28 February 2008

Esther Williams

Esther Williams Collection
Bathing Beauty - Easy To Wed - On An Island With You -
Neptune's Daughter - Dangerous When Wet

Dangerous When Wet!
Turner Classic Movies presents 
"The Esther Williams Collection"
reviewed by Donny Jacobs
Synchronized swimming is an Olympic sport today, but in the 1940s, it was novelty entertainment. It wasn't even called synchronized swimming back then. One of the few places you could see it performed was Billy Rose's Aquacade, an aquatically-themed music spectacular that played in New York City and San Francisco. For a time, swimming champion Esther Williams co-starred in that show with another champ, Johnny Weismuller. He was already a Hollywood star, having become the most famous Tarzan in movie history. Williams' screen stardom was a few years in the future, but her popularity with the public would match and arguably surpass Weismuller's.

Her fresh Southern California beauty and stylish strokes in the Aquacade pool brought Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer talent scouts knocking at her door. She rebuffed them for months, until curiousity got the better of her. The statuesque brunette met with M-G-M's Vice-President, the legendary Louis B. Mayer, and he put his powers of persuasion to work. The movie mogul convinced her to help him launch a series of waterborne musical comedies. This was a concept that had never been seen on screen before. Accompanied by bevy of beautiful choreographed swimmers, Williams would perform elaborately-choreographed swim routines for an international audience of millions. And so, the aquatic musical was born: A gorgeously-staged combination of fantasy, music, dance, sex appeal, daredevil stunts and white-hot glamour, seasoned with a generous dash of Technicolor razzle dazzle.

A giant water tank on the studio backlot became Williams' home base from 1944 to 1954, and it spawned sixteen of the most unique cinematic creations ever committed to film. Critics dubbed her "the million dollar mermaid", and she starred in a hit film of that name in 1952. Other hits included Fiesta(1948), Pagan Love Song(1950), Easy To Love(1953) and Jupiter's Darling(1955). Esther Williams comedies came to be known for three things: Stunning syncronized swimming routines, handsome Latin leading men, and hot Latin music. Not to mention numerous scenes of the lovely actress/athlete modeling high-fashion one-piece bathing suits! These factors, along with her winning girl-next-door personality, contributed to her becoming M-G-M Studio's highest-grossing female star during the years following the Second World War. Believe it or not, she was even more popular than Judy Garland!
Bathing Beauty

M-G-M had Williams make her feature film début in one of Mickey Rooney's Andy Hardy pictures, but 1944's Bathing Beauty was the film that launched her million-dollar career. A madcap comedy, it co-starred Basil Rathbone, Jean Porter and comedian Red Skelton (who took top billing) as her husband-to-be. If you doubt that Skelton could play a leading man convincingly, your doubts will be put to rest when you see his performance here. He's convincingly lovey-dovey with Williams when he's not cavorting in a ballerina's tutu or engaged in some other foolishness! His character is a Pop songwriter; hers is his estranged fiancée, a college instructor who looks really good in a bathing suit. The convoluted plot has Skelton enrolling at the women's college (he's the only male student) where she teaches.

As the story progresses, we see lots of cute, giggly college girls, clever comedy skits, jolly production numbers, and colorful musical interludes featuring organist Ethel Smith, Harry James and His Music Makers, and the Xavier Cugat Orchestra. Featured singers Helen Forrest, Carlos Ramírez and Lina Romay leave a most favorable impression. So does the first of many elaborate synchronized swimming sequences Williams would film. Her girl swimmers' moves aren't as polished in this film as they would later become, but the routines are beautifully staged (by former Aquacade director John Murray Anderson). Of course, Williams rivets your attention in fashion swimwear, regardless of whether she's in the water or not. Bathing Beauty is an impressive showcase for her, a kaleidoscope of riotous rhythm, melody, comedy, color and graceful athleticism.

1946's Easy To Wed was a remake of a 1936 romp called Libelled Lady. Van Johnson, Esther Williams, Keenan Wynn and Lucille Ball (yes, that Lucy) took over roles originated by Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, William Powell and Myrna Loy. The contrived plot revolves around an heiress (Willams) who files a slander lawsuit against a big city newspaper. A newspaper executive (Wynn) decides to blackmail her into dropping it. His scheme involves tricking her into eloping with a lothario-for-hire (Johnson) who's actually married to a showgirl (Ball) . . . only the showgirl is actually betrothed to Wynn, so isn't really married to Johnson (or is she?)

Esther Williams is surprisingly believable as a snooty rich girl, and not very likeable; fortunately, her demeanor changes after she warms to Van Johnson. When she turns on that down-to-earth charm of hers, watch out! Van Johnson seems miscast as a con man but, gosh, he's awfully nice to look at . . . especially dancing in the bolero-style tuxedo he wears for a production number with Williams. Keenan Wynn, who's just as good-looking as Johnson, would've made a better love match for Williams, but that would've robbed him of key comedy scenes with fiancée(?) Lucille Ball. In this film, she's a far cry from the kooky character she'll be playing five years hence on TV; very earthy and sexy. See Lucy flaunt her shapely legs in a choreographed dance number, and make drunken love to Van Johnson in a hotel room!

Colombian tenor Carlos Ramírez is on hand to fill the Handsome Latin Male quota. Joined by an enthusiastic mariachi troupe, he belts out a rousing version of "Viva México!" Latin sounds also emanate from the organ and drum kit of an exotically costumed Ethel Smith, who accompanies Williams and Johnson performing "Boneca De Pixe", a Brazilian song partially staged for them by an uncredited Carmen Miranda. The confusion over who's married to whom never really gets resolved, but when the cast is so attractive, the music is so catchy, the Technicolor photography is so vibrant, and there are glamourous swimming sequences to watch, who cares?
On An Island With You

On An Island With You from 1948 is undoubtedly one of the sexiest movies of the '40s. The female costuming is so provocative, you'd think you were watching a burlesque show or a dance sport competition! Williams, playing an actress shooting her latest flick on location at a Pacific island, is delectable in a clinging two piece sarong. If there's such a thing as "come hither" swimming, she certainly performs it in this film; in water ballets choreographed by Jack Donohoe, the camera lingers lustfully on her supple body as it coils and stretches in the water. Yipe! In a supporting role, slit-skirted Cyd Charisse is devastating when she performs a suggestive Apache dance number with Latin lover Ricardo Montalbán. They end up becoming an item, although at the beginning of the film, Montalbán and Williams are betrothed.

Coming between them is a totally miscast Peter Lawford. He plays a smitten fan of the actress who stalks her to the movie set, kidnaps her, and wins her heart. Lawford's wooden acting makes the premise that much more implausible, and he has no chemistry with Williams at all. The film works best when they're not on screen together. Compensating for Lawford's presence is the great Jimmy Durante, dropping one-liners and singing classic vaudeville-style numbers like "Can Broadway Do Without Me?" Xavier Cugat's absence was felt in Easy To Wed; here he returns with a vengeance, playing a pepper hot version of "El Cumbanchero" behind a vivacious new singer, Betty Riley. According to Cugat's biography, published around the same time this film was released, he also scored this movie.

Red Skelton returns in 1949's Neptune's Daughter, but not as Williams' leading man this time. That honor goes to Ricardo Montalbán, characteristically suave as a polo-playing Argentian playboy. As a beautiful swimsuit designer, Williams plays a cat-and-mouse game with him that predictably reaches its climax in a poolside scene. Keenan Wynn appears as William's business partner, and just as in Easy To Wed, M-G-M fails to exploit the on-screen chemistry he shares with her. At film's end, his character is left nursing a broken heart as he helplessly watches Montalbán sweep her off her feet.

Skelton romances Betty Garrett, cast as Williams' dizzy younger sister. Their scenes together are great (especially singing the standard "Baby, It's Cold Outside"), and Garrett, clearly a forerunner to Bette Midler, sings up a storm. She steals the movie performing "I Love Those Men", a specialty number with Xavier Cugat's orchestra, and she might've stolen it a second time if her manic song "I Want My Money Back" hadn't been cut from the film. Thankfully, it was preserved as a musical outtake. More comedic genius is on tap in the form of Mel Blanc, who appears a bumbling Argentinean stable hand. If you ever wondered what the man who provided the cartoon voice of Bugs Bunny looks like, you can see him in the flesh in Neptune's Daughter. One of the most exciting Latin music sequences ever filmed is found in this film: Xavier Cugat's orchestra sizzles playing the "Jungle Rhumba". Parts of this scene, masterfully edited by Irvine Warburton, would be excerpted in the 1991 Antonio Banderas vehicle The Mambo Kings.

Dangerous When Wet from 1953 is the least memorable of the five films, despite its inclusion of Williams' famous animated swimming sequence with cartoon characters Tom and Jerry. Set largely in a fog-shrouded London locale, it's the story of a woman who swims the English Channel for prize money in order to save her family's farm. There's no exotic scenery, few memorable production numbers and (gasp!) no Latin music at all! There is, however, a Latin lover to beat all Latin lovers: "Marvelous" Fernando Lamas, Williams' future husband. You can detect sincerity in the way he woos her on screen. In the course of wooing her, Lamas dares to sport a pair of thin white swim trunks that go transparent during their swimming scenes. If not for John McSweeney, Jr.'s skillful editing, this is one Esther Williams film that might've gotten slapped with an "R" rating!

While the movie itself is nothing to write home about, the co-stars are first-rate: Lamas, of course, who smoulders with leading man charm; Barbara Whiting, as Williams' man-crazy sister, shines in her musical solos "Ain't Nature Grand" and "I Like Men"; Charlotte Greenwood, as the mother, dazzles with her comedic dancing and acrobatic prowess; and William Demarest is great as Williams' grumpy athletic trainer father. Seen a decade before his residency on the TV series "My Three Sons", the elderly Demarest acquits himself admirably in a physically demanding role. But in the end, the only real reason to see Dangerous When Wet is to watch Williams and Lamas fall in love with one another on screen.

So maybe you don't like musicals? Maybe comedy isn't your bag? Maybe synchronized swimming bores you to tears? What about all three together? After watching an Esther Williams film, anybody would have to admit it's an unforgettable combination. Anybody who does enjoy these forms of entertainment can't afford to miss out on Warner Home Video's deluxe DVD set featuring the five aforementioned titles. In addition to the movies, it includes theatrical trailers, vintage cartoon and comedy shorts, rare musical outttakes, promotional radio interviews, and Private Screenings With Esther Williams, a career documentary that originally aired on the Turner cable network in 1996. This is Volume One in a projected series that's anticipated to bring all of Williams' M-G-M pictures back in print.
Million Dollar Mermaid

Read Million Dollar Mermaid by Esther Williams and Digby Diehl, 
an entertaining autobiography published by Simon and Schuster in 1999. 
Also, swim over to the Official Esther Williams website:

20 February 2008

Mad Hot Book Review #6

¡Oye Como Va!
When The Drums Are Dreaming
A Biography of Tito Puente by Josephine Powell
Reviewed by Donny Jacobs
In appearance, Ernest Anthony Puente was perfectly ordinary. He was short and stocky. He was cute, but not handsome. He was a fairly good dancer. He was jealous, impatient, stubborn, had a volatile temper, cursed a blue streak, and liked strong drink a little too much for his own good. There was nothing particularly special about him, until he got a pair of drumsticks in his hands. Then he was magnificent. His idols were Jazz drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich; first he emulated and then surpassed them in skill. His specialty instrument was the timbales; Puente was most responsible for popularizing their use in the United States, both in Latin and non-Latin bands. Honing his incredible sense of rhythm was the intensive study he made of Afro-Cuban music which, although he was of Puerto Rican ancestry, he learned to love as his own. Certainly, nobody played la música típica better than he did. Sure, there were other musicians who were equally responsible for spreading the appeal of Latin rhythms around the world (Xavier Cugat, for one), but none did so at his high level of craftsmanship. As an arranger, composer, multi-instrumentalist (he also played saxophone and keyboards) and performer, Tito Puente earned the unofficial title he was bequeathed in the later years of his life: King of Latin Jazz!

Journalist, consultant and dancer Josephine Powell knew Puente as a fan, a friend, a confidant, an event organizer, a mambo dance partner, a fellow scholar, and perhaps, a lover, too. It comes as no surprise that she would want to share her personal memories of this Latin legend. UCLA music professor Stephen Loza documented Tito’s music and career in a 1999 book called Tito Puente and The Making Of Latin Music. However, that book was scholarly in tone. Powell knew that Puente’s life story needed to be told, and told with a personal touch. The result of her efforts is an engaging new biography, When The Drums Are Dreaming. She gives Puente’s fans their first in-depth look into the background, education, travels, triumphs and tragedies of the man behind the flying timbale sticks. Few secrets are disclosed (for instance, she keeps the exact nature of her own relationship with Puente shrouded), but enough is revealed to make her book a mighty interesting read.

Ms. Powell, a classy lady, invites you for a ride in the paperback equivalent of a white stretch limousine. She takes you cruising through the major events of Puente’s colorful life, starting in Spanish Harlem where he was born in 1923. You’ll travel to famous Latin-themed nightclubs in New York City, Miami Beach and Hollywood, where he apprentices with the Machito, José Curbelo and Pupi Campo bands. You’ll sail the Pacific with him as he serves military duty on an aircraft carrier during the thick of the Second World War. You’ll fly with him to Havana where he meets the superstars of Cuban music and becomes an initiate into the Santería religion. You'll cheer for him in Mexico City where he goes head-to-head with Pérez Prado in an all-out battle of the bands. You’ll have the best table at Broadway's famed Palladium Ballroom where Puente rules the bandstand. You’ll be an extra on the set of the 1991 movie Mambo Kings where he’s featured in a starring role. You’ll celebrate with his friends and family when he receives a long-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

It’s an awfully thrilling ride, but there are a lot of detours along the way. Josie Powell isn't what you’d call a focused writer. She frequently veers off topic to pursue tangents, some only marginally related to Tito Puente’s life. This can be quite exasperating, such as the chapter where she spends an inordinate amount of space describing wartime battle strategy. However, it can also be rewarding. You’ll appreciate the way she incorporates mini-biographies of the Latin music’s major movers and shakers: Miguelito Valdés, Beny Moré, Machito, Graciela, Tito Rodríguez, Xavier Cugat, José Curbelo, Pérez Prado, Celia Cruz, and any number of other notables who crossed paths with Puente over his 77-year life span.

Despite her penchant for writing incomplete sentences, a tendency to confuse timelines and a less-than-skillful use of punctuation, Ms. Powell does an excellent job of taking her readers back to the heyday of rhumba, mambo and cha-cha-chá. Her descriptions convey plenty of atmosphere. When she writes about legendary exhibition dancers like The Mambo Aces, Cuban Pete and Millie, Brascia and Tybee, Augie and Margo and “Killer Joe” Piro, she does so with authority; and when she drops celebrity names like Frank Sinatra, Antonio Banderas, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Esther Williams, Mexican movie queen Ninón Sevilla and 1940s gangster’s moll Virginia Hill, you can almost taste the excitement and glamour.

There’s one really glaring flaw in the book. Ms. Powell devotes less than a page to La Lupe, the controversial artist who became Puente’s girl singer in the ‘60s. Readers are left with the impression that they hated each other, but that doesn’t begin to describe the complexities of their professional relationship. Among female Latin performers, La Lupe is highly respected; a much fuller picture of her work with Tito Puente (which encompassed at least a half-dozen albums) should've been presented.

So Josie Powell’s story isn’t the full story, but that’s not unusual for a biography; more often than not, there’s room for another biographer to take up the threads of a subject’s life at some later date. Until that time, When The Drums Are Dreaming fills the void nicely. Filled with rare vintage photos, it’s essential reading, not only for Tito Puente devotees but for anyone who digs that deep Cuban groove. Add ese libro to your music library ¡muy pronto! ¿Compréndeme?

50 Years Of Swing

The best compilation of Tito Puente's music is a box set 

released on Ralphy Mercado's RMM label in 1997. 
Buy Fifty Years Of Swing at amazon.com:

06 February 2008

Habanera Rock (Part Four)

Daddy-O Grande
The Return Of Habanera Rock
Rocking out south-of-the-border-style with 

Danny Amis, Los Straitjackets 
and Lost Acapulco
by Donny Jacobs
Some of the worst music ever made can be heard on the NPR radio network! Their programmers make a habit of showcasing some of the lamest alternative Rock bands working today (who, for the purposes of this essay, will remain unnamed). Every once in a while, though, they feature musicians who are well worth sitting up and taking notice of.

Such was the case recently on an edition of NPR's interview show "Fresh Air". Host Terry Gross spotlighted the latest album by Los Straitjackets, an instrumental group fond of surf and hot rod music and cheezy Mexican lucha libre movies. Their leader, guitarist Danny Amis, also loves Spanish-language cover versions of vintage Rock songs. He conceived a tribute album to those covers, and to the Mexican wannabe Beatles bands who recorded them in the '60s: Los Teen Tops, Los Freddys, Rebeldes De Rock and others. Acoustic versions of the album tracks were performed on "Fresh Air", and they sounded interesting enough for me to spring for the album itself. I did so about two weeks later. Now that I've discovered Rock en Español, let me share my enthusiasm for it with you. I'm pleased to announce that Habanera Rock is back, and baby, it sounds better than ever!

Titles like "El Microscopico Bikini", "Lágrimas Solitarias", "Dame Una Seña" and "Magia Blanca" may be unfamiliar to gringos, but the songs themselves have long been in heavy rotation on North American oldies radio. Working under the direction of producer César Rosas, Los Straitjackets invites us to hear these classics performed in a faithful yet fresh and exciting way. The participation of Los Lobos' lead guitarist ensured that the band's voyage into Spanish cover version territory would hold forth with a south-of-the-border twist. That's important, because with no Latin music foundation, Rock en Español often sounds sterile and derivative! Since Los Straitjackets is a strictly instrumental outfit, their new album's Spanish vocals are provided by an esteemed trio of guest vocalists: Big Sandy, front man of a Retro Western swing band called The Fly-Rite Boys; Li'l Willie Gee, lead singer of East LA's Rock 'n' Roll institution Thee Midnighters; and el maestro Rosas.

Big Sandy is unquestionably the star of this show. While ballads are the forté of this honey-toned singer (and Rock balladry certainly gets its due with his Spanish retoolings of Barbara Lynn's "You'll Lose A Good Thing" and Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops"), he rocks out with the best of them on Los Straitjackets' culo-kicking version of the Beatles hit "Slow Down", as well as on their incendiary update of The Kinks' "All Day And All Of The Night". Don't dare start dancing to that latter cut, or the rug in your rec room is liable to catch fire!

The boogaloo figures prominently on Li'l Willie Gee's inspired performance of The McCoys' "Hang On Sloopy", while the habanera anchors his soulful reading of Arthur Alexander's R & B ballad "Anna." Rock-a-Tango sensibility also reverberates through César Rosas' rendition of "Bony Maronie" and through Big Sandy's tuneful takes on Brenton Wood's "Gimme Little Sign" and "Devil Woman", one of Marty Robbins' bordertown-flavored follow-ups to his 1959 hit "El Paso".

Danny Amis, Eddie Angel, Pete Curry and Jason Smay (the members of Los Straitjackets) let some Punk Rock sensibility bleed into their covers of The Troggs' "Wild Thing" and The Coasters' "Poison Ivy." This approach works well on the former tune, which always did have a grungy feel to it (and Li'l Willie Gee's sneering vocal doesn't compromise that feel one bit). However, it doesn't work so well for the latter song; the grinding guitars rob this double entendre classic of the charm that writer/producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller gave the original version. Younger listeners who aren't familiar with the original probably won't object, though. Thirteen of the album's fourteen songs are given over to vocals, but the boys show off their considerable instrumental prowess with a dynamite remake of Thee Midnighters' lowrider theme "Whittier Boulevard". They damn near steal the show doing it!

To solidify this collection's fusion of North and South American music styles, el maestro Rosas steps up to the mike and sings "Déjame Llorar," a bolero ranchera popularized by Los Freddys. It's the prettiest tune on the disc, and its authentic Tejano flavor is sure to make you hungry for a big ol' basket of barbecued chicharrones! Truth be told, the whole album is tasty; it's a novel and welcome throwback to the kind of roots Rock 'n' Roll we all love. So if you don't mind hearing new versions of your favorite oldies rendered in another language (who wrote the Spanish lyrics to these songs, by the way?), try Rock en Español; it will surely number among your favorite music purchases this year. Sí señor, that's a hint that you need to go out and buy the thing! It's available on virgin vinyl, which is the format I chose for my personal listening pleasure. If its subtitle, Volume One is accurate, this LP will be only the first in a series of bilingual experiments Los Straitjackets undertakes with vintage Pop, Rock and Country material.

As I was researching Los Straitjackets' back catalogue, I stumbled across a sister album of sorts: Daddy-O Grande In México, a side project produced by Danny Amis in 2006. Even though it's totally instrumental, I enjoyed this set even more than Rock en Español, Volume One. Collaborating with a México City band called Lost Acapulco (who share his penchant for sporting bizarre lucha libre wrestling masks), Amis places you smack dab! in the middle of a trendy 1960s discothèque. His original Dance Rock compositions boast shades of classic TV themes like "Peter Gunn", "The Munsters" and "Batman", as well as old Ventures' records. The production values really do make this record sound like it was cut forty years ago! Only the occasional synthesizer chord betrays its 21st century vintage.

There are so many great cuts to choose from: "Zicatela" is a groovy Rock-a-Rhumba surf number that would fit right into a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach party film. "Quebrada" sounds like a cross between The Ventures' hit recording of the "Hawaii-5-0" theme and a Trío Los Panchos bolero. Amis's acoustic guitar work on this track is just as impressive as his electric leads. His "Chicken Twist" (which really should've been titled "Chicken Cha-Cha-Chá") gleefully hops around on a novelty "cackle" riff that he coaxes out of his fuzzbox.

With "Incognito" and "Camino Grande", Amis steps into James Bond territory; these bongo-infested surf 'n' spy themes are terrific. The Bond franchise might do well to consider hiring him to score their next 007 film! "Twistin' Frenzy", "Chocolate Shake" and "Azteca A'Go-Go" are souped-up Rock 'n' Roll dragsters, roaring down the race track on high-octane rhumba fuel. If there's a standout track on this outstanding set, it's probably "Miradas De Amor", an expertly crafted Rock-A-Tango with a piquant Tex-Mex flavor. Guitarist siblings Santo and Johnny Farina would've felt right at home with this tune.

In this era dominated by faux Country music, Hip Hop trashiness, forced "Pop Punk" and insipid Alt Rock, who'd have thought new music could ever sound this good? ¡Que viva Danny Amis! Here's hoping that Daddy-O Grande makes a return trip to México City soon and hooks up again with the talented masked musicians of Lost Acapulco. Next, let's take a fond look back at the classic Habanera Rock era, and scrutinize some essential genre recordings by Cliff Richard, Bobby Rydell, Eddie Rambeau, Ben E. King and The Drifters.

"The Return Of Habanera Rock" 
continues with Part Two.

05 February 2008

Habanera Rock (Part Five)

When In Spain

The Return Of Habanera Rock
Rocking from Barcelona to Río de Janeiro 
with Cliff Richard, Bobby Rydell, Eddie Rambeau, 
Ben E. King and The Drifters
by Donny Jacobs
When In Spain
Cliff Richard with The Shadows
When he debuted on disc in 1958, Cliff Richard was little more than a hapless singer of unconvincing Rockabilly cover tunes. Who'd have guessed back then that he'd mature into one of the finest Pop vocalists of our time? If you have yet to become a fan of Sir Clifford, either of his Latin-themed albums of the '60s will be enough to start your conversion process. When In Spain was cut in Barcelona while the young singer/actor was wrapping up filming on his 1963 movie musical Summer Holiday. EMI Records apparently intended this set for the Latin-American market; every note is sung either in Spanish or Portuguese. If the arangements are anything to judge by, Castilian culture made a deep impression on Cliff, producer Norrie Paramor and instrumental backing unit The Shadows in a relatively short period of time. This LP is primarily a showcase for The Shadows' dazzling acoustic guitar skills. The sizzling flamenco licks they play behind Cliff's performances of "¿Quizas, Quizas, Quizas?", "Me Lo Dijó Adela" and especially "¿Quién Sera?" will have you up on your feet shouting Olé! The vocals aren't up to the same high level of artistry, but they're more than competently delivered; when Cliff rips into percolating versions of "Perfidia", "Frenesí" and "María No Más", the mood is authentic; throw your sombreros in the air, muchachos, because it's definitely time for fiesta! His sensitive treatments of "Tus Besos", and "Te Quiero Dijiste" will satisfy your craving for bolero romanticism, and his mournful rendtion of "Carnaval" from the film Black Orpheus is so moving, it will make you snivel. Cliff sings so well, in fact, it's easy to forgive Norrie Paramor's momentary lapses in taste: "Amor, Amor, Amor", weighed down by drippy, string-laden sentimentality, and "Solamente Una Vez" with its ill-conceived Nashville-meets-Barcelona fusion sound. This 1963 album was recently reissued in the UK; avoid that CD, because its low-fi, mostly mono mixes are execrable! Go for the crisp true stereo versions found on the original vinyl pressing.

Produced by Norrie Paramor

Forget Him
Bobby Rydell
Recording under the auspices of the late, great Kal Mann, with Bob Mersey and Dave Appell arranging, Bobby Rydell was responsible for three of Habanera Rock's biggest hits: "Sway," "The Cha-Cha-Chá" and his fabulous 1960 remake of Domenico Modugno's "Volare". This 1963 album, mostly recorded in London with Tony Hatch as music director, found him still crooning to Latin rhythms. Rock-a-Tango selections include "Hey, Everybody", "Darling Jenny", "Words Written On Water" and the superb "'Til I Met You". Rock-a-Cha-Chas appear in the form of "Since We Fell In Love" and the satiny-smooth "Wish You Were Here". Bobby rocks the pachanga with "It's Time We Parted", and he comes across like a Castilian cantador singing "Too Much, Too Soon", a thrilling habanera-pasodoble. Ironically, the album's one drawback is the title tune. While its jaunty Country-flavored melody translated into Top Ten sales, its Latin elements (especially its chunky cha-cha foundation) could have been exploited more boldly. That would've made "Forget Him" a far more memorable song.

Produced by Frankie Day

Concrete And Clay

Eddie Rambeau
The bossa nova had taken firm hold of American popular music by 1965, and this album provides evidence that it had also taken hold of former Swan Records recording artist Eddie Rambeau. His feather-light tenor was made for singing baiãoes and bossa novas, so producer Charlie Calello was smart to bathe the boy in Brazilian rhythms as often as he could. The carioca atmosphere is strong when Eddie performs "Yesterday's Newspapers", "I Fell In Love So Easily," "It's Not Unusual" "Save The Last Dance For Me", "Girl Don't Come" (a strong essay of the Sandie Shaw classic), the deliciously tropical "My Name Is Mud", and the exquisitely sexy "Baby, Baby Me." A Brazilian mood also infuses standard-issue habaneras when he sings the Beatles-inspired "I Just Need Your Love", the Peter Allen-composed "Same Old Room", and the kinetic title track. Often, Calello blends Brazilian and Cuban rhythms which, along with Eddie's masterful phrasing, enhances the jazzy mood that's conveyed on this wonderful fourteen-track collection. If you remember Eddie Rambeau as the co-writer of Diane Renay's back-to-back 1964 hits "Navy Blue" and "Kiss Me, Sailor", it won't surprise you to know that several of the aforementioned goodies sprang from his own pen.

A Bob Crewe Production
Arranged and Produced by Charlie Calello

Ben E. King Sings For Soulful Lovers
Ben E. King
The Spanish Harlem album established Ben E. King as an important new crossover act who specialized in fusing Blues-based vocals with Latin percussion and classical orchestration. With his second album, Benny lay claim to his crown as King of Habanera Rock. Surprisingly, it wasn't Leiber and Stoller, popularizers of the genre, who presided over his coronation. It was Ahmet Ertegun, better known for producing funky R & B sides by the likes of LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown and the original Drifters. Here, with assistance from ace arranger Klaus Ogermann (one year away from his studio triumphs with Lesley Gore), Ertegun crafts a fusion masterpiece. Benny rises to the occasion, singing with more confidence than we've ever heard him sing before. He might've been hesitant to record over the Brazilian baião rhythm Leiber and Stoller had devised for "There Goes My Baby" back in 1959, but now in 1962 he sounds cocksure:  Dude effortlessly tackles cha-cha-chás ("What A Difference A Day Makes") and sambas ("Because Of You"). He absolutely struts his way through "On The Street Where You Live", which Klaus Ogermann sets jumping with a potent Latin jazz kick. Benny's Rock-A-Tango rendition of "Moon River" is definitive; a better version of this Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer classic simply doesn't exist. By the time you get to the final track, a tango-tinged cover of Tommy Edwards' "It's All In The Game", one thing has been made crystal-clear: Other contenders might come close, but none would ever usurp the King!

Arranged and Conducted by Klaus Ogermann
Produced by Ahmet Ertegun

The Good Life With The Drifters
The Drifters featuring Johnny Moore
Despite consistently strong challenges from Jay + The Americans, The Drifters clung stubbornly to their status as flagship Habanera Rock vocal group of the '60s. They maintained their supremacy despite losing two remarkable lead singers, Ben E. King and Rudy Lewis. Johnny Moore stepped in to fill the breach after Lewis's tragic accidental death in May of 1964, and his supple voice is deservedly the centerpiece of this tasteful 1965 set of Latinized Pop standards. Since it was aimed at a supper club audience, The Good Life leans heavily toward MOR Pop, but a solid rhythm statement is made by Ray Ellis and Richard Wess's stylish Spanish, Brazilian and Cuban backdrops. Johnny's high-calibre renditions of showtunes like "Who Can I Turn To?", "As Long As He Needs Me" and "What Kind Of Fool Am I?" may have attracted critical plaudits, but Habanera Rock fans surely preferred the wild samba action on "Quando? Quando? Quando?", the shoulder-shaking bossa nova style of "Desafinado" and the fiery passion of "Temptation", a wartime Perry Como oldie done up pasodoble style. This detour into Nightclubland was a nice change of pace for the group; all the same, it's good to have an old-fashioned Rock-A-Tango like "Saturday Night At The Movies" in the mix. This lively Bert Berns production reminds us what the Drifters sound was really all about.

Arranged by Ray Ellis
Conducted by Richard Wess
Produced by Tom Dowd

Kinda Latin
Cliff Richard
Fans hungry for more of Cliff Richard's exotic Latin stylings had to wait for the 1966 release of this collection, but their long wait yielded rich rewards. Rather than repeat the folkloric approach of When In Spain, Norrie Paramor decided to enlist top British arrangers (among them the great Les Reed) in the cause of weaving a web of tropical sound around Cliff's voice. By now, that voice had been honed into a priceless gem; his phrasing on this record would do Sinatra proud. Singing in English this time, he sounds marvelous on boleros ("Come Closer To Me"), cha-cha-chás ("Blowin' In The Wind") and baiãoes ("Fly Me To The Moon") . . . and what a credit he is to the bossa nova! You'll swoon at Sir Clifford's sublime versions of "One Note Samba", "Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars", "Meditation", "Eso Beso", "Girl From Ipanema" and "Our Day Will Come". On a couple of tracks, the arrangements do tend to take center stage; Les Reed's big band treatment of "Concrete And Clay" kicks like an ornery Mexican burro, and Reg Guest's clever revamp of "Blame It On The Bossa Nova" blends rhumba rhythms with riotous mariachi horns. Bernard Ebbinghouse takes the honors for the excellent bossa nova selections. A truly flawless set of tunes, Kinda Latin is quite likely the finest Habanera Rock LP ever waxed. Put it on your list of must-haves!
Produced by Norrie Paramor