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Songs in the Key of L.A. is a multi-platform collaboration between the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Public Library, and USC professor Josh Kun that brings to life the Library's extraordinary Southern California Sheet Music Collection. Five L.A. artists were invited to pick some sheet music, study it, and then interpret it in any style of their choosing. The finished products are now available for free download from the website of the Los Angeles Public Library, and Artbound produced short documentaries on the process.
Abe Olman was a Midwesterner through and through, but he was as good as anyone at dashing off a California tune. His first hit, from 1914, was "California Dreamin'" five decades before the Mamas and Papas got cold in New York, a swooning, exotic, way out west hallucination titled "Down Among the Sheltering Palms." Al Jolson recorded it and made it world famous, selling well over 3 million copies. James Brockman's lyrics established a template that would repeat throughout the future of the California songbook: love as landscape, landscape as love. My love waits out west, safe and warm, protected by the sheltering palms.
Three years later, Olman wrote music for a California tune with a little more swagger in its step, this one with words from the cheeky David Berg (he of "There's A Quaker Down in Quaker Town," about a Quaker girl who "has that 'meet me later' look, and oh she knows her book"). Their collaboration "When The Girl You Love Lives in California" starts with romance but ends up with cheating and, as Berg wrote it, "fondling." The culprit was the train, that indispensable coast-to-coast connector that, if we believe all the songs, split up as many couples as it united since its intercontinental rails started cutting through California dirt in the late 1800s. "When The Girl You Love Lives in California" took the California song into new territory where transportation and tears mixed, where the ancestors of the California girls of Gidget, the Beach Boys, and Katy Perry were already luring hearts from New York and Chicago. But in 1917 who needed the beach when you had the train?
Olman is one of the better-known composers in the Library's Southern California Sheet Music Collection. He took over as director of ASCAP in 1946 and late in his career, he and Capitol Records co-founder Johnny Mercer teamed up to create the National Academy of Popular Music's Songwriters Hall of Fame. He wrote top-sellers for Nora Bayes, The Andrew Sisters, and Ted Lewis, churned out hits while working for leading publishing company Forster Music, and then helped launch The Big Three Music Corporation, a publishing consortium that was a conveyor belt to MGM musicals. Olman and his partners then convinced Hollywood studios they should start playing movie theme songs beneath a film's opening credits. Like so many songwriters who started east of the west, Olman eventually became another boy who lives in California, where he stayed until his 1984 death down among the sweltering palms of Rancho Mirage.
"When The Girl You Love Lives in California" was the song that singer and rapper Aloe Blacc chose for his contribution to Songs in the Key of L.A. It may be from 1917, but Blacc found Olman and Berg's broken hearts storyline evergreen, a theme he was well familiar with from his own albums, 2006's "Shine Through" and 2010's "Good Things" (try his "Loving You Is Killing Me" for starters). "It's a love song," Blacc told me as we began his session at Bedrock.LA. "A song about longing, a little bit of desperation, a little bit of self doubt, you know-- quite an interesting story. I thought it was probably the easiest to interpret in an alternate way because it sounds, lyrically, it sounds like a blues song."
Born on the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to his Spanish-speaking Panamanian immigrant parents, Blacc grew up in Laguna Hills immersed in a soundscape that mixed salsa with R&B, funk, rock, and hip hop. He's lived and made music in L.A. ever since.
"I think there is an L.A. sound," he said. "I can speak from like a hip hop paradigm. The music that was really heavy in bass like big kicks and big deep bass tones was something that I would say largely had a chance to flourish on the West Coast and in California in particular, because we have such a car culture. It's not really a pedestrian culture, so with car culture, you can enhance the sounds of the music to fit the environment through which it's being played. It's being played though your car speakers, and you're enhancing and magnifying your car speaker setup every chance you get, so the sound is going to be different from what somebody is listening in their headphones going through the subway on the East Coast. I definitely feel like the landscape changes things. Beach culture and the mixture of rock or punk and ska in the stuff that came out of Huntington Beach and some of the bands that came from the coast. You can definitely tell that's not something that would really happen anywhere else."
For his recording, Blacc enlisted the help of two frequent band mates, drummer Evan Greer and pianist Peter Dyer, a veteran of Mariah Carey's touring band. Blacc's initial plan was to stay in character as a 1917 balladeer and approach the song and its early 20th century arrangement literally, a process that resulted in multiple vocal, piano, and drum takes, and involved Blacc taking his singing style on a nostalgic time warp. Once the song was in the can, though, he joined Dyer at the piano and the two casually tried out a raw blues arrangement that allowed Blacc to settle into the modern R&B vocal territory he's perfected on his own songs like "I Need a Dollar" and "Busking," an a cappella blues song for waiting on a bus that he recorded at a West Adams bus stop. 1917 was suddenly sounding a little more like 2013.
"I wanted to try it their way first," Blacc said. "But then I wanted to do it my way."
Like the song? Here's a free download of Aloe Blacc performing "When The Girl You Love Lives in California".
For more glimpses of vintage SoCal songbooks, browse through these other choice sheet music covers mined from the L.A. Public Library's archives.
The Bedrock Sessions were made possible by the generous support of Bedrock.LA, The Library Foundation of Los Angeles, & The Norman Lear Center.