Kenny Vance’s New Tribute to 1950s Vocal Harmony Music


By Steven Rosen

 Kenny Vance and the Planotones


LaPlano Records (

A couple years back, when I interviewed Donald Fagen for his Dukes of September tour – he, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald took turns singing favorite oldies – I asked if he might be doing any Jay & the Americans songs.

It was kind of a cheeky question. While Fagen and Walter Becker got their start arranging horn and string parts for Jay & the Americans, they went in a vastly different – most  would say more sophisticated – musical direction with Steely Dan.

While Fagen said he would not, he also advised me to take a good listen to the work of Kenny Vance, one of Jay & the Americans’ founders. “He’s done some interesting stuff,” he said. (Vance had first hired the two, thus giving them their start.)

That was good advice. Since Jay & the Americans, the New York-based Vance – who is now 69 – has been searching for the dreamy romantic honesty, the origins, behind the schmaltz of the late-1960s pop vocal groups. While not a big name to the public, he has held varied, interesting music jobs. He booked bands during Saturday Night Live’s early years, even appearing once as the musical guest. and wrote the music (and provided Armand Assante’s singing voice) for the 1999 movie about a singing group, Looking for an Echo.

And he put together the Planotones to revive the unadorned harmonies and delicate, almost-ghostly vocals of 1950s-era urban, street-corner doo-wop music. He’s carved out a niche career doing so, the highlight of which has been his lovely modern doo-wop song “Looking for an Echo.” But “Acapella deserves to bring him wider attention

Vocal pop music today, in the wake of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, is a vastly different beast from doo-wop. Derived from both gospel and rock & soul  power-ballad singing, its mission is to impress us into submission with its extended, heavy-duty locomotive-breath swoops and sustains. But when the singer is forcing it, as many do, it’s often exhausting and charmless.

So reviving comparatively gentle a capella doo-wop is clearly an offbeat against-the-grain project, just as it was when the Belmonts released their now-classic throwback “Cigars Acapella Candy” album in 1972.

Yet just like that Belmonts’ record, this proves that a capella doo-wop is timeless. Vance and Planotones’ music director and vocal arranger Johnny Gale share the lead parts. (Gale produced, arranged and mixed the disc.) Their voices glide and caress the material airily, if not quite with total youthful élan then still mercifully without any of the raggedness that can challenge older vocal harmony groups.

Vance’s falsetto parts are exceptionally pure, be they harmony (“Mio Amore”) or lead (“Twilight”). The other Planotones, all of whom sound sensitively in tune, are Chip Degaard, Tony Galino, Jimmy Bense and Kurt “Frenchy” Yahjian.

Aaron Neville also has released a recent tribute to older vocal music, My True Story” It’s neither a capella nor pure doo wop, covering as it does a lot of the earlier, harder-edged and more adult-oriented and –arranged R&B of the 1950s and 1960s, like “Money Honey,” “Ruby Baby,” “This Magic Moment,” “Work With Me Annie” and more.

Fine songs those, but this is the deeper and more emotional musical experience. It explores the innocence at the heart of classic doo wop, without succumbing to a post-modern dissection of it. That’s hard to do, like bouncing on a spider web, and it’s amazing how well Vance’s Planotones pull it off. Not just the singing parts, but the way they supply stomping percussion (the Stereos’ “I Really Love You”) and finger-snapping (the Cadillacs’ “Zoom”).

The ballads and mid-tempo tunes are sublime, like “Twilight” (originally by the Paragons), “Jeannie” (the Unique Teens), “Diamonds and Pearls” (the Paradons) and “Please Be My Love Tonight” (the Charades).

Each of those groups’ names is, indeed, a diamond or a pearl – like a little imagist poem or haiku. And that brings up my one complaint. This record, like Vance’s recent Christmas CD, is self-released and presumably done on a tight budget. While the liner notes are sufficient, listing the songs and writers, they don’t mention the songs’ histories, or why Vance chose them. If you like the music, you’ll long for that while you’re listening.

But what sweet listening it is.

(This first appeared on the Blurt webzine site, 3-11-13)




Cincinnati Library to Spotlight North Korean Music



By Steven Rosen

Under Steve Kemple, music reference librarian in the Popular Library, downtown’s Main Library has begun doing some fascinating free programming to highlight the depth of its music collection — and just music in general. It already has an Experimental Music at the Library series, featuring live events such as a band from Oakland (Horaflora) that plays grapefruit, electric toothbrushes and balloons. At 7 p.m. on March 20, Hadron Collider will pair psychedelic light projections with feedback and drone noises.

But coming up first, the spotlight is on another of Kemple’s ongoing music programs at the Main Library — Listen to This! — for which an audience is invited to listen to and discuss albums from the Library’s collection.

Past sessions have been devoted to Iranian music and Marvin Gaye. Next Wednesday, March 13,  from 7-8:30 p.m., Listen to This! features the traditional music of North Korea. So far, Kemple has only found one relevant album in the collection — North Korean Folk Songs — but it’s a good one. And the hunt is on for more.

No word if Dennis Rodman will attend with or without his new best friend, but you’re sure to have a good time — and become well-versed on North Korean music — if you do. The program will be held in the first-floor Popular Music Lounge.

Kemple’s creative programming was just written up in the Library Journal.


An Interview: Petra Haden Sings the Movies


Haden. The name’s Haden. Charlie’s a cappella-fetishist daughter Petra Haden follows up her acclaimed Who Sell Out re-creation with a tribute to Hollywood soundtracks.


For Blurt,, 2-20-13

Petra Haden, whose new album is Petra Goes to the Movies, has a name for the kind of music she makes – and makes better than anyone else right now. It’s called “a cappella voice collages” (according to her record label, Anti-) and Goes to the Moviesis a tour de force of it.

Taking mostly instrumental themes from her favorite films, such as Psycho, A Fistful of Dollars, The Social Network, Superman, and Fellini’s 8½, she has arranged them entirely for voice. Patiently overdubbing, she wordlessly “sings” the melody – sometimes by humming, sometimes by using choral and group-harmony vocal techniques – atop her masterful vocal mimicking of instruments. She does actually sing lyrics over her own vocal accompaniment on one a cappella number – “Goldfinger.” And there are three tracks on which she sings the lyrics of movie ballads while jazz musicians (including her father, bassist Charlie Haden, who recently won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 Grammys) assist her.

But the pure collages are the standouts. They not only showcase the beauty of her voice and depth of her imagination, but also remind that a voice is a musical instrument capable of varied and inventive sounds. It’s not just a vessel to carry words. (She is indeed a lovely interpretive singer who coaxes a dreamy sense of reassurance out of the lyrics to Bagdad Café’s “Calling You” and Tootsie’s “It Might Be You.”)

Goes to the Movies follows several other heralded related projects – her largely a cappella first solo album, 1999’s Imaginaryland; her intimate 2003 project of covers with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, and 2005’s landmark solo a cappella version of The Who Sell Out.


 I love singing and recording, and doing multi-tracks on my voice,” says Haden, during a recent telephone interview. “When Mike Watt gave me the idea to do the Who Sell Out record, it inspired me even more to record my other favorite music. I really enjoy it.”

Goes to the Movies came about because, in addition to loving to sing, Haden also loves movies. And she found the scores and title themes by famous composers like Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Taxi Driver), Lalo Schifrin (Cool Hand Luke), Ennio Morricone (A Fistful of Dollars, Cinema Paradiso) and Nino Rota (“Carlotta’s Galop” from 8½) as moving as the films themselves.

“I’ve been listening to Herrmann since I was a kid, and Morricone the same,” she says. “I remember first watching these movies and immediately gravitating toward the music. And I remember thinking one day, ‘I’m going to play this in an orchestra or sing this.’ It’s like living a dream now that I finally did it and I’m really happy with it.”

Haden, 41, is one of bassist Haden’s three triplet daughters. In addition to singing on solo projects, she plays violin and has been involved with several rock bands, most notably That Dog with bassist/vocalist sister Rachel. She also is an active collaborator and session/studio singer – her a cappella rendition of the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow” for a Toyota Prius TV commercial in 2009 was enormously popular. The Haden Triplets (also including sister Tanya) currently are recording an album of country songs for producer Ry Cooder.

Haden attributes her interest in chorale music to a love of the Bulgarian State Radio Vocal Choir, whose albums became popular in the U.S. when issued in the late 1980s, followed by a memorable tour. “I listened to them on my Walkman on my way to high school,” Haden says. “That always inspired me.” Another inspiration has been Steve Reich’s 1981 Tehillim, a contemporary classical work based on Hebrew Psalms and arranged for female voices. “It’s so beautiful I would just memorize it,” she says.

 This new project has a fundamental difference with Who Sell Out, Haden explains. “When I did the Who record, I was really nervous about singing the guitar parts and getting all the chords right. I wanted to sound like a guitar and that’s how I approached recording (it). But for the Goes to the Movies album, there aren’t really solos that stick out. There are just string sections and horns.”

So this project actually was easier for her, she says. “Something like Psycho was a little challenging because it has lots of different notes and I wanted to get it right. And also ‘Carlotta’s Galop’ from  required a lot of stopping and going back. I really wanted it to be perfect. Justin Burnett (co-producer with Haden) was just great working with, because he really gets my brain. And the same with Woody (Jackson), who recorded ‘Carlotta’s Galop.’ They were patient because they knew at some point I would get it eventually.”

Haden tried to hit all the notes naturally. But Burnett did have to raise the pitch a couple times, to achieve the high-violin sound on Cinema Paradiso and at the scary end of Psycho.

On “It Might Be You,” written by Dave Grusin and Marilyn & Alan Bergman, Haden sings lyrics straightforwardly while Frisell accompanies her on quiet, spare guitar. Brad Mehldau provides piano for Haden’s multi-tracked voice on “Calling You,” written by Robert Telson. And both Frisell and her father join for “This Is Not America,” the darkly ominous ballad – written by Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays and David Bowie – from the espionage thriller The Falcon and the Snowman.

“When I made my list of songs, I knew ‘This Is Not America’ was one I really wanted to do,” Haden says. “And my dad asked, ‘Can I play on it?’ (His Liberation Music Orchestra has recorded it.) So it was perfect.”

The hardest song for Haden to sing was the John Barry-composed title song for “Goldfinger,” since Shirley Bassey’s booming, brassy version has been seared into pop culture’s consciousness ever since first recorded in 1965. Haden sings it in a lower register than is normal for her, because she sensed that it sounded right. But it was difficult to arrive at that decision.

“That took me a long time to do,” Haden explains. “I’d sound like an idiot if I tried to sing like Shirley Bassey. I wasn’t satisfied with my lead vocal and I kept changing it. I even did a version as Edith Bunker just for fun. I was driving myself crazy and I thought, ‘Can I just get this out of my system?’ Finally I thought I’m going to sing this really mellow and relax, because I sing better when I’m not nervous.”

 Someday, maybe, that Edith Bunker version will be released.

(Thanks to Fred Mills, Blurt editor, for the great layout/design on the Blurt story.)