Over at the Lonely Beat I discussed the Naked City, the version of the modern American city in the post–War popular imagination. And how a singular form of American commercial music, in time referred to by collectors as “crime jazz,” would converge in the late 1950s as a sort of jazz shorthand for the all images, clichés and motifs of the city.
This week we dig a bit deeper into a particular subset of crime jazz.
Never mind that these selections’ tie-ins with actual crime thrillers is vague (“Jazz Dramatic”), if non-existent (“Lili’s Theme”). Recorded between the late ‘50s and the early ‘60s, and inspired by bestsellers like Henry Mancini’s Music from Peter Gunn, Warren Barker’s 77 Sunset Strip and Pete Rugolo’s Music From Richard Diamond, these have all the hallmarks of a golden era of crime soundtrack music.
But the three selections are more than just the sum of their jazz atmospherics, walking bass lines and bursts of brass, organ and strings. These share a peculiar theatricality with other jazz-based themes of the era – themes that, during opening credits, foretold ninety minutes of intrigue and high-stakes thrills. These selections embody the spirit of DRAMATIC ACTION. The sense of danger, justice and dark, moving forces is flamboyant, even hysterical. Sometimes it’s not enough for music just to be listened to. Sometimes it has to kick down the door and scream at you.
1. Paul Dunlap, Lili’s Theme from “The Rookie” (Capitol 4293)
Born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1919, Dunlap started out young in music, his aspirations eventually bringing him to the University of Southern California for advanced studies in music in 1940. Through a family connection his compositions caught the attention of the influential director Samuel Fuller – a propitious moment for Dunlap, as it led not only to a series of film scores written for Fuller (starting with 1950’s The Baron Of Arizona), but a professional career spent largely in Hollywood as a film and television composer, conductor, director and arranger.
Though he wrote scores until 1980 (his final contributions were for that year’s Gorp), Dunlap’s most prolific years were in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Dunlap composed for many genre and B-movies – science fiction and fantasy pictures, comedies (including several ‘60s-era Three Stooges movies), Westerns, detective thrillers and horror movies. Among this run were cult notables like 1957’s Blood of Dracula, 1958’s How to Make a Monster, 1959’s The Angry Red Planet, 1959’s The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake) and 1963’s Shock Corridor. And, along with Fuller, Dunlap’s associations with writer and producer Herman Cohen (beginning with 1957’s cult classic I Was a Teenage Werewolf) and director Harold D. Schuster (beginning with the 1953 Western Jack Slade) would also prove quite fruitful.
In his later years, Dunlap wrote opera and choral pieces, and expressed some ambivalence about a legacy so identified with the cinema. The composer passed away in 1990 in Palm Springs.
Dunlap was hardly a household name. Few composers were, aside from obviously marketable entities like Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones or Bernard Herrmann. He was a professional, though, and despite the constant pressure of limited resources and preparation time his use of stark moods, dissonance and jazz elements elevated the low-budget productions they scored. The innovative electronic effects of 1959’s Invisible Invaders and the beatsploitation jazz of 1959’s The Rebel Set come to mind here. As does this selection, also from 1959.
Full of gritty angst, the arrangement on “Lili’s Theme from ‘The Rookie’” is quite inspired, a dramatic swirl of strings, organ and electric guitar that evokes the crime jazz aesthetic while avoiding some of its more formulaic motifs. (European film music fans might also notice the distinct organ stabs that neatly anticipate later work by Italian soundtrack legend Piero Piccioni.) I haven’t seen The Rookie – an obscurity, even among comedy fans – but haven’t found any reason to doubt that this side transcends the movie.
Sources: Be sure to read Randall D. Larson’s great 1983 interview, where Dunlap discusses his process for composing film music extensively, among other subjects.
2. Det Moor Orch., “Jazz Dramatic” (Gallant GT-3004)
Credited to the Det Moor orchestra, this selection is the handiwork of composer, arranger and conductor Bob Mersey.
Born in 1917 in New York City, Mersey began his professional career in Los Angeles. An arranger and composer from the start, Mersey’s arrangements started appearing on releases by Abe Lyman and, most notably, Woody Herman’s Orchestras in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.
Mersey joined NBC radio as a staff arranger after World War Two, a stint in Europe scoring film productions following that. Returning to the states in the ‘50s, he released some easy-listening singles in the late ‘50s under his own name as well as under nom de plume Spencer Ross (Ross’s “Tracy’s Theme” was a minor instrumental hit in 1959).
Mersey’s catalog ran deepest during the ‘60s. His string of contributions as staff arranger, composer, conductor and producer at CBS television, Columbia Records and Columbia’s Colpix Records division included work on Andy Williams’ “Moon River” and Barbra Streisand’s “My Name is Barbra,” not to mention recordings by big sellers like Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mathis, James Darren and Nina Simone. Mersey’s Columbia and Colpix recordings tend to overshadow the rest of a not-inconsiderable body of work, though, including credits on a number of different labels (arranging for Dion, Johnny Nash, Frankie Avalon, among others).
This body of work most definitely includes Mersey’s album Great Jazz From Great TV and its crucial track “Jazz Dramatic.” Released in 1962, the album is one of Mersey’s most obscure releases, and one of his finest efforts. Comprised entirely of his compositions, Great Jazz From Great TV has all the right stylistic archetypes – cool club sequences, chase dramas, lonesome midnight nocturnes, etc., and all the right titles – “Club Cool,” “Flutesville,” “Forever Frantic,” “Call Girl,” etc. The Det Moor orchestra, according to the album’s liner notes, were an uncredited group of European studio musicians, but the entire album sounds every inch a hip ‘50s Los Angeles studio jazz orchestra. It’s a pitch-perfect suite of crime jazz.
The session itself was recorded a year or two prior for Sam Fox Music, a long-running clearinghouse for studio production music, and saw its eventual commercial album release on Gallant Records, a short-lived record label operated by Sam Fox, his son Fred Fox and New York City music industry insider Hal Dennis. Its tracks could be heard individually as incidental music and cues in an array of shows throughout the 1960s, including Route 66, Ben Casey, Manhunt, My Three Sons and, later, the Doris Day Show, Gumby and Spider-Man.
3. Alvino Rey and His Orchestra, “The Bat” (Capitol F 4239)
“King of the Guitar” Alvino Rey was a bandleader and pioneering electric guitarist with a long career that extended beyond his swing-era heyday.
The specifics of Rey’s biography are better documented elsewhere (check these overviews for a start: Marc Myers’s Jazzwax and Smithsonian Magazine), but, briefly, Rey (born Alvin McBurney in 1908) started on banjo while growing up in Cleveland; barely out of his teens and playing professionally, Rey adopted the electrified steel guitar, then largely seeing use in Hawaiian music. He followed several years in the late ‘20s as journeyman guitarist with a long spell of national exposure in Horace Heidt’s Musical Knights, where he helped pioneer the lap steel in swing music. Rey formed his own group, the Alvino Rey Orchestra in the late ‘30s, and this group, which included not only the Four King Sisters – themselves formerly of Heidt’s group (Rey was married to one of the sisters, Luise King) – but also young jazz modernists like Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and fledgling arrangers like Neal Hefti, Ray Conniff and Billy May, established themselves as a big attraction in Los Angeles, scoring hits in the early ‘40s like “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” “On the Alamo” and “Music ‘Til Dawn.” Rey formed a new orchestra in 1946 after returning from World War Two service in the Navy, and would enjoy more success – “Cement Mixer,” “In An Eighteenth Century Drawing Room” and “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” were hits – for a time with this much larger group. The guitarist had a recurring role, and national exposure, again between 1965 and 1968, alongside the King Sisters on The King Family Show. Alvino Rey led small groups after that, including a long spell at Disneyland, and eventually settled in Salt Lake City, where he died at age 95 in 2004.
While a household name at mid-century, Rey deserves to be better known these days, if for nothing else than for his early embrace of electronic technology. Perhaps it was that he never had the fortune of having an iconic guitar named after him like fellow bandleader, guitarist and inventor Les Paul, or that his earliest guitar showcases didn’t always transcend electronic novelty. But Rey was one of the earliest to push the boundaries of the electric guitar and electronics in the swing era, making his instrument sing and “speak.” Not to mention the equipment he hand-built and hand-wired from an early age, or his development of the pedal steel guitar and the proto-vocoder electric “talk box.”
It didn’t help that for a time after World War Two Rey tied his fortunes to large jazz orchestras, whose prospects for success in the post-War years were diminishing rapidly. Either way, Rey’s career was shifting from leading groups to lucrative behind-the-scenes session work during the ‘50s, and, to my ears, it’s this part of his discography that holds up the best. Represented to a certain extent on Rey studio albums like Ping Pong and My Reverie, it’s his prominent guitar work on a series of bandleader Juan Esquivel’s late ‘50s and early ‘60s records for RCA and Reprise that are most exemplary. Rey’s splashy playing – various swoops, runs, screeches, squiggles, futuristic accents – were a captivating and instantly defining feature of the swank stereophonic sound of Esquivel’s orchestra, with albums like Other Worlds Other Sounds and Exploring New Sounds in Stereo channelling mid-century America’s manic, Googie-esque sensibilities with a matching confidence.
“The Bat,” recorded and released during Rey’s golden period, reflected something of the same space-age production aesthetic, though, as the eponymous theme to the 1959 Vincent Price movie, it forewent cocktail perkiness for something much grittier. Rey owns the side, his ascending slides adding an unusual and otherworldly quality to textbook crime jazz bombast.
Three mournful country melodramas this week. All released between 1957 and 1960, these make for a fun, highly atmospheric bunch.
These selections are somewhat tricky to place in the continuum of post-War commercial records. They share some of the darkness of the archaic dirges and haunted story songs of American folk music, certainly, and more perhaps directly, the windswept melancholy of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Ramblin’ Man,” Red Foley’s moody “Midnight” and Lefty Frizzell’s haunting “Long Black Veil.” They also generously invoke some of our more sombre pop Western motifs. Johnny Cash tracks like “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” or the “The Caretaker” come to mind here, not to mention dozens of versions of “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” “High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me)” and “Streets of Laredo.”
Drifters and haunted country melodramas this week on Office Naps.
But ultimately these three recordings came into existence not only wholly independently of each other, but also without clear commercial precedent, or so it seems. Straddling a fine line between country, folk and blues lament, they’re paced at a funereal crawl, their intimate, cinematic moods summoned with the miracle of post-War recording technology and magnetic tape. There is a certain theatricality in a lot of good country music, but these selections, with their visually evocative productions, their narratives of loneliness and gloom, their protagonists cut adrift, they’re existential tours de force.
1. Curly Sanders and the Santones, Walking Blues (Concept 45-Con-92)
Born in 1935 outside of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, Ray “Curly” Sanders was a singer and songwriter who found some success in the ‘60s and ‘70s, gamely changing with the times without ever quite having a breakout single.
Sanders, still in his teens, enjoyed a run of disc jockey stints in the ‘50s and, as early as 1954, was making singing appearances at local showcases like the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and the Lincoln Jamboree.
Sanders’s recorded output commenced in late 1956 with “Brand New Rock and Roll.” Other 45s would be pressed locally around this time, too, including “Walking Blues,” but “Brand New Rock and Roll” is easily Sanders’s most prized side, showing Sanders adapting to the new rock ‘n’ roll form with the sort of raw enthusiasm that appeals to deep-pocketed rockabilly 45 collectors.
Following a year spent in El Paso, Texas, Sanders made his Grand Ole Opry debut in 1959. The contract with prominent West Coast indie label Liberty Records that followed would inaugurate a long schedule of country music recorded for a variety of labels, big and small.
Sanders, who worked henceforth as Ray Sanders, followed the dream throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, gigging tirelessly and finding some success with Liberty Records in 1960 (“A World So Full of Love” and “Lonelyville,” both top twenty country hits), and, later, with Imperial Records (“Beer Drinkin’ Music,” 1969) and on United Artists (with a version of “All I Ever Need is You,” 1971). Sanders won Top New Male Vocalist at the Academy of Country Music in 1968, and made television appearances on Hee Haw in the early ‘70s. (Hee Haw, for all of its cornpone humor, did help a lot of country musicians land national exposure.) He played with Ray Price for a time as well, but by the late ’70s Sanders was working the California club circuit, semi-retirement to Hawaii following that.
All of his singles and albums as Ray Sanders, along with his songs covered by other country artists, are good; it’s just that they’re somewhat straightahead Nashville product at the end of the day. At least personally speaking, it’s Sanders’s idiosyncratic clutch of late ‘50s 45s on local record labels which invite the most interest. Among these are the aforementioned “Brand New Rock and Roll,” of course, along with “You’re Smiling (I’m Crying),” an echo-drenched ballad. And this selection, written by fellow singer Dell Shirley. “Walking Blues” sounds like nothing else in Sanders’s discography and, as with the other selections, it is unabashedly and very successfully theatrical, a colorful piece of forlorn somnambulation.
Sources: Rockin’ Country Style, Praguefrank’s Country Music Discographies, Starday Custom Series, Hillbilly Music
2. Harry Charles, Petoskey Town (Wildcat WOO35A)
This week’s mystery disc.
This 45 was released in 1960. Harry Charles is very likely the same Harry Charles responsible for two other isolated teen pop 45s from the ’60s: “My Laura” b/w “Challenge of Love” (released on New York City-based Rowax, 1963) and “I’ll Be There” b/w “I Want the Best for You” (released on the Oklahoma City-based Boyd Records, mid-‘60s).
The mysterious singer Harry Charles in 1963, then a Nashville resident. Photo courtesy of Billboard magazine.
But nothing actually leads me to believe that Harry Charles was in fact based in central Texas at the time, despite his 45′s release on Wildcat Records (a cool San Antonio-based indie with a short, sweet run of R&B, Tejano, pop, country, rock ‘n’ roll and vocal group sides in the late ’50s and early ’60s).
A contemporary account from the Petoskey News in 1960 refers to Charles performing at the local high school dance. Though again it’s not clear whether he was visiting the titular northern coastal Michigan town as a stunt to promote this 45, or whether he was actually from the area, and was singing from some experience. And another reference puts him in Nashville in 1963.
Harry Charles’s obscure trajectory aside, what a record. Miles, stylistically, from the commercial pop of his other 45s, “Petoskey Town” paints a striking tableau, its well-placed cymbal rolls and Charles’s mournful vocals conjuring the frozen north country with grim effectiveness.
Sources: Petoskey News, Billboard Magazine.
3. Eddie Miller and His Band, Ghost Town (4 Star 1740×45)
Eddie Miller was born in 1919 in Camargo, Oklahoma, and while recalled primarily as a songwriter, he got his start as a musician, playing with and, beginning in the late ‘30s, leading his own Western Swing groups.
Like many from a post-Dust-Bowl Great Plains, he was drawn westward around World War Two, and spent a good deal of his subsequent career in Southern California. As an aspiring songwriter, Miller – with a reformed version of the Oklahomans – would release “Release Me” (a song co-penned with guitarist Bobby Gene Yount) in 1949, one of a number of 45s and 78s he recorded for 4 Star Records, a prolific Los Angeles-based country label.
“Release Me” tanked at the time but would become a titanic country and pop hit for several different performers. (Ray Price’s and Kitty Wells’s 1954 versions and Englebert Humperdinck’s 1966 version are especially well-known.) And while Miller’s own recordings tapered off, his songwriting success continued apace, with top ten hits for Carl Smith (“There She Goes,” 1955), Eddy Arnold (“After Loving You,” 1962) and Ernest Tubb (“Thanks a Lot,” 1963).
Eddie Miller was a somewhat inconsistent songwriter – there are a lot of dashed-off novelties in his voluminous catalog – and, as far as performing went, a limited singer. But “Ghost Town,” among his last releases as a solo artist, is an entirely convincing performance. Miller fully commits to his spurned, world-weary drifter character. “Ghost Town” enjoys a slightly fuller production than the other two, but there’s that haunted, walking rhythm again, the song’s ghostly steel guitar accents and its mood of empty streets and lament making for an arrestingly visual tone poem.
While Miller’s returns from his published songs remained considerable into the late ’60s and ’70s, he decreased his output, shifting his energies into country music advocacy, helping to co-found both the Country and Western Music Academy in Hollywood (now the Academy of Country Music) and the Nashville Songwriters Association.
Incidentally, Eddie Miller cast Ray Sanders in his mid-’60s “country opera” The Legend of Johnny Brown, which was released as an album in 1966.
Eddie Miller died in 1977.
Sources: Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Wired for Sound, Steel Guitar Forum