ATLANTIC 918; SEPTEMBER 1950

 
 

 

Don’t tell me you’re actually surprised to see this title staring out at you today.

As remote as its source material is from rock ‘n’ roll, this is still the record business we’re talking about and any time a song captures the imagination of the entire country across geographic, racial and generational lines there’s going to be a mad rush to cover it and try and grab a few of those sales and jukebox spins for your company.

But oddly enough while that was true throughout the industry in the summer of 1950, as there were more than a dozen competing versions of this tune vying for your attention, this was the only one which sought to appeal to the rock crowd.

They promptly ignored it.

So much for the best laid plans of the record biz.
 

 

Men Have Named You…
As 20th Century musical compositions go, Mona Lisa is one of the more well-known across the years.

Written for the film Captain Carey, U.S.A, a dreadful picture as its title attests, the song was performed on the soundtrack by bandleader Charlie Spivak, whose trumpet playing was known for its sweet sound rather than any dazzling virtuosity. Singing the tune in front of Spivak’s outfit was Tommy Lynn, a typically bland vocalist who had a full female choir behind him adding to the effect. That kind of thing was still popular though and the song had good lyrics and a great melody and so countless versions followed fast and furious.

Nat “King” Cole was the main beneficiary of this cover frenzy, as his version – although backed by a Nelson Riddle’s string section and an isolated guitar to add a quasi-exotic effect suggesting a non-specific foreign connection – was a thing of understated beauty. Cole’s warm, mellow tone and languorous delivery brought renewed focus to the story which compared the famous painting to a specific woman whose face was a beguiling mixture of beauty and sadness.

Cole’s hit topped both the Pop and R&B Charts and was joined on the former by a half dozen or more other renditions, all taking a similar approach. Two different country versions made the charts as well but it seemed as if nobody in the rock field had the time to try and pick up Mona Lisa and take her out for a night on the town, probably because if she went out rocking there’d be no sadness left in her expression to sing about.

Atlantic Records were not about to let an open field remain unplowed however and so figuring none of their rock vocal acts would bring the right mood to the table, they gave it to Frank “Floorshow” Culley, to see if the intriguing melody alone was worth something tangible and could keep him as a viable commercial presence as their attention shifted more and more to vocal records in this new decade that was upon us.
 

To Tempt A Lover
As a transitional record in their catalog, both Atlantic and Culley himself, this makes perfect sense. The honking sax instrumental craze had died down considerably over the first half of 1950 and while there was still an audience for that sound, it no longer ensured hit records as it had a year earlier.

Culley was therefore in something of a bind, as were all rock instrumentalists, needing to find songs that were more than just a series of increasingly wild, frequently disjointed, directionless jams building to one crescendo after another.

Some would try and return to the more dignified jazz-based songs of their formative years but the market for that was similarly dwindling and once you’d sullied your reputation by rocking out, jazz was reluctant to welcome you back into the fold.

So that left songs like Mona Lisa as prime candidates for re-interpretation. The beautiful melody was of course universally known this summer while the absence of its lyrics in an instrumental version provided the musicians a chance to draw out whatever textures they felt would further their cause.

In Culley’s case it was the soulfulness of it all which is what took it away from the pop realm from which it came and gave it credibility in the rock world. That rock fans were probably sick of hearing it everywhere they turned in all those other versions didn’t help their efforts, but then again Atlantic didn’t really push it hard, not when both the Joe Morris/Laurie Tate single Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere and a subsequent Ruth Brown single book-ending it in the release schedule began to catch fire.

Even had those other, better, records not been issued at the same time, it’s doubtful this would’ve had the legs to creep into the most played on jukebox listings, despite its overall quality. The song and performance are best reserved for quieter moments than you’d generally find in a juke joint or café as Culley’s sax caresses the melody like a delicate flower, taking it at a crawling pace which is broken up by Van Walls’ piano responses and backed by some surprisingly insistent drumming that gives it a rather sturdy backbone.

Walls is the one who gets the most energetic moments on the record with a solo that defines his quirky style, teasing the melody but also adding some jittery commentary on the proceedings.

Throughout it all what you appreciate isn’t just their abilities on their respective instruments, but also the inherent quality of the composition itself that allowed Mona Lisa to be re-imagined while still retaining the intrinsic beauty which made it popular to begin with.

In a lot of ways you can sympathize with the old-school songwriters and producers who bemoaned the declining interest in these carefully constructed musical gems when rock stormed onto the shores in the late 1940’s and slowly advanced inland until they’d overrun pop music’s defenses by the mid-1950’s. Songs like this had a flexibility to them that weren’t reliant on a specific type of performance to showcase and oddly enough that’s perfectly shown in how Culley was able to make it work in a far different manner than all of those other versions of the day who scored hits with it across the spectrum.
 

Mystic Smiles
That’s where Culley fell short – commercial success. Aesthetically though this is too nice a recording to be completely passed over by rock fans, even those who prefer shaking their ass to sitting on that ass to allow themselves to be absorbed by something as unabashedly tender as this.

It was a reasonable gamble for Atlantic to make in hoping Culley’s rendition of Mona Lisa could stir some interest and its failure to do so isn’t a reflection on its quality, but rather is more indicative of the shifting landscape under their feet.

This is a good performance for sure, but one due to its source and its style remains an anomaly almost, an example of a rock artist adapting his usual approach to a song outside his comfort zone and making it work quite gracefully.

With the kind of records that would soon start to explode on Atlantic these kinds of tentative compromises would no longer be deemed necessary and Culley’s role at the company would start to change as he was now going to be asked to add support to what their vocalists were laying down rather than take center stage himself.

There’d be far fewer pop sources being culled when looking for material from now on, less of an effort to try to pull in audiences from slightly outside their primary market in the hopes of staying afloat financially, from this point forward they’d have a much clearer view of what they needed to do and mass success would soon follow for the company.

As such this record marked a nice quiet farewell to the days of lingering uncertainty and doubt that marked Atlantic’s first three years in business. A gentle reminder of how quickly time moves on in both music and in life.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Frank Culley for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)