An American Odyssey in Song: New Jersey – Frank, The Sopranos and “It Was A Very Good Year”

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

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.

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A young Frank in Hoboken, New Jersey

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. Ironically, when good friends of ours recently moved to another town, their new next-door neighbour turned out to be the recipient of that first kiss – I went to say hello as we’d been right through secondary school together, but at first he didn’t recognise me because he didn’t have his glasses on! Oh the cruel passage of time and how it affects our senses.

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.

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Whitney Houston, RIP

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

Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, “The Night” and Northern Soul

Last night I finally got round to watching the film Northern Soul which had been recorded on the machine the previous week. It was made in 2014 but was all about the dance culture that emerged in the working-class industrial towns of the North of England in the early 1970s. Instead of chart music, the DJs in the various dance halls and youth clubs of Bury, Bolton, Blackburn, Burnley and Rochdale, played American soul music from the mid ’60s. And, this wasn’t mainstream soul music that would have been familiar to these youngsters, these DJs played the more obscure records that had never even charted (e.g. Tony Clarke: Landslide, Gloria Jones: Tainted Love, The Salvadors: Stick By Me Baby) but they somehow managed to attract large crowds of young people, on a weekly basis, who literally danced all night.

The film Northern Soul is what would probably be classed as a gritty drama, but told the story of two lads from Lancashire who immersed themselves in this culture, working in a factory by day but playing DJ at night, and at the weekends frequenting the big all-nighters at venues such as Wigan Casino. Watching them dance, this was early break dancing, what with the spins and the athletic moves. Who knew it all started in Lancashire?

The standout record from the film for me was The Night by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. I knew this song well but didn’t realise that although it was originally released in 1972, due to poor promotion, didn’t chart. It did however become a popular track on the northern soul circuit and subsequently became a hit in 1975 reaching No.7 in the UK Singles Chart. An oh so familiar tale of a boy pleading with a girl he likes, to resist the advances of another – Sadly all the pleading in the world is not going to work in a case like this as we girls all seem to go through a (probably) hormonally-induced phase of being attracted to the wrong kind of boy. I did it myself and still remember the disappointment on the face of my lovely friend Joe when I told him I was now dating his “frenemy”.

The Night by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons:

But going back to northern soul, as a fanatic of chart music between 1972 and 1975, carefully recording the chart rundown every Sunday night, it had not escaped my attention that there were a few listings around that time attributed to bands with the word Wigan in the title – There was Wigan’s Chosen Few with Footsee in 1975 and later on that year Wigan’s Ovation with three separate chart entries. They turned up on TOTP and we witnessed this very energetic style of dancing that was so different to what we were used to down the local youth club. I didn’t give it much thought at the time but in later life have been intrigued by how this movement took off to such an extent. It was hard enough getting boys to dance at all where I came from so to see a whole dance hall full of, let’s face it, very macho males showboating on the dancefloor was surprising indeed.

I will leave you with a couple of clips that kind of sum up what it was like back then – The dance halls had seen better days and life was a bit grim on the outside but when all that great American soul music was being blasted from the sound systems, life it seemed, was sweet. I am pretty sure that the Frankie Valli track that has become an earworm over the last 24 hours is not representative of the music that was played back then, and there are some music bloggers like Marie from It’s All In The Grooves who are experts in the kind of ’60s soul played at these venues, but watching the film it did remind me how much I loved Frankie’s falsetto. Still touring it seems at the grand old age of 82 and tickets selling fast so if you live in the North of England and want a little reminder of your days down at the Casino, get online fast!

The Night Lyrics
(Song by Bob Gaudio/Al Ruzicka)

Beware
Of his promise
Believe
What I say
Before
I go forever
Be sure
Of what you say

So he paints a pretty picture
And he tells you that he needs you
And he covers you with flowers
And he always keeps you dreaming
If he always keeps you dreaming
You won’t have a lonely hour
If a day could last forever
You might like your ivory tower

But the night begins to turn your head around
And you know you’re gonna lose more than you found
Yeah the night begins to turn your head around

Beware
Of his promise
Believe
What I say
Before
I go forever
Be sure
Of what you say

For the words may come too easy
If you don’t believe I’m leaving
And goodbye will come too quickly
If you really think he loves you
If you really think he loves you
You would give your love so sweetly
If that day could last forever
You would fall in love completely

But the night begins to turn your head around
And you know you’re gonna lose more than you found
Yeah the night begins to turn your head around