One of the most unappreciated rockabilly artists of the 1950s was Johnny Carroll, a talented and magnetic performer who was in many ways reminiscent of his friend, the much more successful Gene Vincent. In fact, Carroll’s surge of popularity later in his career was partly due to his appreciation for Vincent’s music, along with his own determination. And even though he never enjoyed a major hit, many of his records became favorites for knowledgeable fans world-wide and he ended up in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Born in rural Texas as John Lewis Carrell (later changed to Carroll because of a record label misprint), he began performing on local radio as a child, and by age fifteen was leading his own band. He was still in his teens in the mid-1950s when his growing radio success led to a record contract with Decca. Some of his early records, including “Crazy Crazy Loving” and “Wild Wild Women” were solid, as was “Hot Rock” (his band was named the Hot Rocks). Also, his on-screen performance in an otherwise forgettable teen-rock movie showcased his music — and his moves — but Decca didn’t renew his contract.
Carroll was then at Sun Records in Memphis for a while, bumping into guys like Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, but still didn’t find much success in record sales. As the 1950s wound down he moved back to Dallas and signed with a new agent, the same one used by Gene Vincent, who was a little older than Carroll and had already enjoyed a hit record with his classic “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” It would mark a turning point for Carroll, who soon came out with what would be his most successful record, “The Swing,” which had echoes of Vincent’s style (along with some of the same musicians in the studio).
Even though he retained some popularity in Europe, Carroll’s career was pretty much stalled by the 1960s, but he remained friends with Vincent until the latter’s death in 1971. Even more significantly, the loss of his friend inspired him to later generate a new record on a tribute song, which somewhat revitalized Carroll’s career. He was able to find a lot of success in subsequent years by performing the same style of music, and at one point in the late 1970s also recorded a brand new album that he called Texabilly. He was just 57 when he died of liver failure in 1995.
Today’s featured song on the GMC Special Feature known as Fantastic Foursome is another with a strong connection to Fred Astaire. For a guy who always comes to mind first and foremost as a dancer, he had quite an impact in many other ways during his long career. In this case, he not only introduced the song in a memorable movie but also had a #1 hit record with it.
Irving Berlin wrote “Cheek to Cheek” for 1935’s Top Hat, one of Fred and Ginger’s best-known films. The song was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost the Oscar to “Lullaby of Broadway.” However, Astaire’s record of “Cheek To Cheek” climbed to the top of the music charts and stayed at the #1 spot for five weeks, and — in spite of missing out on the Oscar — would eventually land at the #15 spot on the AFI list of most memorable movie songs. And just for good measure, it would also eventually be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Of course, as the years passed the song was recorded by just about everybody, and some of the best are below. You can listen to each and then — if you like — vote for your favorite in the poll below the video.
Billie Holiday – Eydie & Steve – Frank Sinatra – Vic Damone
A while back I posted a piece about a pair of 1960’s combos with very similar names — Tornados and Tornadoes — but today it’s a different kind of name thing. If you’re at all interested in jazz, you might have run across a great saxophonist who worked with everybody from Ellington to Basie to Lawrence Welk and even led his own band for a while. But the funny thing is that even though most of what you see (including his own record albums) shows his name as Marshall Royal, it was actually Marshal — the extra ‘L’ just got added somewhere along the way.
Marshal Royal was born in Oklahoma, but mostly grew up in Los Angeles after his family moved there during the first World War. Both parents were skilled musicians and his father — Marshal Royal Sr. — was a music teacher and occasional bandleader, so Junior was given a good musical education. (As was his younger brother, Ernie, who would become a professional trumpeter.) By the late 1920s Royal was in his teens and was proficient on piano, violin, guitar, clarinet, and saxophone. He soon began working in nightclub bands and was just sixteen when he caught the eye of the Duke, whose orchestra was even then beginning its rise to fame. Although Ellington just needed him as a violinist for a special film occasion, it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
For most of the 1930s, Royal kept busy playing sax – and occasionally clarinet — in the Los Angeles area, mostly as a part of Les Hite’s popular regional band although he also spent some time with Art Tatum. As the decade ended he moved on to a spot with Lionel Hampton’s outfit but a couple of years later World War II came along, and Royal (and Ernie) became a part of one the US Navy’s bands for the duration. In the post-war years he again found plenty of work with bands like Eddie Heywood’s, but the 1950s began a two-decade period that would make his fame — becoming an important part of Count Basie’s big band.
Royal’s clean and clear alto sax sound led the way for the band, but he also took a vital leadership role in the group, becoming its musical director and a mentor to the younger players. It was a long and richly satisfying period, but he also found time to do some other things — his 1960 album with Gordon Jenkins was one of his best. When he finally returned to his home area of Los Angeles in the early 1970s he was ready to wind down a little and diversify. He spent most of his latter years working with a variety of other pros (yes, including Lawrence Welk) although he did lead a band of his own for a while in the 1980s. He continued working occasionally even into the 1990s, and was just a few days short of his 83rd birthday when he died in 1995.
Way back in 2007 I put together a post titled The Quintessential Italian Crooner, in which I wrote about some of the better-known Italian/American smoothies. But even though I didn’t intend that post to be all-inclusive and have written about quite a few more since then, it’s still surprising how many others remain. One who would qualify is Frankie Randall, a New Jersey native who was born as Franklin Joseph Lisbona, and he owed a lot of his success to a guy named Sinatra.
Randall actually began his musical life by studying classical piano, but as a teenager he turned his attention to jazz, eventually earning a music scholarship to college. By the early 1960s he’d finished school and was ready to try for a career, and it began to take shape when he snagged a job entertaining at Jilly’s in New York.
The nightclub’s owner, Jilly Rizzo, was an old buddy of Frank Sinatra’s, and Ol’ Blue Eyes spent a lot of time there whenever he was in New York. He soon caught the new kid’s act, and decided to give him a boost by helping him work a deal with RCA Records. It wasn’t long before Randall was generating his first album and soon thereafter enjoying a rise in popularity. His success continued with a second album and in 1965 he was cast as the lead in an otherwise forgettable teen movie (video below).
For the rest of the 1960s and into the 1970s Randall continued to generate records but he also made a lot of TV appearances; not just guest shots, but also as a regular (and fill-in host) on Dean Martin’s show. He also found time to do a few international music tours before eventually settling down in the 1980s as the musical director of an Atlantic City casino. But he wasn’t quite finished with performing, returning to the spotlight in the 1990s and eventually creating a special stage show titled Tribute To Sinatra, helped by his old friend’s gift of his arrangements shortly before his death in 1998. Randall continued to work off and on in his later years, and was 76 when he died in 2014.
It seems to me that I often open by writing about how a name might be unfamiliar to modern music fans, and I’m guessing today’s spotlighted singer will baffle most. And yet, Yma Sumac was a pretty big deal in her day. A flamboyant performer whose voice covered more than four octaves, she was a star of the music genre known as Exotica, and was said to be a descendant of Inca royalty. (But was she? More later about that.)
So the story goes, she was born in Peru as Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo, and began performing in local festivals as a child. Her family moved to Lima in the pre-World War II years, and she became a member of a renowned Peruvian collective of musical performers, eventually marrying its director, Moises Vivanco. Within a few years Yma and her husband had joined with a cousin to form the Inca Taqui Trio and moved to post-war New York.
It wasn’t long before the threesome — and especially Yma — began finding a lot of success, appearing in nightclubs and on radio, and even finding the occasional spot on early TV. By 1950 Capitol Records had signed her to a solo contract and she was soon selling a lot of records too. Her amazing voice, combined with her colorful costumes and voluptuous beauty, helped her become a star. Before long she was appearing on Broadway and later at both Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. She made European tours and even showed up in the 1954 Charlton Heston film Secret Of The Incas.
It was probably inevitable that someone would start rumors about her, and they did. Even though the Peruvian government supported her claim of being a descendant of the last Incan emperor, stories circulated that she was really a Brooklyn housewife named Amy Camus. (Yma Sumac spelled backward.) But she never acknowledged any of that, and eventually the fervor died down although her career momentum was beginning to slow a little anyway. By the 1960s she was semi-retired, but she would continue to make spot appearances for many years. She was 86 when she died in 2008.
All videos are linked from other sources. Sometimes they are removed or deleted at the original site, which disables them here. Music samples are medium quality and available only for a limited time. Any artists or their reps who request removal, we'll be glad to comply. The same is true of any other copyrighted material used in the creation of this blog.