Oh, Calcutta!

Oh! Calcutta! wanted to be provocative in the worst possible way.

Released Off Broadway in 1969, the musical revue featured sketches of various sexual neuroses and peccadilloes, and included frontal nudity – only the second major musical after Hair to do so. Oh! Calcutta! also had some avant-garde cred – respected British theater critic Kenneth Tynan conceived and assembled the program, with bankable names like Samuel Beckett, Jules Feiffer, Margo Sappington, Dan Greenburg, John Lennon, Jacques Levy and Sam Shepard contributing sketches.

Sometimes mere pedigree and nudity aren’t enough. Sometimes weak writing and silly, rigidly heterosexual humor will earn you a reputation as an inconsequential diversion. New York Times critic Clive Barnes concluded after the opening: “To be honest, I think I can recommend the show with any vigor only to people who are extraordinarily underprivileged either sexually, socially or emotionally.” Musical theater was only beginning to embrace the counter-culture’s possibilities, but others, like Stag Movie, The Faggot, or Let My People Come – or Hair, for that matter – would explore sexual politics more gracefully and more incisively. None of this deterred curious patrons, however, who made Oh! Calcutta! both an instant sensation and, over the course of its original run as well as a record-setting revival begun in 1976, a long-lasting tourist staple.

But the original cast recording for Oh! Calcutta! (originally released in 1969 on Aidart Records, a tiny affiliate of United Artists Records) is another story. Composed and performed by Robert Dennis, Stanley Walden, and the young Peter Schickele (of P.D.Q. Bach and Schickele Mix fame), operating here as the Open Window, the score consists of songs and instrumental interludes that accompanied and divided the revue’s sketches, rather than being full-blown musical numbers. It was similarly derided in contemporary reviews, and it did not sell well, but the original score stands up today as superior even to the great Hair score. There is excellent psychedelic pop to be found in among the heavily arranged chamber-rock.

Thankfully, America’s easy listening bandleaders were not oblivious to the resilient groove of the title track. Alongside “Aquarius,” “Last Tango in Paris” or “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “Oh, Calcutta” was popular, albeit briefly, among those meisters still optimistic about bridging that cursed generational divide. Ferrante and Teicher did a swell job of it and so did, all things considered, Al De Lory: I suspect any version of “Oh, Calcutta” merits at least a casual listen.

1. The Dave Pell Singers, Oh, Calcutta (Liberty)
Born in New York City in 1925, saxophonist Dave Pell’s formative professional gigs were with Tony Pastor’s big band. Upon relocating to California in mid-‘40s, he’d join a succession of bandleaders: Bob Crosby, Bobby Sherwood, Bob Astor, and, finally – between 1947 and 1955 – Les Brown and His Band of Renown.

These were competent bands, popular but hardly the cutting edge of jazz. Indeed, Pell’s entire trajectory would be characterized by this sort of commercial orientation. In addition to a series of budget-oriented big band tribute albums, Pell released many decent-selling jazz records throughout the ‘50s with a smaller group – his popular octet (many of its members borrowed in turn from the young modernists of Brown’s orchestra). Even these dates, while sophisticated, were on the more conservative, tightly arranged side of West Coast jazz.

There has always been that pragmatic streak among certain jazz talents, the pull to the more reliable life of studio arranging, directing and producing. Post-War musicians like Shorty Rogers and Quincy Jones made big names for themselves thusly, while many others – the Bob Florences, Manny Albams, and Johnny Mandels of this world – toiled further from the spotlight. This pragmatism diminishes none of their art, necessarily – especially some of their wilder soundtrack moments – but it does open a certain distance from their “authentic” jazz roots. Dave Pell? Just part of the trend.

Pell’s years as studio musician (he would back Mel Torme and June Christy, among many others), octet leader, and budget record label producer (for the infamous Tops Records) led, by the early ‘60s, to a turn as a producer and A&R; man at Liberty Records, then one of the more successful post-War California labels. Experience in the industry clearly had served Pell well. At Liberty he had produced pop records in a big way for artists like Gary Lewis, Bobby Vee, the Ventures, Martin Denny, Gene McDaniels and the young Vicki Carr. Pell’s time there also included a few of his own albums – two commercial pop/jazz records in 1963, and finally, in 1969, the Dave Pell Singers’ Mah-Na-Mah-Na LP. Everything about that album, including this glorious selection, was a quick study in studio-tempered grooviness, raining down sunshine down all over Orange County. What generation gap?

After the Liberty marque was bought by United Artists Records in the late ‘60s, Pell worked behind-the-scenes in the Los Angeles industry, scoring and coordinating music for the television shows Stand Up and Cheer and The Real Tom Kennedy Show as well as a rash of Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood vehicles: Sharkey’s Machine, Sudden Impact, Cannonball Run II, Honkytonk Man and Paternity. Pell would release two albums with his Lester Young tribute group Prez Conference in the late ‘70s. In more recent decades, Pell revived his octet and founded specialty labels Headfirst Records and Group 7 Records. Dave Pell is still active today.

2. The Milt Okun Arrangement, Oh, Calcutta (Decca)
Milton Okun, born in New York City in 1923, was a junior high music teacher and folk music fan when he joined Harry Belafonte as a pianist and singer (and later as arranger and conductor) in the mid-‘50s.

Okun parted ways with Belafonte in 1960, thereafter taking on various production and arrangement work around Greenwich Village’s burgeoning folk scene. Alongside several long-forgotten albums of his own folk song interpretations, Okun’s dozens of ‘60s production credits would include obscure singers like Lynn Gold and Ernie Sheldon as well as – thanks to good fortune and a good ear for commercial talent – many of the folk revival’s most popular artists: the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Brothers Four, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Miriam Makeba. The folk revival began foundering in the mid-‘60s; Okun forged ahead with his artists and with newer talents like Laura Nyro. His biggest protégé, however, would be John Denver, a Chad Mitchell Trio alum whom Okun mentored after the Trio’s dissolution, and whom Okun would continue to produce for another decade.

Denver was perhaps his single greatest success, but Okun’s production duties extended to assorted improbables, including ‘70s soft rockers the Starland Vocal Band (of “Afternoon Delight” fame) and future tenor celebrity Placido Domingo in the early ’80s. This is not to mention Okun’s written articles about folk music, his string of song books of the late ‘60s and ‘70s – among them Something to Sing About, Great Songs of the Sixties, Country Music’s Greatest Songs and Great Songs of Lennon and McCartney, or his music education magazine, Music Alive!, begun in 1981.

Okun’s was a broad, impossible-to-pigeonhole career, but fitting this languid 1969 version of “Oh, Calcutta” in somewhere is still a bit of a challenge. It’d been years since Okun had recorded under his own name. This sounded like a studio lark, and it probably was. Lucky record buyers didn’t care about any of that, though. They knew it’d still be life of their next party.

To a great extent, Okun’s business interests have now largely superceded his musical associations. The Cherry Lane Music Group, which Okun founded in 1960, is, as of 2008, a major player in the music publishing business, with publishing, print, digital and licensing divisions and a lucrative, if schizoid, roster that includes Will.I.am and Quincy Jones alongside Ralph Macdonald and Tom Paxton.

Okun is also still active as a director at the Los Angeles Opera.

3. Henry Jerome, Oh, Calcutta (United Artists)
Like Dave Pell and Milt Okun, trumpeter Henry Jerome was a working musician who found his eventual calling in the studio. Born in New York City in 1917, Jerome formed his first dance bands in his late teens. His band, Henry Jerome and His Stepping Tones, was familiar to late ‘30s audiences for its regular appearances along the northeastern ballroom circuit, and for its residencies at (and radio broadcasts from) New York City’s Edison Hotel.

Jerome, hitherto stylistically indebted to Hal Kemp’s dance orchestra, began to update his orchestra with hipper musicians in the early ‘40s. The band – including pianist Al Haig, saxophonist Al Cohn, drummer Tiny Kahn, trombonist/composer Johnny Mandel and guitarist Billy Bauer – would be something of a bop jazz cauldron, though the modernization was mostly for naught. The swing era drew to a close and Jerome finally dissolved his group in the late ‘40s.

After some forgettable mid-‘50s pop albums on MGM and Roulette Records (as well as themes for children’s show Winky-Dink and You in the mid-‘50s and for the Soupy Sales show a few years later), Jerome joined the Decca record label. There, in addition to his work as an A&R; director and producer, he’d release a series of his Brazen Brass stereophonic project albums. By 1967, Jerome was at United Artists Records, where he recorded one more Brazen Brass-style album, and continued his pop productions. Along with pop and country crossover singer Bobbi Martin, these included, not insignificantly, his production of the original Oh! Calcutta! score.

From 1969, I believe this selection is the original theme’s very first cover version. More upbeat than the original, and set at least slightly in the future, this is “Oh, Calcutta” reimagined with a payload of tiny lights and chirping electronics, Destination 1999.

Jerome’s involvement with the record industry tapered off sometime in the very early ‘70s. Sadly, current information about subsequent activities or whereabouts is scarce.

Henry Jerome’s legacy still is known among two peculiar groups, however. Fans of early rock ‘n’ roll recall him for his somewhat unexpected involvement (under the pseudonym Al Mortimer) with Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio, who waxed some intense rockabilly sides under Jerome’s watch in 1956 and ’57. Fans of unrepentant deregulation, of course, remember Henry Jerome for his ‘40s orchestra, an organization that included not only future Nixon-era White House Counsel Leonard Garment on saxophone, but also future Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan on, against all logic, bass clarinet.

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5 Responses to Oh, Calcutta!

  1. Anonymous says:

    welcome back!!!

  2. The Moog says:

    Yes, welcome back indeed.

    Your postings are most appreciated and a lovely read.

    Thank you.

  3. Gary says:

    Wow this is a great post on Oh Calcutta! You might also know it's a French pun – 'quel cul t'as' or What an Ass You've Got.

  4. Alison says:

    Henry Jerome is around-he is my great uncle. If you want to get a message to him, send it to me and I will make sure he gets it. He could use some support. Thanks! Alison Cramer

  5. Pingback: Calcutta Indeed « Night in Los Angeles

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