Overture to “Candide”
This operetta, based on Voltaire’s novella, with music composed by Leonard Bernstein, has seen a rather tumultuous existence in the nearly 60 years of its existence. Although Bernstein’s music was an instant success, the original libretto received a more lukewarm response, and the disastrous original Broadway production closed after just 73 performances. Subsequent revivals used a new text that was revised several times throughout the 1970s & 80s, before Bernstein helped craft his “Final Revised Version” in 1989.
The Overture became a popular piece of concert literature almost immediately, with more than 100 orchestras performing it in the two years following its premiere. It remains one of the most-performed pieces by Bernstein, and one of the most popular selections from any 20th century composer.
Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole ascended from unknown to one of the most popular and enduring recording artists in the world in a fairly organic fashion. Playing in clubs initially, then rising to popularity through performances on radio, Cole soon transitioned away from pure instrumental performing, adding singing to his repertoire. Cole’s band, The King Cole Trio, signed a contract with Capitol Records in 1943, and the massive sales of these records played a major role in Capitol’s success. The famous Capitol Records Building, in Los Angeles, is known as ‘The House That Nat Built’.
This medley highlights some of Cole’s most memorable songs, including “Nature Boy”, “Paper Moon”, “Straighten Up and Fly Right”, “Mona-Lisa”, “L-O-V-E”, and, of course, “Unforgettable”.
Best known for his lighter orchestral compositions, Leroy Anderson found great success and fame in the 1950s conducting recordings of his works. One of these, “Blue Tango”, was the first instrumental recording to sell more than one million copies. Subsequent hits included “Sleigh Ride” and “Plink, Plank, Plunk!”
Anderson’s “A Trumpeter’s Lullaby” was premiered in 1950, with Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra. BPO principal trumpeter Roger Voisin, who performed the solo part initially, had requested that Anderson compose a trumpet solo that was more subdued than typical literature up to that point. The bugle-derived solo material, combined with the lullaby accompaniment in the orchestra, made for a unique, if brief, composition that continues to be enjoyed by audiences today.
One of the most legendary jazz artists of all-time, Duke Ellington was a prolific composer, performer, and bandleader whose national fame helped popularize jazz music. Interestingly, Ellington, who preferred to call his music ‘American’ rather than ‘Jazz’, skipped more piano lessons than he attended as a child, preferring to play baseball with friends. As a teenager, he began composing music, though he composed solely by ear at first, as he did not yet know how to read and notate music. As he gained more experience through various gigs, his love of music intensified.
Throughout the 1920s, Ellington and his band garnered more and more attention, through live shows as well as a growing array of recordings. One of Ellington’s great skills was his ability to compose complete tunes that would fit into the roughly three minute capacity of each side of a 78rpm record. By the late-1930s, Ellington was recording smaller segments of his band, with tunes written Charlie and The Chocolate Factory tickets cheap and tailored specifically to a featured player.
As the 1950s wore on, many big bands were forced to disband or downsize, but Ellington was able to keep his musicians employed, though turnover has been accelerating for years. He also branched out into longer forms of writing, culminating in several film scores, most notably for 1959’s “Anatomy of a Murder”. His later years saw further explorations, from his Sacred Concerts to his still-innovative LP recordings. He continued to perform and record until his death at the age of 75.
One of the best-selling recording artists in the United States, “Piano Man” Billy Joel spent over twenty years writing and recording an eclectic array of music that remains popular to this day. Joel first decided to pursue rock music as a high schooler, influenced by the now-legendary first appearance of The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show”.
He played in a string of bands in the 1960s, making some recordings along the way. His first solo album, 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor, was hampered by a mastering error (giving Joel’s voice a ‘chipmunk’ quality). Local radio support eventually got him noticed by a Columbia Records executive, landing him a new record deal.
From the mid-70s through the early-90s, Joel recorded a string of albums that received increasingly strong sales, critical reception, and numerous Grammy awards. By 1994, Joel elected to end his pop songwriting career, though an album of his classical piano compositions was released in 2001. He continues to perform concerts, including a residency at Madison Square Garden that began in January.
Strike Up the Band
George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin
Though the overture to this, the first fully-integrated score to a book musical, remains a well-known concert selection, the musical it precedes is far less familiar to contemporary audiences. Originally tried out in 1927, later revised for a Broadway run in 1930, the show carried strong satirical elements (an American tycoon convinces the US Government to go to war against Switzerland as a means to protect his cheese – revised to chocolate – monopoly), and the revision added a stronger romantic element along with a happy ending.
Aside from the 191 performance run in 1930, no major revival has taken place in the nearly 85 years since. However, the show included several future standards, including the title song, as well as “I’ve Got a Crush on You”, “Soon”, and “The Man I Love”.
This legendary singer-songwriter was the son of a sharecropper and a mechanic, and developed an interest in music at an early age. Soon after, he began losing his eyesight, likely caused by glaucoma, and he was totally blind by the time he turned seven. While attending a school for the deaf and blind, his musical abilities developed rapidly, to the point that occasionally performed for a local radio station. However, where his formal instruction was strictly in classical music, he sought to play the jazz and blues sounds he heard on the radio. By the time he was fifteen, both of his parents were dead, and he was taken in by family friends.
At the age of 17, he moved from Tallahassee to Seattle, and within a few years, was recording a steady stream of hit R&B records. Parallel to this, Charles also indulged his passion for jazz, recording several instrumental releases in this genre. However, it was in the combining of these various genres and styles that Charles found mainstream success for much of the 1960s. Although he continued to record and release albums, occasionally scoring a hit along the way, he never recaptured that peak success.
In later years, Charles made various film and television appearances – most notably in “The Blues Brothers” as well as a number of commercials for Diet Pepsi – which helped him appeal to a new generation of fans. His version of “Georgia on My Mind” was selected in 1979 as the official state song of Georgia. After his death in 2004, his final album, “Genius Loves Company”, was his best-received album in forty years, and the best-selling album of his career.
Simon & Garfunkel
Childhood friends Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel first performed music together while in high school, leading to a single record that charted, but little else at the time. While in college, the duo became key players in the burgeoning realm of folk music that was taking hold in Greenwich Village, leading to their first album with Columbia, “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.”. The 1964 release was a flop, and the pair parted ways for over a year. One song from the album, the spare, acoustic “The Sound of Silence”, was overdubbed with electric instruments and drums by producer Tom Wilson, leading to a hugely popular single release in late 1965.
The pair reunited soon after, capitalizing on this newfound fame to record several folk rock albums that, along with a series of singles and the soundtrack for the hit film “The Graduate”, made them among the most successful recording artists in the world. However, fame took its toll, and rising tensions led to a second breakup in the wake of their multi-Grammy winning “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.
Since this breakup, the duo has cycled through periods of estrangement and reunions, several tours, and a number of Simon’s concerts featuring Garfunkel cameos. Their vocal harmonies and folk rock stylings have helped their recordings endure for nearly five decades.
What new can be written about the most successful and popular solo recording artist of all time? ‘The King’ earned his moniker through his energetic rockabilly music, an upbeat hybrid of country music and R&B. A series of hit records, combined with his provocative, hip-swinging television appearances, made him controversial, but wildly popular.
After spending the early 1960s away from traditional album releases and live concerts – two years spent in the military following his being drafted, along with a Hollywood acting career that saw him appearing in a string of poorly-received films – he made a comeback to concert stages with a well-regarded TV special. This led to an extended residency performing in Las Vegas, along with various tours and new albums.
His health declined in the mid-1970s, largely stemming from prescription drug abuse, and Elvis died in August, 1977. In the 37 years since his death, Presley’s legacy as ‘The King’ remains intact, and his reputation as one of the greatest recording vocalists of all time is as strong as ever.