Toni Arden – A hidden treasure re-discovered

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Incredibly enough – Toni Arden was one singer who had somehow slipped under my musical radar for a long time. It wasn’t until Jasmine Records put together a Box Set of her music that I discovered her. After all, Jasmine had collected 54 songs by this singer, which immediately alerted me to find out more; here was a singer who obviously had done quite a lot of recording! And as I found out later on, those 54 tracks were just the tip of the iceberg!

A publicity photo of the young Toni Arden at the start of her career

A publicity photo of the young Toni Arden at the start of her career

Diving into her music, I discovered a very versatile singer, who started out in the late 1940’s – and who had kept on recording into the 1980’s. A wonderful singer with a very good voice, doing a wide range of different material – I very soon found I had a new musical favorite! Even though she mostly worked in the so-called rock ‘n’ roll area – Toni is very much a classic pop singer, but never afraid to take on a musical challenge outside of the great American songbook.

Toni Arden was born February 15, 1924 as Antoinette Ardizzone and died at her home in lake Worth, Florida on May 29, 2012, at the age of 88.

Arden started out as a big band singer in the 1940s, singing with Al Trace, Joe Reichman, Ray Bloch and Shep Fields. She started recording as a soloist in 1946 for the minor label National Records. 

Toni was featured with Al Trace's band in the mid 40's, so here's your chance to hear her beginnings!

Toni was featured with Al Trace’s band in the mid 40’s, so here’s your chance to hear her beginnings!

She then signed her first solo recording contract with a major record label, Columbia Records, in 1949. On this label she had several hits including “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” (which reached #7 on the Billboard charts), “Too Young” (which reached #15), “Kiss of Fire” (which reached #14) and “I’m Yours” (which reached #24).

A great album from the mid 1950's, available on CD and as download

A great album from the mid 1950’s, available on CD and as download

In the mid-1950s she moved to Decca Records, where her only million-seller was “Padre” in 1958. LPs on Decca included “Miss Toni Arden,” “Besame!”, “Sing a Song of Italy” and “Italian Gold.”

One of her earliest records was an English language version of Josephine Baker’s hit song of the 1930’s, “J’ai deux d’amours” – called “Two loves have I” in Toni’s version. She has an amazing ability to adapt her voice to the different material she sings, from smooth and silky on ballads, to an almost operatic vocal on her fabulous version of “Come back to Sorrento”. Her cover of Skeeter Davis’ 1953 no. 1 hit “I forgot more than you’ll ever know” gets the Toni make-over in such a way, you’d think the song was written for her! She glides through pop songs and foxtrots as if  dancing on a cloud, yet she injects so much latin “fuego” into her Spanish records – she comes off as a very tough competitor to Lola Flores, Concha Piquer, Marife De Triana and Juanita Reina!

She might not look like a typical Spanish senorita, but she sure does sound like one!

She might not look like a typical Spanish senorita, but she sure does sound like one!

Toni Arden may also be the only caucasian singer who have really understood the difference between latin music and Italian music. The former is all about temperament and fire, the latter is all about emotions and keeping the embers just glowing. The proof of this is obvious when you compare Toni’s “Besame!” album with her albums of Italian songs!

Another great album; On this Toni simply glows - the Italian way!

Another great album; On this Toni simply glows – the Italian way!

In addition to making records, Toni was also a busy night-club act across the USA appearing in such venues as New York’s “La Vie En Rose” and “Copacabana”. She was also a regular guest on many popular television programmes like “The Ed Sullivan Show”, “The Dinah Shore Show”, and “The Bing Crosby Show”. She even appeared in a couple of movies – usually in singing guest spots. No matter what she did, she was the utmost professional – and earned rave compliments from both Frank Sinatra and Vic Damone for her singing and versatility.

Another Italian album, this one dating from 1963

Another Italian album, this one dating from 1963

She slowly eased into more contemporary pop music and some early rock ‘n’ roll in the late 50’s/early 60’s, including a duet with her brother Jan Arden titled “Blow out the candle”. But like most other classic pop singer she was left in the shade during the 1960’s…. But as a night club attraction and supper club headliner she was still much in demand – and always displaying versatility, vivacity and that great voice!

1973 LP

As late as 1973, Toni poured some of her “Tender Loving Care” on her listeners…

After her stint with Decca, she recorded for both RCA Victor and Mercury Records. Her last album “My World is You” came out 1981 and  features songs solely written by Gladys Shelley.

Her last album! Recorded 1981, Toni does the songs of Gladys Shelley....

Her last album! Recorded 1981, Toni does the songs of Gladys Shelley….

Thanks to re-issue labels like Jasmine and Sepia Records, most of Toni Arden’s music is once again available – and she definitely should be re-discovered by music lovers everywhere! She is a truly wonderful singer, whose passing away last year barely got a mention in the papers…. That’s a pity – because her talent succeeds her reputation by far!

Christmas Music – My own personal favorites

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It is the season to be merry & gay, light the lights, spend all your money on presents – and it is also the season where we get positively flooded by this strange phenomenon called “Christmas music”. It usually means that every artist who’s ever been signed to a label get the chance to release a record celebrating seasonal joy in their own way.

Much of it is quite good, even though the same dozen traditional songs seem to be done and re-done in every way possible. Teen idols like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift did it, jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald did it, great pop stylists like Connie Francis and Frank Sinatra did it, and the amount of Christmas records is absolutely staggering.

In this post, I will give a short survey of my own personal favorites – the Christmas records I do care to bring out every year, and which have been part of my Christmas celebrations every year for many years now. You might not agree which my choices, but since a lot of you obviously (like myself) have a great taste in music – these albums might float your boat as well!

I was first introduced to the wonderful voice of Jo Stafford when I was a kid – my mother was a big fan of Jo. Technically perfect, her voice is maybe the eighth wonder of the world. Her career stretches from the 1930’s and into the late 1970’s when she basically retired. She lived for another 30 years, dying at the age of almost 91 in July 2008. Her 3 albums of Christmas music are all good: “Happy Holiday” (1955), “Ski Trails” (1956) and “The Joyful Season” (1964). All available on CD and as downloads – the first two albums were put together and called “Happy Holidays – I Love The Winter Weather“.

Her 1955/56 seasonal records will no doubt put you in a cozy mood...

Her 1955/56 seasonal records will no doubt put you in a cozy mood…

The third one bears the caption “the voices of Jo Stafford”. The reason for this is that on several songs, she is multi-tracked and it sounds like an entire choir is backing her, but no – it is just Jo alone doing ALL the vocals. Truly special, and a great testament to her talent.

Joyful

If you are unfamiliar with Jo Stafford, I strongly suggest you check her out. There are plenty of records to choose from, and most of her orignal albums made from 1950 onwards, are available – in addition to lots of great collections of her work. To me, she is maybe the best singer ever – and coming from me, that is quite a compliment!

Another great singer from the same era, is June Christy (1925-1990). Her reputation as a jazz singer is formidable, but she still seems to be unknown to a lot of people. Quite a shame – she is another wonderful singer who’s left behind a marvellous legacy of music, and luckily most of her original albums recorded 1953-76 are all available. Her sole seasonal record was released 1961, called “This Time Of Year“. The misty Miss Christy however isn’t as joyful around Christmas, she seems to be rather introvert, thoughtful and even a little moody. Maybe the joyful season isn’t so joyful to everyone…? The record is jazzy, a little bluesy – with June’s warm voice front and center. It is a perfect record for those of us who have the ability to see that there are people who fall outside all the festive gaiety, who get even more lonely at Christmas, and June sings different kinds of Christmas songs for the not-so-happy bunch.

June Christy's very special 1961 album - looking beyond the joy and glitter...

June Christy’s very special 1961 album – looking beyond the joy and glitter…

It is a complex, adult look at the mixed emotions the holiday season can provoke, with intricate, tasteful charts to support June’s always immaculate phrasing. This album offers an antidote to the syrupy sentimentality of most holiday releases… but the Christmas blues never sounded so good!

Singers from the same era, whose Christmas records I would also recommend: Doris Day, Connie Francis, Frank Sinatra. If you like a more operatic kind of Christmas – my suggestions would be Joan Sutherland’s 1965 seasonal album “Joy To The World” or Renata Tebaldi’s great 1973 album, titled “Christmas Festival“.

Renata

Depending on your preference for music, you can get Christmas music done the country way, the choral way, the rock ‘n’ roll way, probably there is a rapper out there who’s done a kind of “diamonds fo’ my hoe” thing…. Madonna covered Eartha Kitt’s classic “Santa Baby”, and the Christmas albums released by Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Christina Aguilera show that the newer generations of pop divas also know how to put you in the right mood!

As for a soulful Christmas – I choose Patti LaBelle’s 1995 Christmas album, called “This Christmas“. Patti wraps her wondrous pipes around some more or less well-known songs, but the true stand-out is called “Angel Man”! This song alone is worth the price of the album, as it fuses everything you’d expect from Patti LaBelle with an inspirational lyric and a magnificent arrangement.

Oooh, that voice! Her 1995 Xmas album, containing "Angel Man"

Oooh, that voice! Her 1995 Xmas album, containing “Angel Man”

I hope your Christmas will be filled with music, laughter and love! And pass it on to those around you as well!

Nancy Sinatra – Second generation Superstar

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When one of your parents is the worlds greatest singer, and a Superstar spelled with a capital S – how wise is it to follow in his footsteps? If you do that only to cash in on your father’s name and fame, it is not very wise. If, however, you have plenty of talent and you choose another direction – it can prove to be very wise indeed. Nancy Sinatra is a good point in case; though no one is ever likely to forget she is Frank’s daughter, her musical achievements are all her own. She was talented enough to make a name for herself even if they were not related, and she clearly had talent enough to reach the top even without her illustrious bloodline….

Nancy with her dad on stage in the mid 60's

Nancy with her dad on stage in the mid 60’s

Nancy was born in 1940, and at age 20 she made her first single, “Cuff links and a tie clip”. She quickly followed with a string of other singles, among them cover versions of “Tammy”, “I’m walking” and “I see the moon”. She also released a very good version of “To know him is to love him” and she recorded the anti-war, socially conscious “Cruel War”. Her early records didn’t really stand out in any way, she made cute girl pop, and although she sang very well, these records weren’t all that special – she had yet to come up with that extraordinary “Nancy touch”!

AN EP from around 1964. A brunette Nancy with fame just a step away...

An EP from around 1964. A brunette Nancy with fame just a step away…

Nancy hooked up with Lee Hazlewood in 1965, resulting in their first musical collaboration, “So long, babe”. While not a big hit, it was the first in line of songs featuring the “new” Nancy; she lowered her voice a bit, creating a more intimate and sexy sound, all dressed up in Lee’s inventive arrangements. The way she looked also changed, gone was the brown, short hairdo and in its place long, blond tresses. For her next single she also added the mini skirt and the go-go boots – and the eternal image of Nancy Sinatra was thus born!

With the boots ON, she walked on to  the top of the charts...

With the boots ON, she walked on to the top of the charts…

Her next single, “These boots are made for walking” then followed – and Nancy once and for all showed the world that she had indeed made it on her own! The music, style and arrangements were miles away from anything even remotely related to Frank’s music, and the song was an enormous hit, and is even today an example of a true classic from the 60’s! The original version is still popular, and I guess that’s why it hasn’t been recorded by a lot of other artists as well (unlike i.e. “Will you love me tomorrow” which has been remade in at least 100 other versions…). The most recent cover is Jessica Simpson’s who sang it in the movie “The Dukes of Hazzard”…

With Lee Hazlewood producing, Nancy’s career really took off – and for the next few years, she released one fabulous album after the other, usually consisting of new material (mostly written by Hazlewood) and some covers of recent hits. In quick succession, the albums were: “Boots“, “How Does That Grab You?” and “Nancy In London” (all 1966), “Country, My Way” and “Sugar” (both 1967), the soundtrack from her TV Special “Movin’ With Nancy” (1968), then “Nancy” (1969) followed by “Woman” (1972). Each and every one of these classic albums have been released on CD (with bonus tracks) and they are all highly recommended. Together they show the very best of Nancy, and they also give you an important insight into the formative years of this legendary singer!

In addition to her albums, she also made a lot of singles. Her entire output 1960-65 have been made available on 2 CD’s, called “Bubble Gum Girl” Volume 1 & 2 – and here you get all her earliest recordings. During the 1970’s, Nancy married, had children and worked only sporadically. The few singles she produced during the 70’s and early 80’s have all been collected onto one CD, “Cherry Smiles – The Rare Singles” – and it fills the gap between the classic albums of the 1960’s and what was to come later on.

A great collection of her non-album singles recorded 1971-80

A great collection of her non-album singles recorded 1971-80

Not only did Lee Hazlewood produce a lot of Nancy’s music – he was also the perfect duet partner! Acting the deep voiced outlaw to her bright & sunny California girl on a string of classic singles like “Summer wine”, “Jackson”, “Some velvet morning” and their awsome version of Dolly Parton’s “Down from Dover”, their collective sound stands as one of music history’s most fabulous duos! Together they made 3 albums; “Nancy & Lee” (1968), “Nancy & Lee Again” (1972) and finally (30 years later!) “Nancy & Lee 3” (2002). Nancy always sang duets with men only, in addition to her father, Dean Martin and Lee – she hooked up with Mel Tillis in 1981 to make her second country album, “Mel & Nancy“.  Never released on CD, this represents the rarest record for both singers, and that’s a shame – it is a very good album! They got 2 singles onto the country charts as well; “Play me or trade me” and “Texas cowboy night”

The 1981 country album she made with Mel Tillis

The 1981 country album she made with Mel Tillis

After another long hiatus in her career, Nancy slowly eased back onto the scene in the mid 90’s. Still looking fabulous at age 54, she posed for Playboy Magazine! She then started working on her first new album, “One More Time” (1995)…

Yes, she really did that! But at age 54, she had no reason to be ashamed of her body....

Yes, she really did that! But at age 54, she had no reason to be ashamed of her body….

Her new album “One More Time” was a good one, and the critics all went thumbs up for the comeback record of the glamorous Nancy. She followed this album with two more during the late 1990’s; “Sheet Music” (1997) and then “How Does It Feel” (1999). In the early 2000’s, there was a wave of records by legendary singers being produced by recent rock stars; both Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson had new albums out, where they were surrounded by new sounds and arrangements. These records sounded great, and the singers had lost none of the original sparkle!

In 2004, Nancy was another singer who tried this approach. Working with Morrissey, Sonic Youth, U2, Calexico and Jarvis Cocker among others, she made her final album so far, “Nancy Sinatra” (2004). The song “Burnin’ down the spark” got a lot of air play, and it perfectly melts together a modern musical sound with the voice of a legendary 60’s go-go girl, with an added touch of having lived a long life… The album is a major achievement – and one that proves that aging is not neccessarily a bad thing musically, as Nancy at age 64 had an added depth and sounded both soulful and a little jaded and world-weary – but I mean that as a compliment!

Her wonderful 2004 album - get it!!

Her wonderful 2004 album – get it!!

Being a true legend, Nancy Sinatra is now 72 years old, but she still makes the occasional appearance on stage, and neither her voice nor her looks show any signs of ageing. Being such a legendary figure, she causes a stir wherever she performs and that has as much to do with her music and songs, as with her image. Like her father before her, she is the other Sinatra whose musical legacy has shaped our formative years, and plays like the soundtrack to our lives….

Coming soon: A profile on the music of Nancy Sinatra

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A photo of the young Nancy, dipping her toes ca. 1955

She’s Frank’s daughter, she’s the perennial symbol of the 60’s go-go boots pop girl, she’s one half of the greatest Pop Duo ever (Lee Hazlewood and Nancy – oooh!) and she’s given us a musical legacy that seems eternally fresh and exciting.

Born in 1940, Nancy made her first solo record in 1961 and her last solo album so far came out in 2004. In that time span she has released a string of albums and singles that not only contains an enormous amount of great music, it’s also a document on how a 60’s pop girl can develop her talent, change with the times and put her personal stamp on great songs that fit her voice like hand in glove!

The 60’s Nancy: Short dress, big hair, lots of eye lashes and those go-go boots that were made for walkin’

Always being compared to her famous father, Nancy proved that even without that blood line she clearly would have made it to the top anyway. But the genes may have provided the talent in the first place. She has been criticized of not having a “great voice” – which I think is quite absurd; She does sing mostly in a limited register, sure. But what comes out is one of the softest, purest voices in show biz, and she is pure pleasure to listen to!

Nancy, ca. 2005. Still looking good, her career had a real up-swing in the new millennium!

Check back in a few days – for a closer peek into the musical world of Nancy Sinatra….

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