Music To Help You Score With Smart People: Essentials 1954


I don’t much give a damn about modern music, although I’m going to give some of these a try.

For me to make a list of my essentials, I’ve had to go back fifty years.

In 1954, Rocky Marciano and Lou Thesz were undisputed World Heavyweight Champions, Linus Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Gordie Howe led the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup, Rikidozan introduced Pro Wrestling to the Japanese public, Rodger Bannister broke the Four-Minute Mile barrier, the first episode of The Tonight Show was aired, Marlon Brando won an Oscar, and the first two volumes of The Lord of The Rings trilogy were published.

Matt Groening, Howard Stern, Tony Dorsett, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, and Stevie Ray Vaughan were all born in 1954.

The innovative American composer Charles Ives and the legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler both died in 1954.

Elvis Presley first stepped into Sun Studios; Ampex created the first eight track recorder under the commission of guitar pioneer Les Paul; record companies made the switch from 78s to 45s and 33s; and 12-inch records were allowing recording artists to extend their creative visions in a way that had not been possible before.

Also in 1954, the following essential recordings and compositions were created:

10) Wilhelm Furtwangler – Bach: St. Matthew Passion

This is one of the final recordings made by the great conductor, and it’s a lasting testament to his individuality and the power of his musical imagination. Furtwangler leads the Vienna band and singers through a blazingly romantic version of the work. Nobody plays Bach like this any more, and it will probably take at least a generation until someone has the balls to even try.

9) The Clifford Brown – Max Roach Quintet – Joy Spring

This is life-affirming music. Brown won the 1954 Downbeat critics’ award for Best New Star, and he and Roach formed the quintet that would make some of the best jazz ever played. Two years later, Brown died in a car accident. Fans of the ECWA Super 8 Tournament may be surprised to hear that Brown was born in Wilmington, Delaware. Brown and Roach had the same kind of Chemistry on stage and in the recording studio that, say, Low Ki and American Dragon have in the ring.

8) Muddy Waters – I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man

This is the all time great down and dirty Chicago blues man working his guitar on one of the all time great hot and sexy blues numbers. You can find this tune on any number of Muddy Waters compilation CDs.

Mud influenced every significant electric blues artist from Buddy Guy to Keith Richards, pick up one of his Greatest Hits collections and see if you don’t get inspired, too.

7) Errol Garner – Misty

Misty is an all time classic ballad. The original recording of the tune remains among the very best, enjoyably relaxed and sophisticated bluesy swing from a true jazz piano virtuoso backed by a terrific rhythm section. The rest of the album is filled with standard tunes played in a similar style.

6) Miles Davis – Walkin’

This is the first of several records on this list that are counted among the true milestones of popular music. It can be argued that the title track marked the beginning of the Hard Bop sound, and most music historians trace the river of Funk back to the creative spring of Hard Bop. In addition to the historical importance of this release there is the pure and simple joy of hearing a newly heroin-free Miles jamming with a great band featuring Horace Silver on piano.

5) Ray Charles – I Got A Woman

This song broke new ground by putting decidedly worldly lyrics to the tune and rhythm of an old spiritual. It was one of the very fist steps on the journey that led to the creation of Soul Music.

The best place to hear this essential tune is probably on the Rhino CD Best of the Atlantic, which contains most of the best music Ray recorded in his most creative period. This music is more raw and bluesy and less slickly produced and commercialized that much of what came later.

4) Big Joe Turner – Shake, Rattle, & Roll

Tuner was a Kansas City blues shouter, and this was arguably the first Rock ‘n’ Roll song ever recorded. Of course, it didn’t really catch on until Bill Haley and the Comets did a cover version, but if you are at all interested hearing where it all really came from, this is the best place to start.

3) Louis Armstrong – Plays W.C. Handy

This was Armstrong’s first recording of the 1950s, his first recording for Columbia after a long relationship with Decca, and probably the finest recording of his later years. Working with some genuinely great blues tunes, Armstrong avoided using a lot of show business cliches and instead just lets himself speak through the music. At times, this record touches on the glories of the classic Armstrong recordings of the 1920s.

2) Frank Sinatra – In the Wee Small Hours

Fresh off of winning the 1953 Best Actor Oscar for his performance in From Here to Eternity, Sinatra revived his musical career in 1954, releasing three albums. Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy are both great, but this is the masterpiece:

It’s a whole album of ballads, arranged to create and sustain a lonely late might mood. In the Wee Small Hours is one of the all time great break-up records, and it was quite probably the first concept album ever recorded.

1) Arnold Schoenberg – Moses und Aron

If you are in the mood for two CDs worth of uncompromisingly difficult music, it’s hard to do better than this twelve-tone opera, which Schoenberg started working on in 1930 and finally published in unfinished form in 1954. The composers son once said that Pierre Boulez’ 1995 recording of the piece was the finest recording of his father’s music that he had ever heard. The piece seems to be equally about the conflict between the two brothers as found in the biblical book of Exodus, and the conflict between the composer’s intellect and his Jewish faith. The questions and the conflict are never resolved, as the music slows down and fades away into nothingness.

Artie Shaw Used Music To Score With Hot People

I hope that Artie Shaw died (on Thursday, at the age of 94, from complications associated with diabetes) without too many regrets. He certainly lived a hell of a life.

In the line of great clarinet playing swing bandleaders, Shaw comes in a very distant third to Bennie Goodman and Woody Herman. He is remembered more for being ultimately cool than for being a great musician, although the man could play. His biggest success came when he used saccharine string arrangements and other commercial elements to pander to the vast sea of idiots who don’t give a damn about great music, but doing so ran contrary to his personality, and he eventually dropped out of the music business altogether in a fit of self-loathing. He set the template for future temperamental geniuses like Kurt Cobain, except instead of killing himself Shaw got into psychotherapy and writing.

Shaw started playing professionally while still in his teens, formed his first band in 1936, and hit his stride just as the general public was catching on to big band swing. He had a mainstream hit record with an over-arranged version of Begin the Beguine, which would remain a huge albatross around his neck for the rest of his life. Much lesser know but probably more important was his piece Interlude in B Flat, which is the first recorded example of Jazz-Classical Fusion, or Third Stream Music. Some of the most pretentious and tedious crap ever written can be traced back to Shaw’s Interlude. No wonder he wanted to reinvent himself! At the height of his popularity, Shaw made waves and cemented his status as one cool MF’er by hiring Billie Holiday as the singer for his band. (More wrestling humour: You may not be aware of this, but Holiday was African-American). During World War II, Shaw and his entire band enlisted in the Navy. They spent the next 18 months playing as many as four shows per day, presumably without the kind of orgiastic self-congratulation that WWE have been indulging in since announcing their visit to the Middle East. In a nice bit of synchronicity, Artie Shaw stopped playing the clarinet in 1954.

Shaw became a national joke and a personal hero by getting married eight times. Each of his wives was a major hottie, especially the actresses Ava Gardener, Lana Turner, and Evelyn Keyes. It was Ava Garner breaking Sinatra’s heart that led to the classic break up album In The Wee Small Hours.

Evelyn Keyes – Way to go, Artie!

As I said in the beginning of this tribute, I hope that Shaw died without any regrets, since it sure seems like he lived life to the fullest.

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