Bea Wain – Happy 95th Birthday!

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This entry may be regarded as yet another one of my portraits of Big Band Singers, but is it also a celebration of the great Miss Bea Wain, perhaps THE best singer who came out of the big band era! Bea Wain is very much still alive, and today she turns 95 years old!

A fairly recent photo of Bea Wain

Born on April 30th 1917, much of Bea Wain’s recording career was over and done with by the outbreak of WWII. She started recording in 1934, and her last commercial records were made in the mid-1940s. She was the featured singer with Larry Clintons orchestra, and with his band she put approximately 65 songs on records, but even before that she had made another 15 records with other bands. She was signed to RCA Victor as a solo artist in 1939, releasing another 50 songs on different singles up to 1947. During her years as a recording artist, Bea Wain scored 4 No. 1 hits; “Deep Purple”, “Cry Baby, Cry”, “Heart & Soul” and “My Reverie”.

Photo from the late 1930's. Style and class was evident in both her voice and looks

Rightly considered by many to be one of the best female vocalists of her era, Bea had a full, flexible voice that showed off a natural feeling for swing, yet she could also wring the last drop of emotion out of a ballad. Years before Adele, Dusty Springfield, Bonnie Bramlett and other white singers who can sing “black”, Bea Wain was maybe the first white girl singer who had true “soul”! She also recorded a couple of bluesy songs, sounding right at home even in that kind of material. She had excellent pitch, and a good sense of dynamics, making everything she sang sound convincing and unforced. A lot of singers at the time sang only the chorus of the songs. Bea, however, always did the verses as well – to make the song more complete, and perform the lyrics as a story, not just something to hum along to.

24 of her RCA Victor recordings 1939-1941

Baldwin Street Music put together 2 excellent CDs in 2000, compiling almost all of Bea Wains solo output for RCA Victor. Volume 1 is titled “You Can Depend On Me”, volume 2 is titled “That’s How I Love The Blues”. I would highly recommend both of them, as they represent the best of Bea Wain’s work, and even if you’re just curious about this great singer, it’s a good place to start out!

25 other recordings made for RCA Victor from 1939-1947

From the late 1940’s, Bea worked mostly on radio, in addition to singing in clubs. I’ve heard that she made records up to 1955, but so far I’ve not seen nor heard of any proof that this is correct. Bea was married to radio presenter Andre Baruch for 53 years, and they worked together as a husband-and-wife disc jockey team in New York on WMCA, where they were billed as “Mr. and Mrs. Music”.

Bea Wain and her husband, Andre Baruch

In 1973, the couple moved to Florida, where for nine years they had a top-rated daily four-hour talk show on WPBR before relocating to Beverly Hills. During the early 1980s, the pair hosted a syndicated version of Your Hit Parade, reconstructing the list of hits of selected weeks in the 1940s and playing the original recordings, many of which I would assume were sung by Bea herself! Around the same time, Bea was featured on TV’s “Jukebox Saturday Night”. She was sensational, proving that her voice was still very much intact and looking like she had the time of her life!

Very much an underrated singer even from the start, Bea Wain’s musical legacy was further obscured by the fact that most of it remained out of print and circulation for so many years. Luckily, the CD age rectified that – and today most of her records are available again on CD and digitally.

25 tracks by Bea as featured with Larry Clinton's orchestra 1937-38

Larry Clinton himself enjoyed a long and fruitful career, and in the mid-fifties he even remade some of Bea’s hit songs, using Helen Ward as vocalist. 2 great volumes of Larry & Bea have been released on CD (se above and below).

A second CD, compiling Bea's work with Larry Clinton

Ted Ono from Baldwin Street Music interviewed Bea when compiling the 2 CDs that came out in 2000. He was full of praise, saying she was funny, gracious, a delight to talk to, intelligent and witty. He also stated she was very much “computer literate, and uses email”. Personally, I hope Bea still is computer literate and that she herself reads this blog post!

If justice be done, today will see at lot of praise in print and on radio, to honor this great, legendary vocalist on her 95th birthday. She must be pleased that after making her first records 78 years ago, she still has a lot of fans around – and that we still appreciate how that golden voice wrapped itself around some of the best music made in those days!

A photo of Bea ca. 2007, when she was 90 years old

Bea: a very, very happy birthday to you from me! And a great big THANK YOU for creating all that wonderful music!

Fran Warren – An every day kinda love…

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Next up in my series of Big Band Singers who went on to solo stardom, is the fabulous Fran Warren. She started out singing very young, and by the time she was 22 she had left big band singing behind and was enjoying her newfound solo stardom. For a short time in the late 40’s and 50’s she was one of the most versatile girl singers, a vocal powerhouse and physically very beautiful. She definitely was both ear candy and eye candy at the same time!

Fran - totally gorgeous, ca. 1948

Fran WARREN (March 4, 1926 – ) was born in New York City. She was just 15 when she started out as a chorus girl at the Roxy in New York, and at 16 she auditioned for Duke Ellington’s band without success. She did get to sing with a couple of other bands though, and for the next three years she was very visible and audible around New York singing with the bands of Randy Brooks, Art Mooney and Billy Eckstine. She replaced Kay Starr in Charlie Barnets orchestra, and by 1947 she was hired by Claude Thornhill.

In May of 1947 Columbia released “A Sunday Kind Of Love” by the Claude Thornhill band, Fran Warren’s first charted record. It was a good seller and made it into the Top 20. It’s regarded as one of the most soulful big band ballads of its time, and was also recorded later by Etta James. Fran recorded 14 sides with Thornhill during 1947, some notable songs are “I get the blues when it rains”, “We knew it all the time”, “You’re Not So Easy To Forget”,  “Love For Love” (with a sax solo by Lee Konitz), “Early Autumn”, which reached 22 on the charts in late 1947,  “Tell Me Why”, “I Remember Mama”  “Just About This Time Last Night” and “For Heaven’s Sake”. Fran’s complete recordings with Claude Thornhill’s band have been released on CD.

Her complete recordings with Claude Thornhill 1946-47

By 1948 Fran, who was maybe just too attention-grabbing to be just another band singer, was all set for a solo career. Despite a recording strike going on in 1948, she still managed to make enough records and public appearances to get started on her own. She was signed to RCA Victor records and began recording in mid 1948. “Why Is It?”, “Joe”, “Why Can’t You Behave?”, “What’s My Name?” were all among her first solo recordings.In July of 1949 “A Wonderful Guy” from the Broadway show “South Pacific” was a hit, reaching number 17. This was followed by “Envy” which hit number 12. She then made a duet with Tony Martin; “I Said My Pajamas And Put On My Prayers”. It’s quite a silly little novelty tune, but none the less performed convincingly. It was stuck in the charts for 4 months and got to number 3.

A great collection of Fran's 1946-50 records

The 1950’s was truly Fran’s golden decade. She spread her talent all around, making a lot of records, she was in an Abbott & Costello movie, she was on TV and did concerts and club dates all around the USA.

In the spring of 1950 another duet, this time with Lisa Kirk on “Dearie” was a top 25 seller and was followed by more duets with Tony Martin: “Darn It Baby That’s Love”  and “That We Is Me And You”. In late 1950 Fran Warren recorded “I Love The Guy” on RCA #3848, another top 25 seller. Other notable songs from the early 1950’s are:  “My Silent Love”, “Look To The Rainbow”, “I’ll Know”,  “Stranger In The City” and a cover of Ruth Brown’s recent hit “Teardrops From My Eyes”.

Fran also got to record her versions of some well-known standards like “Stormy Weather”, “Over The rainbow”, “One For My Baby”, “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues”,  “Let’s Fall In Love”,  “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” and “The Boy Next Door”.  In late 1953 Fran had one last hit on the best seller charts; “It’s Anybody’s Heart”.

The one song from this period that really stands out is “Temptation”, on which Fran sings only accompanied by drums. It is the most remarkable performance she ever made, and it’s totally unique. It sounds like nothing any other singer recorded at the time, and even today her version of this song is a true masterpiece. If music videos had been made then, I picture Fran as some sort of temple goddess, singing surrounded by torches in some exotic location focusing her attention on some handsome guy who obviously is all “temptation”…

CD collection of Fran's complete 1950-55 recordings

Strictly more of a pop singer, than a jazz interpreter, Fran could still at various points be considered to have a feeling for jazz, and even the blues. An emotional singer when the material calls for it, she bites into the lyrics and is a convincing performer of songs that need an extra touch of emotion. Verve was the leading jazz label from the 1950’s on, and in 1955 Fran had the chance to make an album for them. “Mood Indigo” didn’t set the charts or the critics on fire at the time of release. Still, it’s a very good album, and one I’m happy to see now being available in digital version by iTunes. You get none of the cute, funny stuff here – but it’s a perfect chance to hear Fran from her most bluesy and soulful  side.

The 1955 LP she made for Verve; highly recommended!

During the mid-50’s, Fran starred in the musical “The Pajama Game” for a long run, and one of the songs from that show was made the title track of the album she made in 1957; “Hey There! Here’s Fran Warren”. It seems to be her most popular album ever, and rightly so. It shows off all the best of Fran’s talent, and is probably the album for which she is best remembered. It has been released in both digital format and on CD. The last CD edition expands the album with 12 bonus tracks, most of them single sides she made around the same time.

Her classic 1957 album, the expanded CD version

After the advent of Rock ‘n Roll, Fran  – like most other classic pop singers – had to reconsider her musical directions. It’s was either go with the current flow, or stick to your own thing. Luckily, Fran chose that latter – making a very good album in 1962, dedicated to songs from the Great American Songbook, as well as some recent musical hits. “Something’s Coming From Fran Warren” is currently available again, and it is also highly recommended.

Her great 1962 album - get it!!

Fran went on tour with Harry James and his band in the mid-60’s, and she also starred in one of the many performances of the musical “Mame” – seemingly well suited to playing the title character. She rounded out the 1960’s by releasing 2 albums in a row; 1968 saw her trying out new directions by going country on “Fran Warren in Nashville”. This album contains the hilariously funny “All American Sport”, about a newly wed bride unable to get her marriage consummated because her husband is just watching sports on TV and running around with his friends to all sorts of games! In 1969, another album came out, called “Come Into My World”. This is very much a middle-of-the-road pop records of its time, and Fran does a wonderful version of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” here, as well as the musical hit “If I ruled the world”. As far as I know, this 1969 album marks the last time Fran recorded. I know of no other records being made after this, even though she kept on singing actively for many years.

"Come into my world" (1969), Fran's last original studio album

She seems to have worked very little during the early 1970’s, but by 1979 she was once again back on the scene. Hooking up with trumpet player Joe Cabot, the two of them toured with a revue called “The Big Broadcast of 1944”. They did this for 3 years, ending with a couple of sold-out engagements in 1982 at “Michael’s Pub”, a very popular New York Jazz Club. Fran, like many of her colleagues from the 30’s and 40’s, was also seen on TV’s “Juke Box Saturday Night”. She was still sounding good, and looking as though her debut record from 35 years earlier must have been made at the age of 10!

Publicity photo of Fran from around 1979

From the mid-1980’s, she seems to have faded from view, and settled in Connecticut. I’m sure she’s happy about the fact that most of her wonderful recordings have been re-released during the last two decades, and she’s probably gained a lot of new fans who weren’t around when she started out almost 70 years ago.

She still makes public appearances every now and then, but as a singer she seems to have gone into a complete retirement, one that has lasted – at this writing – into her 87th year.

Fran might have yearned for a “Sunday kind of love” way back 65 years ago – but I think she will receive love every day of the week from anyone who’s heard her sing. She easily ranks with the very best of the classic pop singers of the 21st century!

Fran at the age of 78, attending the celebration of cabaret singer Hildegarde's 98th birthday. Still looking great!

Helen Ward – Big Band Star right from the start

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I’ll be looking into the careers of some of the girls that started out as big band singer, sometimes called “canaries”. From the beginning all that was required of them was to sing the chorus of some current, popular hit and stand still & be cute the rest of the time. There were dozens of singers like that (male ones too, called “crooners”), but some of them managed to escape their confinements and went on further, using their own name and being appreciated for their own talent. A lot of canaries started out in some band in the 1930’s and then had long and varied careers on their own. My first chosen girl singer to be profiled is Helen Ward.

Helen Ward, 1930's publicity photo

Helen WARD (September 19, 1913 – April 21, 1998) was one of the earliest band singers, and she worked with a lot of different bands. Her sweet and easily swinging style could be adapted to any band format, and it seems a lot of band leaders shared that opinion as she was hardly out of work from 1934 on. Will Friedwald writes in his book “Jazz Singing”: “Helen Ward became the model for virtually all mid-thirties canaries; her exuberant, toe-tapping approach affecting not only her successors and counterparts in other bands, but even those who had come before her, like Duke Ellington’s Ivie Anderson.” Helen did uptempo novelty tunes and emotional ballads equally well, and seemed to embrace the style of whatever band hired her.

She had started singing on radio, and in 1934 she made her very first record “This little piggy went to market” with Ed Lloyd & His Orchestra.  She was featured on record several more times during 1934, with the bands of Art Kahn. Enric Madriguera and Harry Rosenthal. The stand-out track with Madriguera surely must be “The Spanish in my eyes”, and her version of “You’re the top” made with Harry Rosenthal is one of the first recordings of this Cole Porter tune.

CD compilation of Helen with Benny Goodman

In late November 1934, she was hired by Benny Goodman and their first record “I’m a hundred percent for you” turned out to be a big hit and is considered the breakthrough disc for both of them. Her first period with Benny Goodman lasted through 1937, and some notable songs they made together are: “Blue moon”, “Night wind” and “You turned the tables on me”. During the same period she also “moonlighted” with two other bands, and due to contractual matters could not use her own name. With Teddy Wilsons band, she filled in for an absent Bille Holiday. Using the name “Vera Lane”, she recorded “You came to my rescue” and “Here’s love in your eye” with Wilson in August 1936. During November of the same year she did the same with a rather unknown band, Larry Kent & His Orchestra. This time around, the name on the label read “Harriet Kaye” and as Harriet she made “One never knows, does one?” and “Who’s that knocking at my heart” with the Kent band.

Her only recordings for the next three years was done as a favour to her friend Gene Krupa. To get his new band up and going, she lent her vocals to “One more dream” and “Feeling high and happy”, made in April of 1938. The early 1940’s had her back to recording again, and her two song-session in April 1940 with Joe Sullivan & His Cafe Society Orchestra produced a wonderful version of “I cover the waterfront” backed with “I’ve got a crush on you”. More than a year later she worked with Matty Malnecks band, and her best recording with them was a stunning “Hurry back to Sorrento”. Five days later, she did one song with Harry James, “Daddy”. Helen’s version is good, but it was perhaps done to greater effect by Julie London a decade later. She did another one-song date with Teddy Wilson once again, and the July 1942 recording that produced “You’re my favorite memory” was the last she did for more than 10 years….

Great collection: 47 songs recorded 1934-53

During the wars years and the rest of the 1940’s, Helen constantly worked but none of it was put onto records. She made some V-Discs (for radio play) with Red Norvo, and she also produced radio shows for the WMGM radio station during 1946-47. After that worked ended, she seems to have drifted into obscurity for a while. By 1953, Benny Goodman had put together a new band, and Helen was once again hired as their singer. She recorded 5 songs with this edition of the band in February and March 1953, producing gems like “”You’re a heavenly thing”, “I’ve got a feeling I’m falling” and a fabulous version of “What a little moonlight can do”.

Then in July 1953, Helen made what was her first actual album “It’s Been So Long”. With Percy Faiths orchestra she created an album that still sounds fresh today – and putting to great use all her experience from the different bands. Helen sounds much more confident and mature than on her earlier records (although she was just 40 at the time). Expressing a wide range of emotion and feeling, Faiths music perfectly envelops her voice on tracks like “It’s been so long”, “You brought a new kind of love to me”, “I’m nobody’s baby” and “Same old moon (Same old sky)”. The whole original album has not been re-issued since the original release, but the songs from it are included in the collection pictured above.

Helen's 1953 LP, a collectors item today!

Four years later, in 1957 she recorded vocals on 4 tracks from Larry Clinton’s album “Larry Clinton in Hi Fi”, and all of them songs that Larry had done previously with Bea Wain in the 30’s. The songs are: “My reverie”, “Martha”, “Our love” and “Heart and soul”. Helen is vocally perfect, but it still seems strange to have her sing Bea’s old hits – especially since Bea Wain was very much active herself at that time (and still is today!) Helen then contributed to clarinetist Peanuts Hucko’s little-know album “With a little bit of swing”, also recorded 1957.

By 1960, Helen retired from the music business completely. There were rumours circulating that she was writing her autobiography but no such book has ever been published. She did, however, turn up again in public in 1979 when she sang in a couple of clubs in New York, and from what I hear – still sounded and looked great! This renewed public interest in her resulted in her second album (28 years after her first!) and by doing so she made another chapter in a career most people had considered over & done with a long time ago. The album was called “The Helen Ward Songbook Vol. 1”, maybe signalling that she planned on making sequels? The original LP is incredibly rare, and I personally have never even seen a copy of it anywhere!

The last of Helen, her 1981 LP! A very rare record, this marked the last time she went into the studio

At one point during the 1980’s, she moved to Arlington, Virginia and when she passed away in April 1998 many people were surprised to hear that the legendary band singer was still around. Her Virginia years seem to have been spent very privately, as she never gave interviews or made any public appearances.

Helen Ward is still regarded as one of the first, truly classy girl singers to be featured with a big swing band, and luckily we have a lot of records that can show us just what she did to earn praise like that!

Comin’ up next – Girls from the Big Bands

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From the early stages of popular music, a band with a featured singer was often the main attraction where music was played. From around the 1920’s and 30’s a lot of great bands had a female vocalist as their headliner. Some of those girls later went solo, and from the late 30’s and early 40’s the music business was full of ex-band “canaries” who had their minds set on a solo career.

I will be writing some shorter biographies on some of those great girls in my next blog posts – and there are quite a few to choose from: Frances Langford, Bea Wain, Peg LaCentra, Helen Ward, Helen Forrest, Helen O’Connell, Dinah Shore, Fran Warren…..

Frances Langford on stage, probably around 1940

Some of these girls seem to have vanished from view quite early, while others had fairly long careers and branched out into both movies and television later on. Many of them also made appearances on the great 1980’s television show “Jukebox Saturday Night” and some of those clips can be seen on YouTube – giving younger generations an impression of just what it was that made mom and dad fans of these singers 40 years earlier.

Dinah Shore and Helen O’Connell were visible in many different settings right up to the 1990’s. Peg LaCentra, Helen Ward and others seem to have been shrouded by the mists of time… Or maybe not! Keep checking back over the next weeks, and you’ll find out more about these great ladies that started out as “big band singers” at the first part of the last century….

A 1970 LP by Helen O'Connell - who started recording back in the late 1930's

Candi Staton – Candy for your soul!

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Miss Staton has every reason to be happy and content with her recording career, as she has touched millions of fans with her music. From her first recording, made in the late 1960’s, she has proven time and time again that she is one of those singers who seem at home in almost every genre they try. She started out performing what is generally known as “Southern Soul”, then she moved on to being one of the 70’s “disco queens”. Then she spent 25 years performing mostly gospel music, and finally from 2006 onwards she has reclaimed her status as one of the finest soul music interpreters in the business.

Promotion photo, ca. 1990

Candi Staton was born in Alabama in 1940, and from early childhood she sang with a gospel choir called The Jewell Gospel Trio. This group recorded and released a couple of singles from 1953 to 1963. At the age of 19, Candi married Joe Williams, and by the time she took the first steps into secular music in 1968, she was already a mother of four children.

Signing with Rick Hall, she started recording for the Fame label, chalking up 16 R’n B hits along the way, and also being Grammy nominated twice. Her first hits was the saucy “I’d rather be an old mans sweetheart (Than a young mans fool)”, followed by other hits like “I’m just a prisoner (Of your good lovin’)”, “He called me baby” and the two songs that were Grammy nominees, “Stand by your man” and “In the ghetto”. So-called Southern soul might sound a little country influenced, and some of the songs she recorded during this time did indeed originate as country song. Still, Candi has no trouble making every one of her songs simply drip with soul and emotion. A stand-out track from her early years is “Mr. & Mrs. Untrue” – maybe the best “cheating” song ever committed to vinyl!

Great collection of songs, 1968-73

Candi signed with Warner Brothers in 1974, releasing her first album for that label, simply called “Candi”. From this album, the songs “Six night and a day”, “Here I am again” and “As long as he takes care of home” were all hits, and proved that Candi was still soulful but a bit less “southern” than earlier.Then, in 1976, Candi recorded what is regarded as her major break-through song, and one that still stands as an all-time classic: “Young hearts run free”! The song zoomed to the top of the charts around the world, and it is one of those songs that seem to have it all: It’s instantly recognizable, very catchy, it has a memorable lyric and is sung with a tremendous amount of sincerity! Candi herself at this point was twice divorced and a mother of five, so perhaps she was able to put some of her personal experiences into the song…. An album named after the big hit quickly followed, as did a similar sounding follow-up single, “Run to me”.

Her next album, “Music Speaks Louder Than Words” (1977) is notable for some stunning cover versions; Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway”, The Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the music” and Freddy Fender’s “Before the next teardrop fall”. Although having  recently been dubbed “disco queen”, Candi apparently didn’t quite embrace that title – and chose instead to make an album that looked back at her early 70’s style.

She recorded and released 4 more albums in the disco/soul vein during 1978-1982: “House Of Love” (1978) produced the hit “Victim”. The 1979 six tracker “Chance” contains “When you wake up tomorrow”. Next up was 1980’s “Candi Staton”, from this album she saw some chart action with “Halfway to heaven”. It also includes her cover of The Marvelettes “The hunter gets captured by the game”.  Her last album under her WB contract was “Nightlites” (1982). Noted for its sexy cover photo, picturing Candi in a very low-cut lace negligee, looking like she’d rather turn the lights out… She does a very nice version of “Suspicious minds” on this album.

Her last secular album for 25 years. Sexy covershot too!

During early 1983, there were rumours of Candi being “worn out”, either depressed or just ill, some say she was battling alcoholism… Whatever she was dealing with at that time, she certainly chose a different direction; Starting yet another phase of her career, she spent the next 23 years performing gospel and religious music. She made 13 albums of gospel and religious music, and also made a Christmas album in 2000. Her only venture outside gospel during this period was her 1986 collaboration with The Source, “You got the love”, which was a Top 10 Club Hit in the UK and is nowadays regarded as a true classic.

A signed photo from her "religious" period

When Candi made an album called “His Hands” in 2006, it was easy to think it was yet another gospel record, but no! With this album she stepped back into the world of secular music, and proving once again that she is a force to be reckoned with in the soul department! The entire album is just great, and with an added edge in her voice, she makes you believe every syllable of songs like “You never really wanted me”, “When hearts grow cold” and “Running out of love”.

Three years later she made another earthy soul record, “Who’s Hurting Now” (2009), building on the foundation set by “His Hands”. A whole new generation of music lovers had grown up since her 70’s heyday – and these two albums attracted legions of new fans who had never heard her earlier albums. She sinks her teeth into “Dust on my pillow” and “Get your hands dirty”. No coy and cutesy stuff here, this is a mature soul survivor staking her claim and reclaiming her throne!

A recent photo of Candi on stage

So, how does one describe the voice of Candi Staton? A bit deep? Yeah, and with a little coarse edge sometimes… Soulful? Yes, indeed! Candi will put any amount of emotion into a song to make it work, and therefore – much like any opera singer – she is a singing actress! She will convey the meaning of the words in such a way, you’ll never doubt that she’s singing from her own experiences!

Also, she perfectly masters the art of holding back. Unlike full-throttle divas like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera, Candi has learned to moderate her singing. It’s in the little pauses, the way she stops for breath, how she handles even a single word in a line, to make her point. Just when you expect her to raise her voice an octave to really get her point through, she does the exact opposite and lowers the next word into a hoarse whisper, and is all the more effective for doing it that way. It is a voice of exquisite beauty, and she uses it to convey every human emotion possible. THAT is the main reason for listening to Candi Staton, no matter what kind of material she sings. She is a story-teller of the first order, and will make you get into what she sings in such a way, you’ll feel it inside when she gets to the punchline…

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