Ken Lelen

Ken Lelen
Ken Lelen sings great American ragtime, jazz & swing and performs with vintage acoustic guitars for an authentic, back-in-the day sound.

Friday, January 6, 2017

She Did It Her Way
thrills Big Band fans at Shannondell
   ©  2017 — Kenneth Lelen — Al Rights Reserved

Residents at Shannondell, a 1,000-unit retirement community 
in Audubon PA, recently invited Ken Lelen to perform his She Did It Her Way concert. The 75-minute program celebrates the lives, careers, romances and hit songs of some of 
the 20th Century's most popular female vocalists.

                                                                                                 Both concert photos: Abby Glazier
At She Did It Her Way concert at Shannondell Ken Lelen played a
1936 Gibson L-00. Behind are 1931 and 1932 Regal MarvelTones,
1934 Kalamazoo KG-11 and restored 1940 Gene Autry Round-up.
The event was held Mon, Oct 24, 2016. The concert filled all but five seats at Bradford Theater, one of two 100-seat venues at the continuing care facility, which is spread across a 140-acre site near King of Prussia.

The musician performed a program of 15 tunes that were originally popular hits for female vocalists between the mid-1920s and mid-1950s. Each song was introduced by a musical, historic or romantic anecdote about the singer, the song, the era or the composer.

Concert celebrates only female vocalists

When Lelen performs the She Did It Her Way concert, his program features only female vocalists, including some of the following celebrated artists:

          Kate Smith, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Mildred Bailey, Anita O'Day,

          Edith Piaf, Kate Smith, Kitty Kallen, Ella Fitzgerald, Helen Forrest, Jo
          Stafford, Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker, Marlene Dietrich, Lena Horne,
          Doris Day, June Christy, Dinah Shore, DeCastro Sisters, Ma Rainey,
          Dinah Washington, Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting, Patti Page,
          Frances Langford, Incomparable Hildegarde, Mabel Mercer, Vera Lynn,
          Ethel Waters, Helen O'Connell, Andrew Sisters, Boswell Sisters,
          Maxine Sullivan, Peggy Lee and others.

Hit songs by female vocalists offered in the She Did It Her Way concert at Shannondell included:

          All vocalist photos: Wikipedia
Ella Fitzgerald (1917 - 1996)
I'm Beginning To See The Light — Composed in 1944 by Duke Ellington, Don George, Johnny Hodges and Harry James, this jazz standard and dance favorite was a Billboard Top 100 hit for six weeks in 1945 for the Ink Spots, with lead vocals by Bill Kenny and Ella Fitzgerald.

Kitty Kallen (1921 - 2016)

In 1945 the song was also a hit for band leader Harry James and Orchestra, with vocals by Kitty Kallen. A year earlier she replaced Helen O'Connell on hit records with Jimmy Dorsey, "They're Either Too Old Or Too Young" and "Besame Mucho."

Dinah Shore (1922 - ) 
As much as I like Ella and Kitty's versions, I've grown enthralled with the sultry version by Doris Day in 1964. Doris, who first drew the world's attention in 1945 with "Sentimental Journey," was reported to be inspired to become a singer as a teenager in the 1930s by listening to Ella Fitzgerald on the radio.

Connee Boswell (1907 - 1976)
In a small irony lost to history, Ella once said she was inspired to become a singer when, as a 15-year old, she heard a record of Connee Boswell, another great female jazz singer.

"My mother brought home one of [Connee's] records, and I fell in love with it," Ella recalled years later in a remark noted by the NY Times in a 1996 obituary of Ella, doyenne of the Great American Song. "I tried so hard to sound just like her."

After You've Gone — Written by Turner Layton and Henry Creamer, this 1918 classic 
is one of the music world's earliest torch songs. The original sheet music instructs musicians to deliver the song as a "Ballad — not too fast."

Sophie Tucker (1887 - 1966)
Ruth Etting (1897 - 1978)
To no one's surprise, the song was first rendered as a blues, with its emotional core expressed as: "Someday you'll feel what I felt, you dirty dog." Indeed, on recordings by Sophie Tucker, Bessie Smith and Ruth Etting — all made in 1927 — the song was offered as a languid blues number.

But "After You've Gone" quickly morphed into a revenge song with an emotional edge best expressed as: "Someday you'll get yours, you dirty dog." The change occurred between 1929 and 1931 as Bing Crosby, Paul Whitman, Red Nichols, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman and Fats Waller and other male artists gave it their very best up-tempo jazz treatment.

Bessie Smith (1894 - 1937)
Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out — This song was written by Jimmy Cox in 1923 as a cautionary tale about the fickle nature of fortune in an era of apparent prosperity. Songster Bessie Smith released her recording of this song on Friday, Sept. 13, 1929 — two weeks after the Stock Market hit an all-time high and just two weeks before it crashed, sparking a 10-year Depression.

Offered as vaudeville blues with a hulking ragtime feel, Smith's "race record" for Columbia became her best selling song. It was covered by countless musicians long after her 1937 death under tragic circumstances.

I'm Thru With Love — In the 1959 comedy "Some Like It Hot," a saxophone player named Joe (Tony Curtis) and his bass-playing friend Jerry (Jack Lemon) are feckless witnesses to Chicago's St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Feb 1929. To escape harm by avenging mobsters, the pair disguise themselves as women (Josephine on sax and Daphne on bass) and join an all-female band — Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators — and head to Miami to entertain a rich crowd of winter vacationers.

Marilyn Monroe — 1926 - 1962
In a scene near the film's end, Joe/Josephine watches his love interest, the band's vocalist and ukulele player Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe), straddle a piano in a black slinky dress and intone "I'm Thru With Love." In an act of romantic disavowal, she sings this 1931 jazz standard by Fud Livingston, Matty Malneck and Gus Kahn.

I've seen the movie numerous times and often make a hash of the plot and its hapless characters. But I've never forgotten 
the plaintive song or the zaftig girl in the black slinky dress who convinces me she's not really through with love.

Teach Me Tonight — Written in 1953 with music by Gene De Paul and lyrics by Sammy Cahn, this love song was a successful jazz and pop hit for many artists. It was first recorded in 1954 on Decca by a now-obscure jazz vocalist and Charleston WV native, Janet Brace (1927 - 1991). But her cut of the song "sank at launching, with barely a ripple," according to De Paul.

DeCastro Sisters — Peggy,
Cherie and Babette
Jo Stafford (1917 - 2008)
Then, in late 1954, Dinah Washington, Queen of the Jukebox, recorded an R&B version. But that cut got only minor playIt was Jo Stafford's version in 1954 that turned heads when it reached #15 on the pop charts and opened the path for an even better selling version in the next year.

In 1955 the DeCastro Sisters, a trio raised in Havana, Cuba, scored a huge hit with the song when it reached #2 on Billboard's pop charts. Begun as a Latin group, they were inspired by the Andrew Sisters and became protegees of the singer, dancer and actress Carmen Miranda (1909 - 1955), who back in the day was known as the Brazilian Bombshell.

Fever — Co-written by Eddie Coley and Otis Blackwell in 1956, it was the best known tune from jazz and pop singer Peggy Lee (1920 - 2002). Her smooth and sultry cover, slower and steamier than Little Willie John's R&B original, added new lyrics ("Romeo loved Juliet" and "Captain Smith and Pocahontas") that have become standard elements of the song.

Peggy Lee (1920 - 2002)
"Fever" was Lee's signature song, best-known work and most successful hit in a 50-year career. Launched on the radio in North Dakota as a teenager during the 1930s, she moved in 1942 to Chicago. There, she replaced Helen Forrest in Benny Goodman's Orchestra and made several hit records over a two-year span.

In the late 1940s she worked in California with Capitol Records. Over the next three decades she produced a stack of hits, including "I Don't Know Enough About You," "It's A Good Day," "Mañana," "Is That All There Is?" and "Fever."

Lee's 1958 version of "Fever" was played in a medium swing tempo and used only an acoustic bass, small drum set and finger snaps for rhythmic back-up. Considered her "most memorable tune," it spent 12 weeks on Billboard's Hot 100 in the U.S. and peaked at #8.

I'll Be Seeing You — Written in 1938 by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal, the song was inserted in Right This Way, a Broadway musical that closed after 15 shows.

Still, the song gained renown in the 1940s for its emotional power with soldiers stationed overseas and folks on the Home Front. Like “It’s Been A Long, Long Time” and “Sentimental Journey,” the wistful "I'll Be Seeing You" was recorded extensively during the war years.

The Incomparable Hildegarde (1906 - 2005)
Among other artists, "I'll Be Seeing You" was successfully covered by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell. But the tune gained a certain cachet when sung by the nightclub entertainer dubbed the "Incomparable Hildegarde" by the columnist Walter Winchell.

Raised in Wisconsin, she was also called the Chanteuse from the Continent while performing in U.S. cabarets during the war. And along with her elegant gowns, long white gloves, lace handkerchiefs and precise diction, "I'll Be Seeing You" was one of her best-known numbers.

Vintage guitar tones
For an authentic, back-in-the-day sound at the Shannondell concert, Lelen paired each song with the playing of pre-war acoustic guitars. He played these five period instruments in his She Did It Her Way program:

           1931 Regal MarvelTone — Mahogany bodi grand concert

           guitar by Regal of Chicago IL that originally retailed for $28.

           1932 Regal MarvelTone — Rosewood body grand concert

           guitar by Regal of Chicago IL that originally retailed for $50.

           1934 Kalamazoo KG-11 — Mahogany body grand concert

           guitar with sunburst finish and budget design (ladder-braced
           top, no adjustable rod in neck) by Gibson of Kalamazoo MI
           that originally retailed for $12.50.

           1936 Gibson L-00 — Mahogany body grand concert guitar

           with sunburst finish and upgraded appointments (X-braced
           top and adjustable rod in neck) by Gibson of Kalamazoo MI
           that originally retailed for $27.50.

           1940 Gene Autry Round-up — Recently restored, maple

           body auditorium guitar has the Singing Cowboy's signature
           painted on the fingerboard. Made by Harmony of Chicago IL,
           it was sold in Sears, Roebuck mail-order catalogs for $9.95.

Ken Lelen performing his She Did It Her Way concert at Shannondell's Bradford Theater in October, 2016.

©  2017  Kenneth Lelen  —  All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Floyd Riggs's $21 Kalamazoo
An archtop Gibson on a workingman's budget
             ©  2016 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved

This gutsy little archtop is one of 14 instruments once owned by Floyd A. Riggs (1923-2001), who was raised in St. Marys WV (pop. 2,201 in 1940).
One of eight kids in the family and all of 14 years old when he acquired it, Riggs spent a hefty $21 on this guitar when it was new in 1937. Riggs played this archtop sunburst 'Zoo for the rest of his life.
During World War II Riggs served in the U.S. Army. In 1947 he wed Lucy Dearth of St. Marys and relocated 23 miles to Parkersburg WV (pop. 30,103 in 1950).
Most of his adult life, however, Floyd Riggs resided in Vienna WV, a small town along the Ohio River (pop. 9,381 in 1960). Located five miles north of Parkersburg, today it is hemmed in by suburban tract houses and shopping centers that have sprouted there.

Riggs was "a versatile picker, but he did not sing"
As an adult Riggs labored 25 years in the purchasing department of Borg Warner, a large chemical company in Washington WV, eight miles west of Parkersburg. During this time he was a member of Parkersburg Masonic Lodge #169, Wayside United Methodist Church in Vienna and a local Musician's Union.

At night and on weekends, however, he loved to played guitar, mandolin and banjo. He played at a variety of social events, local jamborees and the grange, friends recalled.
"Floyd played pop songs of the day on the guitar, but he also played tenor banjo and mandolin, " said Richard Powell, an instrument dealer in Belmont WV, also a small Ohio River town.
"He owned 14 instruments, but I only got three to sell from the estate when he passed — this 1937 Kalamazoo KG-21, a Gibson A-0 mandolin and a 1936 Kalamazoo mandolin."

Powell said he and Riggs were occasional friends, musically speaking. "I remember we played music together at a bluegrass festival sometime in the 1970s," Powell said in November 2004 at a guitar show near Philadelphia when I acquired the Riggs KG-21 guitar from him for $850.
"He kept all his instruments in immaculate condition," recalled Powell as he pointed to the pristine KG-21. "He was a versatile picker, but he did not sing."

Gibson sales literature in mid-1930s
displayed Kalamazoo KG-21 archtop.

Gibson's budget brands
During the Depression years Gibson Inc. of Kalamazoo MI made several lines of low-cost guitars, mandolins and banjos. Rather than sully their distinguished brand, Gibson made budget-priced instruments under other names, including Kalamazoo, Kel Kroydon, Hayden, Cromwell and Recording King.
Offered by music-instrument distributors, retailers and mail-order houses, the budget editions were all well-made items with minor cosmetic changes. None had an adjustable truss rod in the neck — a patented and costly feature Gibson first used in 1923. And tops on the budget flattops were ladder-braced, not X-braced, which used more labor and material.
More important to Depression-era musicians, however, retail prices for this second tier of instruments were less than Gibson-branded equivalents. For instance, between 1936 and 1942 prices for a Kalamazoo KG-21 ranged from $17.50 to $21, or two-thirds of the cost for the Gibson L-30, a fully-configured counterpart to the KG-21.

In either case, the spruce top and mahogany neck each have the iconic Gibson sunburst, the lustrous two-tone finish applied by the same workmen's hands at the Gibson factory.

FON dates KG-21 to 1937
The Riggs archtop's FON (324 C 53) is stamped on the interior surface of the back and visible through the treble-side f-hole. It is identified in period shipping ledgers as a 1937 KG-21 in Spann's Guide to Gibson 1902-1941 (2011 - Centerstream Publg.)
This instrument has a steam-bent and pressed spruce top that is supported by an H-brace. Its solid one-piece mahogany back was also steam-bent and pressed into shape. It has a beautiful dark finish.

The guitar sports a 19-fret rosewood fingerboard, mid-sized V-shaped mahogany neck, its original tuners and an elevated Bakelite pickguard.

A new bone nut replaced the original ebony one. On top is a silk-screened Kalamazoo logo on the rooftop peghead.

Brighter, deeper, louder than

its full-priced counterpart
The 14-3/8-inch lower-bout width and 4½-in. body depth of the KG-21 match the physical dimensions of a Gibson L-30 archtop. Despite the material differences (the KG-21 was mahogany bodied, while the L-30 was maple-bodied), today the sound of the budget-priced unit is brighter, deeper and louder — all hallmarks of the old-timey sound prized by contemporary musicians.
Ken Lelen and the Riggs 1937
KG-21, Oct 2011, at Overlook
Community in Charlton, Mass.
Songs performed on the Riggs
archtop included "Heartaches"
(© 1931) and "On A Slow Boat
To China" (© 1948).
Indeed, Vermont luthier Jake Wildwood described the sound of a mid-1930s Kalamazoo KG-21 he restored in 2013 as follows:
"The tone of this guitar is just what I like to hear: punchy, loud and gutsy, with a good creamy worth to its focused, mid-heavy tone," he said.

"These guitars make great backing-chord instruments in smaller swing and jazz groups, but also fit the bill for country, hillbilly and blues groups."

Ken Lelen and Riggs 1937 KG-21, April 2006, at
Cape May Village, Wilmington OH. Period songs
played on the Riggs archtop included "Somebody
Else Is Taking My Place" (© 1937), "The Glory Of
Love" (© 1936), and "We'll Meet Again" (© 1939).
©  2016 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved

Friday, December 23, 2016

Hank Peterson’s Kay Kraft
$19.95 archtop from Spiegel's 1937 mail-order catalog
             ©  2016 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved

In April 1937, a month before graduating from high school in Saguache CO, Hank Peterson bought this Kay Kraft Style A guitar from the mail-order catalog of Spiegel Co. of Chicago.
Shipped in a soft case, later discarded, Hank spent $19.95 for this unusual mahogany-bodied, spruce-topped six-string. A round-hole archtop with adjustable neck, it had full-body a sunburst finish, pearloid headstock, 26-in. scale and gold leaf decals on pickguard and lower bouts.
Hank's guitar cost was big for 1937, but not as much as C.F. Martin’s cheapest spruce and mahogany archtop. A golden brown R-18 grand concert cost $55.
His guitar expense seemed large if you knew the price of other goods in the summer of 1937. For instance, Saliba's, a local grocery in Hank’s hometown, offered T-bone steaks for 30¢ a pound, pork chops at 40¢ a pound and hamburger for 20¢ a pound. Hart Mercantile offered men's work shoes ("sturdy build") at $1.98 and men's dress shirts at 88¢ each.

Jimmie Rodgers tunes and cowboy and western songs
Clarence Henry Peterson (1920 – 2010) was a self-taught musician. He learned to play guitar, ukulele and violin as a young man. Back in the day he liked to play guitar and sing Jimmie Rodgers hits, cowboy songs and some pop tunes.
“I got a chord book,” he said in November 2007 at a Vintage Music Concert for residents of Friendship Village in Dublin OH outside Columbus. The 353-unit retiree facility sits on the Scioto River near the corporate home of the Wendy's hamburger chain.
“Most of the sheet music of the day had [fingerings for] guitar and uke chords over the words,” Peterson said when he showed me his guitar after the concert. “That’s how I learned to play.”
Prior to owning this Kay Kraft he played “a cheap old guitar,” he recalled. “I can’t remember what I did with it, though I probably sold it for a song.”
He taught himself to play violin after he found one “hanging on a wall in a filling station while traveling out West." He later played the ukulele with friends at college. “We sang to the girls,” he said with a smile.
Besides the songs of Jimmie Rodgers ("The Singing Brakeman"), Hank liked cowboy ballads. “I liked those cowboy and western songs and thought I’d like to do that and ultimately learned a lot of them,” Peterson said. “Today, you can hum one of those old songs and I probably still know it.”

Clarence or Hank, but not Henry
As a youth Peterson traveled 50 miles round-trip every day to attend his high school. He was a popular student and elected president of his senior class of 13 students in October 1936. Just before Christmas of that year, he had a lead role in a romantic comedy. Two months later, in February 1937, he sang a character part in an operetta the school put on.
He was raised on his parent’s cattle ranch in Saguache County (1930 pop. 6,250) CO. Pronounced “sa-watch,” Saguache is a phonetic spelling of an Indian term for “water at the blue earth,” so named for dark clay found in the northern part of San Luis Valley west of Pueblo.
Throughout Peterson's youth he was called Clarence, not his middle name Henry, which he told me he did not like. Hank was thrust upon him sometime after graduation when he worked as a ranch hand and mechanic and October 1942 when he was inducted in the U.S. Army.
Following a three-year stint in the military during WW II as a mechanic in Austria, Hank studied mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He later moved to Columbus to marry Naomi Burk Peterson (1914 – 2002), his college sweetheart, and finish college at Ohio State University in Columbus. Before I met him, Hank had worked as a patent agent and lived his entire adult life in Upper Arlington, an affluent suburb of Columbus.

Buying Peterson's 70-year-old guitar
For an hour or so after my Friendship Village concert, Hank and I talked about life, travel, careers, old songs and old guitars. When I expressed interest in his guitar, he said that at 87 he'd decided it was time to let it go.
So, after some dickering, Hank said he'd sell his vintage Kay Kraft guitar to me. It cost $500 — more than I wanted to pay and less than what he thought it was worth.
The guitar was manufactured by Kay Musical Instruments of Chicago. It once had a blue and silver interior label visible in the sound hole. Most of it, however, was gone when I got the instrument.
The guitar has a lustrous tobacco sunburst finish on its spruce top, mahogany back and mahogany neck. A key design feature are decals on the lower bouts. They incorporate gold leaf vines with Indian heads that face each other on each side of the tailpiece. A similar decoration extends to the black pickguard.

Unlike other vintage arch tops, this guitar’s top and back are not carved. They were steam-bent into shape. Years ago it was an inexpensive way to make an arch. In addition, the guitar top is ladder-braced, not X-braced or fan-braced like other acoustics.
Peterson’s Kay Kraft was one of three round-hole archtop models offered during the late 1930s. Style A had back and sides of mahogany. Style B had back and sides of maple. Style C had back and sides of rosewood.
Guitar experts say Style A is the most common in today's vintage markets. Style C is the most desirable, while Style B is most rare.
The neck joint incorporates a patented sliding mechanism that sits between the neck joint and body (see photo below). It allows the player to adjust the height of the guitar's action. The highest set allows the player to turn the instrument into a slide guitar, while lower settings allow standard play.

To do this you loosen the strings and loosen a large wing nut found inside the body on the neck block. Then you tilt the neck to the desired angle, or set, re-tighten the wing nut and then re-tighten the strings.
It may sound simple, but the process is tedious. First, you make an adjustment to the neck, then tighten the strings. It is a pain if you have to check and re-check the neck angle a few times before you’re happy with the final set.

Round-hole archtop guitar
Hank's guitar was similar in most ways, including price, to the Venetian-shaped, round-hole archtop guitars (see catalog listing below) offered by Kay from the late 1920s through the mid-1930s. After that time, the firm adopted simpler, less expensive guitar designs.
Tonally, a round-hole archtop doesn't fit any mold because it's not like an F-hole archtop and it's not like a flat top. Its tonal character "straddles the line between nuanced lo-fi cool and cheap chic," according to luthier-dealer Mark Stutman of Folkway Music in Waterloo, Ontario.
Still, a round-hole archtop like Hank's offers period-music players the best of both worlds. It is a guitar with the punch, quickness and midrange of an archtop and the woody fatness of a flat top.
"It has a prominent muted warmth in the lower mids, chunky-toned upper mids, and a peanut-butter smooth response," Stutman said.

Page 33 in the Spiegel mail-order catalog of Christmas 1934 offered an
early iteration of
 Kay Kraft's round-hole archtop guitar at a base price of
$19.95. It had the pearlette headpiece, sunburst finish, gold leaf decals
on the lower bouts and pickguard, and Venetian-shaped body it offered
from the late-1920s through the mid-1930s. For the holidays Spiegel cut
the sale price by $2.

Selling Peterson's 70-year-old guitar
After only a few months I decided to sell the Peterson guitar. It wasn’t very loud and it didn’t hold up well to my flatpicking style.
By that time I began to realize few elderly audiences cared to see, hear or learn about vintage guitars — even beautiful, unusual period instruments with provenance like Hank's. Less talk, more music, they told me. Like concert-goers at today's rock and folk tribute shows, I found they just wanted to bathe in the nostalgic glow of familiar old songs.
So, in January 2008 Hank’s guitar was listed with Neil Harpe’s Stella Guitars (now defunct) in Annapolis MD. He recognized the Peterson guitar as a late 1930s Kay Kraft, a round-hole archtop with a conventional-shaped guitar body in excellent condition.
In his listing Harpe drew attention to the fact that the original owner had purchased the guitar at age 17 from the Spiegel catalog in May 1937. He took some photographs, valued the instrument at $1,800, and offered it for sale on his website with the new hard shell case I'd acquired for it.
In his listing Harpe identified most of the instrument’s all-original attributes:

       sunburst arched top
       gold leaf designs
     •  pearloid headstock
       mahogany back and sides
       15-inch lower bout width
       26-inch scale
       1¾-inch nut width
       patented Kay adjustable neck.
This transaction was a consignment sale. So, when it sold at $1,695 in June 2008, Harpe earned $339 — a 20% commission — not the 25% commission he heatedly demanded. Nevertheless, my net was a modest $836 — $1,356 minus the original investment of $500.
So now the Peterson Kay Kraft round-hole archtop guitar is once again out in the world — ready for cowboy and western songs.
                           ©  2016 — Kenneth Lelen — All Rights Reserved