Harry Hamilton and his Swing Band – The American Songbook
I CAN’T SING, dance or play any type of musical instrument. Indeed, when I try to sing most people think that I’m mucking about and don’t believe me when I say that I’m actually trying to hit a note! If I tried to dance I’d end up in my local Accident and Emergency – assuming it hasn’t already been closed by government cuts. And when it comes to playing anything all I can do is make a bit of a racket with a couple of spoons or a comb and some tissue paper.
However, I’m not too sure if spoons, a comb and tissue paper actually qualify as musical instruments. Indeed, if my life depended on singing, dancing or playing anything I’d have been dead and buried many years ago!
Despite all of this, I really love music. Living without a TV wouldn’t really be a problem for me, but I just couldn’t imagine living without music. I think that, to some degree, all of us associate particular songs with memories of family and friends. Maybe that’s one reason why music stirs the sole and certain songs really do get under the skin.
I’m also a bit of a geek when it comes to learning about different genres of music. I love to discover how one form of music is linked to another – particularly how and when they developed. The same goes for individual songs. I always want to know who wrote what, when it was written and what the inspiration was.
With all this in mind I was really looking forward to seeing the excellent Harry Hamilton and his Swing Band (a brilliant eight-piece band known as the Birdland Big Band) performing a show called The American Songbook. The show was being held in the equally excellent Courtyard Theatre in Newtownabbey, Co. Antrim.
I was looking forward to the gig for two main reasons. Firstly, Harry Hamilton has successfully carved out a name for himself as the lead singer of Flash Harry. My wife and I have seen them several times and they’re probably one of the best Queen tribute bands you’re ever likely to see. However, I’ve always wanted to see and hear how he’d perform – not as Freddie Mercury but as himself.
Secondly, whilst I’m not fantastically into every artist who comes under the umbrella of the ‘American Songbook’, I recognise the importance of this musical genre. The advertising material accompanying the gig put this into perspective noting:
“Join Harry Hamilton and his swing band as they take you on a musical journey through a century of American music. This innovative collection of popular music showcases the many “Great” Songs from the soundtrack of the 20th Century. From the classics of the Great American masters like Gershwin or Cole Porter, via the ’50’s most popular hits, to Motown and the newest chapter with songs from recent hit-makes, including Michael Bublé, Ray Charles and Billy Joel.”
The gig was in two parts (and started bang on time – surely a first for Ulster!) with the first half being slightly more formal than the second. This was subtly reflected in the way Harry Hamilton presented himself. In the first half he wore a dark suit, tuxedo shirt with wing tip collar and dickie bow and in the second half he’d changed into double denim.
I loved the way he set the scene for the whole gig by explaining that ‘The American Songbook’ (sometimes called the ‘Great American Songbook’) generally refers to a collection of the most important and influential American popular songs of the 20th century. They can be found in theatre and film and were written from the 1920s through the 1950s.
Harry Hamilton also gave a brief insight into his childhood. He noted that his father was in a Showband and that he grew up in a house full of music, all of which made a great impression. Given this background it’s probably no surprise that he also turned towards music in such a way.
This laid back approach to explaining his musical influences – and the information that he provided about each song – meant that he had the packed audience hanging on to his every word. I particularly liked the way he used humour to introduce some of the songs. I’ve found some music ‘experts’ come across as bores who look down on those who aren’t as informed about a particular song or artist as they are.
But what about the songs themselves?
To be honest, Harry Hamilton sang that many both my wife and I lost count of what we’d heard! The whole gig simply consisted of hit after hit after hit. And all were pulled off to a tee. However, we were able to agree on some of the highlights of the evening. These included Frank Sinatra’s classic Fly Me To The Moon, American Trilogy made famous by Elvis Presley (and a song that always makes us both cry – and many others judging by the sniffing and wiping of eyes from other members of the audience!)
Other highlights included Georgia On My Mind made famous by Ray Charles, I’m A Believer which was written and originally recorded by Neil Diamond but effectively ‘owned’ by the Monkees. Also in there were Superstition and Sir Duke written and performed by Stevie Wonder – the latter as a tribute to the legendary composer, pianist and bandleader, Duke Ellington.
We also loved his take on one of Don McLean’s most famous songs, American Pie. Recorded in1971, it commemorates the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson (aka ‘The Big Bopper’) in a plane crash in early 1953. Harry Hamilton’s vocal range was also given a great workout when he sang Roy Orbison’s operatic ballad, In Dreams. He explained the complexity of the Big O’s song which – according to Wikipedia – “has a unique structure in seven musical movements in which Orbison sings through two octaves, beyond the range of most rock and roll singers.”
One real stand out moment of the evening came towards the end of the first half of the gig. Here Harry Hamilton’s father joined him in a duet. As noted earlier, his father had been in a Showband and still had a great voice plus a mischevious twinkle in his eye – something that has been passed onto his son. Together they performed a brilliant version of Mac the Knife (which started life as Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, composed by Kurt Weill) made famous by Bobby Darin.
As well as talking about – and performing – the American Songbook, Harry Hamilton enjoyed some great banter with both the audience and his band. The three piece brass section – as well as being excellent musicians – seemed to be having a whale of a time. They seemed to spend half their time laughing and joking. At times they were in absolute stiches – so much so that I wondered how they would be able to stop laughing in time to play their instruments or provide backing vocals.
If you’d like a couple of hours of top notch entertainment and would like to learn a lot about music at the same time, check out Harry Hamilton and his Swing Band. They’re still on tour throughout Ulster. Catch him if you can.
O CHECK OUT this promotional video for Harry Hamilton and his Swing Band – The American Songbook https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjpTU-s4ZSE
O CHECK OUT Flash Harry’s Facebook page which also provides some information on Harry Hamilton’s American Songbook show
Reviewed by John Field