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Monday, October 8, 2012

Hey, Liberace!

The other day I found an image of a Liberace matchbook from the 1950's, and got off on a tangent (easy for me), as it reminded me that a while back a friend (thank you, Diane) had sent me an mp3 for a song called "Dear Liberace," by Ruth Wallis. Now we both adore the music of Ruth Wallis, and I've played several risqué songs by her on my show over the years (like "Queer Things Are Happening"). So that gave me the idea to do a blog and share the song, which prompted what turned into several hours of internet research (see, a tangent). 

Now, I don't think I need to give much introduction to Liberace (1919 - 1987). For decades he was a hugely successful entertainer, with recordings, television and performances. And he was hugely flamboyant and that he could joke about his outfits during his act made him all the more beloved with his mostly female audiences. His showmanship was as much of his act as his actual playing. I definitely recall that when growing up in the late 1950's even deep in my closet I recognized him as gay, and the kind of gay I wanted no part of. But at that time there was almost no other celebrity perceived to be homosexual, no role models whatsoever.

But this blog's main focus is on songs about Liberace, and my research found many more than expected. It seems the ball got rolling in 1953, with three recordings. Probably attracting the most attention was the one on Columbia Records by Charlie Adams & the Lone Star Playboys. If you think that name sounds like a sort of hillbilly act, you would be correct, as you can hear in the YouTube clip below of the song "Hey, Liberace."

Another act recorded the same song that year, Jody Levins & His Boys. Looking at the labels (and this is likely much more detail than you care about) I notice the writing credits on Levins' recording is F. Adams, and on the Adams disc, on a much larger label, the name Matassa is added. That is very likely Cosimo Matassa, a well-known New Orleans recording engineer and studio owner with ties to many labels, including the Fats Domino sessions on Imperial Records. So my theory is that when the Jody Levins recording started to get attention, it was "covered" by Charlie Adams, and part of the licensing deal at Columbia was to add Matassa's name for a cut of the writing royalties. And my point is, I think the Levins disc was first. 

Now, Liberace (when you weren't saying in print that he was homosexual) was certainly a good sport, and even performed the song himself on television in 1955.

Back to the Ruth Wallis record I mentioned at the start. Wallis died in 2007 and I'm so impressed with her that she is likely the only straight artist to have a tribute page on my website. A number of years ago record collecting magazine Goldmine ran an interview with her, and it covered her song, "Dear Liberace." She indicated she had an earlier song, "Dear Arthur Godrey," and she decided to update it. She said, "I started to write a song for Liberace, he was a wonderful person. He was going to get married at the time, and I couldn't fathom it. So I started writing what was going to be a takeoff on 'Dear Mr. Godfrey,' it was going to go something like, 'Dear Liberace, don't marry that darn girl. I could understand that now - Lee couldn't have married that girl anyway. But Lee was a lovely person." 

The last song I want to share from the 1950's is by Canadian comic singer Libby Morris. In 1956 she recorded "When Liberace Winked at Me."

And, Peggy King also performed the song, and a clip was used in the HBO movie.

Also done, in 2009, by concert pianist/drag diva Jacqueline Jonée

Above, probably a quick read.
Below, "Why Liberace's Theme Song Should Be
"Mad About the Boy!"

I am kind of surprised (disappointed) that no one seems to have recorded a song about the palimony lawsuit taken against Liberace in 1982 by his then 22-year old live-in chauffer Scott Thorson. That was settled out of court a few years later for a mere $95,000. Maybe folks feared the litigious Liberace would not hesitate sue them as well, as he did many others over the decades.

 Below, in 1988 the UK band Twelve Just Men gave us
"I Don't Want to Die Like Liberace"

While my research found at least two dozen songs referencing Liberace, many are fleeting or just plain awful, including two or three that are hardcore punk...not sure what those lyrics were. So, I'm jumping to 1995 and the Sparks, who included "The Ghost of Liberace" on their 1995 album, "Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins."

 View the Sparks Video


I've got just three more song for you. In 2005 Paul Thorn included the curious song "Fabio & Liberace" on his CD "Ain't Love Strange." And 2008 brought an act going by Kitten on the Keys (real name: Suzanne Ramsey) . On her "Salty Meat Girl" CD she sang "I Want To Be Like Liberace." That song, interestingly, takes a biographic angle. It's perhaps the most true song of them all.

Finally, the Bad Detectives decided last year to sing about "The Curse of Liberace's Tomb," ironically on a CD called "Look at Life."

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