Continuing where we picked up on this musical meme… you can find part 1 here if you’re interested.
6. Benny Goodman – “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)”
As I ended my 5th grade year, I was told there was an option waiting for me next year that, if I wanted it, I could have it. I could learn a musical instrument of my choice. By that, Mom and Dad meant they had to be able to afford it, and Mom had to be able to tolerate it. I chose saxophone; Mom vetoed. I chose drums; Mom vetoed. I chose trumpet; again Mom vetoed. Piano? Mom sighed in frustration and brought me over to the stereo, where she pulled out her collection of 45. If you’re of the current generation, you may not know what these are. 45s are vinyl singles that have one song imprinted on each side. It was the equivalent to how most of you buy MP3s today. They were called 45s because they revolved at 45 rpm (revolutions per minute), as opposed to 33 1/3 for full albums or the even earlier 78s… but now we’re getting esoteric. Back on point…
Mom had very few instrumentals in her collection. Classical was never her strong suit. But she had a few choice selections that I gravitated to over the years. The very first piece she selected grabbed me by the shoulders and shook the life out of me on the spot. Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing (with a Swing)” was my formal introduction to jazz, swing, and the clarinet. I must have listened to that recording a couple of thousand times. Suffice it to say, I played clarinet. My parents were able to afford a used one they found in the classified ads, which it turns out was more incredible than I could have imagined. Later versions of this venerable instrument are made of cheap plastic. Mine was beautifully sculpted wood, capable of creating a rich sound that quite literally melted into your soul… if you could play the thing. As sensitive as my ears are, I learned very quickly not to generate that dreaded squeak.
Goodman’s single recording led me through an odyssey. I rediscovered my acquaintance with Henry Mancini (whom I came to know thanks to Pink Panther cartoons), and from there I learned all the great band leaders and vocalists. From Goodman, I discovered Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Tommy Dorsey. From here I discovered Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, John Coltrane, Louis Prima (who wrote this Goodman single), and Louis Armstrong. The list just kept going. And damn it… I played that clarinet for all it was worth, usually by ear. Turn on a radio and play along. Much to my band director’s chagrin, sheet music was just a reference. At the time, there was an old AM radio station that played pretty much everything from the 1920s to the modern era, and on Sundays it was old radio shows with a mandatory 3-hour block of my personal favorite, The Shadow. I learned so much music, so many characters and stories, and the gratification of playing my first musical instrument, all from a single song. If that’s not influence, I don’t know what is.
7. Trevor Jones – Excalibur
The name Trevor Jones may not ring a bell, even among modern soundtrack aficionados, but it should. He’s best known for The Dark Crystal and The Last of the Mohicans, for example, two incredible albums that I can’t recommend enough. For me, the Excalibur soundtrack was a stepping stone into epic fantasy, the legends of King Arthur, classical music, Opera, and the magnificence of the Middle Ages. Seems like a lot for one film score to accomplish, doesn’t it? Let me explain.
Trevor’s original score is laced with his arrangements of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, especially the opening track of “O Fortuna,” one of the most powerful compositions ever written. The text of that composition is handed down to us from the era of the Troubadours, the original compositions of which have become something of a passion of mine. Excalibur was my first tap dance with Early Music, even if I didn’t know it at the time. It certainly opened my eyes to the idea of the Middle Ages, even if only as a fantasy idea. The film score likewise opens with music from Richard Wagner, “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” from his Opera Götterdämmerung, part of his epic Ring Cycle that has long since become a staple for me. To this day, I associate that piece not with Norse mythos, but with the imagery of the Sword of Power being held aloft by the pale hand of the Lady of the Lake.
8. Basil Poledouris – Conan the Barbarian
I’m going to come clean here. I really don’t like this movie in spite of some of the positive elements it brought to the table, and I truly despise its cornball sequel. But Basil Poledouris created one of the most magnificent film scores of all time as far as I’m concerned, which for me was an abject lesson in the idea of “never judge a score by its film.” Its storytelling genius conveyed for me everything that was needed to supercharge my all-day Saturday sessions of Dungeons & Dragons. The track that nailed it for me was the “Riders of Doom,” wherein Poledouris channeled the power and majesty of Orff’s Carmina Burana. I wanted more like that, you see, and I found it right here. Nothing else I’ve encountered has ever come that close. Those all day D&D sessions led me to create quite the catalog of epic fantasy film scores that, to this day, have become my playlist anytime I dip my nose into a fantasy novel.
9. Queen – A Kind of Magic
I might have mentioned once or twice, but I’m a swordfighter. Old school, Medieval longsword. Armor. As I’ve said before, blame Star Wars. You can also blame Highlander. I have an unreasoning love of that movie. I love the television series just as much. And I loooooove the music. Michael Kamen’s score to that first film, especially, was like nothing else I’d heard before. But it wasn’t the only music in that movie. A Kind of Magic is also affectionately known among fans of that movie as “the other Highlander soundtrack.” Queen was a band I was only moderately familiar with at the time, having discovered them through Mom’s 45 single of “Another One Bites the Dust.” But for whatever reason, they stayed on the periphery for me for far too long until Highlander. One thing Freddie Mercury was never good at was subtlety. This album smacked me upside the head and got my attention.
I’ve long since become a Queen fan. I’ve listened to the world’s greatest vocalists from Elvis Presley and Ella Fitzgerald to Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti. So far as I’m concerned, Freddie Mercury is the best of the very best. His control and range bordered on supernatural, which he proved in duet with Opera diva Montserrat Caballé, whom he considered to have the greatest voice on Earth. Who am I to argue? It’s actually because of him that I discovered her. Likewise, the same can be said of Brian May’s guitar magic. He built his guitar, the “Red Special,” and it has a distinctive sound that purrs and growls in a way that I’ve not heard in any other instrument. It’s the perfect counterpoint to Mercury’s pitch-perfection. It’s to my eternal regret that I’ll never get to hear him sing live, but I do periodically dig out my DVD copy of Live at Wembley Stadium, the quintessential stop on the Magic Tour that promoted this album.
That said, growing up a closeted trans, I was always a bit squirrelly and self-conscious about my love of Queen. I’m sure I don’t need to spell that one out, but let’s be real here. Mercury was an openly sexual animal, which certainly translates to his showmanship. His ability to push the awareness boundaries of both sex and gender made me uncomfortable in the extreme. It was like every time I pushed play, I risked being found out. Highlander became the means by which I could express my love and fascination of Queen without reservation. “Princes of the Universe” indeed. Looking back, I can’t believe how insecure I was about that. Queen’s a rock legend for all of the right reasons, all else be damned.
10. Ray Charles – His Greatest Hits, Uh-Huh
Hidden among Mom’s 45s is one of my favorite singles of all time, Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack.” There’s something about this two-minute track that puts a smile on my face whether I want it to or not. I’ve loved this song since before I can even remember. Fast forward to the late 80s and early 90s. By this time, I’d discovered jazz and sidestepped into the blues. If you asked me who the ultimate blues master was, I’d have told you B. B. King without blinking an eye. And that may still be true. But back then I never connected Ray Charles and the blues. Not sure why, seeing as how it’s because of him that I found King in the first place, to say nothing of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Leadbelly, and a plethora of others. I always thought of him more as rock / soul / country. Like the Eagles, he defied genre. He was simply Ray Charles. He had a voice that held my attention, he could play that piano as well or better than Billy Joel, and he became more than memorable to me for his gun-wielding scene in The Blues Brothers. I ask you… how do you hide from a blind man with a gun? For the longest time, I thought it was one of the biggest tragedies that I’d somehow not acquired any of his songs for my own ever-growing music collection. As if to drive the hammer home, Ray did a promotional spot with Pepsi Cola in an age when the TV was on for far too many hours in the day. If you remember it, you’ll remember the jingle instantly: “You got the right one, ba-by-eeeeee, uh-huh!” That ad didn’t get me to drink Pepsi. I was a Dr. Pepper kid. But it got me in the car and to my local Best Buy where I about laughed myself silly when I discovered Ray’s His Greatest Hits, Uh-Huh. The interior book even had a still shot on the cover from the commercial featuring Ray at the baby grand, surrounded by his backup singers. In one fell swoop, I’d filled a hole in my life and my music collection. It would be far from the last of his music that would enrich my life.
I hope you’re enjoying this trip through my nostalgia. We’re at the halfway point. More to come soon…