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Oldies but Goofies : Between the Big Band Era and Elvis, Pop Music Gave Us Truly Loony Tunes

November 12, 1989|JACK SMITH

SOMETIMES I HAVE wondered what kind of music we listened to, we hoi polloi of the 1950s--that wasteland between the fading of the big bands and the arrival of rock 'n' roll. Our sons were small boys during that period. We were not the first on our block to own a television set.

What, I have wondered, were the musical sounds that first set them humming and perhaps influenced their tastes for life?

The other day I happened upon a long-forgotten storage album of 45-r.p.m. records from that era. It was only 9x7 1/2 inches. It held 16 records, 6 1/2 inches in diameter. And that, in those days, was our entire record collection.

We couldn't afford a console radio-phonograph. I had bought a small table model. My wife and I still liked the big bands--Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw. But we had bought the phonograph for our sons, and we let them pick the records.

The first one I pulled out of the album was "Cocktails for Two" by the inimitable Spike Jones and his City Slickers. It was written as a rather sedate, sentimental, sophisticated ballad (by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston), featured in the movie "Ladies' Man" (1947), but Jones and his maniacs slaughtered it.

It opens like a psalm, with a harp and a verse about the civilized life (after the war). Carl Grayson sings the chorus: "In some secluded rendezvous . . . ." Then the band goes berserk. Whoops. Whistles. Gunfire. The sound of a lunatic cackling. And then, quietly again, ". . . that overlooks the avenue."

Many was the morning I left for work with that travesty ringing in my ears.

For inspiration, we had "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," as sung by Fess Parker, from the Walt Disney film (music by Tom Blackburn and George Bruns). "Killed him a b'ar when he was only three." It was Davy Crockett who gave our sons their moral fiber and their sense of patriotic duty.

Their indoctrination in social injustice came from "Sixteen Tons" (Merle Travis) as sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford--"St. Peter, don'tcha call me 'cause I can't go / I owe my soul to the company sto' . . . ."

They learned about the heartbreak of shipwrecked love from Harry Belafonte's poignant "Jamaica Farewell" (Lord Burgess). "I had to leave a little girl in Kingston Town."

For a glimpse into the darker side of their father's life, they had "The Ace in the Hole" (James Dempsey-George Mitchell), as sung by Somethin' Smith. "This town is full of guys who think they're mighty wise . . . ." I must have bought that oldie for myself.

In fact, several songs suggest that I was trying to familiarize my sons with the music of my own childhood, perhaps sensing that rock was about to descend and drive a wedge between us.

Others in the old album were "My Melancholy Baby" and "You Always Hurt the One You Love," a classic of the 1920s, "The Charleston," and two hits by Perry Como, "Hot Diggety" and "Juke Box Baby."

Children love marches, but the march we played in that postwar era, when world peace seemed possible, was the most non-militaristic of marches--"76 Trombones," from Meredith Willson's smash musical, "The Music Man."

We also had "Colonel Bogie," the march played throughout "The Bridge on the River Kwai"--music that celebrated the triumph of the spirit over oppression. Also, we had the stirring Australian ballad, "Waltzing Matilda," as performed in Stanley Kramer's grim movie of a world depopulated by nuclear war, "On the Beach."

More and more, I sense that the choices were mine, but there is one record among them that I couldn't have possibly picked out. It is "The Little Blue Man" (Ebb Klein) as sung by Betty Johnson.

In the song, the vocalist meets the Little Blue Man while shopping. He says to her, "I wuv you, I wuv you, I wuv you to bits." She hurries home, only to find him standing on a desk, repeating this refrain. Finally he falls from the roof. She rushes into the street, hoping to be rid of him. But she finds him standing. He says, "I don't wuv you anymore." End. It was a hit. One heard it on the radio every morning.

Maybe it wasn't too bad a thing that rock came along when it did.

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