In Memoriam: Paul Weston (1912-1996)

By Robert Moehle

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Paul Weston, a seminal figure in American 20th century popular music and a founder of Mood Music, passed away September 20th, 1996. We owe him much of the credit for the existence of space age bachelor pad music.

Paul Weston was multi-talented -- he arranged, conducted, composed, played the piano, and wrote standards like Day by Day, I Should Care, and When April Comes Again. He also wrote serious music like the Crescent City Suite which portrayed New Orleans, and religious music, with two masses and many hymns to his credit. He never lost touch with ordinary folk or the elements of successful popular music.

Weston started out arranging for big bands like Tommy Dorsey, and in 1940 he moved to Hollywood. He helped found Capitol Records and became its first musical director, arranging and conducting for performers like Johnny Mercer, Jo Stafford, Margaret Whiting, Gordon MacRae and Dean Martin. He later moved into television as musical director for Sid Caesar, Roy Rogers, Rowan and Martin, and Jim Nabors, among others. Weston was a founding member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (which awards the Grammies) and was its first president.

Paul Weston's most influencial contribution was mood music, a big-band sound and opulent string arrangements combined with a subtle, danceable beat. Jazz artists like Barney Kessel and Ziggy Elman often contributed solos to his albums. Music for Dreaming was Weston's first Capitol album, and then he switched to Columbia Records and made a series of Music For... albums, ranging from Music For Quiet Dancing to Music For Ski Trails. He also recorded compositions by Sigmund Romberg and Jerome Kern among others. The quality and consistency of Weston's music made it a natural for elevator music, that ever-present background which flowered in the 50s as an antidote to the complexity, speed and noise of modern life.

One of Weston's most unusual projects has a unique relevance to today's fascination with lounge culture. Weston and his wife Jo Stafford had a brainstorm after using some extra time at the end of recording sessions to deliberately butcher songs they hated. George Avakian, a producer, convinced them to make an album in this mangled style, and so Weston and Stafford created the characters of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, a piano-and-vocal team, as a satire on every bad lounge performer that audiences ever endured.

The results were hilarious. Weston and Stafford were superb musicians, knowing exactly what went into successful performances. They portrayed the duo as nearly competent, but never quite hitting the mark -- they were, as Weston noted, just on the verge of being talented. Weston, as Jonathan Edwards, would play a tricky musical phrase that started out fitting the song perfectly, then trailed off into a jarring sequence of muddled notes. Stafford, as Darlene, would blithely vocalize, often excruciatingly off pitch. Her tempo would shift a beat out of sync, colliding with the other musicians, righting itself and bumping into them again. It was solid musical mayhem. Their second album, Jonathan and Darlene Edwards in Paris, won a Grammy for best comedy LP.

After finding the record in a thrift store record bin, I was a long time recovering from the side-ache. I played Jonathan and Darlene Edwards in Paris often, thinking of how their satirical ineptitude prefectly matched real performers I had seen, like the 70- year-old lady cocktail pianist/singer on a late-night telethon in St. Louis, with a voice even lower and raspier than Louis Armstrong. Or the first lounge act I saw, a combo on the boat between Catalina Island and the California coast, with a lady who sang as off-key as Darlene Edwards. The band's drums, guitar, and bass were the same seasick green as their suits. And then there were all the husband-and-wife duos in the myriad lounges in small Midwestern towns, hopelessly bad yet tolerated by locals because they were our people, and enjoyed because they had never heard anything better. Those same audiences found Jonathan and Darlene Edwards beautiful.

A month after discovering Jonathan and Darlene, I found a Paul Weston album, As Long As There's Music. This was real Weston, not satire. The intricate arrangements and gorgeous chordal sonorities hooked me. Shortly thereafter I started collecting his records, both instrumental and his arrangements for singers.

Paul Weston's work in popular music always delights me. And his affection for lounge music and exasperation with inept performers shines through his parodies. Paul Weston made popular music into an art. The best tribute to him came from a friend who said, "He's good to listen to." I'll miss Paul Weston.

Many recordings recordings by Paul Weston and Jo Stafford and their alter-egos Jonathan and Darlene Edwards can be ordered from Corinthian Records. The Web site also features biographies of Weston and Stafford, an interview with Jonathan Edwards. Edwards's version of the Bee Gees' disco hit "Stayin' Alive" is, in a word, unbelievable.

Robert Moehle is a retired school teacher aspiring to a career as a freelance writer. He lives in Seattle, WA and splits his time between writing words and writing music. His biggest dream is to own a PowerMacintosh computer and every album Paul Weston recorded.