Fri, 21 November 2014
Teddy Randazzo often referred to himself as a “misplaced Hawaiian.” Many of us can relate to this sentiment – that no matter where we were born or whose blood flows through our veins, we believe we may have been Hawaiian in a previous life (or pray we might be one in the next). Randazzo had a long association with Hawai`i dating back to his days as a teen idol in the 1950s. In 1957, Randazzo was starring opposite Tuesday Weld and Alan Freed in the rock-and-roll film Rock! Rock! Rock!, while a young Tom Moffatt was a budding disk jockey in Honolulu. Moffatt thought that Randazzo was the real deal and spun his records frequently – more frequently, perhaps, than they were heard on the mainland U.S. For this reason some of Randazzo’s records which flailed in the rankings elsewhere sold more copies in Hawai`i than anywhere else. Because of his early popularity there, in a way Randazzo always belonged to Hawai`i.
When Teddy married Hawai`i born Shelly Kunewa, he had no excuse finally but to make Hawai`i his home. Tired of touring and performing and preferring a quieter life close to home and family, Randazzo settled into writing, arranging, and producing records for others. But even before Randazzo called Hawai`i “home,” when old friend and fervent supporter Tom Moffatt launched Paradise Records in 1978 and signed slack key guitarists and brothers Keola and Kapono Beamer for the first release on his new label, he also enlisted the talents of Teddy Randazzo as arranger and co-producer who flew in from the mainland for the assignment.
Those of us who can relate to the feeling of being a “misplaced Hawaiian” can likely also relate to another feeling: That bittersweet melancholy that invades your soul every time you board the plane to leave the islands for home that makes you wonder if you will ever return – that you might be leaving for the last time. For the recording sessions, Keola Beamer brought to the table what is to date the quintessential song to capture that very feeling, even moreso than Andy Cummings’ “Waikiki” 40 years earlier. “Honolulu City Lights” became not merely a sentimental favorite among Hawaiians and Hawaiians-at-heart, but made Hawaiian music history by becoming Hawai`i’s’ biggest selling song of all time. While the song is a beautiful marriage of lyric and melody, arguably the song would not have achieved nearly the success it found without the artfulness of the arrangements and production of Teddy Randazzo. Together, the Beamers and Randazzo achieved perfection and were rewarded with six Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards (for Best Contemporary Hawaiian Album, Best Song and Best Single for "Honolulu City Lights", Best Composer for Keola Beamer, Best Produced Album, and Best Engineered Album for Herb Ono). In an era now referred to as the “Hawaiian music renaissance” when local musicians were experimenting with every outside influence they had been bombarded with since statehood, Randazzo’s tasteful string arrangements, the restrained use of the drum kit, and the folk spirit of two young Hawaiian men with their slack key guitars played in such a manner that you could actually hear the `aina firmly embedded under their fingernails helped Hawaiian music evolve at a pace that was neither too slow nor too aggressive, but just right – achieving a sound that was perfectly at home in Waimanalo, Omaha, or Los Angeles in that era.
It was a sound that helped bring Hawaiian music to the masses.
Randazzo applied similar production wizardry to Hawaiian classics such as Auntie Irmgard Aluli's "Puamana" and John Pi`ilani Watkins’ “Nanakuli” a few more Beamer originals, and a now iconic slack key instrumental. “Kaleponi Slack Key” was heard by locals daily for over two decades when it was adopted as the closing theme song for the KHON 2 news. And the Beamer original "Only Good Times" was featured in a surf film starring Jan Michael Vincent. As a collection, the album Honolulu City Lights was a cohesive whole – one of Hawai`i’s first concept albums – and became the standard by which all other Hawaiian music albums would be judged for at least 15 years (until it was matched – or surpassed – by Keali`i Reichel’s Kawaipunahele in 1993). And in 2004, a panel of respected local Hawai`i musicians and recording industry veterans convened by Honolulu Magazine ranked Honolulu City Lights #1 on the list of “50 Greatest Hawai`i Albums of All Time.”
Co-producer Frank Day told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s John Berger on the 20th anniversary of the record’s release, "Between the vocals that the boys did and Teddy's arrangements, I got goose bumps. It was a classic song that said a lot and it had emotional lyrics -- a perfect combination." But hindsight is 20/20. Keola and Kapono Beamer went on to wax two more LPs for Moffatt’s Paradise Records – inexplicably both without the assistance of Randazzo – and neither attained the success of Honolulu City Lights. Some most unkindly consider these two LPs “flops” – which commercially they were (although artistically the records had their better moments). Both Keola and Kapono went on to enormous solo successes, but the brothers have not recorded together again in nearly 30 years. One can only wonder if the two follow-up LPs had been recorded with Randazzo if they would have achieved a three-peat.
What Hawaiian music history often forgets, however, is that Randazzo followed up Honolulu City Lights with an equally artful endeavor for singer Marlene Sai. This time around, however, Randazzo had even more creative control not only as the sole producer and arranger, but also by contributing more than half of the album’s dozen songs. One of Teddy’s originals written especially for Marlene Sai has become almost as iconic and well-loved as anything the Beamers did the year before, and like “Honolulu City Lights,” it was no doubt the combination of songwriting poignancy and Randazzo’s production magic that made “I Love You” a sentimental local favorite. And then, again, just as he did with traditional Hawaiian standards for the Beamers, Randazzo applied some modern touches to Hawaiian classics – resulting in one of the finest versions of Uncle Johnny Almeida’s “Maile Swing” on record. (That version of that song made it on to every mix tape I made from the 1980s through the 2000s.) And while this album was remastered and rereleased briefly on CD in 1998, I personally think it is criminal that this album that I consider to be a classic is again out of print in any format.
This day began when Teddy’s wife, Shelly, reminded family and friends that today is the anniversary of her husband’s passing. But as long as we are talking about Honolulu City Lights, it should not merely be a footnote to this story that Shelly would never have even gotten to know Teddy had it not been for this album. Shelly was good friends with Sweetie Moffatt (wife of Tom Moffatt) from their days doing promotions together for Hawaiian Airlines. And although Shelly first spied Teddy in New York City, it was while Randazzo was staying at the Moffatt’s Nu`uanu home while working on the Honolulu City Lights album that the two fell in love.
Because this story desperately needed a happy ending…
Trivia: What famous local Hawai`i music icon played piano on the Beamer recording of “Honolulu City Lights?” (Difficulty Rating: Easy if you know the few great pianists in Hawaiian music history. Medium if you’re s good guesser!)
More trivia: Teddy Randazzo based the string section arrangement for “Honolulu City Lights” on a melody written by the Beamers' great-grandmother, Helen Desha Beamer. Name the song. (Difficulty Rating: Hard as hell for anybody but a local Hawai`i musician or a Beamer historian.)
Fri, 21 November 2014
About a year ago while in the New Jersey town of Iselin on business, I made an obligatory stop in Vintage Vinyl which – like Princeton Record Exchange a little closer to home – is my Cheers. Everybody knows my name. With more than 25,000 titles in my vast collection, I have been known to frequent record shops in every town I stop in – looking for the “Holy Grail” of long players, but not knowing what I have never found until I actually find it. On this day, in particular, I picked up a pristine (or, as we say in record collecting, “mint”) copy of Reflections by Anthony and The Imperials. A quick Google search on the iPhone revealed that the vinyl LP has never been available on CD or MP3. Flipping the album over to read the liner notes was more revealing: Nearly a dozen Teddy Randazzo compositions I had never heard before. Randazzo had a long association with The Imperials – composing and producing any number of chart hits for the vocal group. But once I got home and was able to give Reflections a spin, only then did I realize how truly special a recording it was. A fellow blogger – who is more expert in funk and soul than I am – puts the album in the appropriate historical context better than I ever could:
By the time the listener gets to Reflections, a soulful tour de force takes shape. The songs, the orchestrations, the singers take you to Shangri-La. This is some of the most beautiful music ever to come out of the 60’s. Teddy Randazzo made this world a much better place…
Little Anthony & the Imperials were ten years into their history when they recorded this elegant, slightly trippy pop-soul classic under the guidance of writer/producer Teddy Randazzo, who co-authored all but one of the 12 songs here and did for this quartet more or less what Jimmy Webb did for The 5th Dimension during the same period. There’s nothing really psychedelic about the music here, despite its coming out in 1967 — rather, it’s a cheerful mixture of lyrical soul sounds and sunshine pop, with an understated elegance and gorgeous harmonies (and tastefully restrained horn and string parts, with the occasional flute) supporting the impassioned lead vocals by Little Anthony. The resulting album is one of the most beguilingly upbeat soul records of its period, a match and then some for anything coming out of Motown for accessibility. What’s more, it hasn’t lost an iota of appeal across the ensuing four decades — [exuding] a warm, lingering glow reflective of its era.
No, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Tasteful, restrained... That’s the Teddy Randazzo I know. Comparisons to Jimmy Webb are certainly warranted. As good as Motown? That is a high compliment as this was released on Veep Records, the soul subsidiary of the largely white-ish United Artists conglomerate.
When I was growing up, I had never heard Teddy Randazzo the teen idol. I don’t recall ever hearing him sing. By the time I was born, he had largely abandoned that part of his career. He was content to write songs, create beautiful arrangements for strings and horns, and produce. And whenever he did any of these things, he created magic. Here are just a few Randazzo songs and productions of historical importance.
Many would be familiar with late period Steve Lawrence, the crooner who, in a duo with wife Eydie Gorme, filled the seats of Las Vegas showrooms night after night with their combination of schmaltz and nostalgia. But fewer may be familiar with the poppy, doo-woppy Steve Lawrence of earlier in his career. Arguably Lawrence would have had no career at all if not for his cover of “Pretty Blue Eyes,” written by Teddy Randazzo with his longtime songwriting partner, Bobby Weinstein. The song peaked at #9 and earned a place on the Billboard Top 100 Hits of 1960– making Steve Lawrence a household name.
Randazzo had a long association with Little Anthony and The Imperials. Although the group had been around in one form or another since 1957, they didn’t really begin to strike gold until their childhood friend Randazzo handed them the exquisite material for which they ultimately became famous – starting with “I’m On The Outside (Looking In”) in 1964 (peaking at #15) and followed almost immediately by “Goin’ Out Of My Head” later that same year (which reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100). The latter has been covered innumerable times. Not merely a favorite among singers for its haunting melody line and dramatic crescendo in the bridge – covered by singers as diverse as Dionne Warwick, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits, and Queen Latifah – the song’s intriguing harmonic structure (i.e., the chords) also resulted in countless instrumental versions – from former Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen to jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis to the champagne sounds of Lawrence Welk to the iconic version by guitarist Wes Montgomery (for which he was accused of selling his soul to the devil and abandoning the artfulness of jazz for the more lucrative mainstream pop). In fact, as far as “claims to fame” are concerned, according to The Songwriters Hall of Fame, “Goin’ Out Of My Head” has sold more than 100 million records and has been recorded by over 400 artists – ranking it in the top 50 most recorded songs in history.
It is worth noting here that among the many songs Randazzo and Weinstein wrote for The Imperials was one they ended up never recording. After “Goin’ Out Of My Head,” the songwriting duo’s most recognizable song is likely “It’s Gonna Take A Miracle,” which became a Top 30 hit for vocal group The Royalettes when a contractual dispute prevented The Imperials from tackling the song themselves. “Miracle” would hit again and again for such artists as Laura Nyro in the 70s and Deniece Williams in the 80s.
Randazzo composed “Hurt So Bad” for The Imperials, as well, and it did even better than “Goin’ Out Of My Head” from the same album – becoming both a Billboard Top 10 hit and Top Five R&B hit. But this is not the version most remember. If you were a child of the 70s, depending on the type of music your parents played around the house, you likely either remember the easy listening version by vocal trio The Lettermen or the more angst-laden version by pop-rock diva Linda Ronstadt. This song was also popular among both vocalists and instrumentalists with versions from artists ranging from jazzers Richard “Groove” Holmes, Grant Green, Ramsey Lewis, and Nancy Wilson to pop icon David Cassidy and current soul songstress Alicia Keys.
Yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to say. Teddy Randazzo made the world a better place.
Next time: Side 3: Teddy Randazzo The Producer…
Fri, 21 November 2014
A few years ago I became more deeply involved in the Hawaiian music and hula community across the river from my New Jersey home – in New York City. I was pleased to accompany such talented hula dancers that I previously had no idea existed. In the green room of a theater before a first performance with a hula troupe with which I had never worked before, each dancer greeted me enthusiastically in turn.
A tall, tan, and lovely young lady – who, if I didn’t know she were a hula dancer, could have been the real life girl from Ipanema – introduced herself. “Hi, I’m Skye! Skye Randazzo.”
I introduced myself in turn and replied, “That is an unusual name.”
She said, “You mean Skye?”
I said, “No, Randazzo. You never hear that name, but there was a famous songwriter and producer in Hawai`i by that name. And before that he was huge on the mainland.”
There was a tear in Skye’s blush when she said proudly, “That’s my dad.”
And once again I was in the presence of Hawaiian music greatness. And, in fact, music greatness in general. For before Teddy Randazzo made a life in Hawai`i, he was first a teen heartthrob – a Justin Bieber for the 1950s, but with the noteworthy difference of possessing real vocal talent and unmanufactured charm and good looks. And then Randazzo became one of the great, yet underrated songwriters of all time – charting time and time again with his own records as well as writing for other budding music legends who put their own special touch on his compositions. One blogger puts Randazzo’s compositions on a par with those by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio. I concur. The same writer refers to him as an “angst-cranker,” and while there may be a hint of hyperbole in it, Randazzo undeniably specialized in heartache and drama – each song a mini-symphony, a requiem to love and loss.
You have no doubt heard Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Hurt So Bad.” Yes, that Teddy Randazzo.
Regular readers of this blog know by now that I typically celebrate Hawai`i’s legendary entertainers on their birthdays. But I awoke this morning and started the day as I often do by scrolling through Facebook when I read a post that lived up to the title of the Randazzo song. In the latter part of his career, the New York City-born Randazzo met and fell in love with a Hawaiian girl, an extraordinary hula dancer and – as I have come to know her – an equally extraordinary spirit, the former Rosemary Shelly Kunewa. And when you get to know Mrs. Shelly Randazzo, you realize at the first mention of her husband that the love that she shared with Teddy was supernatural – powerful enough to fill a thousand universes, stop a thousand wars. And those who understand both the love the Randazzos shared and the music he made throughout his lifetime must have some difficulty reconciling the contradiction. Was the lovelorn Randazzo merely a put-on for fans of the once teen heartthrob? Or did meeting Shelly simply turn his life around? Regardless, flipping through Facebook for comic relief but finding instead my friend Shelly’s rededication of her love and life to her beloved husband on this – the anniversary of Teddy’s passing – hurt so bad. And while I was in the middle of writing about other artists today, I changed course – seemingly having no choice, led not by logic but by the heart – and decided to write about Teddy instead.
I like to think there were three equally important and equally beautiful sides to Teddy’s career. Let’s start with Side 1: Teddy Randazzo The Voice.
In the early 1950s, three guys from Brooklyn, New York got together and formed The Three Chuckles. Depending on your source, some say that they took their name from the once popular candy of the same name, while others assert that it was because they started out as a comedy troupe. Either way, when their accordionist left the group, they recruited another – Alessandro Carmela Randazzo – to round out the trio again. They recorded two sides for Boulevard Records – “At Last You Understand” and “Runaround.” “At Last” was intended as the “A” side, but it largely flopped. It was the “B” side that struck gold for the group. With lead vocals by Teddy Randazzo, “Runaround” (which you hear first in this set), was a smash – reaching #20 on the U.S. charts and earning them a spot on The Ed Sullivan Show.
And the rest – as they say – is history.
Teddy forged on as a solo artist and landed three more singles in the Billboard Top 100. The highest charting tune, “The Way Of A Clown” (the second song in this set), peaked at #44. I recall daughter Skye mentioning this song to me apropos of nothing, and I responded, “Yeah, the one based on the aria Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci.” Astonished, she asked how I could possibly know such a thing, and I responded, “I told you I was a fan.”
Such was the versatility of Randazzo as songwriter and arranger. Who else could write such angst-filled mini-operas as someone well versed in opera himself?
While he was enjoying a career as a solo artist through the 1960s, Randazzo was also composing, arranging, and producing other artists of the era. If you have never heard of Randazzo, you have no doubt heard of the artists he helped make famous.
Next time: Side 2: Teddy Randazzo The Composer…
Dedicated with loving aloha to Shelly, Skye, and the entire Randazzo `ohana on this most difficult of days.