Song Of The Day 11/6/2015: Gordon Jenkins – “The Second Dream: The Conductor”

Allegations of Weirdness – For years I wavered. I deferred and hid away in hesitation. “So, expert, answer this: Are you a Nelson Riddle man, or are you a Gordon Jenkins man?” The question, hurled at me like a fireball with thistles at the licking end of each flame, mocking me with its unanswerability, leaving me…

Yeah, heh, that never happened. Nobody ever asked me which of Sinatra’s most renown arrangers I preferred. I was about to say that nobody ever got asked that question, but then I had to ruin it all by fact-checking, and came up on this spirited debate:

  • “Gordon Jenkins – not as imaginative nor as playful or inventive as Riddle….dour in fact. Lugubrious.”

  • “Gordon Jenkins was a Master of Schmaltz…. Nelson Riddle was a genius.”

  • “If Jenkins was giving Sinatra a background he did not want don’t you think Sinatra would have done something?”

  • “(Jenkins) wrote with what many would call a heavy-handed approach… his writing often seemed to inspire Frank Sinatra’s singing. I think there’s a time where he kind of takes Riddle’s charts for granted, as great as they are.”

You’re glued to your screen, aren’t you?

  • “Jenkins may sound dated today but in his time he was huge. He was also a great songwriter.”

  • “Jenkins has always been my least favorite of Frank’s major arrangers. His work sounds too much like it’s trying to overwhelm the singer – ‘Hey, check out this Gordon Jenkins Arrangement!’ – rather than compliment him, like Riddle’s arrangements do.”

  • “I understand that Jenkins was a fine composer, but as an arranger he was strictly a formula man..where Nelson was a true Renaissance musician…”

Just forward me that Comic-Con VIP pass whenever you get a chance. Anyway, you can see the rift in the statements above and probably have an idea formed in your mind as to the crudely divided points: Jenkins the firebrand of maudlinism, Riddle the ambitious innovator.

But Jenkins is the one who came up with Seven Dreams, which MOJO listed as the 24th weirdest album ever. Not sure how I feel about that. Out of all the albums we’re discussing this week – all of which were on that MOJO listSeven Dreams might be the one I’ll defend most rigorously. Peculiar? Sure. A bit stagy? In parts. Unfashionable? Instantly.

It’s all those things. It’s also fantastic. Sure, it’s a little like what Steven Spielberg might have recorded if he were an instrumental arranger in the 1950’s and wanted to stretch out a bit. But it’s genuinely lovely and eminently listenable, with nary a boring moment. Three songs in, it instantly became one of my 300 favorite albums of all time. (Doesn’t sound that impressive, but… well, I’ve heard a lot of albums.)

Jenkins’ concept was simple. Transcribe seven “dreams” – I know not if he actually had them – into a long suite that captured the status of postwar America: guilelessly optimistic, purposefully employed, technologically brimming, but also unexpectedly introspective, even remorseful. Seven Dreams paved the way for Jenkins’ handling of Sinatra’s stark No One Cares album (not to mention “It Was a Very Good Year”). Yes, you may prefer Riddle’s handling of Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, but as my cohort mentions above, Jenkins made Sinatra deliver.

I could have chosen any of these dreams for today, but “The Second Dream: The Conductor” has a little extra going for it, and one big, frequently overlooked contribution to popular music history. This dream takes place on a train, where Jenkins (through narrator Bill Lee) encounters a political candidate that raises his cynicism, a mother and son that awaken his memories, and a salesman that tries his patience.

The last part of the piece features a song-within-a-song: Beverly Mahr singing “Crescent City Blues,” an old ’30s instrumental for which Jenkins wrote some new words. You’ll recognize the lyric immediately, as it was later repurposed by a music titan for his own song that was far more popular. Believe it or not, Jenkins wrote it first, and that music titan eventually had to compensate him for it. You think Riddle could’ve pulled that off?

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