Saturday, December 5, 2009

That Ol’ Professor of Swing

I’m extremely happy to report the publication of Steven Beasley’s biography of Big Band leader Kay Kyser, titled Kay Kyser: The Ol’ Professor of Swing! America’s Forgotten Superstar (Richland Creek Publishing, 2009), which I finished reading this morning. Steve Beasley, who owns one of the largest collections of Kyser memorabilia in the world, has worked on this project for twenty years, and the result is clearly evident. The book—remarkably, the first published full-length biography written on the once immensely popular band leader—in addition to its many fascinating biographical details, is loaded with rare and unpublished photographs and interviews, sheet music and magazine covers, and the definitive Kyser discography. I congratulate Steve for his achievement and thank him for his important contribution to our understanding of America’s Swing Era of the 1930s and 40s. The biography was long overdue, but thanks to Steve’s efforts, that problem has now been redressed.

During the course of his career, from the late 1920s until his retirement in 1950, Kay Kyser and His Orchestra had 11 “Number 1” records and 35 “Top 10” hits. In addition, Kyser had a top-rated radio show for eleven years on NBC, featuring the Ol’ Professor of Swing along with his show, “Kay Kyser’s College of Musical Knowledge.” No band leader of the Swing Era has a more extensive filmography than Kay Kyser, who starred in seven feature films and had appearances in several others. He frequently outdrew the Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman orchestras in live appearances; ballroom attendance records set by the Kyser orchestra during the Swing Era have never been toppled. In short, Kay Kyser was one of the most and popular and beloved entertainers in America from the late 1930s to the late 1940s.

Wearing wire-rim glasses, a mortarboard and an academic gown, the Ol’ Professor of Swing (a stage persona probably inspired by the 1937 comedy Swing It, Professor, starring the obscure comedian Pinky Tomlin) had surrounded himself with equally eccentric personalities, such as “Ish Kabibble,” who sported bangs to his mid-forehead and had a dead-pan demeanor modeled on Buster Keaton, and great talent, including the top-notch arranger and composer George Duning (during the years 1927-1944). In the late 1930s RKO invited Kay Kyser to Hollywood, where it produced his and the band’s first film, That’s Right—You’re Wrong (1939), featuring Lucille Ball in an early, major supporting role. The success of that film lead to Kyser’s second film, the haunted house mystery You’ll Find Out (released Thanksgiving weekend 1940), starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre, in their only film together. He would make three more films for RKO: Playmates (1941), My Favorite Spy (1942), produced by comedy legend Harold Lloyd, and Around the World (1943). Kyser also made features for Columbia and MGM. The viewing pleasure of these films now largely resides in their nostalgic value, as the films’ topical references and allusions, and the presence of a once hugely popular entertainer forgotten by all but a few today, makes them seem now to be woefully antiquated and déclassé. Although Kay Kyser died over twenty years ago, in 1985 at the age of 80, Kyser orchestra hits such as “Three Little Fishes,” “Who Wouldn’t Love You,” “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle,” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” have remained durable in the decades since they were first recorded. Serendipitously, just last weekend, my wife Becky and I were doing some Christmas shopping at a local department store when we happened to hear over the store’s stereo system the Kyser orchestra’s fine recording, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Happily, I can report that Kay Kyser's widow, Georgia Carroll, who appeared in several of the aforementioned feature films, celebrated a birthday recently; she has lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina since she and Kay retired there in 1950.

The book’s back cover asks the question, “How could one who accomplished so much be forgotten today?” The answer, to which Beasley dedicates several chapters, is that in 1950 Kyser disappeared from show business “without so much as a word.” Recognizing that the Swing Era had ended after the end of World War II, and tired of show business, Kyser returned home to his beloved state of North Carolina and became a very active statesman, helping bring Public TV to the state and raising millions of dollars for medical services for returning war veterans. He also became a religious leader later in life. A very private man with many contradictions, Beasley explores Kyser’s post-celebrity life in fascinating detail. Because Kyser retired from public life permanently in 1950, his career and accomplishments have gone largely unnoticed by the so-called “Baby Boom Generation,” by far the vast majority of which were born after Kyser had quietly retired, explaining why he is so rarely heard of today.

Almost twenty years ago, Image Entertainment issued on laser disc the films Kay Kyser made for RKO; these titles were also issued on VHS at the same time, and are now long OOP, although they occasionally show up for sale on eBay. These films, as well as the other films starring Kyser made in the 40s, also screen on Turner Classic Movies now and then. Recently, Warner Home Video issued on DVD You’ll Find Out as part of its Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics set, which also included The Walking Dead, Frankenstein 1970, and Zombies on Broadway (You’ll Find Out, tellingly, has no audio commentary, as do two of the three other films).

Again, I must congratulate Steven for his outstanding accomplishment, and commend his tenacity. I should mention that he has, for years, also been working on a documentary film on Kyser, and hopefully the publication of this biography will help him realize that project as well. I spent a few pleasant and enjoyable hours with Steven a few years ago while in Los Angeles, when he shared with me some rare footage from the documentary, and I wish him the best of luck with that important project. Additional information on the book can be found at, and I’ll also direct readers to the Kyser website Steven maintains, He can also be found at

The Wikipedia page for Kay Kyser can be found here, which contains several links to additional sources. C'mon chillen, yess'dance!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Going For Baroque

“Baroque pop,” commonly understood to refer to any ornate, or heavily arranged, pop song, seems to me to be a subgenre of what is sometimes referred to as “Art Songs,” meaning highly ambitious pop songs. Note that I say pop songs, not folk songs or rock songs. In contrast to folk music, the primary mode of which is ritualistic and participatory, that is, for singing and dancing, Art Songs are non-participatory, that is, they are primarily designed for consumption, as commodities to be purchased within the marketplace, not for singing and dancing (see Chris Cutler, “What Is Popular Music?,” in File Under Popular, Autonomedia, 1993, pp. 12-13). It is therefore unlikely, although not impossible, for a folk singer/songwriter (or a rock singer/songwriter for that matter) to find his or her songs referred to as “Art Songs,” a designation generally reserved for pop-based ones. Cutler explains the reason for this by claiming that the Art Song is always “wholly conscious of itself as an aesthetic exchange” (p. 12). The intrinsic aesthetic interest in the art song is the pop song form itself. Baroque pop emerged during the 1966-67 period, and its commercial zenith was probably most fully realized in albums such as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed (1967), and in Love’s Forever Changes (1967).

Ten Baroque Pop Classics, 1966 – 67
The Association – Requiem For The Masses
The Beach Boys (with Van Dyke Parks) – Heroes and Villains
The Beatles – Eleanor Rigby
The Electric Prunes (with David Axelrod) – Kyrie Eleison
The Left Banke – Walk Away Renee
The Merry-Go-Round – You’re A Very Lovely Woman
The Moody Blues – Nights in White Satin
Procol Harum – A Whiter Shader of Pale
Love - Old Man
Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood – Some Velvet Morning

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Good Beginning To The Week

According to James R. Kincaid, when discussing the issue of laughter, “some degree of oversimplification is inevitable.” At the core of the debate about laughter is whether laughter is incompatible with sympathy or geniality, that is, with empathy. Kincaid identifies two camps, the “dark-laughter” theorists, deriving from Thomas Hobbes, and the “genial-laughter” theorists, deriving from Jean Paul Richter. As I understand it, at the heart of the debate is whether laughter is ever anything but disguised hostility and aggression. Laughter may be a consequence of so-called “civilized” behavior, in which one’s real attitudes and beliefs must constantly be disguised and hidden.

In one of the world’s great books, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), Freud argues that the technique of the joke is similar to that of the “dream-work”: the latent content of the joke, like the latent content of the dream, is disguised through the operations of condensation, displacement, and so on. “Wit,” a means of producing laughter, originates in aggressive or “obscene” tendencies, but the aggressive (or obscene) content is activated in the unconscious but disguised by the joke-work so that the psychic energy aroused can be safely relieved. A successful joke results in what Freud describes as “the economy of psychic expenditure” - the psychic energy required to repress the dangerous or obscene content is released as laughter, which (presumably) nullifies the actual threat posed by the obscene material (e.g., the humor of scatological jokes). The so-called “pleasure” of a joke lies in the psychic release called laughter.

But in his essay “Humour” (1928), Freud says humor is also a way of dealing with pain. As an example, he uses a prisoner on the way to the gallows, who remarks, “Well, this is a good beginning to the week.” The prisoner’s humorous comment is a way of denying his existential pain, the ego declaring that it is invulnerable and indomitable. However, and more importantly, for the listener the humor in the condemned prisoner’s remark is derived from what Freud calls the “economized expenditure of affect,” by which he means that the energies associated with any strong emotion such as pity are aroused but then shown to be unnecessary. As a consequence, they are, happily, available for laughter instead.

Perhaps Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Tears Of A Clown” is good example of the “economized expenditure of affect”:

People say I’m the life of the party
Because I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I’m blue
So take a good look at my face
You’ll see my smile looks out of place
If you look closer, it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears

By saying that his inner heartbreak is disguised by laughter, as listeners our empathy is aroused but shown to be unnecessary. That is, despite his situation, if the singer is able to muster a laugh, then our pity is not required. In the face of his self-described clownish behavior, we can repress the need for empathy. The song does not arouse laughter as such, but reveals the operation of the joke-work nonetheless.

Required Listening:
The Beau Brummels - Laugh, Laugh
Bob Dylan - It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry
The Guess Who - Laughing
Charles Jolly - The Laughing Policeman
Napoleon XIV - They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!
Randy Newman - Laughing Boy
The Residents - Laughing Song
Neil Sedaka - Laughter in the Rain
The Teardrop Explodes - Ha-ha I’m Drowning
Mary Wells - Laughing Boy