Some singers can have all the formal training in the world and hit the right notes. Others, like Sarah Vaughan, can open her mouth and radiate divine and sassy otherworldliness. Though racism in the country and the conservatories barred her from her dream of studying opera, Vaughan, with her three octave range, had the power and the vibrato to match, even surpass any classical prima donna. Her baroque grandiosity and playful joie de vivre was clearly better suited for jazz where she was equally at home doing scat-filled bebop and searing ballads delivered as torchy arias.
She honed her piano and vocal abilities in church. Initially Vaughan entered herself in the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night as a pianist, where she did very well, winning second prize. As good as her piano skills were, her singing was her forte. When she reentered as a singer, she won top honor and scored a recording contract with Mercury Records.
Her warm, personable voice helped her become one of the most in-demand vocalists. Widespread success was a bit of a double edged sword as she wound up recording a fair amount of subpar novelty songs (like “Broken Hearted Melody,” which she later denounced strongly) with maudlin easy listening arrangements. However, she never entirely embraced being a jazz vocalist as she crossed over into other genres. (Some of her pop material like “Brazilian Romance” was quite good).
Later in her career, she boldly displayed her impressive range and cute silly humor in performances. While some critics found some of her later work to be heavy-handed, I found her to be at her best when she was at her biggest (though I will concede that she sometimes took it a bit too far with her rendition of “Send in the Clowns.”)
Although Vaughan chain smoked, boozed and feasted freely, you’d never know by listening to her sing. Her voice and her technique sounded more impeccable and effortless. If her hedonism didn’t tarnish her talent, it eventually got her body. After a year of struggling with emphysema, Sarah Vaughan died in 1990 at the age of 66. Here are five performances that represent her superhuman talent.
She performed several different, but wonderful renditions of this ballad. I like this version best because it’s the most playful (I love the way she delivers “but it’s fun”) and the most virtuosic. The way she slides from baritone to soprano is jaw dropping.
This entirely vocalese number demonstrates Vaughan’s brilliant ability to swing, belt, and sound bluesy at the same time whilst switching octaves in split seconds.
I Remember April
Although she more often sang vocalese, she was equally adept at fast paced scat as she does here with gusto. The pianist is also on fire.
Even at in this minimalist, quiet rendition of this torch song, Vaughan conveys so much. Listen side by side with other versions by Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney and you’ll appreciate how special Vaughan’s voice is.
You can tell that Sarah Vaughan loved to perform, and her infectious energy rubs off on this Swedish audience who commanded to take not one, but two encores. Vaughan really works it out here.
There is a bad tendency to fully appreciate and talk about one’s artistry only after the person dies. I have been guilty of this many times, most recently with Ernestine Anderson, an underrated jazz and blues singer who died March 10th at 87 years old of natural causes.
I suppose I took Anderson’s mortality for granted because even as an octogenarian, her vocal prowess was still in full command and she looked like she was fifty. Her second to last album, A Song for You, is a must for jazz lovers. She tackles standards like Day by Day and Make Someone Happy and pop songs like A Song for You and Candy with freshness and ease and nary a bum note.
While her career spanned for more than 60 years, it was never an easy one with a large share of major ups and downs. Even as a child, Anderson gravitated towards singing. However, her father, who wanted her to focus on school, relocated the family the family to Seattle, where supposedly there wasn’t much of a music scene. This proved to be dead wrong. There, she pursued her career harder than ever. Eventually, her parents came around and took care of her children while she went out on the road with various bands.
While she worked fairly steadily, including singing at Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953, she wasn’t having the success of many of her peers. Wanting to stretch herself, she went to Europe, where she was warmly received. In Sweden, she recorded her debut album as headliner, what would become known as Hot Cargo. When influential jazz critic Ralph Gleason heard it and loved it, he put it on the map in the States. In the midst of being the toast of the town, she secured a contract with Mercury records.
The handful of her albums she made with Mercury in the late 50s and early 60s are very highly regarded by critics and fans then and now. I am not personally a fan of Anderson’s early work, feeling that she sounded like a generic girl singer with very little feeling in her voice.
Courtesy of www.eljefe.net
I think she came into her own in the late 1970s, when she returned to the spotlight after an approx. 15-year hiatus due to a legal dispute with Mercury blocking her from recording for five years, the loss of gigs as a result, the lack of popularity of jazz in the 60s, and her own guilt from being separated from her children. Her voice beautifully matured into a soulful contralto with a sassy, crisp phrasing.
While Anderson’s voice could take on a harder edge possibly as a result of the hard knocks, there was also a smooth, warmness too that developed around the time she converted to Buddhism. Her discography reveals her versatility and consistency as she sang ballads, the blues, and bebop with equal authority.
Even though she recorded over 30 albums and received 4 Grammy nominations, money was still an issue. In 2008 Anderson made news when her house was at risk for foreclosure (thankfully friends and colleagues Quincy Jones and Diane Schuur raised the funds to save the house.)
For more interesting details on her life, I recommend listening to an NPR documentary as well as reading obits from the Seattle Times and The Guardian. Here are five songs that display the beauty of Ernestine Anderson.
Time After Time
From the first drawled out note, she creates a hypnotic trance out of this lovely ballad. BTW, it’s a different “Time After Time” from the Cyndi Lauper song of the same name.
Anderson takes this one to great heights, seamlessly transitioning from a pensive beginning to an exuberant, improv-filled finale.
In this cool, funky mid-tempo arrangement, Anderson combines her rhythmic jazz and soulful bluesy sensibilities to convey the good and bad blues present in everything and everyone
Please Send Me Somebody to Love
Anderson perfectly captures the desperation and longing of the love-starved narrator in this uber soulful and bluesy rendition of what she rightly notes is a timely and timeless torch song.
She swings the hell out of this one, in a rollicking rocking arrangement of a song most associated with an easy listening version by Lena Horne
With the release of the newest James Bond film, Spectre, I’ve seen a lot of “Best Of” lists popping up over the internet. An article on The Guardian ranking all the Bond films on a “Five Star” scale inspired me to come up with my own list, ranking all the Bond opening title theme songs in order of release. How would you rank the theme songs?
John Barry’s dramatic brassy and electric guitar-led orchestral theme pioneered the pulsating music that became a staple of action and adventure films and TV shows. It seamlessly goes to mid-tempo calypso drum and trails off to the song “Three Blind Mice,” which kicks off the narrative. Considering how James Bond promos still use several bars of it, it shows the timelessness of this theme. This is the score to beat.
It’s a good blend of a baroque symphony orchestra and Arabic-influenced belly dancing music, but it doesn’t quite have the richness of the Dr. No theme. But it’s better than the closing number with bland crooner Matt Monroe.
The horn section blows me over every time. The lyrics and arrangement have the Midas touch and Shirley Bassey’s dramatic vocal stylings are magical. She proves that she is the Queen of Bond themes, with her mastery at the impossible feat of holding the last note for 6 seconds. And this with the orchestra playing live and no auto tune.
The opening string motif is masterful, but it loses steam once Nancy Sinatra’s flat voice enters the picture, and thus lowers the score (too bad because the song is well written and deserves somebody better).
This is the most hypnotic of the Bond themes, much thanks to the bewitching flute and Shirley Bassey’s sinisterly romantic interpretation. I love the 70s wah wah pedal effortlessly blending with the string arrangement and the dramatic horns that crescendo at the end.
Live and Let Die 5/5
I’m not a Paul McCartney fan, but I have to admit that he and Wings did a stellar job here. I love the way it shifts from a sparse, slow tempo during the vocals but crescendos to a highly produced 70s alt. rock sound throughout.
This is a fun and catchy tune, elevated by the dirty rock guitar and Lulu’s sassy, slightly raspy vocals.
The Spy Who Loved Me 5/5
I can see why people love this one: Marvin Hamlish’s arrangement is minimalist and is the most modern. A lot of alternative music copies this. Carly Simon’s vocals and Carol Bayer Sager’s sophisticated romantic lyrics are sublime.
The slow pop, ballad-y arrangement and folk singer Rita Coolidge aren’t bad but they are a tad too bland.
A View to a Kill 5/5
Duran Duran represents the best of 80s pop as they borrowed elements from punk rock and disco; their use of synthesizers is brilliant. Their co-arrangement with John Barry seamlessly blends their funky eclectic aesthetic with his baroque orchestral style.
This is an unfairly maligned Bond theme. While they don’t quite have the spark of Duran Duran, A-Ha does a credible job. The arrangement, which combines 80s pop, lush orchestrations and a slight Middle Eastern motif are engaging, though loses a bit of steam towards the end.
The arrangement is occasionally choppy as it appears in abridged form in the opening credits (the soundtrack version is better), but Gladys Knight belts it out with real sassy gusto. Why they had Patti Labelle sing the closing theme is beyond me.
Superhuman singer Tina Turner uses her gravelly strong vocal chops to create a fabulously sinister mood for the film. The finger-snapping motif and the percussion add excitement to the near-perfect score, whose only flaw is an overly string-y bridge in the last 2/3 of the song.
There is an interesting attempt to blend the 60s John Barry orchestral style and Garbage’s underground, grunge rock aesthetic, but the results are only so-so.
Die Another Day 4/5
This theme, with its techno beat and Madonna’s heavy autotuning, was regarded as blasphemy by Bond purists. I admire Madonna for boldly breaking with convention and I wish that the newer Bond themes would adopt a bolder, more original sound.
The percussion earns some kudos, but the garage band arrangement is a bust. Jack White and Alicia Keyes (who gets my vote for the worst pop singer working today) are the most mismatched pair since Michael McDonald and Aretha.
Ok Sheena, you’re not the worst anymore. How did veteran arranger Thomas Newman think it was ok to put a maudlin, plodding arrangement worthy of a Scottish funeral and Sam Smith’s anemic, shrill falsetto together?
I’m proud to present my second music video interview. If you want to read my first interview, check it out here.
Courtesy of Michael Daye
If you don’t know the name Michael Daye, there is a good chance if you’ve ever read Cracked, that you came across his article “9 Terrifying Old Movies That Put Modern Horror To Shame;” if you haven’t, you should. (His knowledge of classic curios puts me to shame).
When I did more research on Daye who is “based in the south-west of England,” I discovered that he also makes and edits films. I was particularly taken with his music videos, many of which are artistic homages to silent films, experimental cinema, and found footage. To get an idea of his aesthetic, read this interview (duh) and visit his website. You can also follow him on Twitter and Vimeo.
Courtesy of Daye
Onward to the interview!
When did you first become interested in making music videos?
Probably as a teenager. Something about coming of age and realising what songs are really about made me think about how the same piece of music can be experienced differently by each listener. I have synaesthesia as well, which means I experience a crossover of the senses (I “see” letters and numbers as specific combinations of colours and think of music in terms of shapes and colours), so I think after being exposed to some cool videos in the early noughties I got excited about the thought of trying it myself.
How much does experimental filmmaking inform your music videos and how much do your music videos inform your experimental filmmaking?
I actually see them as being one and the same. I love to use music as a counterpoint and it’s how I originally got into film and video production. The only difference for me is that the music videos are made to serve the artist’s purposes as well, whereas in my films I am using other people’s music for my own purposes.
What role do you have in devising the concept for the music video? How much does your creative control fluctuate?
I’ve mostly been given the creative reins for each project. Sometimes the client will give me key notes on the song itself and the themes it presents, and I’ll use that as a jumping-off point to pitch ideas back to them. I like to leave some things up to improvisation so occasionally I have pitched one idea and veered off towards another, but I’ll always keep the client in the loop.
I noticed that many of your music videos are comprised of found footage from various historical periods, though the 80s VHS footage seems to be the most prominent. Describe your selection process of matching the footage with the music. What is the significance of the footage?
Well to be honest, I started with “found footage” at a time when I wasn’t confident enough around people to coordinate an actual shoot. I would always be able to find videos that represented images I wanted to create, and eventually I just started putting them together on a timeline trying to find out what it would look like to edit in time with the music. Sometimes the video image would be very poorly connected to what I had in mind originally, but I’d just end up following that image and seeing where it led. The Run video for Police Academy 6 was the first video I made in this style, and there wasn’t really much significance to the footage beyond it all being very eighties. It’s always been a moodboard effect, trying to present an overall theme rather than telling a story with individual clips.
What has prompted the move away from the VHS/found footage aesthetic in your most recent music videos?
As I mentioned in the last question, the found footage aesthetic was born mostly out of my lack of confidence to shoot new footage and just seeing what I was capable of doing with other people’s footage. Over time I developed that confidence and as I worked more on my own material, I came to realise that found footage has a specific effect on a viewer and should be used sparingly. I still enjoy using little hints of VHS noise here and there just because it brings me back to my childhood. I remember finding lots of VHS cassettes my parents had recorded onto over and over again, so there were little moments of various TV shows and music videos all blending together, like a dream.
Describe the dynamic of directing a music video commissioned by a band or performer versus a record label (like Decca Classics)?
Well, independent artists tend to have a specific idea of what they want as they have a personal connection to the song, and you tend to work pretty closely with them, while labels can be both more calculated and less focused. With Decca Classics, I was given a choice of which track to make a video for, from an album of classical pieces that had been used in films. The brief asked for a video that seemed cinematic without referencing the specific film that the track had been used in (in my case, The Big Lebowski), but that was the only instruction.
How did you find the lush locations for Mariettas Lied? What was the transition between filming in the wide exterior versus working with existing footage or sparser locations?
I knew a lot of those locations from scouting for my grad film project. The video was actually shot chronologically as we travelled from the coast up through the country over the course of a day. We had to time things carefully and be wary of daylight, so all of the locations were pretty “in-and-out”, basically driving to a location, hopping out the car to shoot for a half-hour then getting back in.
I thought that the concept of the missing dancers for Purrple Splazsh was haunting and original. How did you come up with it?
I got hooked watching clips from The New Dance Show, an actual show shot in Michigan in the eighties. They’d have a hall full of upbeat people dancing non-stop to disco and early Detroit techno, and so I just tried to think of a way to adapt those images to fit how Actress subverts those genres.
In most of your music videos, the artist/band doesn’t appear. Who’s decision is that? What are some challenges that arise when making a video without the performer(s) present?
Sometimes, like with the Run video for Police Academy 6, it was a case of me having made the video before even getting in touch with the artist. Other times, I’ve just not considered the idea of featuring the artist because it seems a bit too literal. It’s all dependent on the track. If a client has required the artist to be a part of the video then I’m always ready to adapt my ideas to that, although I find it easier if I don’t have to include them.
How does being an editor inform the way you direct music videos? At what points are the two sensibilities in conflict with one another?
I do tend to have an “edit” of sorts prepared in my head at the first stage of production, so if I know I want to use one frame of a weird image to quickly cut in at one point, I’ll make sure that image is factored into the shoot. I hate the thought of “fixing it in post” but in practice it’s always a possibility, and I’m confident enough in my own style that I know how to get a troublesome sequence to fit that style. I don’t know if there are many conflicts between the two, I see them as part of the same procedure in a way. I like feeling that I’ve controlled the whole video from start to finish.
How have your influences like David Lynch, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Béla Tarr, and Björk informed your music videos? What are other artistic influences in your music videos?
David Lynch has a way of making the weird seem natural and vice versa, and that’s definitely my biggest influence for everything I do. R.W. Fassbinder is inspiring for the fact that he was damn prolific and he never let a low budget hold him back. I love how Béla Tarr uses time and space to afford more room for the viewer. And Björk is a musician who I think has a consistent body of music videos, her music is very visual and she’s always pushing forward in terms of the viewing experience (the Biophilia app, the Stonemilker video).
I’d say Chris Cunningham is a humongous influence in terms of how I edit. I watch his work all the time and I can’t really think of a video director I like more. I also love video artist Takashi Ito for his editing style.
What are your top three favorite music videos of all time? What elements do you like about each?
I have to include Chris Cunningham’s Windowlicker video for Aphex Twin. Although his video for Björk is phenomenal, I think the editing and the subversive aesthetic of Windowlicker have had more of an influence on me. I just remember seeing it as a kid and finding it incredibly disturbing.
The Sugar Water video for Cibo Matto that Michel Gondry directed is pretty spectacular. On paper it’s quite a simple concept, a palindromic video with a split screen, but in practice there is such attention to detail it’s incredible.
And I guess it predates music videos but A Phantasy In Colours by Norman McLaren really inspired me. That’s a very synaesthetic film if ever I saw one.
What, if any, are the biggest problems with music videos today?
It’s really a gripe with pop videos but there’s too much concern with looking cool and attractive. It seems like in the nineties a lot of artists were fine with being ugly for the sake of a good concept, and that led to some pretty legendary videos.
How, if at all, do you see music videos as a gateway to other types of film production?
A music video at its most basic is like a call and response, a visual created for a piece of audio that already exists. I think if you can give great ideas to another artist like that, it advertises your ability to take the helm of a film project. There has been some criticism over the last decade of feature films getting too much like music videos, but I think that needs to continue. Directors like Spike Jonze and Jonathan Glazer have proven time and time again that they can extend the surrealism of a music video to feature length without losing the audience’s attention.
What were some of your proudest moments in your music video career so far?
I’ve been massively surprised by and grateful for each and every opportunity, but the most exciting was getting the Charles Bradley gig. I had been a huge admirer of his before and couldn’t believe I had been invited to work with him. He was an absolute dream to work with, so humble and ready to get involved.
What do you think are the most essential components to a music video?
Definitely good editing. I love videos that edit very closely to the rhythms and sounds of the song, and conversely I love one-take videos, but in each case there has to be a good reason for that decision. Music naturally conjures up images out of the blue just like dreams do, so I’m most attracted to videos that aren’t too literal.
What do you have on your bucket list in regards to music video making?
I’m working on a music project at the moment myself and I plan to direct the videos for it, so if that goes the way I want it to then that’ll be one bucket list requirement crossed off. I would love to work with Björk, even on a five-second ident or something, as it’d be a major career highlight to say I’d been a part of her visual catalogue. A more general goal would be to direct for a wider range of genres, just to see how I would adapt.
For those cultural snobs who persist in dismissing Blaxploitation films as totally worthless trash, prepare to be challenged again. These films employed so many talented and engaging personalities, even in the minutest roles. One of the greatest discoveries for me is Laura Lee, who appeared (uncredited, egregiously) in the overlooked Detroit 9000 (1973) as the lead performer at the senator’s fundraiser, and one of many held hostage by robbers.
Initially I was distracted by the blatantly obvious out-of-sync between the audio and video. Luckily I was able to squash the judgmental tumor momentarily to appreciate Lee’s powerfully soulful voice and her dynamic screen presence as she conveyed fear, but strength as she reprised the song and tried to help people restore their courage.
I couldn’t get Laura Lee out of my mind. I had to know more about this talented woman. Born in Chicago in 1945, Lee relocated to Detroit with her mother as a child. As an adolescent she joined the gospel group, The Meditation Singers, which was led by Della Reese before she went on to having a successful recording career. From the clips I have heard, one thing I liked was how their arrangements were simple unlike a lot of gospel. Lee’s star quality and killer voice were already on display.
Courtesy of devildick.blogspot.com
Lee eventually struck out on her own, joining wunderkind impresario Rick Hall’s then-emerging record label Chess Records in 1966. She was in good company among the likes of Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett (though sadly she wasn’t featured in last year’s tuneful documentary Muscle Shoals).
As a solo artist, she forged a sassy persona with great help from her gravelly, theatrical vocal intonations. Many of her songs in the 1970s were strong, empowering emblems of emancipating women from the crap end of the gender political spectrum. Her songs still sound catchy and are still sadly relevant.
In the late 70s, Lee had a near-death battle with cancer. During this ordeal, she forged a strong connection with God, whom she cites for curing her of the disease. Subsequently, she abandoned her secular singing career for over twenty years. (If this song is autobiographical, her conversion sounds like a traumatic process).
Courtesy of www.harmonytrain.com
Thankfully in recent years she has been given the OK by God to perform secular music again. It seems as though she still performs in Detroit. In spite of the poor video quality, Lee still looks and sounds fantastic. I haven’t been able to find any activity after 2009, but hopefully, she’ll make another album in the near future.
Until then, here are five oldies but goodies.
Women’s Love Rights
Her biggest hit, this is a nice mid-tempo with a great chorus and wonderfully nonjudgmental lyrics condoning any type of love a woman wants.
Since I Fell For You
It has many of the wonderfully quaint elements of 70s Soul (namely the introductory talking narration, though Lee has such an expressive voice), but the raw passion that Lee brings to a woman who was devastated by being seduced and then abandoned by a smooth operator is undeniable.
This tune represents the timelessness of the “Muscle Shoals” sound, which can’t be beat. The then 20-year-old Lee exhibits more confidence and maturity of voice than most singers ever do.
It’s Not What You Fall For (It’s What You Stand For)
In perhaps the most confrontational but inspirational song, the arrangement consisting primarily of funky guitars and vibrant percussions emphasizes Lee’s gravelly timbre.
Not as politically charged as many of Lee’s other songs, she clearly is having a ball with this spirited rendition of this fun “revenge is sweet” song. I love that she won’t even let her cheating man have the wallpaper.