My Pop Life #100 : Stardust – Nat King Cole

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Stardust   –   Nat King Cole

…And now the purple dusk of twilight time

…steals across the meadows of my heart…

High up in the sky the little stars climb

always reminding me that we’re apart

*

Such a melancholy yet beautiful lyric on such an unusual, strange and compelling melody.

Featured imageHoagy Carmichael wrote the melody to Stardust when he was 28 years old in Bloomington Indiana, imagining as he composed it that one day his hero – cornet player Bix Beiderbecke – would play the tune.  The way the song winds and swerves through different keys is a challenge for any singer – but originally Stardust was an instrumental.    A jazz instrumental.    The saxophone player Bud Freeman once said ‘Carmichael’s songs are the only songs on which you don’t have to improvise much, because the improvisation is already in them‘.  So Hoagy recorded the instrumental and it was played by Ellington, Calloway and others until in 1929 Irving Mills decided the tune needed lyrics and asked young Mitchell Parish to write some.

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The resulting ballad (first performed by Isham Jones in the form we know it today)  is simply the most exceptional combination of words and music that I know of, my favourite song of all time, and the song which was covered more than any other (over 1500 covers to date) up ’til McCartney dreamed up Yesterday (covered over 3000 times).

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Stardust is a song about a song about love.  Lost love – all that’s left is the song.  The star has gone, all that’s left is stardust.  The image of Star Dust (original title) is a powerful one and has been used many times – Bowie called himself Ziggy Stardust during 1972, and Joni Mitchell sang  “we are stardust we are golden” about the Woodstock generation.   The idea that music can contain in it the dust of a feeling, of a relationship, of a love is a very beautiful one, and of course it is also the idea behind this very blog.  So it seems fitting to me that as I reach the satisfying figure of 100 pieces of music written about, 100 feelings converted into stardust, that this song marks the auspicious occasion.

Featured imageI first became obsessed with Stardust around February 2008 – yes, quite specific…   And once again I am indebted to Kenneth Cranham for his musical guidance.    In a small-world twist of fate, he was now playing patriarch Max in Pinter’s The Homecoming at The Almeida Theatre – and my wife Jenny Jules had become the first black woman to ever play the role of Ruth in the same production.    Harold Pinter clearly fancied her in fact and would insist on sitting next to her at dinner and so on.   His wife Lady Antonia Fraser was terribly patient.    I walked home with Uncle Ken one day, probably after rehearsal, because he lives not far from the theatre round the back of Caledonian Road.   I had been cast in Richard Curtis‘ film The Boat That Rocked, playing late-night DJ Bob Silver, a kind of John Peel template, but with the difference that I was an old geezer in 2008 compared with Peel’s early 20s in 1966 on the pirate radio station Radio Caroline.   Uncle Ken being my musical guru I asked him, if I’d been 50 in 1966 then who would I have grown up listening to?   Apart from a reference to Muddy Waters there were no clues in the script.   A week later I was at rehearsal again, or maybe first night, and Ken thrust 3 whole C90 cassettes into my grubby paw.    I know.   It was 2008 and he was still making C90s.   They were completely brilliant.   “They’re all writer-based“,  Ken explained, “the first one is Ellington, with plenty of covers too, the second is Harold Arlen who wrote Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Stormy Weather, and the third is Hoagy Carmichael, and there’s even a track of Hoagy singing on that one”…

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The track of Hoagy singing was Stardust.  There were three other versions on the cassette – one I already had at home by Nat King Cole, probably purchased in the mid-eighties after a John Godber-directed show, (perhaps A Clockwork Orange at The Man In The Moon theatre on King’s Road in 1982).  John’s parents were addicted to Nat King Cole and some of John’s writing acknowledges his greatness as an artist, mainly as a crooner.   The other two versions were by Willie Nelson and The Mills Brothers.   Four of the best versions.   I could not stop listening to the damn song.   I started collecting covers of it.   There are a lot.   At the last count I had 57 cover versions of it – all different, most of them terrific.  They range from wild jazz instrumentals from the likes of Charlie Christian, Ben Webster and Oscar Aleman to staggering vocal journeys by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald or Bing Crosby.   Some odd ones – by The Shadows (it’s ace), The Mills Brothers – an instrumental version AND a sung version, but all done by their voices (amazing), and Frank Sinatra – only sings the introduction (!!).   He had a history of picking the bits he liked though, did Frank (see eg: Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park).   Then there’s Louis Armstrong‘s simply astounding cover which bounces along on the one & the three like a song possessed while the trumpet riffs above it – until Louis starts to sing and makes up the words, scats along, it is simply brilliant and probably the “best” version.  Unique, certainly.

Featured imageBut my favourite is Nat King Cole.  He had a long career as a jazz pianist playing some classic trio cuts before his vocal ability took prominence and he started to sing more – his version of The Christmas Song (“chestnuts roasting…”) in 1946 made him a superstar, (although the famous version still played today was the 4th time he recorded the song in 1961).  By 1956 he had his own syndicated TV show in America, the first black performer to do so.  In 1957 – the year I was born – he released his version of Stardust, his vocal melisma and jazz sophistication perfectly suiting the song’s temperament.  The string arrangement – can’t find out who it was – is beyond perfect – the opening violin swell is like someone breathing in and out it is so organic.    As Nat reaches the word at the end of the introduction “the music of the years gone by” the strings are clearly on the “wrong” note, but resolve with exquisite delay.

When our love was new, and each kiss an inspiration…

What a line – and don’t we all know that feeling ?  Now sadly gone but he has the song….

My stardust melody – the memory of love’s refrain

The lyrics are full of stars – in the sky reminding him that “we’re apart” and at the end again as he sits beside a garden wall

when stars are bright and you are in my arms…”

*

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To be honest there’s only so much you can write about a piece of music like this. Without getting overly muso – the use of semitone intervals – going up and down is extremely effective.  “Sometimes I wonder…” the first four notes are a semitone climb up that line of the first verse which leads you into the reverie.  Then later “Though I dream in vain…”  the last three words are semitone falls, perfectly in sympathy musically with the lyric.    I don’t want to go overboard at the deep end so I’ll just leave this here.   I will doubtless come back to other versions and covers in future posts.  And of course Hoagy wrote other songs too – Georgia On My Mind and many others.  But Nat King Cole sings Stardust and he wears the crown for My Pop Life #100.

Nat Cole :  LIVE !

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My Pop Life #39 : Knocks Me Off My Feet – Stevie Wonder

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Knocks Me Off My Feet   –   Stevie Wonder

…but there’s something ’bout your love… that makes me weak and knocks me off my feet…

It is an indication of how musically unformed I was at the time that I didn’t rush out and buy Talking Book when it came out in 1972 –  I saw Stevie Wonder singing Superstition on Top Of The Pops one Thursday evening.  I liked it – and ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life‘ – but it wasn’t until I was 16 and hanging around with girls that the magic started to work it’s course under my skin, into my bones.  Tanya Myers was in the year below me and friends with other girls that Simon knew mainly called Jane.  We were at Tanya’s house in 1973 – she was gorgeous but I was with Miriam Ryle at this point – and we listened to Innervisions from start to finish.  Quite soon after that I bought it, and Talking Book, then late in 1976 Songs In The Key Of Life, a double album with an extra single inside the packaging, 21 songs in all.  By then I had also heard Fulfillingness’ First Finale since Mumtaz owned it and we listened to it a lot, I think at some point in my mid 20s (the soul years) I bought Music Of My Mind from 1971.   

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Thus we have the run of LPs from 71-76 that represent a Himalayan mountain range of musical excellence, with Songs In the Key Of Life being most folk’s pinnacle moment.  It’s hard to have favourites with Stevie Wonder, but mine is Innervisions.   And if you go back to 1970 there’s another superb LP called Where I’m Coming From which was his final LP under the first contract with Tamla Motown and is the true beginning of Stevie making the music he wanted to make, rather like Marvin Gaye his label stablemate, who made What’s Goin’ On in the same year, with the same desire to stretch out beyond the pop confines of Motown.  And beyond 1976 is the pause for breath before the brilliant but uneven indulgence of Secret Life Of Plants in 1979 and 1980’s genuine masterpiece Hotter Than July and on into the 1980s with more wonderful music (Overjoyed is outright stunning) right up to the present day.  A Time 2 Love was released in 2005 and is a five star piece of writing and singing, a really great LP that everyone inexplicably ignored.  But critical focus has always been on that run of five albums from 71-76 when Stevie wrote every song (some co-writes) played almost every instrument, arranged and produced every song after teaching himself how to play every instrument (and he’s an excellent drummer as youtube will testify).  Of course the list of credits on Songs.. is as long as your arm though, trumpet players, vibes, harps, singers.

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I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time sitting at a piano trying to play Stevie Wonder songs.  There are chord books.  I’ve got three of them.   Before the internet of course.  I think “Golden Lady” was the first one I could play all the way through.  I learned about complicated music via Stevie Wonder.  The Beatles Songbook taught me the major, the minor, the sixth and occasionally the seventh or major seventh.  Stevie Wonder taught me the minor 9th(last word of “you are the sunshine of my life), the diminished 5th (My Cherie Amour), the Gminor7th/ Eb bass (Golden Lady), the Bbminor9(11) (Lately).   You’re into an arena where each chord voicing can be written any number of ways.  I had to count down the stave to find out  what they are.  The chords sound amazing, stretched, deep, rich.   Apparently he learned keyboards at Hitsville USA in Detroit singing hits with The Funk Brothers, (Motown’s backing band of jazzers who played on every song the label produced) “he’d come up to me and ask me ‘what chord is that – show me'” said Earl Van Dyke the main keyboard player.

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I’ve seen Stevie live three times.  First time : Wembley Arena, 1990.  Second time 02 London 2009. Third time last Sunday April 12th 2015 Barclays Centre Atlantic Avenue Brooklyn.  It’s a basketball arena so it’s like sitting inside a nutshell, tight, steep sides, all great views.  We had floor seats because we’d missed this show in October at Madison Square Garden, thinking a friend would be able to get us in, sometimes in life You Have To Buy The Ticket.  So these were “expensive” in the vernacular but I would have paid triple, quintuple.  It was overwhelming.

He came onstage with India Arie guiding him and stood still – to a standing ovation naturally.  He thanked us and said it was his honour to be able to play the show tonight for us.  It made me wonder how old he is, a question that went up and down our row of seats throughout the show.  When he smiles he looks under 40 years old.  At other points, singing blues, he looked 80.  He spoke softly about wanting to play us the whole of his 1976 masterpiece Songs In The Key Of Life, then sat down at the keyboard and the concert began.  Immediate goosebumps, eyewater and hairs on the back of the neck rising as the singers moaned the opening harmonies to Love’s In Need Of Love Today. “Good morn or evening friends, here’s your friend the announcer…”  I was crying by this point, 30 seconds into the show.

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So hard to place into readable words what was happening at this show.   So just a few facts before I melt into hyperbole.  Village Ghetto Land had a twelve-piece string section.  Contusion showcased the guitar players in a red-hot jazz funk workout.  Sir Duke destroyed the building when the six horn players stood up and stabbed it to death – we could feel it all over, everyone was on their feet dancing and stayed there for the irresistible groove of I Wish when we all transported ourselves back to childhood for the song.  Then I was in tears again for Knocks Me Off My Feet which is one of the first songs I learned on the piano, and is in my Stevie top five.   Then he took a noodle on the piano and started making the singers copy his vocal trills.  One at a time, talking to them, mimicking their voices, making them sing complex vocal melodies that he made up on the spot.  At one point the three women stage right – who were all unfeasibly gorgeous and busty by the way – broke into En Vogue’s Hold On before Stevie stopped them and told them to be quiet.  He was in such a great mood.  Then he got the lead violinist – a local chap – stand up and play, solo.  Believe me when I say he took his moment, astonishing work.  Then Stevie stood up and took the mic and the sharp sad strings of Pastime Paradise sliced through the arena, as the band were joined by a choir for the final heart-rending moments.

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Summer Soft was immaculate, Ordinary Pain was fierce, then on came India Arie in a science fiction dress and hat to help him sing Saturn, one of my favourite songs.   Then Stevie stood up unassisted and walked across to the stand-up joanna, or tack piano, honky-tonk to you.   A ripple of relieved applause made him turn “What you clapping for?  You think I’m not gonna make it?”  We laughed.  “I been lying about being blind for the last two years – I can see y’all!’  and into latin-jazz showtune Ebony Eyes, complete with talkbox tube guitar effect and cracking sax solo and we were into the interval.

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Everyone’s eyes were glazed, people were smiling, Tony Gerber and I were stunned, sat down, Lynn Nottage and Jenny went to the ladies together.  The french harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet who played the opening to Have A Talk With God was talking with his friends just in front of us and I thank him for the gig, he thanks Stevie.   Stevie was trying so hard to be ordinary, joking, using a faux english accent, messing about musically but then in the middle of a song I would find myself staring at him singing and thinking “OH MY GOD IT’S STEVIE WONDER”.

Part two opened with Stevie introducing us to his grand-daughter who is about 2 years old and said ‘Hello’ which took us into “Isn’t She Lovely” and the greatest harmonica playing I have ever witnessed in my life.  More tears, another highlight.  Somehow the next song – un-noticed by me usually – was even better, even more emotional.  Joy Inside My Tears became a church-hall testimony as Stevie pounded the keyboard and shook his fists at the sky and the crowd roared its approval.  Amazing moments.  Black Man continued the hot-tempo passion as the band moved into funk workout mode and steam started rising from the stage.  Jenny shouted “Harriet Tubman – A Black Woman” at Lynn at the appropriate moment.  Now they were using some of the original sounds and quotes from the LP and as we slid slinkliy into All Day Sucker, which is funk cubed, the roof was being raised.   Stevie then stood up with his harmonica and walked over to the side of the stage and performed the quirky exotic instrumental Easy Goin’ Evening with the other harmonica player and the sax player.  This was a moment to treasure, I’ve never heard anything like it.  It sounded like a gypsy lament.  You could hear the proverbial pin drop.  India Arie and singer Jessica Cruz joined him for Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing which was beautiful and joyful and happy.  All the actual songs from the LP Songs In The Key Of Life – the 21 jewels in the crown – were presented with incredible attention to detail, real passion and love and clearly the players were all experts.  They each had a place in the sun, a moment to themselves, and they all took it with pride and aplomb.

Then, Stevland Morris, 64 years old (Jenny correctly guessed) back centre stage, produced an odd-looking lap instrument – a zither ? that appeared to have at least 12 strings and sounded like an electric guitar with effects, but he played it like a piano.  Although it had a fretboard.  He started chatting to us.  He started playing notes, anything, noodling.  “We’re musicians, we like to jam”.  It’s called a harpejji.   I heard Yesterday, Mrs Robinson, and many other snatches of melody that I can’t remember already – two days later ! – before settling on the four-chord cycle of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’ and India Arie joined him as he covered the whole song.  Then he asked India to sing “Wonderful” her own tribute song to Stevie.  He liked that. He asked us if we liked it, and we said yes, so he asked us to sing along to ‘Tequila‘ a 1958 hit from The Champs (!)  (You’ll know it.)  Next was Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel and we were in Stevie Karaoke land.  He made us sing (ladies first, then gentlemen) a melody line that he’d just made up.  We belted it out.  These excursions into covers, improvisations and chat seemd like a way of taking the monumentality out of the show.  A hugely influential double-LP played live as if it were a classical piece  – which it is obviously – interrupted by rehearsed jams.  Chat.  Jokes jokes.  But they only served to deepen the intimacy already present in our  knowledge and love for the LP, carried inside us for years as a treasure, now unfolding before us, not as an edifice, but as an old friend, a jam session in Stevie’s sound world.  His continual reference to his blindness had the same effect : “I see it how I hear it” .   But the monumental feeling remained : the temple of love was real.

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And then we were hushed and Stevie explained that the world’s premier harpist who’d played on the album in 1976 – a black woman called Dorothy Ashby – would be accompanying him on If It’s Magic, but that since she died in 1986 they would be using the original music from the LP as a backing track. Stevie sang it perfectly, mimicking his 26-year old self – more tears, more vulnerable open hearts, more hand-holding as Jenny and I and thousands of people melted together.

Every time you hate on somebody you are blocking your blessing.  And your family’s blessing.  Your street’s blessing.  Your city’s blessing.  The world’s blessing.   We have to release the power of love.  It’s the most powerful force in the world.”

As around the sun the earth knows she’s revolving
And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May
Just as hate knows love’s the cure
You can rest your mind assure
That I’ll be loving you always
As now can’t reveal the mystery of tomorrow
But in passing will grow older every day
Just as all is born is new
Do know what I say is true
That I’ll be loving you always

We’re on our feet, we’re singing, the entire band is on stage – two drummers, bass man Nate Watts (who has been with Stevie for decades) three guitars, two more keyboard players, six brass & woodwinds, two percussionists, six backing singers, twelve strings, 15 in the choir plus India Arie and Frédéric Yonnet, over 30 people are playing Another Star and we’re going to church in Stevie’s parlour, the joy is infectious and huge.

The don’t leave the stage after Stevie takes his bow and introduces us to every single member of his band, saying “Wow – we did it – we played it all – it’s 11.40”  we looked at our phones – he was right ! “we’re gonna play til midnight.  This is Stevie’s disco”  He had a table with button on it and we got bits of Boogie On Reggae Woman, Jungle Fever, Do I Do, I Just Called To Say I Love You, Uptight, then the whole band sang Living For The City (woo!) and Superstition (wow!) and that was it.

It was midnight and he’d been onstage (with a 20-minute interval) since 8.20.  We were lifted up into the night air and floated home, high.  It was a huge cultural moment, like watching Gustav Mahler conduct his 5th Symphony or Chopin playing the Ballades.   And yet he’d been so humble, so funny, so human. And one of the greatest singers I’ve ever witnessed in a live setting.   Knocked off my feet.

Songs In The Key Of Life.