Concert Highlights–Bobby Rydell featuring City Rhythm Orchestra at Damrosch Park, 7/6/2016

Bobby Rydell at Lincoln Center Midsummer Nights Swing, July 6, 2016
Bobby Rydell at Lincoln Center Midsummer Nights Swing, July 6, 2016 (photo: Russ Titelman)

Not sure who was more excited to meet Bobby Rydell backstage at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing series at Damrosch Park on July 6, me or Russ Titelman.

A few years older than me, Russ was no less starstruck in the presence of early 1960s teen idol Rydell after a great, mostly pop standards set with Philadelphia’s City Rhythm Orchestra, songs including several Sinatra staples and a Bobby Darin tribute, the only Rydell hits being “Wild One” and “Volare.”

“It goes back to my childhood!” Russ marveled, except that Rydell’s set had contemporary relevance for him as well, as he also sang “Teach Me Tonight,” the 1950s Sammy Cahn-Gene De Paul standard that Russ just recorded with Holly Cole.

After the show–and our meeting with Rydell–Russ, who’s famously produced the likes of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, recalled the impetus for the Cole cut, within both Sinatra and Darin contexts. Turns out he was a guest of Quincy Jones at the 1984 sessions in New York at A&R studio for Sinatra’s L.A. is My Lady album, which Jones was producing. Michael Jackson was there, so was late Broadway musical luminary Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line), and among the stellar musicians in the band was George Benson.

“Mr. S sang ‘Teach Me Tonight’ and ‘Mack the Knife,’” Russ recalled. “On a break I suggested to George that we do ‘Beyond the Sea’–one of my very favorite songs and the B-side of Darin’s ‘Mack the Knife.’ He said he already had an arrangement. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and he answered that Frank Foster, who had written the ‘Mack the Knife’ arrangement for Sinatra, had written him a big band arrangement of ‘Beyond the Sea.’ When I heard that, I said, ‘We’re doing it!’ Mr. Foster said it was one of his favorites of all his arrangements!”

Russ still considers the version of “Beyond the Sea” that he produced for Benson’s 1984 album 20/20 the best ever.

Rydell, meanwhile, sang both “Beyond the Sea” and “Mack the Knife” outdoors at Lincoln Center, not to mention Sinatra’s “The Lady is a Tramp” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.” He was equally at ease singing Darrin and Sinatra.

The iconic misuse of the word “icon”

Didn’t agree much with the late conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, but he was an excellent writer, and I read his weekly “On Language” column in the Times Magazine regularly. I’m sure he’d agree with me that like the words meme and trope, neither of which I know how to use correctly, icon, which hardly anyone else knows how to use correctly, is likewise a good writer’s overworked, and in its case, wrongly used term.

What rankles me so much about “icon”—and by extension, “iconic”—is how it came suddenly out of nowhere and is now inescapable, such that not a day goes by when I don’t get a PR pitch regarding someone or other who’s an icon or iconic, which, presumably, is why I should give a shit. But i don’t, because they’re invariably neither.

It’s so out of hand that last week I got a release titled “Legacy Lounge Brings Suiteness to Iconic Levels at the London West Hollywood.” Okay, I guess “suiteness” is a clever made-up word, or else a play on “sweetness.” Whatever. But whatever the fuck it is, bringing it to “iconic levels” makes no sense at all, that is, “level” singular or plural can’t be made iconic, that is, unless you stretch the meaning of iconic far beyond its traditional usage.

Okay, so what constitutes the use of “iconic”? Simply put, it has to refer to an unmistakable icon. The word usually means “a usually pictorial representation,” that is, image, or “an object of uncritical devotion,” that is, idol (merriam-webster.com).

But the word “idol” has been so watered down (thanks, to finger one culprit, to American Idol), that it’s lost its connotation of singularity. I mean, not everyone is an icon, or an be, unless we’re allowed to worship a lot of idols equally.

Hence, the only real icon in contemporary music who comes readily to mind is Madonna. Of other highly visible current female pop artists, Beyonce, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, all are surely superstars, even shining much brighter than Madonna now in terms of airplay and sales, but have a very long way to go before ranking with Madonna as a true cultural icon.

As for other female pop artists, Aretha Franklin comes to mind, as she stands by herself and could rightly be considered an icon. Nancy Sinatra really defines the word, what with her signature look based on her signature song (“These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”) and with an iconic career also defined by acting in the Elvis Presley classic Speedway and with Peter Fonda in the pioneering outlaw biker genre film The Wild Angels, her other landmark hits with songwriter Lee Hazlewood, the James Bond movie theme “You Only Lid Twice” and her chart-topping “Something stupid” duet with her father. Obviously her father was a male pop music and acting icon, as was Presley. Iconic actresses who come to mind include Marilyn Monroe, of course, and Bette Davis, since after all, she had a song written about her eyes.

In country music there are several female vocalists who are icons in the genre, namely Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, though Dolly would be the only one with the mainstream pop recognition to ensure her overall icon status. Likewise, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who, incidentally have another duet album just out, are both male vocal country music icons, but only Willie could be considered an icon in general, and he would pale in iconic level—now I’m using that idiotic construct—next to Johnny Cash, who most certainly was iconic any way you look at it.

My point is, the words “icon” and “iconic” should not be applied so freely if they are to retain the required sense of uniqueness. Me? I tend to use “legendary” in reference to any veteran artist with any kind of history, who’s reached a point where at least some kind of “legend” has been established.

In memoriam, 2014

Once again I’m looking back at the little “appreciation” pieces I wrote in 2014 and recall those who moved me then and now–here, however, on a more personal basis.

The sad dates of the year began early, January 3, with the passing of Phil Everly. I met Phil once, briefly, at a Nashville Songwriters Association Awards banquet in Nashville. But I was lucky enough to see the Everly Brothers live twice. Whatever their personal relationship, on stage they remained perfection.

A week or so later Amiri Baraka, too, was gone. I had his classic 1963 book Blues People: Negro Music In White America, published under his former name LeRoi Jones. But aside from his influence, it should also be noted that he was accused of racism and anti-Semitism, and was in fact a 9-11 truther. At the other end of the humanitarian spectrum was Pete Seeger, whom I knew a bit, as did probably a million others. I had his phone number, which I used on occasion. A few weeks after he died, Leo Kottke told a wonderful and representative story of how Pete had drawn a map to his house for him, he was that accessible.

Frank Military was another great guy, a music publisher and song-finder for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. I sat with him and Tony when the New York chapter of the Recording Academy presented him with a “Heroes Award.” Tony was on my right, Ahmet Ertegun, who was presenting the same award to Tom Silverman, on my left. Always drawing, Tony drew a portrait of Ahmet, handed it to me to pass to him. Ahmet was thrilled.

I didn’t know Christian music A&R luminary Norman Holland, but everyone in that end of the business loved him. Much loved, too, were rock photog Leee Black Childers and singer-songriter Jesse Winchester.

And I didn’t know Loudilla Johnson well, but a lot of old-line country stars like Loretta Lynn did, since Loudilla and her sisters Loretta and Kay, set up her fan club operation, and then IFCO, the International Fan Club Organization.

Jerry Vale, of course, was a quite well known 1950s pop vocalist, while Herb Jeffries, “the Bronze Buckaroo,” was a rare black country singer and actor, who also sang jazz with the likes of Duke Ellington. Calypso singer Maya Angelou I did know, but as Dr. Maya Angelou—thanks to Ashford & Simpson, with whom she recorded, performed, and emceed the poolside entertainment at their fabled July 4th “white parties.”

I used to say hi to my favorite pedal steel guitarist Weldon Myrick at the Grand Ole Opry, where he was part of the house band. I never met Gerry Goffin, but I did meet his ex-wife/writing partner Carole King. And Cajun country/Opry star Jimmy C. Newman was a dear friend, for whom I wrote CD liner notes.

Bobby Womack and Tommy Ramone were both Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and the latter was a friend, in fact, of all the Ramones, he was probably the nicest and most respectful of me—having been a friend of the band since the beginning of my writing career and author of the first book on the band. I stayed in touch with Tommy throughout his later career as a bluegrass musician, and can’t get over the fact that all four of the originals have now passed on.

I met Elaine Stritch once. When I told her I was a writer, she immediately demanded that I write something about her, which I did the day she died. Shortly after seeing Johnny Winter’s last birthday performance at B.B. King’s, I wrote about him, too, with help from my friend Jon Paris, who played bass with him for many years.

I knew the beloved country music agent Don Light, but not the great rock ‘n’ roll songwriter/producer Bob Crewe, who died the same day as New Orleans studio owner and recording engineer Cosimo Matassa. Opry star George Hamilton IV I knew very well as one of the nicest guys, like Jimmy C., that you could ever hope to meet.

I met the Indian mandolin maestro U. Srinivas, but not Howard Stern Wack Packer Eric the Actor—though I was an equal fan of both. I never met Paul Revere, but know Raiders’ lead vocalist Mark Lindsay and put them all into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon. And I never met Jan Hooks, but was a huge fan of hers since she was the breakout star of Atlanta Superstation WTBS’s Tush—the great Bill Tush being a dear friend.

Studio musician, projects coordinator and freelance A&R Ann Ruckert, too, was a dear friend, not just to me but to probably everyone in the entire New York music scene, and for decades. I didn’t know the great Morells/Skeletons bassist/vocalist/songwriter Lou Whitney well, but always loved talking to the “the elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll in the Midwest,” who was also very much loved by fellow musicians. I think I met Manhattan Transfer founder Tim Hauser, and definitely met Cream’s Jack Bruce—both extremely important in their respective pop-jazz vocal and rock genres.

I was a huge fan of Mr. Acker Bilk, England’s esteemed “trad jazz” clarinetist, whose 1962 pre-Beatles instrumental “Stranger On the Shore” was the first British recording to top the charts in the rock era. I liked Motown’s Jimmy Ruffin of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” fame better than his younger brother David Ruffin of The Temptations. I was inspired to write about Ray Sadecki, who won 20 games pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals when I was 12, when it made me reconsider my youth and own mortality.

I wrote about Claire Barry, who with younger sister Merna were the Yiddish pop singing duo the Barry Sisters, because I knew they influenced Neil Sedaka, who gave me a quote. Likewise, I knew Stanley Rashid of Brooklyn-based Arabic music/video supplier Rashid Sales could say a few words on “incomparable” Lebanese singer of Arab pop, classical and folk music Sabah.

Most everyone knew rock greats Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan—both of whom I met—who died within a day of each other in December. Most everyone should have known about Dawn Sears, Vince Gill’s wonderful backup signer, who also sang in Nashville swing band the Time Jumpers.

I loved “Wind Beneath My Wings” co-writer Larry Henley, but more so for his “Bread and Butter” falsetto screech as lead singer of ‘60s vocal group The Newbeats. And we all loved Joe Cocker, who died on Dec. 22. I’m glad I got to interview him and meet him.

YouTube Discoveries: “The Sidewalks of New York”

YouTube is such a wonderful site. I’m on it several times a day, at least, doing research mostly, or just looking up things that come to mind out of nowhere.

In YouTube Discoveries, I’ll share some of my favorites, beginning with a timely double-play.

The day after The Preakness I traditionally begin my three-week rant about how horrible it is that New York, back in the Giuliani days, changed its traditional Belmont theme from “Sidewalks of New York”—a poignantly sentimental 1894 copyright by lyricist James W. Blake and vaudeville actor/composer Charles B. Lawlor that is also known as “East Side, West Side” (the first words of the chorus)—to the “New York, New York” title song sung by Frank Sinatra from the 1977 Scorsese movie.

Then to add insult to injury, the New York Racing Association in 2010 went with the awful Jay-Z/Alicia Keys hip-hop ballad “Empire State of Mind”—though just for that one year. It was back to the “New York, New York” the following year.

It’s like if the Kentucky Derby changed its theme song from “My Old Kentucky Home” to “Kentucky Woman,” or the Preakness switched from “Maryland, My Maryland” to the Bobby Bare country hit “Streets of Baltimore.” Not that either of those are bad songs—and “New York, New York” is fine for a movie song—but these Triple Crown races are steeped in tradition, and for New York to turn its back on it is a disgrace.

Apparently, though, it’s also bad for horses. I saw on Wikipedia how it’s believed that horses who have won the Derby and the Preakness have been cursed because of the change in song from “Sidewalks of New York.” Sure enough, in the years after Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner by beating Alydar at the Belmont in 1978, there were four dual winners who failed to complete the cycle between 1979 and 1996; in the years following the switch to “New York, New York” in 1997, eight horses have fallen short.

“It is said that the ghost of Mamie O’Rourke will never let another Triple Crown winner emerge unless and until ‘The Sidewalks of New York’ is reinstated as the post parade song for The Belmont Stakes,” it says in Wikipedia—Mamie O’Rourke being the one who taught lyricist Blake how to “trip the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York.”

Well, I like California Chrome, and I’m not taking any chances. So here are two versions of “The Sidewalks of New York,” the first a lovely take by the great Nat King Cole, the second a history of the song and the scene: