Friday, April 1, 2011

Musical mischief and tomfoolery

In spite of today being April Fool's Day, I'm not feeling enough creativity to propagate my own hoax, but I am feeling mischievous enough to post the picture above. I'm wondering how many of my generation or older can identify the two very distinct musical personalities captured ingeniously in a pre-Photoshop photographic fusion. I've had the picture for at least thirty or forty years or more, taken from a source lost in the mists of memory, though judging from the size of the original, quite possibly from the pages of either of the now defunct large-format American family magazines, Life (d. 1971) or Look (d. 2000).

Beyond this, I am moved to share today a few of my favorite humorous songs that partake in the mischievousness and tomfoolery of a practical joke.

The first that comes to mind is the wonderful "But I Was Cool", by Oscar Brown, Jr. (1926-2005). While Brown's greatest musical contribution was unquestionably bringing a trenchantly realistic view of the African-American experience in the America of the 1950s and 1960s to song, he did depart from deep seriousness with this astonishingly manic performance on his first LP, "Sin and Soul", released on vinyl LP by Columbia in 1960, and now available on CD as "Sin and Soul . . . and then some", which includes material from Brown's subsequent LP, "Between Heaven and Hell".

(You can here a compelling, but slightly less impassioned version of this song by Blues master Albert Collins (1932-1993) here . . . . . . )

Another classic from an even earlier period of my life is "Wild Bill Hiccup", by the inimitable Spike Jones (1911-1965). One could devote a whole week of entries to Jones' musically witty and verbally incisive sendups of, and take-offs on, a wide range of genres; one of his best-known albums was "Spike Jones is Murdering the Classics", though his parodies covered many other styles as well. I hope to do a separate entry on Jones, as a kind of personal musical retrospective, but suffice it for now to say that when my maternal male cousins of a certain age and I get together, more than 60 years after the record's release, we can manage to keep the entire song going (more or less) in unison; I shudder to think what our mothers had to endure with the endless playing of that increasingly worn, progressively more scratchy 78 rpm record.

Then, from my college days, when I was much infatuated with things Indian, comes the 1959 version by Peter Sellers of Wouldn't It Be Loverly?", the classic song from the landmark musical My Fair Lady. There is not yet a YouTube version of this (quite probably through the diligence of Angel Records in monitoring online violations of copyright), but you can hear it here on Rhapsody, the Web-based music service that represents yet another of the digital musical resources that I noted in my opening entry of the year.

And finally, there is the quintessential distillation of every imaginable form of salesman's hype in 1976's "Step Right Up", by Tom Waits, a unique musical institution unto himself: "Step right up. . . . Step right up. . . . Everyone's a winner--Bargains Galore! . . . ." The Wikipedia article on Waits quotes the characterization of Waits' voice by critic Daniel Durchholz, as sounding "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car".

Continuing my preoccupation this year with the wonders of the digital era, I should point out that the lyrics to most popular songs (including some of those above) can be found on a whole host of Websites, which presumably post them without great concern for copyright restrictions. A simple Google search of "step right up lyrics tom waits" brings up some 56,300 hits, with the first presenting the full compendium of Waits' socio-verbal wizardry in all its glory.

On the other hand, in an attempt to find the source of the picture above (I would love to credit the creativity of the perpetrator of this wonderfully bizarre facial juxtaposition), I initiated a Google image search, using the first and last names (each pair linked by quotation marks) of both of the two hugely dissimilar musical giants. Alas, I found nothing in the 551 results there. But my challenge of identification stands: who are they?

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