I have a love/hate relationship with music streaming services. I hate the way they compensate artists and songwriters. However, it’s undeniable that they’re a treasure trove of long-forgotten, obscure tracks that would be otherwise unavailable. The other day, I was searching for music by Les Paul and Mary Ford and their 1957 album, “Time to Dream”, came up.
The reason I was searching was that Les Paul was more or less the reason I became an electric guitar player. His influence on me dates back to when I was very small, listening to astonishing sounds emanating from our valve radiogram, wondering how I could make such music too. I was feeling nostalgic and wanted to see if there were tracks to discover that I had never heard before. In the early sixties, record libraries of working class families were seldom extensive, being eclectic rather than anthological. Chances were good that there were many tracks I had never heard. It took half a century for me to feel this urge to revisit and further explore my musical roots, but this sentimental journey was about to bear fruit.
“Time to Dream” is a remarkable departure from the now familiar Les Paul and Mary Ford formula of multi-tracked guitars from space, overlaid with lush, intimate harmonies. This record, in contrast, is full of slow, moody, bluesy ballads, sung exquisitely, as solos, by the incomparable, rich, warm voice of Mary Ford. It is truly dreamy. The guitar accompaniment is clean, clear, gentle and mostly unadorned. Les’ playing is soulful and delicate. Mary’s singing is so full of longing and melancholy. It’s a big departure from the bright, good-morning vibe of “Mockingbird Hill” and the ever-hopeful post-war tonic, “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise”.
By 1957, when the record was made, rock and roll was just two years old and already displacing many of the former stars of the hit parade. This album seemed to be an abandonment of their previous successful sound, venturing into a brave new aesthetic. History tells us that the very next year, Les and Mary left Capitol records, whose iconic platter-stack headquarters building in Hollywood had been built largely on the back of the success of its glittering roster of recording stars, Les Paul and Mary Ford high up on that list. It seems as if the reception to “Time to Dream” was somewhat underwhelming, commercially, as departures from successful hit-making formulae often are. They signed with Columbia in 1958, but never again enjoyed the success of their Capitol years.
When I was a small boy, my mother loved to sing a song to us, her children, to express the extent of her deep love for us. It used to make us cringe with embarrassment, as small boys often do, in response to overt expressions of affectionate maternal devotion. Our discomfort would make her smile, but we knew that she meant every word. The lyrics were actually a beautiful expression of undying love and affection. She would sing it in a bluesy and melancholy style, which was also strange to our young ears, immersed as we were in the radio music of the mid sixties. We had no idea who had sung the original version of this song. Maybe it was Doris Day. Who knew? It was probably recorded long before I was born (therefore irrelevant).
The song she sang to us was called “How Deep Is The Ocean (How High Is The Sky)”. The lyrics pose questions like “how much do I love you?” and instead of answering, the answer is always in the form of another question, like “How deep is the ocean?”. The analogy between the depth of the ocean (and the height of the sky) and how much she loved us was the point my mother was trying to make to us. It’s a truly beautiful lyric, crafted thoughtfully, and well worth searching for on line.
While listening to the album “Time to Dream”, track 9 came up. “How Deep Is The Ocean” was playing in my car, instantly transporting me back to a time when I was a much-loved young boy with a devoted mother then in her thirties, now sadly departed. The song my mother sung to us was a copy of the Les Paul and Mary Ford rendition of it. When I was a small boy, this song had only recently been released. It was then less than a decade old. To my mother, it was a recent work. Now, the song was playing to me, here, in 2017, still redolent with tragic, intense longing and aching melancholy. I must have gotten something in my eye, because I had to wipe away a tear.
In 1957, Mary Ford was evidently unhappy and grieving. Her first born daughter had died aged four days, after a premature birth, only three years earlier. She had left Les in 1956 and run away to Amarillo, Texas. They must have tried to patch things up and give their marriage another try. Les and Mary would ultimately divorce in 1964. She was reportedly tired of the constant touring and Les’ obsession with fame, success and work. She wanted a family and a more settled life. Les already had children from a previous marriage, but Mary, it seems, wanted children of her own. Les and Mary didn’t adopt a child until 1958, a year after the recording I was listening to was released. The writing was on the wall for their style of music, by this time, with rock and roll sweeping the hit parade. Their glory days of top ten success must have seemed behind them.
It was clear that there were tensions in the marriage. Les, it seems, wasn’t listening to Mary’s needs. He had also built the first eight-track recording studio ever, with pioneering technology, yet was releasing minimalist, simple ballads, with no vocal harmonies to speak of and just a lonesome guitar accompaniment. He must have been itching to see what his new studio was capable of, but Mary evidently had lost interest. There are reports that alcoholism affected Mary’s life. Whether it started about this time is pure speculation, but she died in 1977, aged just 53, from complications related to alcoholism. She spent her last days in a diabetic coma in hospital. In 1957, though she didn’t know it, she had just 20 years left to live.
So, here I am in 2017, listening to this piece of art made sixty years ago by a young couple in the midst of what was a deteriorating situation for them. Releasing it required courage and tenacity and as a piece of art, it is breathtakingly beautiful. How could this couple have known, back in 1957, how many people would be influenced and touched by their work? Could they have imagined that the entire course of people’s lives would change because of what they made together? Would it have even been conceivable that long after their deaths, their art would bring powerful, nostalgic memories flooding back, in a bloke driving around the UK, listening to long-lost music from his youth? They can’t have had the faintest inkling how the song they recorded in their home could have sent ripples forward into time, touching people they would never know or meet, in ways they couldn’t imagine.
This is the point about making art. You feel as though your contribution to the world is a small drop in the ocean, while you are making your art. You can’t foresee the extent of the ripples in time you make with that one small drop in the ocean, as you make it. You never know if your drop will be significant. But think about it: how deep is the ocean?
Your art could be affecting people you will never know, in ways you couldn’t possibly predict, far into the future. Isn’t that a good enough reason to keep making your art?