In 1955, Greta Garbo was most definitely not alone: she and the rest of the world was wild about Harry Belafonte. He was divinely handsome, with a smile that could warm any room. He had completed his first two movies, both pairing him with Dorothy Dandridge, “Bright Road” and the Otto Preminger film “Carmen Jones” and was the first black performer to be nominated for an Emmy (he would win in 1960.)
Belafonte was also lighting the world on fire with music. Born in Harlem Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr. of Caribbean descent, he started his career in NYC as a singer to pay for his acting classes. Incredibly, in his first live performance, at the jazz club The Royal Roost (as the intermission act), he was backed by Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis. He then sang regularly at folk club The Sage, but it was his 14 week gig at The Village Vanguard that set him on his way big time. Reaction by audiences to Belafonte was described by Village Vanguard owner Max Gordon as ‘an unexpected and instantaneous explosion’. Unstoppable.
This folk thing was working and Belafonte was working it. He turned his focus to folk songs, American and ones he had learned in Jamaica living with his grandmother as a child. He scoured the Library of Congress recordings for folk songs, slave songs, blues, gospel, even sea shantys and after being signed to RCA created his first LP charmingly titled “Mark Twain And Other Folk Favorites” in 1954. Followed with the two hit singles “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) “, a traditional Jamaican mento song, and “Matilda” a traditional Calypso song.
While the album titled “Calypso” in 1956 was the record that burst Belafonte into worldwide stardom, this LP owned by Miss G was released between “Mark Twain” and “Calypso”.
It was self-titled simply, “Belafonte”.
The quiet, more moody soul of this record produced by Henri Rene, fits gorgeously with what we’d imagine to be Miss G’s unhurried lifestyle of semi-solidtude. Belafonte’s lively hit “Matilda” made its way onto this collection of songs, and certainly there is energy to “Jump Down Spin Around”, until you think about it for a second and realize it’s about picking an entire bale of cotton. not by choice, but as a slave. It will bum you out real fast. And his passionate performance in the gospel song “Noah” is brilliantly inspiring, even though God has just flooded the entire world in disgust with the human race. For the most part, the tone of the record is more contemplative than the songs which made him famous.
One of my very favorite songs on this record is “Suzanne (Every Night When The Song Goes Down)”. Deeply romantic, Belafonte’s voice will make you melt, and the haunting samba-like guitar of his friend and frequent collaborator Millard Thomas is the heartbeat driving the song.
And another song he sings to a woman “Sylvie” written by Leadbelly, could at first sound like a chain gang song, but Leadbelly told Alan Lomax it was inspired by a relative he had who worked ploughing the fields in the hot sun, calling out to his woman Sylvie to bring him a little water. And if you really wanna cry yourself a river the almost hymn like “Take My Mother Home” will break your heart.
And the classic my mother sang to me in my childhood “Scarlet Ribbons”, about a child’s prayer and a parent who searches the town trying to find scarlet ribbons ‘for her hair’. The most morbid band on earth (and one I happen to love) The Browns (of The Three Bells fame) had the biggest hit of the song in 1959, and it had been recorded by Dinah Shore and a few others before this Harry’s. But it was his who truly introduced the song to American listeners.
He cements his ability to deliver the romantic ballad with one of the greats,”Unchained Melody”. The song’s melody had been pulled from a score by one of my fave movie composers Alex North for a B-Movie prison yarn “Unchained” and words were added by lyricist Hy Zaret. Todd Duncan sings the song in the film as prisoners are moved by the sentiment. Although the film didn’t do much, the song was beloved instantly, and various versions were recorded by Les Baxter, Al Hibbler, even Liberace! But it was Belafonte’s version which struck the deep romantic chord, which The Righteous Brothers would deliver heartfelt to a new generation a decade later. When the song was nominated for an Oscar Belafonte was picked to sing the song at the 1956 Academy Awards.
This LP is not on CD, and two of the songs “Waterboy” by Avery Robinson, and “Troubles” written by Belafonte are unavailable anywhere else. The players on this LP — legends: Maynard Ferguson, Bud Shank Buddy Childers, Conti Condoli and Jimmy Guiffre as well as the Tony Scotts Orchestra and the Norman Luboff Choir.
The album debuted at number one on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart and continued its reign for 6 weeks until eclipsed by another self titled RCA release “Elvis Presley”.
So what was Miss G doing in 1955 when she picked this Harry Belafonte Lp up? Well, one thing for certain, she was in a fight to protect her privacy, because more than any other year since she had left Hollywood, the world was obsessed with Garbo.
Edward Steichen’s classic 1928 photograph of her was on the cover of the January 10th edition of LIFE, the most widely read weekly magazine in the country. This was the first of three parts written by John Bainbridge. Why? Well, the same year that Harry’s self-titled LP “Belafonte” was released, 1955 also saw the release of the first ever and extensive biography of Miss G, written by Bainbridge and titled “Garbo”.
She was on the cover of Paris Match “L’Enigme Garbo”. Rave Magazine “Why Garbo Loathes America” (Really?) The Academy Awards of 1955 awarded her in absentia an Honorary Oscar for her “series of luminous and unforgettable screen performances”.
But for Greta in 1955, her movie career must have seemed like eons ago. And if she could never begin to understand why people responded so wildly over her during her Hollywood goddess years, it certainly must have seemed more perplexing than ever to see herself on magazine covers and honored at the Oscars when she had not made in a film in nearly 15 years, nor granted interviews in nearly a decade.
One of her friends said of her, “She has the braveness to be herself.” After years playing others, the courage to be oneself was her triumph. I could see this connecting her to one so very connected to self as Belafonte.
I can picture her day, walking, drifting. She is taken unaware by the Life Magazine cover on every newsstand. Bainbridge’s book in every bookstore window. She covertly rushes past, sunglasses, cashmere coat. She walks to her favorite antique shop and sits in the workshop, at first in avoidance, then, with interest, watching a clock being repaired and restored. Hours pass. She stays until she has had enough, until we have all had enough of Garbo, a name invented by the studio, a name she loathed.
Then walks on, drifting past a record store. Instead of the title GARBO in the window, there is the tile BELAFONTE. What ease he has with himself and his newfound fame and success. ”I could never be like that” she surely thought. And no she never was. But of course Garbo was never her name after all. But here is Harry, boldly titling his album with his name (slightly different spelling than the name he was born with, but all the same).
Well, of course she has to listen. And she is the first to admit he is “very very handsome”.
I think of her walking back to her apartment with the record under her arm. She is in no rush, she can hear it when she is ready, when the time is right. When she can listen for hours and watch with her ears as Harry repairs and restores and lovingly reinvents each song on the record.
She will watch with her ears, and smoke. And maybe write a fan letter to him. Which maybe she will send. Or maybe not.
She will not watch the Academy Awards in 1955 when she is given her only Oscar. But she will tune in the next year to watch Belafonte sing “Unchained Melody”. And sigh.
UPDATE: The signatures of Jackie and John Kennedy to Greta Garbo have been authenticated by Bonham’s appraiser extraordinaire Catherine Williamson!
Today is the 50th anniversary of the murder of our president John F. Kennedy. It’s a hard day for most of us Americans who were alive and conscious that day and perplexingly it never becomes easier to process. If anything, it has become more difficult the more we know, the less we still know. And the records have now been sealed again for another 50 years so, by that time I will be long gone and you will all be living on the moon.
I knew I wanted to say something about Kennedy today, but so many people have said so much so eloquently (please see the Errol Morris short film posted online NY TIMES) and ineloquently (all bogus TV news coverage) that I didn’t know what more I could add. So, in my lifelong grief, I turned my thoughts away from the assassination and toward an event 9 days before that terrible crime happened and changed us all forever.
It was November 13, 1963. Miss G uncharacteristically accepted a dinner invitation. Not just any dinner invite but from First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Garbo had turned down invitations to the White House before, but this time Mrs. Kennedy had assured our favorite recluse that this would be an intimate affair. Miss G was a fan, a big fan, of our President, and so the opportunity at this moment seemed right.
This is where I need to jump in and refer back to the auction where I won Greta’s records. Listed in the same auction last December with Julien’s Auctions was this beautiful periwinkle silk outfit she wore to the Kennedy dinner.
But what was not listed was the 45rpm picture sleeve of “P.T.109” by country music singer and TV host Jimmy Dean, a song detailing JFK’s war heroism. The 45 was stuck inside the box of LPS in the lot of records I won. When I first looked at the 45, I was touched that Garbo should have bought this record – like a schoolgirl – crushed out on our President. Then in flipping the picture sleeve over, I saw the label for the record store: LEARMONT RECORDS AND BOOKS in Georgetown, Washington D.C.
WOW, wait a minute – so on her trip to DC to dine at the White House, she also did a little record shopping and went home with this? Now THAT IS a schoolgirl crush!
Well, this morning, when I took the record out of the sleeve and slapped it on the little Crosley turntable to play it so I could write about it, photograph it, and share it with you, I was completely unprepared for what I saw on the spinning label. Writing. There was writing on the record label. I snapped my pix, stopped the turntable and took the record off to have a look. I got giddy just to see the inscription “To Greta Garbo” but blown away by what I found NEXT. “with love from – “ and a messy signature, but a distinct J as the first letter, and a Y slanted down at an angle at the end. And then arcing the Columbia logo, “And love: from Jackie”. With a large capital K in the middle of her name.
I was almost weak, I think I went pale, and I almost fainted. Today of all days, I should find such a treasure in my box of GG treasures? Maybe I was mistaken. I was excited enough to see that someone wrote “To Greta Garbo” on the label. But to see “And love from Jackie”…it was insane. I called out to my fella who looked at it with me, and we immediately went to the internet to look at their signatures. The angled Y at the end of the messy name was characteristic of JFK’s later signature, and the large K in Jackie’s name looks identical to hers when she signed her name “Jackie” instead of “Jacqueline”. In fact in looking at examples of their handwriting, we surmised that Jackie wrote the inscription on all of it cause the T on “To” is like Jackie’s writing, but that JFK signed his name to the inscription.
Okay — So wait — what happened? After dessert, or on her way out of the White House, or after lying down in the Lincoln bedroom after drinking too much, did Garbo ask them to autograph this 45 she picked up at Learmont’s? Or did they pull it out of their stack of records and whip out a ballpoint and slip it to her along with the walrus tooth Jack gifted her? Is this genuinely from President Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy to Greta Garbo? Of course it needs to be authenticated, but WOW. Like – HOLY SHIT WOW.
Well, while you all ponder this, I’ll tell you what I know about the evening Miss G had with The President and the First Lady.
“First Friend” Lem Billings was the unofficial party planner of the Kennedy White House. Lem and Jack had gone to prep school together and had been close friends since. Lem was gay, although at that time he was not out, if ever. But everyone who knew him, knew his orientation. Joe Kennedy had all but adopted Lem as a son, and in fact young Edward Kennedy assumed Lem was one of his older brothers. He remained a Kennedy friend for life.
Lem had been filling his BFF Jack Kennedy with tales of meeting and becoming fast friends with Miss G the previous summer on the Italian Riviera cruising on Sam Spiegel’s yacht. Lem had gone on and on about his hot new friendship with the movie siren so much that when Garbo accepted the invitation, our president decided to have a little fun with this. Greta was asked to show up early so that Jack could rope her into his prank on his buddy. The only other guests attending were Florence Mahoney, a DC socialite, and Jackie’s glamorous younger sister Lee Radziwill, who GG would later refer to as “a princess or somebody.”
And Lem, of course and the First Couple. Dinner for six. When Lem arrived, he was surprised to see Greta already there, walking into the dining room with Jackie. When Lem opened up, “Greta!” so happy to welcome her, Miss G looked at him blankly and turned to the president, “I have never seen this man before.”
Poor Lem was completely dismayed and unable to eat his meal as he tried to jog Miss G’s memory. But Greta was stone faced, “I have never met you”. She continued the prank well into the second course, all to the delight of the president. In fact, Kennedy egged it on, playing the part very seriously to Lem, wondering aloud why Lem thought he’d met her before, maybe he had her confused with someone else. Finally Greta and Kennedy let up on poor Lem and everyone had a big laugh. There is no question it was one of the most exhilerating evenings of Miss G’s life, one she often recalled as “magical”, and only came to an end when she announced, “I must go. I’m getting intoxicated.” Later when Jackie repeated the story, tickled, she added, “I think she was.”
In spite of climbing upon the Lincoln bed and kicking off her shoes, Miss G declined their sleepover invite and spent the night in a hotel. Though one thinks she regretted missing out on a possible visit in the still of the night from the Man Of The House, “ The President visited a lot of ladies at night”, she said. Wink Wink. She bragged to friends that the president had told her how he usually excused himself from dinners early, but he stayed all through this one, gladly.
She left with one gift which has been documented: from the president a cherished piece of scrimshaw, a whale’s tooth from his collection in the Oval Office. Jackie in polite mock jealousy told GG, ”He never gave ME a whale’s tooth.” But maybe Miss G was also given another gift… this 45 of “P.T. 109”. It certainly came home with her from that trip, I can’t imagine how else to explain the signatures except that they are to Greta Garbo from J and Jackie Kennedy.
The record itself is a novelty like all of Jimmy Dean’s songs. It was actually a huge hit when it came out no doubt because of Kennedy’s huge popularity. The fun part of the song is at the end when Dean refers to Kennedy as “Big Bad John” which was the title of Dean’s first big hit.
That this record was kicking around the White House doesn’t surprise me. Like Garbo, Jackie loved the twist, and brought pop records and dancing to Pennsylvania Ave. But it is just as likely that Garbo bought the record in DC in anticipation of their dinner and asked for the autograph. One thing that is endearing about Garbo is she was an unabashed fan. She even produced a clipping on Kennedy from her purse at dinner to discuss it with him.
Still high from her evening, Greta returned to NYC and quickly shot off a thank you note to the First Lady. A little over a week after her amazing dinner, our President and his wife left for Texas. Like the rest of us Miss G was devastated, but her devastation was surely deeper than my own. That intimate dinner was the very last time Lem Billings saw Kennedy, his lifelong pal. It was the very last dinner party at the Kennedy White House. Within weeks, Miss G would pen another letter to Mrs. Kennedy, of condolences, which must have been as hard to write as it was to read.
I like to think of GG, the night of her dinner with our President, tipsy, and giggling in her hotel bed, intoxicated indeed, like the scene from Ninotchka, dizzied by her very fun date. Tapping into passion. Fantasy. I like to think that for days after, she imagined a kiss in the Lincoln bedroom from a late night visit. I like to think in her fantasy – she kept herself in check, cause she did like Jackie so much. “But a kiss is alright, isn’t it” she would permit herself. ”Cause Mr. President, you intoxicated me.”
But after November 22, that dream was gone, for her, for the rest of us.
Still, this has made me smile today through my continued grief. It made me happy to know that our president played a trick on his best bud Lem Billings, with the great Greta Garbo. And that 9 days before his terrible death, our beloved president had a fun night of shenanigans, and gave a goddess the time of her life.
"I wrote the album while traveling cross-country by myself and there is this restless feeling throughout it… The sweet loneliness of solitary travel."
That Greta Garbo owned a copy of Joni’s Mitchell’s confessional solo road trip “Hejira” is so perfect that it seems like I made this up.
I have to admit this was one Joni Mitchell record of which I was fairly unfamiliar. ‘Blue’, ‘Court and Spark’, ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’, these albums live inside my cells. But somehow I missed this of her many masterpieces.
Recorded in 1976, “Hejira” is a collection of songs, indeed a fully realized concept album, of a road trip, a hijira, Mitchell took alone by car from Maine to Los Angeles.
I digress a moment to relate a story Joni told me which I am sure must have happened on this particular road trip. (And forgive me, I am surely getting details wrong, because I was no doubt only half listening to her cause the other half of me was going “Holy Shit – Joni Fucking Mitchell is telling me a personal anecdote!”)
As best I recall, Joan said she was on a journey and somehow happened to stop at a home, or a bed and breakfast, something, and two older sisters ran the place. Joni is in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Rhode Island or New Hampshire comes to mind, as far from Hollywood and the industry as she can get. But there on the piano is a photograph of someone she knows. She can’t quite believe it. She exclaims the pretty woman’s name out loud (I am thinking it must have been —) “Barbara!” To which these two kindly old women are stunned: “You know Our Barbara??” and the other follows with, “She just married Peter Tork, you know, of The Monkees.” Yes, friends of Joni’s. And Barbara their niece. God it is hard to get away! To truly get away from Hollywood!
And that was in 1976. It would be far more difficult to truly get away on a solo hijira today with how plugged in we all are. A hijera without a GPS. A hijera not supported by Instagram to immediately update your Twitter followers, your FB friends, your Tumblr mates of what moment you seized and saw and thought. A hijera of broken pay phones, postcards, wrinkled Triple A maps, and telegrams if you’re desperate.
The entire Lp is not just songs of a woman on a solo journey, but within the woman is this pull between freedom and attachment, of doing what is expected vs. what one desires. There is a song for Amelia Earhart, literally about ‘flying solo’: "I was thinking of Amelia Earhart and addressing it from one solo pilot to another… sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do." This was I believe her third or fourth record for Asylum. It was unlike the jazz albums she’d been dipping into on ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’, primarily because since she wrote the songs for "Hejira’ on the road, they were written on acoustic guitar. No piano this time, unlike how her previous records in the 70s had been composed.
Consequently some of her most complex guitar tunings turned up here. And like ‘Blue’ she was again spilling her guts in a way only she could. "I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs, but I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me.”
Late great bassist Jaco Pastorious is the heartbeat supporting Mitchell’s deeply personal vision throughout. Legendary Wrecking Crew and jazz drummer John Guerin supports, and fellow Canadian Neil Young contributes too.
(Joan with Jaco and Herbie Hancock in the 70s)
The connection for Garbo must have been stark and immediate when she first heard “Hejira”. This is her only Joni Mitchell record in the collection, and when you listen to it, you’d think the entire record could be dedicated to Miss G.
Interestingly, the LP cover holds the faint signature of “Reisfield”, something my daughter Tiffany clocked when we did our Dublab guest DJ podcast. Garbo fans will know this name well, it was no doubt her beloved niece, Gray Reisfield (hmm are you seeing the niece connection here?).
I like to think that on a visit to her aunt’s apartment, Gray brought her new Joni Mitchell album with her. And upon hearing it, and upon absorbing it, Miss G couldn’t bear to part with it. She’s never taken anything from anyone. But this, she must have.
“You can take my Picasso’s and Renoirs, they will be yours when I die anyway. But Gray, leave me that Joni Mitchell record. I need it. Although why she wrote a song about Amelia Earhart and not me I will never understand.”
I like to think of Miss G opening a bottle of wine, or something rich and warm, to drink on her own, in search of her own private “Blue Motel Room”. Listening to side one. Listening to side 2. Black Crow at her window, pulling her out to the street, “black as the highway leading me”.
Putting on her coat and flat shoes. Maybe she will walk. Maybe she will hitch hike. She could! How brazen, “Garbo Hitch-hikes”. What a lark! The idea tickles her and she smiles to herself as she steps outside. She could put her thumb out. The driver would never guess. What a sweet in-joke with herself. Wait, it’s too late to be out here, ALONE, even for Manhattan, it’s 4am, streets are empty in this precious enclave. She walks east toward the light.
And on this trash littered pre-dawn sidewalk, there he is. And they face off, the scrawniest of coyotes, not quite brown, not quite gray. They could be twins. ‘Right in the face on the road to Baljennie…” What is a coyote doing in Manhattan? What is Greta Garbo doing anywhere, Coyote asks. Their eyes lock, without blinking. A calm comes between them. She could stay like this forever.
Coyote is the first to break their gaze. He turns and heads on down the block alone, going far faster than it appears in his lanky trot. She can follow, or not. Coyote doesn’t care. Coyote just shows what you could…
Miss G knows there’s more on Coyote’s mind than water and garbage, and he heads toward it, until he’s out of sight. They are both defectors of the petty wars.
No regrets, Coyote.
To listen to audio clips of ‘Hejira’ and to get lyrics, credits, and guitar tunings and tablature:
"Vi" Sweden’s oldest magazine became a centenarian this past month, and Greta’s Records made the cut! Their 100th anniversary issue may well make them one of the oldest magazines in the world. Health practitioners study habits of those who live to be 100. Perhaps publishers should be studying whatever it is that Vi is doing right as magazines become extinct. One healthy habit might be this — the magazine is not online! You need to read it in print.
I was so honored that editor Tomas Fläckman asked me to contribute a piece on Greta’s record collection. He even found an early issue of Vi with Greta on the cover. Here he is proudly sharing with me the gorgeous layout.
The fella on the magazine cover is Håkan Hellström, the Keith Richards of Sweden. His quote translates akin to, “I love it when it’s too much”.
So if you know Swedish, pick up a print copy and enjoy the pictures and the text. If not, do enjoy the visuals herein! And expect a new Greta’s Records post in the next 24 hours…Greta Takes A Journey… as I uncover a record in her collection that I somehow missed and now find to be one of the most brilliant records ever made.
Thank you Miss G. Xo
Garbo on the cover of Vi, 1937, no headline, no caption, just her beautiful face!
…you can listen to the archived set as well as Tiffany Anders “Daughters Of The Sun” set right here:
I played records from Greta’s collection and we even found an interesting personal clue on one LP cover!
Have a listen! And big thank you to Mark “Frosty” McNeill @ Dublab for inviting us!
Allison Anders “Greta’s Records” Set
Chubby Checker - The Twist – Parkway (1960)
The Beatles – There’s A Place – Vee Jay (1963)
The Supremes – My World Is Empty Without You – Motown (1965)
Professor Longhair – Something On Your Mind – Alligator (1980)
Hildegard Knef – C’est Si Bon/Bel Ami/All Of Me/Wenn Wir Zwel Uns Wiedersehn – Decca (1960)
Gene Clark – No Other – Asylum (1974)
Elmo Hope - It’s A Lovely Day – Prestige (1967)
Joni Mitchell – Blue Motel Room – Asylum (1976)
Linda Ronstadt – I Never Will Marry – Asylum (1977)
Julius Wechter And The Baja Marimba Band – Flying High – A&A Records (1969)
The Beatles – Fixing A Hole – Capitol (1967)
Ringo Starr – Oh My My – Apple (1973)
Tiffany Anders “Daughters of the Sun” Set
Sharon Tandy – Daughter Of The Sun
Selda Yaz Gazeteci – Yaz – Finders Keepers
Brigette Fontaine – La Harpe Jaune Saravah
Connie Converse – Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains)
Vashti Bunyan – Pink Sugar Elephants
Dana Gillespie – Foolish Seasons – Revola
Bonnie Dobson – Winter’s Going – Revola
Dory Previn – Lady With A Braid
Michaelangelo – It’s Crying Outside
The Cake – Firefly
Evie Sands – Take Me For A Little While – A&M Records
Check out Tiffany’s tumblr on this very music:
Hey everyone! Just wanted to let you all know that my daughter Tiffany Anders and I are both guest DJing tomorrow on Dublab Radio. Our back-to-back sets will play music from our own blogs — “Greta’s Records” at 11 am (pacific time) and “Jumblequeen” (a GREAT blog on brilliant women musicians here on tumblr) at noon.
So please tune in if you can, and you can hear some of the records from this collection!
Here is the dublab site:
And check out Tiffany’s blog Jumblequeen and read about Bowie’s amazing protegee!
Were you all as thrilled as I was to see a Professor Longhair record in Greta Garbo’s collection? As much as we could think the gap between the Professor and the Film Star is wide, there are deep similarities. Both were discovered and given new names. And while Greta choose to live in anonymity but continued to travel the world for all those shrouded-in-secrecy years, Professor Longhair stayed put in New Orleans where he played loud and lived flamboyantly in public.
And both were nearing the end of their lives when this record “Crawfish Fiesta” was released in 1980. Fess died that year, and Greta would die a decade later. The record was produced by Andrew Kaslow (who also plays tenor sax on the record and contributed horn arrangements) and Bruce Iglauer for his label Alligator Records and by the man who said of him, “Professor Longhair put ‘funk’ into music, he’s the father of the stuff” — none other than Mac Rebennack aka “Dr. John”, who also plays guitar on all the tracks. And if all this weren’t pedigree enough, it was recorded at Allen Toussaint’s recording studio “SeaSaint”.
The LP opens with “Big Chief”, a classic Fess track, sampled rather oddly by Lily Allen on “Knock ‘Em Out” a few years ago. Written by Earl King in the 1960s, this song is not only sewn into the fabric of New Orleans, it is part of the thread itself. The title has to do with the Mardi Gras Indian gang groups. And while the lyrics about squaws and “fire water” today are politically incorrect, the whole notion of the Indian Nation gangs during Mardi Gras is a tribute by New Orleans blacks to the Indians who hid runaway slaves or helped them escape capture before and during the Civil War. It’s a lively tradition of the Mardi Gras celebration and this song honors that.
Fess’s version of Los Angeles’ own Big Jay McNeely’s “Something On Your Mind” kills it. I’m real proud to have directed several episodes of the TV show “Southland”. There’s generally not much music in “Southland” episodes but writer Cheo Hodari Coker (who won an NAACP Image Award for “Southland” this year) really knows and loves music — this is the guy who wrote both the book and screenplay on “Notorious B.I.G.” Southland director Chris Clulack also has a great love for Los Angeles roots music, so Cheo wrote McNeely’s original version of the song into a powerful episode “Fixing A Hole” directed by Chulack. It has a very LA lowrider feel, and of course is a cholo classic within that subculture and while not as much of an Art Laboe dedication tradition, it was on one of the early East Side Story lowrider compilation LPS. The song has been covered many times by Etta James, Gene Vincent, Freddy Fender, James Cotton and more — it’s a standard now.
Professor Longhair’s version of the song is less lowrider, more groove. And his vocal is outasite! Love you Little Sonny, but good god this “Bald Head” sings it! Whatever might be on her mind, he’s about to change it with this sweet talk. Little Sonny sings as a younger man who has hit a wall with a woman for the first time. Fess has been here waaay too many times before, and it shows in his delivery.
There are 2 funny songs on Side A about men and women driving each other nuts: ”Her Mind Is Gone” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy”. Oh and then do you want to really have some fun — “Red Beans” baby! And then just chill, and listen to the pure piano playing of the Professor on “WIllie Fugal’s Blues”.
The B Side is every bit as good as the first, with a wonderful version of ”Whole Lotta Lovin” made famous by another great New Orleans piano player Fats Domino. ” Cry To Me” is a song I could imagine Greta trying to Calypso to. The LP closes with the title track “Crawfish Fiesta” which incorporates so many melodies we have heard over the past century…you are transported far beyond the 1980s to ragtime in a few riffs here and there.
One thing I have come to see in Greta’s record collection is that her taste for world music was way ahead of her time. And while Fess was a native son, he worked with Caribbean players and was mad for Cuban mambo music. LIkewise, Greta was wild for island music. In her collection yet to be reviewed there are so very many examples of this — the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, Harry Belafonte’s first record which is hugely inspired by his parents island roots, and Calypso Carnival by The Mighty Sparrow. I can see that for her Professor Longhair brought together in one vision jazz, blues and music of the islands.
This may have been one of the last records Greta bought. Did she wake up on Fat Tuesday and put on this record while she made a stack of pancakes for herself? Did she stand in the kitchen, wondering why she wasn’t there in New Orleans? ”I should have gone…if not now, when? I could wear a costume and a mask and be anonymous. I could flash my breasts for beads, and no one would even know it was me.” This makes her laugh, “When I was younger maybe. But when I was younger I didn’t do those things. Well, I ran naked in the yard with Cecil but that was different. That was like doing yoga, not for fun like those girls in New Orleans do. But could any of them do the dance for Shiva that got us all fined?” She laughs out loud at the absurdity of those times she lived. She listens to Fess’s record and chews. ”Maybe I go. I’m too late to meet Bald Head but maybe I meet Dr. John. Maybe I make shrimp and grits for him and the band and surprise them all with my cooking. Oh silly Miss G…why on earth would you go to New Orleans to cook, you go to New Orleans to eat.”
And maybe she went. Maybe she got there just in time.
On the 44th anniversary of the last Beatles performance on a London rooftop, I thought it was fitting to delve into Garbo’s Beatles records and ask: which was the very first Beatles LP ever released in the USA? “Meet The Beatles” on Capitol Records? Or was it this one on the little but then-thriving black-owned label out of Chicago, Vee Jay, “Introducing…The Beatles”?
The Vee Jay LP was released on Janurary 10, 1964, 10 days before Capitol’s release which changed the lives of all of us who were lucky enough to be conscious in 1964. I can’t even begin to imagine how Greta Garbo came to own a copy of “Introducing…The Beatles” oh but please let us try.
Before we begin to let our minds run wild on this I think we need to understand exactly what THIS copy of THIS record is: it’s…a ‘fake’. Well, it’s nothing for The Great Garbo to have been ashamed of, I too own a fake. And if you own this record, yours is probably a fake too. And if it’s not a fake – while you don’t own Greta’s copy, you have a goldmine!
Because Vee Jay’s “Introducing…The Beatles”, stereo, is one of the most counterfeited records in the history of vinyl. For that reason, many record detectives were abuzz upon seeing the photo of the lot I won of Greta’s records where this LP was pictured, wondering if this could be the holy grail.
My friend Bill Bartell was the first to alert me to the possible treasure I might have come to own. Like most people, I had no idea. I have a copy of this record which I got as a teenager, almost a decade after it’s release. It’s thrashed, the record sleeve is taped, cause I played it to death and took it everywhere my life took me since, according to my own handwritten note on the record sleeve, my stepfather bought it for me in 1972.
Bill gave me a few guidelines on detecting a fake or original: if the back had been blank, or if it had ads for other Vee Jay Records on it, I could have been looking at a $10,000 record. But as you can see, that was not the case. Also, to be an original the front cover needed to show a shadow casting from George Harrison. And this cover does not have that.
There are sooo many details to check to see if your copy of this record is valuable and I include a link below to a really good site which Bill sent to me. Also there is also a You Tube video which gives a tutorial posted below on how to detect if your record is a gem or a fake. And also if you can lay your hands on a copy of Bruce Spizer’s book “The Beatles Records On Vee Jay” buy it!
(This image below is the original very valuable pressing of the record. Note George’s shadow on the far right edge of the album cover.)
So even though “Introducing…The Beatles” was released in 1964, I’m going to take a wild guess that Greta came by this a few years later. Why? Well because as far as I can tell from my research, and many people know more than me on this, the counterfeiting of this record really began to take place massively in the late 60s.
And another reason I would guess she bought it in the late 60s is because Garbo doesn’t own any other Beatles titles between this one and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band”. Nowadays of course, this wouldn’t mean a thing’; maybe your first Beatles record was “Rubber Soul”, or “Abbey Road”, cause the catalogue is all in the past so there is no continuity to your purchase. But if you bought “Introducing…The Beatles” first in 1964 and “Sgt. Pepper’s” in 1967, you most likely would have bought some of The Beatles’ records in between. Most likely.
(Here is the vintage homemade record box which hold Greta’s records, and the battered but cherished Beatles LP record box which holds all my Beatles albums).
With this logic, I’m thinking Greta bought “Sgt. Pepper’s” as her first Beatles record, then at some time later worked her way back to this one to educate herself on the band. Realizing the vast difference in the Fab Four’s music in just 3 years, maybe she preferred the pyschedelic direction. “I’d love to turn you onnnnnnnnn…” she might have sung dreamily.
Also, her “Sgt. Pepper’s” record is well played (is that smudge her fingerprint?? We shall examine in a later post!), and so is “Magical Mystery Tour”. But unlike my copy, Garbo’s “Introducing…The Beatles” while not in the shrink wrap didn’t take too many turns on turns on her Collaro. The cover and the record itself are therefore in really great condition. And I know purists might disagree, but to my unpure ears, the record sounds terrific! (And I know some people are concerned with me playing these records on the Crosley, but I am only giving these LPS of Garbo’s one complete spin on this Spinnerette.)
(Another dead giveaway of a fake - the label should read “stereo” somewhere, and the two lines on the label “Introducing the Beatles” and “The Beatles” should not be separated by the spindle hole)
“Introducing…The Beatles” really takes me back blissfully in a way few records can. I remember at age 9, being at Meyer’s Pharmacy on South 29th Street in Ashland, Kentucky and seeing both of The Beatles first LPs side by side on the record rack. Damn I wish I had an Iphone then to Instagram that! But you can picture it, yeah? AND how I wish I had bought the Vee Jay LP that day. But “Meet The Beatles” was just looked waaaaay cooler. It had that amazing photo by Robert Freeman and the striking mod black and blue artwork, and — they all looked really CUTE! The Vee Jay record is pretty homely in every way, dingy, lacking energy. And knowing how good they all looked over the years, truly, it’s hard to even imagine what went wrong in this photograph by the otherwise brilliant Angus McBean. But clearly, everything did.
(“Meet The Beatles”: better artwork, cuter Beatles!)
And yet, the songs on “Introducing…The Beatles” are some of my very favorite Beatles songs. It’s opens with a weirdly clipped intro of Paul counting down on “I Saw Her Standing There”…apparently the guy mastering the tracks for Vee Jee thought this was just studio chatter and cut out Paul saying, “1-2-3—“ and the track awkwardly comes in with a clipped, “Fa—-“ and then the song begins. Since we are all so used to hearing this correctly mastered by EMI and Capitol over the years, this Vee Jay LP is off to a bad start with this big gaffaw. But once you’re into the song, and how can you not be – it’s wonderful in every way.
Most of the songs on the Vee Jay record were released by Capitol in 1965 on “The Early Beatles”. LP “Ask Me Why” is a song I fell in love with when I finally got my hands on “The Early Beatles” when it first came out. But my two favorites, “Misery” and “There’s A Place” are missing from that album.
“There’s a Place” is one of my very favorite Beatles songs ever, in my top 5 for certain. I also own it on a 45 on the Tollie label — a gift from my friend Hunter Lea. I have to imagine this song which pleases and comforts me so much would perfectly fit Garbo’s state of mind too. Like her, I too was/am a daydreamer. I can never understand boredom. When you can always imagine something, how can you be bored? I have been very intolerant of boredom in others, I just don’t understand needing something outside of your own brain to occupy you.
Garbo it seems was the same. As a child she daydreamed in school, and then would put her dreams into action by directing the other children in play. (I can relate!) And in these 50 years she was gone from Hollywood, it appears she did not suffer from boredom one bit.
(Greta in 1966, if these people would have left her alone, maybe she would have made it to the record store to buy “Revolver” as her first Beatles LP! I could see her often being in the mood for “Tomorrow Never Knows”!)
In the song “There’s A Place”, of course penned by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, the lyrics tell the story of a guy with a broken heart, but he knows where to find solace:
is a place
Where I can go
When I feel low
When I feel blue
And it’s my mind
And there’s no time
When I’m alone”
I don’t think more can be said. This is Greta. Fake copy or not, I can’t imagine this song not speaking directly to her as it does me.
To learn more about counterfeit “Introducing…The Beatles” LPS check out these two links:
A really wonderful bio on Vee Jay, the most successful black-owned record label before Motown:
And for a tutorial on whether your copy of this record is gold or phoney:
And for your listening and viewing pleasure to entice you to seriously go buy this record. The fake was good enough for me and for Miss G. You can also buy CDs or digital copies of The Beatles “Please Please Me” which includes all of the Vee Jay tracks at your favorite record store or online site.