A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Friday, 14 August 2015

Hooptedoodle #186 - Alice Is a Singer

This is not Alice - it is someone else
On Wednesday I received a piece of spam email from Alice, from whom I have had no contact for some years (I am delighted to say). There seems to be a virus of some type going about which sends junk portal-scam mail to the entire contacts list on someone’s smartphone, and this is why I heard from Alice. Well, of course, I didn’t really hear from Alice at all, but I was reminded of her.

Alice is a singer, of sorts. Mostly I try to keep my musical activities out of this blog, because I don’t really expect them to be of much interest and they are almost certainly an irrelevance too far. However, as in all walks of life, I have met some colourful people there as well.

Alice represents that much-abused sub-class, the girl who fancied being the singer with a band, but didn’t have the talent for the job. She has the complete profile – pleasant, untutored voice, no grasp at all of musical theory or even of rhythm, and deplorable taste. Oh – and dreadful, unpredictable tantrums. She must have been encouraged over the years by proud parents, envious school friends, drunken workmates, heartless people in the pub on holiday; I doubt that she needed much encouragement - I am confident that she sings like a megastar in the shower. It’s just that she has, to use a technical musical term, not a bloody clue. Not a Scooby.

This is how Alice sees herself, I believe...
I am lucky enough to have met and played with some excellent female singers – Carol Kidd and Maggie Mercer and Melanie O’Reilly were class acts by any standard – but as a species girl singers seem to have more head-crashers and plate-throwers than you would expect. Working with one also involves the more immediate problem that songs you have known and played all your life in the written key of F are suddenly in A-flat (etc).

Alice used to talk about her love of “jazzy” music – which usually got about as far from the Radio 2 mainstream as Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Crystal Gayle. I asked her if she liked, or listened to, Billie Holiday or Ella, and she sort of glazed over and said she would like to sing Every Time We Say Goodbye. So we ran through it – disaster; she could sing the notes, but the phrasing of the first line is tricky – attempt to sing it from instinct and you can easily find you have lost a bit and are now a bar ahead of the band (especially if, like Alice, you are unable to hear the chord changes), with the inevitable traffic accident approaching. I commented that she couldn’t just sing a line of a song, take a breath and immediately start the next line – it was necessary to fit in with the structure, so sometimes she might have to count (silently, of course!) “two – three – four – one” or something and then come in.  Glazing-over time once again – she had no idea what I was on about.

I first became associated with Alice because she was rehearsing with a pianist who is a friend of mine, and he asked me could I help out – apart from anything else, perhaps I could sort out some of the horrible arrangements in her book and also (let’s be honest here) I was friendly with a pro double bass player who would be even more of an asset than me if he wished to join in. I had some spare time available, so I got involved.


We did a couple of small jobs in local pubs which went OK – Alice was very unsure of herself, and had a fragile, lost quality which went down rather well. But she very quickly turned into a budding celebrity, a monster.

We did a biggish show in a hotel ballroom in a nearby town. She was terribly nervous – especially because her boyfriend’s parents had bought tickets. So she drank about three-quarters of a bottle of red wine before we went on. Horrifying – my bass-playing chum was making his first appearance with us, and he was so furious that he has not spoken to me since. We scraped through the show, largely on sympathy, I think. But Alice was convinced she was now on a rocket ship to stardom. We held a series of grinding rehearsals to sort out and strengthen her repertoire – in fact “rehearsals” is not quite the right term here. A rehearsal is, or should be, a polishing-up of material which you already know. These rehearsals consisted of tentative attempts at hopeless projects – often the same things we had screwed up the week before – and there was an increasing tension, plus numerous hissy fits. At one point the pianist and I were trying to correct the chords in her train-wreck arrangement of Autumn Leaves, and she suddenly started shouting that we should stop faffing about, and just get on with playing it. We protested gently, on the grounds that until we had a sensible version of the piece we had nothing to get on with, and on the more accessible grounds that the audience would know these songs well enough to realise that we were buffoons.

Next appearance was at an outdoor concert at a local seaside resort, in aid of a national charity. It was pouring with rain. I don’t know if Alice had been at the refreshment again, but she was unbelievable. She missed all her starting notes, sang verses in the wrong order, missed sections out - all our rehearsed endings and key modulations vanished without trace. She even introduced a couple of songs with drivel such as “we’ve only practised this song once, so it may not go very well!” – she was, of course, correct, as the forewarned listeners will have recognised. She was also a bit unfortunate in that the rain rendered some of her lyric sheets unreadable. I can clearly remember staring out at the audience, all with their anorak hoods up, sitting in the downpour looking as glum as I felt, and I was hoping like hell that no-one there knew me or recognised me. A paper bag for my head would have been welcome – the only saving grace was that a girl singer gets about 90% of the attention, so the sidemen are pretty much invisible. Even so, I have rarely spent an hour wishing more passionately that I were somewhere else entirely.

I left fairly abruptly at the end, and I phoned the pianist and said I was very sorry, but I really didn’t want to do this any more. Alice was very cross indeed, and was going to give me a piece of her mind for letting them down, but it came to nothing, and she probably didn’t have a piece to spare.

She is still around – she has a Facebook page which promotes her cabaret act, which she still insists is jazzy, and she seems to get work, so maybe she got better. I don’t really care. I hope her phone virus problem clears up OK.

In affectionate tribute to all the wannabe girl singers over the years who have struggled with the gulf between their dreams and their ability, here is the wonderful Jo Stafford, in the guise of the well-intentioned but awful Darlene Edwards, who provides a perfect demonstration of all the trademark clichés. Enjoy.


  1. Thanks Tony, what a great (and sad) story.
    I am very fond of female Jazz vocalists and know just enough about music to realize how difficult it must be do sing jazz well. The ones who accompany themselves (Diana Krall, Blossom Dearie) obviously have a technical advantage since they know music so well, but I have heard others who obviously have a deep connection to the musicians and a knowledge of the songbook. Poor Alice, it seems, had neither.
    One of my favourite moments in jazz vocals is Ella F singing Mac the Knife on the Ella in Berlin album, where she totally blanks on the lyrics of a verse but bashes on, improvising as she goes. Brilliant stuff, because it points to her talent and poise as a performer.
    I knew a little bit about Jo Stafford, but I didn't know about Darlene Edwards. It's the sort of comedy, like Anna Russell or Peter Shickele, where you have to be immersed in the genre being parodied to get the joke. Otherwise it just sounds weird or (worse) good.

    1. Ella was a marvel - because of her ability to ad lib (especially her scat stuff) I always assumed she must play a bit of piano, but apparently not - she just had a natural feel for the music. Her versions of "Lush Life" and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up" also show her remarkable facility with very subtle melodies (the ones you do not hum on the bus).

      Jonathan and Darlene Edwards are something of a minority taste - I love them, but a lot of people think they are just doing it wrong. Jonathan, of course, was Jo Stafford's husband - band leader and arranger Paul Weston, who was a consummate musician - some of his "Jonathan" performances on piano are especially fine - "Dizzy Fingers" is recommended...


      Poor Alice must surely have had some clue that she really couldn't hear stuff - I mean the musicians didn't just invent a pile of jargon simply to irritate her. It just seemed to make her angry. Oh well.

  2. As an older statesman and roadie for a band that was Spinal Tap without the laughs I feel for you. One of the problems is the "English" attitude.

    "So Ben, how do you like the new tracks?"

    "Erm, OK" (ie I would rather stick pins in my eyes than listen to them again).

    I believe the lead singer and owner of the recording studio is in a commune in Spain now.

    1. There's a weird misconception about the nature of music - probably all the performing arts, in fact, but particularly music. The X-Factor and similar tosh have generated the belief that it only requires a special hairdo and a bit of visibility to make anyone into a star. If that's true then I must have missed something - my experience is that music (that is, competent music) is played by people who have worked very hard to perfect their understanding and their skills, and who for the most part are underpaid and unappreciated - individually and as an industry.

      The Alices of this world do not even stand on the fringe.

  3. This sounds strikingly similar to my last (midlife crisis) band The Indras. In the end, I bowed out after 4.5 years. Life is too short to waste time with other singers/musicians who can't be bothered with the unseen hard work required to come across as polished and dynamic when you perform.

    Best Regards,


    1. Hey, man - I checked out The Indras' Facebook page. Erin the Girl Singer sounds ominous - maybe that's not where the trouble was...

      Agree about professional standards - I've had a basin-full of guys who joined in with the vocal when they felt like it, because they thought it was rock'n'roll (whereas it is more like a football crowd), or guys that drank on gigs (if someone is paying to see you - or even if they are not paying and have taken the trouble to come and see you - then a musician is doing a job of work, and there is no job in the world where you should drink), or guys that insisted on dressing as scruffily as possible (insult to audience), or guys that took an inverted snobbery stance about refusing to learn anything about their trade.

      Polished and dynamic is hard work, no doubt. When you're 14 at the youth-club hop you can get away with being enthusiastic and crap, but you grow out of it! :o)

    2. In music you have to grow out of being "enthusiastic and crap", it is positively essential if one is to flourish in, say, business transformation consulting.

    3. Indeed. This is not to ignore the fact, of course, that many such consultants are themselves crap. I didn't state it particularly well, but I think what I meant was that being e&c is increasingly difficult to carry off well as age and (presumably) dignity increase.

  4. As a virtuoso performer on the comb and paper, I feel your pain (as they say very far west of Liverpool). When you've got an hour to spare I'll recount the experience of witnessing the performance of Sylvia (pronounced 'Silvior') - a dream in lime green - at a talent show at the Church Inn, Eccles.

    In the meantime I'm off to read that post again and listen to Jonathan and Darlene. By gum, it's cheered me up!

    1. Comb and paper is an instrument which does not get the full respect which is its due, and is a tricky thing to master. Shostokovich's Suite of Nocturnal Dances for string quartet, comb and paper and tumble dryer is a classic - little heard nowadays and sadly suppressed by the Soviet authorities during the years of cultural austerity.

      My instinctive reaction to mention of the Eccles story of Sylvia is to say that I have an hour to spare whenever you are ready. If you fancy a chat about Jonathan and Darlene, email me!


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