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.

Tales of Bessman: Steve Popovich and the Dream of the Fan Fair Gherm

Today’s the last day of CMA Music Festival in Nashville, which used to be called Fan Fair for many years before the Country Music Association completely co-opted it. I used to go there every year, starting from when it was held at the downtown Municipal Auditorium in the 1970s to the many years it was at the dusty Tennessee State Fairgrounds in the ’80s and ’90s.

Unable to afford much of anything anymore, I haven’t gone in years. But I have recurring nightmares over missing it. Last night’s was a doozy.

Actually, they’re all pretty much the same: I’ve been in Nashville a few days and it’s either my last day or I’m heading back tomorrow. Yet somehow I haven’t seen anyone I need to see–particularly the people I always stay with, have lunch with, hang out with, etc. So I’m completely freaking out.

Making it all worse last night was that I remember parking my car, but don’t remember where I parked it. In fact, I don’t even remember what kind of car it is, color, model, identifying characteristics. I’m frantically searching all over for it when I wake up.

So two days ago I thought I’d take a rare “selfie”–God, I hate that word!–and put it up on Instagram and Twitter, as a tribute to Fan Fairs of old. I tried to look like the biggest Fan Fair gherm–something that still comes natural.

“Gherm,” if you don’t know, is a dismissive label used by Nashville music business folk for the fans who flood the city for Fan Fair, er, CMA Music Festival–or any other time of year, really–and meet and greet their heroes, which is pretty much what Fan Fair was originally set up to do. They’d wear their favorite artists’ t-shirts and badges and caps, much as I did in my selfie (there, I said it again).

But no one was ever a bigger gherm than me, and I say that with great pride. Yes, I had business being with the stars, but I never kidded myself: I was just a big kid from Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, meeting and greeting my country music heroes, just like everyone else.

So even though I couldn’t make it again this year, I decided to put on my best gherm t-shirt and cap and take a Fan Fair tribute selfie (I still hate the word). I put on my Ronnie Milsap cap–in honor of Ronnie’s finally getting into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and a lasting friendship that began back at the Dane Country Coliseum in Madison back in the late ’80s–and my orange Cleveland International Records t-shirt, with the caricature of the accordion player who looks kind of like Steve Popovich.

Steve was the founder of Cleveland International Records. He was the sort of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back. He gave me the Cleveland International shirt. One Fan Fair he made up these hysterical “Your brain on Country Music!” t-shirts and gave me one of those, too. I wish I could find it if I still have it. Either way, I wish I could remember it, like I wish I could remember where I parked my car.

It played on those stupid “This is your brain on drugs” TV commercials, where they cut to the eggs frying in a pan. Being on drugs they only made me hungry.

I think it had a cartoon of the eggs in the pan wearing cowboy boots and hats and having a big old time, or something like that. It was really great, I remember, for sure.

And I remember Steve, of course, who died three years ago tomorrow.

No one cared more about music than Steve, who had a huge hand in the careers of Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson, and put out the Meat Loaf record on Cleveland International and then spent the rest of his life trying to get fairly paid for it.

No one cared more about the little guy, either, or the little guy’s music. He showed me what polka really is, for which I’m eternally grateful.

He had the biggest heart of anyone I knew, and after years of working hard and eating bad, his big heart finally gave out.

I forgot a lot of things, but I can never forget Steve Popovich. No one can.

BessmanMilsap