Thursday, May 18, 2006

Version of the Week: Perez Prado!

On Friday, September 26, 2003, I was driving around Jersey City, probably over on Communipaw. We'd just moved here from New Orleans a few weeks earlier. It was a raw, gray day, and I was listening to the car radio, which was tuned to WFMU. The DJ was playing a lot of really good stuff, but I was really struck when this one rather amazing blues song came on. No, it wasn't "St. James Infirmary;" I didn't know what it was, and when the DJ back-announced it, I scrawled the information on a slip of paper: "Hotel Lorraine," by Otis Spann, a piece (the DJ explained) that was recorded the morning after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, and that appears on an album called Rare Chicago Blues, 1962-1968. When I got home I ordered the CD off Amazon, and I looked up who this WFMU DJ was.

Pretty much ever since, I've done my best to catch "Give The Drummer Some," Doug Schulkind's show, every Friday morning. Usually I have to listen to the archived online edition (which is how I know the exact day I heard that song -- I looked up the playlist.) Along the way the show, remarkable in the breadth of music Mr. Schulkind plays, has caused me to spend a lot of money on CDs. Also along the way, I've had a bit of correspondence with Mr. Schulkind, which led (finally, I'm getting to the point!) to today's entry: He is the person who hipped me to, and sent me a copy of PĂ©rez Prado's version of "St. James Infirmary."

Click here to hear a 45-second snippet

I had no idea such a thing existed, even though I'm a bit of a Prado fan. Prado is one of those people whose music was so accessible and fun that it's too easy to sort of treat it as camp: The swinger music playing in the club while the characters in a Technicolor romantic comedy on TCM toss back martinis and tap their cigarette cases. But there's more to it than that -- Prado did a lot of amazing, innovative, totally hot work. (A pretty spirited overview can be found here.) His take on "St. James Infirmary" was released in a 1955 album called Voodoo Suite, the centerpiece of which is the 23-minute-long "The Voodoo Suite" itself -- a good example of the kind of ambitious, emotional music that Prado created.

That said, his "St. James Infirmary" is, in fact, a very fun version. I don't know how else to put it. But I don't mean to suggest that it is merely fun -- it's got soul, too, and swing. And needless to say, it's pretty fascinating to hear the song moved in Prado-ish, Latin-flavored direction, with all those big horn parts, low-down percussion, and the patented Prado grunty shouts ("UNH!"). Truly delightful.

While it's not on iTunes, it turns out Otis Spann's "Hotel Lorraine" is. There's no particular connection between that song and "St. James Infirmary," but as long as I've mentioned it, I'll throw in an iTunes link below. Big thanks to Mr. Schulkind for introducing me to that song, to Prado's "St. James Infirmary," and to countless other great songs from around the world and across many decades on his fine show.

Otis Spann - Rare Chicago Blues (1962-1968) - Hotel Lorraine
"Hotel Lorraine," by Otis Spann