Farewell, Charlie Louvin

 (Above: Charlie Louvin sings of the “Great Atomic Power” at a February, 2009, performance in Raleigh, N.C.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

My first exposure to the Louvin Brothers was on one of those “worst album covers of all time” Web sites. Standing in front of what appears to be a backyard BBQ gone horribly wrong, two Bing Crosby wannabes in matching white suits raise their arms in welcome. Above them, the title proclaims “Satan is Real.” Behind them, the most ridiculously fake, wooden Mephistopheles looms like failed a junior high shop class project.

A few years later, while visiting home during college, I decided this cover would be a perfect piece of art in my dorm room and went to the Music Exchange in search of a copy. I asked the man behind the counter (it wasn’t Ron Rook) if they had any albums by the “Lovin’ Brothers.”

“Do you mean the Loooovin Brothers,” he asked, making a point of drawing out the long “o” and informing the store of my ignorance.

“Um, yeah, whatever,” I stammered. They were out.

Sometime after that, I happened upon a CD of “Satan Is Real” at the Kansas City Public Library. After mocking its cover for so long, I had to hear what the actual music sounded like. Pretty freaking good, it turned out.

Charlie and Ira Louvin’s music wasn’t the kind I wanted to listen to that often, but when the mood hit it landed deep and only the Louvins would do. As if by magic, their names started appearing in the album credits of my favorite musicians – the Byrds and Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Buddy Miller, Uncle Tupelo. Far from a novelty act or wacky cover, the brothers’ influence was everywhere.

A couple years ago, a friend lent me his copy of the Louvin Brothers Bear Family box set. At eight discs it was way more than I’d ever need, but he swore it was the best stuff ever recorded. I respected his deep and diverse tasted and promised to dive in. I’ll now confess that I only just scratched the surface. A little country gospel still goes a long way for me.

This same friend also told me about the time he saw Charlie played the Grand Emporium. Only a few people bothered to show up for the full set peppered with stories and a fond remembrance of Ira, who died in a car crash near Jefferson City, Mo. in 1965. Afterward, Charlie hung out, reveling in conversation with his fans.

I made a mental note to see Charlie the next time he came through town. His next appearance was opening for Lucinda Williams. It was a dream ticket, but I had other obligations that night. Then were appearances booked at Knuckleheads and Davey’s Uptown. Just before the show, however, the performance would be cancelled. Then, miraculously, another date would be booked several months out.

Each time a show was cancelled I feared that I’d missed my chance. Wednesday my worries were confirmed: Charlie Louvin died from complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 83.

My in-person opportunity may have vanished, but I have hours of his music to relish. As I think of Charlie reuniting with Ira at long last, a song by Gram Parsons, one of the brothers’ greatest disciples – in style, if not message – springs to mind: “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night.”

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Review: “Pops” by Terry Teachout

(Above: Satchmo and his septet rip through the “Tiger Rag.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The beauty of Louis Armstrong’s music was that it could be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone from children to adults and seasoned jazz fans to hardened critics.

Pity then that “Pops,” the new Armstrong biography by Wall Street Journal critic and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout, isn’t as accessible.

Teachout is an exhaustive researcher who leaves few stones unturned. His biography draws not only from the two autobiographies published during Armstrong’s life, but dozens of books, articles, reviews and liner notes. It also boasts access to scores of previously unseen letters and hours of unheard conversations Armstrong recorded.

This unprecedented access allows Teachout to paint an intimate view of Armstrong. He paints a frank view of Armstrong’s daily marijuana use, which led to his 1931 arrest in California. We learn about the murder threats Satchmo received from the Chicago mafia for. When former boxing promoter Joe Glaser promised to make the threats stop, Armstrong rewarded him with a lifetime appointment as his manager. With Glaser taking care of everything else, Armstrong was free to focus on the only thing that matter to him: music.

Ironically, Armstrong’s music was most vital when his life was in the most upheaval. When he cut his classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sides, he was in the middle of a failing marriage, having trouble keeping a steady band together, and running ragged across the country to poorly organized shows. Most of those problems went away when Glaser came on the scene, but Armstrong’s music also reached a plateau.

While the current crop of trumpet stars were heavily and obviously indebted to Armstrong’s trailblazing technique, they were also disappointed by Armstrong’s repetitive repertoire and unashamed desire to entertain (which hewed too close to minstrelsy for the newly empowered African American generation). Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis were among the most vocal of Armstrong’s critics.

Yet even Diz and Miles were forced to reconsider their opinions after Armstrong cancelled a State Department-sponsored trip to Russia in protest President Eisenhower’s tepid steps to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Armstrong later sent Eisenhower a congratulatory telegram when the crisis was resolved.) Armstrong gained with respect with the trio of albums he released on Columbia in the 1950s that showcased a long-dormant vitality and sense of adventure.

Detractors may have been surprised when Armstrong spoke out on segregation, but he’d been fighting it most of his life. The color line is drawn most sharply when Teachout looks at what might have been were Satchmo’s skin lighter by comparing his career with his friend Bing Crosby’s. While Crosby was given his own radio show and starring roles in Hollywood films, Armstrong had to settle for guest appearances on the air and supporting roles in low-budget films.

“Pops” revels in the details of Satchmo’s glory days, but it doesn’t skimp on the leaner parts of his career. The last quarter of Armstrong’s life receive nearly 100 pages. These chapters document Satchmo’s renaissance as not only a premier jazz talent, but showman whose love knew no age or national boundaries. Stories of “Hello Dolly” knocking the Beatles off the top of the chart or recording “(What A) Wonderful World” do not feel like curtain calls, but the natural continuation of a career.

Teachout’s findings are fascinating, but impenetrable at first. It takes several chapters to comfortably negotiate Teachout’s style. His habit of identifying sources in the text instead of footnotes makes for a clunky read. Sometimes the sourcing overwhelms the content. However, after becoming accustomed to Teachout’s style, “Pops” is a pleasant and illuminating read.

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Dylan’s Christmas offers lots of heart, but little else

(Above: The magnificent video for “Must Be Santa,” far and away the best track on Bob Dylan’s new holiday album, “Christmas in the Heart.”)

By Joel Francis

Bob Dylan surprised a lot of people when he announced the release of his first Christmas album several months ago. “Christmas in the Heart” surprises in a different way, however, by playing it straight and offering no surprises at all.

Adorned with a cover that looks like a Norman Rockwell collectible dinner plate come to life, “Christmas in the Heart” features 15 well-worn holiday favorites with arrangements and production straight out of the 1940s and ‘50s.

In retrospect, Dylan’s desire to record a Christmas album shouldn’t have been an astonishment. For the past several years, Dylan has dabbled in pre-war pop. A cover of “Return to Me” popped up on a soundtrack several years ago, and several similar originals, including “Beyond the Horizon,” populated his 2006 album “Modern Times.”

Of course, Dylan has long been a purveyor of traditional song and the folk tradition. As the oral history components of American society diminish, holiday and children’s music are the few remaining songs passed from generation to generation. Christmas music stands directly at the crossroads of these passions.

A third consideration is that Dylan delights in doing the unexpected and challenging expectations. The man who returned to the Newport Folk Festival nearly 10 years ago in a wig (and dons a similar headpiece in the video for a “Christmas in the Heart” song), appeared in a Victoria’s Secret commercial and wrote a song with Michael Bolton, clearly enjoys toying with his dedicated following and legend.

Unfortunately, this understanding doesn’t make “Christmas in the Heart” an enjoyable listen. Producing the album under the pseudonym Jack Frost, Dylan drapes the album in arpeggio guitars that recall Les Paul’s singles with Bing Crosby, lilting backing voices in the style of the Andrews Sisters and a nostalgic gauze that would be at home on a Perry Como platter. By smoothing every surface, Dylan leaves no room for any rough edges, which, frankly, is all his voice has to offer these days.

The song selection is another stumbling block. The vast majority of these hymns and carols have been heard and performed a thousand times over. Although his arrangements are clever – check out the piano on “Little Drummer Boy” or violin and light country touch on “Silver Bells” – they hem too closely to the tried and true. Dylan does not have a traditional voice, so it’s understandable his singing doesn’t work in this traditional setting. The album would have been better served if Dylan played to his strengths, like a reading of “Run Rudolph Run” a la “Summer Days,” or more obscure choices, like Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked a lot Like Daddy.”

The single “Must Be Santa” hints at what “Heart” could have been. Originally a 1961 sing-along with Columbia Records honcho Mitch Miller, Dylan more than doubles the tempo and thanks to the frenetic accordion playing of Los Lobos’ David Hildago – who also bolstered Dylan’s “Together Through Life,” released just six months prior – turns the song into a mariachi rave. Another lesser-known track, “Christmas Blues” was also a good choice. More songs like this and fewer Latin hymns could have made “Christmas in the Heart” a holiday staple.

With all album proceeds going to charity, Dylan’s intentions are noble and his reasons sound, but the flawed execution prove the record’s undoing. It’s too bad “Must Be Santa” wasn’t released as a stand-alone single, with any of the remaining 14 songs on its b-side, or as the centerpiece of an EP. As it is, “Christmas in the Heart” is best purchased as a Black Friday bargain.

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Les Paul with Bing Crosby – “It’s Been A Long, Long Time”


By Joel Francis

“Kiss me once, then kiss me twice, then kiss me once again.”

Sammy Cahn’s lyrics spoke to millions of couples separated by … well the song doesn’t say, but everyone who sent it to No. 1 in two different versions at the end of 1945 knew all too well.

For six years the specter of World War II hung over America. A nation split by heated debates over participation until Pearl Harbor forced the nation’s hand became united through victory gardens and war bonds. The country was also united in its separation, as selective service split up thousands of couples when the men were called overseas.

But when Bing Crosby’s sweet voice sang “It’s Been A Long, Long Time,” the turmoil and anxiety of the war was finally fading. Effortlessly capturing the hope and sentimentality of the lyrics, Crosby couldn’t have needed more than a couple takes. What made the recording more interesting, though, was Les Paul’s guitar playing.

If Crosby’s voice was a bird chirping at the sunrise, Paul’s arrangement was the first rays of light piercing the horizon. His tone is just as mellow and natural as Crosby’s vocals. After opening with a few understated chords, Paul kicks into gentle jazz mode, strumming a countermelody that’s nearly as interesting as the one Jule Styne penned. The solo is understated, echoing the vocal line with a couple flourishes that show why Paul continues to influences the guitar gods of the 21st century.

That voice and that guitar was all the song needed to jump to No. 1. Sure, there’s a rhythm guitar in the background, but it’s only there to reassure the hapless listeners who couldn’t find the rhythm on their own.

Paul died last Thursday. He was 94. The legendary guitarist is best-known for “How High the Moon,” his signature Gibson guitar and recording innovations. Although his performance here predates those advances, it is no less inventive.

Crosby got most of the glory for “It’s Been A Long, Long Time,” which is probably right. The song and his singing resonate with the tenor of the times. (A competing version by Harry James with Kitty Kallen also hit No. 1 that winter.) Paul, however, visited the song repeatedly throughout his career. He cut a version with his wife Mary Ford in the 1950s and came back to it nearly 30 years later on the first “Chester and Lester” album with Chet Atkins. All readings are sublime, but none capture the wistful sentimentality and promise-filled romance of his pairing with Crosby.

There’s nothing harder than not knowing or being able to do anything about the well-being of a loved one. When I hear this song, I think about my grandparents. Both sets were separated by husbands who served in the war. I think about their joyful reunions and how they are now – temporarily – separated by the grave. But Les and Bing reassure us. And then we close our eyes and lean in for that kiss. Again.