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George’s (extended) birthday party: pick of the flicks and top of the pops ~ 1955-59

April 10, 2014

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Just under a month ago, George’s Journal celebrated its fourth anniversary of peddling to peeps images, reviews and (I’d like to think) opinionated but balanced articles on all things cultural from – primarily – the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. But how so? Well, in something of an ambitious mood, yours truly decided to mark the blog’s fourth birthday with a couple of posts dedicated to celebrating first ‘Talent‘ and then ‘Legends‘ representing each year of a 40 year- (a suitable multiple for a fourth birthday, see?) period, namely 1950-89.

Yes, it was something of a challenge – but nothing like the challenge I set myself next. For, I mused, how fun might it be to follow up that pair of posts with a series of ones that allowed me to opine on (what I consider to be) the greatest single film and greatest single song from each of those same 40 years? How fun, indeed. Basically, folks, I’m regretting it a little already, so consuming is it becoming. But, don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly proving interesting and fun too.

So, anyway, here’s the second in the series’ posts (see the first post here), which focuses on the second half of the ’50s, the era when rock ‘n’ roll collided with the American songbook and the largesse of Lean met the experimentation of Hitchcock – in short, it’s the greatest flicks and tunes, no less, from 1955-59…

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1955

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Warsaw Pact formed; Rosa Parks on the bus; Eden replaces Churchill;
Bill Haley rocks around the clock; James Dean killed; first McDonald’s served;
Disneyland opens; Eisenhower sends advisors to Vietnam; ITV debuts; Scrabble goes on sale

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Film:

The Ladykillers

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the_ladykillers_1955

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Directed by: Alexander Mackendrick/ Starring: Katie Johnson, Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green and Frankie Howerd/ Country: UK/ 97 minutes (Crime-black comedy)

What George says: Pre-Eon’s Bond, the Carry Ons and the British film industry’s ’80s/ ’90s reinvigoration, the best of the Ealing comedies were the jewel in its crown, and to watch The Ladykillers it’s easy to see why. A smart, tight, near perfectly executed caper, whose warmth and delight generated by its central character, Johnson’s elderly but redoubtable Mrs Wilberforce, is balanced (if not slyly undermined) by the deceitful, cynical ruse pursued by Guinness’s wonderfully oleaginous oddball and his gang of heavies, spivs and cowardly amateurish crims.

What the critics say: “The subtext of The Ladykillers was the stultifying conservatism of contemporary Britain. Mrs Wilberforce and her similarly aged friends represent the continuing weight of Victorian England holding back progress and innovation (that this innovation is represented here as robbery and murder gives some indication of the ambiguity of Mackendrick’s vision)” ~ Mark Duguid

Oscar count: 0

Oscar’s Best Picture pick this year: Marty

The public’s pick this year: Lady And The Tramp (US box-office #1)

George’s runners-up: 2. The Night Of The Hunter; 3. Rififi; 4. Les Diaboliques (Diabolique/ The Devils/ The Fiends); 5. Rebel Without A Cause 

And the rest: East Of Eden; Guys And Dolls; Kiss Me DeadlyLady And The Tramp; The Man With The Golden ArmMartyOklahoma!; The Seven Year ItchThe Trouble With Harry

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Song:

In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning

Frank Sinatra

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in_thewee_small_hours_of_the_morning_frank_sinatra_1954

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Writers: David Mann and Bob Hilliard

What George says: Slow, sweet and mellifluously melancholic, this is undoubtedly one of the perfect Sinatra tracks. A product of arguably his golden mid-’50s period of recordings, it could have been a little twee next to the grandeur of the likes of the previous year’s Come Rain Or Shine or Night And Day, yet thanks to the master chanter‘s fantastic phraseology and Nelson Riddle’s exquisite orchestration it’s a work of haunting, delicious excellence.

What the contemporary says: In his autobiography Blue All Around Me (1999), B B King declares himself a ‘Sinatra nut’ and that at one time he ‘went to bed every night listening to In The Wee Small Hours (1955), the album on which In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning is the opening track.

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George’s runners-up: 2. Tutti Frutti (Little Richard)/ 3. Mannish Boy (Muddy Waters)/ 4. Un Bel Dì (Maria Callas)/ 5. Memories Are Made Of This (Dean Martin)

And the rest: Ain’t That A Shame (Fats Domino)/ Dambusters March (Eric Coates)/ Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash)/ I Hear You Knocking (Smiley Lewis)/ Love And MarriageLove Is (The Tender Trap) (Frank Sinatra)/ Luck Be A Lady (Marlon Brando)/ Love Me Or Leave MeMy Funny ValentineThat Old Black MagicSomething’s Gotta Give (Sammy Davis, Jr.)/ Mack The Knife (Louis Armstrong)/ Mambo Italiano (Dean Martin)/ Maybellene (Chuck Berry)/ Oklahoma! (Cast of Oklahoma! (1955)/ Only You (The Platters)/ People Will Say We’re In LoveThe Surrey With The Fringe On Top (Gordon McRae and Shirley Jones)/ Rock Around The ClockShake, Rattle And Roll (Bill Haley & His Comets)/ Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat (Stubby Kaye)/ The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry) (Etta James)

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1956

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Suez Crisis; Elvis shakes his hips; Eisenhower back in;
Hungarian Revolution; Castro lands in Cuba; Grace Kelly becomes a real princess;
Melbourne hosts Olympics; Look Back In Anger debuts on UK stage; Monroe marries Arthur Miller

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Film:

Richard III

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richard_iii_1956

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Directed by: Laurence Olivier/ Starring: Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Laurence Naismith, Cedric Hardwicke and Stanley Baker/ Country: UK/ 159 minutes (Shakespeare adaptation)

What George says: A bit of a cheat this one, as it was released in the UK in ’55, but it was in ’56 when in the US it premiered in tandem at cinemas and on TV, netting huge viewing figures on the latter. Criticised on release for its staginess when compared to Olivier’s previous Bard flicks, it’s nonetheless crammed with the cream of seasoned Brit acting talent, not least Larry himself, delivering a mesmeric performance as the Machiavellian-and-a-half  ‘Crookback King’, whose stark exploits of usurpation seem emphasised by the photography’s bold colours. A dynamic and essential collision of old-school UK thesping  and postwar Anglo-American multimedia.

What the critics say: “[It] may have done more to popularise Shakespeare than any other single work. When shown on US television that same year, the resulting audience (estimated at between 25 and 40 million) would have outnumbered the sum total of the play’s theatrical audiences over the 358 years since its first performance” ~ Michael Brooke

Oscar count: 0

Oscar’s Best picture pick this year: Around The World In 80 Days

The public’s pick this year: The Ten Commandments (global box-office #1)

George’s runners-up: 2. The Searchers; 3. High Society4. Giant; 5. The King & I

And the rest: Anastasia; Around The World In 80 Days; Bigger Than LifeBus Stop; Forbidden PlanetThe KillingLe Monde du Silence (The Silent World); Reach For The Sky; The Ten Commandments

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Song:

Hound Dog ~ Elvis Presley

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hound_dog_elvis_presley_1956

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Writers: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller/ Released: July 1956

What George says: To beat Ella Fitzgerald’s definitive version of Where Or When as this year’s top of the pops, it’s got to be some tune and, well, this one’s among the most important, nay among the greatest in all music history, given it’s the one that quickly became the anthem of the oh-so quickly dominant rock ‘n’ roll. It didn’t need Elvis’s shakin’ hips to hook you, merely a listen to that driving rhythm, those handclaps, that punchy guitar, those crashing drums at the end of every verse and, of course, Presley’s irresistible vocals. Sixty years later, it still sounds fresh as a – very cool – daisy; back then it sounded like the future, pretty much because it was.

What the contemporary says: “What got me into the whole thing in the beginning wasn’t songwriting. When Hound Dog came across the radio, there was nothing in my mind that said, ‘Wow, what a great song, I wonder who wrote that?’ … It was just… it was just there” ~ 
Bob Dylan

Chart record: US #2 (#1 on both the US R&B and C&W charts)

Recognition: Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (1988)/ ranked #2 for 1956, #8 for the 1950s and #69 for ‘all-time’ on acclaimedmusic.net‘s cumulatively ranked ‘top songs’ lists

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George’s runners-up: 2. Where Or When (Ella Fitzgerald)/ 3. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm)/ 4. Why Do Fools Fall In Love (Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers)/ 5. Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Harry Belafonte)

All the rest: Be-Bop-A-Lula (Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps)/ Blue Suede ShoesHeartbreak Hotel; Love Me Tender (Elvis Presley)/ Can’t Help Lovin’ That ManCry Me A RiverSeptember In The RainS’ WonderfulWhere Or When (Julie London)/ Ev’rytime We Say Goodbye; Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love) (Ella Fitzgerald)/ The Girl Can’t Help It; Long Tall Sally (Little Richard)/ The Great Pretender (The Platters)/  I Walk The Line (Johnny Cash)/ Just Walkin’ In The Rain (Johnnie Ray)/ Now You Has Jazz (Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong)/ Roll Over Beethoven (Chuck Berry)/ See You Later Alligator (Bill Haley & His Comets)/ True Love (Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly)/ Well, Did You Evah! (Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby)

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1957

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Sputnik 1, first space satellite, orbits Earth; Eden out, Macmillan in;
EEC established; On The Road and Atlas Shrugged published;
West Side Story debuts on Broadway; Lennon and McCartney meet; first Frisbee sold

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Film:

The Bridge On The River Kwai

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the_bridge_on_the_river_kwai_1957

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Directed by: David Lean/ Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald and Geoffrey Horne/ Country: UK/ USA/ 161 minutes/ (War film)

What George says: On the surface, a Brit-POWs-defying-their-captors-tubthumper-cum-men-on-a-mission-WWII-actioner, but dig deeper and it’s much more; a work of satirical near genius from David Lean. The first of his spectacular epics, it has the thrills, spills and scenic money-shots for which he’d become renowned, but more satisfyingly – and significantly – an acerbic line of subversion throughout, with the ‘bad guy’ turning out to be the most stoic Brit in South East Asia whom, going off his rocker colludes with the enemy in a project reluctant, sardonic William Holden must destroy. Ultimately an examination of the absurdity of war, it’s way more black comic than Colonel-Bogey-triumphant, with an outstanding turn from Alec Guinness. Again.

What the critics say: “David Lean has directed it so smartly and so sensitively for image and effect that its two hours and forty-one minutes seem no more than a swift, absorbing hour. In addition to splendid performance, he has it brilliantly filled with … the atmosphere of war’s backwash and the jungle … touched startlingly with humour, heart and shock” ~
Bosley Crowther

Oscar count: 7

Oscar’s Best Picture pick this year: The Bridge On The River Kwai

The public’s pick this year: The Bridge On The River Kwai (global box-office #1)

George’s runners-up: 2. Sweet Smell Of Success3. Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal);
4. 12 Angry Men; 5. Paths Of Glory

And the rest: Heaven Knows, Mr Allison; Kumonosu-Jō (Throne Of Blood); The Incredible Shrinking Man; Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights Of Cabiria); Pal JoeyThe Prince And The ShowgirlSayonara; Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries)

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Song:

Peggy Sue ~ Buddy Holly and The Crickets

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peggy_sue_buddy_holly_1957

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Writers: Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison and Norman Petty/ Released: September 1957

What George says: Considered by many the finest recording Buddy and his Crickets committed to tape in their tragically brief career, Peggy Sue is pretty much the perfect rock ‘n’ roll ballad. Incredibly catchy, genuinely unforgettable and easily impersonated (as it has been trillions of times), it’s actually Holly’s idiosyncratic interpretation of his lyrics and the wonderfully infectious rumbling of those paradiddles on Jerry Allison’s drums that get you on repeat listens. As well as, of course, the sheer simple, perfect purity of the tune.

What the critics say: “An early work of rock genius. Holly and The Crickets created a penetrating slab of early, guitar driven blues … listening to it today, the track still sounds fresh and original” ~ nme.com

Chart record: US #3/ UK #6

Recognition: Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (1999)/ ranked #4 for 1957, #17 for the 1950s and #110 for ‘all-time’ on acclaimedmusic.net‘s cumulatively ranked ‘top songs’ lists

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George’s runners-up: 2. Not Fade Away (Buddy Holly and The Crickets)/ 3. Jailhouse Rock (Elvis Presley)/ 4. When I Fall In Love (Nat King Cole)/ 5. Great Balls Of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis)

And the rest: All Shook Up (Elvis Presley)/ All The Way; The Lady Is A Tramp (Frank Sinatra)/ Baby, It’s Cold Outside (Sammy Davis, Jr. and Carmen McRae)/ Blueberry Hill (Fats Domino)/ Bye Bye Love; Wake Up Little Susie (The Everly Brothers)/ Catch A Falling Star (Perry Como)/ EverydayOh Boy!Rave On; That’ll Be The Day (Buddy Holly and The Crickets)/ Have I Told You Lately That I Love You? (Eddie Cochran)/ Lucille (Little Richard)/ Reet Petite (Jackie Wilson)/ Someone To Watch Over Me (Sammy Davis, Jr.)/ Summertime (Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong)/ Whole Lotta Shakin Goin’ On (Jerry Lee Lewis)

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1958

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Khrushchev becomes Soviet Premier; De Gaulle leads the Gauls again; Notting Hill riots;
Pelé and Brazil’s first World Cup; Munich Air Crash; CND established – instantly adopts ‘peace symbol’;
first motorway and parking meters come to UK; Elvis in the army; Blue Peter debuts

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Film:

Vertigo

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vertigo_1958

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Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock/ Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes and Tom Helmore/ Country: USA/ 129 minutes/ (Psychological thriller)

What George says: Overrated by today’s critics it may, but Vertigo‘s still a highly impressive, very important and far-from-easy-to-pin-down flick. Ostensibly a San Francisco-set melodramatic thriller that twirls around a premise as far-fetched as anything you’ll see in a Poirot or Columbo episode, it nonetheless takes twists and turns you simply don’t expect and slowly becomes a haunting voyage into unrequited love/ lust, melancholia and, most of all, obsession. Photographed as beautifully as any film you care mention, it also features one of the movies’ finest scores from Bernard Herrmann and popularised the disorienting ‘dolly zoom’ shot.

What the critics say: “Hitchcock turned a cleverly plotted book … into an acute psychological fable and a dark, romantic poem. In so doing, he deliberately disrupts the narrative and disturbs the audience’s normal expectations … Vertigo is, among other things, about the way men exploit women. Only at a second viewing can its complexity be properly understood; it rewards endless revisits” ~ Philip French

Oscar count: 0

Oscar’s Best Picture pick this year: Gigi

The public’s pick this year: South Pacific (US box-office #1)

George’s runners-up: 2. Kakushi Toride No San Akunin (The Hidden Fortress); 3. Touch Of Evil4. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof; 5. Dracula

And the rest: Les Amants (The Lovers); The Defiant Ones; Gigi; Ice Cold In Alex; Ivan Grozniy (Ivan The Terrible: Parts I and II); Mon Oncle (My Uncle); The Seventh Voyage Of SinbadSome Came Running

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Song:

Johnny B. Goode ~ Chuck Berry

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johnny_b._goode_chuck_berry_1958

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Writer: Chuck Berry/ Released: March 1958

What George says: A legendary slice of rock ‘n’ roll, often imitated (perhaps most memorably by Marty McFly in 1985’s Back To The Future), but never bettered, Chuck Berry’s original version may boast one of the purest, (to the ear, at least) simplest and greatest pieces of guitar playing ever committed to record, but – not least because of his semi-autobiographical lyrics – it’s also bursting with the exuberance to which countless future rock and pop songs would aspire. All that, and it kicks-off with possibly the most unmistakeable intro in all guitar music.

What the critics say: Johnny B. Goode is the supreme example of Berry’s poetry in motion. The rhythm section rolls with freight-train momentum, while Berry’s stabbing, single-note lick in the chorus sounds, as he put it, ‘like a-ringin’ a bell’ – a perfect description of how rock & roll guitar can make you feel on top of the world” ~ Rolling Stone

Chart record: US #8

Recognition: Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (1999)/  ranked #1 for 1958, #1 for the 1950s and #7 for ‘all-time’ on acclaimedmusic.net‘s cumulatively ranked ‘top songs’ lists/ ranked #1 on Rolling Stone‘s ‘100 Greatest Guitar Songs Of All-Time’ list (2008)

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George’s runners-up: 2. All I Have To Do Is Dream (The Everly Brothers)/ 3. My Baby Just Cares For Me (Nina Simone)/ 4Fever (Peggy Lee)/ 5. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (The Platters)

And the rest:  At The Hop (Danny and the Juniors)/ Bewitched (Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered) (Sammy Davis, Jr.)/ Chantilly Lace (The Big Bopper)/ C’mon EverybodySummertime Blues (Eddie Cochran)/ Dream A Little Dream Of Me (Dean Martin)/ Good Golly Miss Molly (Little Richard)/ Heartbeat (Buddy Holly)/ King Creole (Elvis Presley)/ Magic Moments (Perry Como)/ Main Theme from Vertigo (Bernard Herrmann)/ Maybe Baby (Buddy Holly and The Crickets)/ Volare (Domenico Modugno)/ On Green Dolphin Street (Miles Davis)/ Rebel-‘Rouser (Duane Eddy)/ Rockin’ Robin (Bobby Day)/ Scene d’Amour from Vertigo (Bernard Herrmann)/  Splish Splash (Bobby Darin)/ Stupid Cupid (Connie Francis)/ Yakety Yak (The Coasters)

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1959

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Cuban Revolution; Alaska and Hawaii become 49th and 50th US states; the Mini takes to the road;
first human dies from HIV; ‘the day the music died’; Motown Records begins recording;
first photocopier copies; Astérix hits the bookshelves; Barbie makes her bow

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Film:

Some Like It Hot

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some_like_it_hot_1959

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Directed by: Billy Wilder/ Starring: Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, Joe E Brown, George Raft, Pat O’ Brien, Joan Shawlee, Dave Barry and Nehemiah Persoff/ Country: USA/ 121 minutes/ (Screwball-crime comedy)

What George says: A seamless, peerless melding of screwball farce, crime caper and romcom, Wilder’s masterpiece may have harked back to the past (the Prohibition era and, via delicious touches and casting nods, the gangster flicks it saw Hollywood churn out), but also adroitly looked forward with its blink-and-you’ll-miss-a-gag pace, extremely witty script and racy boys-as-girls and boys-fancying-boys-as-girls japes. Indeed, anyone versed in Shakespeare knows cross-dressing’s funny, but it’s never funnier than here, as Wilder expertly guides Lemmon (hilarious) and Curtis (eerily brilliant and also tremendous channelling Cary Grant) through all their costume changes, as they try to fool both the mob and a wonderfully winning Monroe.

What the critics say: “One of the enduring treasures of the movies, a film of inspiration and meticulous craft” ~ Roger Ebert

Oscar count: 1

Oscar’s Best Picture pick this year: Ben-Hur

The public’s pick this year: Ben-Hur (US box-office #1)

George’s runners-ups: 2. North By Northwest3. Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows); 4. Anatomy Of A Murder5. Room At The Top

And the rest: Ben-Hur; The Diary Of Anne Frank; I’m All Right, JackImitation Of Life; The Nun’s Story; Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus); Pillow Talk; Sleeping BeautySuddenly, Last SummerTiger Bay

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Song:

Take Five ~ The Dave Brubeck Quartet

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take_five_the_dave_brubek_quartet_1959

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Writers: Paul Desmond/ Released: June 1959

What George says: That piano vamp, that oh-so cool sax melody and that jittery drum solo, all wrapped up in unusual 5/4 (quintuple) time. Take Five is maybe the epitome of mainstream jazz; as smooth as silk, as accessible as a can of Coke and as irresistible as Audrey Hepburn – no wonder it (easily) became the biggest selling jazz single of all-time. Instantly recognisable and a TV ad man’s dream it may be, it’s also surely one of the greatest crossover tracks in the history of consumable music.

What the critics say: Take Five, despite its overexposure, really is a masterpiece; listen to how well [Paul] Desmond’s solo phrasing fits the 5/4 meter, and how much Joe Morello’s drum solo bends time without getting lost” ~ Steve Huey

Chart record: US #25 (1961 re-release)

Recognition:  Ranked #11 for 1959, #90 for the 1950s and #982 for ‘all-time’ on acclaimedmusic.net‘s cumulatively ranked ‘top songs’ lists

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George’s runners-up: 2. Beyond The Sea (Bobby Darin)/ 3. Shout (The Isley Brothers)/ 4. Sea Of Love (Phil Phillips)/ 5. I Only Have Eyes For You (The Flamingos)

And the rest: Dream Lover; Mack The Knife (Bobby Darin)/ Chega de Saudade (João Gilberto)/ High Hopes (Frank Sinatra)/ La Bamba (Richie Valens)/ Hippy Hippy Shake (Chan Romero)/I Wanna Be Loved By YouI’m Through With Love; Runnin’ Wild (Marilyn Monroe)/ Lipstick On Your Collar (Connie Francis)/ Main Theme from North By Northwest (Bernard Herrmann)/ Peggy Sue Got MarriedRaining In My Heart (Buddy Holly)/ Once Upon A Dream (Mary Costa and Bill Shirley)/ So What (Miles Davis)/ A Teenager In Love (Dion and the Belmonts)/ Theme From A Summer Place (Hugo Winterhalter)/ Three Cool Cats (The Coasters)/ What A Diff’rence A Day Makes (Dinah Washington)

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And coming soon:

George’s pick of the flicks
and top of the pops ~ 1960-64

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