June 18, 2017 § Leave a comment
Download Instrumental “Harlem Nocturne” is one of the more famous saxophone instrumentals of the 20th century. It was written by American composer Earle Hagen, who was best known for writing the theme songs for television shows. His credentials include The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mod Squad, and That Girl. He co-wrote the theme to The Andy Griffith Show and was the guy who did the actual whistling. You remember that one, don’t you? I use “Andy” as the ringtone on my cell phone – that’s how old I am.
Anyway, the jazz standard “Harlem Nocturne” came about when Hagen was commissioned to write the theme music for Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. That particular TV series starred Darren McGavin as the gritty, hard-boiled detective who fought crime when he wasn’t “chasing skirts” (Stacy Keach later played the role). The setting was dark and brooding, which was a perfect pairing with the haunting sound of the saxophone melody introducing the show. It’s been recorded a thousand times, but by far the best is the version by Gato Barbieri – talk about haunting! There are also lyrics for this tune, so all you singers out there take notice. Use these backups, mute the sax track, and go for it.
My all-time favorite rendition of this song was by a great friend of mine named Arnie Kole. I first met Arnie in Ft. Lauderdale at a bank-opening celebration. A talent agency needed “greeters” who looked like certain celebrities. Arnie and I had been hired and just happened to get on the same elevator. It’s extremely rare for me to like anybody immediately, but Arnie was a different breed. I could tell he was playing Gabe Kaplan (Mr. Kotter) cause the resemblance was obvious. He asked me who I was supposed to be (not a good sign) and I said, “David Cassidy”. He looked at me for a long moment and finally said, “Okay”. It was just a few nights later that he walked into a Boca Raton club I was working, carrying a saxophone. He walked up to the piano, handed me some sheet music, and asked, “Can you play this, Mr. Cassidy?” (cute). Well, yeah… I mean you’re waving the music in my face. Long story short, he ended up onstage and blew us all away with “Harlem Nocturne”. From that moment on, we were comrades-in-arms.
Arnie and I got along so well because we were musicians, of course, but we also had the same philosophy of life. You know how they say good friends laugh and cry together, sharing the good times with the bad. Neither of us believed in the crying part. We could laugh our way through anything and found ways to make everything fun. Arnie and I went our separate ways several years ago, but still kept in touch. Sadly, I heard recently that he passed away and I will never completely get over his death. Life isn’t quite as much fun as it used to be. I’m crying now, ol’ buddy.
June 4, 2017 § Leave a comment
Download Instrumental Never been a huge Stevie Wonder fan. Over the years, I’ve only performed two of his songs… “Sunshine of My Life” and this one – “Isn’t She Lovely”. I loved the intro on “Sunshine” and really liked the chord progression on “Lovely”, so I didn’t mind having to play them for singers who just HAD to do a “Wonder” tune. I thought the rest of his stuff was just repetitive and boring. Oh, wait… I remember doing “Superstition” many times for a cruise ship act and thoroughly enjoyed that one. And “Boogie On, Reggae Woman” was a hoot down in Florida. Played “I Just Called to Say I Love You” for years and loved the electric piano part. But I don’t really care for his music. Right…
“Isn’t She Lovely” has a great shuffle beat with just the right amount of piano to keep it interesting. Stevie wrote it as a celebration for the birth of his daughter, Aisha, in 1975. She can be heard crying (that’s what babies do) both at the beginning and end of the song. That’s a little over the top, I think, but proud fathers tend to lose their minds. We’ll forgive you for that one, Stevie.
But the lyrics! Sappy and sophomoric, but who cares? Actually, I played this one for years and thought it was about a hot romance. I don’t pay any attention to lyrics – it’s all about the music and remembering chords to me. All I heard was “Isn’t she lovely/isn’t she wonderful” – definitely a love song. The next two lines “Isn’t she precious/less than one minute old” should have been clue. But I never heard that part of the song. Clueless! Sometimes I can be annoyingly imperceptive. Part of my charm…
May 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
Download Instrumental The first time I met Greg Allman, I didn’t like him. The second time, I liked him even less. We were young and stupid and judgmental, true, but I knew arrogance when I saw it. And he kept tossing his hair like a girl – very distracting. But when he sat behind that Hammond B3 and began to sing in that bluesy, gravely voice, it didn’t matter what I thought personally. He was a genius and a trailblazer in Southern rock music. We’re all going to miss him. He died of liver cancer two days ago… a sad day indeed.
“Stormy Monday” was written by blues guitar great T-Bone Walker, but it was the Allman Brothers version that brought it to the attention of white, rock’n’roll audiences. Greg and his brother Duane started playing this tune in an early group they formed called “The Allman Joys” (cute). They later included it in all their performances and recorded it live in 1971. Their arrangement was long and considerably different than T-Bone’s, but the blues rifts by guitarist Dickey Betts were just incredible. Greg Allman was one of those rare singers that didn’t mind showing off the musicianship of the band.
I wrote this arrangement primarily for blues guitarists that were working solo – and there’s a lot of them out there. Even though they don’t use the guitar track, I just had to include a guitar solo in this version (not the easiest thing to do on a keyboard). It suffers greatly, but you get the idea. And I can’t begin to replicate Greg Allman’s double-timed organ solo toward the end, but (again) you get the idea. The man was a master with a Hammond B3 and I was always kinda jealous of that. Could be that’s why I didn’t like him. But respect him? Oh, yeah…
May 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
Download Instrumental Jackie Gleason (surely you remember him) used the phrase “how sweet it is” on his show in reaction to almost anything. Gleason was one of television’s most popular stars in the 60’s, and one of its biggest fans was none other than Marvin Gaye. Go figure. Marvin picked up “how sweet it is” and used it constantly in his everyday conversations – so much so, in fact, that it caught the attention of a couple Motown songwriters. They wrote the song in two days and soon had a hot hit on their hands, even though it was unusual for Gaye to do such a straightforward love song. Thank you, Jackie Gleason.
We always opened our first set with this tune – using the James Taylor arrangement recorded in 1975. You always want to start with a song that won’t offend anybody and won’t send half of your audience scampering for the door. People decide whether they like your music or not by the first six notes you play, so you have to be careful not to alienate anyone – at least not right away – there’s time for that later on. This one should definitely be in your repertoire. It’s easy to sing, fun to play, and… safe.
May 21, 2017 § Leave a comment
Download Instrumental Elvis wasn’t known for complicated or raucous arrangements. This one, however, is quite the exception to the rule. I’ve used 5 different guitar tracks, drums, bass, two brass tracks, a lead vocal track (sax), backup vocals, and one dedicated just for sound effects. Whew! “A Little Less Conversation” was a challenge. For you singers out there without a band, these backups should get the point across (Elvis was feelin’ a little frisky that day).
Mac Davis wrote this one in 1968 with Aretha Franklin in mind, and I can certainly envision the “Queen of Soul” belting this out like a banshee. But Davis was asked to contribute a song for the Elvis movie Live a Little, Love a Little, so “Little Less Conversation” went to the King rather than the Queen. Elvis apparently decided to just have some fun with it – hence the crazy but likable arrangement.
One of my favorite old television shows is Las Vegas (2003 – 2008, maybe not so old), starring James Caan as the operations manager of a Vegas casino. This was the theme song for the show and the first time I ever heard it. Another cute fact – Mitt Romney used it as his campaign song in 2008. It was supposed to emphasize his promise to bring change to a broken Washington. Right… we won’t even go there.
And this is how Elvis ended it… I swear.
May 18, 2017 § Leave a comment
Download Instrumental There’s a certain vocal styling I just hate. I call it the “Aaron Neville Slide”. Neville started this foolishness in 1966 with this song – “Tell It Like It Is”. You know what I’m talking about. The singer ends a phrase and then slips and slides all over the final note until you don’t even know what the note was. Drives me crazy. That style ended after a few years, but then Whitney Houston brought it back with a vengeance and it never went away. Just listen to someone sing the National Anthem. They can’t help themselves. Drives me crazy (I already said that, I know).
They call them “vocal runs”. I call them “irritating beyond belief”. Just stop it! It’s not necessary! End the phrase with a nice strong note that speaks for itself (a little vibrato would be nice). I love this song – but NOT the Aaron Neville original. I stumbled across a version by Don Johnson (yes, the Miami Vice guy – who knew?) and he doesn’t do all the vocal theatrics that have become so ridiculously popular. He sings it straight and pure – the way any song should be done.
I used Johnson’s version as a guide and came close – with no real cigar. I liked his arrangement mostly because of the sexy saxophone licks (that was fun to do). I did, however, leave plenty of room at the end for all you singers who just insist on doing the “Aaron Neville Slide”. But, please… just don’t.
May 10, 2017 § Leave a comment
Download Instrumental This song is cute. Yes, cute. “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter/and make believe it came from you”. That’s cute… and clever. Why would you write a letter to yourself? Maybe it’s some kind of self improvement thing. Next line: “I’m gonna write words oh so sweet/they’re gonna knock me off my feet”. Okay – so you’re a good writer. Then it’s “Kisses on the bottom/I’ll be glad I got ’em”. Now we’re borderline delusional, but who cares?
This tune – cute or not – was recorded by Fats Waller in 1935 when he was at the pinnacle of his career. It has since been done by everybody on the planet, including Frank Sinatra, Billy Williams, Bing Crosby, Willie Nelson, Dean Martin, Anne Murray, Nat King Cole – well, you get the picture. Everyone loves this song. We always did it Sinatra style – until I heard Paul McCartney’s version from his 2012 album “Kisses On the Bottom”. I immediately redid our arrangement to something close to what McCartney did (always imitate the best – see his video below, strange as it is). Paul gets just a little bit jazzy and I included a flute solo in mine just cause I like flute. Try it on your next music job – simple and sweet. And it’s just too freakin’ CUTE!
April 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
Download Instrumental I never heard of this song. Forty years in the business and this one escaped me. I finally heard “Feeling Good” last year on one of those irritating TV talent shows that only features vocalists. I like it… I think. The melody line is a bit elusive, but it’s an emotional song and every singer will tailor the melody to their own style. As I’m inclined to do so often, I used Michael Buble’s vocal interpretation as a guideline.
This one was written in 1964 for a Broadway play best left forgotten. A popular singer at the time, one Anthony Newley, wrote the tune but rarely performed it. His signature song was “What Kind of Fool Am I?” – a song I always announced would be the “bride and groom” dance at any wedding I played. The bride never smiled, but brides are nearly always a pain in the patoot anyway (you’d think it was an important day or something). I didn’t care – the bride’s father was paying the band – and he always laughed. There’s a moral there somewhere…
Anyway, a glorious singer named Nina Simone released this one in 1965 and absolutely nailed it. Several more artists tried their versions and just destroyed the innate beauty of the song – most notably the band Muse in 2001. Most young singers today identify with the Muse version, which is regrettable – and unforgivable. Michael Buble came along in 2005 and did it right – using Nina Simone’s arrangement almost note for note. If you’re going to take this masterpiece to your next gig, do it this way, please. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, folks.
April 21, 2017 § Leave a comment
Download Instrumental … another love like mine, of course. The name of this song should be “You’re Gonna Miss My Loving”, as that phrase is repeated more than the actual title. And it’s not a “boy meets girl” love song. It’s more of a “boy warns girl’ type of theme. He claims that if she leaves him, she’ll spend the rest of her life looking for some one just like him. Hmph. A bit arrogant, don’t you think? Maybe just confident.
Now, if I could wave a magic wand and sound like any singer I wanted, who would I choose? Sinatra? Naw… he really didn’t sing all that well – just had the charisma. Elvis maybe? Nope (too hubba-hubba). Bob Dylan? Uh… I don’t think so. It would be the guy who made this song a hit – Lou Rawls. Even Sinatra once said that Rawls had “the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game”. I agree. The songwriters (Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff) wrote this tune specifically for Mr. Rawls in 1976. A better pairing of voice and music I’ve never seen.
I used a tenor sax on the lead line to emulate his voice – doesn’t even come close, but a guy has to try. So, if you can sing like the man (lucky you), download the backup track and wow ’em at your next gig. For some reason, this song is by far the most popular tune at skating rinks. I have absolutely no explanation for that. We’ve never played a skating rink, but if we ever do….
April 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
Download Instrumental I constantly complain about how many of the contestants on “The Voice” are like… 12 years old. I like to see someone up there with some experience in life and love. However, Brenda Lee was 15 when she recorded this blockbuster hit in 1960. Maybe I better rethink my position on those young, aspiring vocalists.
“I’m sorry” wasn’t released as a country tune, but is touted as being the motivation for the new “Nashville Sound”. This new genre of music was intended to compete with the rapid rise of rock’n’roll in the music industry at the time. It incorporated smooth tempos, lush strings, and sophisticated background vocals into something not quite country but with that country “feel”… whatever that means. Anyway, it worked for awhile, but faded away completely with that British invasion known as “The Beatles”.
Brenda Lee grew up in an extremely poor family. At the age of two, her parents would take her down to the local candy store, prop her up on the counter, and have her sing and dance for candy and tips. So at that tender age, she was already helping support her family and carving out a career for herself.
If “The Voice” trots out a two- year- old next week, I am definitely turning it off for good! One can only take so much…