Welcome to this occasional series where I am attempting a virtual journey around the 50 States of America in song. For anyone new to this place, I have a continuous route map where I enter and leave each state only once. Suggestions for the next leg always welcome!
Well, I seem to have been tettering on the edge of the George Washington bridge for two months now, as my New York post ended up being rather a long one, and New Jersey doesn’t look as if it will be much shorter, or easier to put together. After this state I will really try and get back to the original premise of one state, one song, but in the meantime it will have to be another “stream of consciousness” kind of affair. Here goes….
New Jersey is tantalisingly close to wealthy and sophisticated Manhattan, but here, a mere 10 minutes across the bridge (or through the tunnel), we have a much more workaday state. To use another British analogy, New Jersey is probably the Essex of America where “Joisey” girls and boys tend to be the butt of many a joke. It is called the Garden State but the area bordering the Hudson is heavily industrialised and provides a home to many a chemical plant. The beautiful Ivy League University Princeton however is in New Jersey and further south we have the many fine beaches. Atlantic City, with it’s seven miles of boardwalk, was a highly successful and popular resort in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Post WWII it fell into decline but in 1976 came the legalisation of gambling after which massive casino hotels were built such as the Trump Taj Mahal. The original was one of the seven wonders of the world, but inside this one day and night merge into one, as high and low rollers from all over the world are sucked in leaving the old boardwalks neglected and empty.
But this is a music blog so what, and who, comes to mind when I think of New Jersey? First of all here is a clip showing the opening sequence to the television show The Sopranos – It shows the journey made by its lead character Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini), all the way from the New Jersey Turnpike to his comfortable suburban home. The theme music for this show (Woke Up This Morning) was ironically provided by British band Alabama 3 and I have written about that song here before as I’ve always really liked it. The short film also gives a pretty good whistle stop tour of that part of the state, just across the Hudson from NYC.
Woke Up This Morning by Alabama 3:
Like many other successful television dramas it wasn’t long before a CD was released featuring the songs included in the show, and being a big fan of course I bought it. Being a drama very much focused on Italian-Americans, it was inevitable that one of New Jersey’s most famous sons, born to Italian immigrants living in Hoboken, would pop up quite early on in the series. Not in person of course, as he died the year before the show first aired, but by providing It Was A Very Good Year, the soundtrack to the opening sequence for Season 2.
Frank Sinatra was possibly the very first teen idol, the hero of the “bobby-soxers” who sang with the Tommy Dorsey band in the ’40s and appeared in many lavish MGM musicals. After his career started to slump in the early ’50s he turned to Las Vegas, becoming one of the infamous Rat Pack. A second successful film and recording career followed in the later half of that decade and then a long period of recording and performing live in concert, right up until 1995. In terms of retirement, it never really worked out for him.
Although Frank didn’t ever learn how to read music, he had a fine, natural understanding of it and was known to be a perfectionist. It is often mentioned that he had wonderful “phrasing”, which is how a musician shapes a sequence of notes in a passage of music in order to express an emotion or impression – I do believe that with It Was A Very Good Year, he does that with bells on.
It Was A Very Good Year by Frank Sinatra:
Another reason I wanted to include this song in my New Jersey post is because its whole sentiment is very appropriate for what I am doing with this blog – I am probably now in the autumn of my years myself but it is enjoyable to look back nostalgically over my life, telling the stories and sharing the music of my youth.
When I was seventeen, it was a very good year:
Right at the start of my teenage years a new Community Centre was built next to the Academy I attended, and so for the next five years, until I reached the age of 17, it became the focus of our social life. Unlike today when very few parents/community leaders are willing (or allowed) to supervise a few hundred teenagers with raging hormones, back in the ’70s they were plentiful. Nearly every weekend we headed along to the Saturday night “disco” held in one of the big halls. The records, played by some of our classmates who had been insightful enough to buy the equipment, were all the current chart hits and of course it was there that we experienced first kisses, fumbles and romance.
Funnily enough one of my most vivid memories of those years is dancing to songs by a band that really should be more closely associated with the ’60s. Those original Jersey Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons had a bit of a resurgence in popularity in the ’70s and I am pretty sure my first kiss took place whilst the song December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night) was playing in the background.
When I was twenty-one, it was a very good year:
By the age of 21 I had done the unthinkable, I had dropped all my female friends because I wanted to spend most of my day with my student boyfriend. He was never alone however so it was usually a group of about five lads and myself, in the library, in the bar, in the dining hall…., you get the picture. (“Yes, we see, he was the Leader of the Pack” – sorry couldn’t resist).
Anyway, they were all great fans of that other famous son of New Jersey Bruce Springsteen, so when a rumour went round that he was coming to play the NEC in Birmingham, tickets were acquired. The boyfriend’s parents’ Volvo was commandeered and on the day of my 21st birthday we headed off, driving through the night to the West Midlands. I will have to admit that at age 21 I was more of a fan of Ultravox, Spandau, Visage and Adam Ant so my knowledge of Bruce’s back catalogue was scant indeed. In the weeks before the concert I therefore immersed myself in his album “The River”. By the time the concert came along I was sufficiently au fait with his material to really enjoy the whole experience, especially the saxophone playing of Clarence Clemons. As for the song The River, Bruce cited his inspiration as being his sister and brother-in-law who are still married today. Unlike my New Romantic bands from the early ’80s, Bruce has kept on writing and touring to this day. Never having been a follower of fashion in any way (his stage outfit remains almost unchanged) he has never gone out of fashion – He is the bard of New Jersey but a campaign to get Bruce’s Born To Run named as official state song did flounder, as in reality the song was all about getting the hell out of New Jersey!
When I was thirty-five, it was a very good year:
By 35 I was a working mum and a very busy bee indeed so music didn’t feature quite as highly in my life but it would have been hard to miss the fact that Ms Whitney Houston, one of New Jersey’s most famous daughters, had really achieved success of the stratospheric nature. Pop royalty, she was the cousin of Dionne Warwick, the daughter of Cissy Houston, Darlene Love was her godmother and Aretha Franklin an honorary aunt. She had been around since the mid ’80s but after appearing in films such as The Bodyguard the awards just kept on coming. The lead single from the film’s original soundtrack, I Will Always Love You, received the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1994 and became the best-selling single by a female in music history. I think I now prefer the original version, by the writer of the song Dolly Parton, but no-one can deny that Whitney had a stupendous set of pipes back then.
Sadly, Whitney died in 2012 at the very young age of 48, but she certainly has left us with a wonderful back catalogue of songs. She was one of the first singers to make use of that vocal technique called melisma, where by packing in a series of different notes, a single syllable can take nearly six seconds to sing. The technique inspired a host of imitators in the ’90s but what Whitney perhaps nailed best was moderation. Earlier this year I went to the cinema to see the new Kevin Macdonald documentary film Whitney: Can I Be Me – The upshot seemed to be that no, she couldn’t.
I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston:
So there we have it, by using Frank’s song I have been able to link three other musical legends from New Jersey into this post. Incidentally there is another link you might not have noticed. Frankie Valli actually made several appearances in The Sopranos, playing the mobster Rusty Millio. Also, the Four Seasons’ music is heard in many episodes, especially Big Girls Don’t Cry. Steven Van Zandt, a long term member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, played the character Silvio Dante in all six seasons of The Sopranos and finally, Whitney Houston, was a mezzo-soprano (tenuous that one, but you can’t win them all).
Big Girls Don’t Cry by The Four Seasons:
Next time we head across the border into Pennsylvania – As ever, ideas for song choices gratefully received.
Until next time….
It Was a Very Good Year Lyrics
(Song by Ervin Drake)
When I was seventeen, it was a very good year
It was a very good year for small town girls
And soft summer nights
We’d hide from the lights
On the village green
When I was seventeen
When I was twenty-one, it was a very good year
It was a very good year for city girls
Who lived up the stairs
With all that perfumed hair
That came undone
When I was twenty-one
When I was thirty-five, it was a very good year
It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls
Of independent means
We’d ride in limousines
Their chauffeurs would drive
When I was thirty-five
But now the days are short, I’m in the autumn of the years
And now I think of my life as vintage wine
From fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs
It poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year
12 thoughts on “An American Odyssey in Song: New Jersey – Frank, The Sopranos and “It Was A Very Good Year””
What a fantastic post, Alyson – inspired. I love the way you connected the dots together using the lyrics of Frank’s song. Very impressive.
As for Pennsylvania… well, I can think of 65000 suggestions… although I guess Streets of Philadelphia is out (then again, I think you might already have featured that).
To be frank though, Philly calls for some soul, surely? Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto!
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Thanks – If you let these posts percolate for a while, ideas like this one come to mind. I liked how certain musicians from NJ had touched my life at the same ages as in Frank’s song. Also being a great fan of The Sopranos I couldn’t let that pass either.
Yes quite a few obvious suggestions for PA but which will I use? Hopefully won’t take me 2 months this time – I’m starting to think I’ll be in my dotage before I finish this series!
Great article, Alyson. You covered a lot of ground famously.
I’m not sure if Frank recorded It Was A Very Good Year more than once. But the version I know is on his September Of My Years album. I loved that album when it came out circa 1965, and I still love it.
Till next time —
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Thanks – Yes I also really appreciated the albums made by Frank as he became more “mature”. The lyrics just wouldn’t work if sang by a younger man.
We’re heading over to your state next time so hope I do a reasonable job of portraying it in music – Tricky because when I think of PA, like NY, it is a state of wilderness, mountains, industry and farming but also a state of cities like Philadelphia. Let’s see what I can come up with.
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I enjoyed listening to the tracks you selected for today’s post, Alyson. I’ve always been a fan of the Sopranos theme song and found Sinatra’s ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ curiously appealing as a teenager. I also remember very well ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ being played at my local Community Centre’s Friday Night dances. I’ve got lots of Philly soul, so if you don’t happen to have a particular song you’re looking for, check with me and I’ll help if I can.
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Glad you enjoyed it – I know we shouldn’t get big-headed here but I was chuffed with how I managed to turn full-circle starting and ending with The Sopranos but managing to link everything else in-between.
Funny that, how we both experienced Frankie and the boys at our Community Centre dances but from different eras – They had a long career and Frankie is still out there touring.
Yes there will definitely have to be some Philly Soul next time so thanks for the offer – I may well be back in touch.
Great post and I loved the songs and the links between them.
I know a few songs about Pennsylvania and a couple of its larger towns, but my favourite would be the extremely short but very funny “Have You Ever Been To Pittsburgh” by Loudon Wainwright III. I don’t think you’ll find it on Youtube, but the lyrics are as follows (Note – Loudon plays it like a 12-bar blues tune and sings it with great passion and verve)
“Have you ever been to Pittsburgh
Do you think you’d wanna go
Have you ever been to Pittsburgh
(It’s in Pennsylvania)
Do you think you’d wanna go
Well – if you wanna go to Pittsburgh
Get on the bus and go!”
Loudon also wrote the more affectionate “Ode To A Pittsburgh”.
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Hi there – Thanks. I really enjoyed putting this one together. Thanks also for the heads up about the Pittsburg song – As probably expected I hadn’t heard of it before.
Just in case you thought I’d forgotten about your suggestion as a follow-on featured song to Back Stabbers by the O’Jays, it looks as if it could be a nice fit for the next post in this series – I always get round to everything suggested eventually!
A great circular trip round another state, your writing mojo is well and truly in place. And I can totally relate to your ’70s Community Centre disco nights – particularly the things that happened within them!
I’d never actually considered Bruce’s fashion thing (or lack of it) but you’re so right – virtually unchanged in all these years, haha. I’m inclined to think the same about his music but I’m probably not the best judge. Mind you nothing wrong with that if it’s want he wants to do, just that it’s not for me.
Yes, some Philly soul would be great for the next post. I can only think of one song right now and it’s another Pittsburgh reference -a sort of sub-Stones US ’60s garage classic (something I really got into in the mid-80s): ‘I’m In Pittsburgh (and it’s raining)’ by the Outcasts… just in case!
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Thanks – enjoyed writing this one a lot. As for Bruce, although I know that many of our blogging buddies idolise him and his song-writing abilities, I’ve never really been a massive fan. It was ironic therefore that I should spend my 21st birthday going to see him. Ironic also that I was going through my New Romantic period at the time where I used to regularly turn up for lectures looking somewhat “pirate-like” dressed in frilly shirts, big coats and boots with tassels – Bruce was happy with an old pair of jeans and that awful short-sleeved shirt he used to wear.
Anyway thanks for the suggestion for next time – Should be quite a lot to pick from because of the whole Philadelphia Sound thing but other little gems as well by the sound of it.
Wonderful post, Alyson. As someone who grew up on Staten Island (which seemed to be more a part of New Jersey than New York City) and went to college in New Jersey (specifically, Rutgers University), I think you nailed so much of what’s musically great about that state. Wish I had time for a more thorough comment but I’m out of town and have limited internet time. One other song that popped into my head while reading this is “Union City Blue” by Blondie. Not sure if it’s about Union City, NJ but I think there’s a connection and I seem to remember the video taking place on a pier or barge by the Hudson River. I think it was also a hit in the UK (not here, though) so perhaps you already know it.
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Thanks for dropping by – Yes, looking at the map of New York last time, Staten Island did look as if it should belong with NJ but not to be obviously.
Lots more songs I could have chosen for this state (Bon Jovi was missed) but had to go with a theme or else I get bogged down. Yes Union City Blue is about Union City in NJ and is from the film of the same name set there. Didn’t know it wasn’t a hit in the US – Blondie were much bigger over here for a start than at home. Remember it well and the video which was indeed filmed by the Hudson.
If you are out of town you are missing the renovation chaos which must be a good thing – Hope all is going well!