THRIFT STORE RECORDS & CHEAP RED WINE :: Johnny Mathis – Live It Up (1962) & Chateau Lascombes Margaux (2002)

by Lane Steinberg on September 12, 2011

I sometimes associate relatives and friends through certain records in their collections of yore: my dad’s Latin lp’s, like George Shearing’s ‘Latin Affair,’ Cal Tjader’s ‘Soul Sauce,’ and Stan Getz’s, ‘Jazz Samba,’ albums he’d always spin on weekends when they’d entertain friends. I remember the Vox 78 of Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu that I would play when I’d visit the grandparents, transfixed by the visual intensity of the rpm’s. One uncle had a copy of The Mothers of Inventions’ ‘Freak Out,’ and another uncle who had a Sergio Franchi album, told me that he once saw Sergio throw a tantrum in a New York City barbershop. My aunt I remember loved Johnny Mathis. She had a turntable that had a wire rack underneath it that overflowed with all his records, sometimes with two records in a space meant for one, so that the two records got stuck inside of it. Mathis didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time, though I was not immune to the ethereal charms of his most successful foray into over-the-top romanticism, ‘Chances Are.’ Johnny’s pop records overflowed with sweet goo, and those were the only ones my aunt (and most of the record buying public) had a fondness for. Later, when I got into songwriters and arrangers, I started to pick up Mathis records for the often-obscure numbers buried on any one of his albums, songs that were otherwise hard to find recorded performances of. Even on the more well-known warhorses Mathis recorded, he’d often include the little heard opening verses, whereas most popular singers would start right with the refrain. So I give ol’ Johnny props for good taste.

Hurricane Irene is coming up the coast, so I decided to open up a rather good bottle of Bordeaux, as I am not one to go down without a fight. Opening older, age-worthy wine is always fun. There is always a window when it is best to pull the trigger, especially with Bordeaux. Too early, and you get a mouthful of tannin, like an under-ripe persimmon, while too late, the fruit has faded, and you’re drinking something akin to watching Harpo Marx in the 1950’s. You get a whiff that something was there, but the moment has clearly passed. Like the distinction between Johnny Mathis’ pop and jazz albums, there is Bordeaux for the everyday, commercial market and the more serious, expensive wines meant for accompanying such classic dishes as beef Bourguignon and coq au vin. Right now I’m polishing off the rest of some Smokehouse almonds. I’ve often noticed how great nuts pair up with wine: roasted peanuts, almonds, cashews, etc. Popcorn, too, really compliments wine well. And it’s certainly better than having to defrost some rabbit or venison every time I want to appreciate a decent drink.

‘Live It Up‘ was arranged by the mighty Nelson Riddle, he of all those great Sinatra albums. I’m noticing how Johnny looks a little like Anthony Weiner on the cover. I wonder if he’s on Twitter? He’s ageless. Could be 20, 40, or anywhere in between. I saw him as a guest on some cooking show recently and he still looked well preserved, though a little uncomfortably like a Filipino tranny impersonating Lindsey Buckingham. Or maybe Roddy McDowall dressed up as Cornelius for a nightmare Planet Of The Apes cabaret version  of La Cage Aux Folles…

So let me cue up this album. It’s the old classic Columbia label with the three eyes on each side. Side one, vinyl is clean, no scratches. The title track, ‘Live It Up,’ has a bite right from the jump: “Sheep are for shearing, life is for living, so live it up.” Happy stuff. Such optimistic music seems almost quaint these days. The chart sounds very much like Billy May, a great arranger who would sometimes sub for Nelson when the work piled up. It’s nothing special, but a good, upbeat opener. The winds are picking up outside. Earlier, a woman in my elevator asked me if we should go to the basement. I said, “We’re in a ten story brick building. It ain’t gonna be the Wizard of Oz”. Jeez. Next is ‘Just Friends’ with the introductory verse. Now this is totally Riddle, with his trademark harmonies and counter melodies darting in and out. But to compare this with how Sinatra sings it on the ‘No One Cares’ album would be unfair. Sinatra sounds like he’s about to jump off a bridge, whereas Johnny sounds vaguely distracted, like his manhood isn’t resting right in his pants. He does soar on the coda…”the story ENDS,” holding that note, ringing it out. What great pitch he has. How can someone hit every note so cleanly? No autotune for this mofo. The vibrato is under control here, but he milks it a bit at the end. A neat trick he uses to great, trademark effect. Elvis Costello stole it halfway into his career, and it turned on him like a pit bull rescued from a meth lab.

Arthur Lee of "Love"

I’m looking on Johnny’s website as I’m sipping this wine, listening to the wind outside mix with his voice. I’m trying to see if he ever cut any songs in French. There’s a languid quality to his voice that would probably lend itself well to the language. You don’t see that anymore, artists doing entire albums in foreign languages. My dad used to spin that Eydie Gorme Latin album which was all in Spanish. Looks like Johnny pretty much stuck to English and steered clear of the Latin craze. He seemed to avoid most trends of the day, though I am praying that somewhere there is a lost psychedelic album from 1967 that will eventually surface. Arthur Lee of Love sort of sounded like the psychedelic Johnny Mathis, and they shared a sort of vague multi-ethnicity.

Chateau Lascombes is classified as a second growth in the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 blah-blah-blah. It’s a French thing. No such classifications in the US. Typically, this is about a 50/50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with some Petit Verdot thrown in. Most of the Bordeaux first growths and second growths are deserving of their rarefied status, but there is also some huff n’ bluster that goes along with the whole Bordeaux brouhaha, and not every bottle is a good value. This particular example is what I call ‘carrot and stick’ Bordeaux. You are teased by the ample fruit, but you still have to make it through some sizable tannins to get to it, which inevitably keeps one coming back for yet another glass, endlessly trying to uncover that fruit underneath until you are defeated, sleeping on the floor with your clothes on. The air is helping it settle down in the glass, and it’s all starting to knit together. Raining like a bitch outside now. My wife brought the pots of basil in from the terrace, and I am now wrapping up the last of the smoked almonds in basil leaves to compliment the wine. Like Johnny Mathis, this drink presents itself in a classic way. This is no New World Nouveau fruit bomb. Very measured and produced honoring time-honed traditions.

‘Ace in The Hole’ comes on, and is a perfect example of the value in collecting Mathis albums. It’s a seldom-performed Cole Porter song that turns me cross-eyed, it’s so good. The song rocks purely in the way it’s written, and Johnny lays into it right out of the gate. The opening verse praises the protagonist’s grandma, who was “older than God, so it didn’t seem odd that Granny knew such a lot.”Then, as it kicks in, we get treated to a classic Cole-ism: “Sad times may follow your tracks, bad times may bar you from sax.” Oh, Cole, you naughty boy! An inspired take, you can envision the singer and musicians all patting each other on the back after this side was waxed. ‘On A Cold And Rainy Day’ up next, fairly amiable filler. Cold? I just popped my head out the terrace door and it feels like 100 degrees with the heavy rain, rain that’s supposed to stay like this for the next twelve hours. Next is ‘Why Not?’ which is more innocuous jazz fluff. Conversly, last on side one is the toweringI Won’t Dance,’ the Jerome Kern standard made famous by Fred Astaire. I never realized how many other writers besides Kern were on this tune, a veritable cavalcade of songwriting muscle from that era: Dorothy Fields, Otto Harbach, Jimmy McHugh, Oscar Hammerstein Jr., Martin Luther King, Jr., Martin Luther…not the last two, but, wow, that’s a lot more than Holland-Dozier-Holland. The song has a great, elongated verse and Mathis caresses it, giving it the due it deserves. The sort of country, corn pone, ‘aw shucks’ dialect Mathis chooses to adopt for the refrain is rather unfortunate, though, like he’s being asked to square dance in a barn. Mathis goes country is a strange fit, but checking his website now I see his most recent release was cut in Nashville, showing him with a horse on the cover for added authenticity. The bridge on ‘I Won’t Dance’ is great songwriting, ending with the memorable couplet, “For heaven rest us/I’m not asbestos”. Johnny returns back to the refrain with the country-boy bit, but it’s a hard song to kill and this is a vibrant version.

Chicken Tikka Masala

The almonds are gone and I’m still hungry. Truth be told, I never have venison or rabbit in my fridge, so I’m warming the rest of the leftover chicken tikka masala from the Indian joint on Atlantic Avenue in Richmond Hill here in Queens. They closed early today because of the coming hurricane, and I got in just under the wire. They recently renovated the interior and there’s now a curious painting that takes up a whole wall depicting what looks like the constitutional convention. I have not yet had the opportunity to approach the proprietor about its relevance, but I’ve made a mental note to do so in the immediate future. Bordeaux and Indian food? Why not? It’s pairing well. Seems like some sort of sacrilege, though the Brits are certainly fond of their curry, undoubtedly a carryover from the days of colonialism. And Lord knows how they love their Bordeaux. I’ve no doubt that many bottles of fine claret have been consumed alongside traditional Indian dishes. And Mathis now looks Indian to me, like a Bollywood star. He’s like an ethnic mood ring, it all depends on how you see him – and what you are drinking and eating. It’s all coming together now, the food, the music, the wine, everything except this damn storm. The Lascombes is drinking well into the third glass, improving and gaining complexity with notes of dried cherries and ceder. That’s a thing about good wine: it often gains in flavor as you’re on the downside of the mountain, savoring the last half of the bottle.

Side two blasts in with a laser-sharp version of Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Johnny One Note.’ Jeez, what a killer song. His phrasing is really admirable here. This guy is really some singer, with great attention to detail. It’s amazing how effortlessly he glides into the top of his range. Bravo, baby. ‘Too Much Too Soon’ follows, a swinging bit of cool lightness. “We rode that rocket right to the top/A crazy flip then, wow, what a plop/our dreams went pop just like a toy balloon”. That’s a keeper. Things climb even higher with ‘The Riviera,’ replete with a mambo rhythm and references to the ‘gay casino’. I guess this was his concession to the bourgeoning Latin craze that swept up my parents and begat so many great records. Wait! What was that last line??? “He’s the number one Parisian cunt”. I just listened to this three times in a row and I swear that’s what he is singing. A little Lou Reed attitude a good five years before the Velvet’s first album. Next is ‘Crazy In The Heart,’ with a tender melody that bounces all around, good enough to make me check the writer and I see that it’s written by one of my heroes, Alec Wilder. Never heard this song before, but it’s not the first time I’ve been stopped in my tracks by a song that turned out to be one of Wilder’s. Mathis holds the last note for four bars and sounds like he could go on for another sixteen, Mathis at his best. ‘Hey, Look Me Over’ is next. Not a favorite, but I remember my mother and aunt singing it, so there is some sentimental connection. Mathis doesn’t much care for it either, I can tell. He’s glossing over the self-affirming ditty set to a military beat. This song is leftover meatloaf, packed for a parade. None for me, please, I’ll stick to my smoked nuts and tikka masala. The last song is another quasi-Latin number called ‘Love.’ I can picture Tom Jones tearing this song up. Mathis does a credible job. If I have one complaint about his formidable talent, it’s that he makes everything sound too easy. He doesn’t seem to struggle for anything, doesn’t burn too hot or cold, just simmers along. But if one listens closely, there’s some serious musicality going on. The guy is a pro, the real deal. None of this American Idol over-singing jackshit. This Bollywood Arthur Lee is the real American idol.

My aunt has had a decade-long battle with an intestinal parasite and recently had a hip replaced. She apparently had some cosmetic work, though not enough where I can’t recognize her. She likes to drink white wine, something I usually politely decline unless it’s really good or if there’s nothing else around, smokes cigarettes and puffs a little weed for her age-related pains. She once made her 75-year-old husband go to Tompkins Square Park to try to score when she ran out and couldn’t get in touch with her dealer. She doesn’t remember the record player with the wire rack underneath, but she remembers the Mathis days of her youth fondly and can rattle off the names of his hits she used to sing along with. Despite the wear and tear, just like Mathis, she’s soldiering on. A nip here, a tuck there, a puff, a sip…that, a little luck, and we have most of what it takes to whether any storm.

Ed: Lane Steinberg has spent the past several decades writing, recording, and producing music. He currently performs with the Latin psychedelic band, Cracked Latin. Lane blogs about wine at The Red Wine Haiku Review, where he’s reviewed over 400 bottles using the strict 5-7-5 syllable poetic form.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Marianne Johnson December 7, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Johnny Mathis’ career has lasted for more than 50 years and still sells-out the show. His fans are world-wide. His voice is so unique compared to other singers. You are correct, he is a pro. Singing is what he was meant to do. All of the concerts I went to of his you could hear a pin drop. He doesn’t move on stage but it doesn’t matter to his fans. We go because he has “surprise in his voice”. By that I mean we wait to hear his next note, maybe it’s the one he can hold for 30 seconds or more, maybe that high note that he can reach that amazes us. Your Grandmother has very good taste!!!


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