Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Angel On My Shoulder

Angel On My Shoulder
Words and Music by Shelby Flint
1960

I wanted the music for “Downtown” by Petula Clark because my intention was to record the song on piano and then lip-sync the lyrics as Petula Clark sings them and I perform a celebration of downtown St. Louis like I’m Mary Tyler Moore, swinging on light posts, dodging cabs, feeding pigeons, smoking cigarettes, gawking at limousines and everything else that Downtown evokes. I can film the video but I can't edit it because my computer has finally reached the point where the video card is overwhelmed. I knew the chords but it would take me forever to figure out the exact intro so it’s easier to own the music. Well, for some reason, the sheet music of Petula Clark, the great mid sixties diva from England, is not only rare but it’s expensive and incomplete. Only like 4 of her songs were released as sheet music and she only has one exclusive songbook that was only printed in England and only in 1968 and doesn't include "Couldn't Live Without Your Love." There might be five copies of it on North America. Some of the songs are online, transcribed for on demand printing, but I don’t have access to a printer and I don’t want to start a precedent of buying single songs for $5 and printing them out. It’s not how I get inspired to play music so I was forced to buy Downtown as part of a 6 song lot a seller in Penn. was trying to unload. What works is having the sheet music in my hand, complete with smoke stains, stamps from previous owners, pencil marks for tricky fingering, that unmistakable foxing of the paper edges and other telling marks. These things are part of the story of that song and help me connect with the song and relieves me from the pain of reality.

Angel On My Shoulder, for example, cost 60 cents in 1960, approximately what I paid for it 52 years later but with inflation my 60 cents today is like $4 in 1960 which should be like $20 today but isn't. The time period is never captured by those online services so I lose my inspiration. Context is another bonus I get from the original sheet music. This copy of Angel On My Shoulder has a black and white picture of a woman in a turtleneck with delicate features, dark eyes and big lashes. I have no idea who she is but her lack of facial tattoos and lip rings and her girlish perm tell me this is a woman before my time. Maybe my mother had a secret career as a folk singer. “Recorded by Shelby Flint on Valiant Records” declares the caption. Shelby Flint? Never heard of her. I’ve never heard of Valiant Records either. In the corner “Sherman-DeVorzon Music Co.” The history begins to reveal itself. I'm transported to 1960



The opening bid set by the seller was $1.95 for the 6 songs. I didn’t pay much attention to the 5 songs that weren’t the Petula Clark hit since the only other copy of Downtown was listed for $15. I bid $8 and it turned out no one else was interested, including the people selling the same piece of sheet music for $15. That makes me wonder why they think it’s worth $15 if it was being sold for $2 along with 5 other songs but they ignored it. Why not corner the market on Downtown? That’s a topic for another essay because this is the first in a series of essays tackling my project of cataloging and learning all the songs in my huge box of tin pan alley tunes. You can see how impossible this project is when I haven’t even written a word about the 50 songs in the box and the number just grew by 6 songs. So I’d better get started.

I won the auction uncontested and the envelope soon arrived in the mail. I tore it open and kissed the copy of Downtown. There were the notes I wanted to play. A simple I-IV-V chord progression to start the song. D---G---A. In fact, the whole song is D—G—A with one B minor thrown in. If only I had a piano… Well, one thing at a time. I had the song and my collection of Petula Clark songs had begun. But what about these other songs? At $2 for the lot I didn’t have high expectations. The first one I want to talk about is Angel On My Shoulder.
The first thing that jumped out at me about this song is that Shelby Flint is credited with writing and recording the song in 1960. What’s unusual about that? It’s unusual because Buddy Holly didn’t even get sole writing credit for his songs. Every other song in the lot has multiple credited artists and not one composer also recorded the song, except Shelby Flint. 1960 is right on the border of the folk movement that spawned Bob Dylan and singer songwriters and a new tradition of the artist writing his own music. This really was unusual because recordings in the Duke Ellington era Fifties involved so many people that a single artist couldn't be allowed to claim sole ownership of the royalties. Nat King Cole could sing and play the piano and lead a band but he didn't write many lyrics. A year earlier it would be tradition that the producer of the album, Shelby’s manager, and the owner of Valiant Records would all get a writing credit because they recommended adding a tea bell or hand clap or changed a “Saved” to “Held”. Hell, in Buddy Holly’s case Norman Petty didn’t do anything except hit the record button and he got writing credit for almost all of Buddy Holly’s songs. That was accepted tradition in 1958. So how is 20 year old Shelby Flint getting sole credit for music and lyrics on this song? Well, a little research tells me this is a song she wrote when she first got a guitar probably when she was 15 years old. And when she got the opportunity to record her album in 1960 (most of the songs are traditional folk ballads like Danny Boy, Heather on the Hill, The Riddle Song and other slow pitch songs that filled Jukeboxes across the continent) she convinced them to record her own song. Maybe the producers thought it was so goofy they didn't want to be associated with it. Or maybe they made the business decision to present Shelby's girly voice like a girl singing songs in her bedroom. The packaging was more important than stealing credit so Shelby owns that song.

A lot of guys owe their first backseat hand job to these songs as Shelby’s syrupy voice hovers with the sustain of a teenage erection. You could slow dance until your partner could no longer ignore the bulge in your pants. These songs were enough to make you ignore the impending Vietnam Conflict and your father's boring Korean War stories and try to get under the impenetrable bullet bra of your Catholic girlfriend. Chemicals propel us forward through time and not the newspaper headlines. Animal House is a movie that set in 1962, pre British Invasion, Pre Bob Dylan but right in Shelby Flint’s wheelhouse. Either you listened to Hank Williams or Shelby Flint-style vocal artistry as your options were limited in 1960. If you were black then you listened to The Drifters and Chubby Checkers and Ray Charles. It made no difference if you’d heard “House of the Rising Sun” a hundred times before because the idea then was to be comfortable, relax in the post war American dream. The radio claimed "Industry would save the world." and Kennedy was President. No one wanted to rock the boat or revolt or smoke pot. No. Even Beatniks were confined to the unmentionable perimeter abbreviations of NYC and SF. Springfield, Illinois approved of Shelby Flint 100%. Her music might get you laid but your parents would approve.
Because of copyright crackdowns I can't find a link to an actual recording of this song from 1960 (the modern performance doesn't capture the 1960 vibe at all) which is too bad because she really has an angelic voice, so I'm forced to record it myself. It's out of my range since it was written by a 15 year old girl...and it's in the key of F Major which isn't kind to my throat. Maybe I'll transpose it later but for now this is the best I can do. If you were a teenager in 1960 this would bring back memories except it's a creepy bearded guy singing the song in near falsetto in a musty basement. I admit I can't capture the inflection of the original artist, but my "Dusty Music Revival" project is to record all of these songs I have collected, write a short essay on each to expand and teach my version of music history and maybe get a book deal out of it. Maybe it's fitting that I record these songs in a basement since that's where the 50 year old sheet music generally ends up. My method of learning this song is picking out the melody on the guitar until I learn it. Then learning the chord progression. This one is pretty basic. Fmajor C7 Bb. The chorus is F7 C G7 Gm C7. It's all F major chord cousins.
To Be Continued...




Next up: Bob Hope unbuttons Jane Russell's Bra
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.