Friday, November 26, 2010

Pretty Ballerina, Left Banke (1966)

Ever wonder what your life would have been like if your dad had been an in-demand session jazz violinist with his own recording studio in New York City in 1966, when you were 17? And you were a music prodigy of sorts?

I'll tell you what it would've been like - you'd have composed and enjoyed great success with the classic baroque pop hit Walk Away Renee, and followed up with my personal favorite, Pretty Ballerina. To hear this emanating from the radio in 1966 (well, both of them, really) was to feel instant ecstasy.

I think I had them pegged for British Invasion singles at the time, but it turns out they were all-American. Michael Lookofsky, aka Michael Brown, was the son of Harry Lookofsky, who was a trendsetter in bebop jazz violin. Harry had his own setup near the Brill Building in Manhattan, where Michael would help out and eventually start cutting tracks of his own with other young musicians who soon called themselves the Left Banke.

To the falsetto vocals by lead singer Steve Martin Caro and the haunting harpsichord (in the first instance) and piano (in the second instance) by Brown, add string arrangements by dear old dad, and these songs couldn't miss. Especially after Dad shopped Walk Away Renee all over the city until he found a record label that was interested. 

Everyone from Alice Cooper to Leonard Bernstein has paid homage to Pretty Ballerina, with Bernstein even analyzing and playing it on his TV show back in the day. Alice's version is quite, shall we say, unexpected.

The usual "creative differences" led to Brown departing the Left Banke after the first album, with all of the attendant animosities and dueling versions of groups with the same name.  He went on to form and leave at least three other bands (Montage, Stories - just before the awful Brother Louie - and the Beckies). The legends surrounding the dancer Renee are legion - whose girlfriend she was, if she was anyone's at all ... whether or not Brown had a debilitating crush on her - and from what I've read it's not safe to say anything with certainty because for every statement made, someone purporting to be close to the situation disputes it.

But none of that is important. What is important is that Pretty Ballerina pirouettes into my soul to this very day - lovely, lovely, lovely.


KarmaSartre said...

Bernstein had a TV show? I never know what interesting tidbit I'll learn here.

Hard to let a Walk Away Renee mention pass by without a Levi Stubbs mention.

wendy said...

Oh it wasn't that hard, Barry. ;) I actually mentioned it when I wrote about the Four Tops long ago. I admit I was trying to keep the focus on Pretty Ballerina.

Holly A Hughes said...

Loved this song. I wrote about Walk Away Renee a couple years ago -- I can't say which song is better but Renee is my sentimental favorite.

But I never knew the bit about Brown's father lending his considerable connections to launch their music. It's the old conundrum -- do celebrity offspring succeed because they have the inside track, or is it because talent is in the genes? I suppose it's six of one, half a dozen of the other.

I imagine a made-for-TV movie in which Lookovsky father and son meet up with John B. Sebastian and his father, who was a classical harmonica player (I can't even imagine where a classical harmonica player might play...)

Wade said...

This is the first time I've ever heard this song. I had to look up the lyrics because the speakers on my computer are made by Hasbro, I think. Love the lyrics. That blue note or whatever it is they hit at the end of every third measure in the verses sort of jars me, though. Sounds like the piano's out of tune.

Walk Away, Renee has one of the most stirring melodies of any song I've ever heard. I first heard it done by the odious Jimmy Lafave probably 20 years ago and had no idea if I'd heard it before, but it immediately took me back to something.

H. Harvey said...

These two songs as well as any, marked a time, a very diverse and fertile beyond belief time. There was a gentility and sophistication to these tunes. Very American Ray Davies in the kind of feel they had.
But I ABSOLUTELY put 'She May Call You Up Tonight"right up there with the other two.
As for the Alice Cooper cover, very faithful, and cool if what he wanted was to turn his audience onto such a great song, but otherwise, pretty nondescript.
Thanks for writing about this band and their signature moments.