The Potemkin Picks: Our Favorite Music from 1953
We explore music in our Spotify playlist from 1953 including some of the best R&B of all time, Billboard chart toppers and crooners, Hank Williams' hits, selections from the best jazz albums of the year (including The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall), the incomparable Yma Sumac, some Tom Lehrer, and some songs from Shane. No "Doggie in the Window" here, folks. You're welcome.
Rhythm and Blues: Tracks 1-20
TRACK 1: RUTH BROWN
I worked at a music museum in Seattle called The Experience Music Project for about six months. At the time, they had a loop of band and artist performance videos that played on a few giant screens, like movie theatre big. When it was slow, we all just manned our stations, alone, and stared at the loop. This video of Ruth Brown singing "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" made me giddy every time it came on. An observant patron would have noticed me shimmying, shrugging, and air tambourineing (tambourining?) along with her, and my co-workers and managers were, let's say amused, by my pressing the radio call button along with that infectious punctuating trumpet. "Mama he takes my money BEEEEEEEEP! Makes me call him 'Honey' BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!"
Simultaneously elegant and campy, Ruth Brown makes it easy to forget you're hearing a song foreshadowing spousal abuse. Sadly, I suspect the daughter will be singing "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" by The Crystals in ten years (1962). For more like this, check out the A.V. Club's list of 30 songs inspired by domestic violence. And then go take a shower. Ooof, this took a turn.
Watch her, though. She's magic. Song starts at 0:23.
TRACK 19: THE PRISONAIRES
The Prisonaires (pictured top) were a group of five African American men locked up in state prison in Memphis who recorded one hit record, "Just Walkin' in the Rain," with Sun records in 1953, the title song of which is featured here. Some of the men were imprisoned for justifiable reasons, and some for seemingly trumped up charges. Criminal allegations against the five members included larceny, involuntary manslaughter, rape, and murder, and sentences for the men were as low as one year, and as high as ninety-nine. The prison warden, James Edwards, convinced by radio producer Joe Calloway, agreed to allow The Prisonaires to leave Tennessee State Penitentiary and travel under armed guard to studio recording sessions. Following the popularity of "Just Walkin' in the Rain," they toured with day passes performing around the state, including at the governor's mansion. A documentary about them was apparently released in 2013 (maybe?), but we haven't been able to track it down.
Popular Hits: Tracks 21-30
The incomparable Eartha Kitt performs her signature "C'est Si Bon" (Track 24 of our playlist).
Hank Williams: 31-34
The world sadly lost the great Hank Williams the morning of January 1, 1953.
"I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" was famously Williams' last single to be released in his lifetime. The songs "Kaw-Liga" and "Take These Chains from My Heart" were recorded in September, 1952, and released posthumously. All three of these along with "Your Cheatin' Heart" became number one hits in 1953 between January and May.
TRACKS 48-53: THE QUINTET: JAZZ AT MASSEY HALL
Ok, I'm not a music writer, and I'm especially not a Jazz writer. This is where I feel the most out of my depth. So I'll turn it over to the AllMusic review of the album.
This concert was held at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada on May 15, 1953, and was recorded by bassist Charles Mingus, who overdubbed some additional bass parts and issued it on his own Debut label as the Quintet's Jazz at Massey Hall. Charlie Parker (listed on the original album sleeve as "Charlie Chan") performed on a plastic alto, pianist Bud Powell was stone drunk from the opening bell, and Dizzy Gillespie kept popping offstage to check on the status of the first Rocky Marciano-Jersey Joe Walcott heavyweight championship bout. Subsequent editions of this evening were released as a double-live album (featuring Bud Powell's magnificent piano trio set with Mingus and Roach), dubbed The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever. The hyperbole is well-deserved, because at the time of this concert, each musician on Jazz at Massey Hall was considered to be the principle instrumental innovator within the bebop movement. All of these musicians were influenced by Charlie Parker, and their collective rapport is magical. As a result, their fervent solos on the uptempo tunes ("Salt Peanuts" and "Wee") seem to flow like one uninterrupted idea. "All the Things You Are" redefines Jerome Kern's classic ballad, with frequent echoes of "Grand Canyon Suite" from Bird and Diz, and a ruminative solo by Powell. And on Gillespie's classic "Night in Tunisia," the incomparable swagger of Bird's opening break is matched by the keening emotional intensity of Gillespie's daredevil flight. A legendary set, no matter how or when or where it's issued.
—AllMusic Review of The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall
We've included the entire album in our playlist.
Yma Sumac: 54-57
It's hard to know where to start with Yma Sumac. She's almost indescribable.
Born in Peru in 1922, she was reportedly a descendant of Atahualpa, the last Incan Emperor to rule the Incan Empire before the Spanish conquest. Atahualpa was captured by Pizzaro and his small army in 1532, and executed (murdered) in 1533. Yma Sumac's heritage was questioned a bit—some rumors claimed she was really a Brooklyn housewife named Amy Camus (Yma Sumac backwards)—but the Argentinian government has supported her claim to be a descendant of Atahualpa, which made her an Incan princess.
Her vocal range was somewhere between four and five octaves.
She was signed as a solo artist for Capitol Records in 1950 and she remained a popular recording artist and performer throughout the 1950's, performing solo at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. She was featured in a few films, including Secret of the Incas (1954) with Charlton Heston. She starred in one (unsuccessful) Broadway musical (Flahooley, 1951), and found impressive followings touring in Europe, South America, Russia, and the far east.
In classic Liz Taylor fashion, she twice married and twice divorced her band-leader husband. She ostensibly retired in the early 1960s, but popped up again for a few concerts in the 70s, and notably for a three-week stint at the New York Ballroom in 1987 (see second clip below).
Her music enjoyed a popular revival in the 90s coinciding with a renewed interest in Exotica and Lounge. She was featured on a number of soundtracks including Death to Smoochy, The Big Lebowski, Spy Games, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Her song "Bo Mambo" was used in a 90s Kahlua commercial and sampled by The Black Eyed Peas in "Hands Up."
The songs featured on our playlist are from the now out-of-print album Inca Taqui, released in 1953. This first performance video, of the song "Chuncho" (1953), shows off Sumac's entire vocal range, and is also one of the strangest recordings of her, which is saying something. (Don't miss 2:29-3:05, when shit gets real...with a parrot).
And one more video of Yma Sumac: somewhat later in life, promoting her run at the New York Ballroom in 1987, she performs "Ataypura." This is also in honor of Letterman's retirement from Late Night this month. 4:10-4:30 will remind you what has made Dave so special, and will make you adore Sumac. Also, this song may sound familiar to The Big Lebowski fans out there.
Yma Sumac, forever transcendent.
TRACKS 60-63: TOM LEHRER
Lehrer's first comedy album, Songs by Tom Lehrer, was released in 1953. Here are some highlights. Lehrer paid $15 to record the album and sold on the Harvard campus (where he taught Mathematics while working towards his PhD) and at stores just off campus. A slow start for one of the all-time musical comedy greats. Here's a live performance of Lehrer performing the irreverently morbid "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" in Copenhagen, 1967.
Music from Shane: 64-65
The selections in the video are from the 1996 re-recording performed by The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with Richard Kaufman conducting, and arranged by Patrick Russ. The selections here are "Prelude," "The Tree Stump," and "Cemetery Hill."
The playlist selections are "Theme from Shane" from The Wester Film Band's (sic) album Western Music Vol. 1 (2010), and "The Call of the Faraway Hills," from Franck Pourcel's album Western (1972).
Vaya con Dios and see you all next month. We'll be heading to June 1971.