Monday, November 14, 2011

The Greatest Music Stories Never Told" by Rick Beyer

This little 214 page book covers the greatest moments in musical history beginning in 1400 BC. That was when an unknown resident of Syria wrote a hymn in praise of the Moon God. It was recorded on a stone tablet. It is the oldest song known to man, but it wasn't until the 1970's that it was recognized for what it was. Anne Kilmer, a Professor at Berkeley University recognized some of the cuneiform writing as musical notation. From that she was able to reconstruct the tune, which had been written for a lyre. From there the stories continue, all the way to 2007's "Rocking the Cosmos", which talks about Brian May, a former college student in the 1970's, who finally completed his degree in Astrophysics. In the 30 odd years between he was the guitarist for the Rock Group "Queen." Along with lead singer Farrokh Bulsara, aka Freddie Mercury, they became known as the rock and roll band "Queen".

In between the author introduces us to the invention of leotards, which were brought on by a French trapeze artist who needed something more flexible to wear while performing his act. He became known as "The Daring Young man on the Flying Trapeze".

Sports lovers will not be disappointed by this book, as there are a couple of great stories concerning music and sports. Take the Boston Red Sox as an example. Harry Frazee, the owner of the team, was more interested in show business than he was in baseball. So, in 1919 he sold his star player, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees for $100,000 and a $300,000 loan. This enraged the fans in Boston, but placed Mr. Frazee in a position to pay back all of his debts and open a small play in New York. That play, "My Lady Friends" became a huge success. He then used the profits from that play to turn it into a musical in 1925. The song "Tea for Two" came from that show. The show? "No, No, Nanette". Mr. Frazee went on to become a great producer, while the Red Sox would not win a pennant for the next 80 years.

Walter Boyd, the blues guitarist was doing a 30 year stretch for murder on a Texas prison farm when the Governor came to visit. Walter was known as the hardest working man on the farm, as well as being a genius on his guitar, which he often used to entertain his fellow prisoners. On the night the Governor came to visit, Boyd was asked to entertain him with a song. He sang the following words;

"If I had the Governor
Where the Governor has me;
Before daylight
I'd set the Governor free.

I beg you Governor
Upon my soul;
If you won't give me a pardon
Won't you give me my parole?"

The Governor was impressed, and amused. And Boyd got his pardon. Walter Boyd's real name? Leadbelly, aka Huddie Ledbetter. He would later go on to write "Good Night Irene."

During the Civil War, "drummer boys" marched into battle, playing their drums to communicate orders. They played for hours upon hours without a break. In the 1920's a drummer named Sanford Moeller went around to every nursing home, where there was an old Civil War drummer, in order to learn how they drummed so loudly for such long periods of time. He wrote a book about it called "The Art of Snare Drumming". Then he passed his knowledge along to his best student, who went on to become the drummer for Benny Goodman, inventing the modern drum solo in the 1937 hit "Sing, Sing, Sing". His name; Gene Krupa.

Isidore Hochberg was the owner of an electrical appliance business, until the Great Depression came along and wiped him out. He decided to write a poem about it. He called up an old childhood friend, who happened to be in the music business, and soon the two were working together. The friend's name? Ira Gershwin. The result of their collaboration? "Brother Can You Spare a Dime". Hochberg would go on to change his name to Yip Harburg, and also write the lyrics for every tune in "The Wizard of Oz".

Speaking of "Oz", there is one song which almost didn't make it into the film. Studio head Louis B. Mayer considered the song too slow for the film, and so he simply ordered that it be cut from the final version of the film, just prior to its release. Associate Producer Arthur Freed challenged this decision, and along with the song's composer, Yip Harburg, they were able to keep the song in the film. The song? "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".

One night a man named Stuart Gorrell got to help write a song. This was unusual, as he was a retired banker. He had a roommate, a former fraternity buddy from Indiana University, who had come to New York to try and realize his musical ambitions. They sat up together that night and wrote a song called "Georgia on My Mind". The roommate? Hoagy Carmichael. And Georgia? Although the song is mostly associated with the State of Georgia, it was written for Carmichael's sister, who was named Georgia. Ray Charles would go on to record the signature version of this song in 1960. It is often attributed to him, as well as to another singer, Willie Nelson.

The FBI comes into play around 1964 with their intense investigation of some song lyrics. The words on the record were virtually unintelligible. With rumors spreading that the lyrics were somewhat bawdy, the FBI sprang into action, in order to ascertain whether or not the public was being offended. They slowed the song down, and sped it up. Still no clear lyrics emerged. The song became #1 on the charts and J. Edgar Hoover was blazing mad. Thousands of man hours, and hundreds of agents, were involved in trying to decode the lyrics. The truth behind it all? The song was recorded by Jack Ely, along with his group "The Kingsmen". Ely was wearing braces on his teeth and standing on tip toe in order for the overhead mike to pick up his voice. The result was unintelligible. The record was "Louie, Louie", a song about a Jamaican fisherman who wonders if his woman is really in love with him.

The history of ukuleles, long thought to be a Hawaiian instrument, is also explored here. Prior to 1879 there were no ukuleles in Hawaii. As a matter of fact, no one in Hawaii had ever heard of one. In August of that year, a Portuguese ship named the Ravenscraig came to the islands. Within a few days the island was abuzz with news of the sailors serenading the natives with their ukuleles. By 1915, after the ukulele was featured in the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, it was forever more associated with Hawaii.

But my all-time favorite piece in this book concerns the man who would turn music on its head. He is often credited as the first jazz musician, and was directly responsible for Louis Armstrong picking up the cornet, and later the trumpet. Although no recordings of the man were ever made; he was committed to an asylum in 1907, where he would die in 1932; he influenced every jazz player of his era, and many in ours. His name was Buddy Bolden, and to quote Louis Armstrong, "He blew so hard, that I used to wonder if I would ever have enough lung power to fill one of those cornets." Mr. Armstrong, at the age of 5, used to listen to Buddy Bolden as he played at The Funky Butt Hall in New Orleans. From such humble beginnings, legends are born.

A quick and informative read, this book is entertaining, and in many cases will have you running to You Tube to see, or hear, the musical history described within its pages.

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