Home  ·  Listener's Guide  ·  The Songs  ·  Who's Who  ·  Liner Notes  ·  Selected Tracks  ·  What's New  ·  Search
Noteworthy Recordings

Oddball Instrumentalists

The harp was surprisingly popular as a featured instrument in the space age pop era. Harpo Marx, of course, recorded several albums that revealed the serious musician behind his mute comic character. Robert Maxwell moved comfortably among a range of moods and settings, from lush orchestral pieces to lightning-fast virtuoso showcase numbers to the irreverent comedy of "Solfeggio," his theme for the Nairobi Trio on The Ernie Kovacs Show. Gene Bianco cut several light and jazzy albums with a small combo that featured Mundell Lowe on guitar, but then sought the commercial safety of a series of soporific string-laden albums as, simply, "Bianco." Daphne Hellman led another light-jazz group on Columbia's budget label, Harmony, and Pearl Chertok can be heard on Strings of Pearl, an early Audio Fidelity album, backed by veteran Latin percussionist Willie Rodriguez on bongos. Billy May used harpist Verlye Mills on a number of his albums and recorded one, Harp with a Beat, released under her own name on Hi-Fi Records, that rates with his best. Dorothy Remsen performed on several noteworthy Space Age Pop albums: Have Harp, Can't Travel, which features a famous cover showing small person and movie actor Billy Barty trying to muscle a harp onto a city bus; and Robert Drasnin's Voodoo, recently reissued in CD format by Pickwick as Exotic Excursion. Corky Hale appeared on Liberace's early television show, but became a well-regarded jazz stylist by the late 1960s. She resisted the popular inclination to push harpists toward large sweet bands and refined her solo and combo act and eventually won bookings at several mainstay New York piano lounges. Dorothy Ashby is certainly the sole example of the jazz-funk harp, appearing behind such major names as Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham, as well as boogalooing in a cool frenzy on several albums under her own name on a bunch of different jazz labels in the 1960s. She later moved to Los Angeles and gave several of the above stiff competition for studio gigs.

Classical keyboardist Bruce Prince-Joseph dabbled in jazz on several respectal albums, including Anything Goes in Hi-Fi on RCA Camden. At the other extreme, Jonathan Knight blended his harpsichord, lush strings, and environmental sounds on several "Lonely Harpischord" albums in the early 1970s, best remembered for a late cover version of Quiet Village. Stan Freeman's harpischord drove hits such as Rosemary Clooney's Come On a My House and Percy Faith's Delicado into the Top 40, and keyboard wizard Dick Hyman recorded several albums featuring his harpsichord work, including his hit cover of Moritat, better known as Mack the Knife, and Happening!, on Command, which leads with a killer New Orleans second-line take on The Ballad of the Green Beret. And US-British duo Derek and Ray split keyboard duties between piano and harpsichord on two choice slices of "Now Sounds" pop for RCA Victor in the mid-1960s.

We have, of course, the eponymous Johnny Ukulele, who was actually a vaudeville veteran named Johnny Ka'aihue (Anglicized into Kaye), whose daughter Mary and son Norman went on to form 2/3rds of the wild club act, The Mary Kaye Trio. Late in his career, Johnny cut a great album for Capitol that includes a choice cover of The Third Man Theme. You can hear samples from it at http://artists.mp3s.com/artists/138/johnny_ukulele.html. Roy Smeck was perhaps the most innovative uke player: he plucked, picked, strummed, thumped, and may have even invented the old behind-his-back trick. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hawaiian native Herb Ohta recorded a number of albums as Ohta-San with the incongruous combination of ukulele and orchestral backing.

Whistlers were a staple of the vaudeville circuit, but had begun to fade from the scene by the time radio came to the forefront. A few performers kept this tradition going, however. Fred Lowery got started on local radio stations after graduating from the state School for the Blind in Austin, Texas, and went on to perform nationally with Horace Heidt's big band before settling in Hollywood and recording a Top 10 hit, the theme from The High and the Mighty, in 1957. After leading and singing with his own big band, Muzzy Marcellino had a successful second career as a whistler, performing into the 1970s, most notably on Hugo Montenegro's hit cover of the theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Art Coates covered such 60s hits as Quando, Quando, Quando on his Dot LP, "Whistling Like the Birds," and country songwriter Don Robertson (I Really Don't Want to Know, I Don't Hurt Anymore) had a short-lived Top 10 hit in 1956 with his The Happy Whistler. The multi-talented Toots Thielemans--jazz guitarist, harmonica player, and composer ("Bluesette")--occasionally displays his virtuoso whistling, and Jack Zimmerman, who spent years playing banjo for Dixieland bands, poses solemnly in tux with his elegant Borzoi on his all-whistling album, The Whistler and His Dog. The title tune will be better-remembered by many as the theme to "Lassie."

Dave Apollon billed himself as the "World's Greatest Mandolin Virtuoso," and had decades of experience on an international vaudeville circuit before recording several albums for Coral in the late 1950s. Apollon settled in Las Vegas and was a regular at the Desert Inn back in the days when casinos put real money into live music.

David Parker, a serious musicologist, showed off his balalaika work on at least one album for World Pacific, attempting to win a larger audience for the instrument with his interpretations of Caravan and Never on Sunday.

There are organ fanatics--let's call them level one. There are honky-tonk piano fanatics--let's call them level two. Then, at the inner circle of musical mania we find the banjo fanatics. Most of them have long since been institutionalized or treated through a combination of drug and rehabilitation therapy. But in the heyday of better living through hi-fidelity, the banjo lobby was at its most powerful and intimidated most major labels into signing at least one strummer. Eddie Peabody was by far the most successful banjo virtuoso of the period through his appearances on the "Lawrence Welk Show" and other television variety shows. As his portrait on his Liberty album, A Bunch of Banjos clearly illustrates, Freddy Morgan was a certifiable banjomaniac who aspired to be selected as the fourth Stooge, and had spent time with Spike Jones' Orchestra to prove it. Carmen Mastren invited his listeners to partake of Banjorama, but despite his technical prowess and eclectic tastes that dared to venture beyond Dixieland, he proved no match for the better known Cinerama. Capitol made no bones about Paul Martin's: as the title of his album declares, he was a full-fledged victim of Banjomania. Jad Paul preceded his one-time partner Morgan on Liberty, but he seems to have lacked the desparate frenzy for a-pickin-and-a-grinnin' that characterizes the most severe cases. One of the odder acts signed to the innovative Vanguard label in the 1960s was Sandy Bull, who lifted the banjo far above its station in musical life with adaptations of classical pieces and his own third-stream influenced compositions. The Banjo Barons were an anonymous collection of studio session pickers, but in keeping with the best Nashville cats tradition, they were more than willing to tackle new ideas exemplified by their bossa nova album. By the late 1960s, it appeared most cases of banjo madness had been cured, but then the film Deliverance struck and Eric Weisberg's "Duelling Banjos" inspired a fair number of clones, including a Banjo Barons album that included arrangements by Claus Ogerman and production by Miles Davis collaborator Teo Macero.

Rufus Harley: jazz bagpipe. I kid you not. A sincere musician, Harley appeared with Max Roach and others and recorded his under his own name for Atlantic and several other labels.

French Horn
Jazz accordionist Mat Mathews assembled four jazz French horn players (bet you didn't think there were four of them to be found), including David Amram, who went on to become recognized as a serious composer and performer of avant-garde music and third-wave jazz, and Julius Watkins for his sorta third-wave jazz album on Elektra, "Four French Horns Plus Rhythm." Watkins mostly worked as an ocassional sideman in jazz combos in the 1950s and 1960s, but recorded one album, "French Horn for My Lady," on Mercury. The album is an odd fish, hovering somewhere between lush exotica and the outer fringes of hard bop. But hey, maybe it's worth getting one for your lady!

Ruth Welcome enjoyed over a decade of performing and recording for Capitol after Anton Karas' breakthrough zither hit, The Third Man Theme. Karas himself put out at least one re-recording of his trademark tune each decade, sticking to pretty traditional Viennese fare. His fellow countryman, Karl Swoboda, on the other hand, pushed the envelope of zithering in the mid-1960s with covers of such tunes as "Goldfinger" and "The In Crowd."

S p a c e  A g e  P o p  M u s i c
Home  ·  Listener's Guide  ·  The Songs  ·  Who's Who  ·  Liner Notes  ·  Selected Tracks  ·  What's New  ·  Search

Email: editor@spaceagepop.com

© spaceagepop 2015. All rights reserved.