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Yvette Mimieux and Ali Akbar Khan: Flowers of Evil

Yvette Mimieux I really can’t do better than The Encyclopedia of Sixties Cool in summarizing the career of Yvette Mimieux:

The California Girl: Los Angeles-born Yvette Mimieux began her career wearing a toga and fending off blue-skinned Morlocks opposite Rod Taylor in The Time Machine before settling down as the ultimate beach bunny in Where the Boys Are and then on the Dr. Kildare TV series. When hippie chicks replaced surfer girls in the public imagination, Mimieux updated herself accordingly, recording an LP, Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, in which she read poetry to a raga accompaniment by Indian master musician Ali Akbar Khan. As an empowered woman in the ’70s, Mimieux wrote a TV movie starring herself, and played a wronged woman in the cult classic Jackson County Jail. She still has a knack for doing the right thing at the right time in the right outfit; note her instructional yoga video. To judge from her appearance in a snug unitard, she still looks great in a bikini too.

So this is Yvette’s equivalent of, say, Shatner’s The Transformed Man LP: a chance to “show another side” of one’s creativity at the height of one’s fame. Unlike The Transformed Man it’s of interest beyond its obvious kitsch value.

Flowers of Evil LPAli Akbar Khan was one of the most respected musicians in the Indian Classical tradition, and if you can track down his Signature Series of CDs (or other recordings) it’s worth it. The label this appears on is Connoisseur, his own label, which released a lot of LPs of his music during the sixties, and the Signature CDs repress those LPs. The Baudelaire LP in question is remarkable in that it actually works, unlike Sidney Poitier’s LPs of Plato. The decadence and sensuality of Baudelaire’s lines is accompanied by a music that to a Westerner is also filled with decadence and sensuality.

  1. To a Passer-By
  2. A Voyage to Cythera
  3. Murdered Woman
  4. The Albatross
  5. Lethe
  6. Episode

Haruomi Hosono: Paraiso

Basically, the ideal music for me is early ’80s exotic Japanese synth-pop with fretless bass and steel drums. Patrick South

Haruomi HosonoHaruomi Hosono is best known as the bassist in the Yellow Magic Orchestra, but his solo career is just as interesting. Before joining founding YMO with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi, he played with psychedelic bands Apryl Fool, the folk-rock outfit Happy End, and the lounge-pop group Tin Pan Alley before starting on what ended up being called his “Exotica Trilogy” in the seventies.

hula.jpgAmerica dreamt of a magical neverland with cloudless climes and starry skies (not to mention nubile natives) in the fifties — Martin Denny, Esquivel, Arthur Lyman, and Les Baxter made countless LPs with bird calls, marimbas, and steel drums setting the stage for the post-war peace. The beaches weren’t something you had to storm any more, you could just lie there and soak up the sun. Hosono asks that the exotic dream continue, but with himself as both spectator and participant. He sees the exotica phenomenon for what it is — silly and patronizing — but adores it and revels in it, singing a cover of “Fujiyama Mama” knowing full well he sounds ridiculous: “and when you start elupting ain’t nobody gonna make you stop.” In the three Exotica LPs you find pastiches within parodies; “Roochoo Gumbo” is at once Okinawan pop song and New Orleans shuffle. If you think too much about how the parody is eating its own tail, that this is “the Japanese way of exoticising American exoticism,” it’s dizzying.

Haruomi Hosono's ParaisoThe music of Tropical Dandy and Bon Voyage Co. roams over both East and West mashing genres as it goes: Polynesian chants, resort-lounge steel-band music, Buddhist ritual, boogie-woogie and rockabilly, all with a Van Dyke Parks nostalgic sheen. The third record in the series, Paraiso, is different in that it feels less like a series of takeoffs and starts becoming something else. The new element is the synthesizer, the varied texture of which is used extensively throughout the record. Hosono at this point had met Sakamoto and Takahashi, as well as Hideki Matsutake, who would become YMO’s invaluable programmer in the days before MIDI. The combination of exotica and electronics would be the template for YMO’s initial success with their first single in 1978: Martin Denny’s “Firecracker.”

  1. Tokio Rush
  2. Shimendoka
  3. Japanese Rhumba
  4. Asatoya Yunta
  5. Fujiyama Mama
  6. Femme Fatale
  7. Shambhala Signal
  8. Worry Beads
  9. Paraiso

The Mysteries of “Misirlou”

[photo of Dick Dale] Most people today know “Misirlou” (often spelled “Miserlou”) as Dick Dale’s signature piece, extremely popular back when issued in 1961 and then again when used to great effect in Pulp Fiction in 1994. (Whippersnappers might know it better from The Black Eyed Peas sampling Dale’s version in a song last year.) But “Misirlou” is an old folk song, its origins obscure.

We can guess where it came from by the range of people who know it today: it can be heard at celebrations of Greeks, Turks, Arabs, or Jews. The logical explanation for this wide range is that it originated in Asia Minor, in what is now the borderlands of modern Turkey and Greece, i.e., between Salonica and Constantinople (the title means “Egyptian girl” in both Greek and Turkish). The song, surely one of the catchiest melodies ever, spread throughout Greece and the Ottoman Empire, and was also presumably picked up by the local Jewish community and spread from there. Who originally wrote it, of course, is lost to history; this, of course, doesn’t stop the Turks and Greeks from both claiming it, adding yet another dispute to their endless list of grudge matches (see the discussion page of the English Wikipedia article for amusing examples). We also don’t really know when it was written, although a reasonable guess would be late–19th-century.

Most sources state that the earliest known recording (spelled “Mousourlou”) was made in New York around 1930 by Michalis Patrinos, a Greek bandleader who had recently arrived in the United States. As of this writing, Wikipedia baldly states that Patrinos or his band wrote it; this is almost certainly baloney. It may not even be the earliest recording, despite claims to the contrary; Richard Spotwood’s Ethnic Music on Records, Volume 3: Eastern Europe lists a recording by Tetos Demetriades for Victor in 1927.

One thing everyone agrees on: the song was not written by Nick Roubanis, the credited songwriter. Like with many folk songs in the United States, the credit (and the royalties) went to the first person obnoxious enough to register a copyright. In this case, Greek-American bandleader Roubanis recorded a big band version in 1941 and listed himself as the songwriter, and that was that (c.f. “Love in Vain”, credited to Woody Payne on the original printings of the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, or “Goodnight Irene”, absurdly credited to John Lomax to this day).

After Roubanis’s version, the song became a minor big band standard, performed by Harry James, Freddy Martin, Woody Herman, and Jan August (who had a hit with it in 1947). It was Xavier Cugat’s version, however, that pushed it into exotica territory; versions would follow by nearly every notable exotica artist, including Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Esquivel, Dick Hyman, Enoch Light, and our old friend Korla Pandit (on his 1958 LP Music of the Exotic East).

[photo of Seymour Rexite] In a parallel development, the “King of Yiddish Radio”, Seymour Rexite, and his wife, popular Yiddish theatre actress Miriam Kressyn, recorded a version in the late 1940s, with lyrics by Kressyn. It’s probable that Rexite and Kressyn had known the song from their youth, but they were also known for Yiddish versions of popular American songs (including, most entertaingly, songs from Oklahoma).

An indisputably traditional Jewish version was recorded in the early 1950s, however. Ethnomusicologist/filmmaker/magician Harry Smith spent two years recording elderly cantor Rabbi Nuftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia, capturing hundreds of hours of traditional music and stories. One of the Rabbi’s songs was clearly Misirlou. A 15-LP limited edition of the highlights was released in the 1950s; only a handful of copies survive. Abulafia’s grandson, 81-year-old Lionel Ziprin (a former amphetamine-addicted beatnik whacko who has since gone back to his roots and hangs out with chasidim in his Lower East Side apartment), has been trying to get the recordings reissued; John Zorn has expressed interest in releasing them on his label, Tzadik Records.

In 1960, a ten-year-old boy walked up to Dick Dale at a local show and asked him if he could play an entire song on one guitar string. He said sure kid, come back tomorrow, and then wracked his brain that night trying to figure out a composition that would work. Lebanese-American Dale (his birth name was Richard Mansour) thought back to the weddings of his childhood and remembered the traditional number “Misirlou”, which fit the bill; he resolved to play it insanely fast. It would become Dale’s signature song.

It’s difficult to imagine a musical genre that was as shaped by one man as surf rock was by Dale. The vaguely Middle Eastern sound of all surf music is directly attributable to Dale’s Arabic ancestry; and Dale’s brilliant rendition of “Misirlou” ensured that it would become the surf anthem. Nearly every notable surf band would perform a version, undoubtedly unaware of its pre-Dale history: The Surfaris, The Trashmen, The Beach Boys (early in their career, when they were still a surf band), and The Astronauts all had versions, with varying results.

[photo of The Cardinals] Below I’ve tried to post a representative overview of the song’s history. In addition to some of the versions mentioned above, we have a recording in the early style recorded in Greece in the late 1940s by “Danai”. Also, an oddity: while there weren’t too many R&B/African-American recordings of Misirlou, one of the few was a 1955 recording by doo-wop “bird group” The Cardinals, best known for “Come Back My Love”, recorded the same year. Finally we have a version by Dale that’s (slightly) more traditional than his famous rendition, retitled “Tribal Thunder”, probably because he was sick of paying Roubanis’s estate undeserved royalties.

Robert Lee: The Ballad of Bruce Lee

[front cover of Robert Lee sings... LP] Robert Lee is the brother of martial artist Bruce Lee. Robert released this album, Robert Lee Sings… The Ballad of Bruce Lee, in 1975 in dedication to his older brother, who had died in 1973. Although he does sing all the songs, Robert has a hand in writing only 3 of them, posted here. The song “Parting”, features lyrics written by Bruce Lee.

  1. JKD – Jeet Kune Do
  2. Parting
  3. The Ballad of Bruce Lee

front cover of Robert Lee sings... LP]

In an article from a 1974 issue of Black Belt magazine, Robert describes his relationship with the late master of Jeet Kune Do. It’s hard growing up in the shadow of the world’s greatest martial artist.

Although my last name is also Lee, I am not related. In fact I am Korean, not Chinese. I appreciate Bruce Lee as a martial artist/actor, but I’m no expert or huge fanatic. However, as an Asian-American male, I grew up with little or no role models that “looked like me”, except for Bruce Lee. And, sadly, I can’t think of really any other Asian-American figures in pop culture or politics or literature, etc. that I can really look up to in the way that African-Americans might look to Martin Luther King or Muhammad Ali, Caucasian-Americans to Thomas Jefferson or Mark Twain, Latin-Americans to Cesar Chavez, etc…

Maybe it’s unimportant or superficial. I’ve certainly found my own role models of various ethnic and national origins, but I have to admit that I do have respect and affection towards Bruce Lee for being a strong, heroic, leading man, rather than the nerdy, harmless, un-masculine stereotypes that is more often the images Americans see of Asian-American males, or Asian males for that matter.

Leo Diamond: Skin Diver Suite

Harmonica virtuoso Leo Diamond was in a couple novelty combos in the 1940s and early 1950s, and then signed with RCA Victor for a series of solo albums. This is the first one, Skin Diver Suite. It’s irresistable for the cover alone, but side one (“The Skin Divers”) is surprisingly experimental; a 20-minute collage of 1950s orchestral glissandos, home-on-the-range–style Americana, and sound effects of water splashing. It’s the Lumpy Gravy of easy listening.

[cover of Skin Diver Suite]This was recorded just a little too early to be stereo, which is a shame; it would have been a great entry in RCA’s “Living Stereo” series.

  1. The Skin Divers
  2. April Again
  3. Melinda
  4. Wendy
  5. Reminiscing Interlude
  6. Ride the Dark Hills Home
  7. All I Desire

Korla Pandit: The Universal Language of Music Vol. 1

[photo of Korla Pandit] The 1950s’ mysterious, romantic exotica organist Korla Pandit was born in New Delhi, India in the early 1920s. Born into a higher-caste family, he showed immense musical talent at a young age, and his father sent him to study music at elite prep schools in England. In the early 1940s, he came to the United States to enroll at the University of Chicago.

Actually, that’s all lies. That was the story Pandit always gave, and for decades it was accepted by everyone as his biography. But after his death in 1998, it was discovered that he really was a black guy from St. Louis named John Roland Redd.

Heh.

Anyway, the rest of his biography is less murky. His big break came when he was hired to do background music for the revival of the radio show Chandu the Magician in 1948. He caught the attention of a producer with KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, who hired him to star in a daily 15-minute show, in which he played the organ and never spoke.

Pandit had already released several singles (including a couple under his previous incarnation, “Juan Rolando”) and a few EPs, but this is his first full-length LP: The Universal Language of Music, Volume 1, from 1954.

[photo of album cover: The Universal Language of Music, Vol. 1]

  1. The Banjello
  2. Clare de Lune
  3. Stormy Weather
  4. Over the Rainbow
  5. Samba
  6. Trance Dance
  7. Theme from Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony
  8. Aicha’s Dance (Moghul Suite)
  9. Intermettzo
  10. Beyond the Sunset
  11. Chopin’s Waltz in A Major

I should add that the voice you hear on these tracks (in full 1950s Authoritative Narrator mode), is not Pandit, who never spoke on his shows or at performances, but rather somebody named Dave Ballard. Ballard also was the announcer for Pandit’s TV show, but I haven’t been able to find out much about him. He might be the same guy as this Dave Ballard who was active in 1950s television. IMDB says he’s 7”² 6”³!