Niagara Gazette

June 9, 2013

SINGER: The power of certain oldies

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Certain oldies have been grossly overplayed, including in restaurants and pharmacies, and for me at least, have lost their emotive power, if they had it in the first place. You just say to yourself: hey, I heard this particular one 8,000 times on the radio when it first came out, then another 8,000 over the years, and now I have to hear it again?

However, some offerings one gets on local stations like 1440 AM can still move heck out of me and among the latter, I include two recorded back in the early ’60s by a brother-sister duo born in a place called Niagara Falls. I’m referring of course to Nino Tempo and April Stevens, the professional names they adopted and which they made deservedly famous

Some will recognize the first of these records as quintessentially theirs, though it was done almost as an afterthought, cut very quickly, and included Stevens’ spoken parts against Tempo’s fine riffs almost by accident. This hardy salmon of a record was then released only after vigorous opposition from a heavy-hitting producer of the time, Ahmet Ertegun (I guess one shouldn’t trust the suits inevitably to have taste or foresight). And then? The record became a monster hit and as it turned out, the biggest ever for Tempo and Stevens. And indeed, though this song “Deep Purple” went back to the Swing Era before World War II, the brother-sister version of the early ’60s was and remains truly unique and wonderful.

Another by them that you occasionally hear on 1440 may surprise more — I certainly don’t remember it on radio back in the day: the Tempo and Stevens rendering of “Stardust,” done in the same thrilling manner as their “Deep Purple,” and which can almost tear me up as I drive.

Some no longer know that “Stardust,” penned by Hoagy Carmichael back in the late ’20s, supposedly after being jilted, was at one time arguably the great American “standard,” or certainly one of them. All sorts sang it through the ’40s, including Frank Sinatra, still with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. Artie Shaw said of his fine band-and-strings version circa 1941 that he knew it was a classic the day he made it; and I believe he was right. Some will remember as well Nat King Cole’s “Stardust” he made during the ’50s.

And yet, Tempo and Stevens took the tune into the early ’60s entirely in their own wild, yet disciplined manner, again making their version unique and still enjoyable. (I’m sure some internet-savvy young may now check it out, and I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.)

Will we get a hip hop or techno version of “Deep Purple,” or of that great old chestnut, “Stardust?” Call me old hat, but I hope not. For me the last “Stardust” that really counted was by that brother-and-sister duo from the Falls, both born in the mid-’30s.

Their father was a grocer and their mother, some say, a frustrated artiste. In any event, the family got nearer the entertainment action by moving during the ‘40s to the promised land of a still orange-scented, unpolluted Southern California. Tempo’s jazzy feeling on the above-mentioned records came in part from his youthful efforts out there on a variety of instruments, and he remained a honcho primarily on tenor sax. He also appeared in Hollywood movies.

And his sister (originally named Carol) also sang as a youngster.

Funny how there are certain significant moments in your lives and more generally, in the life of a culture. These two deservedly scored with that dazzling “Deep Purple” in the early ’60s, but right around the corner lurked a new era marked by the British Invasion, bringing massive success to the Beatles, Stones, and the rest; and the moment passed.

But apparently Nino Tempo and April Stevens have led happy, fruitful lives and still in the business; and probably still with that original Niagara Falls feeling inside, though living in very different regions such as Arizona.

I’m glad they overcame the big record producer’s objections, very glad. The power of certain oldies is the power that comes from a happy combination of certain times, places, and fragile people who thankfully got to do their thing.

B. B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.