Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

To Be Perfectly Frank: 100 Years of Frank Loesser

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Tomorrow will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer and lyricist Frank Loesser.
Loesser was born on June 29, 1910, in New York City and died in 1969. He wrote or co-wrote some of our most singable songs—“On a Slow Boat to China,” “Heart and Soul,” “Luck Be a Lady Tonight,” “Two Sleepy People,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” and about 700 others.
I’ve read a fair amount about Loesser, but I feel as though I don’t really know him. In books he comes across as contradictory. He rejected his family’s love of classical music yet longed to write an American opera. He was moody and quick to anger yet nurturing of his peers. He worked far too many hours yet loved parties. 

The man I can’t quite find in print comes across in his music as brilliant, playful, and intuitive. He knew how to structure a musical number so that it was easy to sing yet constantly surprising. And he knew how to reveal character through song.
His Guys and Dolls, to me the quintessential Broadway musical, illustrates this attention to character. Nathan Detroit’s passive yet sincere love for his longtime fiancée shines through “Sue Me.”
Sky Masterson shares his love of the city and his secret longing for connection to others in “My Time of Day.” Shy-no-more heroine Sarah lets her wild side peal in “If I Were a Bell.” And Miss Adelaide’s language and lifelong dilemma are defined in “Adelaide’s Lament.”
The lament exemplifies one of Loesser’s other strengths—his ability to translate colloquial conversation into music and lyrics. Miss Adelaide’s voice goes up (as mine certainly would!) whenever she gets particularly agitated contemplating her perpetually ALMOST married state: 

When they get on the train for NIAG’RA
She can hear CHURCH bells CHIME.
And the MOOD sublime.
A person can develop la grippe….

I look forward to learning more about Loesser tomorrow evening as I remain glued to the TV (well, actually, I’ll probably save some of the material for later viewing via TiVo) watching Turner Classic Movies’ salute to Loesser.
The lineup will include How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1967; star Robert Morse will co-host the TCM evening!), the 2006 documentary Heart & Soul: The Music of Frank Loesser, and several other films.
Although there are several gems to choose from I wish one of the films were Hollywood Canteen (1944), which features Bette Davis singing (!) the first Loesser song I ever performed, “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old.”
I couldn’t dream of emulating La Bette’s perfect diction. On the other hand, I can of course sing rings around her.
I’ll also learn about Loesser as I rehearse for—you guessed it—MY OWN LOESSER CENTENNIAL TRIBUTE WITH ALICE PARKER! 

This will take place on Saturday, August 21, at the Green Emporium in Colrain, Massachusetts. (See fabulous poster below.)

Alice and I are still planning the program so if readers have a favorite Loesser song they should suggest it now! 
Meanwhile, in tribute to tomorrow’s anniversary here is a special seasonal cocktail. It’s appropriate for two reasons. First, it was invented by my friend Michael Collins, the chef at the Green Emporium.
Second, I MUST have something to hold in my hand when Donald Freeman and I perform “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” another song that shows off Loesser’s way of turning conversation into song.
“Baby” is one of Loesser’s famous overlapping songs, in which characters (in this case “The Wolf” and “The Mouse”) sing complementary music and lyrics over each other.
According to Loesser’s daughter Susan, the composer and his first wife Lynn Garland Loesser performed this song privately many times. She quotes her mother as saying: 

We got invited to all the best parties for years on the basis of “Baby.” It was our ticket to caviar and truffles. Parties were built around our being the closing act.

(Time Life)

Eventually, Loesser sold the song to MGM to be sung by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban in the 1948 film Neptune’s Daughter.
Lynn Loesser was deeply saddened, but “Baby” won her husband his only Academy Award for best song. (As time went by he managed to scoop up a couple of Tonys and a Pulitzer as well.)
On August 21 as Don (doing his best Ricardo Montalban impression) finishes the line, “Beautiful, please don’t hurry,” I’ll pop in with,
“Well, maybe just a half a drink more………….” 

Let’s all raise our glasses to an American original!

Chef Michael Collins informs me that he was inspired to create this cocktail by my late neighbor Florette, who made a mean rhubarb tea.
I have tried it three ways—with rum (as described below) at his restaurant, with a little Grand Marnier at home when I couldn’t find rum, and in “virgin” form with a little pink lemonade for my young friend Audrey. I like it all three ways.
for the base:
6 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 cups chopped rhubarb
2 cups strawberries, cut in half
1/2 lime
1 tablespoon grenadine (optional–for color; I found with really fresh fruit I didn’t necessarily need it)
for the cocktail:
1 cup cocktail base (see above)
2 ounces white rum
lime juice as needed for rimming
sugar as needed for rimming
Bring the water to a boil. Add the sugar and stir. When the sugar has dissolved add the fruit.
Reduce the heat to very low and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, until the fruit breaks down. Toward the end of this process add the grenadine if you are using it.
Allow the mixture to cool. Remove the half lime (DO NOT FORGET THIS STEP!), and place the liquid in a blender in batches. Blend it; then strain it, first through a strainer (don’t try to push the fuzz down through the holes) and then through cheesecloth.
Place it in a jar and keep it refrigerated until it is needed.
To make a cocktail (or two): Place the rum in a cocktail shaker, and add ice. Pour in the cup of cocktail base. Shake.
Pour a little lime juice around the rim of 1 large or 2 small glass(es), and dip it/them in sugar so that the sugar coats the rim(s). Strain the drink into the glass(es). 

The drink recipe serves 1 to 2. The base makes about 6 cups.

Audrey drank this cocktail with pink lemonade instead of rum.

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Sip and Sing Along!

Friday, April 30th, 2010

I’m not from a horsy family so I didn’t watch the Kentucky Derby as a child.
This annual ritual began for me in graduate school. Each year my friend Dan Streible gave a Derby party at which guests wore colorful hats (well, this guest did, anyway), sipped mint juleps, and sang “My Old Kentucky Home” along with the folks at Churchill Downs.
We also watched the horse race.
Dan is a darling person and a terrific scholar. He was also smart enough to marry my friend Teri the Renaissance Woman. I think of him every time I watch the Kentucky Derby, sip a mint julep, or sing “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Dan at his recent Orphan Film Symposium, obviously getting ready to sing "My Old Kentucky Home" (Courtesy of the Orphanistas)

Like other tunes by Stephen Foster such as “Hard Times” and “Old Black Joe,” the state song of Kentucky is nostalgically sentimental and easy to sing.
The act of crooning it and watching the VERY brief horse race (which often seems shorter than the song) always starts May off with a bang for me.
The song is traditionally played at the Derby by the University of Louisville Marching Band.
I was lucky enough to find a recording of the band at the Kentucky Derby Information site (which also provides a little history of the relationship between the song and the race, as well as a look at some outstanding Derby hats and of course a few recipes!).
I used it as background for our sing-along. Click on the sheet music below to start the recording and then minimize your audio player so you can read the lyrics and sing with me. That way you’ll be in good voice for the Derby tomorrow.
I’m still working on the recording technology; my loud voice may sound a little fuzzy and faint. I think I messed up a couple of notes and lyrics. And frankly if I’d been in charge of the band I would have asked the musicians to play the song a little faster and a little higher.
If you drink a couple of mint juleps before listening, none of those things should bother you, however.
Here we go……..  
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home.
‘Tis summer, the people are gay.
The corn top’s ripe, and the meadow’s in the bloom
While the birds make music all the day.
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy, and bright.
By’n by hard times comes a knockin’ at the door.
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.
Weep no more, my lady. Oh! Weep no more today.
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home,
For the old Kentucky home, far away.
Dan’s Mint Juleps
I asked Dan for his julep recipe and then immediately changed it just a little bit by adding mint directly to the simple syrup to make the concoction more minty.
He was vague about amounts of syrup and bourbon. Basically, you should make this drink to your taste! Here I’m giving you the proportions my family uses, along with his instructions, slightly modified.
for the simple syrup:
2 large sprigs very fresh spearmint, slightly crushed
1 cup sugar
1 cup boiling water
for each julep:
lots of shaved, finely crushed, or snow ice
(You can see from the picture above that I wasn’t the most thorough crusher in the world, but luckily the glasses still ended up frosty as we sipped!)
about 1 ounce simple syrup
about 2 ounces Kentucky bourbon whiskey
(Dan says, “There is no such thing as Tennessee bourbon. Don’t make the mistake of using sour-mash whiskey.”)
2 sprigs very fresh spearmint
The day before the Derby (that’s today!) prepare the simple syrup. Combine the mint with the sugar, and pour the boiling water on top. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Cool and refrigerate overnight.
The next day make the julep.
Pack a julep glass with ice. (No julep glass or cup? Use a highball glass if you must.)
Drizzle simple syrup over the ice. Top off the glass with more ice if needed.
Pour the bourbon over the sweetened ice until the glass is nearly full.
Add sprigs of very fresh spearmint. Stir slowly. Sip slowly, with a straw or not. Be sure to get a snootful of mint as you sip. The longer the bourbon blends with the mint oils the better.
Do not drive or operate heavy machinery. 

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My Huckleberry Friend

Friday, November 6th, 2009
Lyricist Johnny Mercer (Savannah Morning News)

Lyricist Johnny Mercer (Savannah Morning News)

A Johnny Mercer lyric is all the wit you wish you had and all the love you ever lost.
So said Frank Sinatra, one of the great interpreters of American song.
The lyricist John Herndon Mercer (1909-1976) would have turned 100 on November 18. His centennial is being celebrated with tributes all over the world and particularly in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia.
Naturally, I have to get in the act!
Composer/pianist Alice Parker and I will perform a local tribute to Mercer’s music on Friday, November 20, in Colrain, Massachusetts.
Mercer wrote the words to hundreds of memorable songs, including “That Old Black Magic,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” and “The Autumn Leaves.”
Perhaps because he worked with many different composers, Mercer’s legacy is a little dimmer in the popular mind than those of lyricists such as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Oscar Hammerstein II. Singers like me love to perform his songs, however.
The Sinatra quotation says it all. Mercer produced brilliant, lively numbers like “Accentuate the Positive” and funny ones like “Lonesome Polecat” from the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Sung by lonely woodchoppers, it offers one of my all-time favorite lines: “A man can’t sleep when he sleeps with sheep.”
And then Mercer hit the ear with a lyric of love and longing like “Blues in the Night” or “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Sometimes it’s all a singer can do to get through these songs without crying.
A couple of my favorite Mercer lyrics are among his more obscure works. I’m a sucker for a sweet tune called “Lullaby” from the short-lived Broadway show Saint Louis Woman, which he wrote with composer Harold Arlen in 1946.
It tenderly evokes memories of early childhood and laments our collective inability to recreate the feelings we had in our parents’ arms.
I also relish one of Mercer’s earliest songs, “Satan’s Li’l Lamb,” a collaboration with Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg. The three threw it together for an African-American review in New York in 1932.
As soon as the great Broadway belter Ethel Merman heard it she ran out and recorded it. The music and lyrics are bluesy and sad but also funny and self-deprecatory, full of jazz rhythms and chords.
“Satan’s L’il Lamb” also winds up with a high, dramatic passage. High, dramatic passages are better than candy to us sopranos!
In addition to writing songs, Johnny Mercer was an influential performer and a pioneer in the recording industry.
He began his career as an actor and singer; he sang with both the Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman Orchestras. In his prime he hosted regular radio shows in which he performed and promoted his own songs and those of his peers.
Savannah Morning News

(Savannah Morning News)

In the 1940s he founded Capitol Records, the first major record company on the west coast and a music institution for years to come. It emphasized quality recordings, fairness to composers and musicians in paying royalties, and the development of new talent.
As both a writer and a performer Mercer had a knack for the vernacular that charmed his audience and knocked down doors. Savannah justly claims him as its favorite son; his temperament and artistic sensibility were authentically Southern.
His Southern streak carried disadvantages. Like his fellow sons of the South Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, Mercer was an alcoholic.
Overall, however, his background stood him in good stead. It enabled him to blend much of the South’s character into his music: its slow pace, the African-American songs he sought out in his youth, the folk music of his Scottish-American heritage.
He wove the landscapes and the sounds of his childhood into his lyrics—the huckleberries he picked as a child, the meadows and the rivers in which he played, the “whoo, whoo” of the trains that passed through town, the lilt of his mother’s Southern accent.
I champion American popular music of all eras. I’m conscious, however that we don’t have lyricists like Johnny Mercer today—versatile poets with an ear for the rhythms of American life and the verve to promote their songs with humor and intelligence. As a historian, singer, and member of the public I’m enjoying getting to know his music better. 

His song poems can tell stories as they do in “One for My Baby,” in which the narrator talks about his lost love to a bartender. They can act as traditional love ballads as in “I’m Old Fashioned.” Or they can string together images and sounds to convey a patchwork of emotions as in “Moon River”:
 Two drifters, off to see the world.
There’s such a lot of world to see.
We’re after the same rainbow’s end.
Waiting ‘round the bed.
My Huckleberry friend,
Moon River and me.
All of us should take time on November 18 to sing a Mercer tune and or/listen to some of the music of America’s Huckleberry Friend.
The Johnny Mercer Foundation’s web site has a “Johnny Mercer Jukebox” listeners can play. And Turner Classic Movies is featuring his film music every Wednesday during November.
“Blues in the Night,” my program with Alice Parker, will take place at the Green Emporium on Friday, November 20, beginning at 8:30 pm. Pizza, cocktails, and dessert will be served. Reservations are suggested; the restaurant’s number is 413-624-5122.
If you’d like a huckleberry recipe (one of my readers wanted one after looking at this post!), please see my post on Huckleberry Friendship Bars. Mercer lovers might also like to try the “Blues in the Night” barbecue sauce…….

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Hooray for Hollywood!

Monday, August 10th, 2009


This post doesn’t come with a recipe–but it does relate to food.
My neighbor Alice Parker and I will provide a little dinner cabaret next Thursday, August 20, on the patio at Chandler’s Restaurant at Yankee Candle Company in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. 
Alice will be playing a borrowed keyboard–and I will be singing–from 6 to 9 pm as part of the restaurant’s 14 Years/14 Dollars anniversary celebration. Diners will get an informal barbecue supper and a chance to hear us perform for $14.
(Of course, people will probably want something to sip on and maybe a bite of dessert so the tab may come to a little more than that, but the evening is still a pretty good deal.)
Our show is titled HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD:  SONGS FROM THE SILVER SCREEN’S GOLDEN AGE. We haven’t finalized the program yet. After all, we wouldn’t want to lose our freshness! I do know it will include a little Gershwin; a little Irving Berlin; and several songs with lyrics by the wonderful Johnny Mercer, whose 100th birthday is coming up.
If you’re nearby, please join us and sing along. If not, belt out a few tunes as you fix your own dinner that evening.
For reservations call 413-665-1277.

Papa Haydn Anniversary Torte

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009



Yesterday was Bastille Day—so we hosted a “Let them eat cake!” evening at our house. Neighbors came over to help consume the sweet goodies I had to test this week. The most impressive of these (in flavor, if not in looks) was the Haydn Anniversary Torte.


This year Mohawk Trail Concerts is celebrating a number of musical anniversaries in addition to its own 40th birthday. The July 24/25 concert will honor the 200th anniversary of the death of Franz Joseph Haydn, known to music lovers as Papa Haydn.


I wanted to pay tribute to Haydn (the father of the string quartet, one of my favorite musical combinations) but I didn’t know much about his taste in food. He HAS been dead for a while, after all. I did a web search using the words “Papa Haydn” and “recipe.”


To my delight I found the innovative, upscale Papa Haydn Bakery and Restaurant in Portland, Oregon.


The owners of Papa Haydn, sisters Evelyn Franz and Heidi Van Dyke, are German. Van Dyke was trained as a pastry chef in Austria so they honored their roots by naming the place after Austria’s patron composer. They have been in business for three decades and seem likely to keep their classic tradition going for years to come.


I sent a plea to the restaurant. Manager Tewin Ettien generously provided the recipe below, which was created just for this year’s Haydn anniversary by Papa Haydn’s lead baker.


You can see that the version made by Papa Haydn (which appears at the bottom of this post) is much nicer looking than mine. Mine was looking fabulous for a while–mostly because of the sterling efforts of my sister Leigh, who has very delicate hands. She was doing a great job assembling the thing and remarked, “No one will believe you made this, Tinky,” because she knows from experience that presentation is not my forte.


Alas, I decided to place the final layer onto the torte myself. The result was first ooze and then collapse! I think that when I make the torte again (and it really is worth the effort and the expense of the ingredients), I’ll put it in a trifle pan. That way the collapse will be contained.


I didn’t have a torch so I tried broiling the fluff—again not one of my finer efforts. Another time I think I’d just use a little more filling or maybe some whipped cream on the top.


I hope I haven’t scared readers away from this recipe; it really is lovely, just a little challenging for those who, like me, lack the ability to put delicate things together. (If you’re one of them, do try it as a trifle!) By the way, the filling is pretty amazing all by itself with fresh fruit.

Papa Haydn (Courtesy of Mohawk Trail Concerts)

Papa Haydn (Courtesy of Mohawk Trail Concerts)




for the syrup (this may make a little extra):


1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons framboise (raspberry liqueur)
1 tablespoon vanilla


for the cake:


2 cups cake flour, sifted
3/4 cup cocoa
1-1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1-1/3 cups coffee


for the filling:


1 cup mascarpone
6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons framboise (raspberry liqueur)
3/4 cup cream


for assembly:


1 pint fresh raspberries (plus a few more if you just can’t resist)
1 cup marshmallow fluff




First, make the syrup. Bring the syrup ingredients to a boil, and then let them cool completely.


Next make the cake. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a half-sheet pan (a pan that measures approximately 8 inches by 13 by 1). (I only had a 9-by-13-by-1 inch pan, which worked very well.)


Sift together the dry ingredients. In a separate bowl cream together the butter, sugar, and brown sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, alternating with the coffee.


Pour the batter into the pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean (about 30 minutes in my experience, but check earlier).


Allow the cake to cool completely. Toward the end of the cooling process, make the filling. Put the filling ingredients into an electric mixer and blend at low speed until combined. Turn the speed up to medium and beat until soft peaks form.


To assemble the torte, cut the cake into thirds. Make layers as follows: cake, syrup (“painted” on), raspberries, filling; cake, syrup, raspberries, filling; cake. (Save a few raspberries for the end!)


Put the fluff into a pastry bag and pipe it on top of the cake. Brown the top with a torch, and garnish with fresh raspberries. Serves 8.

The "Real" Torte (Courtesy of Papa Haydn)

The "Real" Torte (Courtesy of Papa Haydn)

My Torte After Collapse and Spooning (Picture it in a trifle dish!)

My Torte After Collapse and Spooning (Picture it in a trifle dish!)