February 27, 2013

20,000 vinyl LPs 18: Van Cliburn & Sputnik ~ 1958

RCA Victor Records
album cover photographer: Nikolai Rakhmanov
of Sovfoto
photo of album cover by Styrous®

Van Cliburn died today. So many memories instantly flooded my mind the second I heard the news that I was overwhelmed by them more than the news of his death.

He was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. (pron.: /ˈklaɪbɜrn/) on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana, but almost everyone knew him only as, Van Cliburn. He was tall with beautiful, wavy, blond hair. He had a quiet demeanor and a charming Southern politeness. He rocketed into stardom in 1958 when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow with his performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. He was 23 years old. The event was designed to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War; kind of similar to what happened at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin, Germany (THAT event was intended to showcase the superiority of the "Master" race).

(click on any image to see slideshow)
 Hulton Archive/Getty Images
photographer unknown

I remember the excitement of his winning the competition.  At the time we were all freaked out about the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik the year before (in spite of the fantastic elation I felt that science fiction novels were coming alive, it was "THEM" who had taken the first step into space!!); Van Cliburn's victory gave us a feeling of relief that America was not just a has-been and a genuine feeling of patriotism broke out that had not been felt since the war years. Oh, how I remember the jubilation. Not many proud American moments like that.

It was the RCA recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto that propelled him into the heights of celebrity making it the first classical album to go platinum. And, of course, I was one of the many who happily helped him get there.

The reason I remember 1958 so well is because it was quite a year for me, the world and music. I graduated from high school that year and moved out on my own, something one never forgets.

The US Supreme Court ordered Little Rock, Arkansas, schools to integrate so some public schools in Little Rock were closed down by Governor Orval Faubus; Althea Gibson won at Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals (I was very into tennis at the time); "Doctor Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak was published in the US (it made a better book than a movie).

До́ктор Жива́го, Doktor Zhivago

The Billboard Hot 100 was founded and Prez Prado was the Mambo King. Dick Dale invented "surf music" with "Let's Go Trippin" . . .

Let's Go Trippin' 45 rpm record

. . . but it was his version of "Miserlou" that knocked my lights out. Dale had revamped a traditional rebetiko song from Greece, originally recorded in the '30's (the version I knew from an old 78 in my mom's record collection), and brought it rocketing full-blast into the '50's. Just for yuks, you can hear Korla Pandit play a '50's version of "Miserlou" (the "update" I was familiar with from seeing him play it on TV before I heard Dale's, which will give you an idea of why Dale's version was so electrifying) as well as the other versions on YouTube (links below).

Korla Pandit (1951)
 TV still

Pope Pius XII died that year; he had been pope my entire life (all 18 years of it). I thought the pope would live forever and it was my first realization that eternal things weren't. It's interesting that Pope Benedict XVI is retiring tomorrow.

Pope Pius XII
photo by Joachim Specht

Elvis Presley joined the army
(serial number 53310761)
photographer unknown

The Southern Pacific Bay ferries stopped running that year. Although they were built in the 1800's, the ferries were still in use when they stopped operation in 1958. There is a story about a ferry boat "Madam" (link below) as well as a story about me and the ferries when I was five (also, link below) here on the Viewfinder.

San Francisco Ferry
photographer unknown

The Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA) was created in 1958. The RIAA set the standards for recording technology; an important innovation for recorded music. Brendan Behan's, An Ghiall (The Hostage), had premiered in London the year before and I saw a touring production of the play at the Geary Theater, now the home of A. C. T., in San Francisco; I can still hear the drunk men in one of the scenes singing, "The Bells of Hell".

 Brendan Behan
photo by Walter Albertin

Cuba became a communist country!

James van Allen discovered the radiation belt . . . 

. . .  and Jerry Lee Lewis threw 

 "Great Balls of Fire" at us.

What a year!!!

Music & video links:

°    Van Cliburn can be heard playing the first movement from Tchaikovsky's Piano Con. #1 in Moscow, 1962, accompanied by Kirill Kondrashin on YouTube.

°      Miserlou (Rebetiko - 1930's) by Mike Patrinos on YouTube.
°    Korla Pandit plays a '50's version of Miserlou on YouTube.
°    Dick Dale plays Miserlou on YouTube.
°    Dick Dale plays Let's Go Trippin' on YouTube.
°    Elvis Presley can be heard on YouTube.
°    Jerry Lee Lewis plays "Great Balls of Fire" on YouTube. 
°    Ferry boats in operation video on YouTube.

Thanks for the exaltation, excitement and lovely music you gave us, Van. Play on forever.

Styrous ~ February, 27, 2013

There are two other related (believe it or not) Viewfinder articles:

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