So many great New York City musical moments: Sinatra, the Beatles, Marian Anderson, the Ronettes, Leonard Bernstein, Billie Holiday, Dion and the Belmonts and Duke Ellington…and that’s just scratching the surface.
From the time I was three or four years old, thanks to my mother, I was listening to the radio. First it was what we now call the American Songbook, then it was Doo Wop, the Girl Groups, Rock, Jazz, and Classical. And then there were/are the venues….the Village Vanguard, Carnegie Hall, the Apollo, Central Park, 55 Bar and on and on.
I, like so many of us, live for good music…and I’m also very interested in the history of music, particularly in New York City.
Post a photo, a piece of music or a story and…please…add a couple of sentences or a paragraph or two that puts your post into an historical New York context. If you want to personalize a story, go ahead. Everyone loves a universal story…it may be your story, your parents, your grandparents, a friend or an old family acquaintance. So join me here at The Musical History of New York City.
One of the more interesting relationships in the musical history of New York City, is that of George Gershwin and Kay Swift.
Swift, married at the time, met Gershwin at a dinner party in 1925. They began seeing each other frequently and Gershwin introduced the classically trained Swift to show music and jazz. A talented songwriter herself, Swift began helping Gershwin with his musical thoughts.
Swift was divorced in 1934 and although her affair with Gershwin continued until Gershwin’s death in 1937, they never married. Swift’s granddaughter, author, Katharine Weber–she wrote a family memoir “The Memory of All That,” which discusses the relationship–suggests that Gershwin’s mother was unhappy that Swift wasn’t Jewish.
Swift wrote a number of tunes that are now well known and one in particular has become a popular jazz standard, “Can’t We Be Friends.” Click here to hear Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong sing the tune.
If you were a New Yorker in the late sixties and seventies, liked music and were a night owl…you definitely remember “The Nightbird,” Alison Steele.
A NYC native–Brooklyn–she was a member of a 1966 “all-girl” WNEW format. The show didn’t prove popular and all the “girls” except Alison were let go. She stayed on as the station’s night DJ–10pm-2am. Steele created a sexy, soulful “Nightbird” persona…WNEW became the flagship station for progressive radio in NY…and Alison was a big reason they succeeded.
She recited poetry, read Shakespeare and the Bible and more than anything she communicated…particularly with males. She played the Moody Blues, Incan tribal music, Andean flutes and other eclectic pieces.
“The flutter of wings, the sounds of the night, the shadow across the moon, as the Nightbird lifts her wings and soars above the earth into another level of comprehension, where we exist only to feel. Come fly with me, Alison Steele, the Nightbird…” A number of you will remember her voice, her style, so unlike all the male DJs at the time.
Do you remember the music Allison played to close her show…pretty famous group
I recently returned from France, which included a two-day stop in Normandy. I was pursuing the story of a Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City born soldier, John R. Simonetti, the son of Italian immigrants, who was killed during the Battle of the Hedgerows, on June 16, 1944, in the fields of St. Germain d’Elle, France. (Photo attached.)
John’s name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France since his body was not recovered from the battlefield where he died. It was a tragedy that the family lived with for generations. In the years that followed his death, the family was in contact with the Army and pursued various paths to determine what had happened to their son and uncle on that fateful day. Finally, in May 2009, while doing some minor excavation work, the skeletal remains of an American soldier, with his dog tags still around his neck, was unearthed in the center of the town. It was John Simonetti.
It’s stories like these that will be included in my show, “New York City and WWII: Connecting Time and Place,” on October 26, 27 and 28, 2020 at The Cell Theatre, which is part of the series, “Classically Exposed: Musical Crossroads.”
For more information on the series and to purchase a subscription for all eight events at 25% discount CLICK HERE.
A few years ago, a group of musicians and I performed “The Musical History of the Lower East Side” in a number of venues around the city. We featured music from the many immigrant groups that have arrived on the LES over the past 400 years. Most of the groups, including the Italians, Irish, Hispanic, German and others brought music from their homeland…in many cases it connected them to their past and was one way they could pass along their heritage.
I was particularly struck by the audience and friends response to “Oyfn Pripetshik,” written by Mark Warshawsky, a Yiddish speaking Russian composer. Many told me how, when they were young, their Jewish, Eastern European/Russian grandmother, living on the LES or in the Bronx, sang this song to them, one of the most popular songs of the Jews in Eastern Europe.
You may remember the song from the film “Schindler’s List: CLICK HERE
“When, children, you will grow older…You will understand…How many tears lie in these letters…And how much crying.”
Interested in the musical history of New York City? Then you might like the site I’ve created at Facebook, called “The Musical History of New York City.” Have a look by CLICKING HERE.
Pictured here, counter-clockwise from upper left: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Dion and the Belmonts, the Chantels, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin and Gene Kelly, Lena Horne and Cole Porter.
I saw WWII through the eyes and ears of my mother and father’s generation. The images…the flag raising at Iwo Jima, the soldier and nurse in Times Square…and my parents’ stories and music—In the Mood and Moonlight Serenade on the jukebox of Popp’s Ice Cream Parlor in Woodhaven Queens. The music, images and stories painted a vivid picture of their experiences.
That was very different from the way I viewed my generation’s war. The images were far from uplifting–the young girl running and covered with napalm, the police captain putting a bullet in a young man’s head and body bags arriving at airports are the symbols I remember. And the songs that Americans connected to the images were decidedly “anti-war.” Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” The Doors, “Unknown Soldier,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” and many others filled the airwaves. And there were no heroic welcomings– fifteen of my local high school friends died in Vietnam.
The soldiers had their favorite songs too: Aretha Franklin’s, “Chain of Fools” and Marvin Gaye’s, “What’s Goin On?” but I believe the most popular song among the fighting forces was a song that tells of the misery of living and working in an urban environment. But within the context of serving in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home, knowing that any moment might be your last, the words, “We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do,” took on an entirely different meaning: CLICK HERE FOR SONG
You can follow my “Musical History of New York City” HERE
Those of you who know me well know I attend lots of events in NYC. This past Friday night I attended back-to-back performances in Greenwich Village: Walter Parks at Cafe Bohemia and Nicole Zuraitis at 55 Bar. Stunning performances, each. And talk about value for your buck….incredible. Occasionally, and it’s become very occasionally, I’ll attend a Broadway musical–at about five to ten times the price–and more often than not, I leave awfully disappointed. Moral of the story…support local artists…they deserve your support. They may not be as brilliant as Walter and Nicole but I know how hard these artists ply their crafts. Bravo, brava to all my artistic friends.
Only once or twice in my lifetime has a celebrity’s death really moved me; Bobby Darin’s death was one of those. Maybe it was because he was a New York kid or maybe he reminded me of my youth or maybe it had something to do with overcoming life’s challenges.
Darin was married and divorced twice by the time he was 30; he was devastated when learned at the age of 32 that the woman he thought was his older sister was his mother, and he suffered from poor health his entire life. Beginning at age eight, he was stricken with recurring bouts of rheumatic fever.
But he could act, dance and put across a song. Sad, when you hear Darin ask the pianist to give him a minute to catch his breath in the following clip–he was thirty-years-old–but during the last few years of his life Darin was often administered oxygen during and after his performances. Here, in my view, is one of best life performances of a standard I know of… “Once Upon a Time” So affecting.