September marks 15 years since Randy Van Horne passed away. I can hear many of you imitating an owl. Who? Yet you know Van Horne even if you think you don’t. Did you watch The Flintstones or The Jetsons as a kid? Those theme songs, among others, were sung by the Randy Van Horne Singers. The group also sang in TV and radio commercials.
Van Horne was born in 1924 in El Paso, Texas. He was a World War II veteran, studied music after the war, became a session musician, and started the Van Horne Singers in the late 1950’s following the breakup of his first group, The Encores. Known for their easy listening but uplifting compositions and singing, the group recorded several albums including a collaboration with Esquivel. The group performed on a few national television shows and member Marni Nixon later became a break-out solo artist. Original member Thurl Ravenscroft became the voice of “Tony the Tiger” and was the uncredited singer on You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.
By the early 1970’s the group had dissolved, only to be revived by Van Horne in early 2000. The New Randy Van Horne Singers formed to keep his legacy alive. Earlier this year, some in the group lent their composing and vocal talents to the jingle for my Internet radio station, Wind Chime Radio. I was fortunate enough to connected with several of the members via email to find out more about the group, the music, and the man. Below are their collective answers reported by group member Lynn Keller.
Peter: What made the original Van Horne Singers different from other vocal groups at that time?
Lynn: There were a number of popular quartets and singing groups at the time that Randy’s singers performed. What made his group unique is that he used some of the best session singers in Hollywood and he did his own arranging. Randy’s arrangements were unique as his style was to often write tight, 8-part vocal harmonies that were designed to sound like the different sections of a full 17-piece big band. This means the quality of the vocals often mirrored the trumpets, trombones in tempo, color and dynamics. Singers vocally produce the different sections of the band. Additionally, singers are accustomed to 4-part singing or soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (SATB,) arrangements. Having 8-part singing means the vocal lines are closer together so there is more chance of dissonant harmonies among the sections. Randy used the top session singers who were prolific at reading charts, as his unique style brought often unexpected notes and dynamics to a vocal part.
Peter: What was the appeal of this music back in the day and why did it decline?
Lynn: Randy worked with Hanna Barbera arranging The Flintstones and other cartoon themes; these familiar themes have become part of our collective pop culture. The themes were memorable and were connected to popular TV shows. Randy’s group was also featured on TV variety shows with guest performances on the Nat King Cole Show and Mel Torme’s show for example. When the variety shows became too expensive and challenging to produce there were fewer options for Randy’s music to be heard by a wider audience. However, during these years he continued to product albums with a number of noteworthy artists. Finally, the music itself (the great American Songbook) and much of the music of the 1st [half] of the 20th century became less popular with the advent of rock and other forms of popular music. Here is a list of Randy’s recordings:
The Clef Dwellers, RCA Victor LPM-1751
Sing a Song of Goodman, MGM SE-3720; 1958
Sleighride, Everest SDBR-1112; 1960
Rollin’ West Everest SDBR-1071; 1960
Swingin’ Singin’ RCA LPM-1321
The March of the Regiment, Everest 19399
Moments to Remember, Sunset SUS-5151
Our Magic Moments Everest SDBR-1089; 1961
This list does not include selections from albums produced by other artists with Van Horne’s singers.
Peter: Is it true the original group sang on Bob Thompson’s RCA albums and on Martin Denny’s “Afrodesia” album? And that they were occasional backup singers for Dean Martin and Mel Torme?
Lynn: We often hear that his group was featured on different variety shows. We have verified their appearance on the following shows: Nat King Cole, Mel Torme. I’m not sure about Dean Martin. The members of the group like Marni Nixon, Gene Merlino, Marilyn King, Harry Middlebrooks, Sue Allen and more were back-up singers and overdub singers on many albums. It’s difficult to track down all of their jobs because they didn’t get credits.
Peter: How many singers are in the new group vs. the original group and what is the age range?
Lynn: The original group had a minimum of 8 singers. Randy reformed the group in the early 2000’s. Since that time the number of singers in the group has varied. In the early 2000’s there were about 20 singers then the number went up and down. Since the pandemic, there are somewhere around 8-10 which varies with singer’s comfort with singing in a group.
Peter: I know it changes but I’d like to identify the group’s current line-up.
Lynn: COVID has reduced our ranks for the time being. We have the following folks currently performing with our group:
1st Sopranos Lorelei Finch, Franny McCartney
2nd Soprano Lynn Keller
1st Alto Sara Taylor (Our newest member with an impressive background)
Tenor, Alan Wilson (Also conductor,) John Schroeder
Baritone, Bill Havis
Bass, Steve Grant, Michael Alexander
Piano Accompanist, Marty Rosen
Peter: The group may have changed over the years, but when and how did the new group form?
Lynn: Randy brought the group together and directed it. When he retired from the group, he asked Alan Wilson to conduct. New group members are recruited sometimes from the audience when the group does shows. Often singers ask if they can join the group. Also, occasionally members are recruited from singer’s networks.
Peter: What’s the new group’s mission?
Lynn: We continue to perform Randy’s music and to produce shows that reflect his style. Over time we have added other arrangers- Anita Kerr and Ed Lojeski to name a few. We do themed shows so we often perform music that fits a theme and we add music accordingly. Additionally, our shows include solos, duets, quartets and other songs that require different combinations of singers. We follow our theme, but always include Randy arrangements.
Peter: In general, what’s the background of the members?
Lynn: Singers should have live performance experience and they should be able to read music. One of our strengths is that we care about and respect each other. This comes across when we perform. Audiences often say they appreciate our ability to connect with them and that we demonstrate our love for what we are doing in our shows.
Peter: When you sing live are you typically accompanied with just a piano?
Lynn: Yes, we always use piano accompaniment. This presents a challenge because Randy’s music isn’t that easy to play.
Peter: Have you ever taken any contemporary songs or pop hits and Van Horne-ized them?
Lynn: No, but we use other arranger’s charts. We also strive to stay true to Randy’s musical ideas and don’t make changes to his work. We apply the rule of staying true to whatever arranger’s ideas we select so we don’t modify their music. We perform it as it was intended. For example, recently we used TV theme shows in a performance entitled “We Love To Laugh”. We incorporated themes like “Gilligan’s Island,” and “The Addam’s Family,” replicating the music as the themes were performed in the TV show
Peter: Does the group have a favorite original Van Horne non-Christmas song they like performing?
Lynn: We love a few of them. “The Hucklebuck” is a fun arrangement that bounces around quite a bit. We have typically done it in shows. Additionally, many of Randy’s charts include sections where the vocals sound like different instruments of the orchestra. We practice these sections so we do in fact sound like the different sections of the orchestra. We also regularly perform “My Blue Heaven,” “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” and “My Foolish Heart, (a ballad).” These are all great Randy arrangements.
Peter: Are there members who can speak to what it was like to work with Van Horne?
Lynn: Yes, some of us have stories about Randy and his ways. We share them regularly. 3-4 of us worked with him directly, me included. He was much like many arrangers. They continue to “tinker” with their music. He would make changes to his charts nearly every week and tell stories about his experiences. He loved to hear the recordings of his music so we often sang to them to get the feel and nuance of how they were originally performed. He told us stories about his life. For example, for a period he made his living writing jingles. Sometimes he would have 30 minutes to write a jingle and then hand it to the singers so they could learn it on the spot. It would be recorded at the same time. He spoke of how challenging it was and the pressure he felt.
Randy handed the baton to Alan Wilson a year or so before he passed. Alan is a fabulous tenor and had extensive background in choral groups. Randy had a lot of confidence in Alan’s ability to carry his legacy forward.
Peter: Is the new group active mainly during the holiday season?
Lynn: We are active year-round. Whenever we can do a show, we try to do it more than once. It takes a lot of effort to coordinate the music, the singers, the accompaniment, the sound and other aspects of a fully-produced show. Before the pandemic we were doing 5-6 shows per year. This included 1-2 shows during the holidays. The pay-off for all of us is the joy of doing the music before a live audience. There’s nothing better!
Peter: Do you hope to record an album in the future?
Lynn: Currently, there is no plan to do an album. However, we do videotape our shows and sometimes share them on YouTube.
Peter: Do you think Van Horne would be pleased with your group?
Lynn: Yes, he would be happy that his music lives on. Over the years, he continued to re-invent the group. I believe this is a clear testament to him wanting to keep the music alive. We are also in touch with his son and his son continues to support our efforts.
Peter: What are the individual projects some of you have been/are involved in?
Lynn: We all have prior performance experience. Some of us sing with bands, some have CD’s, some sing in church choirs or other singing groups. Some of us have been background singers with famous performers. In these cases, the singers have been on the road with the popular artists like Bette Midler, Tanya Tucker, Glenn Campbell, Elvis, etc.
Peter: What music have some of you been listening to lately?
Lynn: Our members are familiar with all types of music and often refer to pop music. As a genre, many of us appreciate selections from the Great American songbook so we tend to listen to current and vintage recordings of this music. However, it’s safe to say that we pull music from all types of genres.
Peter: How was it to work on the jingle for Wind Chime Radio?
Lynn: It was challenging and it was fun. We wanted to get the idea of wind chimes in the recordings. We experimented with the accompaniment to increase the authenticity and finally chose the vibes as the accompaniment because they sounded more like chimes than the piano. It was a kick to do original music for the radio.
Peter: Any final thoughts?
Lynn: We are looking forward to rebuilding the group once the pandemic is well behind us. We just added a new member and will do more recruiting when potential members and prior members are more comfortable singing in a group.
Harry Randell Van Horne passed away at the age of 83 on September 26, 2007 in Los Angeles. He was active almost until the end, leading a big band that performed around Los Angeles.
My profound thanks to New Randy Van Horne member Lynn Keller for coordinating the responses to my questions and to her and the group’s superb work on the Wind Chime Radio jingle.
Trivia (provided by the New Randy Van Horne Singers):“A fun fact is that the original singers were each paid $50 at the time for the recording of The Flintstones theme….no other payments or royalties were provided!”
Album Spotlights focus on specific (usually vintage) albums. Album Spotlight articles will pop-up randomly. There might be another Spotlight next month or six months from now. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects the Album Spotlight!
My Album Spotlights typically focus on vintage albums. In this Spotlight I focus on Wamono Groove, a compilation album released in January of this year, technically making it a new release. However, its contents are anything but. Like amber containing flesh from prehistoric creatures, the rare recordings Wamono Groove preserves in its polyvinyl chloride are significant. To be more specific, it’s a collection of funky jazz from 1976 with the primary instruments being Japanese. I admit it sounds odd, but would you expect anything less from me?
Honestly, I don’t recall how I became acquainted with this particular title, but I’m very glad I did. The music is a throwback and the Japanese influence gives it a refreshing twist. Wamono Groove features 3 giants of Japanese music: Arranger Kiyoshi Yamaya, koto legend Toshiko Yonekawa, and shakuhachi master, Kifu Mitsuhashi.
Kiyoshi Yamaya started playing baritone sax in local Japanese jazz bands in in 1953. Just a few years later he was arranging and recording Japanese big bands. He became a key figure in Japanese jazz and founded the Contemporary Sound Orchestra in the mid-70’s. With his CSO, Yamaya merged jazz funk with traditional Japanese melodies and instruments. Yamaya passed away in 2002 at age 70.
Koto is the national instrument of Japan and is played by plucking the 13 strings with 3 fingers. The instrument stretches 71” long and has moveable bridges. Toshiko Yonekawa studied koto since age 3. She held her first concert at age 8 and performed on national radio at just 12 years old. According to Wamono Groove’s liner notes, “Her unique style of koto playing is widely recognized due to the extreme accuracy of the intonation and rhythm, as well as the unequaled beauty of the instrument’s sonority. After a life decorated with awards and prizes, Toshiko Yonekawa was named a Living National Treasure in 1996.” Yonekawa died in 2005 at the age of 92.
Kifu Mitsuhashi plays shakuhachi. Shakuhachi is a bamboo flute made in various lengths. It contains a small piece of ivory at the edge of the blowing end to further vary the sound. Mitsuhashi has toured the world performing classical and contemporary compositions with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Berliner Philharmoniker, to name a few. In 2020, Mitsuhashi was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun.
Here’s a list of the other musicians who performed on Wamono Groove’s tracks:
Kazuyoshi Okayama: drums on all tracks
Kiyoshi Sugimoto: guitar on all tracks except A1 by Mitsuo Murakami
Keisuke Egusa: piano on A3, A5, B2 and B4
Minoru Kuribayashi: piano on A4, B3 and B5
Hiromu Hisatomi: piano on A2 and B1
Naoya Matsuoka: piano on A1
Kimio Koizumi: bass on A1, A2, A3, A5, B1, B2 and B4
Kunimitsu Inaba: bass on A4, B3 and B5
Isao Kanayama: vibraphone on A1, A3, A4, A5, B2, B3, B4 and B5
Ryusei Matsuzaki: vibraphone on A2 and B1
Osamu Nakajima: percussion on A4
Hiroo Umezawa: percussion on A5
Tetsuo Fushimi and Takehisa Suzuki: trumpets on B3 and B5
Yoshitsugu Nishimura and Tadataka Nakazawa: trombones on B3 and B5
Jake Concepcion: tenor sax on B3 and B5
“I admit it sounds odd, but would you expect anything less from me?”
The opening track, Nanbu Ushioi-Uta, sounds rather mysterious, and at times, out of space, as if it had been randomly plucked from a Space: 1999 episode. My favorite track, Hohai-Bushi, features some fantastic keyboard, guitar, and flute work. It sounds exactly like a 1976 funky jazz tune should. I wish it had gone on forever. In Otemoyan and Yagi-Bushi, you can practically taste the Japanese flavor. Aizu Bandaisan is more adventurous, taking your ears for a full funky ride. Soma Nagareyama, on the other hand, sounds like a Japanese version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition from 1972.
Considering these recordings are 46 years old and the word “mono” is part of the title, one might be concerned about the sound quality. Fear not. The tracks on Wamono Groove were originally recorded at the Nippon Columbia Studios in Japan, not some garage studio, and they’re in stereo. The songs were re-mastered in Finland from the original tapes. Moreover, the Japanese are obsessed over sound quality, so you know a lot of attention went into the recording. Rest assured, Wamono Groove will put you in the groove with nary a hint of its age.
You might think I posted this Album Spotlight at this time because Japan has been in the news lately over the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but that isn’t the case. I had actually planned on posting this Spotlight on my Recommended Stations blog earlier this year when the record was released, but it took me almost 6 months to pin down 180g Co-owner and Executive Producer Gregory Gouty and get answers to my questions for this article. Gouty is based in France and has several record projects in the works so he’s a very busy guy these days. I’m grateful he was able to carve out a little time for this special Album Spotlight and it was worth the delay:
Peter: What was your involvement with “Wamono Groove” and how did the Wamono series come about?
Greg: It started with meeting DJ Yoshizawa Dynamite in a bar in Tokyo in 2018. Me and my label-mate Max were listening to his mixes on Soundcloud. He gave some mix CDs to Max, and he also told us that he was working on some Wamono compilations to be released on CD in Japan. We thought the music [was] amazing and discussed about doing some vinyl releases outside of Japan, which are Wamono Volumes 1, 2 and 3. For Wamono Groove, Max and myself did the selection ourselves.
Peter: How would you describe the music on this record for someone who isn’t familiar with the series?
Greg: I would say that Wamono is the perfect mix of western music influences with Japanese instruments and melodies. For example, on this Wamono Groove selection, some great mixture of jazz funk/rare groove music with shakuhachi and koto, which are some traditional Japanese instruments, played by great masters of their art.
Peter: What does “Wamono” mean and why is the music on this record considered rare?
Greg: Technically “Wa” is “Japan/Japanese”, and “mono” is “something”. So Wamono is music made with Japanese sense in my opinion, being instruments, melodies or feeling. A lot of these records are from the 60s-70s and were pressed in small quantities at the time, so original copies for a lot of these records are quite rare.
Peter: What does the Japanese writing on the cover translate to?
Greg: On Wamono Groove, the three vertical lines are the artists names, with their instruments (which you can find in alphabet above the Wamono Groove title).
Peter: Have you been in contact withKifu Mitsuhashi?
Greg: Yes, Mr. Kifu Mitsuhashi (shakuhachi player) is still alive and well. He is still playing as a professional and also a music professor. We have actually contacted him to present the project and he is very happy with the result.
Peter: This is the first time this music has been available outside of Japan?
Greg: Except in some collectors’ circles maybe, yes.
Peter: You had access to the original Columbia master tapes? The re-mastering was done in Finland? The recording is in stereo, right?
Greg: Nippon Columbia [did] the transfer from [the] master tapes (they don’t lend any master tapes; they do the transfer themselves). We work on almost all of our projects with Jukka Sarappa at Timmion Cutting Lab in Helsinki, who are really good and we are very happy with the result. Their cutting skills are phenomenal. And yes, the recording is in stereo.
Peter: Do you have a favorite track on “Wamono Groove”?
Greg: The first one with the long shakuhachi intro, Nanbu Ushioi-Uta. Puts you in the album’s mood. This track is perfect and beautiful.
Peter: The Japanese take this vintage music very seriously, don’t they?
Greg: Oh yes, any music I would say! Killer collectors over there, going super deep. In any musical style. I was living in Tokyo nearby a very small store where the guy was selling only punk music from Eastern Europe on cassette format.
Peter: Is this kind of music still performed in Japan?
Greg: There is still a lot of music today that we could call Wamono, mixing various musical influences from all over the world with a Japanese touch, such as Ajate for example.
Peter: Was this music played on radio stations in Japan in the 70’s or was it mainly intended for record buyers and live performances?
Greg: The music in the Wamono Groove compilation was more featured in some kind of “seasonal” albums about seasons, places (mountains, etc…).
Peter: Tell me a little about your company, 180g. What projects do you have in the works for this year?
Greg: We are just starting a new compilation series called “WaJazz”, exploring Japanese jazz with music selection by world-renowned expert Yusuke Ogawa. And we also have a sub-label called 180g x Disk Union, made in collaboration with Japanese record stores Disk Union, where we release contemporary Brazilian music such as the new Leonardo Marques album to be out in September.
Peter: With COVID supply chain issues, is it a challenge to manufacture records today?
Greg: Yes, all pressing factories are full and we have to book pressing capacities a year in advance even if we don’t know yet what we will press. We have to be very organized and work on releases well in advance.
Peter: Any final thoughts about “Wamono Groove” or the music?
Greg: Thanks to you, Peter, and all people who are interested in this music and are helping us [spread] it. This is just the tip of the iceberg and there is still a lot of great Japanese music, old and new, to be discovered!
What’s In Your Wallet?
Frankly, it isn’t cheap to get your Wamono Groove on. The record will set you back $36 from Amazon where it enjoys a 4.2 star rating. I purchased my copy direct from Bandcamp which cost me about $35 including shipping. As I’ve pointed out before, I don’t get free samples, nor do I earn a commission if you buy something I recommend, which is partly why I ask for your support through Patreon. That said, the unique Japanese jazz funk fusion of Wamono Groove is a delight for the ears and well worth the investment. It’s also pressed on 180g heavy vinyl and includes a reverse board inner jacket. I should mention there’s a less expensive digital download option, as you prefer. Hats off to the musical archeologists at 180g for uncovering this rare, lost music, carefully preserving it, and making it available to the world.
By the way, if you’re into more of a disco vibe, 180g has you covered there as well with Wamono A-Z Vol. III- Japanese Light Mellow Funk, Disco & Boogie 1978-1988.
My personal thanks to Greg Gouty for his time answering my questions.
If you’re like me, you can’t be away from your tunes for too long, especially when you’re outdoors. Whether it’s hosting a backyard cookout, gardening, or just washing the car, having my favorite music playing nearby is always high on my checklist. With the weather improving every day, now’s the time to start thinking about a portable Bluetooth speaker for outside listening or when you’re on the go.
There’s a glut of portable Bluetooth speakers of all shapes, sizes, and price points. Just about any company can make a Bluetooth speaker and it seems just about every company does these days. Bluetooth speakers have come a long way as far as sound quality and battery life are concerned, but making one that sounds good and is fun to use is not easy. For this month’s blog post I undertake my first-ever hardware review…a roundup of four fun portable Bluetooth speakers…some old, some new, all under $160, and all providing musical fun in the summer sun.
Model: M90 Mini Blaster
Brand: New Wave Toys
Fun Factor: 10/10
Playback time: 40 hours
Bluetooth Version: 5.1
Warranty: 100 days
The M90 Mini Blaster by New Wave Toys in North Hollywood, CA is the newest model of my roundup. New Wave is known for their accurate reproductions of classic video arcade games. Their arcade games are considerably smaller than the originals that inspired them, but they look incredibly authentic and they actually work!
Almost 2 years ago, the company threw their miniature-sized hat in the crowded Bluetooth speaker ring, launching a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for their M90 Mini Blaster and M90 Micro Blaster (an even smaller version Bluetooth speaker). I was one of over 2,700 backers to receive my M90 Mini Blaster about 2 months ago and despite some issues, I haven’t been able to put it down.
Back To The Future
Rather than make a ho-hum-looking Bluetooth speaker, New Wave stuck with their 1980’s theme and designed a faithful reproduction of the legendary JVC RC-M90JW (known as “the king of boomboxes”) from 1981, albeit on a considerably smaller scale. I own a couple of working vintage boomboxes including the JVC RC-M90, and I can say with authority the company is to be congratulated on the job they did emulating the original boombox. New Wave must have invested an enormous amount of time studying the RC-M90 (presumably thanks to the boombox museum they reference in the user manual) to achieve such remarkable detail in the M90. The Mini Blaster may be small but it’s a big blast (from the past).
What’s In A Name
Don’t let New Wave Toys’ name fool you. The M90 Mini Blaster is no toy. In addition to Bluetooth 5.1, the 30-watt stereo M90 Mini Blaster houses two 3” full range speakers (the drivers in my version have “limited edition” blue-colored cones), a decent FM tuner with dual telescoping antennae (AM was disabled due to significant reception problems), a 3.5mm analog stereo input, a USB-A for playing music from a thumb drive or charging a smartphone, and a Micro SD card input. Frankly, had I been the Product Manager for this model, I would’ve left off the Micro SD card input and added other features that would’ve been more widely used and appreciated. But I’m not done. With it’s built-in microphone, the M90 Mini can be used as a good quality speaker phone. I tried it and the party on the other end commented that I sounded better than when I use only my phone. You can also pair two M90’s together to achieve true wireless stereo (TWS). A USB-C is on tap for charging the internal 20,000mA battery. That kind of battery capacity is unprecedented for a Bluetooth speaker of this size and price. According to the company, the M90 will play up to 40 hours on a single charge. The M90 Mini Blaster is indeed the Tesla of Bluetooth speakers.
New Wave made the M90 Mini Blaster even more special by including some very sweet accessories. There’s a mini wired remote control that works (also based on the original JVC wired remote), gnarled, aluminum knob expanders to provide a better grip of the very tiny bass, treble, and balance knobs (which actually work), and an adorable faux iconic Memorex cassette tape complete with blank stickers so you can label it “80s Mix Tape” (the cassette deck isn’t functional but the door opens to accommodate the tape). There’s even an optional soft, sleek, black custom carrying case in which to store your M90 Mini Blaster when you’re not using it (which I assure you won’t be very often).
“According to the company, the M90 will play up to 40 hours on a single charge. The M90 Mini Blaster is the Tesla of Bluetooth speakers.”
I’ve Got Issues
When a company that’s not an audio company dares to enter the audio field with their first audio product there are bound to be issues. The M90 is no exception. There’s prominent white noise in the background and the volume control isn’t gradual. The level choices are basically zero, medium, and high and nothing in between. Disappointingly, New Wave never apologized for the problems and actually told users to turn down the treble control if they found the white noise objectionable! They ended up issuing a firmware update in an attempt to improve the volume behavior, though the user feedback I’ve read on their campaign page isn’t favorable, including several units being rendered non-functional after the update, so I’ve refrained from updating mine. New Wave certainly never would’ve shipped their arcade games if they all had problems with their displays. Likewise, the M90 never should’ve shipped with these audio problems. To New Wave’s credit, they’ve voluntarily offered refunds to any Kickstarter backers who are unhappy, which they aren’t required to do. Even with these problems, wild horses couldn’t drag mine away from me.
There are other scalp-scratching decisions New Wave made like omitting a headphone jack, placing the Bluetooth status light on the back instead of the front, omitting a power light, leaving off a Loudness control like the original JVC boombox had (and which the M90 would’ve greatly benefited from), and always defaulting to Bluetooth mode rather than to the last mode used. Oh- and those cute little Vu meters on the front…they’re not load-bearing. I’ve said it already, but it bears repeating…I won’t allow these things to get in the way of me enjoying the M90 Mini Blaster.
One final bone of contention I’ll raise before stepping down from my soap box has to do with New Wave’s 100-day warranty which is standard for their product line. My 2-slice toaster made by a Chinese company I never heard of before, and which cost me a lot less than the M90, came with a 1-year warranty. The other models in my Bluetooth roundup cost quite a bit less than the M90 Mini Blaster, yet they all come with a one-year warranty. New Wave should have enough confidence in their own design and engineering, and respect for their customers’ hard-earned money, to stand behind their products for at least 12 months. I’ve worked for numerous audio companies including two small startups and none of them offered less than a 1-year warranty.
To be perfectly clear, the M90 sounds good, but there are other good sounding Bluetooth speakers on the market without audio issues that cost less. None, however, evoke 80’s boombox nostalgia like the M90 Mini Blaster. You simply won’t find anything else like it because no other company is crazy enough to try to do it. An original, working, vintage JVC RC-M90JW boombox will set you back several thousand dollars, but you can get this incredible smaller simulation for $159.99, whenever New Wave Toys gets them back in stock that is. Summer just got a whole lot funner.
Model: Wild Mini
Fun Factor: 10/10
Playback time: 8 hours
Bluetooth Version: 5.0
Warranty: 1 year
If you require a very small Bluetooth speaker without a lot of bells and whistles but still want acceptable sound quality, here’s a different Mini to consider…the impossibly adorable Wild Mini by Muzen. Muzen makes a number of different Bluetooth speakers, including one resembling a miniature table radio from the 1950’s. The Wild Mini, on the other hand, is designed with a military style in mind. It indeed looks like it could be standard issue for the US Army, including its hard-sided carry case with retro Sergeant stripes. Too bad Muzen didn’t complete the military theme by offering a Wild Mini camouflage version including a dog tag with the unit’s serial number stamped into it.
A Case To Be Made
In addition to its novel size, the metal housing (the only speaker in my round-up sporting a metal case) and horizontally rotating volume thumb wheel make it stand out from the pack, not to mention a delight to use. I find myself always going for the Wild Mini’s clicking volume wheel instead of my smartphone’s boring volume button. A small plastic wheel on the right provides next and previous track control. There’s even a small, integrated, 3 LED flashlight on top that can be switched between a high or low solid beam and flashing S-O-S like a navy signal lamp. I should also mention the convenient built-in bar allowing the Wild Mini’s owner to clip it to a backpack, belt loop, hang inside a tent, etc. The Wild Mini is dope. If you hang it then I guess you could call it dope on a rope. Sorry.
Don’t Add Water
Muzen’s website states the Wild Mini is rated “IPX5 waterproof” and claims if you accidentally drop yours in the pool you shouldn’t fret. It’s the only model in my Bluetooth roundup with such a rating. IPX5-rated products can withstand sustained low pressure water spray but they’re not waterproof. My Wild Mini has gotten wet but I would never submerge it no matter what Muzen says. I also try to avoid leaving it in strong, direct sunlight for any extended period of time to avoid the zinc alloy metal case from potentially heating up.
Firing up the Wild Mini and playing music via its Bluetooth 5.0 never fails to raise my eyebrows. The sound from this diminutive speaker is clear and crisp, and it will get as loud as a Drill Sergeant (keeping with my military theme). According to Muzen’s specifications, the bass response extends down to 80Hz which is more than I would expect from such a compact speaker, but it certainly isn’t going to cause ripples in your glass of water like an escaped cloned dinosaur would. The Wild Mini would produce a more open sound were it not for its restrictive metal speaker grille. Presumably Muzen felt protecting the 36 mm diminutive diameter driver was more important. It would’ve been even more wild to be able to pair two Wild Minis together for true wireless stereo.
“I find myself always going for the Wild Mini’s clicking volume wheel instead of my smartphone’s boring volume button.”
Original Or Extra Crispy?
As with the other models in this roundup, the Wild Mini has a built-in Li-Ion battery…800mA to be more precise. That will get you about 8 hours of playback time which should more than suffice for most trail hikes and campfire singalongs ( or special ops missions). I should point out there’s a more recent version of the Wild Mini that uses a 1,000mA battery and has a few other new features including a multi-colored light and a wheel in front of the driver that rotates (Muzen calls it a “fidget spinner”). I guess it’s the Wild Mini Wheel of Fortune Edition. Frankly, I consider these “features” a step-down and hardly worth the $50 up-charge. I prefer original recipe over extra crispy.
I can’t resist a Bluetooth speaker in uniform. One look at the Wild Mini and I just knew I had to have one even though I already own more Bluetooth speakers than I need. I guess you could say its appearance is disarming. With its rounded edges and measuring just 3” x 2” x 1”, the Wild Mini is easily the cutest Bluetooth speaker on the planet. Whether you have a proclivity for military-styled things or not, you’ll quickly surrender to it. Getting one means you’ll have to drop and give Muzen 109. No, not 109 pushups, but $109, though I’ve seen it on sale for as low as $90 on Amazon. Should you get one? Sir, yes sir.
Model: EP203 Poison
Fun Factor: 8/10
Playback time: 6 hours
Bluetooth Version: 4.2
Warranty: 1 year
Larger than the Wild Mini but smaller than the M90 Mini Blaster is Lofree’s retro-styled Poison. It’s a rather odd name for a portable Bluetooth speaker. Perhaps Lofree named it that because it resembles a giant pill and it’s sound is killer.
Ace Of Bass
Smaller-sized Bluetooth speakers might be cute and convenient, but let’s face it- many of them don’t sound very good. For a plastic speaker measuring 7” x 4” x 2.75” with only 10-watts of power, Poison sounds very good indeed. In fact, it’s the best-sounding speaker in my round-up. Lofree says Poison’s frequency response goes down to 60Hz. No doubt the passive bass radiator that takes up a good portion of its behind is responsible. You can see the woofer in action as the music plays. Baby got back. It’s a good thing Poison has prominent rubber feet to couple it to the surface of whatever it’s playing on, because without them, the speaker would dance all over the place. If I’m looking to impress someone visually, I take out my M90 Mini Blaster or Muzen Wild Mini, but if I’m looking to impress acoustically, I dish out some Poison.
For radio enthusiasts, there’s an FM tuner on board, though reception is so-so and the tiny tuning dial is a challenge for the eyes. Even with my glasses on (which served as the prototype for the Hubble Space Telescope) I couldn’t see what frequency I was tuning. I bought my Poison through a friend in China and its FM dial is lightly back-lighted. Why Lofree left this feature off the US version I have no idea.
The Queen’s English
Some Bluetooth speakers, like the M90 Mini Blaster, use sounds to confirm when the source has been changed. Others, like Poison, use a spoken voice confirmation. The female voice used for Poison’s confirmations speaks with an Asian (Chinese?) accent. The voice Poison uses is pleasant enough but the accent screams “made in China”. It’s a small but important detail. Ordinarily, the manufacturer has the ability to record a different voice instead of whatever comes stock on the Bluetooth chip. A female voice with a British accent would’ve been my choice. A British accent always adds a little sophistication to any occasion.
It’s A Looker
Poison makes just as strong a visual statement as it does with its sound. Retro styling is great, but overdo it and your product risks resembling a cheap plastic toy. In this case, the design is just enough to give it that 50’s retro appearance without making it look goofy or cheap. It’s available in tasteful shiny colors, too, including “Milk Tea”, a kind of very light beige color with just a hint of pink or orange from what I can tell. There’s also a cool chrome dome on the top that changes color depending on the source mode it’s in, though it can be difficult to see the light in bright light conditions.
Make A Wish
On my Poison wish list, I would’ve preferred the top controls and prominent front grille be made of metal instead of plastic. It wouldn’t have added much to the cost and it would’ve given it a more quality look and feel. I also wish Lofree had included an AM band along with the FM, at least for US customers. Alas you can’t have everything.
Poison’s compact size makes it quite comfortable to carry in one hand, though chrome bars are integrated on either side to accommodate a carry strap. My Chinese market version came with a nifty carrying case that resembles a child’s vintage suitcase. Here again, I don’t understand why Muzen failed to include this with the US version.
Li-Ions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My
Playback-wise, expect about 6 hours from the 2,000mA Li-Ion battery. That’s on the short side but it’s probably due to the bass which tends to be power-hungry. As with most of the speakers in my roundup, Poison doesn’t have a user-replaceable battery. When the battery is exhausted (hopefully not until six or more years from now), shipping the dead unit both ways to its China factory for battery replacement and back again will be costly, assuming the factory will even service it. It will probably cost the same or less to just toss it out and buy a new Poison if they’re still being made then. This isn’t the best solution for the environment or your wallet, but it seems to be the inconvenient truth for many lower-cost portable Bluetooth speakers these days.
“…the design is just enough to give it that 50’s retro appearance without making it look goofy or cheap.”
Poison is priced at $119, not quite half way between the $160 M90 Mini Blaster and $109 Wild Mini, though if you sign up on Lofree’s website, you’ll get emailed a discount code to save a few bucks. By the way, in case you’re wondering, Lofree’s name is a combination of the words “Love” and “Free”. Poison isn’t free, but you’ll love it.
Fun Factor: 6.5/10
Playback time: 8 hours
Bluetooth Version: 5.0
Warranty: 1 year
Bumpboxx makes very impressive, full-sized Bluetooth boomboxes sans the cassette deck. I’ve never owned one but I do own their Microboom. Microboom is the smallest and least expensive Bluetooth speaker in my roundup, measuring only 5” x 4” x 2”. It’s a Bluetooth wearable that comes in different shiny colors (including a recently-released, swanky gold-colored version) and includes a 24” stainless steel gold-plated chain to complete the 1980’s image. Bumpboxx also makes a portable Bluetooth speaker that resembles a vintage pager, but I was instantly drawn to the Microboom.
Bumpboxx says Microboom “seamlessly blends fashion and technology.” I say Microboom is the bomb, albeit a very basic bomb. There’s no FM tuner, no auxiliary input, and no headphone output, though a Micro SD card input is included on its backside. As with the M90 Mini Blaster, had been the Product Manager for this model, I would’ve left off that input in favor of something more conventional. There are small push button controls on the front for basic functions like power, Bluetooth pairing, track control, volume, and play/pause. The center “display” features a tiny white Bumpboxx logo which illuminates when the unit is powered on. That’s cool, but what would’ve been way cooler is an actual tiny color display that showed artist/song metadata. Of course, that would’ve used more battery power and raised its price, but it so totally would’ve been worth it. Totally.
The Microboom lives up to its name in more ways than one. It’s a micro boombox and it has very little boom despite Bumpboxx managing to shoehorn a passive bass radiator behind the dual 1.2” diameter full range speakers. Wearing the Microboom definitely makes a statement, and it also reduces its bass since the rear woofer’s meager output gets smothered by your clothing. Perhaps Bumpboxx prefers we all go topless. That said, it sounds better than I expected for a 3.7 oz plastic speaker on a chain. One big thing about the little Microboom is it can get fairly loud. It’s only 10 watts max, but this baby boomer(box) goes to 11, and it’ll crank for about 8 hours until its 500mA Li-Ion battery wants a re-charge.
“…what would’ve been way cooler is an actual tiny color display that showed artist/song metadata.”
Bumpboxx’s website is long on features but short on specs. I couldn’t find out simple details like what version Bluetooth the Microboom used, the frequency response, or even if it was stereo. It took several emails and over a week with their customer support to learn the Microboom uses Bluetooth 5.0. I never got a response to my frequency response or stereo questions, so I used a simple app on my phone to at least verify it’s outputting 2-channel stereo. However, with the speakers being in such close proximity to each other, it’s effectively mono. Perhaps sensing that, Bumpboxx made it possible to pair 2 Microboom’s together for true wireless stereo, with one Microboom being the right channel and the other the left.
You can get your own Microboom on Amazon or from Bumpboxx directly for $99, which strikes me as a bit on the expensive side compared to the prices of the other models I’ve covered in my roundup. Be that as it may, there aren’t many audio devices you can wear that play loud and look wicked cool. Hang a Bumpboxx Microboom around your neck and be prepared to get stopped on the street by impressed strangers wanting to know what it is and where you got it.
You may have noticed the different versions of Bluetooth used by the models in my roundup…5.1, 5.0, and 4.2. What does it mean and why don’t they all use the latest Bluetooth specification? To give a quick comparison, Bluetooth 5.1 and 5.0 include BLE, or Bluetooth Low Energy, which requires less power and thus yields longer playback time than Bluetooth 4.2. Both versions also provide more bandwidth (allows simultaneous connection of 2 different Bluetooth devices) and a much longer range. Bluetooth 5.1 pairs faster than 5.0 and 4.2. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should cross out anything on your list that uses older versions like 4.2. The Poison Bluetooth speaker uses Bluetooth version 4.2 and I’ve never experienced an issue using it.
One major drawback to Bluetooth is that Bluetooth IC’s can’t be updated, meaning whatever Bluetooth version your device has is what it will have forever. If a device has Bluetooth 4.2, there’s no way to update it to something more recent. That’s the nature of the beast, and you can bet Bluetooth technology will continue to evolve as it has over the years. So, even if you buy a Bluetooth speaker with the very latest Bluetooth specification (currently 5.2), it’s only the latest until the next version comes along. The good news is devices with older version Bluetooth chips will still work with sources having newer versions. For example, if you own a Bluetooth speaker with Bluetooth version 4.2, but stream your music from a smartphone that has Bluetooth version 5.1, your speaker will still work and sound fine.
I should also like to point out that none of the Bluetooth speakers in my round-up support aptX, a technology that claims to preserve the quality of the music. I don’t consider that a big negative because portable speakers are often used outdoors, which isn’t the ideal environment for audio reproduction. Moreover, in Apple’s wisdom, the iPhone doesn’t support aptX, so at least half of all users wouldn’t be able to take advantage of it anyway.
Juice Me Up
If you do a lot of streaming from your battery-powered smartphone or laptop to your battery-powered Bluetooth speaker, you don’t want your devices running out of power and ruining the vibe. A portable power bank will give your devices a boost when their tanks are nearing empty. Up until recently, most power banks were nondescript devices that sort of resembled those geeky aluminum wallets you see on late-night TV commercials. Enter Shargeek. They designed a portable charger that gets the job done and looks sexy while doing it. I wish I could say that about myself.
The Storm2 boasts a whopping 25,600 mAh of power from its 8 rechargeable, high-density Lithium-ion batteries. It provides four (count ‘em, four) power outputs (USB-C x 2, USB-A x 1, DC x 1) to fast-charge up to 3 devices at once, from phones to drones. It’s also the first portable charger to use a transparent housing exposing the power plant as well as the electronic components mounted on the PCB. Illuminated output jacks would’ve been extra cool, but now I’m really exposing my geeky side. Anyway, you haven’t heard the best part yet. There’s a small, crisp, color display that shows the input/output power, battery pack voltage/current, battery/PCB temperature, charge-discharge cycles, and DC voltage adjustments! OMG. I think I just experienced arrhythmia.
With great power comes great responsibility, and Shargeek takes safety seriously. They’ve built-in protection against short circuits, high voltage, and extreme temperatures. The transparent plastic chassis is fireproof and the Storm2 is rated safe to legally carry onto airplanes should you wish to take yours with you when you travel.
Roughly 3 months ago, Shargeek came out with a new power bank model called Storm2 Slim since it’s approximately 50% smaller than Storm2. It supports 130W high speed power delivery (vs. Storm2’s 100W) and is lighter weight than its big brother, but only includes 1 x USB-C and 1 x USB-A output. An optional, fold-out solar panel keeps the Slim itself charged when electricity isn’t available. Both models retail for $199, though they’re sometimes discounted on Amazon.
We’re all geared up to get outside and enjoy the summer. It feels like it took forever for it to finally get here. Enhance your summer enjoyment even more by bringing your favorite tunes with you. Whether you invest in one or more of the models in my roundup or decide on a different one, know that a portable Bluetooth speaker that makes listening fun in the summer sun is priceless.
Full disclosure: I don’t make a commission if you buy any of the models I recommended. I purchased all of these devices myself and did not receive any free review samples or special discounts. The advantage of this is I can be honest and not feel beholden to any manufacturer. The drawback is it’s a veryexpensive way of doing reviews! Accordingly, please consider supporting my website blog and Internet radio station by becoming a Patreon supporter (link below) for just $1.
Trivia:According to Wikipedia, a hands-free mobile headset introduced in 1999 was the first consumer Bluetooth device. The Ericson T39 from 2001 was the first Bluetooth mobile phone. Also launched in 2001 was the IBM ThinkPad A30 which was the first notebook with Bluetoooth.
For the last couple of years to compensate for the economic impact of the pandemic on record stores, Record Store Day was celebrated 2-3 times per year. It should have been temporarily renamed Record Store Days. This year, since life is returning to normal (knock on wood), RSD is back to its normal single day, April 23rd, plus Black Friday. That doesn’t mean it’s any less exciting. If anything, RSD 2022 gives us more reasons to get excited.
One reason is Record Store Day is celebrating 15 years of supporting independent record stores around the world. Another is the appointment of Taylor Swift as RSD’s Global Ambassador. Yet another is the over 400 special titles on vinyl released for RSD 2022, including one specifically to benefit women in the music industry. Just the fact that this will be the most “normal” Record Store Day we’ve seen in a couple of years is reason enough to celebrate.
Before I take my shoes and socks off and dive into RSD’s record bins, as I did last year, I called a handful of Record Store Day-participating MA record stores and asked them what platter they were spinning on their turntable at that very moment. Here are the results:
Purchase Street Records, New Bedford, MA: Seemless (self-titled)
Joe’s Albums, Worcester, MA: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Unlimited Love
The Nevermind Shop, Upton, MA: Spiral Staircase, I Love You More Today Than Yesterday
The Record Exchange, Salem, MA: 3 Mustaphas 3, Heart of Uncle
Sunset Records, Somerset, MA: Aquarius, Let the Sunshine In
The Vinyl Vault, Littleton, MA: The Groundhogs, Blues Obituary
Vinyl Index, Somerville, MA: Octahedron, The Mars Volta
The Record Spot, East Bridgewater, MA: The Beatles, Abbey Road (picture disc)
Village Vinyl & Hi-Fi, Brookline, MA: Discharge, Never Again
Inclusion Records, Norwell, MA: North American & Friends, Going Steady (reissue)
Dyno Records, Newburyport, MA: The Police, Synchronicity
Now, back to our regularly scheduled program. I got in contact with Record Store Day Project Manager Rick Johnson to set the stage for Record Store Day 2022.
Peter: 2022 marks the 15th Anniversary of Record Store Day. It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years. What’s happening this year to commemorate the occasion?
Rick: 15 years and things keep getting bigger and better every year. It’s a worldwide celebration of music and independent record stores. This year we are partnering with VANS [shoe and apparel designer] to celebrate women in the music business with a special release Portraits of Her, featuring many diverse female artists. We are also presenting a panel at SXSW [South by South West music/film/tech conference] in March, focusing on women in the music industry. There will also be a celebration at the Grammy Museum in LA of some of the past RSD ambassadors and early supporters. There will also be many, many other smaller celebrations at local independent record stores on and around Record Store Day. It’s going to be a big year for sure.
Peter: Is RSD celebrated worldwide? On the same day?
Rick: Yes, RSD is celebrated on every continent except Antarctica and it is celebrated on the same day by everyone. Adjustments are made for time zones of course, so some countries get a few hours head start, but we all end up at the same place in the end. Sitting at home in front of our turntables with a stack of great music and cellophane all over the place!
Peter: All Record Store Day releases are special, but are there a few titles you are particularly excited about?
Rick: I am excited about a lot of the titles this year. Everyone at RSD has been working very hard to make sure we have great releases and something for everyone. What’s important to remember is that every release on RSD is SOMEONE’S favorite release. Some of my personal favorites are the RSD curated Patti Smith record, the Lou Reed 1971 Demos and the Ramones box set The Sire Albums (1981-1989). Kirk Hammett from Metallica has his first solo record Portals coming out on RSD22.
Peter: For the last 2 years, RSD was celebrated multiple times a year due to the pandemic’s impact on record stores. You’re back to an annual event for 2022?
Rick: We’re back to RSD in April and then RSD Black Friday on the Friday after Thanksgiving. A lot of fans enjoyed the different “drops” that were done for safety, but we are back to two a year.
Peter: Do you have a Record Store Day-related anecdote you can share?
Rick: I still remember the first time I walked into Rough Trade Records on Record Store Day in 2017. There was a line literally around the block of customers waiting their turn to shop. I saw a guy in his 30s with his young child who was maybe 4 years ago, standing in line waiting to buy their favorite release. They were creating an experience together that was unique to them, and one they would never forget. If you have to wait in line for something, let it be music! I also took a photo inside of the Ramones Singles Box Set in the foreground with the rest of the store in the background, with the vinyl seemingly going on forever! It was beautiful.
I also remember in 2019 Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne spending several days at Rough Trade [record store] building a huge interactive installation for his LP The King’s Head. It was in the shape of a king’s head, and you could crawl inside his mouth and hear a song that was not on the record. Wayne spent days on this one installation that was just a cool tribute to Record Store Day.
Mike Peters from the Alarm celebrated RSD a few years ago by playing concerts at local record stores in London, NYC and LA, all on the same day! He started out early in London, hopped a trans-Atlantic flight to New York, played an in store gig there. Then he flew to LA and finished up his long, long day with a final show at a record store there. AMAZING!”
Peter: Why was Taylor Swift chosen as Record Store Day’s Global Ambassador for 2022? What is her RSD offeringthis year?
Rick: Taylor Swift is one of the biggest global superstars and she has built her career from the ground up, doing it the right way. Taylor has reissued almost all her albums for RSD in the past, bringing new vinyl buyers into independent record stores for the first time. She was also very supportive of independent record stores during COVID, even paying the health insurance for workers at her favorite record store in Nashville. She supplied independent stores with signed copies of her releases to sell during the shutdown. Taylor has also contributed a track to the special 2022 RSD release Portraits of Her, celebrating women in music. She is also contributing a 7” single of the lakes for RSD 2022. I couldn’t think of anyone better to select as RSD’s very first GLOBAL ambassador.
Peter: If you could only give 1 reason why people should go to their participating record store on RSD, what would it be?
Rick: Independent small business owners are the life’s blood of any town and community. These small businesses have been hit hard the past few years, yet they are still there every day, working hard and making sure they have what you want when you walk in the door. We HAVE to support our independent record stores and other small businesses in our communities to make our local world a better place. Plus it’s fun! Music is universal and makes people happy.
Peter: How has COVID-19 impacted vinyl record manufacturing and record sales?
Rick: The music industry was not immune to the temporary plant shutdowns everyone experienced. It created bottlenecks of course, and you just have to fight through those like every other business. Record people are very tough though and extremely resourceful. I was amazed by the ingenuity I saw displayed by the record stores. Lots of stores increased their on-line presence, shipping orders to customers’ homes during the crisis. I even saw stores personally DELIVERING orders to their customers by car. Dropping off the vinyl at the doorstep, creating their own version of “touchless transactions.” Many stores reported doing a stronger business than normal as more people stayed home and had time to curate their collections. I know everyone is happy to be getting back to some sense of normalcy, but I believe the resilience and tenacity shown by everyone in the music industry has been nothing short of incredible
Peter: I know you’re not clairvoyant, but how do you see record sales performing over the next few years?
Rick: Actually, I AM clairvoyant. I KNEW you were going to ask that question. Seriously though, I see record sales rising as more and more music enthusiasts buy turntables and youngsters become old enough to buy their own music. It keeps getting bigger every year. Many younger fans who have bought turntables this past year and are buying vinyl and supporting their local shops. It’s great to see. People still stream or listen to the radio, but there is something so satisfying about buying tangible music and playing it at home on your turntable. I think the trend will continue for many, many years.
Peter: What records have you personally been spinning lately?
Rick: When listening for pleasure I tend to go back to the roots of punk rock. The Velvet Underground- Live At Max’s Kansas City is a timeless classic. I’m listening to it right now. Same for the first New York Dolls LP. It turns 50 in 2023. I hope they get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. I’ve also been listening to a stack of old rap 12” records I recently bought. Kool Moe Dee, Doug E. Fresh, Eric B., Count Coolout, Duke Bootee, etc. Lots of amazing music I’ve never heard before. Then some old Ministry, Wire, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. My favorite new group for the past few years has been Starcrawler from LA. Amazing female lead singer, Arrow de Wilde. Great bunch of young kids with two records out and another coming out soon.
Peter: Do you remember the first record you ever bought or listened to?
Rick: One of my very first was Hot Rocks, the double LP compilation by The Rolling Stones. I bought it at our local K-Mart when I was about 10. Loved it! Bought the Beatles Red and Blue albums in 1978 when Capitol re-issued them on colored vinyl. Bought the Beatles White Album on white vinyl and freaked myself out by playing “Revolution #9” backwards! Spooky!!
Peter: Why are you a vinyl geek?
Rick: I’ve always loved the sound and the feel of vinyl. Being able to hold the record carefully in my hands and sliding it on the turntable. Listening to the needle drop and find the groove. Love it! Plus holding the jacket and looking at the cover art while listening completes the experience.
Peter: Any final thoughts?
Rick: Record Store Day has something for everyone. Come out and support your local independent record store on April 23rd for RSD22. Discover your new favorite record and your new favorite local independent record store!
The Flip Side Of The Record
As exciting and profitable as Record Store Day is for store proprietors, it’s not without its critics. It may surprise you to learn that a few of those critics are in the very business RSD was designed to help…independent record stores. Long time UK independent record store owner Rupert Morrison wrote a story in The Guardian in February advising that COVID supply chain issues continue to make obtaining records for his customers very difficult. Morrison said he has customers who are still waiting for records they pre-ordered a year ago. He said adding another 411 new titles in the pipeline this year for RSD will only exacerbate the problem and suggested Record Store Day be postponed until the vinyl backlog gets cleared.
Supply chain issues aside, getting the RSD titles you want in general can be difficult. Two years ago, I called a record store a few days ahead of RSD to ask if they’d be stocking a certain record I wanted. They told me they weren’t allowed to give out that information. Apparently, they’re not allowed to give customers advanced notice of which RSD titles they’ll be carrying. I knew there would’ve been little point in calling the day of because the staff would be too busy, so I drove to the store the morning of Record Store Day, only to be told upon arrival that the record I wanted had already sold out. The clerk suggested I go to another one of their locations, but it was quite a distance away and I didn’t plan on spending the day on a treasure hunt. It’s hard to get excited about a record you really want if your chances of actually getting it are akin to winning the lottery. It also doesn’t help when record some stores hold back certain titles to later sell on eBay or their own website at inflated prices, a practice Record Store Day strictly prohibits. Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be a widespread problem.
Speaking of record prices, I’m an old enough fossil to remember when CDs first came out. In an effort to win the music buying public over, the record companies promised CDs would cost less than records. With few exceptions, that never happened. Forty years later, it’s finally come true. It isn’t unheard of to drop a hundred bucks or more and emerge from the record store with only a handful of records. I’d be interested to learn what percentage of 12″ albums released for RSD are priced under $20.
Don’t get me wrong. I love records. If I cut myself, I’d probably bleed red liquid vinyl. But if Record Store Day’s price of admission gets too high, it risks alienating music enthusiasts who don’t have that kind of disposable cash. The current economic situation only makes it worse. At the rate things are going, gas to get to the record store and back again might cost almost as much as the records themselves!
Phono what? Phonocut
Speaking of cutting, and this has nothing to do with RSD, but wouldn’t it be cool if you could cut your own records? In October of 2019, the introduction of Phonocut practically gave vinyl enthusiasts an analog orgasm. Phonocut is a fantastic plastic machine that allows you to cut your own 10” vinyl records at home with the mere press of a button. Two and a half years later, the Austrian company that invented it has yet to ship a single Phonocut, and their latest update says not to expect one until the end of 2024 at the earliest. The company’s website states they’re “truly sorry that we have over-promised so profoundly”, and to their credit, are offering refunds to any of their crowdfunding backers who want one. I came very close to becoming a backer myself, but frankly, I was turned off by the fact that Phonocut only supports 10” records and you can only buy the “blanks” from Phonocut. If you failed to get in on the ground floor at the bargain basement Kickstarter starting price of $1,089, be prepared to shell out $8,000-$10,000 for one Phonocut, which is what the company estimates the retail price will be when the vinyl dust finally settles. That’s what I call a deep cut.
The Legend Keeps Spinning
If you’re in the market for a special turntable to play your special Record Store Day acquisitions, you’re in luck. Yesterday, Technics announced a pre-order for its limited-edition version of their legendary SL-1200M7L in recognition of its 50th Anniversary. The Anniversary Edition of this iconic direct drive turntable will come in 7 different colors and include an etched number, an anodized gold-colored tone arm, a custom slip mat, and a couple of Technics stickers. It’s very rare for a consumer electronics model to remain in production for 50 years, so that says a lot. Over its long history, the SL-1200M7L has earned respect from both DJs and audiophiles alike. I used a similar model when I was a DJ at my college radio station over 30 years ago. Many radio stations used them because they were a workhorse and very reliable. But you better hurry. Only 12,000 in total will be made available worldwide. Note the $1,100 sticker price doesn’t include a stylus and it isn’t expected to start shipping until July.
APRIL 23, 2022
Mark April 23rd on your calendar and be prepared to arrive early at your participating record store to get the Record Store Day releases you’re coveting. Before you leave the store, make it a point to stop and take in the moment. Look around you and appreciate the many music lovers of all ages happily exploring the record bins. It just might bring a smile to your unmasked, naked face. It’s one sign that life is gradually returning to normal. It’s time to treat yourself to some special music. After what you’ve been through, you deserve it.
Major thanks to Rick Johnson of Record Store Day for answering my questions and providing me with his exclusive snaps. Thanks also to all of the MA record stores that participated in my informal poll. I’ve listed their links at the end. Please support your local record store.
Trivia (from Wikipedia): “Record Store Day 2020 was scheduled to take place on April 18, but was postponed to June 20 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 29, it was announced that Record Store Day would be postponed again, and spread across three dates called RSD Drops: August 29, September 26, and October 24. A fourth date, RSD Black Friday, occurred on November 27.”
Did you enjoy this article? If so, please consider supporting my blog by becoming a Patreonsupporter today for just $1. In return, you’ll get my Recommended Station every month in your in box.
Due to financial constraints, I was forced to change the host company for my Internet radio station, Wind Chime Radio. At the end of this article I’ve provided a link to the website to listen as well as the station’s new URL to input directly into your Internet radio if it offers that feature or to provide your station aggregator to get WCR added to their directory (it is already listed in Airable’s directory for those with Frontier Silicon-based Internet radios).
I took this opportunity to make a few other changes. One big change is the upgraded sound quality. My station is now streaming at the maximum bit rate of 320 kbps in the superior AAC audio codec (vs. 80 kbps in MP3 with the previous host). The chimes sound more realistic than ever!
I also made all new AAC stereo recordings of my chimes and more recordings of them to keep the sound as fresh as a spring breeze. As before, the chimes were recorded outside as the brisk Massachusetts coastal winds moved them about naturally.
Another change exciting is a new jingle. The New Randy Van Horne Singers vocal group composed and recorded a custom “jingle” exclusively for Wind Chime Radio. They put a lot of work into it and I’m truly honored to have their wonderful voices blending so beautifully on my station. The WCR jingle will air randomly throughout the broadcast. I’ve included a link to TNRVHS’ Facebook page at the end of this article so you can check them out.
Finally, ‘ll be changing the background color of WCR’s logo from black to white so it will stand out more.
At the start of this article I mentioned a financial crunch. It’s never too late to show your support. If you enjoy reading my blog and/or listening to WCR, please become a Patreon supporter today for just $1. If you’re already a supporter, please consider upping your support. All funds will help support my website blog and radio station. In appreciation, you’ll get my Recommended Stations and Hitchhiker Station in your inbox every month. This month’s Recommended Station has a very unique tie in with an airline, while April’s Hitchhiker Station celebrates music you rarely hear nowadays (and perhaps for good reason). My Recommended Stations are a fun accessory for your Internet radio or Internet radio app!
Thank you in advance for your support and I sincerely hope you enjoy the new Wind Chime Radio wherever you listen from!
Album Spotlight focuses on a specific (usually vintage) album. Album Spotlights will pop-up randomly. There might be another Spotlight next month or six months from now. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects the Album Spotlight!
Space Escapade, Les Baxter: Capitol Records, ST-968, Stereo, 1958
The first Album Spotlight was The Golddiggers’ We Need a Little Christmas LP from1969. This edition goes in a completely different direction and turns the spotlight on Les Baxter’s Space Escapade from 1958, a classic space age pop album. And be sure to read all the way through to the fun contest at the end.
Space Escapade may not have been the first album in the unique space age music genre, but without a doubt it had the best cover. It depicted what your average, mid-century bachelor envisioned when fantasizing about visiting a faraway planet…enjoying a dry ice-based adult beverage with attractive, brightly-colored female aliens with springs on their heads (note the silhouette of a phallic-like rocket in the background). I’m not sure why the aliens didn’t use memory foam on their heads instead of springs. Incidentally, if you look closely at the jovial astronaut in the green suit, it looks like he has his own rocket in his pocket! How fortunate the astronauts were to have generous openings in their fish bowl helmets to be able to savor the foreign concoctions prepared in their honor. The album cover alone has made this record quite desirable amongst collectors.
One Small Step For Man
It was probably no coincidence that Space Escapade was released a year after Russia’s Sputnik satellite launch in 1957. Another decade would pass before an astronaut stepped foot on the moon. Like the front cover, Baxter’s compositions paint an overall positive landscape of outer space. But before we get ahead of ourselves by going into deep space exploration on Space Escapade, let’s first explore the man behind the music.
Leslie Thompson Baxter was born in Mexia, Texas in 1922, 100 years ago this month. He started playing piano at age 5. He took courses at the Detroit Conservatory and Pepperdine University. In 1945 he joined the Mel-Tones, Mel Torme’s singing group. He eventually quit the group to work for NBC Radio, conducting music for the Abbott and Costello and Bob Hope radio programs. In 1950, Baxter left radio behind to arrange and conduct music at Capitol Records for recordings by Nat King Cole, Margaret Whiting, and Frank Sinatra. Not a bad gig.
Baxter turned to crafting music for films in 1962, scoring at least 8 movies (some cite as many as 100) for American International Pictures, including The Pit and the Pendulum and Beach Blanket Bingo. Some websites claim he composed music for over 250 films in total.
Music Out of The Moon, Baxter’s first album, launched (if you will pardon the pun) the space age music genre. According to wrti.org, astronaut Neil Armstrong actually brought a cassette recording of the album with him on Apollo 11 in 1969! The record featured a choir, a rhythm section, a cello, a French horn, and a theremin. That’s it. For 1947 it truly was out of this world and is quite probably the best-selling theremin album ever.
A year later, Baxter’s Ritual of The Savage brought us back down to earth…to the jungle to be more specific. The music incorporated bird calls and assorted jungle sounds. As his Music Out of The Moon ushered in space age music, Ritual gave birth to the exotica genre.
The composer was not without hits. Unchained Melody and The Poor People of Paris each sold over a million copies, the former earning gold record status. He also composed Quiet Village which became a huge hit for Martin Denny in 1959.
Baxter died from a massive heart attack on January 15, 1996 in Newport Beach, CA at the age of 73. He has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
With about 70 titles in his discography, I was spoiled for choice when it came to picking a Baxter album for this Album Spotlight. Yet from the very start there was never any doubt in my mind that my focus would be on Space Escapade. Allmusic.com called the album “a definitive slice of lounge/bachelor pad music” containing compositions that “shows off Baxter’s chops as a big-band leader.”
Space Escapade is rated 4.5 stars on Amazon with one reviewer calling the album, “an American classic, to be revered and cherished. Thank goodness that we have the recordings of the wonderful Les Baxter for letting us explore his, and our, musical dreamscapes.” Another fan wrote, “All of a sudden that sound really fascinated me. It sounds so pretty and so fresh today, it shows how Les Baxter fifties’ songs were ahead of time.”
YouTube has equally favorable comments. “I am one of those who remember my parent’s Friday and/or Saturday nights, full of this music”, one person wrote. “Mostly at the beach house, sometimes in the rec. room. It mostly served as background music. Never danced too, but played to impress. Who had the best stereo. Listening again, eavesdropping on the stairs, I’m a seven year old kid again.” Another Space Escapade owner wrote, “My co-workers can only guess why I smile on a Monday morning at the computer with my ear buds in. Pure ear candy. If that first cut doesn’t put a smile on your face, check for a pulse!”
“…enjoying a dry ice-based adult beverage with attractive, brightly-colored female aliens with springs on their heads.”
What Is This “Stereo” Thing?
Turning the Spotlight back to the classic front cover, there were actually four variants of the cover. One might expect slightly different covers to indicate mono and stereo, but the stereo recording alone had 3 versions of the front cover. All three have white bands at the top of varying sizes promoting stereo, but one cover adds a round color Capitol logo in the photo, an inexcusable distraction from the artwork.
Why release a record in both mono and stereo? Actually, this wasn’t unusual for 1958 when stereo recordings were new to the consumer. Many people still owned monophonic hi-fi systems, bought mono records, and listened to mono AM radio at home and in their car. Stereo was so new that Capitol felt the need to dedicate one side of the record’s inner paper sleeve to educate the record owner about two-channel stereo. Example: “What is a stereo record? This stereo record recreates the needed perspective. Sounds are recorded from two points of view and, ultimately, engraved one on each side of the groove. Thus, the stereo record, when properly played, gives a realistic ‘display’ of sound.” I cannot imagine experiencing Space Escapade any other way. My stereo copy of Space Escapade came with the original paper sleeve in excellent condition, which I find amazing considering the album is over 60 years old.
Ranking right up there with the Hindenburg disaster, Jack the Ripper, and the Roswell UFO crash, is the equally stubborn question worthy of a Robert Stack voice over– Whom created Space Escapade’s incredible front cover? With my detective’s fedora positioned at a jaunty angle, I tracked down singer/songwriter/guitarist/composer/producer/band leader (whew!) and Les Baxter protégé and friend, Skip Heller, in an attempt to solve this enduring riddle. “Prior to their move to the Tower” (the 13-story building made to resemble a stack of records), Heller wrote me in an email, “Capitol [Records] didn’t maintain a full-time art and design department, so outside illustrators and designers did the covers, and they were very often credited. In Les’ case, William George — known for pulp paperback covers in the fifties — did the art for Ritual Of The Savage and Tamboo. But from 1957 on, Capitol had everything but pressing generated from the Tower, including all the art stuff, and rarely if ever with a note on who did the art or who posed for it. When I asked Les about album covers”, Heller continued, “he didn’t really remember anything about it, unless he himself was in the photo. He did mention to me once he thought that the cover of Space Escapade was very amusing, but that maybe it distracted people from some of his better writing on that record, especially The City and Moonscape. I had the pleasure of hearing him play each of those solo, at the piano.”
Despite my best efforts it would seem the mystery of whomever was responsible for Space Escapade’s orgasmic front cover will remain unsolved. Apologies to the late Robert Stack.
Flipping the cover around reveals Disney animator J.P. Miller’s illustrations. The romantic liner notes below and to the right of the images tease the listener: “We can close our eyes and dream of the future, wondering whether a starlit planet might soon replace a tropical island, the Riviera, or a distant mountain lodge as the ideal spot for a romantic holiday. Or, with the aid of this stereo recording, we can drift into the future’s lovemist with Les Baxter and make a spaceliner escapade by earthlight…” My bags are packed.
In addition to the notes and Miller’s monochrome sketches, the back cover includes delightful descriptions of each track, as if they were excerpts lifted from a space travel brochure. “On our first visit to a planet, we arrive in the midst of Martian Gras”, begins the description of Mr. Robot. I guess that explains the front cover. The Commuter provides a glimpse into the future of morning rush hour…”Jetmobiles roar through early Solar City traffic. Their frenzied speed gives rise to vertigo, until we realize that crashes are now extinct, with electric fields keeping travelers safely at arm’s length.” Hmmm…Baxter predicted blind spot and lane departure warnings sixty years before they were invented.
Some of Baxter’s music has found its way into recent major motion pictures and TV. In the Oscar-winning Matt Damon film, Ford vs. Ferrari, the first track off of Space Escapade, Shooting Star, is featured. Lunar Rhapsody from Music Out of The Moon is featured in First Man, a movie about Neil Armstrong. Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel features Baxter’s #1 hit Unchained Melody in season 3, episode 18.
No doubt Baxter would be tickled pink as an alien with a spring on his head to know that a whole new generation of music lovers are discovering his body of work and taking Space Escapade for repeated round trip listens. Fuel up your turntable, buckle yourself into your BarcaLounger, and prepare for liftoff. The female aliens with springs on their heads anxiously await your arrival.
Trivia:In 1954, Les Baxter composed the theme song to the TV show “Lassie”.In the latter years of his career he composed music for theme parks like Sea World.
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ALBUM CAPTION CONTEST!
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a clever caption for this vintage album cover (nothing X-Rated, please) and include your full name, complete shipping address with zip code, and valid email address so you can be notified if you win. I will pick the best caption and announce it on 3/21/22 on this website. The winner will receive one set of IN20 earbuds courtesy of thinksound, makers of headphones and earbuds with a level of sound quality, fit and finish unrivaled in their class. Head-Fi called the IN20 “a jukebox in your ears. It is as close to that warm musical full-bodied sound as you’re gonna get.” My sincere thanks to Aaron Fournier and thinksound.com for this excellent prize.
Voiced by acclaimed audio engineer, Aaron Fournier
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One winner shall be chosen. Said winner will be notified by email by/on March 18, 2022 and must acknowledge within 48 hours. The winner will be announced on RecommendedStations.com by/on March 21, 2022.
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“LP Caption Contest” OFFICIAL RULES & GUIDELINES NO PURCHASE OR PATREON SUPPORT NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A PURCHASE OR BEING/BECOMING A PATREON SUPPORTER WILL NOTINCREASE YOUR CHANCES OF WINNING.
1. Sponsor: RecommendedStations.com (the “Sponsor”).
2. How to Enter: The LP Caption Contest (the “Contest”) starts at 10:00 A.M. Eastern Standard Time (EST) on March 1, 2022 and ends at 7:00 P.M. EST on March 17, 2022 (the “Contest Entry Period”). To enter, send an email with your record cover caption to email@example.com. Limit one (1) caption submission per person during the Contest Entry Period. By sending an email, you agree that your email and caption conforms to these Official Rules and that the Sponsor, in their sole discretion, may disqualify you for any reason at any time, including if they determine, at their sole discretion, that your email fails to conform to these Official Rules in any way or otherwise contains unacceptable content as determined by the Sponsors.
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4. Award: The winning caption will be decided on 3/18/2022 and announced on 3/21/2022. Winner may not substitute, assign or transfer prize or redeem prize for cash but Sponsor reserves the right, at its sole discretion, to substitute a prize with one of comparable or greater value. Winner is responsible for any applicable federal, state, and local taxes, if any, as well as any other costs and expenses associated with the prize receipt and/or use not specified herein as being provided. All prize details are at the Sponsor’s sole discretion.
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If you read all of that then you deserve to fix yourself a dry ice-based adult beverage.
Radio Replay is a random “pop-up” series that looks back at a Recommended or Hitchhiker Station from the past. For my first Radio Replay, I re-established a connection with one of my early favorite Hitchhiker Stations, The Payphone Radio Network.
A local supermarket I frequent opened up their second entrance after having closed it for over a year due to the pandemic. As I headed toward the newly re-opened ingress, I noticed something I had never noticed before. I was upset with myself for being oblivious to it. It was an actual, in-tact, public payphone! I had not seen such a rare sight in I do not know how long. My heart started beating faster as quickened my pace toward this unexpected relic. As I approached, desperately fumbling in my pocket for some spare change and racking my brain over whom I would call, my excitement quickly turned to disappointment as I realized the phone was out of service. The sign at the top had been hastily covered up with black paint and there was an abundance of rust on the coin box. I felt like a total idiot for assuming this dinosaur was still alive. Evidently, some payphones are not even worth the effort of removal. This one had obviously been abandoned on the brick wall to dry up and fall off like an ugly old scab.
It occurred to me that with the advent of the personal cell phone, we have lost an entire telephone vocabulary…busy signal, reverse the charges, collect call, out of order, party line, operator, long distance, person-to-person, phone book, yellow pages, off the hook, cut off, directory assistance, switchboard, unlisted, and dial tone. Although we have retained the terms “dial” and “hang up” when we use our smartphones, we do not physically “dial” or “hang up” anything.
God Save The Call Box
Here is a bit of good news from our friends across the pond. Ofcom is proposing to preserve 5,000 of the iconic, red call boxes, but not because the UK’s telecommunications regulator has a soft spot for payphones. There are still areas in Britain with poor cell phone coverage, and for many, payphones are the only alternative. Areas with high accident or suicide rates will also retain their payphones. The new rules would prevent these call boxes from being repurposed into mini-libraries or storage facilities like thousands already have.
Do You Remember?
Like your first girl, they say you never forget the last time you used a payphone, or something like that. There was a payphone on the wall in the hallway opposite the door to my college dorm room. It accepted incoming calls and I’d occasionally get calls from relatives, mostly my father. Someone on my floor would answer the phone and knock on the door if it was for me or my roommate, Dan. There was no privacy, but people weren’t usually lingering in the hall unless they were waiting for the antique elevator which was out of service more than not. I don’t specifically remember making calls from that phone but I must have since this was before cell phones existed and we didn’t have a phone in the room (it cost too much to have a line installed). Besides, I really enjoyed the communal experience of using that payphone.
“This one had obviously been abandoned on the brick wall to dry up and fall off like an ugly old scab. “
Drop A Dime
One good thing that came out of my disheartening supermarket payphone experience was it reminded me of one of my early favorite Hitchhiker Stations, The Payphone Radio Network out of New York. I brought that Internet radio station to light two years ago this month, calling it a “one-man telephone reality show”. As a brief refresher, speaking in a Bill Belichick-like monotone, dropping an occasional, unexpected F bomb, Mark Thomas called into a recording apparatus and left personal reflections on all manner of topics which he later streamed over this Internet station. He called in using public payphones exclusively, thus the name of his station. He estimated he made over 1,600 payphone calls since he started streaming his station 11 years ago. Thomas must have been Ma Bell’s best customer. Ah, Ma Bell. I remember her well. The Payphone Radio Network is still on the air, but Thomas stopped calling it in just about a year ago due to – what else – the pandemic.
In addition to broadcasting his personal thoughts pertaining to whatever was weighing on his mind at the time, Thomas occasionally used a payphone’s handset as a hand-held microphone to record subway buskers. The sound quality was archival at best, but it was fascinating to hear those New York subway performances captured as they happened. Whenever I heard those primitive recordings on Payphone Radio, I was tempted to look around for an open guitar case to toss some spare change into. As it has been 2 years since I wrote about Payphone Radio, I decided to make it the subject of my first Station Replay to see what Thomas and his station have been up to. Normally I rely on email to conduct my interviews, but in this case, I very much wanted to ask Thomas my questions over a payphone. Unfortunately, for several reasons, that wasn’t possible, so, I present my written Q&A with Thomas:
Peter: Will you resume your payphone activity after COVID or are there just too few payphones to carry on?
Mark: I don’t think so. Ten years is a long run for something like this and I have nothing to prove by doing it for the rest of my life. I don’t know if the paucity of phones is necessarily a show-stopper, though. I’ve felt good about redirecting my energies to YouTube, where a loyal cadre of viewers seemingly cannot wait for me to do another emotional overshare or a payphone tour of another New Jersey city.
Peter: Do you miss making your payphone calls?
Mark: I do, but time marches on. Quarantine and lock down do not seem to have slowed the pace of the payphone apocalypse, which presently leaves just a couple dozen working public and semi-public phones in the 5 boroughs. I’ve also canvassed several New Jersey towns and found pitifully few working phones. It’s never been lost on me that the end is nigh for access to reliable public communications structures. If you are in a bind you had better hope your cell phone works. Peter: When was the last time you used a payphone and where?
Mark: I check in on what has come to be known as the “Doomsday Payphone,” so-called because I cannot believe the thing actually still works but also because I like to imagine a future where some kind of neutron bomb destroys all the cell phones, leaving this stubbornly surviving telephone as the last possible link connecting humanity to itself. I frequently dial up my Payphone Radio number from that phone, or else try a random toll-free number. I also dial *10 whenever I find a PTS payphone. *10 connects to a free daily prayer. I’m not religious but I find it enchanting, and sometimes funny. It also makes the owner of the payphone about 50¢ per call at no cost to me, this on account of FCC-mandated dial around compensation fees for calls to toll-free numbers made from payphones. That *10 shortcut only works from PTS-owned phones. Peter: Do you recall the first time you used a payphone?
Mark: I don’t think so but I will never forget the payphone at my high school. That thing was legend in my youth. Having regular access to that phone felt empowering, like I’d made a huge step toward adulthood. I guess it’s not unlike the sense of achievement young people have today when they get their first cell phones. I practically lived by that phone. That may well have been the first payphone in my life. There was also a phone booth outside the University of Tampa, where I took piano lessons. The area was known to be a hot spot of hookers and prostitutes. Even though I probably didn’t even know what [a] hooker was I was intrigued, and would call in to that phone booth and play back cassette recordings of myself at the piano for whoever answered. I guess I thought I was bringing some class and elegance to skid row. Peter: What’s the strangest thing that happened while you were on a payphone?
Mark: There used to be a spot on Northern Boulevard where you’d see a bunch of people strung out on K2 (synthetic marijuana) lying flat on their faces on the sidewalk and even on the roadway. I was making a call once from a phone across the street from that scene, just idly looking in their direction, when suddenly two of them sprang to life and started pounding the snot out of each other. They looked absolutely possessed. It was scary, even from the safety of being across the street, but [especially] when the brawl spilled into the street. Northern Boulevard is practically Interstate type traffic at that spot so those guys were at great risk of getting plowed down by a 70mph truck. One of the less drug-addled people nearby was able to corral them off the roadway but that could have ended very badly. Just as suddenly as the fistfight started those two K2 dudes laid back down on the sidewalk and passed out again. I also can never forget the moment, in the middle of a call, when a stroke of sunlight hit the inside of a Madison Avenue payphone enclosure so the words “GO TO CHURCH READ BIBLE”, scratched into the metal surface, became clear to me. It was like a small miracle because I had been on the hunt for PRAY for months, years even, coming up almost entirely empty handed. “GO TO CHURCH READ BIBLE” is one of the messages of PRAY, the legendary scratchiti (markings etched into hard surfaces) artist of the 1970s and ’80s who scratched messages like “PRAY” “LOVE GOD” “GO TO CHURCH” etc., onto, as the legend goes, every single payphone in New York. Statistics on how many payphones there used to be in NYC vary considerably, I suspect because indoor and outdoor phones were treated differently. But in her day PRAY would have scratched her messages onto well over 35,000 payphones, as well as other surfaces like fences, park benches, mailboxes, etc. That’s a lot of scratching. She was described as elderly, vagrant, and probably disturbed. Still, it was amazing to me that these messages she sent out all those years ago were still being received. Ever since that subtle, even subliminal message became clear to me I suddenly started seeing her everywhere. I simply did not have the eyes to see until then.
Peter: Did you ever have an extended conversation with an operator while on a payphone?
Mark: I remember pleasant back-and-forth chitchat with operators when I was in college but can’t recall any substantive conversation. Except for trying to make operator-assisted collect calls to payphones I seem to have [steered] clear of bothering the operators, though. I haven’t dialed 0 from a payphone in a long time but I seem to remember it leading to a pretty murky world these days. Peter: Did you ever record a famous/semi-famous busker using a payphone handset?
Mark: Probably the best-known and most enduring subway performer I’ve captured is Natalia Paruz, better known as The Saw Lady. I’ve captured her sounds a number of times. She’s quite a versatile musician not just with the saw but hand bells and carillon, though I’ve never seen her do hand bells in the subways, only the saw.
Peter: Do you use a landline and an answering machine at home?
Mark: It’s interesting how the definition of “landline” has changed. Fios phone, which I have, is considered landline, and unless you request otherwise, the number they give you is listed in the phone directories, along with your home address. Just like the old days of the phone book. I do not have a copper landline. I don’t remember when I finally cancelled that but I remember making the cancellation call to Verizon from one of the phone booths at the NYPL. I do have an old Panasonic telephone/answering machine I think I bought in the early 1990s. I also have a payphone given to me by the guy who owns the Doomsday Payphone. I plugged it in to Fios phone briefly but just use it as a conversation piece.
Peter: Why have you started posting select payphone calls on your station’s Facebook page?
Mark: I’d been meaning to do this for a while. The Shoutcast stream is, with over 1600 calls and over 63 hours of content, an awful lot to unpack. Breaking them down into single or short series of calls is intended to give people an idea of what the whole project is about without demanding too much of their time. With Shoutcast, as you know, most people would not be able to back up and replay something that was interesting to them. That is both its blessing and its curse, as I feel strongly that radio should be ephemeral but I also know that all these hours of content can feel like an ocean. I also have enjoyed messing with Adobe After Effects in making visualizations and audio wave forms. I also intend to transcribe some of them.
Peter: Did you learn anything profound from doing payphone radio or did it alter any views you had of something?
Mark: I don’t think I’m getting to the bottom of life’s mysteries with any of this stuff, but I guess I’ve learned a few things about myself. There is so much I do not say, so much I leave out. Almost none the women I’ve been involved with since I started doing this get even a mention, at least not specifically and never while we were together.
Peter: For the benefit of those reading this who’ve never had the pleasure, what was the appeal of using payphones?
Mark: One of my original intents was to capture the rugged, monochrome, earthy sound texture of the copper landline before it disappears altogether. Most of NYC’s payphones were retrofitted with cellular routers in the years after I started doing this but almost all the payphones that remain today are landline and calls from those suckers sound awesome. It’s also aesthetic at work about having both feet flat on the ground and being in a singular place. You can keep shoveling coins in to keep calls going indefinitely, of course, but at a public pay telephone your time is essentially limited. You have to think about what you’re going to say before dropping a coin and saying your piece. That’s how we used to connect before cell phones and mobile telephony caused the pace of communication to hyperventilate. I’ve never warmed to walking-and-talking on a cell phone. To me a phone call remains something important enough that you stop, plan, schedule, and take the experience seriously.
Peter: Did you ever hear Lou Reed’s song, “New York Telephone Conversation”?
Mark: Amazingly, no. I thought I knew all the payphone-related songs in the canon, having researched the matter quite a bit. Thanks for linking to that one, it’s good fun. The greatest payphones song ever, IMO, is “Sylvia’s Mother.” It’s nowhere near as great a song as Jim Croce’s “Operator” but *as a payphone song* it sets the pace, making you feel like you are in the phone booth shoveling coins in the slot to keep the connection alive. The song was actually a parody, meant as a joke, but on the basis of depicting the experience of making that kind of call I think it hits a bullseye.
Peter: Which Internet radio station(s) do you personally listen to (besides your own)?
Mark: Isn’t all radio Internet radio these days? BBC Radio 4 Extra, their radio dramas slay me. Freakonomics. I also binge on older stuff I have recorded: Danny Stiles, Joe Frank, Gene Scott, Paul Harvey, Joey Reynolds, other radio heroes. I find Joe Piscopo to be strangely engaging and I can’t explain why. Joe Walsh (not of the Eagles) was also a lot of fun until he screwed things up by running for President. I used to tune in to Hacker Radio on WBAI, and until I started getting to bed earlier, I’d make a point of hearing out Joe Frank’s 11pm spots on WNYC. I think they finally quit airing that. One obscurity is the Reverend Gary Beeler, who I heard when driving through central Tennessee in (I think) 2002. He delivered a sermon that made me pull the car over to the side of the road, it was so powerful. When I got back home, I wrote him a letter asking if he could send a cassette of the sermon from that day’s broadcast. He did. I play it back often. I wish I could find copies of the Matt Drudge Radio Show. That was a favorite but I somehow never thought to record it, and evidently neither did anybody else. One abbreviated show on YT and that’s it.
PS: What are you up to these days, Mark?
Mark: I continue doing phone projects, relying on an Asterisk PBX that I finally got around to setting up and configuring. You can reach my IVR, for instance, at this number: 917-259-1163. I am also going to be connecting my piano practice room radio to a dedicated inbound phone number in the 917 area code. I acquired 212-255-2748, a coveted phone number which used to be the primary number for the old Apology Line, and connected it to Payphone Radio.
Call To Hear The Calls
As Thomas mentioned, besides an Internet radio and his website, you can also listen to his payphone calls by using…wait for it…a telephone! Call 1-212-255-2748 and you’ll immediately be connected to the stream. Listening to phone calls from a phone…brilliant!
Two Person Party Line
An interesting Payphone Radio phone number “bug” was revealed last month. If someone calls the number while another person is already connected and listening, the Payphone Radio stream ceases at once and the two people can talk to each other for up to an hour (if anyone else calls in during this time they will hear a busy signal)! This would make for a fascinating Internet radio station in itself…recorded conversations of random strangers talking on the phone. Thomas himself called in and ended up speaking with numerous Payphone Radio fans (mostly). He also had several prolonged conversations with a local gal named “Ceci” that led to a date and a potential lasting friendship. But wait, it gets better. It turned out Ceci was a burlesque stripper! Where did Thomas take her on their date? “I gave her the grand tour of midtown’s payphones”, he wrote on his YouTube posting, “handing her a stack of Payphone Radio cards [printed cards advertising the Payphone Radio phone number] for her to stuff into payphones on 5th Ave., at Grand Central, Macy’s, and the Port Authority/Times Square subway station. We also stuck cards into a number of LinkNYC kiosks.” And they say romance is dead. This all reminds me of the Bandits On The Run’s (a NY band, by the way) beautiful song, Love In The Underground.
Anticipating an adventure of my own, I gave the number repeated tries over the course of several days and hung on for about 10 minutes each time, but I didn’t get lucky. Perhaps if I had pulled the handle enough times on the payphone slot machine, I eventually would’ve gotten 3 cherries in a row.
Calling Andy Warhol
Thomas’ payphone-project.com website is worth a browse for interesting payphone-related information. On it I found a phone number to a working payphone inside the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh that accepts incoming calls, a rarity for payphones. I tried calling the number numerous times on different days and times hoping someone, anyone, would pick up, but no one ever answered. I also sent them a few emails but never received any response. Obviously, they must be very busy over there at the museum.
Disappointed with my experiences, but not yet ready to hoist the white flag, I decided to try something else…calling the phone number to the Pawtucket, R.I. apartment I grew up in when I was a child. I remember we had an ugly, army green-colored rotary dial telephone in the living room, and a black one in my parent’s bedroom (I didn’t have my own phone until I was 22!). When I called the number, I got no answer. The phone just rang and rang. That made me think it must have been a land line because there was no voicemail greeting or a message that said the voicemail had not been setup. A Google search indicated the number was associated with a different Pawtucket address than the one I grew up at. They say you can never go home again. I guess the same is true when phoning home again. The white flag is now flying.
COVID has driven the last nail into the payphone’s coffin. You won’t find free, disposable antiseptic wipes at payphones, assuming you can even find a working payphone. It makes me all feel warm and fuzzy knowing payphones still flourish on The Payphone Radio Network, no antiseptic wipes or coins necessary. I suppose it’s about time I stop carrying around spare change in hopes of discovering a working payphone.
Trivia:The first public coin telephone was installed by inventor William Gray at a bank in Hartford, Conn in 1889.
PS: Check out my payphone pictures on the Recommended Stations/stationsguy Instagram page, and if you happen to know of any working payphones on MA’s south shore, please let me know where. I’ve got some spare change I’m dying to use.
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Album Spotlight focuses on a specific (usually vintage) record or CD. Album Spotlights will pop-up randomly. There might be another Spotlight next month or 5 months from now. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects the Album Spotlight!
Image courtesy of FETV.
January 26th marks the 5th anniversary of actor Mike Connors’ (aka Joe Mannix) passing at age 91. This year also marks the 55th Anniversary of the Mannix TV show. Accordingly, for this Album Spotlight, I look back on this extremely popular detective show and its music.
As mentioned, Mike Connors ably portrayed the lead character, private detective Joe Mannix. Connors was born in 1925 to Armenian parents. His original name was Krekor Ohanian, Jr, a name that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. His agent changed his last name to “Connors” and Columbia Pictures assigned “Mike” as his first name. Connors played basketball in high school, served in the Army in World War II, and graduated from law school with the intention of becoming an attorney like his father. However, a director friend of his basketball coach encouraged him to pursue a career in acting because of his voice and his facial expressions while playing basketball.
Connors appeared in numerous film and television roles that included such headliners as Joan Crawford, John Wayne, Robert Redford, Bette Davis, and Raymond Burr. However, it was Mannix that would be responsible for making him famous. The show debuted on Saturday night, September 16, 1967 on the CBS network. The first season had Mannix working for a high tech (i.e. lots of big computers), Los Angeles-based private detective agency called Intertec. Watching those early episodes today, the whole ultra-computerized thing looks silly. Perhaps it did back then as well, because Lucille Ball, President of production company Desi Lu, persuaded Paramount to dump Intertec in season two, making Mannix his own boss. This directly resulted in the show’s ratings really taking off.
It was during this pivotal change that the character of Mannix’s personal secretary, Peggy Fair, was introduced. Played by actress Gail Fisher, it was a high-profile, prime time role for a woman of color, highly unusual for network television in 1968. That said, Mannix wasn’t known for tackling the issues of the day, although a few episodes dealt with Vietnam Veterans with PTSD, deaf and blindness, racism, and gambling.
Besides Connors and Fisher, there were some big-name stars who appeared on Mannix during its 8-year run. In fact, you’d be reading for a long time if I detailed the complete list of stars. Here are just a few names you’ll no doubt recognize (in no particular order): Neil Diamond, Diane Keaton, Vic Tayback, Tom Selleck, Ford Rainey, Rich Little, Martin Sheen, Lee Meriwether, Lou Rawls, William Shatner, John Ritter, Bill Bixby, Buffalo Springfield, Milton Berle, Claude Akins, Cloris Leachman, Burgess Meredith, Loretta Swit, and Vera Miles.
The Brady Connection
Robert Reed was another star appearing on Mannix in the recurring role of Lt. Adam Tobias whilst still starring in The Brady Bunch (also owned by Paramount). Christopher Knight (aka Peter Brady) and Eve Plumb (aka Jan Brady) each appeared separately in Mannix episodes as well. But wait, there’s more. There was at least a half dozen scenes from different Mannix episodes that took place on the set of the Brady house! In a November 1970 Mannix episode titled “Sunburst”, the crooks even drove a Plymouth Satellite wagon with a rear-facing third row seat, the same type of vehicle Mike and Carol Brady drove. An odd choice to say the least for a getaway car. Being the TV addict that I am, I couldn’t resist mentioning the Brady connection. I can hear the opening theme in my head now. Sing along with me…There’s a story / Of a detective named Mannix…
Speaking of Plymouth, the Chrysler Corporation furnished the cars featured in every Mannix episode after the first season. This suited Mike Connors just fine since he was a car collector in real life, owning a 1937 Bentley convertible and a Maserati Mexico. Conners even took race car driving lessons to prepare for the chase scenes in the show. The cars Mannix drove included customized 1968 and 1969 Dodge Dart GTS 340 convertibles (complete with an ultra-rare Motorola rotary dial car phone), 1970-73 Plymouth Cuda convertibles, a 1974 Dodge Challenger 360 coupe, and in the final season, a 1975 Chevrolet Camaro LT and 1975 Chevrolet Impala convertible. Many years later, Mannix’s ’68 Dodge Dart was found abandoned and rotting away in CA. It was completely restored, and in an episode of Drive, actor Mike Connors was reunited with his car and got to drive it again after more than 4 decades!
“…the Joe Mannix character was knocked unconscious 55 times, wounded by gunshots nearly 20 times, and viciously beaten more times than even Intertec’s computers could calculate.”
Make It Real
As to the reason behind Mannix’s popularity which continues to this day, with the notable exception of how often Mannix was shot and beat to a pulp, one reason was because Joe Mannix was a realistic character. He wasn’t the suave, James Bond-like Peter Gunn, or the disheveled, cartoon-like Columbo. He was blue collar and down to earth. He showed his emotions. He made mistakes. He was relatable. In that sense, he was much like Mike Connors in real life. If you ever needed to hire a private detective, Mannix was the guy you’d want. In that episode of Drive I referenced in the previous paragraph, Connors said Mannix “was always believable. I think there was an honesty to it and I think that era was a great era of television. And I constantly get people saying they just don’t do shows like they used to.”
Another aspect to the realism was the fact that Connors insisted on performing almost all of his own stunts. If you’ve ever seen any Mannix episodes, you know there was a lot of action. Although he wasn’t “old”, at the age of 42, it must have been very physically demanding performing stunts for 8 years. In the pilot episode in which Mannix fights off a helicopter, Connors dislocated his shoulder and broke his wrist. As a bit of trivia, over the course of the series, the Joe Mannix character was knocked unconscious 55 times, wounded by gunshots nearly 20 times, and beaten up more times than even Intertec’s computers could calculate.
Mannix Gets Fired
With the exception of The Simpsons, television shows don’t last forever. When a television series is cancelled, it’s almost always due to a decline in ratings. Surprisingly, that wasn’t the case with Mannix. Mannix ranked in the top 20, and all signs pointed to a new season in 1976. However, when ABC began airing old reruns of Mannix at night, CBS was not amused (ABC had a cozy relationship with Paramount who owned the rights to Mannix). When CBS found out, they promptly cancelled Mannix, fearing they’d lose their audience to a competing network. This incomprehensible decision strikes me as CBS cutting off its nose to spite its face. I’m equally stunned that ABC or NBC never picked up the highly-rated show. Such is the strange business of show business.
Mannix earned Connors a Golden Globe Award, additional Golden Globe nominations, and several Prime time Emmy Award nominations. His final TV appearance was in a 2007 episode of Two and a Half Men. Connors died at the age of 91 on January 26, 2017 from complications of leukemia and was survived by his wife of 67 years and his daughter (his son died of heart failure 10 years earlier).
Setting Some Firsts
It’s worth noting that Mannix had a number of firsts. The show’s opening was unlike any detective show. It featured changing split screen sequences and the font of the text was similar to what was used by IBM. This was an intentional reference to Intertec’s computers.
Another first was the jump cut, pioneered by Mannix producer, Bruce Geller, which became a television industry standard. In one scene, Joe Mannix might be shaving in his bathroom, in the next, he’s getting into his car. Such cuts reserved time for more important scenes without confusing the viewer.
The Mannix opening theme was also a first for a detective show. Composer Lalo Schifrin, perhaps known best for his famous theme to Mission Impossible, wrote an unorthodox ¾-time waltz. As Morgan Ames wrote in her liner notes for the record, “Who else would have thought of using a waltz as a theme for a private detective? Anyone can tell you it doesn’t make sense- until you watch the credits at the beginning of the show and find yourself caught up.”
The author of those liner notes, singer/songwriter/producer Morgan Ames, met Schifrin and sat in on the Mannix recording sessions. Ames has quite a background herself, having performed with the likes of Johnny Mathis, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey. Her songs have been recorded by singers such as Shirley Horne, Peggy Lee, and Roberta Flack. She’s also released several of her own CDs. I donned my detective’s fedora and tracked down Ames in cyberspace to get her reflections on the Mannix music 54 years later. “It certainly shows Lalo’s talent and range”, she wrote me in an email. “My personal favorite was Beyond The Shadow Of Today.” “[Schifrin] would have been aware of the importance of staying within certain parameters, shallow ones, to accommodate the medium and to keep the suits happy. He was one of several composers playing way beneath his weight, and getting successful because of it. So, he snuck in a lot of really nice writing and got away with it. He was not dismissed as one of those jazz guys. I also noticed his choice (my opinion), because Mannix was a manly-man, to use lots of brass in lower ranges, the kind a manly man could easily walk across the shot to and further the brand. He had a nice cue in 5/4 in there.”
Peter: Were all session musicians used for the recording?
Morgan: It had to be a union session. The union prevailed in those days, especially when a session was related to TV or film. The most experienced players were union players. Lalo would have pulled from that pool because a lot of his stuff was hard. Heavy politics existed relative to orchestra contractors but nevertheless, the players were excellent. I’m pretty sure he would have been careful about that, like all the composers I knew.
Peter: What was Lalo like in the studio?
Morgan: My experience was that Lalo was easy and professional in the studio. Thus, the sessions went smoothly.
Peter: Where were the sessions recorded?
Morgan: I don’t remember but it was probably a sound stage in Hollywood or the valley.
Peter: What did you personally think of “Mannix”?
Morgan: My impression was that the show was written, produced and acted by men for men, with the occasional female, as were all shows in this genre. (Well, Girl From Uncle lasted a season or two, unsupported, but that was it).
As a point of clarification, the 11 songs on this record are extended versions of the music taken from the series. If they hadn’t been extended, each song would’ve lasted under 90 seconds since that’s the way music for television usually works. Schifrin expanded on his original themes into proper songs in order to fill an entire album. More music? Yes please! Stand out tracks for me are The Girl Who Came In With The Tide, Beyond The Shadow Of Today, Turn Every Stone, and End Game. The music has a definite late 60s sound, which makes sense considering the music was recorded in 1968 and released in 1969. It isn’t the kind of dark, pensive music one would expect from a detective show. Like The Mannix character, the music is down to earth and isn’t afraid to show emotion. You don’t need to be a die-hard Mannix fan, or of the male gender, to appreciate the music.
There aren’t many TV shows that have the privilege of their own soundtrack release. Mannix actually had two. Lalo Schifrin re-recorded the soundtrack for CD in 1999 on his own record label, but the music is reinterpreted with an incongruous 90s sound and includes a “Mixdown” bonus track of the Mannix theme that is particularly painful to listen to. The original album was issued on CD by Collectors Choice back in 2008 but it’s long out of print and sells on eBay for outrageous money (i.e. north of $90!). The original 1969 soundtrack record on the Paramount label can be found used on eBay for more reasonable coin.
Besides listening to the music, if you’d like to watchMannix, cable channel FETV airs two back-to-back episodes starting at 10pm ET every night. Mannix episodes are also available on DVD.
Like Mike Connors’ fans never hesitated to tell him, when it comes to detective shows, they don’t make them like they used to. Happy 55th Anniversary, Mannix.
Trivia:Mike Connors once described himself as a “frustrated song-and-dance man”. He played the trumpet and loved to sing. He never recorded an album but did perform a song live on The Mike Douglas Show.
My personal thanks to Morgan Ames for her time answering my questions.
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You might not recognize his name, but chances are good you have seen one of the over 150 films or TV programs Paul Zaza has written music for. Zaza, along with follow composer Carl Zittrer, won the prestigious Canadian Genie Award in 1980 for their score to the Sherlock Holmes film Murder by Decree. That same year, the two wrote the score to the classic horror film Prom Night. The following year, Zaza composed the music for another classic horror flick, My Bloody Valentine, one of my top ten favorite horror films.He also composed the soundtracks for the horror film Popcorn (“Buy a bag, go home in a box”) and the sex comedy Porky’s. He teamed up with Zittrer again in 1983 to compose the music he is perhaps most famous for, A Christmas Story. On the television side of things. Zaza wrote music for shows like Eight Is Enough, That’s Incredible, and some partial music for The Waltons to name just a few.
For this special holiday blog post, I spoke with Zaza, 69, by phone from his home in Canada. For more than an hour, Zaza pulled back the curtain on A Christmas Story, the music he scored for the now-classic holiday movie, the soundtrack release, deleted scenes, working with director Bob Clark and narrator Jean Shepherd, money issues with the movie, and more. Due to the quality of the phone recording, I was unable to clearly understand a couple of the passages. Rather than guess what was said, I noted “unintelligible” in those few, very brief portions.
If you are a fan of A Christmas Story, you will definitely enjoy Zaza’s first-hand accounts. Even if you are not a fan, you will still find Zaza’s inside stories fascinating. I triple-dog-dare-you to try to stop reading.
Peter:The time period of A Christmas Story is not made clear in the movie, although Ralphie’s Radio Orphan Annie Secret Society decoder pin is definitely from 1940. How did the time period influence your compositions?
Paul: Well, yeah. I’s a period piece, right? So obviously, you didn’t want to put any rap songs in there (laughs).
The other thing that a lot of people don’t know [is], actually a lot of people don’t know a lot of things about the film, the production. But the picture really was [director] Bob Clark’s vision of a Jean Shepherd radio show. [Shepherd] had a series of these little stories that he would tell on the radio. That was what Jean Shepherd did. He wrote these audio-only stories. And he had such a wonderful voice. He’s the voice of Ralphie In the picture that you hear. I had many, many lunches and dinners with Gene Shepherd. I could just sit there and listen to him talk all night because his voice was like a musical instrument. It was so soothing. It didn’t even matter what he was saying. It was just so nice to listen to the man talk because he had such emotion and such- just human warmth in his voice. When you hear him doing the narration on the movie, that’s what he talked like in real life. He wasn’t acting. That’s him.
Bob fell in love with a lot of the stories that came out of the Jean Shepherd novels and said, ‘Look, why don’t we make one, but for Christmas. It’s a little boy who wants a BB gun.’ And they went back to Jean Shepherd’s actual time. That’s when he was growing up and he remembered all these things. This is very autobiographical. He grew up in Indiana, wanted a BB gun for Christmas, he got all the push back from everybody saying, ‘No, no, no you’ll shoot your eye out’, and all this stuff. So, this was just really a recounting of his childhood. And of course, when Bob and [Jean] teamed up, it was magic because Bob added a lot of…well, you don’t know him, but he had a way of taking something and then just giving it a little extra twist or juice just to give it a little more…Sometimes it was a little too edgy and he had to cut back, like the stuff in there about ‘Oh, fudge!’ and ‘son-of-a-bitch’. That wasn’t in the original. Bob put that in there and he had to be very careful because the picture had to be a PG rating. You didn’t wanna have a kid saying ‘Oh, f***!’. This would not fly (laughs). Anyway, that’s the period and it’s a little before Bob’s time but not a lot. Bob might have been born in that era but he certainly wasn’t old enough to know about a BB gun. Jean was quite a bit older than all of us.
As far as the music goes, which I think is what you’re asking me, you’ve gotta remember, too, and a lot people don’t know this- with the music it was, with Bob and so many other directors, it was really more what their vision of it is than mine. I was a facilitator. My job is to give you what you want. What do you want? In the cases of a lot of Directors they say, ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t know. Let’s try some things.’ Well, you can’t just try some things with a 90-piece orchestra (laughs). The trick, and we did it on every film that I’ve ever done, still done today is, you go to the record store, you buy a bunch of records like John Williams’ Star Wars, you buy Close Encounters, and you buy Superman, and you buy everything you can and then you take that needle drop, or you put it on, illegally of course. But it’s not goin’ anywhere, so nobody knows about it, and you use these soundtracks against your film to see if it works or not. And it’s perfectly legitimate. It’s called a temp track. So, the temp track goes on and then you know right away, and this is free. It doesn’t cost you anything more than the cost of buying the record. You know right away if it works or not. So, what we did was, we looked at the film- Bob’s got this idea. I think he heard it driving to the Baskin Robbins one day (laughs) for one of his milkshakes. He heard the Grand Canyon Suite on the radio being played on one of the classical stations in Massachusetts. I forget which one it was. And he really loved it. He called me from the car and he said, ‘This is fantastic. We could put this, this is perfect, this is Ralphie wanting his gun, shooting the bad guys. This is it.’ So, I remember saying to him, ‘What is it?’ ‘Well, I don’t know, but it’s on the radio now.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I’m in Canada and you’re in Massachusetts. I can’t get to the radio station- you don’t even know what radio station you’re on’ (laughs). You don’t know what it is. You don’t know what station it is.’ So, we had to kind of delve into what did he hear that he fell in love with? And it turned out it is was Ferde Grofe, the composer who wrote the famous Grand Canyon Suite. If you listen to the score on the movie, you’ll hear the Grand Canyon Suite all over the place. It became the basis of the film.
Then there [was] other…obviously the Christmas carols, that’s a no brainer. Then there were little areas that didn’t- we couldn’t really find anything. Like the Bumpus hounds. What other movie has ever had a scene like the Bumpus hounds eating a turkey? Where do you begin to look for that? In my wisdom I said, ‘You’ve got a bunch of dogs ravaging a turkey.’ The only thing I could think of was the old standard, Turkey in The Straw. And the only reason I thought of it was because it was a turkey [sings some of the song]. You know how it goes. It’s an old classic. So, I did an orchestral version of Turkey in The Straw and put it on the movie where the dogs are rushing in to eat [the old man’s] turkey and he loved it. Bob said, ‘That’s brilliant. It’s fantastic. It’s beautiful.’ I said, ‘Okay, great.’
The other area we had a problem with was [Bob] didn’t know what to do with the whole scene where the boy was walking with the kids, getting beat up by the bullies. There was all the dialogue between them: ‘Oh, your old man’s an idiot. ‘What does he know?’ And all that stuff. I came up with this stupid little polka which plays all through the movie when we’re transitioning from home to the school, between his fantasies, and all this. It’s that stupid little polka that Bob fell in love with because it was just childish, and it was playful, and it’s not really comical or cartoon-y, but it was just kind of fun. So that I came up with and he liked it. And the boys running and that little kind of chase music thing. But the rest of it was pretty much derived from Peter and The Wolf, Grand Canyon Suite, and what else? A lot of other whimsical parts where [Ralphie’s] fantasizing about getting an A++++ in the school. So really the whole thing was kind of pieced together over, probably 6 to 8 weeks, and a lot of it was trial and error, and a lot of stuff didn’t work, so we didn’t use it.
Peter: Is that a normal time frame for a film soundtrack?
Paul: Ah, yeeaah, you know, normally, in the case of like, especially with Bob, where he wasn’t always sure what he wanted, yeah. He tried things. He tried them. Very often what he would do is if he himself wasn’t sure if it worked (laughs), he would play it for anybody who happened to walk in the cutting room. One time, I remember it was late, we ordered a pizza, and the guy who brought the pizza, Bob said ‘Hey, come here. Watch this. What do you think of this?’ (laughs). And the pizza guy loved it so it ended up staying in the movie. That’s just the way Bob worked.
Peter: You mentioned going to the record store and buying soundtracks. Did soundtracks from other period holiday films enter the picture at for you?
Paul: Well, when I was speaking about that I was talking in general. This is for all the movies that I’ve done, especially Bob Clark films. In A Christmas Story, obviously we didn’t buy Star Wars because there would have been no place for it.
Peter: Right, right.
Paul: But I did buy the Grand Canyon Suite. And I did buy Tchaikovsky’s Peter & The Wolf. No. Sorry. Was it Prokofiev? I can’t remember who the hell wrote it. Anyway, Peter and The Wolf is used for the fight scene with the [kid] with the yellow eyes, so we did like excerpts of that, recreated of course. We don’t just drop the needle. We had to re-record it. I wrote it out again and re-recorded it. So, we had to buy that record. I had a lot of Christmas carols in my library. Of course, I re-recorded Jingle Bells. I think the opening of the film, which, I’m just trying to remember…Deck the Halls? Yeah, I think it was Deck the Halls. And again, variations on the Christmas carols that they fit the film and transitioned into the drama of the film.
Peter: But did you watch Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life or that kind of thing?
Paul: No, no, no, because the movie really isn’t anything like Miracle On 34th Street. I mean, this was kind of a unique film. So unique in fact, that the studio didn’t even want to release it. First of all, they said, ‘This is a documentary. We don’t do documentaries.’ Because [Bob] did it documentary style with the voice over. And Bob fought tooth and nail with MGM, and this happened all the time with Bob. He’d get into a pissing match with the studio heads…big arguments…he didn’t like them and they didn’t like him. They’d end up being at odds. They just weren’t working in synch with each other. MGM didn’t even want to release the film. First of all, they thought, ‘What are we doing here? It’s a documentary. It’s about a kid who wants a BB gun. Who cares?!’ Boy, were they wrong.
Anyway, the other problem was, and this is historical, but at the time, MGM just went through a massive change of management. They got a whole new studio head who came in, and if you know anything about the way Hollywood works (laughs), when they change studio heads, the new guy comes in, the first thing he does is, he un-does everything the guy before him did. Right? So, [the new guy] came in and he said, ‘What’s this?’ (laughs). Who green lit this project? Why is this project even in our roster? Why are we doing this?’ The problem was it was too late to stop it. Cameras were rolling, the money was being spent, I was hired, things were goin’. You couldn’t stop it. You can’t stop it because there’s contracts and unions and stuff like that. So instead of stopping it they just said, ‘Alright we’ll put it out. We’re gonna let it go, and we’re just gonna let it die.’ And that’s exactly what they did. The movie had no advertising. It came out around Christmastime. I think it opened on a Friday night and it was gone by Monday. Absolutely abysmal ticket sales. Didn’t even get a chance. It was just so pathetic. At the time, we just looked at each other and said, ‘Well, you know, what the hell do you expect? It’s a movie about a kid who wants a BB gun.’ At that time, people were goin’ to the movies to see John Travolta and all these people dancing…and all kinds of…Friday the 13th and exciting stuff. Nobody really had an appetite for a kid who wanted a BB gun for Christmas. So, that’s a little bit of the history of it.
Now, if you fast forward to the next what, 40 years? The film gained, slowly but surely, it gained an audience and it gained almost a cult following to the point now where it’s become an evergreen. It’s probably right up there with Miracle, and what’s the other one?
Peter: Wonderful life.
Paul:Wonderful Life. It’s become a classic. I can’t tell you, Peter, I don’t go through one Christmas without getting like a dozen phone calls (changes his voice)- ‘Hey! I just saw A Christmas Story on TV!’ Oh, Jeez, that’s a shock (laughs). I’m just tired of hearing everybody [saying], ‘Oh, I just watched A Christmas Story. What a great movie. You’ll shot your eye out. I double dog dare’…all that stuff. I’ve heard so much of that its almost depressing.
The film got taken over by Warner Brothers. We did a soundtrack on Rhino [Records] which you alluded to in your email. We’ve just been through…we haven’t made a dime on it.
Peter: Really? Wow!
Paul: Oh, yeah. They’re really bad people. They’re fighting them now- there’s all kinds of litigation. They can’t find the contracts, they took it over from MGM (unintelligible) the library. There’s just so much legal crap involved, but the (unintelligible) continues to make a fortune and we haven’t seen a dime.”
Peter: That’s a shame for you guys.
Paul: Well, I’m not telling you this, I don’t want pity, I’m just letting you know just how evil Hollywood is. The only way you really get to the bottom of it is to get some N.Y. attorney at $1,500 an hour and go after them. It’s hard for me to do, too, because I’m in Canada, and we’ve got to sue them in Los Angeles. It’s not in my near future. I don’t want to deal with it. The other interesting thing is the estate of Bob Clark has still got law suits because they screwed him, too. Yeah. So, there’s all that out there, but the average guy doesn’t really know or care about that (laughs). So that’s the name of that one.
“…He had such a wonderful voice. He’s the voice of Ralphie In the picture that you hear. I had many, many lunches and dinners with Gene Shepherd. I could just sit there and listen to him talk all night because his voice was like a musical instrument.”
Peter: When you were scoring the music, did you get the segment of the film you were scoring, or how did that work?
Paul: Well, I don’t just get a segment, I get the whole film. When I have a copy of the film, we would get together, sit down and look at scenes, individual scenes. Obviously, (unintelligible) a movie running almost 2 hours you can’t do that all-in-one blow, but there’d be problematic scenes that just weren’t either working right, or [Bob] wasn’t sure, and we would try things. I would work with him on it. He just doesn’t send me off and say…I mean, the times he did do that it would just be simple. ‘We need a Christmas carol here. They’re driving in the car. They’re on their way to buy the Christmas tree. Put something on the radio. I don’t care. Deck the Halls, Jingle Bells, whatever.’ There was one part where they’re actually singing Jingle Bells along with [the radio] in the car. I don’t know if you remember the scene. So, I had to get on the set there and work with them on that because then I had to tie it in with the rest of it. But if it was just radio music, or if you listen to the beginning of the film, there’s an old radio on in the kitchen and they’re playing period music like The Hut-Sut Song or something that would have been very much played on the radio in that era. So [Bob would] say, ‘Let’s just find something and put it there’, just ‘cause it’s more an ambience in the background than it is a feature. Most people aren’t even aware of it. Those were the areas that weren’t of major concern.
The areas that were big were the flashback scenes where [Ralphie’s] fight Black Bart or whatever the guy’s name was. He’s gonna save the world, right? Those were big scenes and that’s where we really wanted [the music] to work well with picture. There were two scenes in the film, big flashbacks that never made it. They got cut out. The interesting thing about it is that these 2 scenes, I spent more time on scoring these scenes than anything else (laughs) and [Bob] ended up cutting the scenes.
Peter: Were they cut because of a time constraint or Clark just didn’t think they worked?
Paul: No. The scenes worked. One of them was Ralphie was Flash Gordon and he was up in outer space and there were all kinds of monsters and aliens. They built this incredible set with prosthetics and all these monsters and space shuttle…what do you call them? Flying saucers around and all this stuff. Really elaborate. It was actually very well done. This was Ralphie saving the world from the interplanetary monsters. Cut the whole scene out. Scoring it was a bitch because it just had to be big and larger than life.
The other scene was, Ming, The Magnificent (laughs). There was this whole scene built where he was again saving the world from Ming who was an evil man [or] whatever that folklore is. Ralphie was transplanted into that fantasy and the music again had to be big and evil- foreboding. They cut that scene, too. These two scenes ate up a lot of the money and the time in the movie. And then when I got the word they wanted the scenes [to be] cut I thought, ‘Jeez, what do I do with all this music?’ Why was it cut?’ I think you asked me. Basically, there was too many…we were storied out. We just had too many flashbacks. It was getting to be almost…when you looked at the whole film with all of these [flashbacks] in there, it was running too long. People were getting edgy because it was just too over the top. They found out of all the scenes to cut those were the two that were running the longest and the other [flashbacks] were more entertaining. They weren’t always [Ralphie] saving the world like when he was dreaming of getting an A++++. That was more on the mark. The movie is more than about Ralphie saving the world. So that’s a little bit of trivia for you.
Peter: Being the music geek that I am, it would have been wonderful if they had included the music from those deleted scenes on the soundtrack as bonus cuts along with some snippets of dialogue.
Paul: Well, yeah, that’s a whole other story. We did the soundtrack, my partner, Carl Zittrer, who edited all the music. We put the soundtrack together and we had a lot of problems with Rhino Records, which is Warner Brothers by the way. It’s just a subsidiary. We had done a version of the album originally on our own label and of course they got their lawyers on the phone and then it started to get really ugly. Finally, we said, ‘Look, we’re doing the album with or without you’, and they said, ‘Alright, well we’ll do it. We’ll put it out. We can put it out much bigger than you guys can on your own’, which [was] true. So, they did. Still haven’t seen a nickel from any of the sales. Then they said, ‘We want to cut it down to just the music that’s in the movie. We don’t want any deleted scenes, we don’t want any special bonuses’, and stuff like that. I said ‘Well, why not?’ I mean, give somebody something for free, they’re gonna love it and there’s a lot of Christmas Story buffs out there that go to the house in Cleveland they love to see all this behind- the-scenes stuff. But no, we couldn’t persuade them, so we had to make a decision. Do we just run with it? Well, what else do we do? That music still sits in my library and there’s not too many people that have heard it.
Peter: Well, that’s unfortunate, but you have to do what you have to do.
Paul: Well, that’s normal, Peter. That’s normal. In the life of a film composer some of their best work is sitting on the floor. That happens. It’s just life. It’s just the nature of the beast, that’s all.”
Peter: To back track, how did you get involved with all of this to begin with? I know you had worked with Bob in the past. Was that the link?
Paul: Absolutely. One thing about Bob… and film directors, though there are exceptions, but most tend to be very loyal and that’s not just because they’re great people. It’s very often an insecurity in that If a director has success with, say, a composer, an editor, a D.O.P. [Director of Photography], whatever- they tend to go back to them because they feel, well, it worked once, maybe it will work again. It’s almost a superstition. The only time they’ll make a change is if for some reason it doesn’t work, or the film was a disaster, or the [director] is just too hard to work with. [Bob and I] had done a couple. I think Murder by Decree, the Sherlock Holmes film, and what else did we do? I can’t remember the timeline. I don’t know if Porky’s was before or after that.
Peter: I think it was before because I read that Porky’s actually helped fund A Christmas Story. I read that somebody said if it hadn’t been for the success of Porky’s, A Christmas Story never would have been made.
Paul: Ah, I don’t know how true…that may be. Again, I don’t know, I wasn’t in the board room meetings when these financial decisions were made, but I know that Murder by Decree was the first one and it was critically acclaimed. It was probably one of the best things Bob’s ever done. It won awards. Really put him on the map as a very good, strong director, but I don’t think it made any money. Porky’s was put together and shot in Florida and a very limited budget, very little. In fact, we ran out of money and had to stop and then I think at the 11th hour a guy by the name of Harold Greenberg came in and finished the film. He took a big piece of it which paid him huge dividends later but the film did well…very, very well at the box office as you know. And there [were] all kinds of money flying around for everybody, and I think Bob said, ‘Oh, I wanna to do’…he was fascinated by this Jean Shepherd story as I told you, so he shopped the thing around and went to MGM and convinced the then head of MGM to put up a very mediocre budget to let him make the movie. This is the movie he wanted to make. I don’t remember it running out of money. I think it just simply- they capped it and they said, ‘No, this is as far as we’re going to go with it’ because they kinda new before the film was made that it wasn’t going to get a big, what they call a P&A budget. A P&A is print and ad. Normally if a film, just for round figures, if a film cost 10 million dollars to make, it needs another 10 million in prints and ads. Those are the physical prints that used to be. It’s different now with digital, but in the old days, if you had to make 3,000 prints of a movie, that was a lot of money. And then the ads…the bus shelters, the newspapers, the TV ads. That’s big. That’s expensive. As a rule of thumb, usually whatever the budget of your movie is, is what the budget of the P&A is. They already knew they weren’t going to put any money into the P&A. [A Christmas Story] didn’t have that many prints and there were no ads. So, I don’t remember Bob or anybody putting Porky’s money in to finish it. Might have happened but I don’t know anything about it.
“…We ordered a pizza, and the guy who brought the pizza, Bob said, ‘Hey, come here. Watch this. What do you think of this?’ And the pizza guy loved it so it ended up staying in the movie.”
Peter: What was Carl’s (Zittrer) role in all of this?
Paul: Carl really was, I mean, Carl and Bob went to school together. They were buddies in Florida. I’m a Canadian. I met Carl- that’s a whole other story for a whole other interview. But Carl and I knew each other and then when Bob said, ‘Look, I wanna make this period piece called Murder by Decree and I need music’, Carl kinda knew that, well, it’s a little out of [his] league. He had done a movie with Bob first called Black Christmas.
PS: Yes, I know it well. A great Christmas horror film.
Paul: Yeah. He did a great job, but it wasn’t- if you know the film, you know that the music in it is nothing like Murder by Decree (unintelligible). But [Carl] knew enough that if he had to do a period piece in 1888 in England, and it had to be Sherlock Holmes and it had to be stately, he knew he was a little out of his league. So,[Carl] called me and he said, ‘I want you to collaborate with me on this…do a lot of the writing and come to England and we’ll work with Clark there’, which is exactly what I did. So that’s how I met Bob through Carl, and Carl knew Bob since they were in high school.
So, what was [Carl’s] role? He was really kind of the conduit between me and Clark because Clark didn’t know who I was. A lot of the movie was shot in Canada because it was a co-Canadian-English production. He did do some shooting in Canada so this all worked well. I think they needed a Canadian content component to it. Like I don’t know whether you- how into the Canadian film thing you are, but to get government money…what do they call them?
Paul: Grants? You can get governments to put tax shelters together for Canadian businessmen who will put, say, $100,000 into a film investment and then get to write off the complete amount against their income tax ‘cause they’re investing in cultural…it’s just a thing. We’ve always had tax shelters here which has been the only reason for our film industry going anywhere. But as one of the caveats of that is you have to have a certain [number] of Canadians on the film. You look at the cast of any of these films you’re gonna see a lot of Canadian people, like Christopher Plumber was a Canadian. I was one of the points. Each component was worth so many points. If you had a leading actor or an editor or a D.O.P. or a first A.D. [Assistant Director], whatever. Every one of these would be worth so many points, and a music composer’s worth quite a few points. So, they needed me for that. Plus, I mean, I wasn’t just hired because I was Canadian. I was hired because Carl knew I could do it.
And what did he do? Well, a lot of the music I wrote. I conducted The Royal [Philharmonic] in London. It was a big treat for me to do that to hear this beautiful orchestra playing all my music. Then Carl would take it, edit it, work with Bob in the cutting room and say, “Okay, you know, we’ve got this and this. We worked this out here.’ A lot of the movie wasn’t even shot when we did the music. [Bob] ended up doing some pickup shots. Then we came back to Canada and had to do more sessions. But at that point we kinda knew what Bob wanted- where this was gonna go. If you’ve ever seen [Murder by Decree], you’ll see that it’s pretty dark. There’s not a lot of happy scenes in the movie. We had to make sure that the music didn’t bring it down so much that it was just too depressing to watch. There’s always that fine line…you’re doing a movie about Jack the Ripper, it’s not a feel-good film. There’s always that balance.
Peter: Did you have any interaction with the actors in A Christmas Story?
Paul:A Christmas Story was pretty much…I wasn’t on the set for a lot it that was shot in Cleveland and if you look at the movie, the movie was actually shot mostly in Cleveland, and I’d say maybe 30% of it in Toronto. They never went to Indiana to shoot it which is where it’s supposed to have happened. I didn’t get to Cleveland. There was no reason to go there. But for the Canadian pickups I went to the sets and got to meet Ralphie and all, but again, these were kids. I knew a couple of the actresses who were Canadian, like the teacher, Tedde Moore, who plays the teacher. She’s from Toronto. I had worked with her on a few things beforehand.
Again, it was pretty much put together very quickly. It was a short set. The longest scenes were the two I told you about. They had to build these sets for, so that’s where the time was spent. The other scenes pretty much, I mean, come on, it’s not like, how long does it take to shoot a movie? Most of it was taking place in the house or the school where he was running from the school. Those were easy to shoot. The flash backs were the hardest part to shoot. That’s where the time was spent. But anyway, good memories from that, too. Nobody was pulling any tantrums. There [were] no problems. Bob and Jean Shepherd got along really well.
Where I think we had more, and this is off topic, but was there was a sequel made called My Summer Story. It got re-titled to, what did they call it? Some stupid…It Runs in The Family, or something like that. It was supposed to be the sequel. It was the sequel to A Christmas Story. It was the same gang only in the summer time. Instead of a BB gun [Ralphie] wanted a top. You know, those spinning tops? You probably haven’t seen the movie and don’t bother. They took all the same ingredients…Ralphie and the brother, and the old man, and the Bumpus hounds, the Bumpus’ were back, and all this nonsense. But it got convoluted. It just got to be- it wasn’t working. Jean [Shepherd]and Bob were arguing all the time and Jean was saying, ‘No, this isn’t what the old man would have done.’ It wasn’t working. It didn’t jell like the original did. It died a very quick death and (laughs) didn’t have a resurgence unlike the original.
Trivia: Paul Zaza is a graduate of the prestigious Toronto Music Conservatory and is professional musician, playing bass and piano. He played bass in the hit Canadian stage production “Hair” and toured with the Fifth Dimension in the 1970’s.
I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of my conversation with composer Paul Zaza. In Part 2, Zaza discusses A Christmas Story house in Cleveland, the vintage fire engine used in the movie, what he thinks of the movie and the soundtrack today, the singing Chinese waiters’ scene, the tongue frozen on the flag pole scene, and more great tales of working with director Bob Clark. Part 2 of my exclusive interview is available now for all Patreon supporters only. Please consider supporting my blog by becoming a Patreon supporter for just $1. You will have immediate access to Part 2 of this exclusive interview on Patreon plus my monthly Recommended and Hitchhiker Internet radio stations.
This is my inaugural Album Spotlight post. Album Spotlights will focus on a specific (usually vintage) vinyl album or CD. They will pop-up randomly. There might be another Album Spotlight next month or six months from now. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects The Album Spotlight!
Fifty-three years ago this month, American television viewers looked forward to watching Dean Martin’s annual Christmas TV episode on NBC on a Thursday night at 10. Whether it was his beloved Christmas special or a regular episode of his hour-long, weekly television show, Martin would perform musical numbers with a backing group of talented, attractive young ladies collectively known as The Golddiggers. The group’s name was not meant to be derogatory but rather a nod to the Warner Brothers musicals of the 1930’s.
The Dean Martin Show
Before I dive deeper into this group and their vintage holiday record, We Need a Little Christmas, I beg your indulgence as I devote a little time to talk about The Dean Martin Show that The Golddiggers performed on. Martin was not keen on hosting his own variety show when NBC pitched the idea to him. For one thing, several other star-hosted TV variety shows had failed. For another, Martin was involved in other projects (records, films, etc.) and enjoyed playing golf, and he did not want a TV show to get in the way. He came up with the idea to insist on a list of unreasonable demands that he was sure NBC would flatly turn down…a huge salary, a one-day work week (Sundays only), not having to rehearse, and the list went on. But Martin underestimated how badly NBC wanted him and the network agreed to his demands without exception. Whether he liked it or not, Martin had his own TV show.
Since Martin refused to rehearse before the taping of his show, and since he actually sang his songs not lipped synched to them, gaffs were inevitable. These usually took the form of blowing lines while reading a cue card, messing up the lyrics to a song, or hitting the wrong note. This was often followed by Martin making an unscripted joke about his mistake. These uncut bloopers only endeared him to his fans and his audience even more, and proved a refreshing departure from other shows that re-shot their mistakes as standard operating procedure.
From Ann-Margaret to John Wayne
The Dean Martin Show proved wildly popular with TV viewers. During its long 9-year run it won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for a dozen Emmy Awards. The complete list of celebrities who appeared on his program is far too long to detail here, but some of Martin’s guest stars included (in no particular order) Frank Sinatra, Bob Newhart, Dom DeLuise, Flip Wilson, Red Buttons, Lena Horne, Edgar Bergen, Ann-Margaret, Debbie Reynolds, Duke Ellington, Nipsy Russel, John Wayne, and Vic Damone. Even Martin’s band had star power, being led by Les Brown. I will pause a moment for you to catch your breath. And of course, he was surround by his beautiful Golddiggers girls. Martin was not called the “King of Cool” for nothing.
I Just Sat There Wide-Eyed
In 1968, Martin’s TV Producer, Greg Garrison, formed The Golddiggers, a showgirls-style singing group, as a backing group for Martin. A dozen young ladies (later to be 13) were selected out of thousands who auditioned across the US and Canada. I could write about what happened next, but I would rather Dean Martin tell you himself. “After [Garrison] had shaped the act, he invited me into a rehearsal studio to look and listen. [The Golddiggers] were so fresh and talented I just sat there wide-eyed. I looked like a guy who jumped on his bicycle and discovered there was no seat. After several appearances on my show, they were such a hit I asked them to star on my summer show…They are talented and believe in themselves. I can’t tell you how happy I am to have them around.” That from Martin’s liner notes to The Golddiggers’ self-titled, debut album.
The Golddiggers also volunteered to tour with Bob Hope entertaining US troops during the Vietnam War from 1968-1970 on his USO Christmas tours. It was a major sacrifice to be separated from their families at Christmas, but the girls appreciated the major sacrifice our boys were making in Vietnam. The troops must have thought they had died and gone to heaven when the stage filled up with beautiful young ladies!
In 1971, the group’s popularity earned them their own weekly TV show, Chevrolet Presents The Golddiggers. Five of the ladies continued to perform with Martin on his TV show as The Dingaling Sisters, a name that probably would not fly in today’s politically correct environment. In 1973, an entirely new Golddiggers group was formed. The members have varied over the decades but six of the original Golddiggers remain friends and occasionally reunite as they did 3 years ago for their 50th Anniversary.
“I just sat there wide-eyed. I looked like a guy who jumped on his bicycle and discovered there was no seat.”
We Need a Little Christmas was released in 1969 on Metromedia Records (MD 1012). It was one of 3 records The Golddiggers released and the only Christmas record by the entire group. The second you drop the needle on this record you know you are listening to music from the late 1960’s. That is not meant as a criticism. On the contrary. The arrangements are playful and dare I say a bit flirtatious. Christmas music should make you feel good inside. It should bring a smile to your lips. We Need a Little Christmas accomplishes that in spades. Some of the comments left on YouTube include, “This was beautiful and they sounded great” and, “The Golddiggers were such a huge part of my childhood Christmases. I still know the words to all the songs!” On Amazon someone commented, “I love this! Took me forever to find it, but it totally takes me back to my childhood!”
My favorite tracks off of We Need a Little Christmas are Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, My Favorite Things, and a beautiful version of Silent Night which closes out the album. Without a doubt, the stand out track is Winter Wonderland which I can only describe as deliciously groovy. In fact, I think it was a mistake not to title the album Winter Wonderland. If Austin Powers ever throws a Christmas bash at his swinging retro bachelor pad, you can be sure this will be the first record he plays.
There are a couple of lovely tracks you do not often hear on the radio or find on Christmas records these days such as And the Bells Rang and I Sing Noel. These are just icing on the musical cake.
“Christmas music should make you feel good inside. It should bring a smile to your lips. ‘We Need a Little Christmas’ accomplishes that in spades.”
I donned my detective’s fedora and tracked down five of the original Golddiggers who sang on We Need a Little Christmas as well as with Dean Martin on his TV show. Sheila (Mann) Allan, Susie (Lund) Ewing, Jackie Chidsey, Nancy Bonetti Wilson, and Rosie Cox Gitlin were very generous with their time during the busy holiday season, each responding via email to my questions. Here is my exclusive Golddiggers Q&A:
Peter: Can you tell me an interesting or amusing behind-the-scenes story or two about recording We Need a Little Christmas?
Sheila: 52 years is a long time ago and if I can remember I guess I would say that it was the quickness of which we learned all of the numbers and then recording the album in no more than two days. Our Christmas album is timeless.
Susie: I remember that we were on the road performing so we would rehearse all the songs for the album in taxies, airports, on airplanes…anywhere we could find a place and catch a moment!! People would look at us like we were crazy and we would crack up laughing because it was July and we were singing Christmas songs!!
Jackie: Recording our Christmas album in 1969 proved to be disconcerting. In the midst of recording festive holiday music, I found myself very much in the Christmas spirit. Upon completion of the studio sessions however, we stepped outside to a beautiful sun filled July afternoon in southern California – the very last thing that brought Christmas to mind. Moving between the two very distinct seasons was somewhat unsettling but as we would soon discover it was just another ordinary day in the lives of The Golddiggers.
Nancy: I remember that we recorded the album during the summer (August, I think) and it seemed funny to be singing all of these Christmas songs at that time of year! Another memory was when Lee Hale called me on the telephone to tell me that I would be doing the Silent Night solo. I was so surprised and honored!
Peter: Do you remember where the front cover album picture was shot?
Nancy: The front cover was shot on The Dean Martin Show set where he would sing a song and then open the door (behind us in the pic) where a surprise guest would come out.
Rosie: We shot the album cover photo on the set of The Dean Martin Show during the taping of our Christmas show which I believe took place in the fall of 1969.
Peter: What do you think of the record as you look back on it over 50 years later?
Sheila: It doesn’t matter how many times I play the record…and I do play it every holiday season. If you are at my home on Christmas morning and are on your way to my kitchen the Christmas album is the first thing you will hear and you will find me singing along to every song with a big smile on my face.
Susie: 50 years later it holds up to be one of the best Christmas albums ever! That’s not bragging because I attribute its greatness to our musical director Lee Hale, who chose all the right songs with all the right arrangements including some he wrote!!!
Jackie: As far as physically putting We Need a Little Christmas together, Lee Hale was our musical director and involved in every aspect of its production. Van Alexander was our wonderful arranger. To this day, listening to this 50 plus year old album brings these two musical giants front and center in every tract with their definitive and unmistakable sound. Lee’s presence is still very strongly felt in every song every time. I think it’s safe to say, there will never be anyone like him again.
Nancy: It is always included in our household Christmas music. We really like the album and it brings back great memories.
Rosie: I love our Christmas album. I think it’s excellent and it has stood the test of time. We sound wonderful on it and I can sing along because I know all the words! I have given the CD to friends & family over the years. It is a nice selection of well-loved Christmas carols plus a few originals written by our musical director Lee Hale. I especially love our version of O Come All Ye Faithful. The arrangement is beautiful.
Peter: Who’s idea was it to put out a Golddiggers Christmas record?
Sheila: I believe it was both Lee Hale our musical director and Greg Garrison the Producer/Director of our show as well as The Dean Martin Show.
Nancy: I suspect that it was a joint decision made by Lee Hale and Greg Garrison.
Rosie: I don’t know who had the idea but I have a feeling it was Lee Hale. If I remember correctly, he joined us on tour and we rehearsed the songs for 2 weeks during the day while performing our act at night.
Peter: Where was the music recorded and do you recall how long it took to record the album?
Sheila: I can’t remember which recording studio was used to record the album but it didn’t take more than 2 days to record the entire album.
Rosie: The album was recorded at TTG Studios at Sunset & Highland in Hollywood on July 24 & 25, 1969. It took us a day & a half to record.
Peter: Do you have a personal favorite Christmas record (besides your own) or song?
Sheila: My favorite Christmas song is I’ll be Home For Christmas. There is something about that song that touches my heart every time I hear it and hearing it always brings back wonderful memories of people I love that are no longer with me.
As far as my favorite song cut from our album, I’d have to say it was I Sing Noel. I believe this song if played today would be just as meaningful as it was when we recorded it over 52 years ago.
Susie: I’ll Be Home For Christmas is my favorite song and I love Dean’s albums as well as Frank’s and Johnny Mathis!
Nancy: There is a Frank Sinatra Christmas album that I really like.
Rosie: I love any Dean Martin or Bing Crosby Christmas song.
Peter: You pretty much became famous overnight. How did you handle that?
Sheila: Becoming a Golddigger was a dream come true for me. it wasn’t as glamorous as most people would have thought. We were either rehearsing and taping two 1 hour shows a week or traveling on bus or plane to our next show or State Fair, but I loved it all. I still have a very close relationship with most of the girls. We call ourselves Golddigger Sisters.
Susie: We were working so hard that we didn’t have time to think about it! I was always shocked when someone would ask me for my autograph!!
Nancy:We were pretty much overwhelmed and kept very, very busy with our schedule! It was a dream job for a young girl!
Rosie: We were busy from the minute we became Golddiggers. If we weren’t in LA taping Dean Martin shows, we were on tour performing in nightclubs all over the US and in Las Vegas, plus in the summer appearing at State Fairs. And in the middle of all that, we flew to NYC to appear on [The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson] and Philadelphia for The Mike Douglas Show. We had pictures taken for local newspapers and formagazine covers. I don’t think we had any time to enjoy the perks of being “famous” because it was all so new and exciting to us.
Peter: What was it like working with Dean Martin on his TV show? Was it true that when he appeared drunk, he was just acting and not really drunk?
Sheila:Dean Martin was the most amazing man to work with. I was always in awe of the fact that he was totally unrehearsed. When we appeared on his show It was our job to push him around the stage and make sure he hit his mark. He was not drunk as most people thought. It was a glass of apple juice that he would hold in his hand. When I hear his songs now, I grin from ear to ear. He was a Special man.
Susie: Dean was truly wonderful to work with!! What you saw was what you got! He was always fun and he was very good to all of us! He was such a great actor he could pull off being drunk on the show but he wasn’t!! It was apple juice in his glass!! However, it was a different story when we would all go to dinner after the show!! Like I said……He Was FUN.
Nancy: It was exactly as has been reported before. He did not rehearse with us. He watched the run-throughs from his dressing room and then came out in costume when it was time to tape the show. He was friendly and always was right on point with his work. He only appeared drunk as a character choice but did not drink while working on the show.
Rosie: Dean never rehearsed with us. We worked with a stand-in, usually Lee Hale. Our schedule on tape day was first rehearsing our songs with Dean and the stars appearing on that particular show with Les Brown’s Band of Renown. Then Dean would retire to his dressing room where he would watch dress rehearsal on a TV monitor. We taped the show in front of an audience so it felt like a live performance. Whenever we had a number with Dean, two of us were designated to push or pull him to his spot. He was very loose and would follow along. He just read the cue cards off the cuff and had fun! He did not drink during tapings – it was all an act. Usually, he had apple juice in his glass. The second year I was in the group we became regulars on The Dean Martin Show and finished each show with what we called “the concert spot”. That’s my favorite memory of the shows. Lee Hale put together wonderful medleys, each one with a particular theme. When I look at those spots now, I chuckle because Dean would be sitting on this big circular couch all of us carefully placed around him, singing and smoking away very relaxed.
Peter: You also worked with Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. How was that experience?
Sheila: Working with Bob Hope and going overseas with him Christmas ’69 was the icing on my cake. I was resigning from the Golddiggers once I would return from Vietnam (as a promise I had made to my parents when I auditioned and made the group) and since I knew that these shows would be my last as a Golddigger, I tried not to forget a moment of it. Bob Hope was a very kind and thoughtful person to the Golddiggers. Even after I left the group, I would get his family Holiday cards for many years after. As I grew older, I would realize that that our trip “Around The World” with Bob Hope would be the most memorable time of my life.
I don’t remember too much of my time on the set with Frank Sinatra although I do remember not knowing he would be coming through Dean’s door during one of the episodes we had taped and when Dean opened the door and out walked Frank Sinatra I was in total shock. After all it was Frank Sinatra.
Susie: Going to Vietnam 3 years in a row with Bob Hope to perform for our troops was the greatest experience of my entire career!! He was absolutely fabulous to all of us and very generous! He knew we were young and away from our families at Christmas so he protected us at all costs! He let us all call home on Christmas day and he gave us beautiful gifts every year!! My parents received a Christmas card, hand signed, every year for several years after our trips.
My favorite Frank Sinatra story happened when Frank guest starred on Dean’s show for New Year’s Eve. When we all arrived at the studio that morning the security had tripled!! We had to wear all access badges and when we entered the studio [the] Les Browns orchestra had doubled in size!! Being young and flippant I looked around and said ‘Last time I looked this was called The Dean Martin Show’!!!! We all were very protective about Dean!!
Jackie: Christmas in 1969-70 was spent in Vietnam with Bob Hope. We stayed at the Erawan Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. My roommate was [Rosie] Gitlin. There we would listen to Radio Free Europe while preparing to leave for our shows in Vietnam. Every morning we’d hear I’ll be Home for Christmas and the tears would start to flow. It was a bitter sweet moment in time as we both missed our homes and families. However, it was also a most rewarding and memorable experience that remains beyond compare.
New Years Eve 1971 found The Golddiggers guest starring on The Dean Martin Show with special guest star, Frank Sinatra. The NBC Studios was all abuzz with excitement! Only those members of cast and crew were allowed in Studio 4A and only with a pass-which was a picture of the “Chairman of the Board” affixed to clothing and or costumes. The musical/vocal rehearsal was thrilling. To hear Frank sing in such close proximity was truly an unforgettable experience. To be part of television history was truly momentous. The bragging rights in working with these two super stars have lasted over 50 years! How incredible is that?
Nancy: Working with Bob Hope on his Christmas tours to Vietnam was one of the highlights of my Golddigger days. He was wonderful to work with and so was everyone in his organization. I left the group before we worked with Frank Sinatra so I did not have the opportunity to work with him.
Rosie:Working with Bob Hope & Frank Sinatra was incredible too! Actually, we worked with all the top stars of the time. It was an amazing experience to be so young and chosen from among thousands of young girls who auditioned all over the US and Canada to appear on one of the most popular television shows of the time with one of the world’s greatest singers and personalities. We performed with all the top stars including Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Lucille Ball, Don Rickles, Florence Henderson, Carol Burnett, Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Bob Hope and many others. But interestingly enough, if you ask any of the girls now, and not taking anything away from Dean Martin, their trips with Bob Hope on his USO tours during the Vietnam war in 1968, 1969 and 1970 are the highlight of their professional careers. All of us feel it was one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of our lives. (A side note: the Vietnam Veterans of America every year have honored three of us at their yearly national convention and have presented us with a beautiful and much cherished plaque to say ‘thank you’. Of course, we all feel it’s not necessary – we’d do it all over again).
Peter: What are you all up to these days?
Sheila: I am married for 51 years and I love being a grandmother to three wonderful children. I retired from a 30 year career in Real Estate this past December 2020. When given the opportunity I still sing at small functions and shows. I am also pleased to say that I am the go to gal when it comes to The Golddiggers and putting together our reunions. Our last one was in 2018 and we celebrated our 50th Anniversary of the start of The Golddiggers.
Susie: I am still performing, directing and teaching adult tap dancing weekly. I also did a 10 week half hour closed circuit television show for The Motion Picture and Television Fund during the worst of the pandemic. It was very rewarding to perform remotely for all of the residents who were on lock down at the campus. I have also been a volunteer for The Motion Picture and Television Fund for the past three years. I feel very blessed to still be working!
Nancy:I am currently enjoying retirement from years of corporate executive support. In my free time, I have participated in local community theater as well as singing in a women’s barbershop chorus.
Rosie: After hanging up my professional dance shoes, I married, raised a son and owned a dance studio teaching children to dance for 30 years. I loved it. When I became a grandmother, I sold the studio to one of my teachers. Now I’m retired and I take my three year old granddaughter to my former studio for her ballet class. It’s the best!
Eager to learn more about the recording of We Need a Little Christmas, I tracked down Ron Kramer, the producer of the record. He also produced The Golddiggers’ first record, was the first to record Climax’s hit Precious and Few in 1970, was a Senior Vice President at Capitol Records, and was Associate Producer of the Grammy Awards for more than a decade.
Peter: What was your role as producer of We Need a Little Christmas?
Ron: Well at the time, I was Vice President of A&R, Artists and Repertoire, at Metromedia Records, which at that time was a fairly new company. The Golddiggers were a pretty popular act on the Dean Martin shows. So, the President of the company said, ‘We need to get a couple of albums.’ I produced 2 albums with The Golddiggers. The first of which was a general album featuring all the girls. Then we did the Christmas album. As a producer, it’s really about putting all the songs together, hiring an arranger, contracting all the musicians, and the studio and engineer, overseeing and, ultimately, once we get the recording down, sitting down and mixing all the tracks together and putting them in sequence in the album. After that, then it goes to marketing and promotion.
Peter: You co-arranged two songs on the album: O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night?
Ron: There was a producer on the show named Lee Hale and Lee Hale did all of the music on The Dean Martin Show. He oversaw all the music. Lee, who unfortunately, left us about a year or so ago, was a great partner because he had worked with the girls, The Golddiggers, through I don’t know how many Dean Martin shows. He was a great liaison with me and had a great attitude. Yes, we sat down and we would work out the arrangements, and then we had Van Alexander who was the actual arranger who arranged the score, all of the music, all the underscoring for the girls, for the orchestra, we hired to lay down the tracks and put the girls on to sing after that.
Peter: Was the orchestra all session musicians?
Ron: Yes, they were all Los Angeles session musicians, yes.
Peter: What were the girls like to work with?
Ron: They were great. They had a great attitude. They were always happy and smiling. They weren’t all professional singers. They were dancers and singers…but they were all terrific. They were lovely girls.
Peter: Do you recall anything remarkable about the TTG sessions? For instance, the girls told me the whole album was recorded in under two days because of their busy schedule. That strikes me as impossibly fast.
Ron: Well, they were rehearsed. Lee Hale had rehearsed them. Once we sorted out the songs we were going to record and the kind of arrangements that we wanted, then Lee rehearsed them. So, we went into the studio and they were pretty much together, quickly. I think for the most part they sounded like they were a well-rehearsed vocal group.
Peter: I don’t suppose Dean Martin dropped in during the sessions.
Ron: No, but I met with Dean. I had asked him to do, ah, what is the word I’m looking for?
Peter: Liner notes?
Ron: Thank you. Yeah. That’s exactly what it is. On the first album. He didn’t do it on the Christmas album, but he did it on the first album. Actually, he brought in his senior writer, Harry Crane, who actually wrote everything for him. But Dean loved the girls. He was really effusive about them when we met and he was a big fan. By the way, Dean never, never rehearsed any of his shows. He knew what was going to happen and every moment that he was on that show on television, he came in and he did it all with improv and extemporaneously. He was an interesting, very talented man. He had this great sense about him that everyone obviously loved because he was real and some of the flaws, which was great.
Peter: Presumably, Metromedia Records went out of business decades ago, or was absorbed, or something. Do you know what happened to the master tapes for We Need a Little Christmas?
Ron: I don’t know where the Metromedia product is. The biggest hit we had was [by] a fellow named Bobby Sherman who was on a TV series. We sold millions of albums of Bobby Sherman and that was part of it. Some company acquired the Metromedia catalog and I don’t know…it may be Universal because they’ve been buying everything, but I’m not sure who actually owns and controls those masters right now.
Peter: I’m just surprised no one has reissued We Need a Little Christmas on vinyl. I don’t think it’s been in print since 1969.
Ron: No, it hasn’t.
Interestingly enough, Carol Burnett loved the album, and during Christmas, is what I heard, although I did write a couple of songs for her for another album, one of her albums actually, but she apparently was playing the album during rehearsals when she was doing her television series because she somehow got a copy of it and really…it kind of resonated with her, I guess.
I don’t recall how well it sold. I’d like to think it’s still relevant. It’s a Christmas album. Christmas songs are Christmas songs. They’re sort of perennials.
Peter: Any other thoughts about We Need a Little Christmas or The Golddiggers?
Ron: No, not really, except [they were] really excellent sessions. So many times, you go into the recording studio and things don’t always go as well as you’d like. You get personalities that have a difficult time dealing with reality occasionally. With those albums, the Christmas album, was great. Everyone had a positive attitude. It was good. We did a lot of first and second takes. We didn’t spend an awful lot of time…we had the orchestra there and the tracks…the girls were terrific and really easy to work with. It was actually one of the really easy, quick albums to produce from my point of view…just based on their ability, number one, and talent, but also their great attitudes and personalities.
The pandemic prevented most of us from celebrating last Christmas with friends and family. Not so this year. So, relive some great memories by inviting an old friend over for the holidays- The Golddiggers’ We Need A Little Christmas. It is a gift that has been giving for the last 50 years and we are fortunate to have it. When the needle drops on this record, just be prepared for that ‘bicycle without a seat’ moment.
My personal thanks to Sheila, Susie, Jackie, Nancy, and Rosie for sweeping away the cobwebs and sharing their memories with me. An extra special shout out to Sheila for coordinating my questions with her Golddigger sisters who are spread out across 5 different states, and for obtaining permission on my behalf to use the great photographs in this post.
My thanks also to Ron Kramer for his time on the phone answering my questions and providing his pictures.
Trivia:TTG Studios in Hollywood, where The Golddiggers recorded “We Need a Little Christmas”, was also used by The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Monkees, Frank Zappa, Jan and Dean, The Velvet Undergound, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Glen Campbell, and The Animals, just to name a few. The studio went out of business in 1985. The historic building currently houses another recording studio and a photography studio.
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