Most of us remember Dick Powell as a longtime actor, director, and producer, and as the host of his own TV show, but he actually began his career by showcasing his talents as a musician and singer. In fact, for a number of years he was one of the most popular crooners around.
When you think of the urbane and sophisticated image Powell projected in many of his movie roles, you’d never guess that he began life in rural Arkansas, but even as a child his interest was in performing. He not only sang in church and school choirs but also learned to play several instruments, and by the time he started college in the early 1920s he was already thinking of a show business career.
Powell was still in his teens when he left college to follow his muse, and after gaining some experience with a couple of other groups he landed a spot with a solid regional band led by Charlie Davis. He spent several years with Davis, as both an instrumentalist and singer, and not only toured with the outfit but also furnished the vocals for many of its records. After leaving the band in the early 1930s to spend some time on stage, he was ‘discovered’ by a talent scout and was soon on his way to Hollywood.
It didn’t take long for Powell to make his mark in movie musicals, breaking out as a star in 1933’s classic 42nd Street alongside Ruby Keeler. For the next decade he made countless movie musicals while also appearing regularly on radio, and was one of the most popular stars around. But eventually he began to leave music behind and become a more conventional actor, reinventing himself and finding new stardom as a tough-guy character. He also began enjoying his work behind the scenes as a director and producer, which he continued to do for many years even as he mostly left acting behind. He was just 58 when he died from cancer in 1963.
Dick Powell – “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” (You can also access music in left column.)
Our newest Special Feature — Five-Star Favs — is only up to the third edition but it’s already showing some diversity. After spotlighting classic rock in the first one and jazz in the second, today we’re taking a look at a song from 1967 that isn’t easy to classify.
At first glance, “Ode To Billie Joe” seems to be a sad story-song typical of country music, but it’s also been called delta blues, folk music, southern Gothic, and probably a few other things as well. Singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry’s iconic song is a tale that has many levels but is told in a straightforward manner, and it asks a tantalizing question. What did Billie Joe and his girl throw off the bridge shortly before he ended his own life?
The mystery intrigued listeners and might have helped the song become a huge hit, nominated for eight Grammys and winning four, three of them for Gentry. It also became an international sensation, one that led to several European versions of the song, not only in other languages but in some cases rewritten to make it more familiar for listeners. For example, the French version changed the chopping of cotton to the tending of vineyards, and in Sweden the tragic Billie Joe became Jon Andreas.
So what did they throw off the bridge? Fans have speculated for years, and guesses have ranged from simple and symbolic to tragic and a little gruesome. The only one who would know for sure is the songwriter, but Bobbie Gentry has always (wisely) been a little cagey about it, although she has hinted from time to time.
Bobbie Gentry – “Ode To Billie Joe” (You can also access music in left column.)
Germany was a volatile place in 1931 but it did have a long tradition of music appreciation, so it’s not surprising that an eleven-year-old violinist named Helmut Zacharias would find an appreciative audience when he played a Mozart concerto on national radio. But he took it in stride — after all, he’d been performing for several years by then — and he would go on to have a long and celebrated career during which he became known as the Magic Violinist.
The Berlin-born Zacharias was the son of a professional violinist and naturally enough got an early start in the business, first learning to play from his father and then continuing his studies in the Berlin Academy. He was only six when he first began appearing on stage but he continued to study in subsequent years even as his performing career bloomed. By his teens he was touring the country and becoming a much-admired performer, although the clouds of war were gathering. As Zacharias approached adulthood and war began, he managed to stick to music for a while and even made some records, but by the early 1940s he was conscripted into the German army.
In the post-war years Zacharias moved to Switzerland and began to rebuild his career. He’d always been at home with classical music and had also enjoyed playing the kind of jazz inspired by French violinist Stéphane Grappelli, well-known for his long association with the legendary Django Reinhardt. Building on that foundation, Zacharias began to perform and record contemporary pop music and light classics, all in a style perfectly suited to audiences of the era, and he soon became an international star.
His popularity on U.S. record charts peaked in 1956 with “When the White Lilacs Bloom Again” (“Wenn Der Weisse Flieder Wieder Bluht“), but he had many successful records through the years. He was also a talented composer and conductor, and worked with some of the biggest stars around, appearing on stage, on TV, and the occasional movie. He enjoyed a long career that extended into the 1990s, but his final years were marred by Alzheimer’s. He died in 2002 at age 82.
Helmut Zacharias – “When the White Lilacs Bloom Again” (“Wenn Der Weisse Flieder Wieder Bluht“)
(You can also access music in left column.)