Brian Setzer

Elvis Presley: The Searcher — A Review

I had the opportunity to view another rock-documentary with the mysterious, yet evocative title, Elvis Presley: The Searcher. This film seems to have originated with the desire of Presley’s ex-wife, Priscilla, to show Elvis as the artisté that he was and the process of this discovery is a long and detailed one, I must say. I wasn’t quite expecting the level of minutiae that came my way when I sat down to view the movie and had I known…well I might have penciled out another week or something. I have to ask: Does the world really need another Elvis movie? Hasn’t this story been told about a million times by now? Is this just another one of those cynical money-grabs by people in the industry who are really just making product for other people in the industry? Sure seems like it to me. Let’s check out some details.

Did you ever rent one of those Elvis biographies on VHS from Blockbuster? Or watch a 1 hour documentary on AMC at like 2 am? Yea! Totally! Me too! One summer afternoon a long time ago I watched 3 of these specials in a row because it was the anniversary of Presley’s death and the family and I were trapped in a hotel room on the Jersey Shore because of bad weather. So if you’ve SEEN those, you have more or less SEEN this movie as well. In addition to all of the recycled Elvis footage there was also stock footage from sources like this VHS tape that I used to have called Times Ain’t Like they Used to Be : Early Rural and Popular American Music, 1928-1935. I spent most of the first half of the movie with my own Mystery Science Theater 3000-type dialogue that consisted of: “Seen it. Yea, seen that. Heard that. Yea, totally used to have that. Wow, they’re using that too, eh? Man, I’m really tired. What time is it?” I didn’t even make it through the first half of the film, called it a night and went to bed. This movie is over three hours long, (which is first of all, completely unnecessary) and what happens is the visually-interesting quality of the film is missing for someone familiar with the subject so storytelling is supposed to compensate…I guess? The director, Thom Zimny has worked with Bruce Springsteen and is real big on NARRATIVE. Dude…seriously. Write a book. I don’t wanna watch NARRATIVE.

The focus on NARRATIVE means the film uses a type of Ken Burns approach to production: still photos, zooming, voice-over interviews, repeated somewhat corny motifs (a bicycle with a baseball card in the wheel). This approach kinda, sorta works if you are producing a documentary on the Civil War, but in the wrong hands, done the wrong way the voice-overs often sound like Mansplaining. I don’t need Springsteen dissecting the transcendence of Gospel Music. He, Robbie Robertson and Tom Petty did most of the musician voice-overs (except for some old stuff they dug out from Scotty Moore and Sam Phillips [seen it, heard it]). It’s better when “guests” are on camera, as in the Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll film. Hearing these guys expound heavily behind some of the visuals was really annoying and Tom Petty was the only interesting voice-over artist. Why do all of these movies end up with rock writers bloviating in the background? How about some singers or musicians like, Robert Plant? He’s a HUGE Elvis fan. Those tales of Led Zeppelin meeting Elvis in the 70s are amazing! Here’s Jimmy Page wearing an Elvis on Tour Ribbon so you know he’d be down for reminiscing. The Beatles had an impromptu jam with Elvis in 1965. Their memories of meeting Elvis were a lot more entertaining. Paul drives a boat while remembering in this footage. How cool is that? Add that stuff and for good measure get more Scotty Moore involvement. Then get Page, Jeff Beck, and Brian Setzer to give guitar demonstrations on “that sound”. Have Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding talk about those Sun Sessions and Treat Me Like a Fool and how great and influential and downright life-changing it all was! Yes! What we’re going for is footage and commentary that is the same quality as Little Richard talking about his big toe shooting up in his boot (because he loved Jimi Hendrix’s playing so much). Can you feel the magic here? I should be in pictures.

Finally, there is obviously an attempt to avoid any notion that the King of Rock and Roll also became the King Of Cheeseballs and the King of the Tabloids later in his career. The audience is supposed to accept the proposition that a guy who appeared onstage in caped rhinestone jumpsuits, zonked on any number of different medications, performing karate moves while singing Suspicious Minds to over-the-hill babes grabbing for his scarves…was a totally serious person. I’m sure there was a lot of high-fiving in the post-production room when the movie was done, but I was there in the early 70s and even then 13 year-olds like myself knew the only person less serious than Elvis was Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. The next person who wants to make an Elvis movie should be forced to use the following suggestions: 1) The musicians above appear in the movie; 2) Examine the appeal of The King to his fans; 3) Explore the still vibrant Rockabilly and Psychobilly communities; 4) Discuss the weirdness that always surrounded the King–The Memphis Mafia, Presley’s interest in the Occult, UFOs and Conspiracies, and finally 5) How real and imaginary elements of the Southern Gothic tradition and the rest of these items are indispensable to Presley’s story and as much a part of rock n’ roll as the “devil at the crossroads” is to blues legend. Otherwise you’re just left with a big WHY? I still don’t have an answer for that question, but I’ve spent enough time with this subject already, so we’ll just have to leave it to the cosmos to figure out.

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Christmas Time is Here — Part II

So in Part I of Christmas Time is Here I briefly described some of the history of Christmas carols and popular holiday songs with the idea in mind that as musicians we are sometimes called to play them and shouldn’t shy away from playing them or enjoying the rich history and tradition they symbolize. In this post I will cover actually moving on to making these songs a part of repertoire. The first step in that direction is, of course, deciding on, and building up an arrangement of a song that you like, that works with your abilities as a musician, and will fit the performance you are going to give. This can be an arrangement you learn or one you adapt from either a vocal or instrumental arrangement that is already out there. Every musical number I do, Christmas song or not, even if it is based on someone’s version of a song, I like to change it a little bit or add something to it. That is just a way of personalizing the music or performance and jazz musicians especially do this all of the time.

If you are inclined to a the classic era of Big Band and vocal performances, you can never go wrong with any of the masters from the Golden Age of jazz and pop: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, and Bing Crosby to name a few. Their interpretations of holiday music are still heard regularly today — I heard Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) in 3 different stores during the buildup to 12/25 this year. The arrangements are usually pretty involved but they are also accessible and can be very inspiring in what you add to the song or (if you also sing) how your vocal arrangement will sound.

Speaking of Chestnuts and roasting on an open fire… We’ve all heard Nat King Cole or someone else sing this song, but how many people have actually seen a chestnut? Have you ever wondered about that? There was a time when chestnut trees were almost 25% of all hardwood stock in some areas of North America and recipes for everything from roasted chestnuts to chestnuts and sausages were typical fare. But a blight, introduced by planting a strain of Asian chestnuts in Long Island, NY in 1904 wiped out literally billions of trees. That’s right, Billions! It’s estimated there are only a few dozen pre-blight trees still alive in North America today and, of course, hardly anyone eats chestnuts during the holidays and almost all of the chestnuts that are eaten have to be imported. By the time The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) was written in 1944, most of the nation’s chestnut tree stock had already been wiped out. What an ecological nightmare! The things I learn blogging sometimes.

Many great instrumentalists from the 40s, 50s and 60s made holiday albums: Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, George Shearing, Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd all made Christmas albums. So did swinging 60s style artists like Herb Albert, and so have newer jazzy/poppy superstars like Wynton Marsalis, Diane Krall and Nancy Wilson. There are literally weeks worth of instrumental and mood-type Christmas music on YouTube and possibly something on one of these albums could inspire you.

Some people may be more inclined to the rock and roll side of things but keep in mind that the lines of where Golden Classics leave off and rock and roll begins is a fine one indeed. Elvis Presley recorded a whole bunch of Christmas music and his tastes range from gospel, to rock and roll to straight pop. His interpretations of the classics (I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Little Town of Bethlehem) are as good as anyone’s because his gospel background and religious convictions give such sacred songs a depth that many secular vocalists just don’t do as well. It’s very easy to reduce a whole lot of the religious holiday music to camp and sentimentality, but Elvis never does this. He also recorded the definitive version of Blue Christmas. On the original version his vocals are awesome and the arrangement, including the background vocals by The Jordanaires, was inspiring and musically groundbreaking for the time. Was this the first rock and roll Christmas Song? Hmm. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I will chime in. Of course there was a whole lot of rock and roll Christmas after 1957 including: Chuck Berry, The Ventures, Phil Spector’s Christmas (including The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, which is also a classic), The Beatles, who released lots of Christmas craziness through their fan club and then later, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s So This Is Christmas and Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time, both of which still get HEAVY airplay during the season. They are modern standards for sure. The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, also has a modern standard with his version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which has also been covered by everyone from Mariah to Bieber. José Feliciano, who I wrote about here, has the awesome Felice Navidad song that still gets yearly airplay and the recently-departed George Michael had a big 80s classic hit with the holiday favorite Last Christmas. Back in 1992 I was lucky enough to catch the Johnny Cash Christmas show when it rolled through New York City. That was a lot of fun. Brian Setzer has had a Christmas show/revue for years and he has covered a whole ton of great songs. Like this one:

So, depending on your preferred style of music, you can adapt and arrange any song you see fit and spice up everything from musical performances to family gatherings. Christmas songs, carols and melodies lend themselves to a wide variety of possibilities; they can have a very bare bones arrangement that you may sing along with, or they also can be turned into an instrumental mind-blower like what the always amazing Ted Greene does below. When I was in a punk band we used to do a twisted, Black Sabbath kind of take on Santa Claus is Coming to Town. When I got old and settled down, Christmas Time is Here was the first Christmas song I learned to play as a solo improviser and I have played it every year since and performed it at numerous gigs. This past year I worked up an arrangement that was based on The Ventures version of Sleigh Ride and tweaked it to work with gypsy jazz, rehearsed a couple times with the fellows, and away we went at a gig 4 days before Christmas. It was one of the best songs of the gig(!) even though no one had either a vibrato bar or copious amounts of delay since we were playing amplified acoustic. As always: If you are playing the songs instrumentally MAKE SURE you can play the melody without screwing it up! That means going over it a bunch of times. You should be able to play it 3-5 times in a row without a mistake. If you can’t, you will probably fudge it at the gig or in front of people. So beware!

There are about 7-8 songs that I can play pretty well solo and I start getting them together in the fall and play them through the season. Christmas songs are great vehicles for learning to play in an unaccompanied style (especially if you are new to unaccompanied playing), because the melodies are so well-known and the arrangement you can begin with can be very simple, but still very effective. As always take it slow and work your way through it a couple bars at a time. Since most songs do not have many different parts or modulations (unless you add them, which you can certainly do!) you will find that they will come together pretty quickly. Learning to play and perform these tunes is also a great test of what you can add to the performance every time you play it once you become comfortable improvising with yourself. I blew off a version of White Christmas while a few of us were sitting around one day in December and it sounded pretty flippin’ good! If you’re comfortable with the arrangement and comfortable improvising (throwing in some wacky chords and riff choices) you can turn the song into a really special and personal thing…and it can be a little bit different every time! So maybe give that a go later on in the year. Here is a list of jazzy, snazzy solo guitar instruction to get you started. If you’re not up to that yet, try these. You will become part of a long and very storied and important tradition that has involved the guitar and other string instruments for the better part of a millennium. Even if you play in a punk or metal band — everyone likes Christmas songs if you play them well and it’s November or December. Whatever you do, don’t even try this in July man!

Here is Part 1 of this series.

Brian Setzer

The wild and crazy Rockabilly cat has always been one of my favorite guitar players ever since he blasted onto the scene 30 years ago. Can you believe that? 30 rockin’, boppin’ years already? During that time I’ve owned almost all of the Stray Cats material save for the Greatest Hits stuff. I had the first import album and a couple of other releases that were hard to get in the USA at the time. The Stray Cats had a great sound, a great look and could really turn out pro performances, especially in the early days. I was introduced to the band when I caught their first performance on the old television show Fridays. Anybody remember that? I think that a whole lot of people saw that show and this performance as well as some of the other guests who were on. The show only ran for two seasons but featured a ton of great music and was the first appearance of Michael Richards (of Seinfeld fame) on television (I think). This was a really interesting time for music because the effects of the punk rock BANG! from a few years before had splintered into many different directions and were going mainstream in a big way. The Stray Cats hadn’t even had a record released in the USA at the time of this performance but by Xmas of that year I was able to find the imported first release that was recorded in England and produced by Dave Edmunds. Great record, probably there tightest ever and of course Edmunds was an idea producer for the band given his love for the Rockabilly style they were playing. While in England they were seen by many other big British superstars like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin because all of these guys had come of age when the original Rockabilly stars were releasing their records.  Here is the whole Fridays performance from 1981.

What was cool about The Cats was that they were able to blend the punk and new wave styles that were dominating then with a retro sound and look. It was really hard to tell where one left off and the other began because they were able to integrate the two seamlessly. While many people credit guys like Social Distortion’s Mike Ness and Henry Rollins for the proliferation of skin art (tattoos) in rock and roll, Brian Setzer and Slim Jim Phantom deserve a lot of credit too because they were rocking the tattoos and were on national TV and MTV for at least a couple of years in the early 80s. While The Stray Cats weren’t as punk rock and hard-edged as some other bands of the time, they had a sound and a musical approach that appealed to many punk and alt-rockers, especially in England and Europe, where the sound of the 1950s never goes out of style.

Even at the young age of 22-23 when the Stray Cats came on the scene, Brian had obviously digested a lot of the finer points of playing rockabilly and swing guitar and was able to get a really GREAT sound with a pretty simple set-up: his trusty Gretsch, a Roland Space/Chorus echo and Fender Bassman amp. Whether it was on the records or in performance he was able to blow off a lot of really dazzling and fiery licks with a clean sound and that epochal slap-back echo. This combination resulted in a Great Big Presence and Awesome Tone and it worked so well with Slim Jim’s simple drum set-up and the slappin’ bass provided by Lee Rocker. Most of what Brian was doing and still does comes from his hands. He is able to alternate between picking and finger-picking at the drop of a hat just as he is able to alternate between playing standard rockabilly riffs, Jazz/Swing melodies, blues patterns and country styles. Mixing all of these different approaches gives him a very WIDE sound and is great for the tension that is always necessary in music. You just never know what he is going to do next. Here is an excerpt from his Hot Licks video. I have the whole thing and think it’s pretty boss. If you can get some of this stuff happening in your playing you will definitely expand what you’re capable of doing.

While I’ve always dug Brian’s playing I found a new appreciation for it when I started playing Gypsy Jazz and Swing music, because the Jazz, Bop and Swing lines one finds in Rockabilly come from those great players of the 30s, 40s and early 50s. In THIS post I traced an old song from Django Reinhardt to Les Paul to Carl Perkins and George Harrison. Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker were two other cats who had a huge influence on what 1950s Rockabilly and Rock and Roll cats like Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran would mix into their playing. I recently listened to a couple of Charlie Christian CDs and it’s really astonishing how not only his electric playing revolutionized the sound and presence of the guitar, but also how his lines show up EVERYWHERE. While Django had an almost 30-year recording and performing career, Charlie Christian was only on the scene for a couple of years before he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1942. His recorded material is pretty scarce and I haven’t been able to find any film clips of him. He attained legendary status within the jazz community while jamming at Minton’s, the Harlem club that attracted all of the best players of the day, including people like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who would go on to completely turn music on it’s head later in the 1940s. Charlie’s lines anticipated be-bop and almost all of the popular music styles we know today. They have filtered through other people over the years but so much guitar as we know it started with Charlie and Django it’s amazing. I remember reading an interview from Guitar Player with Brian and he related that he learned to play from “guys on Long Island who knew how to play that old swing jazz in Eb and F”. The old-time jazz lines and CHORDS! really take an ordinary three-chord song and make it something special and because of this early training and his love for this sound, Brian has always sounded completely different from most of his contemporaries, although he does have a lot in common with someone else I’ve written about…Chris Spedding. Personally I’ve always had a complete and total love for the way jazz chords sound against a heavy beat and how they can be used to motor through the song. Once a player is adept enough to know how to cycle through changes and mix in single string lines, string bending, vibrato and double-stops there is really no limit to where a song can be taken save for the player’s imagination. Brian demonstrates this in the Route 66 video at the bottom. It’s all about how much you can HEAR and then execute. It has always thrilled me to be able to watch or listen to someone like Brian or Chris Spedding tear up a song in this way. Notice that in the following Brian Setzer Orchestra clip Brian is still using the set-up that has been his mainstay for almost 3 decades. Don’t change what works!

The Stray Cats broke up in 1984 but have reunited numerous times to record new records and tour. Some of the stuff on those releases was really good, some not, and perhaps Brian always felt a bit limited by the restrictions of a three-piece band. He tried branching out in the late-80s with solo efforts like The Knife Feels Like Justice and Live Nude Guitars, which were more mainstream, roots-rock offerings, but neither release did very well. He has played as a guest with a superstars like Robert Plant, Dan Hicks, Paul Rogers, Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks and has always gotten big ups for his ability to bring the swing to the song. But it was with the formation of the Brian Setzer Orchestra in 1990 where he finally found his niche and was able to build on his earlier successes. BSO broke out at the height of the early 90s swing revival and have been able to keep that popularity alive through this past decade. Not only is Brian a great player, but he is also a very keen arranger, which is probably why he’s won Grammys for instrumental performances of Sleepwalk, Caravan and My Favorite Things. The fact that he has great players working with him helps out a whole bunch too. Usually the toughest adjustment for any young guitar slinger is how to mature, stay fresh and keep an audience while adding new fans as the years go by. Forming the BSO has made this possible for Brian and it’s a brand of entertainment that is part Rockabilly, part Vegas, part old-time supper club, which suits him perfectly.

When the Stray Cats reformed in 2004 they did a tour of Europe that was captured on film and became the Rumble in Brixton DVD release. I have this and think it’s Really Cool Daddyo because it shows they are still capable of rocking the house just like the old days. All of the good stuff is here including some of my personal faves: Double Talking Baby, Fishnet Stockings, Ubangi Stomp, Blast Off, That’s Alright Mama, and Please Don’t Touch. All of the hits are on here too and the only downer is I Won’t Stand in Your Way, which is very rushed for some reason. Shame, because it was such a well-written ballad on the Built for Speed record back in the day. The Stray Cats really bring the swing and boogie and on several songs Brian stretches out and plays some magnificent stuff — Sleepwalk is a bona-fide guitar hero performance. The DVD comes with a bunch of extras and a new song and is a great testament to a trio of guys who have a lot of love for a great style of music and have kept at it for over a quarter century. It’s really cool that Brian continues to thrive and expand what he began back in the 1970s and that shows not only his talent, but the power and appeal of this very American style of music, which continues to move people all over the world.