956. The group's only hit was "Make Room in Your Heart for a Friend," which was a #2 country hit in 1946. The Bronco Buster label in Germany released an anthology of Wiley & Gene's 1940s recordings, but it doesn't include "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again" for some reason. Unlike many acts from that period, Wiley & Gene wrote most of the songs they recorded.

In 1957, about a decade after the heyday of Wiley & Gene, Sullivan recorded a demo of a novelty song he wrote, "Please Pass the Biscuits," for Little Jimmie Dickens, who often recorded similar comedy songs, like "Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait." Columbia liked Sullivan's demo recording enough to release it as a Sullivan record instead of a Little Jimmy Dickens one, so Sullivan's version was released as Columbia 40971. I don't know if Columbia released Sullivan's demo or had Sullivan re-record it. It sounds like it could be a demo.

The song, which mixed singing and recitation, portrayed a hungry guy who "can't eat without bread" but can't get anyone to pass him the biscuits at suppertime. Despite his constant complaining, the kinfolks at the table eat all of the biscuits, and he never gets one.
 
A Columbia Records ad in September 1957 said that advance copies of Sullivan's record were making noise in Seattle. The song became a national Top 10 country hit on the Billboard chart soon afterward, where it remained well into 1958. In some cities, such as Birmingham, Alabama, it was a Top 5 hit. Sullivan's record also was released in Australia and New Zealand by the CBS Coronet label.



I don't think that Dickens actually recorded "Please Pass the Biscuits" in 1957; Columbia must have decided to release Sullivan's version before the song even got to Dickens. Bear Family Records in Germany released a box set of Dickens' complete 1950s Columbia recordings—released and unreleased—and "Please Pass the Biscuits" isn't on it.

In early 1958, Andre Williams, the R&B singer, recorded a cover of "Please Pass the Biscuits" for Fortune Records as "Pass the Biscuits Please." Williams even claimed composer credit for it. Sullivan wasn't credited on Williams' single at all. 

Jimmy Dean recorded the song in 1962 as the B-side of his single "Little Black Book." In Dean's version, a vocal chorus sings the singing part and Dean handles the recitation. I'm not a great fan of this song (even though I'm writing a whole blog post about it), but if I had to listen to it, I'd choose Dean's version.

The last recording of "Please Pass the Biscuits" that I know of is Norval & Ivy's 1967 recording for Imperial Records. Norval & Ivy were a duo of Jimmy Bryant and Red Rhodes, who recorded one album, Wingin' It With Norval & Ivy, which contained the group's version of "Please Pass the Biscuits." Their version is pretty similar to Jimmy Dean's.

Surprisingly, even though he scored a Top 10 country hit with "Please Pass the Biscuits," Sullivan never released a follow-up record. After his lone solo hit, he ran a music store in Oklahoma City and occasionally performed with Wiley, until Wiley died in 1966. After that, Sullivan performed occasionally as a solo act until he died in 1984.

Recitations—humorous ones and serious ones—were fixtures on the country music chart into the mid 1970s, but they're rare today. The last big year for recitations in country music was 1976, when both Jimmy Dean's "I.O.U." and Red Sovine's "Teddy Bear" cracked the country Top 10.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ronnie Malone's "Lightning Bug" (1958)




I got interested in Ronnie Malone while listening to the 1994 Buffalo Bop compilation Teenage Doll!, which is an anthology of rockabilly recordings by women. Malone isn't a woman, but his high-pitched voice must have made the compiler of Teenage Doll! mistake him for one. Malone was a 10-year-old boy when he recorded his best-known song, "Lightning Bug," which is the one that is included on the compilation.

"Best known" is relative, in this case, because none of Malone's records charted. But "Lightning Bug" has been included on at least two rockabilly compilations: Teenage Doll! and the 2002 compilation We're Gonna Rock on Collector Records. 

Malone's first single was "My Snow Man" b/w "It Had to Rain," the latter of which was recorded again for the same label in 1962 by the Catalina Six as "It Had to Rain Again." (In the linked video, you can also hear a snippet of Malone's recording of the song). "My Snow Man" was released on Ridgewood, New Jersey's Flagship Records in 1957.

Flagship was owned by Vincent and Julia Sardo and Julia's brother, Howard W. Brady, who also recorded for the label. In 1957, Flagship ran a weird ad in Billboard with a "public service" announcement from Vincent Sardo on cold prevention. Underneath, it advertised records by Lorrie Palmer, Howard W. Brady, and Ronnie Malone. "Watch 'My Snow Man'," it says.

When "My Snow Man" didn't become the seasonal hit everyone expected, Malone recorded a second single for Flagship that was listed but not reviewed or rated in the April 7, 1958, issue of Billboard.

The songwriting credits on both sides of the "Lightning Bug" single went to the Sardos. A group called the Teentones provided background vocals, and the Shipmates Orchestra provided the instrumentation. The arrangements were by Robert Wagschal, who also arranged Flagship's next release, "Ice Cream Baby" b/w "Pretty Little Woman" by Frank Triolo. (As an aside, in the comments of the linked video for "Ice Cream Baby," Clint Moore claims that he wrote the song in 1956 at the age of 12, but Frank Triolo and Robert Wagschal stole it.)

The weird thing about "Lightning Bug" is that Malone recorded it twice: Once for Flagship and a couple of months later for Judd, the label run by Jud Phillips, the brother of Sun Records' Sam Phillips. On the Flagship release, "Lightning Bug" was misspelled as "Lighting Bug," but the typo was corrected on the Judd release. 

Someone must have thought that "Lightning Bug" was promising enough to warrant re-recording and re-releasing both sides of the single within months of its first release. Unlike the Flagship single, the Judd single doesn't credit the Teentones and the Shipmates Orchestra. Billboard listed the single in its Nov. 10, 1958, issue but again did not review or rate it. The Flagship recording, not the Judd Recording, was included on Teenage Doll! and We're Gonna Rock.

"Lightning Bug" is reminiscent of the Collins Kids, a kiddie act who recorded a similar song in 1955 called "Beetle Bug Bop." The b-side of "Lightning Bug" is titled "Doodles Doo," so the Sardos were definitely plying Malone with juvenile material. 

Flagship Records continued to release records into the 1960s, but Malone didn't record again for Flagship or Judd. I couldn't find any information about his later activities.

Here are both versions of "Lightning Bug":



(Thanks to Frank Clemens for the scans and videos he uploaded, and for his notes on 45cat.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Mel Tillis and ammonia Coke


 
In his 1984 autobiography Stutterin' Boy, Mel Tillis briefly reminisces about his days as a teenage soda jerk, when he served up old-time refreshments like phosphates, fizzes, and... ammonia Cokes?

Drug store soda fountains used to add common ingredients like chocolate syrup and vanilla extract to Coca-Cola to create flavored Coke. Cherry, vanilla, chocolate, lemon, and peppermint were popular Coke flavorings.

The most unusual flavored Coke, by a mile, was ammonia Coke. It was a popular beverage in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly in the American South, and some outlets reportedly continued to offer ammonia Coke into the 1960s. Mel Tillis was a teenager in the 1940s, so that's when he was serving ammonia Coke to the people of Florida. (Mel was born in Dover, Florida.)

Ammonia Coke was regular Coca-Cola served over ice with a dash of aromatic spirit of ammonia. Aromatic spirit of ammonia is something you buy at a drugstore—it's not the ammonia in plastic gallon jugs that you find in the cleaning-supplies section of the grocery store. 



Ammonia Coke was alleged to have medicinal qualities, from relieving anxiety and headaches to jolting college students awake for all-night study sessions. It supposedly worked as an antacid and also counteracted the effects of a hangover. Some people drank it just because they liked the flavor. Even today, ammonia is a common flavoring in European salt licorice, so some portion of the world's population must like the flavor of ammonia.

Ingesting ammonia doesn't normally result in fatal poisoning, but it can cause irritation and burns. Very little ammonia was added to ammonia Coke, and aromatic spirit of ammonia is diluted to begin with, so drinkers were unlikely to suffer any immediate ill effects.


Mel Tillis' autobiography is the only music-related reference to ammonia Coke that I know of, but Coca-Cola was mentioned in popular songs occasionally in the 1940s and 1950s and more frequently thereafter. The most popular early recording that referenced Coke was the Andrews Sisters' 1945 hit "Rum and Coca-Cola." In the 1960s, dozens of popular artists performed Coca-Cola jingles, and many of these recordings were compiled on the anthology Things Go Better with Coke.

Here's Ray Stanley's 1957 recording of "Over a Coke," which features Eddie Cochran on guitar:




And here is the Ventures first record, "Cookies and Coke." It's a vocal tune that was released in 1959: