July 26, 2013

Records From My Father, Part 4: "Manhattan Tower."

I had made my selection for the next entry in the Records From My Father series before doing that last blog post, showing the New Yorker cover making an Anthony Weiner phallic joke out of the Empire State Building. Here's the album cover for "Manhattan Tower," showing the Chrysler Building.


This record might be the polar opposite of a Weiner sext. It's very grand and striving, with lush orchestration, florid singing, and spoken narration. It acts like it's telling a momentous love story, a story that could only happen in New York City, a story on the scale of the Manhattan skyscrapers, but there's nothing important at all about Steve and Julie, who meet in a bar, go to a few New York places, and then separate. This was very hard to sit through, and I have a hard time believing my father found it too amusing.


You can listen the whole thing at YouTube, broken up into 4 parts: 1, 2, 3, 4. I mean, I don't know if you can, but the music is there to be listened to. I am not recommending it, except to experience the weirdness of overdone banality. Jenkins was not a nobody:
[H]e regularly arranged for and conducted the orchestra for various Decca artists, including Dick Haymes ("Little White Lies", 1947), Ella Fitzgerald ("Happy Talk", 1949, "Black Coffee", 1949, "Baby", 1954), Billie Holiday ("Crazy He Calls Me", "You're My Thrill", "Please Tell Me Now", "Somebody's On My Mind", 1949, and conducted and produced her last Decca session with "God Bless the Child", "This Is Heaven to Me", 1950), Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters ("I Can Dream, Can't I", 1949) and Louis Armstrong ("Blueberry Hill", 1949 and "When It's Sleepy Time Down South", 1951).

The liner notes to Verve Records' 2001 reissue of one of Jenkins' albums with Armstrong, Satchmo In Style, quote Decca's onetime A & R Director, Milt Gabler, saying that Jenkins "stood up on his little podium so that all the performers could see him conduct. But before he gave a downbeat, Gordon made a speech about how much he loved Louis and how this was the greatest moment in his life. And then he cried."
He sounds sentimental, but how square could he be? Was it his job to impose some squareness on these artists? Later, he worked with Frank Sinatra:
[A]s rock and roll gained ascendancy in the 1960s, Jenkins' lush string arrangements fell out of favour and he worked only sporadically, though Sinatra, who had left Capitol to start his own label, Reprise Records, continued to call upon the arranger's services at various intervals over the next two decades, on albums such as All Alone (1962), the critically acclaimed September of My Years (1965), for which Jenkins won a Grammy, Sinatra's 1973 comeback album, Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back and She Shot Me Down (1981) - regarded by many "Sinatraphiles" as the singer's last great work.... Jenkins also composed the "Future" suite for Sinatra's 1980 concept album Trilogy: Past Present Future.
My parents loved Frank Sinatra. (As I've said before, my father looked just like Frank Sinatra in the 1950s, when Frank Sinatra was at his most handsome. Later, Frank Sinatra got a little puffy and bald, and — I know it's only me saying this — my father aged better, never losing his thick, wavy, black hair, though he did, late in life, go blind in one of his blue eyes.) Here's Sinatra doing "September of My Years," with the lush orchestration of Gordon Jenkins. I should have listened to some of this more accessible music before subjecting myself to "Manhattan Tower." Perhaps that's what happened to my father: He developed an attachment to the music as it backed up Sinatra (or some of those other great singers) and he read about "Manhattan Tower" as some sort of peak of the art of Gordon Jenkins.

But "Manhattan Tower" comes across as very musical theater. It's intended to sound modern... to people living in the 1940s, when it was originally written. It lacks any jazz inflection, though there's one song about the mambo, a dance that Julie sings about not being able to do — after Stephen sings of an inability to waltz — because she never knows when to do the "uh." Which I think is sexual innuendo (of the most deniable kind). This is really too wholesome. Maybe there's some ironic way to listen to this, but I'm never going to be the one who tries to do it.

(I'm inviting comments — which must go through moderation — for the posts in this series.)


Leora said...

My husband and I came across this record in a flea market and bought it for its odd cover. We found it amusing to listen to though we couldn't imagine who would have bought it. It's possible that your father read a review that made it sound interesting and listened to it only once.

Will Cate said...

I love how song associate with the "Steve and Julie Meet" portion of the work is "Happiness Cocktail" ... the genesis of so many great romances...

Ann Althouse said...

"Happiness Cocktail" is about what females bring to an otherwise male environment. One could do a big feminist analysis on that text. But I can't find the text on line, and I can't bear to listen and transcribe.

Ann Althouse said...

Oh! I did find the lyrics:

Mix some kindeness with some fun
Then add a touch of April sun
Blend with a soft spoken word and when you´re done
You´ll have a happiness cocktail
I´ll have a happiness cocktail
Pour some laughter in your brew
Plus a stolen kiss or two
Then add an open fire and a dream and when you´re through
You´ll have a happiness cocktail yes,yes,yes
When you?????????????you just say
My dear you´re looking younger everyday
And get that tired look off your face
You´re just as good as anyother man is good,good
If the dreams you dream aren´t coming true
And happiness seems overdue
Give me your hand and I`ll tell you what I`ll do
I´ll make a happiness cocktail just for you

Ann Althouse said...

In that scene, it's a men's only bar, and some man criticizes women, but then Julie just comes in anyway.

She orders a "happiness cocktail," and the bartender says he doesn't know how to make it but he's got a book to look up drinks.

She says, it's not in the book. It's not really a drink. Then she sings those lyrics.

Will Cate said...

Ah... like the bartender, I was taking it too literally.

Pianoman said...

This is interesting from a "recording type" perspective (from wax to vinyl to tape to CD to digital). Emphasis is mine:

"Manhattan Tower was a composition written by Gordon Jenkins in the 1940s, and first issued to the public in 1946 as a two-disc 78-rpm set on the Decca label, DA-438. It was considered quite innovative for its time, and was quite warmly received by critics and the public alike ... With the advent of 45-rpm and 33 1/3-rpm records in 1948 and 1949, the suite became one of the first recordings to be reissued by Decca in all formats then available, including 45-rpm set 9-2, 45-rpm Extended Play ED 462, and LP DL 8011, the LP issue being backed with Jenkins's later composition "California." The original monaural recording was "reprocessed for stereo" in the early 1960s, and that LP release remained in print into the 1970s as Decca DL 78011.
By the middle 1950s, "High Fidelity Sound," available on LP and 45 (as well as magnetic tape), had become the rage, and Jenkins rewrote major parts of the suite, expanding it to approximately three times its original length, and recorded it for Capitol Records in 1956 as The Complete Manhattan Tower, catalog number T-766. This new version of the suite was again a monaural recording, and appeared with Capitol's turquoise LP label; the entire suite was also issued as a 45-rpm EP set, EDM-766."

This is the same kind of process that the studios went through with CDs -- "digital re-engineering", "digital masters", and so on. Nowadays of course, everything is digital. But it wasn't always that way. (Remember the "AAD", "ADD", and "DDD" labels on the CD packaging?)

As music formats change, and as the technology for improving music sound improves, popular recordings like this one always get reprocessed for resale. It's a great way for studios to drag more $$$ out of a recording without having to actually pay musicians.

Smilin' Jack said...

I can't find the text on line, and I can't bear to listen and transcribe.

Oh, come on--this is music to endure.

Old RPM Daddy said...

Pianoman, that was some interesting info!

I don't remember Manhattan Tower being in my parents' collection, but I remember a them having a similar record, which I listened to a couple of times. Rod McKuen did a series of recordings with Anita Kerr some years back, of which The Sea, with the San Sabastian Strings, was one. Perhaps the McKuen albums were along the same lines as the Jenkins effort.

aronamos said...

My father was a weekend disc jockey at WMRO in Aurora, Illinois, when I was a wee girl, and he'd play a lot of Gordon Jenkins and some of the other artists you're discovering. The station got so many records that the manager would let my dad bring home some by the armsful.

Daddy's gone now. WMRO is gone, too, since the late 1980s, its license sold and its call letters given to some outfit in Tennessee.

One night every holiday season we'd listen to Jenkins's "Seven Dreams." See if you have that in your dad's stacks.

Jenkins was a superb arranger, and worked with Nat King Cole and Sinatra. He also arranged and conducted Harry Nilsson's "A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night." It may have been the only time the Venn diagram of my dad's musical taste and mine overlapped.

But now, fifty years on, I can put Daddy's records on, and can hear him in between the notes, a young man's baritone on the radio, when I was 5.

Pianoman said...

I think that the impact of re-mastering and re-releasing old recordings is something that's not appreciated enough. It's the main reason why the recording industry posted such ridiculous profits throughout the 80s and 90s -- they were able to re-release their catalogs to CD without having to go through the hassle of creating new music.

Finding the next Bob Dylan that will speak to the current generation is HARD. It's a lot easier to just re-mix all of Bob Dylan's albums on CD and sell them.


Hazy Dave said...

Sounds like the original piece - one third the length of this recording - would be the version to listen to!