Saturday, December 19, 2015

Looking for a special gift this Christmas season?

The season of over-spending is upon us, and the next few days will see many late-season shoppers descend on their favourite mall or outlet centre to shop 'till they drop in order to make people happy this holiday season.

Or so they think.

Since today was arguably the busiest Christmas shopping day yet, I thought it would be a good time to take a step back, think about what we're doing, and maybe change things up a bit.  After all money can't buy happiness, they say, so what about saving some of that money instead and still making people on your Christmas list happy anyway?

Let's explore the possibilities.

Years ago my life companion and I agreed to keep our Christmas gift-giving to a minimum and whatever we would exchange would have to be in some way consumable.  We both met later in life and had much of what we need to make our way in the world anyways, so no need to add to it any more than necessary we thought.  So gifts that are edible, drinkable or in some other way usable to achieve the same would fit the bill.

Gift cards, though thought by some to be impersonal, are really quite practical.  Especially if they are for a service such as dining out, for example.  We've done a lot of those over the years as we try to discover new and interesting places in and around Niagara to dine.

But we can go further than that and really make a difference, not just with each other but with countless others as well.

Let's face it.  Most of us have more than enough stuff at this point in our lives, but others in the community perhaps do not.  So a few years ago I started a tradition of making a monthly donation to Community Care of St. Catharines & Thorold on behalf of my wife.  She would get the tax receipt, Community Care would get a monthly contribution to help those in need, and I had one less gift to buy.

Simple, right?  But look at the good that small contribution does on a monthly basis.  Think about what could happen if several more people, say 10 each month, did the same thing and donated just ten dollars to Community Care.  They would have $100 more per month to work with, or $1,200 more per year.

Doesn't sound too difficult, does it?  Just think of the people you could help by doing this one simple little thing.

Similarly, you could make a monthly or even a lump-sum contribution in that person's name to any number of charitable organizations.  Don't be afraid to ask your special someone what charity they like to support and then just go ahead and do it in their name.  The good that can come from this simple act of kindness can help others so much, and not just at Christmastime.

The problem with charitable donations at this time of year is you feel good about filling a need right now, at Christmas.  But the need goes on year-round, so a monthly contribution ensures your charity of choice benefits year-round, which helps them immensely.

How about a membership to a worthwhile organization such as the Garden City Food Co-op?  If they are not already members, why not introduce them to the value of such a facility in our downtown core and then buying a membership in that person's name and presenting it on Christmas day?  Doing so will help expand the food co-op's membership at a time when they could really use your help to achieve their goal of a 2016 opening in downtown St. Catharines.

Is your special someone a lover of the arts?  We now have a grand new facility downtown in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, with a calendar full of great performances by any number of artists including our own Niagara Symphony and Chorus Niagara.  Why not surprise them with a pair of tickets to a performance in the New Year by one of the arts organizations that call the new PAC home?  Make it a package deal with dinner at a nearby restaurant as well if your budget allows, and voila, your Christmas gift is done and you can sit back and accept the accolades.

This next idea could be problematic if you don't know the person's preferences beforehand, but some careful investigation on your part could reveal the necessary information and make your choice that much easier.

How about saving a life this season by adopting a new lifelong companion from a local animal shelter  or your local humane society?   It need not be a dog or cat if that doesn't work for the person you are buying for, but perhaps a bird, gerbil or other small animal in need of a home could fit the bill.

If a dog or cat is on your radar, you especially want to be careful the person you are buying for is prepared for the commitment beforehand and if not aware of your intentions, at least aware of the growing need to rehome a large pet population in the area.

Adopting a new pet will make a world of difference to both the recipient and the pet you choose.  But keep in mind that pet is a living being, too, and deserves to be treated properly and fairly.

Unlike a lot of presents given these days, a pet is not disposable.  It is a lifelong commitment that can reap benefits for both the recipient and the pet for years to come, if handled properly.

Our shelters are full of animals in need of a good home, and if your gift recipient is happy about the idea, why not present them with a gift certificate to a local shelter and after Christmas go down with that person and take the time to choose the right pet?

Finally, you could offer to provide some kind of service for your intended recipient such as snow shovelling if they are elderly, or in the nicer weather cutting their grass if they cannot do it themselves.

Again, write up a personal gift certificate yourself and present it to them, highlighting the intended service to be provided, and stick to it.  Do what you say you will and all will be fine.

So there you go, a few ideas that involve just a little preparation but can reap great rewards for all concerned.  What better way to show how special Christmas is to you and how meaningful that person's presence in your life really is.

Merry Christmas!

December 19th, 2015.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Celebrating a couple of musical centenaries this weekend

December is a busy time for most people, so I wanted to take a break from the busy holiday schedule and offer up some thoughts on a couple of musical milestones we are observing this week, both involving singers who defined their particular genre and generation.

The first is the 100th anniversary of the birth of German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who was born December 9th in 1915.  She passed away in 2006.

Her body of recorded work, conceived with her husband, the legendary producer Walter Legge, was extensive.  From operas and operettas such as Lehar's The Merry Widow to the still-classic Christmas album Stille Nacht, recorded with Sir Charles Mackerras in 1957, to the wide variety of recital discs she recorded, Schwarzkopf did it all.  Her voice is still remembered for a richness and texture you just don't hear anymore.

It is perhaps the aforementioned Christmas album that brought her the most fame and for many of us, introduced us to the sound of an opera voice interpreting traditional Christmas music.  Now it is almost routine to hear the popular opera singers today record Christmas albums, but hers was a bit of a groundbreaker.  Growing up in the 50s and 60s, Schwarzkopf and Dame Joan Sutherland were two of the biggest opera stars around and both produced extraordinarily popular Christmas albums.

Happily, both of these Christmas albums are still in print and available through, or just email me directly at if you want to get a copy of either or both for the holidays.

In fact, Warner Classics has just released a lavish 31-disc box set of all of Schwarzkopf's recital recordings dating from 1952 to 1974.  Each of the discs comes in a sleeve with the original artwork, all housed in an elegant box.  It, too, is available now through

The second singer we salute this weekend is none other than Ol' Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, who would have turned 100 today if he had lived that long.  He in fact died in 1998 at the age of 82.

I became a huge fan of Sinatra years ago when I first started in radio and he was just launching his post-retirement comeback with the now-famous album "Old Blue Eyes is Back", arranged and conducted by longtime Sinatra colleague Gordon Jenkins.

I wasn't necessarily a fan of much of Sinatra's post-retirement recordings, as I found his voice had simply deteriorated far too much by then to be enjoyed fully.  Oh sure, Sinatra the consummate professional masked the shortcomings with his voice as he got older for as long as he could, but there came a time I really wish he had in fact quit while he was ahead.

The concert-stage for many entertainers is intoxicating and the thrill of the crowd at your feet is admittedly hard to walk away from.  But Sinatra didn't need to prove anything at that point and couldn't possibly have needed the money, so why risk his great legacy with an inferior voice after he returned from retirement?

We'll probably never know the real answer to that question.

What I do know is I have my most and least favourite Sinatra recordings, many of which are in my extensive record and CD collections and played regularly.

My least favourite Sinatra recording was 1984's Some Nice Things I Missed, which was basically a Sinatra take on many of the hits of the previous decade along with some new material.  The absolute worst track of all was "Satisfy Me One More Time" - yes, it is as bad as the title suggests.  Cringe-worthy Sinatra to be sure.

On the other hand, my favourite Sinatra recordings come from his justifiably celebrated Capitol era in the 50s.  Sinatra exited the 40s as a crooner with lots of "bobby-sox" fans but a damaged voice and no recording contract.  His Columbia years made him a star, but now he was at risk of being labelled a "has been".

Sinatra knew better, and set out to prove his critics wrong.  He wanted to act, and fought for the straight acting role in From Here to Eternity to show what he could do.  About the same time, he signed a recording contract with Capitol Records, founded a decade earlier and featuring a roster of largely faded 40s-era singers.  But Sinatra quickly rose to the top of the roster with a string of exceptional "concept" albums still revered today for their sound and innovation.

Of all the arrangers Sinatra worked with during the 50s, ranging from Axel Stordahl to Billy May to Gordon Jenkins, by far his definitive recordings had him paired with the esteemed arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle.

In fact, my two favourite Sinatra recordings from that era were arranged by Riddle, who just knew how best to showcase Frank's voice.  The first was the magical Songs For Swingin' Lovers, recorded in 1956.  Each and every arrangement is a gem, beautifully supporting Frank every step of the way, with the orchestra cutting loose every now and again as on the now classic recording of I've Got You Under My Skin.  Nelson's ground-breaking arrangement set the standard for orchestral arrangements, and you still hear his arrangement today as other singers emulate Sinatra on this Cole Porter classic.  There simply is no better arrangement of this song.  Period.

The second Sinatra/Riddle pairing I love is 1958's brooding Only The Lonely.  Here is Riddle paring the arrangements down to the bare minimum, but still backing Sinatra every step of the way.  His now-famous recording of One For My Baby (And One More for the Road) is exceptional in its simplicity, clarity and heart-wrenching loneliness.  Riddle used the same formula when he recorded with Linda Ronstadt in the 80s, and in fact both her and Frank's recordings of What's New? share much the same arrangement.

Sinatra's 60s recordings for his own Reprise label produced some gems as well, including his 1965 Grammy winner September of My Years, arranged and conducted by Gordon Jenkins.  But he also released his fair share of much more pop-oriented albums with mixed results.  He was often on the pop charts during the 60s, but many of those albums I personally don't find as satisfying as his earlier Capitol recordings.

By the 90s, Sinatra was back at Capitol and recording his popular Duets albums, sharing the spotlight with a host of popular entertainers of the day, each basking in the glow of recording with The Voice.  Or, what was The Voice at one time.  By this point, Sinatra was a shadow of his former self, voice-wise.

He also recorded the now-classic Theme From New York, New York with a big, brassy arrangement and lots of swagger, but his vocal limitations were becoming quite obvious at this point.  He knew how to interpret the song better than anyone else, of course, and that is what made the recording the definitive version of the song, in spite of the fact he couldn't hold those notes at the end.

I remember years ago in my radio career when I produced a lot of Blue Jays radio broadcasts locally and one night they were playing at Yankee Stadium.  During the entire post-game show, the stadium loudspeakers were blaring Sinatra's ode to the Big Apple as they always do, and after about the 10th consecutive airing of the Theme from New York, New York, I was about ready to scream...but I digress.

Sinatra was without question the pre-eminent singer and interpreter of the Great American Songbook,  with many of his recordings unequalled even today.  Almost all of them are still in print, and many have a special place in my personal CD collection.  If you want to remember any part of his storied career, email me your preferences at and I will see about getting any and all of your favourite Sinatra recordings for you.

Beyond Sinatra the singer, there was Sinatra the larger-than-life Hollywood and Vegas star, always in the news for one reason or another, and causing gossip columnists to fall over each other for the latest juicy tid-bit on his personal life.  One wonders how this social-media driven world today would handle his many celebrated exploits.

I loved Sinatra the singer, and I loved Sinatra the style setter.  I still wear a fedora from time to time as a tribute to the man who practically lived in one as he hid his receding hairline from public view.

Perhaps the most interesting tribute to Sinatra late in his career was the Chrysler Imperial Frank Sinatra Edition.  Remember that?  A baby-blue over-the-top luxury boat with a stash of Sinatra recordings on cassette ready to pop into the cassette player when you were behind the wheel.  Who says previous generations didn't know the power of marketing?!

Sinatra was one of the best and most popular singers of his generation and his recorded output may never be equalled.  This weekend we celebrate the lanky lad from Hoboken, New Jersey who made it to the top and stayed there for such a long time.

Happy 100th, Frank.  You continue to do it Your Way.

Have a great weekend!

December 12th, 2015.