Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra performing Harbor Lights
Some people ask; although I am not one of them, if there was music before 1950s classic rock ‘n’ roll. Of course there was and I have taken some pains to establish the roots of rock back to Mississippi country blues, electric blues as they traveled north to the heartland industrial cities, jazz as it got be-bopped and took to swing, certainly rhythm and blues, north and south and rockabilly as it came out of the white small town South. What rock owes little to, or at least I hope that it owes little to is that Tin Pan Alley/ Broadway show tune axis part of the American songbook. That seems to me a different trend and one that was reflected in a CD review that I reluctantly agreed to do, The 1950s: 16 Most Requested Songs, which was really about the 16 most requested song before the rock jailbreak of the mid-1950s. Let’s be clear about that.
I have along the way, in championing classic rock as the key musical form that drove the tastes of my generation, the generation of ’68, contrasted that guitar-driven, drum/bass line driven sound to that of my parents’ generation, the ones who survived the Great Depression of the 1930s and fought World War II, and listened to swing, jitter-buggery things and swooned over big bands, swings bands, Frank Sinatra, the Andrews Sisters and The Mills Brothers, among others. In other words the music that, we of the generation of ’68, heard as background music around the house as we were growing up. Buddha Swings, Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree, Rum and Coca-Cola, Paper Dolls, Tangerine, and the like. Stuff that today sounds pretty good, if still not quite something that “speaks” to me. That, however is not the high-style music that is reflected in this compilation and which, I think rightly, I was ready to shoot my CD player over once I heard it as I announced in the headline.
No, this is music that reflects, okay; let’s join the cultural critics’ chorus here, the attempted vanilla-ization (if such a word can exist) of the Cold War Eisenhower (“I Like Ike”) period when people were just trying to figure out whether the Earth would survive from one day to the next. Not a time to be rocking the boat, for sure. Once things stabilized a bit though then the mad geniuses of rock could hold sway, and while parents and authorities crabbed to high heaven about it, let that rock breakout occur and not have everything wind up going to hell in a hand basket. But this music, these 16 most requested songs were what we were stuck with before then. Sure, I listened like everyone else, everyone connected to a radio, but this stuff, little as I knew then, did not “speak” to me. And unlike some of that 1940s stuff still does not “speak” to me.
Oh, you want proof. Here is one example. On this compilation Harbor Lights is done by Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra. This was cause one for wanting to get a pistol out and start aiming. Not for the song but for the presentation. Why? Well, early in his career Elvis, while he was doing his thing for Sam Phillips’ Memphis Sun Records operation, covered this song. There are a myriad of Elvis recordings during the Sun period, including compilations with outtakes and alternative recordings of this song. The worst, the absolute worst of these covers by Elvis has more life, more jump, dare I say it, more sex than the Kaye recording could ever have. And it only gets worst from there with incipient things like Frankie Lane’s I Believe, Johnny Mathis’ It’s Not For Me To Say, and Marty Robbins’ (who did some better stuff later) on A White Sports Coat (And A Pink Carnation). And you wonder why I ask whether they shoot CD players. Enough said.
Harbor Lights Lyrics
(words & music by H. Williams - J. Kennedy)
I saw the harbor lights
They only told me we were parting
Those same old harbor lights
That once brought you to me.
I watched the harbor lights
How could I help it?
Tears were starting.
Good-bye to golden nights
Beside the silvery seas.
I long to hold you dear,
And kiss you just once more.
But you were on the ship,
And I was on the shore.
Now I know lonely nights
For all the while my heart keeps praying
That someday harbor lights
Will bring you back to me.