Thursday, September 30, 2010

Laura Nyro (music)

Wikipedia Entry

Laura NyroWell, I see Laura Nyro's been nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  And it's about time -- though I fear that she won't be inducted.  Her greatness is indisputable, but popular success always eluded her, despite the fact that she is one of the three greatest female rock songwriters of her era.*

Nyro** grew up in the Bronx and was a child prodigy, teaching herself piano and writing songs starting at the age of eight.  In 1966, she sold her first song "And When I Die" to Peter Paul and Mary*** and started performing professionally.  Her first album, More than a New Discovery**** was recorded that year. It included "And When I Die," and "Wedding Bell Blues," which the 5th Dimension made into a solid hit.  The album did so-so, but Nyro wasn't happy with it, disliking some of the artistic decisions.

But Nyro had caught the eye of David Geffin, who took over her management and got her signed to a long-term contract with Columbia Records that gave her the artistic control she wanted. 

The results were spectacular.  Her first album for Columbia, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, was a revelation, containing three hit singles -- for other artists.*****  She topped that with what is usually considered her best, New York Tendaberry.  Her next, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, spawned her only single to make the charts, "Up on the Roof" (ironically, a cover song by a talent who made her name writing songs for others to cover).

Nyro mixed pop, jazz, soul, R&B, spirituals, and everything she could find into a tuneful delight, all sung in her pure, soulful voice, which was a thing of beauty in itself.  She usually accompanied herself on solo piano, but was happy to use a band when necessary.  Critics and musicians raved about her, but she never found popular success.  Part of this was that she was a reluctant performer, and rarely appeared on television.  The click below is one of the few, a version of "Save the Country."

The next year, she recorded an album of cover songs with Labelle that was, in a way, treading water, and after it was done, she announced her retirement from music in 1971.  She was 24.

Of course, such things never stick, and she was back recording in 1976, and she released four originals, plus a live album, from then until 1996, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  Her final album was put on hold and finally released in 2001.  Several compilation albums have come out, choosing the best of her work.

Nyro never got the success she deserved.  Some of it was due to her own idiosyncrasies.§ But part of it was that she just was out of step with the popular mind.  It would be wonderful if the Hall sees fit to reward excellence.


*The other two:  Joni Mitchell and Carole King.

**Born Lauro Nigro, so you can see why she took a stage name.  She pronounced it like the Roman emperor.

***It later became a success for Blood Sweat and Tears.

****Later retitled Laura Nyro, and still later, The First Songs.

*****"Eli's Coming" for Three Dog Night and "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Sweet Blindness" for the 5th Dimension, who owed their career to her.

§ the record company wanted to retitle Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, fearing people would think it was a Christmas album, but Nyro refused.  The record company was right.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Jackie Vernon (comedy)

Wikipedia Entry

Jackie VernonAs a kid, I used to watch The Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday.  I was no fan of the highbrow and the circus stuff, and the musical acts ranged from great to uninteresting.  But the one thing I always looked forward to were the comedians, and my favorite of them was Jackie Vernon*.

Vernon worked his way up from strip clubs to becoming a TV headliner with by creating a persona that always brought laughs.  He was a short, dumpy man, and Vernon worked off that by using the deadest of deadpan styles.  His voice was always a monotone, and he would do his routines without showing any noticeable expression other than hangdog.

My favorite was his "vacation slides" routine. Vernon would come on with just a little clicker and would pretend to be doing a slide show of his trip to the Everglades:

  • <click>Here's the guide I got. His name was Guido. Very famous guide, in fact he was known as Guido the Guide.
  • <click>Here's Guido the Guide leading me around a bed of quicksand.
  • <click>Here's Guido the Guide from the waist up.
  • <click>That's his hat right there.
  • <click>Here's the rescue party rushing to his aid.
  • <click>Here's the rescue party from the waist up.
  • <click>And here we have a lot of hats and ropes and things.
  • <click>Here's my next guide, Son of Guido the Guide.
  • <click>
  • <click>
  • <click>That's his hat.
This was all delivered without the slightest expression with Vernon's high-pitched voice.  I also loved the way he'd imply what was going on without saying it.

Vernon did record a couple of albums, A Wet Bird Never Flies at Night and A Man and His Watermelon, which sold adequately but didn't make a big splash.  He also never managed to break into films, other than a few bit parts.

But he did make one indelible mark.  The team of Rankin/Bass chose him to do the voice of the main characters in one of their perennial Christmas classics: Frosty the Snowman.  I'm not a big fan of Frosty,** so I rarely watch it, and it is hardly representative of Vernon's comedy.

Vernon was very successful on the various "Celebrity Roasts" of the 70s, his style making the most out of all his material. 

Vernon continued his career in clubs and nightclubs, but by the 70s, with the death of the variety show, he was seen less and less on television.  He died in 1987, leaving behind memories of great comedy.


    *Not to be confused with Jackie Mason, who was banned from the show, supposedly for giving Ed the finger on air, though he denies it.

    **Rankin/Bass were very uneven and usually awful, with the exceptions of Rudolph and The Last Unicorn.

    Sunday, September 19, 2010

    Ebinger's Chocolate Blackout Cake (food)


    I grew up on the eastern end of Long Island, but my mother and grandmother came from Brooklyn. As a kid, it was a big deal when my grandmother drove out to visit. Certainly it was great seeing her, but one thing made ever visit special:  she always brought cakes from Ebinger's. I don't think I ever set foot in any of their stores, and if you weren't from the New York City area, you've never heard of them, but they were bakery perfection.

    The chain was founded in 1898 by George and Catherine Ebinger and quickly thrived. What I remember most are three cakes that no one has ever duplicated:

    • A yellow cake with a hard, dark chocolate icing, the two layers separated by a milk chocolate buttercream.
    • A chocolate cake, much like a torte in a small loaf, with the hard, dark chocolate icing. It had a pattern of green lines running over the top, dividing it into squares.  My brothers and I used to fight over who got the end pieces (with more of the delectable icing).
    • The chocolate blackout cake.

    The latter is what people remember today. It was a dark devil's food cake, with dark chocolate icing between layers and on the top. But icing was sprinkled with crumbs of the cake, turning the smoothness into a great texture.  It was a chocolate addict's dream and called by many "the best cake on Earth."

    I think the key to all the Ebingers cakes were their chocolate icing. It was relatively thin and made of dark chocolate, and were thin and hard, more like candy than cake.  I've never found anything like it on any cake since. The Chocolate Blackout Cake's crumbs of cake only made it even better.

    In 1972, Ebingers went bankrupt and the recipe for the cake was lost.* There have been attempts at recreating it, but I'm not sure anyone has gotten it right.**

    I haven't tried them.  I'm not sure if I want to, since I doubt they would measure up to my memories.


    *Word has it that the heirs have it, but refuse to sell.

    **The cake on the link looks very close, and only misses by having too much cake sprinkled on the frosting.  The true Ebinger's Chocolate Blackout Cake had only a thin sprinkling that let the gloss of the icing come through. It's from a recipe at  The picture on the Cooks County website looks less like the real cake than this one.

    Monday, September 13, 2010

    Half a Sinner

    image (1940)
    Directed by
    Al Christie
    Written by Frederick J. Jackson, story by Dalton Trumbo
    Starring Heather Angel, John "Dusty" King, Constance Collier, Tom Dugan, Clem Evans
    IMDB Entry

    Readers of this blog may not be surprised to hear that for the past year or so I've been slowly going through a set of DVDs of old, public domain movies.  It was billed as a set of mysteries, and it's a mixed bag of film noir, detectives, comic book heroes, and many other dramas, some very good, some terrible, others impossible to hear because of the poor prints. That's why I was surprised to come across Half a Sinner, a pure comedy adventure that's very fast and funny.

    Heather Angel plays schoolteacher Anne Gladden, who realizes that she needs to break free and for once in her life forget about responsibilities and just have fun.  She buys a new dress, lets down her hair and stops wearing her glasses* and sets out for a day of adventure.  But it's more than what she expected.  When a masher makes a pass at her, she jumps into his car and drives away.

    Unfortunately, she doesn't realize there's a dead body in the back seat.

    She soon is being chased by the cops (who think the car is stolen) and by gangsters (who want the body and the incriminating evidence).  Along the way, she gives a lift to a mysterious and charming stranger (John King) and crosses path with a rich dowager with a little larceny in her heart (Constance Collier).

    The film is fast paced (it runs 59 minutes), and quite funny.  There is a lot of understated black humor and the plot twists around and back and even when you can guess some of them, they're played with such charm that you don't mind.  The skill of Dalton Trumbo** may be one reason why the story keeps you wanting to watch.

    Heather Angel was trying to establish herself as a leading lady after being primarily known as Bulldog Drummond's long-suffering fiancee*** and she is a charming presence.  Alas, here career didn't take off, though she kept on working in small parts.  John King also was a veteran of B movies and later made a name for himself as a cowboy star.

    Director Al Christie produced and directed over 400 films, primarily shorts and B pictures.

    The movie fell into the public domain, but seems to be marketed primarily as a film noir and mystery (the DVD cover certainly makes it seem much more dramatic than it every dreamed of being). Don't be fooled. What you have is a fast, charming little comedy that a B movie gem.


    *Of course.

    **Later to be blacklisted, but at this point learning his trade as a screenwriter.

    **Every Bulldog Drummond episode seemed to begin with she and Drummond just about to tie the knot when all hell breaks loose.  She spent a lot of time as a hostage, too, but was usually fairly capable.

    Friday, September 3, 2010

    Ellery Queen (author)

    (1905-1971) & (1905-1982)

    He was probably the most influential and popular of all American detective story writers and editors in the 1930s until the 1970s, yet, Ellery Queen seems to be only live on in the name of one magazine, where many of its readers may not even have read any of his work.

    image"Ellery Queen" was the pen name of two cousins, Manfred Lee and Frederick Dannay, who started writing together in the late 1920s.  Their first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, introduced a new star to the lineup of detective sleuths:  Ellery Queen.

    It was a cute conceit* as were several others.  Queen the writer was a strong advocate of the "fair" detective story -- where all the evidence is laid before the reader so that you had a chance at guessing the solution.  Queen took it even further by stopping the narrative for a "Challenge to the Reader," where he would say that you now had all the facts you needed to solve the crime and would dare you to guess.  These gimmicks helped make the Ellery Queen novels stand out from the many being published at the time.

    The early novels -- all of which were titled "The <nationality> <noun> Mystery"** -- used this gimmick to great effect and worked because the solutions were all difficult to guess, but clear once Queen explained it all.

    That the big thing they had going for them, since the character of Queen was not well defined.  He was introduced as a sort of a upper class snob, son of Police Inspector Richard Queen, who wore a pince nez and quoted Latin aphorisms without bothering to translate.***  He is more mannerisms than a character, and probably would not have lasted long once the gimmick got tired.

    Lee and Dannay realized that.  Their tenth novel, Halfway House, dropped the nationality in the title (even though the introduction shows they could easily have stuck with it) and had the final "Challenge to the Reader."  The title not only fit the mystery, but it also signified that the book would be a "halfway house" into a different form of mystery. 

    The later books made Ellery more human, the mysteries more than just puzzles.  Lee and Dannay set a group of books in Hollywood, but were more successful with several more in the fictional small town of Wrightsville, which he joked had more murders per capita than any other town in the US. 

    Toward the end, Lee and Danny hired other writers like Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson to flesh out their outlines. My favorite Queen mystery, The Player on the Other Side, was actually written by Sturgeon, and the Davidson title, And on the Eighth Day, is memorable in its portrayal of real-life evil and how it can come up even when we think it's defeated.

    In addition to the novels, Queen wrote many short stories, often based upon a "dying clue" -- something the victim did in his last moments that identified the killer, but which is not clear until Ellery Queen shows up.

    But Queen was more than a writer; he was an editor (or rather, Dannay was).  In 1941, he founded Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as a place to showcase mystery fiction, and it quickly became the top magazine in the field, and is still being published today.  Queen's anthology, 101 Years' Entertainment, was essential reading to familiarize readers with the best of the genre (no Sherlock Holmes, though -- but that's because it was easy to find Holmes stories, but difficult to find detectives like the Old Man in the Corner, Arsene Lupin, Dr. Thorndyke, Father Brown, Philip Trent, Professor Poggioli, or Ruth Kelstern.****

    Lee died in 1971, and Dannay continued his editorship.  There were few Ellery Queen stories now and they were strictly puzzles.*****  The partnership seemed to work with Dannay coming up with the plots and puzzles and Lee fleshing out the characterization, so the stories after Lee's death were puzzle stories.  Danney died in 1982.

    So why is Queen not remembered today?  Of course, there is the change of taste in mysteries; Queen was too old-fashioned to work in a Raymond Chandler mystery universe.  In addition, the Ellery Queen stories never had the type of popular success that someone like Agatha Christie did when translated to other media.  There were several movies, but none were major hits and the last US film was back in 1942.  In the mid-70s, there was a TV series starring Jim Hutton (and run as a period piece, with Hutton stopping the story to give the "Challenge to the Reader" each show) that ran for one season, but to mediocre ratings.

    Without a presence in other media, the novels lost their appeal, especially the earlier ones that were based on gimmicks and sometimes clues that are now badly dated.****** 

    But the books are still fun to read as puzzles and as detective stories.  And Queen's work as an editor and anthologist have cast a long shadow on the field.

    *Though why they did it is a mystery.  The stories were written in the third person, and Ellery Queen the detective was clearly not Ellery Queen the author.  But it did make thing memorable, and maybe that was the point.

    ** The Roman Hat Mystery, The French Powder Mystery, The Dutch Show Mystery, etc.

    ***In the first book, he is said to be retired, married, and living in Italy after the events of the mystery, but that bit of background vanished away.

    ****It might be easier now, with the Gutenberg Project.

    *****It is generally thought that Dannay wrote the plots and puzzles, while Lee handled the characterizations.  With Lee gone, the stories were all plots and dying clues.

    ******The resolution to one book, for instance, is based on the assumption that no man would appear in public without a tie.