Get a glimpse of the voice that built Capitol Records now on Netflix. Released in 2014, Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark takes an intimate look at the elegant yet difficult private life behind this voice of gentility. Told in part through his late widow Maria Cole's point of view, the documentary covers Cole's rise in American pop culture in the 40s and 50s, and the racial fallout he quietly faced behind the scenes. What was most surprising was the contrast of Cole's public reception as entertainer and of him as an ordinary citizen. Residents protested when he and his family moved into the affluent neighborhood of Hancock Park even though they were fans of his music and owned his records at home. Similarly in Las Vegas, his sold-out concerts didn't garner enough status for him to enter through the main casino floor or to stay at a good hotel.
America, when I first saw you on television as a child in another country, you were made up of magical things that made me dream -- you produced wonderful movies, you made incredible jazz music, and you were even the first on the moon. I think that we all, from other countries, saw you in this way. It's why we're here. But now living among you, you tell a very different story.
In spite of the heartbreak and the external pressures, Cole's presence, like his voice, remained firm and elegant. The documentary's lens via Maria Cole's POV was especially touching--to hear how she ignored him at first, very gradually fell in love, and finally said an early goodbye from cancer. Cole's story coupled with songs like "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons" makes a nostalgic music lover like me want to listen to him again and again while dreaming of when I first heard him decades ago...those thousands of miles beyond the pacific ocean...of a place that I would one day live. And life ahead promised to be wonderful.
Another interesting thing about the film is the mention of how much pressure Cole faced among fellow artists for not taking a stronger stance against inequality. Silent protest is still a form a protest and though Cole wasn't vocal in his time, the fact that his voice is so widely listened to even today is a testament to the extraordinary effect he has had as a human being. George Benson said it best during the film, "It just wasn't his style."
Drive about an hour east of Los Angeles County and one can find among the thrift shops a variety of vinyl records cheaply and in very good condition. Towns like Beaumont and Cathedral City are particular favorites for great finds like a deluxe Nat King Cole two-album set, produced by Capital Records circa 1950s, for 50 cents. Decca, RCA, and Columbia also released fine albums, though Capitol is in an audio class of its own. Even now, Judy Garland's "I'm Confessing" sounds as if an entire symphony is right here with me in my living room.
Over the years I've amassed a pretty generous collection of records that takes up most of the wall space in my home office. Vinyls require a lot of care--cleaning, dusting, vertical storage in a temperate place. Most of my records are missing sleeves with many cardboard jackets that require extra scotch tape reinforcements.
There's a nuance of space and texture in vinyl that I can't hear in the digital age. Though wonderful to have millions of songs on demand with a service like Spotify, digital recordings underwhelms when it comes to capturing the full range of a sound wave, missing out on subtle timbral varieties.
The human element of old-fashioned recordings continue to amaze me--of course there were the artists (singers, back up vocals, orchestra, instrumentals, composers), the producers, mixers, A&Rs. Then there were the photographers, the graphics team, printers, the marketing department that made mini replicas of record stores so they could dictate the exact placement of merchandise. On the factory side, there were the fabricators, the testers, the distributors, the people who put stickers on jackets and placed them into boxes for shipping. Craftsmen who made the lacquer masters out of acetate, electroplated the metal master to the metal mother, made metal stampers to transfer onto the biscuit, which were themselves chemical marvels--carnauba wax, red slate, copal gum, keystone white, cotton flack, ethyl cellulose, carbon black, zinc, vinsol resin--this stuff goes over my head. There was an art to it, a kind of human ceremony that now gets replaced with a microphone and GarageBand for Mac. What happened to all those people?
It's late morning on Monday as I type the final few words of this piece--a cup of coffee, a sunny day outside, and a Capitol recording of The Andrew Sisters' "Rum and Coca Cola" to start the week. On the corner of the jacket is an old sticker price for $28.75. I got it for only $1 in a plastic bin in Palm Desert, but I would have paid much more.
Vintage eyewear, strong hair games, and a crowd more chill-laxed than a cannabis lounge in San Francisco--this, ladies and gentlemen, is a Khruangbin concert. And specifically, the concert I went to last night at the Lodge Room in Highland Park.
I first discovered Khruangbin in 2013 when their piece "A Calf Born In Winter" appeared on the compilation album Late Night Tales: Bonobo. Since then, they've released two full-length albums; The Universe Smiles Upon You (2015) and Con Todo El Mundo (2018), along with two mini releases: The Infamous Bill (2014) and History of Flight (2015), of which HoF is particularly noteworthy.
Based in Houston, TX, Khruangbin is a conceptually simple musical ensemble: a three piece band of all instrumentals consisting of a lead guitar (Mark Speer), bass (Laura Lee) and drums (Donald Johnson). Borrowing notes from soul, funk and Southeast Asian rock, Khruangbin is a feast for the ears. Reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius and Chet Atkins, Speer lets the sound of his 2001 Fender Strat shine as vocals are only added in support of this main star of the show. His command of the guitar is especially impressive in "August Twelve," "The Number 3," and "Ha Fang Kheng Kan" to name a few.
How could an instrumental trio carry on an entire concert, you wonder? Colorful costumes, meticulous hair, and Speer's own lighthearted nod to Michael McKean from This Is Spinal Tap--a serious band that also doesn't take themselves so seriously (or at least I hope). And they are in demand! With three sold-out nights here in LA and plans to return again in the fall...this time, to a much bigger venue at the Greek. I wouldn't be surprised if they play the Hollywood Bowl in another year.
Now with two full albums, two mini albums, and a cult following of coiffured hipsters (I count myself among them), I am curious to see how Khruangbin will continue to reinvent themselves. They seem to have carved a musical space that's unlike any other on the market with copy cat bands yet to emerge as notable enough names. Speer's guitar has carried this band forward through three albums, now adding in vocals on the most recent Con Todo El Mundo. With a sound so distinct (and also limiting), I don't envy the enormity of their next album project, whenever that comes. Will Laura Lee's skills as a bassist be given more spotlight? And will Donald Johnson's artistry as a percussionist be given a solo? Not sure, but I hope so. I'm looking forward to it.
Ella Mae Morse is probably not the Ella that comes to mind when thinking about jazz. A girl with an unremarkable upbringing from suburban Texas, Morse gave Capitol Records its first Gold Record in 1942 with the rockabilly song "Cow Cow Boogie." It was Jimmy Dorsey's piano player, Freddie Slack, who discovered her at 14 when she she lied about her age to sing for Dorsey's band. Dorsey kicked her out when he got notice from the Dallas School Board that he was employing a minor, but Slack kept her.
I found her album, The Morse Code, very much by chance in the $1 record bin at a bookstore in Downtown LA. It was the cover that struck me: that shock of red hair popping out of a cobalt turban, the sideways glance, a hand cupped next to that coral smile like she's letting her listeners in on a secret.
Morse has a voice that pops, a voice that reinterprets classics like "My Funny Valentine" and "Heart and Soul." But the song that struck me most was "You Go To My Head."
You go to my head
You linger like a haunting refrain
And I find you spinning round
In my brain
Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne
You go to my head
Maybe it's the orchestral arrangement, or the uptempo bongo, or perhaps the voice with verve singing about falling in love against her will. I can relate.
You go to my head with a smile
That makes my temperature rise
Like a summer with a thousand Julys
You intoxicate my soul with your eyes
Why do certain songs stick while others don't? When I look back at my music collection, the songs that I remember are the ones that parallel life. Even my Spotify account tells a story--months and years of unremarkable music, cruising music, downtempo tunes to get through the day, to get through emails, to make dinner, to get through traffic, something to listen to while I brush my hair--music that I have little recollection of essentially, as if I was sleepwalking through it all. And then, here and there, short bursts of Vivaldi, of Cake, of Edith Piaf, or Cat Power, of Amy Winehouse, of The Smiths? And now, Morse.
There's a pushing and a pulling in this song, a kind of tension from the always conflicting future and present selves. Who was this song for? A doomed lover, maybe.
Still I say to myself
Get ahold of yourself
Can't you see that it never can be
I've probably listened to this song about 50 times in the past three days. Part of it was so I could write this piece, the other...I'm not sure, The French writer, Francois La Rochefoucauld said, "There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing." I tried to find Morse's cover of "You Get To My Head" to link here, but there's nothing free on the internet. The closest I could find is for purchase on Amazon for 89 cents.
A few years after this recording, Capitol let Morse go. Times were a-changing and so were the tastes of music consumers--the Korean War ended, the Nuclear Arms Race started, McCarthyism was in full swing while more and more households bought televisions to stay tuned--the future ahead looked like a question mark. Not much has been written about Morse after her days with Capitol. Of the little I found, her 1st marriage fell apart, her 2nd marriage fell apart too, her career fizzled, though she got gigs where she could as the opening act for more known bands. She had kids, they had kids. And then in 1999 in a place called Bullhead City, Arizona, she died.
Does life mimic music? Or is it the other way around? Who knows. Maybe Ella Mae Morse knows. Or maybe at one time she thought she knew. I would very much like her to lean in and let me in on this secret. What happened to you, Ella? That cobalt turban, that fiery hair. The voice in love. In that moment, in those lyrics, in spite of the doomed future, Morse created something more than just a cover song. Little else matters.
Bits & Pieces
A place for experimentation, a place for pieces unpolished and unpublished, a place to work out thoughts and ideas for larger collections. Typos aplenty. Enjoy (or not).