Monday, April 6, 2009
W.C. Fields...His Only Recording Plus 8 Songs by Mae West (Proscenium, early 1970s?)
This album was something that I found at an estate sale many, many years ago. When I was a kid, one of the local UHF television stations showed a lot of old movies, shorts, and serials from the 1930s and 1940s. Mixed in with the ubiquitous adventures of the Three Stooges and Our Gang as well as Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. horror films, they broadcast several of W.C. Fields' movies such as Poppy, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Why these particular motion pictures appealed to my 9-year old brain, I'm not sure, but there was just something cool about the old curmudgeon and the way he could despise people in such an amusing fashion. One Saturday afternoon, the channel showed another one of Fields' classics, My Little Chickadee, which co-starred the one and only Mae West. I felt weird about it, but she really had an impact on me. While the rest of my friends were busy lusting over Catherine Bach on The Dukes of Hazzard, I had a thing for the reigning female sex symbol of pre-World II America. Yeah, I was weird kid.
Fast forward about 15-20 years. After looking through stacks and stacks of mostly uninteresting 45s and LPs, the cover of this album caught my eye and brought back a flood of black-and-white memories. With the bulk purchase discount, I think I paid about ten cents for it. I was a little surprised to find out that such an album even existed, but a record collector friend of mine told me that the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s had rediscovered Fields and West and came to view them as anti-establishment heroes. Consequently, record labels put out releases that compiled bits of Fields' misanthropically humorous lines and stories as well as West's singing performances that were featured in their respective movies. (West, of course, also recorded a few rock albums in the late 1960s, but that's another story).
...His Only Recording Plus 8 Songs by Mae West includes sides from the late 1940s, a few years after both entertainers had seen their careers in motion pictures pretty much come to an end. Despite their pairing on this release, Fields and West worked together only once, in My Little Chickadee. Whereas Fields and alcohol were practically inseparable, West abstained entirely and felt that his drinking made him too difficult to work with for another movie.
The two tracks by Fields were recorded during a 1946 session in Les Paul's studio and may have been his last performance of any type as he died shortly afterwards. Fields' impending demise notwithstanding, he still sounds to be in typical form on each recording, which both deal with one of his favorite subjects: the consumption of alcohol. With its piano accompaniment, "The Temperance Lecture" is reminiscent of some of the more humorous tracks on the legendary Poetry for the Beat Generation album by Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen. A section of this particular piece, unbelievably enough, is sampled on one of the all-time freakiest garage-psych records, "Flight Reaction" by the Calico Wall! I'm not kidding. Just listen to the part (from approximately 1:28 to 1:55) where Fields says,
The first instance of federal authority in this country was when George Washington put down The Whiskey Rebellion in Penn-syl-van-i-ay. I imagine George put down a little of the vile stuff, too. There was a fella that really lived. What a guy, what a man. Now, before I go any further, please do not labor under the misconception...
Then, listen to "Flight Reaction." You'll notice that from about 1:13 to 1:41 it's the same bit of the monologue. Either that, or someone in the Calico Wall could do a dead-on W.C. Fields impersonation. Does anybody out there know the story behind this?
No, "The Day I Drank a Glass of Water" was not sampled in "I'm a Living Sickness," but in a very roundabout fashion it addresses the danger that Fields saw in imbibing this particular liquid. (Remember, this is the man who once quipped, "I can't stand water because of the things fish do in it.") Accompanied by male and female voice actors and what may be the guitar picking of Les Paul himself, "Glass of Water" sounds similar to some of the skits that Fields performed on radio during the latter part of his career. Humor does not always translate well over time, and Fields certainly was nothing like modern-day comedians. Nevertheless, these two performances can at least be appreciated as bizarre curios if nothing else.
The Mae West tracks are more than just novelty numbers as they are musically compelling in their own right. Like Fields, West began her career in vaudeville and had already achieved fame long before she appeared in her first movie role. Her sexual frankness made her extremely controversial in an age when entertainers could be jailed for violating morality laws. Indeed, she was given a ten-day sentence in 1927 because Sex - a play that she wrote, produced, and directed - was deemed to be responsible for corrupting the morals of youth. The idiots who put Madonna up on pedestal would be wise to learn a little bit about West, a woman who was much more ahead of her time and who operated in an era when being sexually explicit carried far greater risks than it does today. Most of her songs on this LP seem to date from 1947 when she recorded several sides for the Mezzotone label. Because of her vaudeville background, West was no stranger to jazz and black American culture in general. Having previously performed with notables such as Duke Ellington, she is able to pull off these numbers quite convincingly. There is no information on the backing musicians, but whoever the boogie woogie pianist and organ player are, they provide her bawdy and double entendre-laden lyrics with extremely capable accompaniment. "Frankie & Johnny" is a rendition of an old standard as only West can do. "My Man Friday" casually details the various men she has for different days of the week. It sounds like Mae is up to a little naughty reading in "Page 54." In "That's All Brother," she reminds the listener that, "It's not what I wear but the way that I wear it. It's not what I share but the way that I share it." "Pardon Me for Loving and Running" neatly summarizes her love-him-and-leave-him modus operandi. The suggestive "Put It Off Until Tomorrow" and "Slow Down" respectively deal with one man who procrastinates on his love-making responsibilities and another who moves too quickly. "Come Up and See Me Sometime," of course, is one of West's most famous lines and a fitting theme song.
At first, Fields and West's material may seem very tame by today's standards. On the surface, it is. But if you scratch away that surface and actually use your imagination instead of having the message spoon-fed to you, it is possible to appreciate the clever ways in which these entertainers deal with previously taboo subject matter that we take for granted today.