The forgotten 50s

If you are interested in tango music for dancing, you find that it takes years and years to become really familiar with even the ‘central repertoire’ of the leading orchestras, and that there is masses of additional music from the other (lesser) orchestras to get to know too. Acquiring a library that begins to look comprehensive requires the investment of a considerable amount of money and time.

Of course you could be one of those that pass around/share hard drives containing thousands of crappy low bitrate MP3 versions of just about everything, but little of it in playable quality, and even less of it properly tagged (identifying, correctly, orchestra/singer/date). By the way, if you’re one of them you should STOP. By encouraging the indiscriminate copying of recorded music (quite a lot of which still enjoys copyright protection, at least for the composers & lyricists, even if not for the recording/performance), then you are being dishonest, and you are denying a legitimate revenue stream to those companies that invest in bringing us the recordings in good quality. You are, ultimately, biting the hand that feeds you.

Anyway, as I was saying …

Now and again, along come some new transfers (or you just discover a ‘new’ orchestra and its work for the first time) and you have to reappraise what you thought you knew about that orchestra/period/style. This happened to me most recently (until this week) with the recent issue by TangoTunes of the complete Pugliese discography from 1943-47 (with a third collection eagerly awaited). These transfers were so much better than anything I already had, that it was like hearing the music for the first time. And now, this week, TangoTunes have released new transfers of all 84 of Carlos Di Sarli’s recordings from 1951-53 for the Music Hall label.

Unlike the early Pugliese (where I already had 100% of the material in other transfers, mostly from commercial CDs (many, now out of print)), I only had about half of the Di Sarli Music Hall recordings, and mostly in very poor transfers. I had contented myself with the belief that once he had returned to RCA Victor in 1954, he immediately re-recorded much of the same repertoire with the same singers, and in good quality sound, so that the Music Hall ‘era’ could be safely overlooked – and anyway, the available transfers were not really good enough to play.

Well, I can tell you that the material is actually marvellous! And the 84 songs include quite a lot of repertoire that he didn’t re-record, most of which is first rate (along  with a few undoubted duds). This isn’t a review, as such, but generally, the instrumentals are excellent, and the vocals with Pomar and Serpa are very fine too. I have been listening to the Music Hall & Victor versions, back to back, and find that I generally prefer the earlier versions. They are fresher and better paced. Undoubtedly, the sound of the later recordings is better, but we are so used to hearing the restricted quality of vintage recordings, that you hardly notice unless you do put them side by side. It’s just that by the early 50s they should have sounded better than they did – which is a shame.

I tend to put together groups of songs that I think would be good for dancing into ready-made tandas; and if I acquire a significant release of new transfers, then part of my familiarisation with them is to reappraise the way I have my tandas grouped. I find that deleting my existing groupings and starting again is the best way not to be influenced by past judgements (which are often based on sound quality as much as the intrinsic merits of the music-making) – and so I am happily spending hours and hours listening to these releases, and other contemporary material, and deciding how to group them for dancing. Probably many other DJs do the same sort of thing. We care very much about the music that we present, and want it to sound as good as possible.

And all this leads me to the conclusion that it is time I reappraised my own approach to the recordings of the 1950s, generally. Some DJs (including several that I respect very much) tend to play a really quite restricted diet of recordings from, say, 1935 to 1944 – and very little outside, and from a restricted selection of orchestras too. It can very easily become a convincing-sounding mantra that the great popularity of public dancing in BsAs was in sharp decline by the end of the 1940s, that the best already lay in the past, and that throughout the 1950s the orchestras that still had work (particularly after the upheavals of 1955) were producing concert music or were just backing-groups for the leading singers of the day. I actually don’t think that it’s true at all. Well, OK, you can find plenty of material that wasn’t directed at the dancefloor in the first place (but that is true throughout the period of the tango orchestras – much of their recorded output wasn’t meant to be dance music); but the leading dance orchestras were producing great dance music throughout the 1950s. Just think: D’Arienzo, Di Sarli, Troilo and Pugliese were all very active in the recording studio, and plenty of others were busy too.

So I had this crackpot idea that it would be interesting to put together a playlist, when I next DJ, that time-shifted my normal repertoire by a decade to celebrate the marvellous dance music of the 1950s. There’s no shortage of material from which to choose. No DJ set that contained just one period of music would satisfy me as a dancer (and I dance much more than I DJ), so of course, my set would not be without its 1930s & 1940s classics, but there’s lots of 1950s material (and often very familiar repertoire, played by orchestras of the first rank) and I’m confident that it would be great for dancing. One of the most interesting aspects of this ‘idea’ is that once you have built the skeleton of a set from the work of the leading orchestras, you have a different supporting cast to complement the work of the big boys. So, perhaps Varela, not Laurenz; or valses from Cupo rather than Canaro.