20 October 2019

Viola doesn't play the Viola

Nat King Cole
O’Neil wrote about the blah saccharine music of the 1940s and early 50s. I suffered some of the same issues he touched upon. We chatted about his music-loving private eye in that period.

My parents allowed no television, so we didn’t endure dreck as much as some ruining their televisions with Lawrence dullest-of-the-big-bands Welk. At least nuclear families could participate with Sing Along with Mitch Miller.

In the 1940s, the war hit hard. Less than creative but happy, treacly songs helped people feel a bit better. Sadly, many of the best talents were killed off, most notably Glenn Miller. This resulted in the least significant digits surviving awash in bland, washed-out numbers by Lawrence uh-one-uh-two Welk whose claim to fame was outliving all the greats.

One day I started listening to recordings of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The 1920s were pretty interesting, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ for example, but the 1930s blew me away. Everyone knows Glenn Miller’s great ‘In the Mood’, but Louis Prima and Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing!’ (all 6-zillion versions) blew me away. Arguably, the 1930s proved as creative as the 1960s. Unlike Lawrence God-spare-us Welk, these sounds vibrantly lived.

Chattanooga Choo-Choo’ was written on the cusp of the 1930s/1940s as WW-II geared up. Superficially, it seemed a trivial song with insipid covers and uninspired remakes. But the original, what a tune! Glenn Miller made it playful (as did gorgeous Dorothy Dandridge and the wing-footed Nicholas brothers), but underneath it was musically brilliant, embedding one of the most ingenious transitions ever. I’m grateful Lawrence put-me-out-of-my-misery Welk hadn’t ruined it for me.

As it turns out, the 1940s weren’t at all devoid of good music. Radio fans weren’t looking (or listening) in the right places– Darktown! Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. Thank God they weren’t into the Champagne bubble music of Lawrence just-shoot-me Welk.

And there was Viola Smith. Never has the world seen such a drummer. Tom-toms, snares, kettles… She featured in girl bands, she featured in boy bands. She's amazing. Currently at age 106, she’s even outlived Lawrence gag-me-with-a-pitchfork Welk.


  1. Leigh, imo Sing Sing Sing is one of the greatest songs of all time. Certainly one of my faves.

  2. So, tell me. What do you think of Lawrence Welk?

  3. Louis Armstrong - "Ain't Misbehavin'", Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" and "In the Mood" (my mother's favorite was "Elmer's Song", the Dorseys, Harry James "You Made Me Love You", Artie Shaw's "Stardust" and "Begin the Beguine" - great stuff.

  4. Good article, Leigh.

    I (and my private eye) don't complain about music before the early 50s and there were some good songs released in the early 50s. Songs on the radio (Hits of the early 1950s) comprise the dreck I was talking about. My PI searched out radio stations playing Jazz and Rhythm and Blues. What we now call country music was labeled hillbilly music in New Orleans back then. I (not my PI) like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline and Tex Ritter's DO NOT FORSAKE ME, OH MY DARLIN from 1952's HIGH NOON has always been one of my all time favorite songs.

  5. Paul, I absolutely agree. I have at least three versions, one nearly 15 minutes long.

    I'm disappointed in myself I didn't mention Clyde McCoy of 'Sugar Blues' fame. He was a very favorite of mine when I was a small boy, especially 'Tear it Down', which seemed so subversive. Curiously, even though McCoy played trumpet (often muted), there's a guitar effect named after him, more commonly known as the wah-wah.

    Jerry (laughing) I shouldn't have been so subtle. To use my mother's expression, I can not abide the man.

    I often wondered why America was so quick to embrace a German so soon after WW-II. Like the Pennsylvania Dutch, it turns out he came from a German-speaking town in North Dakota, not Germany. His grandparents, ethnic Germans, had emigrated from Alsace and Odessa.

  6. Cool article, Leigh. I feel there was so much great American music made in this era it’s okay to forgive the sappy stuff. Big band music morphed into bebop and cool jazz. Really, almost all the great jazz musicians come from right here. I like Bing, Frank, Dean and many of the crooners too. Not to mention all the great country music from this era, which far outshines the current drech.

  7. Oh Eve! How could I have omitted the Dorsey brothers, Harry James, and Artie Shaw! I also didn't mention drummers Buddy Rich (ex-husband of a friend) and especially Gene krupa, famed for the solo in 'Sing, Sing, Sing!' Both were influential for early rock drummer, Sandy Nelson.

    My father noted modern country music had become an amalgam of hillbilly, a dose of rock-n-roll, a pinch of cowboy songs, and, believe it or not, an injection of Lawrence please-not-again Welk, known for a rendition of 'The Red River Valley'.

  8. Good points, Larry. Sinatra and Martin and the Crosby brothers came up through the ranks. To the casual observer, it was a little less obvious in the 1950s that Perry Como and Pat Boone had risen to prominence through big bands.

    Somewhat unfairly I didn't mention Americans of the time put an emphasis on quality of voice and especially harmonizing, often matching family members for purity of sound such as the McGuire Sisters and Welk's Lennon Sisters. Barbershop quartets (and quintets, etc) emphasized individuality, while smooth harmony strove for almost a single voice. The result was too 'sweet' for my ear, but I appreciated the Browns, brother and sisters, influenced by Nashville country, folk, and pop.

    Much as I enjoy a raw, bluesy texture, I shouldn't complain too much about sweetness. Claudine Longet did things to me that are illegal in six states, at least until she started murdering people.


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