The Jazz Singer at 90, Part I (Plot summary)

Welcome to my long-awaited series on The Jazz Singer on its 90th anniversary! I’m going to be covering topics including the source play, Al Jolson, the history of blackface, the history of Jewish-themed films, the transition from silent to sound film, debunking myths about this era (e.g., the claim that most silent stars had horrible voices), the history of sound-on-film technology, the making of the film, and so much more.

Let’s get started with a general plot summary and review of the film itself!

The story opens in the Lower East Side (described as “the ghetto”), where 13-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz longs to become a jazz singer instead of following in his cantor dad’s footsteps. It’s Erev (the eve of) Yom Kippur, and Jakie still isn’t home to sing with his dad in shul.

Busybody Moisha Yudelson reports he saw Jakie “singing raggy time songs” by a beer garden. Ignoring the fact that Yudelson was in such a supposedly sinful place himself, Cantor Rabinowitz storms over and drags Jakie home.

Jakie’s mother Sara begs her husband to be easy on the boy, but Cantor Rabinowitz declares, “I’ll teach him better than to debase the voice God gave him!” Jakie says he’ll run away and never come back if he’s whipped again, and he indeed does just that.

By the Kol Nidre evening service, Cantor Rabinowitz says he no longer has a son. During the chanting of Kol Nidre, Jakie (who’s quite a mama’s-boy) sneaks back home to pick up a picture of his mother.

Ten years later, Jakie has reinvented himself as Jack Robin. After he wows the crowd at a cabaret with a few songs, he’s introduced to dancer Mary Dale. She offers to help him with his career, and says he’s got a tear in his voice, unlike many other jazz singers.

Jack’s big break comes when Mary helps him to get a leading role in the musical April Follies. He’s very excited to be going back to New York, his home. Best of all, he’ll get to see his mother again.

Mrs. Rabinowitz is ecstatic to see her boy again, and Jack promises all sorts of wonderful things, like moving her to the Bronx and buying her a big house. Jack has also brought a birthday present for his dad. But when Cantor Rabinowitz comes home, the happy mood is crushed (and the dialogue reverts from sound to title cards).

Once again, Jack tries to explain his love of modern music and why he feels it’s more important to him than old traditions, but his father will have none of it. Cantor Rabinowitz banishes him again, and on his way out, Jack says he came home with a heart full of love.

Two weeks later, and twenty-four hours before the opening of April Follies, Cantor Rabinowitz falls very sick. This is also Erev Yom Kippur, which means he won’t be able to chant Kol Nidre. Now, in a decision reminiscent of Sandy Koufax and the 1965 World Series, Jack has to make the difficult choice between his faith and his career. Will he sing in the show or take his father’s place in shul?

This isn’t one of the all-time classic greats of film history, but I’d give it a solid 4 stars. The blackface might make some modern people uncomfortable, but it’s only in two scenes, one towards the end and the other at the end. I was really nervous about that the first time I saw it, but I ended up not taking any offense.

As I’ll discuss in future posts, the use of blackface is actually integral to both this specific story and Al Jolson’s life and career. It wouldn’t be the same story, with the same impact, if it were taken out.

Everyone should see this important piece of film history at least once.

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Happy 50th birthday, Butterfly!

Copyright Parlophone; image used solely to illustrate the subject for the purposes of an album review, and consistent with Fair Use Doctrine

Released 1 November 1967, Butterfly was The Hollies’ seventh album, and my own personal favorite of the Graham Nash era. It also might be my overall favorite, it’s that damn good. I love the psychedelic sound.

This was their third album in a row to be composed entirely of songs by Allan Clarke (lead singer), Tony Hicks (lead guitarist), and Graham Nash (rhythm guitarist).

As with their earlier 1967 release Evolution, none of the songs were released as singles in the U.K., though in the U.S., the lead-off track “Dear Eloise” reached #50. “Try It” was the U.S. B-side of “Jennifer Eccles,” and “Elevated Observations” was the B-side of “Do the Best You Can.”

Track listing:

“Dear Eloise” (for which an early music video, in black and white, was made)
“Away Away Away”
“Maker” (features a sitar)
“Pegasus” (one of the rare times Tony sings lead)
“Would You Believe?”
“Wishyouawish”
“Postcard” (no relation to The Who’s later song by the same name)
“Charlie and Fred”
“Try It”
“Elevated Observations”
“Step Inside”
“Butterfly”

The U.S. and Canadian repackaging, released 27 November 1967, was retitled Dear Eloise/King Midas in Reverse, and used entirely different cover art. It added the single “King Midas in Reverse” and the Evolution track “Leave Me.” Missing from this edition were “Try It,” “Pegasus,” and “Elevated Observations.”

My favorite tracks are “Maker,” “Elevated Observations,” “Would You Believe?,” and “Dear Eloise,” though the entire album is fantastic. The band is in top form, at the height of their creative powers in the Graham Nash era.

People who think The Hollies only made lightweight pop need to listen to this album! They evolved into a new musical style and tried new things, even if you’d never know it from the 4-5 songs left in regular rotation on the average oldies station. This is NOT “I love you, you love me, ooh baby” pablum.

Happy 50th birthday, Evolution!

Copyright Parlophone; image used solely to illustrate subject for the purposes of an album review, and consistent with Fair Use Doctrine

Evolution, released 1 June 1967, was the first of two Hollies’ albums to come out in 1967. It was recorded from 11 January–17 March 1967, and is a classic of the psychedelic era. People who perpetuate the myth that The Hollies only did lightweight pop haven’t listened to this album!

The Hollies were always less popular here across the pond than they were in their native U.K., which adds to the lack of familiarity many people may have with it. Of course, there’s also blame to be laid at a certain former bandmember who couldn’t stop talking about how he left because he got too cool for his band.

It reached #13 in the U.K., and is composed entirely of songs written by Allan Clarke (lead singer), Tony Hicks (lead guitarist), and Graham Nash (rhythm guitarist). In addition to serving as the band’s songwriting team, these three also provided their famous harmonies.

Psychedelic photographer Karl Ferris took the photo used on the cover, with the artwork created by The Fool, a Dutch design collective and band. It depicts The Hollies breaking through a membrane to get away from their pop sound into the psychedelic world. They’re pushing into a new musical style and level of consciousness.

Track listing:

“Then the Heartaches Began”
“Stop Right There”
“Water on the Brain”
“Lullaby to Tim” (written for Allan’s firstborn child)
“Have You Ever Loved Somebody?”
“You Need Love”
“Rain on the Window”
“Heading for a Fall”
“Ye Olde Toffee Shoppe”
“When Your Light’s Turned On”
“Leave Me”
“The Games We Play”

The U.S. repackaging, while keeping the title, put the tracks in a different order, remixed everything with heavy echo and reverb, included the single “Carrie-Anne” (the source of my pen name) as the lead-off track, and left off “Water on the Brain,” “Leave Me,” and “When Your Light’s Turned On.”

The U.S. record company also didn’t use The Fool’s overall cover design, wanting the artform to be more consistent with the U.S. psychedelic style. This was The Hollies’ début for their new U.S. record label, Epic.

None of the songs were released as singles in the U.K., and the U.S. only released “Carrie-Anne” (not an original album track) as a single.

My favorite tracks are “Have You Ever Loved Somebody?,” “Then the Heartaches Began,” “Leave Me,” and “Ye Olde Toffee Shoppe.” I highly recommend this if you’re interested in getting to know The Hollies beyond their most overplayed songs.

Happy 50th birthday, PAC&J Ltd.!

Copyright Colgems; image used solely for the purpose of illustrating the subject for an album review, and consistent with Fair Use Doctrine

Released 6 November 1967, Pisces, Capricorn, Aquarius, & Jones Ltd. was The Monkees’ fourth album. Like their previous three, it too went to #1. Though picking a favorite Monkees’ album is like picking a favorite child, I’d pick this one in a pinch.

The title comes from the boys’ sun signs. Micky is Pisces, Peter is Aquarius, and Nez and Davy are Capricorn. Since the lattermost two shared a birthday (albeit three years apart), Davy’s surname was also included to avoid any potential confusion.

Track listing and writing credits, with stars by the bonus tracks:

“Salesman” (Craig Vincent Smith)
“She Hangs Out” (Jeff Barry)
“The Door into Summer” (Chip Douglas and Bill Martin)
“Love Is Only Sleeping” (Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill)
“Cuddly Toy” (Harry Nilsson)
“Words” (Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart)
“Hard to Believe” (Davy with Kim Capli, Eddie Brick, and Charlie Rockett)
“What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” (Michael Martin Murphey and Owen Castleman)
“Peter Percival Patterson’s Pet Pig Porky” (Peter)
“Pleasant Valley Sunday” (Gerry Goffin and Carole King)
“Daily Nightly” (Nez)
“Don’t Call on Me” (Nez with John London)
“Star Collector” (Goffin and King)
“Goin’ Down” (stereo mix) (all four Monkees with Diane Hilderbrand)*
“Salesman” (alternate stereo mix)*
“She Hangs Out” (alternate stereo mix)*
“Love Is Only Sleeping” (alternate mix)*
“What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” (alternate mix)*
“Star Collector” (alternate stereo mix)*
“Riu Chiu” (TV version) (traditional)*
Original first thirteen tracks in mono*
Special Announcement*
“Salesman” (alternate mono mix)*
“Cuddly Toy” (alternate mix)*
“Goin’ Down” (mono single mix)*
“The Door into Summer” (2007 remastered alternate mix)*
“Daily Nightly” (alternate mix)*
“Star Collector” (alternate mix)*

As with their previous album Headquarters, the boys exercised a great deal of creative control, though there were more studio musicians brought in. Nez takes center stage on five of the original tracks, while Micky only sings lead on three. Micky had vocally dominated their previous three albums.

Davy sings lead on four, and Peter gets the short novelty song “Peter Percival Patterson’s Pet Pig Porky.”

The album yielded the double B-side “Pleasant Valley Sunday”/”Words,” the former song of which went to #3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and Cash Box Top 100; #2 in New Zealand and Canada; #4 in Norway; #10 in Australia; #11 in Ireland and the U.K.; and #18 in Germany.

“Words” was somewhat less popular on the charts, though it went to a respectable #11 on Billboard.

A Moog synthesizer is famously heard on “Star Collector” (as well as featured in “Daily Nightly” and “Love Is Only Sleeping”). PAC&J was one of the first mainstream, popular albums to feature this instrument, which Micky had discovered and introduced to the band.

My favorite tracks are “The Door into Summer,” “Words,” “Love Is Only Sleeping,” and “Star Collector.” This is an excellent album for new fans to get to know The Monkees beyond their most overplayed singles.

Happy Duran Duran Appreciation Day! (Rio at 35, Part II [Behind the scenes])


“My Own Way” was the very first Rio single to be written and recorded, in October ’81. It was released as a single the next month, in a very different style from the album version. The other eight tracks were recorded in early ’82, produced and engineered by Colin Thurston, at London’s Air Studios.

The massively overplayed “HLTW” was the second single, released 4 May 1982. “Save a Prayer” became the third single on 9 August 1982, and the title track was released as a single on 1 November.

In September 1982, record label EMI released the EP Carnival, featuring the Night Versions (extended dance remixes) of some of the band’s hit singles. The Dutch and Spanish version contained “HLTW,” “Rio,” “Planet Earth,” and “Girls on Film,” while the Canadian and U.S. version had “HLTW,” “Girls on Film,” “Hold Back the Rain,” and “My Own Way.” The Japanese version had “Rio (Part II),” “Hold Back the Rain,” “My Own Way,” “HLTW,” and “New Religion.”

Carnival was very successful, leading Capitol Records to start marketing them as a dance band instead of New Romantics. Seizing the moment, the band compelled Capitol to re-release Rio in the U.S. In November, they got their wishes, and this new version (with the first five tracks re-mixed by David Kershenbaum) went to #6.

The international success of the album and its four singles was due in huge part to the newly-mainstreamed artform of the music video. While music videos had been around for quite a long time, they were typically done only as promotion prior to MTV. They weren’t a carefully-considered artform in the old days.

Who could imagine any Eighties band, artist, or song without the music videos? They’re such a quintessential aspect of my childhood decade. While music videos are still being made (shocking as it is to discover), the modern ones are nothing like the classics from the Eighties.

Music videos were made for the title track, “HLTW,” “Lonely in Your Nightmare,” and “Save a Prayer” in Antigua and Sri Lanka. Also filmed was a very weird music video for “Nightboat,” from their first album.


Warning: Video NSFW or under 18!

A video album was released in 1983, featuring the four singles from Rio, plus album tracks “Lonely in Your Nightmare” and “The Chauffeur.” Also included were four songs from their début album and the March 1983 single “Is There Something I Should Know?”

The album cover was designed by Malcolm Garrett and famously painted by American artist Patrick Nagel, and went on to become one of Nagel’s best-known images. His alternate version of the cover was finally used in 2001 for a limited edition remaster. Most of his works were female figures in a style inspired by Art Déco and initially based off photographs.

Copyright EMI or Patrick Nagel’s estate; used solely to illustrate the subject and consistent with Fair Use doctrine

Rio frequently makes those incessant “best-of” albums lists, for British albums, Eighties albums, and greatest albums of all time. The album has not only remained popular and relevant over the last 35 years, but also influential on many other musicians. It’s not an album anyone could go wrong buying.