Dad’s Box Sets

Originally posted June 30, 2009

My dad wasn’t a huge music fan. But he enjoyed some music: He had the radio by his workbench – where he spent lots of time until the last few years of his life – tuned, as I’ve said before, to WVAL, the country station based in nearby Sauk Rapids. When my sister and I were young, he invested a fair amount of money in about thirty classical records offered by the Musical Heritage Society, records now on my shelves. (As he predicted forty years ago, I am now glad to have them.) And he bought bits and pieces of odd genres: Hawaiian tunes, the 101 Strings, some Guy Lombardo and other easy listening.

And he seemingly loved the box sets put out by Reader’s Digest. He left me four of them: Soft and Sentimental, Let’s Take A Sentimental Journey, Cocktail Piano Time and Popular Music Hit Parade. The first three are wonderfully programmed, very nice sets that draw mostly on big band music and popular standards, with very few tunes coming from any time after 1960.

A quick look at 1970’s Cocktail Piano Time finds only one tune out of sixty on the five-record set that breaks that 1960 barrier, the Latin-tinged “The Girl From Ipanema.” The 1990 Soft and Sentimental set – all sweet big band stuff – has only one track among its eighty-some that has any echoes of the 1960s or later, and that’s Vaughn Monroe’s “Red Roses For A Blue Lady.” Monroe recorded the tune in 1948, but the song was revived by several performers in the 1960s, most notably Vic Dana, whose version went to No. 10 in 1965.

Then, Let’s Take A Sentimental Journey, a 1970 set, breaks the 1960 barrier for one entire LP titled “The Sounds of Today.” That record includes orchestral versions of “Downtown,” “The Impossible Dream,” “Up Cherry Street,” “I Will Wait For You,” “Scarborough Fair,” “What Now My Love,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Delilah,” “Angel of the Morning,” “Pretty Flamingo” and “Do You Know The Way To San Jose?”

Hmmmm. “Up Cherry Street” is a song evidently best known from a recording by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. The originals of the rest are all very light pop, with the exception of “Delilah,” a lung workout by Tom Jones. The most interesting selections there are “This Little Light of Mine,” which carries to me echoes of Bible camp, and Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo.” That one LP, however, is the only time that the programmers of Let’s Take A Sentimental Journey acknowledge that music survived past 1960. Given the audience for Reader’s Digest records, that’s understandable.

Things were quite a bit different with Popular Music Hit Parade, a 1968 box set that Dad bought pretty much when it came out. I recall sifting through it for things I’d want to listen to. That was, of course, in the days before I was listening to pop and rock; I still, however, wanted more than just sweet strings and vapid voices. There was one side of one record devoted to Dixieland-style jazz. That was okay. Other than that, there was lots of syrup.

Looking at the box set today, more than forty years later, I can see that the Reader’s Digest programmers were trying to be hip: The Popular Music Hit Parade includes such songs as “Java,” “Winchester Cathedral,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” “Georgy Girl,” “Up, Up and Away,” “The Look of Love,” “King of the Road,” “My Cup Runneth Over,” “The Sound of Silence” and “Blowin’ In The Wind.” There are some interesting choices there, and – having not listened to all of the box set, ever – I wonder how often and how hard some of those renditions would make me wince.

(I should note that “The Sound of Silence” and “Blowin’ In The Wind,” along with “If I Had A Hammer,” “500 Miles,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and “This Land Is Your Land” were on an LP side titled “The Sounds of Nashville.” Huh?)

It’s always a distant reach – with generally unhappy results – when members of one generation try to be au courant with the fashions, fads, couture, music or anything else of another, younger, generation. And the Reader’s Digest folks were trying hard. As they selected songs for Popular Music Hit Parade, they did not ignore the most popular band in the world. Here are three tracks from Popular Music Hit Parade:

“Michelle” by the Hank Levine Singers & Orchestra [1968]

“Yellow Submarine” by the Hank Levine Singers & Orchestra [1968]

“Can’t Buy Me Love” by the Hank Levine Singers & Orchestra [1968]

(The first two of those were ripped from Dad’s vinyl.)

Now, I need your help: Do these three tracks merit inclusion in our Train Wreck Jukebox? I tend to think at least one of them does, but I want some guidance. Let me know, please. (At the same time, if there are any of the other tunes I’ve mentioned here that you would like to hear and judge, leave a note.)

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