Monday 23 November 2015

Ol' Blues Eyes Is Back (Again)

This year has seen the celebrations of the Sinatra Centenary marking one hundred years since the birth of Francis Albert Sinatra in, as every quizzer knows, Hoboken, New Jersey.

Sinatra's meteoric rise to worldwide stardom happened over  just a few months between the autumn of 1942 and the spring of 1943 and coincided with the Golden Age of US radio.    

Frank's musical ambitions were set a decade earlier in 1933 after watching a well-known crooner in concert. "I saw Bing Crosby tonight and I've got to be a singer", he told his parents. Most of his early performances were in local talent contests but by September 1935 he made his first broadcast whilst singing as part of The Hoboken Four. The show, at New York's Capitol Theatre, was carried by one of the local radio stations.

His time with the singing group was brief and he was soon back to touring the clubs and theatres. But he realised that he'd only make the big time with radio exposure so he'd offer to sing for free whenever a station had a vacant spot. WNEW provided him with a number of opportunities but seemingly only WAAT in Newark paid him a fee - the 70 cents bus fare home.

His break came when he filled a vacancy for a singer and compere at the Rustic Club, a local roadhouse on Route 9W in Alpine, New Jersey. Quickly building up a repertoire of songs and a neat line in audience repartee, Frank's shows were wired into the local stations. The Rustic Club's management relished the publicity and upped his weekly wage from $15 to $25.

Those early broadcasts proved invaluable. In the summer of 1939 Benny Goodman's former trumpeter, Harry James, was establishing a new band and was looking for a vocalist. Hearing one of the Rustic Club shows James asked who this kid was. Young Frank was signed up just days later. His first performance with Harry James was on 30 June and he cut his first record just a fortnight later.    
Sinatra's time with James was brief, by January 1940  he'd been poached by Tommy Dorsey and was touring, recording and regularly appearing on the radio. With Dorsey he honed his craft and learnt his distinctive musical phrasing, though he was still unnamed on the records they released with their generic credit to "with vocal chorus". Ambitious to the last he eventually flew the Dorsey coop in September 1942.

It was Marnie Sachs at Columbia Records who found Sinatra his first solo break, a twice weekly slot on CBS titled Songs by Sinatra. Next he was the "Added Extra Attraction" on the bill of a New Year's Eve Benny Goodman show at the Paramount Theatre in New York. The screams that greeted the scrawny young singer stopped Goodman in his tracks. A star was born. It was the start of the infamous bobby-soxers period. Time magazine proclaimed that "not since the days of Rudolph Valentino has American womanhood made such unabashed public love to an entertainer".

The impact of the Paramount shows, which eventually ran for a recording-breaking eight weeks, was immediate. In January he negotiated a film contract with RKO and was then signed up to replace Barry Wood on the weekly networked Saturday night concert show, Your Hit Parade. By February the programme had doubled its audience.

Sinatra's fame was also spreading across the Atlantic. He'd first appeared on BBC radio in 1940 when it broadcast a recording of a Harry James show. But in 1944 the General Forces Programme relayed a joint production with NBC called Atlantic Spotlight that featured Frank. From December 1944 to May 1945 the BBC also carried the Your Hit Parade shows, though it just billed them under the name of the show's musical director as Mark Warnow and his Orchestra.

By 1947 Frank was earning $12,000 a programme even though his career was now on the wane. The mainly Republican press laid into Sinatra; they frowned upon politically committed stars, his private life came under the spotlight, especially his dalliances with actresses like Lana Turner, and there were verbal and physical punch-ups. Even his radio appearances were coming under fire with Metronome describing them as "alternately dull, pompous and raucous". He gave up the shows in May 1949 fed up with both the songs he was given to sing and the style in which he had to sing them.

Frank starred in a  number of other US radio shows in the early 1950s, these are listed in this Wikipedia entry. Meanwhile, in the way that Sinatra would continue to make several comebacks during his lifetime, by 1953 his fortunes had revived: he signed up with Capitol Records and established his superb musical relationship with Nelson Riddle and Billy May and there was a successful tour of Britain.

That British concert tour led to a couple of appearances that summer on the Light Programme's Show Band Show as well as an interview with David Jacobs on his Radio Luxembourg show Portrait of a Star - David recalls this meeting in All or Nothing At All below. Apart from a 1954 disc jockey show on NBC that seems to the end of Frank's radio career. After that its programmes about the man himself, some concert recordings and film reviews and soundtracks (see the BBC's Movie-Go-Round for instance).

I mention all this as tonight on BBC Radio 2 Paul Gambaccini explores Sinatra's US radio career in Frank and the Golden Era of Radio. It's part of a season of Sinatra Centenary programmes to be broadcast between now and the middle of December.

From my own archive I've chosen three programmes:

Firstly, on the occasion of Frank's 70th birthday, comes this appraisal of his life and career from American novelist and screenwriter Clancy Sigal, All or Nothing at All. It aired on BBC Radio 4 on 8 December 1985.

Secondly a programme presented by the British DJ that knew the man himself, David Jacobs. This is the first edition of a 13-part series titled Frank Sinatra: The Voice of the Century. It was broadcast on 4 October 1998.

And finally all I have of a 3-part series written and presented by Benny Green, Sinatra! A Man and his Music. This was first broadcast in December 1985 but my recording comes from a November 1986 repeat.

Reference: Frank Sinatra by John Howlett (Plexus, 1980)

Tuesday 10 November 2015

That Was the Week - Part 6

So far in this series of posts I've gone back to the 1960s with Listen to the Space and It's Saturday, to the 1970s and 80s for Week Ending, The News Quiz and The NewsHuddlines. So it's time to bring things up-to-date.

By the late 1980s it was, perhaps surprisingly, ITV that dominated the satirical news landscape with Spitting Image. This was followed in 1990 by Have I Got News for You over on BBC2. Meanwhile it was Radio 1 that was leading the way with shows such as The Mary WhitehouseExperience and Loose Talk - both transferring to TV of course.  The newly launched Radio Five Live offered The Treatment initially with Simon Hoggart (later to chair The News Quiz) bur for most its run (1994-2001) with Stuart Maconie.

We'll come to The Now Show and It's Been a Bad Week in a moment but by the time we get to the noughties there were a flurry of shows that took at least some of their inspiration from current events:

Dead Ringers (Radio 4, 2000-2007/2014 to date)

Parsons and Naylor's Pull-Out Sections (Radio 2, 2001-2007) starring Andy Parsons (now a team regular on BBC TV's Mock the Week) and Henry Naylor with musical interludes from Richie Webb.

Armando Iannucci's Charm Offensive (Radio 4, 2005-2007). According to Iannucci "the aim of Charm Offensive is to take the talking points of the week and address them as a team of colleagues having a chinwag, in front of a studio audience."  (RT 110807)

I Guess That's Why they Call it the News (Radio 4, 2009), a short-lived panel show hosted by Fred McAuley.

Newsjack (Radio 4 Extra, 2009 to date) which extends the open door policy of Week Ending to any budding comedy writing willing to email their sketches and one-liners.

7 Day Sunday (later 7 Day Saturday) (Radio Five Live 2010-2015) with Chris Addison and then Al Murray picking over the week.

But the regular purveyors of topical comedy for nigh on 30 years have been Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis.

Steve and Hugh's first on-air collaboration was the 1988 series for Radio 4, Live on Arrival. This was a rare venture into live comedy, previously done by the In One Ear team (1984-86), coming each Saturday night from the old Paris Studios. With Punt and Dennis was Flip Webster and singer/songwriter Guy Jackson. Here's the first edition from 30 April 1988.

In fact Punt and Dennis had worked together previously on a Radio 4 comedy, Project Santa Claus, with Hugh in the cast and Steve providing the script. Indeed Steve's comedy writing pedigree was well-established by the time they came to perform together. He'd submitted sketches and quickies to Week Ending since 1983, contributed material to the Jeremy Hardy comedy Unnatural Acts (1987) and to Loose Ends (1987-90) as well as writing for Jasper Carrott and Rory Bremner's TV outings in Carrott Confidential and Now-Something Else.  

On Radio 4 in 1988 Punt and Dennis wrote and starred in a two-part comedy about "the oddities of Olympic antics" called Olympiod 88. Meanwhile Live On Arrival's producer David Tyler proposed a 15-minute edit of the show for a try-out on Radio 1. Controller Johnny Beerling turned the idea down but did ask David to develop a new comedy show for the network. The result was Hey Rrradio!!! (1988-89) with Patrick Marber acting as host  and during the series Punt and Dennis popped up as guests. Following Hey Rrradio!!! on Radio 1 was The Mary Whitehouse Experience (1989-90) featuring the combined talents of Punt and Dennis and Newman and Baddiel. It was this that helped secure them more TV work: the TV version of The Mary Whitehouse Experience itself, Canned Carrott and The Imaginatively Titled Punt and Dennis Show. Whilst Hugh has continued to regularly perform on TV, e.g. Mock the Week and Outnumbered, Steve has largely remained behind the scenes acting as script associate, i.e. writing the gags, on many shows including most of the run of Mock the Week.

However, on radio Punt and Dennis have remained consistently employed, and consistently funny, since 1998 on two series that have relied heavily on topical comedy.

On Radio 2 from 1999 to 2006 there were fourteen series of It's Been a Bad Week, perhaps best remembered for Van Man and the Worst Week of the Week Award, Awarded Weekly on a Week-by-Week Basis.     

It's Been a Bad Week was an independent production from Celador, who described the programme thus: "Hosts Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis trawl the world’s media outlets in search of tales of woe, disaster and misfortune – and then have a good laugh at them. From gigantic corporate cock-ups to the sad failures of the humblest individual, It’s Been a Bad Week is unflinching in its search for stories that reflect the calamitous misfortunes which occur daily around the globe. Drawing on a mixture of sketches, songs, impressions, guest contributions and scripted news items, the show targets the week’s well-known bad news stories, governmental disasters, royal excesses, celebrity misbehaviour as well as a myriad of less well-publicised stories from Britain and abroad".

From 2005 this is the fifth programme in the eleventh series. With Punt and Dennis are Sue Perkins, Simon Greenall and Mitch Benn.

Starting in 1998, and still running to this day - the 47th series kicks off this week - is The Now Show. Make that The Noooow Shoooow! A typical edition would go like this: Steve and Hugh pick on the week's top story for a routine invariably involving Hugh doing a comic voice or impression with support from Laura Shavin; a comic rant from someone like Marcus Brigstocke or Andy Saltzman; a song from Mitch Benn; a routine from vertically-challenged Jon Holmes ("his dream is to be the present in a Kinder egg") and rounding off with answers from the audience to a question set before the show.

This is first ever edition of The Now Show from 26 September 1998. With Punt and Dennis are Jane Bussmann, Dan Freedman, Simon Munnery, David Quantick and Nick Romero. Of the initial cast only David Quantick has remained a semi-regular guest.   

This next audio upload concludes this series of posts. It's another Now Show from 2012, the final show of series 36. With Steve and Hugh in this pasty and petrol-fuelled edition are John Finnemore, Jon Holmes, Mitch Benn and Laura Shavin.

That Was the Week That Was

Sunday 8 November 2015

The Voice of Radio 4

You'll have no doubt heard or read the news last week of the passing of Peter Donaldson, the former newsreader and announcer on BBC Radio 4. His voice was part of the fabric of the network for over four decades. This is my tribute to Peter:

Whilst Peter is mainly associated with Radio 4 I thought it would be interesting to look in a little more detail at his early radio career in the late 1960s/early 1970s.

He first started broadcasting for the British Forces Broadcasting Service in 1967 - a year earlier than I posted in the above video and as quoted in a number of obituaries. Working for BFBS Aden he was there during the Aden Emergency and was on-air when the station was forced to close in November. His next posting was with BFBS Dhekelia in Cyprus, the island on which he'd grown up before leaving in 1960 to continue his education in the UK. Subsequently he worked for BFBS Tobruk in Libya and, in 1969, BFBS Malta.

Family Favourites billing, 29 September 1968

His first appearance on the BBC's airwaves was actually on an edition of Family Favourites on 29 September 1968 whilst he was at BFBS Tobruk. He made further broadcasts on the show in 1968 and 1969.  

Peter joined the BBC on 6 April 1970 as an announcer and presenter on Radio 2. His first Radio Times billing was on 7 May when he hosted an afternoon of Davis Cup coverage, playing the music between Maurice Edelston's commentary. He joined the team of Night Ride presenters in June 1970, taking care of the Monday night editions until the following January. In the summer of 1970 he covered for Bruce Wyndham on Saturday's Breakfast Special.

By December 1970 he was doing the occasional continuity shift over on Radio 4, and continued to do so throughout 1971. Meanwhile on Radio 2 in 1971 he popped up on Saturday Night with Peter Donaldson and Strings by Starlight and was back on Night Ride, this time the Tuesday night slot, from August through to the following May. In addition he presented a short mid-morning series called All Kinds of Music on Radio 4.

Radio Times profile from 1990

When Radio 2's Breakfast Special ended in March 1972 it was replaced by both The Early Show and Terry Wogan. Announcers took turns on The Early Show with Peter's initial stint starting in May. Again more Night Ride programmes followed from September 1972 to September 1973.    
From November 1973 Peter was now permanently on Radio 4, first as an announcer and than from 28 December reading his first news bulletin on the station. In 1974 reading and narrating on The Weekly World was added to his duties.

But by June 1974 he'd disappeared from the airwaves. What Radio 4 listeners didn't know is that he'd agreed to head north to Sheffield and be part of Keith Skues's team at Radio Hallam, due to launch that October. Although he got round to recording a trail for his weekday afternoon show Roundabout he never made it on-air. In fact he was back on continuity duty at Radio 4 by 20 September, about a fortnight before Hallam launched. The commercial sector, it seems, was not for him. Or perhaps it was the thought of being away from, or uprooting, his family.

From November 1974 Peter was back on news-reading duties and then it was Radio 4 all the way: chief announcer from 1988 to 2003, retiring from the Corporation in 2005 and working freelance until his final bulletin just after midnight on 1 January 2013. Here's that final bulletin in full.

Peter Donaldson 1945-2015

You can donate to the Macmillan Cancer Support on JustGiving. This page has been set up by Peter's daughter as a thank you to the Macmillan Nurses who looked after him during his illness.  

With thanks to David Mitchell.
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