April 25, 1926: Here the Maestro Died

The world premier of Giacomo Puccini’s last opera “Turandot” was held at Milan’s La Scala on April 25, 1926, two years after his death. Arturo Toscanini conducted. Toward the end of the third act, Toscanini laid down his baton, turned to the audience and announced: “Here the Maestro died.”  Puccini had died before finishing the opera. Subsequent performances at La Scala and elsewhere included the last few minutes of music composed by Franco Alfano using Puccini’s notes.

A highlight of the opera is “Nessun Dorma,” probably the most famous aria in all of opera.

Down at the End of Lonely Street

Elvis Presley scored his first number one hit on the Billboard Pop 100 on this date in 1956.  Recorded and released as a single in January, “Heartbreak Hotel” marked Presley’s debut on the RCA Victor record label . It spent seven weeks at number one, became his first million-seller, and was the best-selling single of 1956. The song was based on a newspaper article about a lonely man who committed suicide by jumping from a hotel window.

Here’s a version of the song that didn’t make number one.  http://youtu.be/PD7IELAvleY

April 20, 1935: Splish Splash, Snooky Was Taking a Bath

A music staple of the 40s and 50s, Your Hit Parade, made its radio debut on April 20, 1935. It lasted for nearly 25 years before being done in by rock and roll music – and perhaps Snooky Lanson. It began as a 60-minute program with 15 songs played in a random format, and eventually moved to television where the seven top-rated songs of the week were presented each week in elaborate production numbers requiring constant set and costume changes.  The list of top songs was compiled through a closely guarded top secret algorithm that involved record sales, quarters plunked into jukeboxes, shoplifted sheet music and the divination of an unidentified mystic in Memphis, Tennessee.

Dorothy Collins , Russell Arms, Snooky Lanson and Gisèle MacKenzie were top-billed during the show’s peak years. And Lucky Strike cigarettes starred throughout its run.

As the rock and roll era took over, the program’s chief fascination became seeing a singer like Snooky Lanson struggle with songs like Splish Splash and Hound Dog.

 

Every good idea sooner or later degenerates into hard work. ~ Calvin Trillin

March 13, 1930: Gonna Find Me a Planet

An advanced civilization inhabited Mars, but the times were desperate. The planet was becoming arid, and the Martians had constructed a series of canals and oases in an attempt to tap the polar ice caps. This was the theory espoused by Percival Lowell based on studies from his observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, during the early 20th century. Lowell was born on March 13, 1855, and after many years traveling in and studying the Far East, he turned his attention to the far reaches of space. He was all over Mars, writing three books on the red planet that captured the public imagination and helped give rise to the notion of men from Mars.

The existence of canals was later disproved by more powerful telescopes and space flights, but Lowell would make a more important contribution to planetary studies during the last years of his life. Turning from Mars to Neptune and Uranus, Lowell became convinced that their positions were affected by a hypothetical Planet X. Lowell began searching for the mystery planet in 1906. Dying in 1916, Lowell himself did not witness the discovery, but the Lowell Observatory announced on what would have been his 75th birthday — March 13, 1930 — that they had discovered the planet Pluto.

Sadly, after nearly a century as our ninth planet, Pluto was cruelly downgraded to the status of dwarf planet in 2006.  And the name Pluto will become more associated with the Disney hound dog of that name.

Of Which You Ain’t Nothing But a

Mike Stoller (right), born March 13, 1933, working with his partner Jerry Leiber, helped shape rock leiberand roll with an amazing list of hit songs beginning with Hound Dog in 1952. Elvis Presley , the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, John Lennon, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Sinatra top the list of the many artists who have recorded their songs. More than three dozen of their hits were featured in the Broadway production Smokey Joe’s Cafe including the title tune, Young Blood, Dance With Me, Searchin’, Kansas City, Poison Ivy, On Broadway, Yakety Yak, Charlie Brown, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, Spanish Harlem and Stand by Me.

In an interview, Stoller was asked to compare Elvis Presley’s 1956 version of Hound Dog with the original recorded by Big Mama Thornton. “It sounded kind of stiff and a bit too fast, a little nervous,” he answered. “It didn’t have that insinuating groove like on Big Mama’s record.”

Eventually, he grew to like the Presley version.   After it sold seven million copies it began to sound better.”

 

Eventually, I believe, everything evens out. Long ago, an asteroid hit our planet and killed our dinosaurs. But, in the future, maybe we’ll go to another planet and kill their dinosaurs. ~ Jack Handey

February 26, 1928, 1932: I Found My Thrill Walking the Line

Two legends of early rock and roll share birthdays on February 26. One was born in New Orleans in 1928, the youngest of eight children; the other in Arkansas in 1932, one of seven siblings. One started as a boogie-woogie jazz musician, the other singing country music. They both burst onto the pop scene in a big way in the mid50s with the songs they remain identified with — “Blueberry Hill” and “I Walk the Line.”

fats_dominoAntoine Domino was the son of a Creole fiddler who began playing professionally in New Orleans honky-tonks at the age of 10. It was there he picked up the name Fats and the foot-stomping, driving piano sound that would become his signature as demonstrated in his first recording, “The Fat Man” in 1949. In

1955, his career got a boost from an unlikely source, Pat Boone, whose white cover version of “Ain’t That a Shame” helped Fats Domino’s version cross over to the pop charts where he remained. From then on, he needed no help from anyone — “Blueberry Hill”, “Blue Monday”, “I’m Walkin'”, “Walking to New Orleans” and on — 65 million records worldwide, until retiring back to New Orleans in the 1980s with only an occasional local appearance.

02 Aug 1970 --- 8/2/1970: Close-up publicity portrait of singer Johnny Cash. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Johnny Cash moved to Memphis in 1954, hoping to become a radio announcer. At night he played with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, known as the Tennessee Two. Cash visited Sun Records where he auditioned for Sam Phillips, singing gospel songs. Although Phillips had no interest in gospel, he eventually gave Cash a contract singing country. Cash recorded “Hey Porter,” “Cry Cry Cry,” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” which had some success on the country hit parade.  Then in 1956, “I Walk the Line” became No. 1 on the country charts and crossed over to the pop charts. Cash left the label in 1958 to sign a lucrative offer with Columbia Records, where his single “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” became one of his biggest hits. Hit followed hit, many with his wife June Carter Cash, right into the next century.

Both Fats Domino and Johnny Cash have won just about every musical recognition there is. The Man in Black died in 2003, shortly after the death of his wife June. Although Fats Domino almost bought the levee in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, he returned to his home as soon as he could after the hurricane and remains there today.

 

calvin

February 5, 1957: One If By Land, Two If By Saxophone

It has been endlessly debated when and with whom rock and roll actuallypromo began, but most enthusiasts have pretty much settled on a guy who cut an unlikely figure for a rock artist but who brought rock and roll into the public eye with a bang in 1955. The man was Bill Haley, along with his Comets, and the song was “Rock Around the Clock” introduced in the film Blackboard Jungle. During the next few years a string of hits including “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “See Ya Later, Alligator” followed.

Time passes quickly and when you’re at the pinnacle of musical stardom, you’re on a slippery slope. Along comes a guy named Elvis and you’re yesterday’s sha-na-na. Who’s going to scream and carry on for a thin-haired, paunchy 30-year-old musician with a silly curl in the middle of his forehead and a garish plaid sports jacket?

The Brits, that who.

By 1957, Bill Haley and the Comets had already enjoyed their golden days of American super-stardom. But the battle of Britain lay ahead. When they stepped off the Queen Elizabeth in Southampton on February 5, they began the first ever tour by an American rock and roll act and launched what rock historians called the American Invasion.

When Haley and the band reached London later that same day, they were greeted by thousands in a melee the press called “the Second Battle of Waterloo.” These were the British war babies just becoming teenagers, and they were ready for American rock and roll. Among those who turned out for Bill Haley and the Comets were a few that would make their own music history.

“I’ve still got the ticket stub in my wallet from when I went to see Bill Haley and the Comets play in Manchester in February 1957—my first-ever concert” said Graham Nash. “Over the years I’ve lost houses. . .I’ve lost wives. . .but I’ve not lost that ticket stub. It’s that important to me.”

“The birth of rock ‘n’ roll for me?” said Pete Townshend, “Seeing Bill Haley and The Comets….God, that band swung!”

“The first time I really ever felt a tingle up my spine was when I saw Bill Haley and The Comets on the telly,” said Paul McCartney. “Then I went to see them live. The ticket was 24 shillings, and I was the only one of my mates who could go as no one else had been able to save up that amount. But I was single-minded about it. I knew there was something going on here.”

In 1861, Samuel B. Goodale who hailed from Cincinnati received a patent for a clever hand-operated stereoscope device on which still pictures were attached like spokes to an axis which revolved which caused the pictures to come to life in motion — a mechanical peep show that folks viewed through a small hole for a penny a pop.  Peep shows eventually descended into naughtiness.

Jean Lafitte, the infamous pirate who helped Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans during the War of 1812, died in 1823 while trying to plunder a Spanish ship.

Speaking of swashbuckling . . .

 

groucho

October 18, 1974: Splish, Splash, I Was Taking a Bath

Certainly a hot bath can be one of the more relaxing pleasures of daily existence. It can also be one of the most horrendous.  Just ask Jean-Paul Marat, the French revolutionary who was done in by misc_bathtimeCharlotte Corday while bathing. Or ask Janet Leigh about her Psycho shower. Or singer Al Green, at the height of his soul music career, who fared better than the other two but had one downright unrelaxing bath in his Memphis, Tennessee, home on October 18, 1974.

Green was a rub dub, just relaxin’ in the tub, thinkin’ everything was all right, when an ex-girlfriend stormed into his bath and poured a pot of scalding hot grits over him. She then retreated to a bedroom and shot herself with Green’s gun. Was she angry about his being late for breakfast or was it something more serious? Green himself took it as a sign from God, angry because he had strayed from the righteous musical path. Born-again, Al Green renounced the evils of pop superstardom and all that it stood for.  By 1976, Green had become an ordained Baptist minister and purchased a Memphis church where he still preaches today. Never underestimate the power of a good scrubbing — whether with soap or grits.

Another rock superstar was born on this day nearly 50 years earlier in 1926. Chuck Berry had an amazing string of hits primarily in the mid-50s, even though his career has spanned six decades so far. Rock’n Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, Maybelline, Johnny B Goode, Roll Over Beethoven – which one of these classics was his biggest hit? Turns out his biggest came a bit later. At about the time Al Green was getting religious, Chuck was going in the other direction with his 1972 – and all-time top-selling – recording of My Ding-a-Ling.