Sunday, September 16, 2007

Disco Delivery #44:
Cook County - Pinball Playboy (Playboy Theme) (1979, Motown)

Cook County - Pinball Playboy (Playboy Theme)
Cook County - Comin' To Getcha
Cook County - Olympiad '84
Cook County - Funky Get It
Cook County - State Street Samba
Cook County - Little Girls & Ladies

First of all, I have to thank Disco Delivery reader Enrique (Happy Birthday!) for tipping me off on to this record.. I found it a few months ago on eBay, and finally received it last month. It took a little bit of prodding on my part to get the seller to send it to me, but thankfully it's finally here. Anyway, eBay issues notwithstanding; so far, this is one of the more odd and obscure Motown releases that I've found. Looking at the credits, it's quite possibly the only record to thank both Berry Gordy and Hugh Hefner in the same sentence. With the album credited to an anonymous studio group complete with blatant promotional-tie in; on the surface, it might come across as a fairly insubstantial disco novelty. Getting down to the grooves, however, the record doesn't disappoint. If anything, certainly more musically satisfying than it's appearances might suggest..

Vic Caesar, the producer behind Cook County was himself a rather unlikely Motown alumnus. A singer, actor, music producer, and it seems, all-around renaissance man, Caesar was something of a lounge legend.. A friend of Hugh Hefner's (which perhaps partly explains this project), he had apparently lived in the Playboy Mansion at one point (staying for some ten years) and had also, among other things, wrote the theme to Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign, "Nixon's The One." Although there isn't a whole lot on him on the internet, from what I have read, Vic Caesar sounded like one of those interesting old Hollywood characters who, despite not achieving the same sort recognition that many of his contemporaries did, apparently had a million entertaining "done it all," "seen it all" stories to tell from all the notables he rubbed elbows with. A 1997 article from the Phoenix New Times has a brief tribute:

How about Mr. Vic Caesar, king of the lounge singers? Vic had stories about every celebrity that has walked the face of the Earth since talkies were introduced. I'll refresh your memory: Vic played piano for Marilyn Monroe. Vic said he smoked dope with Bobby Kennedy and Sammy Davis Jr. Vic lived at the Playboy Mansion. Vic hugged Dick Nixon. Vic! My man! Phoenix doesn't deserve you, baby!

Peter Gilstrap, the same writer who wrote the above quote wrote an affectionate bio/tribute article on Caesar the year before entitled "Hail, Caesar," which not only traces his life story but also many of his interesting, entertaining encounters.. Well worth reading if you want to know more..

In a nutshell though, Vic Caesar, born Vittorio Cesario in Chicago would have a childhood immersed in music. During the Korean War, Caesar would end up serving with the US Army as a Dental Technologist. While in the army, his musical abilities would lead to a chance encounter with Marilyn Monroe, who while performing for the troops, needed someone to back her up. Coming home, the encounter would leave enough of an impression that he ended up leaving his Army profession behind to continue in music. Playing drums and piano professionally, another chance encounter with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas would eventually led him into singing:

"He says, 'Are you Italian?' I said, 'Yes, sir.' He says, 'You don't have to call me sir. You sing good; get the fuck off the drums, and get yourself a little group, and get out there.'"

Caesar would go on to release at least one or two albums under his name, one of them called "Vic Caesar Sings." Along with that, he would also be involved in a club in Phoenix, Arizona; an apparently swinging joint in it's time called "Caesar's Forum." Around that time, in 1968, Caesar would be approached to perform at an event for Richard Nixon. Although as time went on, he, like many others, would sour on the Nixon Administration, that gig nonetheless led to one of his best remembered works:
"Setting aside his staunch Democratic loyalties, Vic wrote the simple, seven-word tune in 20 minutes, and when Nixon heard it at the rally (after some idiot came on before Vic and sang "The Impossible Dream"), he loved it. Life went on, Nixon won, and just days before the Inaugural, Vic got a telegram demanding his performing presence at an Inaugural ball. A Nehru-jacketed Vic and band made the scene, drove the crowd wild with "Nixon's The One."

Caesar's Nixon theme was most recently used in one of Lasse Hallstrom's latest films, "The Hoax." About his encounter with Nixon, Caesar would later say this:

"When you become president," the composer urged, "please do for the young men in Vietnam what you and the General did for me in Korea, end it!" You'll never guess how Nixon answered. "He looked me straight in the eyes," Caesar remembers, "and without as much as one blink said in a flash, 'I will do the very best I can to end it Vic, I believe it to be an unjust war.'" Unfortunately, that didn't happen any time soon after that -- and history records that public opposition soon spread far beyond Arizona bandleaders.

Politics aside, in the 1970's, he had also tried his hand at acting. One of the films he appeared in was the cult Godfather-esque grindhouse film "Massacre, Mafia Style" (AKA "The Executioner") which has been described as a "ragged, low budget exercise in vanity" with "ludicrous excesses," among other things (see the trailer on YouTube). In addition to his acting roles, he would also score a few of them, including a 1974 sex comedy "Gosh" (AKA "Alice Goodbody") (which he also had acting role in) and perhaps most notably a 1977 blaxploitation film called "Bare Knuckles" to name just a couple. The disco-funk soundtrack for "Bare Knuckles" (like many films of it's genre, I suppose), has evidently held up much better than the picture itself, having become highly regarded and sought after over the years. These days, original pressings are pretty hard to come by, athough bootleg "reissues" are practically everywhere..

As far as this project is concerned, how it came up and how it ended up on Motown, no less, is probably another story in itself. Unfortunately, none of sources that I've found on Vic Caesar go into any depth about this record, much less even mention it. Peter Gilstrap's "Hail, Caesar" article does mention some of the work he would do for the Playboy enterprise while resident in Hef's mansion, like directing the Singing Playmates, for example. Perhaps this was yet another one of those.

The title-track and selling-point of this record is basically a disco remake of Cy Coleman ("Hey, Big Spender") & Carolyn Leigh's classic "Playboy's Theme." Originally written for Hugh Hefner's "Playboy's Penthouse TV Party" (clearly, before Guccione came along) it's re-worked here as a kind of discofied promo vehicle for Bally's then new Playboy pinball machines, complete with additional quirky game machine sound-effects and some choice jingle-y double-entendres: "pinball playboy, light the night.. pinball playboy, tonight is the night, pinball playboy, make my number rise, let this bunny know she's gonna fly..." Of course, the album's cover shot pretty much makes the intent obvious, with the pinball machine sharing centre stage with February '79 Playmate, Lee Ann Michelle - face to the camera, legs spread out over the machine... That said though, as far as the track itself is concerned, it's not surprisingly the standout on the album. A brilliantly swinging, lounge-meets-disco concoction that's ultimately and totally irresistible. Even those crazy sound effects which might come across as silly and gimmicky at the beginning, end up becoming a major part of it's charm. Generously used as to be catchy, yet not overdone as to be annoying..

Complete with a breathless chorus of cooing females (courtesy of Jody, Amy & Lauri Taylor), those awesome strings, and of course, that great sax - a major part of the jazzy, swinging vibe on the track, "Pinball Playboy" is perhaps the most enjoyable disco novelty track I've yet to hear. It's so well done, it feels almost unjust to call it a mere novelty, yet evidently the label probably didn't see it as anything more. For one thing, the track clocks in at a relatively modest (at least in disco standards) 5.44 on the album. Usually, the standout track on an anonymous disco production album such as this one would cover most, if not all of an entire side. In hindsight, it's too bad nobody did an extended 12'' mix of the track, since the funky swinging groove of the track practically cries out for it. They could have possibly done two mixes, a regular extended version and a kind of instrumental mix, taking out the sound-effects and pinball references, for those who might not have cared for the novelty stuff.. Perhaps it wasn't the sort of sound that was burning up dancefloors at the time, yet one still can't help but feel more could have been done with it.

Regardless of that, thankfully the rest of the album doesn't disappoint. The rest of the record is made up of six more Vic Caesar originals, who, to his credit, instead of making the rest of the record into a glorified 12'' single, used the it as a kind of creative playground of sorts, going from lite disco funk, grandiose theme music, MOR balladry, soft jazz mood music, and even a samba, of sorts.. Despite there not being any sort of unifying concept between the rest of the record, the songs (aside, maybe from the MOR ballad - "Reach Out For Love") are all quality. The more disco flavoured tracks, "Comin' To Getcha" and "Funky Get It" have become particular favourites of mine.. The latter track, "Comin' To Getcha," basically continues in the sort of swinging disco mode as the title track. Anchored by a great horn section and those airy female vocals (courtesy of Trish Turner and Terri Fischer) which make the most of the minimal lyrics, culminating in a hypnotic harmony with the refrain: "comin' to getcha, getcha, getcha." The vocals and horns are used to especially great effect on here, particularly at the three minute mark, when the vocals are punctuated by those deep horn stabs.

The other swingin' disco track on side two, "Funky Get It," opens with an unexpected, luxuriously dark, moody intro; the sort of thing one might have expected in a 70's blaxploitation films or as a opening TV theme or something (perhaps not surprising given his movie scoring background). The track later settles into a faster, harder disco groove carried by some heavy, rattling percussion and the ubiquitous chorus of females (once again courtesy of Turner and Fischer) that, with the help of those handclaps towards the end, practically drill that refrain into your head: "funky groove..funky get it.."

The side two opener, "Olympiad '84" continues with a bit of a disco vibe, albeit in a different way than the other tracks. If the title didn't make it obvious, this one fills in the "grandiose theme music" section of the album. The last sort of thing one might have expected on an album like this, it sounded as if Caesar had been inspired by John Williams and/or Meco when he did this. Seemingly referencing both, yet not quite reaching the heights of either, it's the sort of thing that sounds grand and pleasant enough to get one's attention, but perhaps becuase of it's brief duration, never quite goes beyond pleasant background music..

"State Street Samba" later brings the album to a close with a pleasantly classy groove, bringing back some of the swinging disco along with a bit of a latin flavour and some nice jazzy riffs towards the end. The song and album end rather nicely with a fittingly classy piano solo.

One other track I just had to include here as well is the soft, atmospheric instrumental "Little Girls & Ladies." Written by Vic Caesar and beloved poet, musician and author Shel Silverstein, the mood of this particular track is especially beautiful, carried by an outstanding tenor sax solo (courtesy of Sly and the Family Stone's Pat Rizzo). It's soothing, uplifting and engaging all at the same time. Though not disco in any way, it's undoubtedly one of the best tracks on the album and ultimately, one of the hidden surprises on this record.

That being said, while this album likely won't be on too many disco essentials lists, it nonetheless remains an intriguing release, musically and otherwise. At it's best, the album flawlessly combines a disco sensibility with a slightly jazz-influenced lounge style. In other words, a quintessential "Playboy disco" record.. Also, given Caesar's background, the length of much of the album's tracks, and the mood and vibe that runs through it, it's almost as if some of the tracks on the record might have possibly been created for a soundtrack that never was. Although not a perfect record, and probably not the sort of thing that might have been hitting the discos hard in 1979, the soundtrack aesthetic is perhaps one of those things which gives this record it's listenable quality, along with it's share of irresistible charms and pleasant surprises. That being said, while the album itself may not be anyone's disco essential, "Pinball Playboy" would, in my opinion, be one of the ultimate disco novelty records. A little bit cheesy, perhaps, yet not to the point where the fromage overshadows the excellent musicality of the record. It's the type of thing that's charming, well-executed and musically solid enough to keep one coming back for more..

Sadly, the man behind the music, Vic Caesar, passed away in 2000 of a stroke. He spent his last years in Phoenix, Arizona, where he was involved in the local jazz scene, was on local radio for a time and still dabbled in music and recording, cutting an album with pianist Jessica Williams (no relation to the Simon Soussan-produced disco diva of the same name) among other things. Vibist Monty Stark's website has some more info on that record as well as a lot of great background on Vic Caesar himself. Despite being relegated to the minor leagues of fame, no one could ever say the man didn't have a full, exciting life and career. Here's to you, Vic!





Anonymous said...

Tommy: Whew, what an exhaustively researched post. Such an interesting story about the man behind one of my all-time favorite disco novelties... Thanks so much for posting the album. People went nuts when I spun the Pinball Plaboy track during my set at the co-birthday party last night! No one had ever heard it before; and about 6 people ran up to the booth asking what it was... Keep up the great work. Your efforts as a disco preservationist/historian are very much appreciated. Cheers!

Tommy said...

Hey Enrique, no problem! He's certainly an intriguing character, to say the least.. Anyway, thanks for the comment and for recommending this LP to me! I'm glad "Pinball Playboy" went over well! After posting it, I can't stop listening to it myself..

Honestly, when I started, I never realized this blog would turn into something of a disco album archive. However, thanks to my perfectionist and completist tendencies, I suppose it has lol.. Anyway, thanks again for the encouragement! :)

BoogieMan said...

Wow, I played pinball on that very machine back in the early 80s. Even got a picture of myself in front of it, (somewhere around here), wearing my Sergio Valente jeans. No, I'm not bragging about the (blackmail latent) photo. Love this album though, especially the pinball sound effects on the opening track. It almost brings me back in time, putting me back in that picture. As for the rest of the album, it's more than just a novelty to me. Then again, I'm atypical. Thanks again for reviving my youth.

Tommy said...

Hey Dungeon DJ, thanks for the comment! After looking up Sergio Valente jeans, I now understand what you mean! lol.. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the tracks. I'd agree, it's definitely better than your average novelty record.. Thanks again for the comment! :)

osses said...

Hey,another great Lp from you man..Quite crazy sound at few tracks,and thanks for great article!You're the man!

P.S i upload my songs at: - it has no limit,you dont have to wait,and you also have counter of downloads..and files are there 60 days if not downloaded..if downloaded in 60 days-unlimited:)

Tommy said...

Hey, no problem Osses! Thanks for the comment! :)

Yeah, I'll probably go back to zShare for the next post - I'll probably put the second links with them instead of mediafire.. Thanks again! :)

Mike said...

The music is fantastic but I would buy just about every record you profile just for the cover! So much imagination went into these sleazy masterpieces in comparison to the dull crap we get today. Pinball Playboy is another classic. Thanks for posting!

Tommy said...

lol.. No problem, Trash Addict! Yeah, there's nothing like disco artwork! I agree, the imagination and the sheer work that must have gone into a record like this, it's almost mindblowing when you think about it. Anyway, thanks for the comment! :)

Callguy said...

Hello Tommy
You referred to Vic in the past tense - is he still alive?
Re: the Mansion
He never did live there - but he was around a lot - some years back.
I remeber his rental car getting crushed by a tree during a BIG windstorm at ther mansion! He played vibes prety good too.

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