Thursday, May 19, 2016

Eh, Julie!: Deceased Artiste Julius La Rosa

Every obit for singer Julius La Rosa, who died last week at 86, led off with the fact that a well-beloved (then) radio and TV host fired him live on-air in 1953 (on a radio show, not on TV). I want to dump that angle summarily and move on to what I valued most about La Rosa, who was affectionately known to friends, fans, and listeners as “Julie.”

I have extremely fond memories of listening to Julie as a deejay back in the Seventies. He was part of a sterling group of “radio personalities” on WNEW-AM, a NYC institution that was sadly killed off in the early Nineties.

The weekday line-up started off with “Klavan in the Morning” (the great character comedian Gene Klavan) from 6-10. The immortal William B. Williams (he who coined the phrase “Chairman of the Board” for a certain Francis Albert) was on-air from 10 to 1 p.m. Julie had the early afternoon slot (1–4) and was followed by the late, great Ted Brown (4-8, “drive time”), who was a rambunctiously entertaining deejay. Jim Lowe (yes, the guy who sang “Behind the Green Door”) hosted from 8 to midnight, presenting interviews with celebrities as well as music. Stan Martin had the late shift as the host of “the Milkman’s Matinee.”

The most interesting thing about WNEW in the Seventies was the fact that the station was fully “adult contemporary” (read: mellow pop) while still playing the “great American songbook” (the phrase “American popular standards” came into heavier use later), mostly on Willie’s B shifts. Thus they were still playing Sinatra, Lady Ella, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, et al, but were mostly spotlighting softer numbers by the Beatles, bubblegum tunes and one-hit wonders (think: K-Tel comps), and the work of the mellower singer-songwriters. Now that I look back on it, it was a terrific blend that counterpointed the best of songwriting from “the past” (the Thirties through the Fifties) with that of “the present” (the Sixties and Seventies).

Of all the deejays on the station, Julie seemed to have the highest regard for the “MOR” songs that he played. As a singer he clearly had respect for the new breed of singer-songwriters. He also seemed to be “taking notes” for his singing career, which continued on while he was a deejay. He later wound up performing a number of the songs he used to play on WNEW on a regular basis.

Julie on the right, Klavan in the hat, unsure of
the other gents.
So, as a kid, I first heard Carly Simon, James Taylor, Jim Croce, and most importantly, Joni Mitchell (my first concert) on Julie’s show. I was also introduced to the music of the late, great Harry Chapin by Julie, who played Harry’s more radio-friendly (read: shorter) songs when they were new. He seemed very touched by “The Cat’s in the Cradle,” playing it quite often and making complimentary remarks about it and some of the other “new sounds” he was playing.

Julie was clearly fascinated by what different singers could do with the same material. To illustrate this (and, seemingly, to put himself in a state of reverie) , he would play two or three versions of the same songs by different artists, back to back. The NYC free-form legend Vin Scelsa did this in a more conceptual fashion for years after Julie, but Vin was doing it on FM rock stations at odder hours, whereas Julie’s “mixes” were on a very mainstream AM middle-of-the-road outlet in the middle of a weekday afternoon.

The oddest memory I have of Julie’s rapport with his listeners was an incident where he spilled coffee on a turntable (yes, the deejays used to actually be in the same room with the recordings) and his pants. He admitted his mishap, joking about how management was going to love him gumming up the turntable, and then took phone calls on the air, chatting with listeners (mostly women) who gave him advice on how to clean the stain out of his pants.

Before, during, and after his days as a deejay (which apparently began again after his departure from WNEW, in 1998 when he worked at WNSW in Newark), Julie kept up his singing career, playing nightclubs and auditoriums and releasing LPs. (He did occasionally play a record of his on the air.) The only place on television that I would see him as the years went by was on the Jerry Lewis MDA telethon.

Julie’s onstage persona seemed like an extension of his real-life demeanor: easygoing, cheerful, and self-effacing. In a New York Times interview, he admitted, "I know my limitations," he said. "Maybe I'm not an exciting performer, and sometimes I wish I were. But I like to sing a song so people really hear the lyrics, so they listen to the words and have that mean something to them." An interesting statement from a guy who lacked “humility,” according to the TV star who fired him back in ’53.

In the Seventies Jerry aimed some of his ethnic jokes at Julie (getting back at Dean through a surrogate?), but Julie always laughed them off and seemed genuinely happy to be on the telethon.

I found it touching that one year, instead of doing his own hits from the Fifties or standards from the Great American Songbook, he performed “Cat’s in the Cradle.” His version had a nightclub sound, but what it lacked in folksiness it gained in emotion, thanks to Julie’s evident admiration for the song.

I have no idea if he found some echo of one of his own family relationships in Chapin’s lyrics, but what his version of the song did convey was that, even many years later, he remembered the moving (and very well-written) pop hits he had played at WNEW.

And now for the clips available online. I should note that two of the songs I wanted to included here are nowhere to be found: Julie's version of Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" from his "You're Gonna Hear From Me" LP. Julie's version was the first cover of the song, released in September of '66, before the memorable hit rendition by Judy Collins. Julie does it with a kind of ironic bemusement, an interesting take on Randy's downbeat lyrics.

I also would like to have included "Pieces of Dreams" here. It's on his 1971 LP Words
(image above), which featured him covering a number of contemporary "sounds." "Pieces..." was sung by many singers at the time (including Streisand and Mathis), and it was one song for which Julie did an on-air "megamix" (of course he didn't call it that). The song was written by Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and Julie did it justice (but you'll have to discover that on your own....)

A sample of Julie on the Arthur Godfrey show (the one and only time I’ll mention the name of the “Old Redhead”):

A somewhat anonymous love song, but one that shows Julie’s voice at its best. One of those it’ll-be-great-when-we’re-married songs from the Fifties:

Julie guest-hosted for Perry Como in Feb. of ’55. He starts out with a memorable upbeat number, “Tweedlee Dee,” at the opening:

Julie only starred in one movie, Let’s Rock (1958), which is misleadingly titled, since he plays a singer much like himself, who was not a rock fan (or performer). The whole film can be found here. This sorta-rock-y number closes out the film (which he mocked in later years). Phyllis Newman costarred as his love interest.

Julie’s biggest-ever hit was “Eh, Cumpari” (loosely translated, “Hey, Buddy”) a novelty number about different musical instruments. It’s catchy as hell, and it seemed to me as a kid that he was singing “Dippity dippity doc” (it’s actually “tipiti tipiti tah,” which appears to be nonsense syllables).

The single BEST clip of Julie being a teen idol (which he was indeed for a few years in the Fifties) doing his boppin’ little hit “Lipstick and Candy and Rubbersole Shoes” back in 1956:

Julie did a lot of appearances on the Jerry Lewis telethon. One of the most unusual is him doing a song adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “If” poem. In the long clip below he appears at the 45:00 mark, doing “The Still of the Night” and “Days of Wine and Roses”:

And here he does a duet with Jerry (at around the 11:00 mark) on “Bye Bye Blues.” Old show biz!

He appeared on some of the “oldies” TV programs (the kind you see when PBS stations are in “pledge drive” mode). Here he does a medley on one of them:

Onto the tunes he either picked up at WNEW or would play on the station. First, “The Good Life,” which was an English translation of a 1962 French song. It was the theme for a short-lived 1971 sitcom with Larry Hagman. The best known version is by Tony Bennett:

A jazzy number by George Benson and Al Jarreau:

Stevie Wonder was an artist who was played a lot on WNEW. Here Julie covers his hit “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”:

One of those sad, beautiful songs that Julie played on WNEW, Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young”:

One of the oddest discoveries: Julie released a single in in 1970 of the song from Hair “Where Do I Go?” He’s backed by the Bob Crewe Generation on this insanely catchy record, and his voice sounds sped up.

In closing, a quartet of special items. First Julie does one of Neil Diamond’s grittier Seventies songs, “Brooklyn Roads”:

An amazing early Fifties home movie of a ladies “card club” visiting NYC to see Ernie Kovacs’ TV show (they were fans of his previous show in Philly). One of the guests the day they saw it was Julie (who is seen in full color at :25 and 2:30):

Two clips of “old man Julie.” First an informal interview from 2011 in which he talks about his past. And then a nice little sliver of him in a very sparse looking dressing room answering the cameraman’s question about how he’s doing:

I’ll close with one of Julie’s odder gigs: singing the theme from the incredibly brilliant and dark-as-hell Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video. The melody is the British instrumental hit “Telstar.” Julie sings the song in English in the opener here, but can be heard singing it in Italian at the end of the show (in an obvious nod to the original “Mondo” movies made by Jacopetti and Prosperi):

Julie, photographed by Weegee.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The “lost” Prince-produced trashy musical “Happy Birthday, Mr. Christian”

The sudden flood of Prince music onto the hub of modern culture (for better or worse) that is YouTube means that we now have the chance to see him performing live at nearly every stage of his recording career, hear his legally released albums in one (non-Tidal) place, watch his music videos, and listen to what seems like several weeks' worth of unreleased songs (all until his estate is cleared up, at which point his executors have to decide if they want to follow his lead of scrubbing everything of his off of that site).

However, one of the most precious nuggets for those of us who like bad movies has been hiding in plain sight on YouTube on-again and off-again since 2007, and for a full year on Vimeo: the wonderfully awful Apollonia 6 “video album,” which was shot in 1984 but never released.

The approximately 20-minute short film was created as a promotional tool for the trio, which was put together by Prince, who also wrote their songs and produced their sole album. The film, which was titled either “Happy Birthday, Mr. Christian” or “Apollonia 6: the Movie,” was shot but never given a final edit – the online version is missing sound effects, bumper music for the shot transitions, and is clearly a rough cut (replete with dirt on the image).

The fact that it's unfinished and crappy-looking makes the movie even stranger and more awful than it would've been had it been polished and put out on the market. The three “guest stars,” the jarringly Eighties production design, the terrible acting, and the brazenly tacky music videos around which the short is built all add up to a fun viewing experience for connoisseurs of trash cinema.

A capsule history of the lead “group”: Apollonia 6 was first Vanity 6, but when Denise “Vanity” Matthews pushed for a higher paycheck as the female lead of Purple Rain, she was fired and Patricia “Apollonia” Kotero was hired to play her part in the film and take over the trio that was, again, a Prince creation – the other two members were his former wardrobe mistress Brenda Bennett and his girlfriend Susan Moonsie.

The ladies’ vocals were beefed up in the production by having the voices of Wendy & Lisa and Jill Jones layered under their vocals. Each of the women was also given a visual “identity”: The lead singer, Apollonia, was a fashion-model-perfect Latina, Brenda was the feisty blonde, and Susan (who had started in Vanity 6 when she was a teenager) played the Lolita figure, replete with a teddy bear.

The most notable thing about the Apollonia 6 album are the songs that Prince earmarked for it, but then pulled. In one case this was for his own benefit (“Take Me With U” wound up on Purple Rain); the other two titles he pulled he then gave to other artists: “Manic Monday” (the Bangles' biggest hit) and “The Beautiful Life” (Sheila E.'s biggest hit).

The only other remnant of the trio is the music-video for their only hit single, “Sex Shooter” (which they also perform in Purple Rain). The video is slick and polished and, well... who cares about that? (Although it is interesting that Prince conceived of women as having the “gun” in this lyric – “c'mon kiss the gun/guaranteed for fun”)

The Apollonia 6 film was directed by Brian Thomson, an Aussie who did the production design for the original productions of The Rocky Horror Show and Jesus Christ Superstar and the very underrated Rocky Horror sequel, Shock Treatment (1981). It was written by Keith Williams, the Welshman who concocted the scenarios for several music-videos, including “Dancin' With Myself,” “Holding Out for a Hero,” “Against All Odds,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” and “Ghostbusters.” (Yes, the terrifying Eighties...)

The “plot” finds our three heroines at a reading of the will of their uncle, who also ran a school for girls. Russ Meyer star (and ex-wife) Edy Williams plays their uncle's assistant, who heads up the meeting. Ricky Nelson plays the uncle, named “Mr. Christian,” in what I firmly believe is a reference to Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg's Candy (if Prince loved Barbarella as much as he seemed to, I'm sure he saw the film version of Candy if hadn't read the book).

Christian decided that his nieces need humbling and so he left them nothing. They must go out and get jobs immediately. (Who would've thought we'd hear squeaky-clean TV idol Ricky intone the phrase “tough titty”?)

The girls get their first jobs at a diner, where Susan's teddy bear and his friends wear different outfits (don't ask), and Susan sings what might be one of Prince's worst-ever lyrics (“My name is Susan/and I'm oozin'/with desire/for you”). This is followed by a different visualization of “Sex Shooter” that begins and ends in a supermarket, and finds the always-wonderful Buck Henry (!) lusting after Apollonia in what seems to have been some kind of critique of consumerism. (If you've ever wanted to see Buck lip-synching to a woman's voice singing Prince lyrics, this scene is for you.)

Next there's a set-piece at a garage, featuring what might be the best song in the bunch, “Blue Limousine.” And then it's time for Mr. Christian to show up in the flesh – it seems he wasn't dead, he just wanted his nieces to get jobs. The film ends with the promise of a party scene that was apparently never filmed – the screen goes to black for three minutes as we hear the very “Lolita”-ish song “Happy Birthday, Mr. Christian” and miss out on whatever frivolity the filmmakers had in mind for the party.

This lapse into an image-less screen creates for “high”/“low” fanatics like myself an odd little echo of Godard's conclusion for Le Gai Savoir – which also features an equally black screen for several minutes at its end, albeit without the political subtext (then again, Uncle Jean never did a film about a school for naughty girls).

Different Prince-fan sources supply different reasons why the film was never finished and released. One was that Rick Nelson died shortly after the shooting in a plane crash, so the notion of his character also having died cast a pall over an otherwise fun, light project. It has also been stated that Apollonia wanted to keep her acting career in the forefront and wasn't that interested in being a singing star. Perhaps the most likely reason is that Prince simply lost interest in the group (which should be evident by the fact that he gave away two of the most memorable songs that were initially earmarked for their album).

The Eighties were an incredibly tacky period, and Apollonia 6 (which only had three members – do you get it now?) were just a small blip on the radar. Certainly they could've been thrown into a truly kinky scenario if the film was scripted by Stephen Sayadian (aka “Rinse Dream”) and scripted by Jerry Stahl (scripter of Sayadian's Cafe Flesh).

But this is sleaziness in the cause of selling an album, so it couldn't be as challenging (read: good) as Sayadian's work. Instead we just have this amazing cultural artifact that, while not personally made by Prince, wound up becoming an interesting footnote to his checkered list of proteges and odd side-projects.