Cool & Strange Music Vol. 3, Number 1

At my job, I get to sit and watch and listen to all of the newest music that comes out on the pop charts. I am sometimes treated to a classical music performance or taken to the opera by my wife. I also get the chance to see some very unusual and rare performances by some great artists through connections at work. But, even though I get to see all of this as a part of my job, I haven’t been impressed greatly by any artist in over ten years. What I mean to say by that is I haven’t heard anything that surprised me as something done in an absolutely new and different way since I heard Fatboy Slim’s Rockafella Skank, or the time I attended a classical performance of Aida as performed by one of Germany’s best opera troupes in Tokyo. Even though Aida is a very famous opera, I was floored by the vocal prowess of these singers as well as the top quality production of the entire event. Fatboy Slim surprised me by doing an old style in a new way. The style and delivery of both these events pleasantly surprised me.

Nothing I have seen or heard since has surprised me; except for the first artist that I’d like to introduce to the world of Cool & Strange today.

Have you ever wondered what the greatest vocalist of all time would sound like? I have many times. Wouldn’t you imagine that a person who could be called "the greatest vocalist of the 20th Century" would lead a life that is as dramatic, if not more so, than her stage performances?

Who do you think the greatest vocalist of all time is? Aretha Franklin? Mariah Carey? No way. I believe that youngsters today think that Mariah Carey has a great voice. But how about if I told you that Mariah Carey is maybe Single A Farm League compared to our first artist today? Today’s first recommended artist has been called the greatest vocalist of the 20th Century. I’d like to go one up on that; all things considered, I think she is by far the greatest vocalist of all time. Throw in her amazing life story and you have one heck of a Cool & Strange story and music that will enthrall as well as drop your jaw while listening!

Her name was Maria Callas. She was an American-born Greek soprano and the most famous singing actress of the post-World War II period. She had an impeccable technique with God-given gifts for dramatic effect and an unbelievably dramatic life to match.

As a young teen, she moved to Athens, Greece. There, her mother lied about her age, saying she was 17, when she was only 13, and she received a scholarship to study opera at the prestigious Athens Conservatory. She made her professional debut at the Athens Opera on July 4, 1941, as Tosca, going on to sing Santuzza and Leonora during the next three years. When the Germans occupied Greece, she was hired to entertain high-ranking Nazi officers. Even though there was a war going on, the Nazi’s needed their entertainment, so they hired the best opera performers in Greece to fill the bill. Maria was not concerned with politics; she was only concerned with her life as dramatic art. She performed for the crowd and gained much recognition during this time.

Maria Callas: A Musical Biography (Hardcover) List Price: $24.95 On Sale Price: $16.47

When the Germans were booted out of Greece, Maria’s life was in danger as communists, who were vying for control of Greece, had threatened her life on numerous occasions for collaborating with the enemy during the war. After the communist underground murdered another famous Greek actress, Maria fled Greece and went to Italy. There she contributed to the bel canto revival of the 1950’s.

Throughout the 1950s, Maria Callas made numerous appearances at the world’s great opera houses: La Scala in Milan, Opera Garnier in Paris, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, Dallas Opera (Dallas, Texas), Royal Opera House in London, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, and Mexico’s Palacio de las Bellas Artes. It was in Mexico that she brought down the house with an unheard of performance of Puccini. Maria had now become a star of international renown.

Maria Callas had always had a problem with her weight. But by 1954, she shed dozens of pounds and achieved an utterly glamorous appearance. In later years, this huge loss of weight would have serious ramifications on her voice.

Maria’s life took another bizarre twist of fate in 1957. Though they both were married to someone else at the time, Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis fell in love that year on the cruise ship owned by Onassis and in front of many dignitaries including Winston Churchill. According to one biographer, Nicholas Gage, Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis had a baby boy who died hours after he was born on 30th March 1960.

Maria Callas had already left her husband by then and waited another nine years for Onassis to marry her. Their love affair received much publicity from the press and was scorned as well as admired by friends. Maria and the entire world would then be shocked when it was announced that the Greek shipping tycoon had married Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of assassinated president John F. Kennedy in 1968.

“First I lost my voice, then I lost my figure and then I lost Onassis,” Maria said. Heartbroken, Maria Callas then spent her last years living in isolation in Paris. Two years after Aristotle Onassis died, Maria Callas died from a heart attack at the age of 53. One friend said that Maria, after Onassis died, “Willed herself to death.”

Maria Callas — Life & Art (2 CD’s & Bonus DVD) Price: $32.98 & this item ships for FREE with Super Saver Shipping

Even upon her death, this incredible woman’s story did not end. After her funeral, her ashes were stolen from the cemetery. After being recovered they were scattered into the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece. In 2004, opera and film director Franco Zeffirelli made a fantastic accusation that Callas may have been murdered by her confidante, Greek pianist Vasso Devetzi in order that Devetzi could get his hands on Callas’ $9 million dollar estate.

Greatly admired by many opera fans, disliked by others, Callas was as controversial an artist as her life revealed. Her supporters called her “La Divina” and raved about the dramatic intensity and ravishing portrayals she instinctively brought to the opera stage. Maria Callas was not a beautiful vocalist in the classical sense of opera. Classical opera singers do not take chances with their voice during live performances. But Maria Callas was different. She was totally unique in that she would take chances with her voice and style; she would take the risks that are necessary for any artist to be called truly great. I have heard what this incredible woman has done. My vote is in. In my opinion, Maria Callas is the greatest singer, by far, of the 20th Century. With the direction that the music industry is heading today — away from art and more towards commercial pabulum Maria Callas could most likely be the greatest singer the world will ever know.

Anyone who claims to love music of any kind will be wowed by what this incredible woman could do with her voice; there are times when she does vocal acrobatics that seem humanly impossible. But she did them — also don’t forget that she took the world by storm in the day way before electronic devices could sample and repair a torn performance. Maria Callas was 100% natural human voice, toil, guts, grace, and desire. Anyone who wants to claim to be knowledgeable about music needs to own at least one of this woman’s amazing works of art.

Trust me here folks, there is not a single reader out there who will not be mightily impressed by Maria Callas. You must own one of the Maria Callas items recommended today. In fact, do yourself a favor and pick up all three I’m recommending.

Maria Callas, the Voice of the Century List Price: $21.98 On Sale Price: $19.99

About two years ago, I recommended a very cool CD called Doob Doob O’ Rama 2. Those of you who were smart enough and lucky enough to grab one while the grabbing was good, scored a small piece of treasure, as those CDs are now gone. Poof. Disappeared. Vanished. Bye, bye. Never to be seen again on regular record store shelves and now banished into record collector Geek heaven for some outrageously high price. One of the regular readers of Cool & Strange Music who did have quick enough hands to latch onto a copy of that CD was a guy named Joseph Leibrandt. Not only did Joseph get lucky enough to be turned onto his ear with the great sounds on that CD, the CD actually changed his life! Yep! That’s right. Get this from a mail I received from Joseph:

Thanks for recommending Doob Doob O’ Rama 2. I’m enjoying it right now. My girlfriend’s parents got it for me for Christmas. Get this: the woman pictured on the cover is my girlfriend’s third cousin! How cool and strange is that? I had no idea. She does look a little like a younger version of my girlfriend’s mother. — Joseph Leibrandt

Talk about finding a magic lantern with an amazingly beautiful girl, er, I mean magic genie in it washed up on a beach! Wow! Good for you Joseph! Joseph then goes on to tell me all about how Cool & Strange Music has changed his life and he, "Just can’t get enough of it," and wants to share these cool tunes with other readers around the world.

Cocktail Mix, Vol. 2 — Various Artists List Price: $18.98

Here’s what another music fan had to say about this fantabulous CD:

I am new to Lounge but knew I loved Austin Powers-type music so I took a chance on this one and this is my favorite CD. I need two copies, one for my car and one for the house! Many of the artists weren’t familiar to me but it was love at first listen with Ann-Margret‘s 13 Men (first track), then an elevator-muzak style Girl from Ipanema and the classics Soul Bossa Nova and Mais Que Nada (you’ll know it when you hear it). House of Bamboo is so much fun as is Hot Barbeque and a different version of Dave Brubeck‘s Take Five. It’s all great — run, don’t walk, to get out your martini glasses. Oh, and last but not least, the inside jacket is jam-packed with career bios of each artist. This is a must-have.

World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love’s a Real Thing [Enhanced] List Price: $16.98 On Sale Price: $13.99

Our next CD was also recommended by a reader of Cool & Strange Music, Mr. Nicholas Garner. Nick wanted to turn us all onto the Luaka Bop sound and I, for one, am thanking him mightily. First off, this CD is not what you think it is. It is definitely not a bunch of 1960’s San Francisco LSD induced fuzz guitar and heavily drugged-out music. World Psychedelic Classics 3 is put out by a label called Luaka Bop. Luaka Bop is the label owned and operated by former Talking Heads lead vocalist David Byrne and it only releases music that appeals to the true lover of the art-form as well as the student who is interested in hearing something new. Music fans as well as art fans will dig this CD big-time! Imagine a jazzy, funky, World-Beat African band that is a mix between James Brown meets Jimi Hendrix singing in a language that is as indiscernible as it is poetic. You may not understand the words, but everyone understands the funk. This CD is a steal. Buy it now while there’s still some to buy.

Here’s what has to say:

The American psychedelic movement was bound to produce unexpected progeny — including the 1970s, which began as a mainstream attempt to absorb the “free love,” recreational drug use, and sartorial eccentricities of the previous decade. But there were parallel repercussions elsewhere in the world, and nowhere was this phenomenon more fascinating than in West Africa. As LPs became cheaper and readily available, local musicians began to incorporate the fuzz and wah-wah guitar vamps, cheesy organ riffs, blatting saxes, and fat, funky bass lines of sixties R&B plus Santana-influenced Latin rhythms and the extended, destination-free guitar solos typical of the San Francisco sound. These were not emulated by rote but freely adapted by younger Africans, mostly students, whose own acoustic traditions had already been transformed by exposure to urban technology. The resulting amalgams, whether they evolved in Benin, Nigeria, Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire, or Mali, remain incredibly lively, funny, inventive, and surprising.

Ghana Soundz: Afrobeat, Funk and Fusion in 70’s, Vol. 2 — Various Artists List Price: $20.98 On Sale Price: $18.99

Well, while you are buying the World Psychedelic Classics 3 CD, you might as well save your time, gas, and money by picking up this insanely funky album too. This Ghana Soundz album is definitely for fans of funk music who want to hear the music done in a different way than the American style of funk that we hear all the time. This album is amazing also and the drums will make fans of Fela Kuti sit up in their seats and shake their heads and wonder, “Why haven’t I heard these incredible musicians before?” This CD is one heck of a funky killer machine… And grandpa and grandma might dig it big time too!

Here’s what says:

Afro-music continues to inspire a number of musicians, producers and DJs around the globe. Ghana Soundz Volume 2 does just that by properly representing Afro-music from the 1970s. Ghana Soundz was an idea created by compiler and DJ Miles Cleret 3 years ago. Since then he has traveled throughout Ghana to assemble three collections of rare Afro-beat, Afro-funk and Afro-fusion, most of which were unreleased outside of Africa and quite a few have never been released in the world. The series forms a unique window on a scene previously unknown outside of Ghana until Volume One was released in 2003.

Pounding rhythms, blaring horns and pumping vocals — the music is a document of a time forgotten when flares and Cuban heels strutted the streets and night-spots of Accra, the sizzling hot and humid capital of Ghana. Influenced as much by traditional rhythms and local highlife as by the music of Fela Kuti, James Brown and Santana, these tunes had almost been lost — until now!

Fela Kuti meets James Brown meets Santana? Oh man, what are you waitin’ for?

Zombie — Fela Kuti [Original Recording Reissued] List Price: $18.98

Well, since I mentioned Fela Kuti, I might as well direct you to this man’s awesome, awe-inspiring sounds. If you only had one Fela Kuti recording, then this is the one for you. Fela Kuti may not be nearly as well known as Maria Callas, but his music and his story are bizarre and fascinating also, to say the least. Here’s what a Fela Kuti fan wrote about the man and this album:

When you ask someone who Fela Kuti is, a lot of people may tell you how he was a Nigerian musician who studied music in England and returned to Africa to explore and create his own style. Others might talk about how he believed A.I.D.S to be a fabricated illness that didn’t really exist, and how ironic it was that he died from it. Some may talk about how he turned his house and a small area of land into his own Republic inside the nation of Nigeria.

Still, others may tell you about his music. People will tell you that he created that elastic Afro-beat style you may have heard other musicians using as an umbrella for their styles of music.

But the problem today is that we love to categorize and box things off into a corner, and while he did invent Afro-beat and he should get credit, it needs to be mentioned that there is also an intangible quality about Fela Kuti’s music.

Zombie has to be one of my favorite albums of Fela so far. This album, like all of his other albums, require a lot of patience and stamina and acquired taste, but for those of you who find meaning in Jlo, Ludacris, or pretty much most things that people are told to like, then you can still appreciate Fela’s music, but it will take time. Pop music is instant gratification music, and that’s why I’ve always hated it. Fela’s music is more like real life, and that’s why it conjures up more powerful images and feelings then “I’m still Jenny from the bloke.”

This album is charged with political satire. The rhythms build up steam, as does the horn section, the singers, and Fela Kuti, and the songs explode into melodic progressions which are lengthy and get repeated in a hypnotizing way. As a result, the songs can sound wistful, angry, un-well, or anything else that a human feels like. All of the songs have an urgent and aggressive feel, and they can completely hypnotize you, while at the same time (and with Fela’s lyrics) can heighten your awareness.

I’d write more, but I would simply advise you to get this album… If you are already a Fela Kuti fan, then why haven’t you bought this album yet? And if you’re not, this is one of the best. Plus, the inlay has a lot of information on him. It’s a good idea to read all of it before you listen to any of the songs, because then you’ll have a greater understanding and a deeper appreciation for them. (A) Very powerful album.

Fela Kuti, “… turned his house and a small area of land into his own Republic inside the nation of Nigeria…”? Wow! Sounds like a man after my own heart!

Spaced Out: The Best of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner — Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner [Import] List Price: $14.49

Sulu: Captain! We have some sort of bizarre space mass appearing on our screen from the Lexur Quadrant.

Kirk: Commence evasive action, Mr. Sulu… Mr. Spock?

Spock: Interesting captain. It would seem to be a black-hole of Space Geekiness sucking up everything in its path and heading straight for us at warp speed.

Kirk: Engine room! Scotty! I need more power. Get us out of here.

Scotty: I’m sorry, captain. That I cannot do. The Dialithium Crystals are all worn out. I’m doing all I can. If I give it any more power, I cannot be responsible for the safety of the ship.

Kirk: Bones!?

Dr. McCoy: I’m a doctor, not a script writer!

And so goes another episode of the greatest TV show the world has ever known. Well, sorta. Okay, we’ve hit “danger” on the geek meter. Star Trekkers, put your phazers to stun. Here’s what a proud owner of this CD has to say:

I used to think the funniest unintentionally funny thing I’d ever heard was Lorne Green, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon butchering the theme from “Bonanza.” Then I got this album. The tone-deaf stars of “Bonanza” have nothing on “Star Trek’s” William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, whose insatiable TV-star egos pushed them to record music and monologues that transcend mere mediocrity and ineptitude, constituting an alien art form that defies earthly description. Whatever it is, it’s the best of it, or the worst, depending upon your point of view. You’ll love it passionately, like I do, or you’ll despise it with every fiber of your being, like my wife does. There’s no middle ground here.

Shatner’s contributions, dramatic monologues set to florid music and rock songs performed with straightjacket intensity, are all taken from his legendary album “The Transformed Man.” No one is safe from the shame of Canada: The hallowed words of Shakespeare, Lennon-McCartney and Bob Dylan are trampled and tortured in Shatner’s patented overripe acting style, turned up to eleven. Shatner’s anguished cry of “Mr. Tambourine Man!!!!” at the end of that song is so unexpected and frightening, it would kill a strolling minstrel dead in his tracks. I must confess, I’m a sucker for Shatner’s histrionics, and I admire the chutzpa it took to be a performance artist of such…uniqueness. “It Was a Very Good Year,” with Shatner exercising restraint (for him), actually achieves a certain elegance. It’s my favorite burst of Shatnerian flatulence.

Nimoy was much more ambitious than Shatner, churning out a mind-boggling five albums of folk, country-western and soft rock covers. Saccharine ballads such as “Sunny” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” painfully expose the limitations of Nimoy’s earnest baritone as he croons in keys that would make a stuffed dog howl. (Remember how Spock sounded in the throes of a Vulcan mind-meld with the Horta? Put that to music and you get the idea.) To be fair, some of his efforts are admirable. Nimoy’s yearning vocal on “Where Is Love” is heart-rending, and he does a pretty fair imitation of Kenny Rogers on “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”

There’s also a smattering of screamingly hokey spoken word pieces written by one Charles R. Grean, which Nimoy delivers in character as Spock amid clouds of celestial music reminiscent of the work of “Star Trek” composer Alexander Courage. The best of these is “Spock Thoughts,” a litany of hilarious platitudes that includes this priceless advice: “Speak your truth quietly and clearly and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant. They, too, have their story to tell!”

The album’s Masterpiece is surely “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” Grean’s musicalized Cliff Notes retelling of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” Demented, charming and impossible to dislike, it’s a groovy tune straight out of Monty Python, and Nimoy sings it with gusto.

While most of Nimoy’s efforts are laugh-fests, it’s hard to fault his commitment: He was clearly serious about his music. Luckily for his ardent fans, no one in Nimoy’s orbit had the guts to tell Spock he had no clothes. 5 stars.

Well, I never! I would like to add a rebuttal to this person’s claims by saying that I think Nimoy’s singing is totally fab and Shatner’s singing is just as good, if not better, than his acting was. So there! Buy this album and get in on the fun and laughs. It’s a gas!

101 Strings Plays Frank Sinatra — 101 Strings List Price: $6.98

101 Strings is a name that is synonymous with easy listening music. When I was a kid, my folks had several of these records and I hated them all (that was back in the day when the British rock invasion was all the rage). Years later, I went back into my parent’s record collection and found these fantastic records. Could my parents have been more hip and cool than I first imagined when I was a ten-year-old kid? I guess it is quite possible. These 101 Strings recordings were very hard to find on CD up to just a few years ago, but now there seems to be a 101 Strings revival. Dare I say, “A 101 Strings boom”? Yes, I dare. I can wholeheartedly recommend this particular 101 Strings recording as it is the music of Frank Sinatra. Let’s face it folks, today’s hit chart music, well, it’s just a fad. Because when you’ve lived and loved like Frank has, then you really know what life’s all about.

Here’s the bio of 101 Strings:

One of the most prolific and reliable names in instrumental easy listening music, the 101 Strings Orchestra has literally recorded hundreds of albums since its inception in 1957. Their trademark sound is built on a reverence for melody, pristine production, and a pleasant, relaxing ambience; while occasional albums have concentrated on brass, piano, guitars, and even mild rock & roll rhythms, the string section — true to the group’s name — nearly always remains front and center, because of its lush, soothing sound qualities. Most of their albums were built around some unifying theme, whether the work of a well-known artist or songwriter, a specific topic (patriotism, holidays, et al.), TV/ movie themes, songs from a particular country, revampings of familiar tunes from other genres, and so on. The group was founded by producer/engineer Dick L. Miller, who was searching for a way to mimic the sound and style of orchestras led by “name” conductors like Mantovani, without the expense involved in securing their services. He hit upon the idea of recruiting unknown European groups at a much lower cost, and made the 101 Strings Orchestra into something of a brand name (since the personality of the group rested with the arrangements, the individual musicians were somewhat interchangeable, so long as they could play in the preset style). The orchestra’s first home was Miller’s own Somerset label and their first arranger was Robert Lowden; he was followed by Joseph Kuhn and Monte Kelly in turn, all of whom wrote occasional original numbers as well. In 1964, Miller sold the whole 101 Strings package to the Alshire label, which continued to turn out product with assembly line regularity over the next few decades. During their first decade, the 101 Strings would occasionally offer a more experimental album as a change of pace, but that all stopped after their fan base’s reaction to 1968’s futuristic and at times unsettling Astro Sounds From Beyond the Year 2000 (which became a sought-after item among latter-day space age pop fans). In 1995, Madacy Entertainment purchased the Alshire label and began reissuing a great deal of the 101 Strings back catalog on CD, not to mention new material.

Well, that’s it for today. I think that, all-in-all, today’s recommendations could be the best, most satisfying, bunch of music that I’ve had on the turntable in a long time. Try some of these out and you’ll agree: Them’s some mighty fine tunes. Buy some and then let me know just how much you loved them, or if you really get lucky like our regular reader, Joseph Leibrandt and also find one very pretty woman in the course of digging the tunes, then send along a photo. We’d love to see another happy couple walk down the marriage aisle while the Wedding Song (in a Cool & Strange fashion) plays… Sniff… Just brings a tear to this old Cool & Strange DJ’s eyes…

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