Ken Nordine has been an important behind-the-scenes figure in the Chicago commercial and jingle industry for over 30 years, not to mention his highly distinctive and somewhat bizarre efforts in the field of recorded music.
No matter whether you've seen him or not, it is that deeply resonant, richly expressive, eerie voice that makes Ken Nordine stand out among his comtemporaries.
But the voice is only part of the genius of the man. It is, after all, only an extension of the mind, wherein lies the true creative process. Without the highly inventive mind, the voice would be mere style without essence.
That Nordine has remained curiously inaccessible to media coverage is due more to chance than choice. He is in great demand these days for commercial work, and has logged innumerable miles between Chicago and Hollywood, "Lotus Land" as he calls it.
Few men have ever seemed more destined to follow their particular calling than Nordine, and the seeds of broadcasting success were sown early in his teens. Nordine remembers, "when I was in high school, of course, there was no TV, only radio. When I would talk to people on the phone, they would always tell me that I should get into radio because I had a good voice. So, I organized a radio workshop for the Board of Education here in Chicago -- WBEZ. From that, little by little, I got into the business of being an announcer and actor-narrator. Eventually, I ended up doing some parts on the old Lights Out series."
With the advent of TV in the late 1940's, Nordine was ready to move into a successful career in the visual medium. He starred in an early one-camera series Faces in the Window. Nordine was featured narrating dramatic readings of horror stories by Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and others. "The show won several awards and was very popular, especially with the kids. You see, the guys would turn the lights out; then the girls would get scared, and the guys would hug the girls. I guess I didn't realize it at the time, but I served as sort of a romantic helper on the show. Unfortunately, good things do not last forever, and the show was phased out. Chicago, was losing out at this time, to New York and Hollywood as a center of dramatic productions."
So, Nordine moved on to a 13-week summer series on CBS called Jazz Showcase. It featured all the jazz giants of the day. Nordine's involvement in music, particularly jazz, increased significantly during the course of the show.
He served as moderator-narrator, and even had the chance to perform some of his own free-form poetry to the jazz accompaniment of the house band.
This was the forerunner of "word jazz" and caught the interest of ABC-Dot Records. Accounts of his particular talents reached the ears of Billy Vaughn, then head of A&R at Dot, and also a leader of his own orchestra. It was Vaughn who really introduced Nordine to the world of recording. Vaughn used Nordine for the lead vocal narration on his record The Shifting, Whispering Sands in 1955, which became a national hit. Even though Rusty Draper covered the song, it was the Vaughn-Nordine version which turned out to be the bigger hit. Nordine was not credited on the record, but was able through this effort, to garner a long term recording contract with Dot.
His first album for the label was Love Words in 1956. "It featured me doing dramatic readings of lyrics to old standard love songs," reminisces Nordine, "like 'Angel Eyes'."
"The nicest thing I can say about it is that it was a very weak idea. Now, whenever I see a copy of the album (worth $20 to collectors) I sit on it," he laughs.
This escapade led to the release of the now famous Word Jazz album, a concept so unique and so far ahead of it's time in 1957, that it still sounds refreshingly current, 20 years later! Nordine's own definition of Word Jazz went something like this:
"Word Jazz is a thought, followed by a thought, followed by a thought, ad infinitum; a kind of wonder-wandering. I love to wonder-wander. It's what I am; it's what we are ... existential facts of some of my thoughts travels; collections of truths, half-truths, and fractions of truths that I wonder about."
The first word jazz album contained such creative craftworks as "What Time Is It", Nordine's view of our curious hang-up with time; "The Vidiot", a stinging put-down of early television addicts; and the now famous "Flibberty Jib", which was later adapted for a Levi's comercial.
"It grew out of the religious revival meetings that my mother used to take me to when I was a child," Nordine explains about the creation of "Flibberty Jib". "These fundamentalist preachers would get up in front of a crowd and try to pass off their words as wisdom. It was quite a dissillusionment to find out that most of them had clay heads as well as clay feet!
"Well, you could take it one step further and apply it to politicians, or even rock stars--anyone placed in a position of great popularity who could use that notoriety to influence a lot of people. There are no doubt, quite a few frustrated, envious critics out there who would love to be in the spotlight, and who would jump at the chance to knock the superstars off the pedestal. Both positions are precarious, and things can sometimes get out of control. Look at the Grant Park riots of 1970. Everything was up for grabs!"
Son of Word Jazz appeared in the spring of 1958. It contained several masterpieces, such as the multi-dimensional "Miss Cone" and "Lemming", a death-wish syndrome commentary; and the mystical steam fantasies of "Down The Drain", which pre-dated by almost a decade our generation's fascination with mind trips and hallucinagenic drugs.
Next Word Jazz came out in 1959; with Word Jazz, Volume Two, the last of the series, debuted the following year. Among the more memorable opuses from Volume Two include "You're Getting Better", a satire on the rampant paranoia that was prevalent in the early 60's and is even more pervasive in society today; and "Reaching into In", a sort of "Zen fairytale," as Nordine describes it.
"There are people who are so desperate to know what the secrets and mysteries of life are all about that they clobber the whole thing. They are too agressive; too grasping ... Sometimes in order to find out what it's all about, you have to not try to find out. After all, the truth is always right in front of you when your back is turned!"
Sometimes, it is hard to believe that such relevant and philosophical material could have been recorded in the late 1950's, but one should keep in mind that Nordine was at least an artistic contemporary of such creative geniuses as Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and John Coltrane; and all whose innovative talents set up the creative framework for the subterranian culture of the 1960's.
Nordine's dramatic thought patterns and creative exercises were put into a sympathetic and appropriate musical context by some of the finest jazz musicians of the time (i.e. Paul Horn, Chico Hamilton, Richard Marx, Fred Katz, and others). Along with Richard Campbell, Red Holt and Phil Upchurch, these men all played a part in the production and recording of the word jazz series.
While Nordine remained active in the commercial jingle endeavors during the 60's, it was a lean period for recording. In early 1966, he did a one-shot deal with Bill Traut's Dunwich label, an obscure 45 called "Bachman" featuring Ken Nordine and his Rubber Frogs. It was a hilarious Batman parody.
The Rubber Frogs were, in reality, Dick Campbell, Smokey Robinson, along with some other uncredited studio singers who kept singing Bachman throughout the song. With a tone of irrepressible glee, Nordine recalls, "it seemed like everytime I turned on the radio or TV, I would hear that 'Batman' thing, so I decided to spoof it, and bring in Bach. It was a real fun thing to do, but really, where do you put a little record like that."
The other side was an eerie Nordine poem about the color "Crimson", which later turned up as a cut on his 1968 Phillips album Colors. Colors consisted of Ken's thoughts, feelings and rhymes about 18 different colors of the spectrum. Each song was 90 seconds in length. An unusual concept, Phillips did not know what to do with it; so after it flopped, Nordine bought the master tapes back from the company. He hopes to someday add animated visuals to the songs.
A memorable appearance on local Chicago rock's H.P. Lovecraft album, was Nordine's next adventure. Performing his own composition "Nothing's Boy", the song was described as "a secret handshake with Ken Nordine's mind."
As the story goes, the members of the group wanted Nordine on the sessions because they could remember him reading Lovecraft works on Faces In The Window. So, he sat in and improvised the entire lyric of "Nothing's Boy" during the recording.
Finally, in 1969, Nordine's last album to date was released. It was a departure for Nordine, in that he did not write any of it. The album Twink was written by Robert Shure for the San Francisco City Lights Boutique Book Store, and contained a collection of wierd dialogues--between two winshield wipers falling in love, two guys who lick lampshades for kicks, two guys who grow flute gardens and piccolo orchards, and other absurdities.
Blue Thumb reissued some of the material from the word jazz period in a 1972 album package entitled How Are Things In Your Town?, but a limited number of copies were pressed when the record company ran into financial troubles. That album is almost as rare today as the original Dot material.
What has happened now, is that an entire generation of young music listeners have never had a chance to experience the Nordine mind.
But Ken is planning a new album, Once Upon A Ken Nordine, which he hopes to have released on his own Snail Records in the near future. The album is nearly eight years in the making, and was recorded, mastered and mixed at his own studios in his Chicago home. Once Upon a Ken Nordine, like Twink, is somewhat of a departure for Nordine, in that the musical accompaniment runs the gamut of styles. Threre is the blues-flavored "Inchoate Blues", backed by the guitar flavoring of Pat Ferrari; "Seven Days of the Meek", a space oddity piece; a reggae number about the letters of the alphabet that is related to Colors in spirit; and a tune called "Old Scratch and Me", which has a classical feeling to it thanks to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's oboist Ray Still, and the expressive harmonica of Peter "Madcat" Ruth.
One of the most delightfully memorable experiences Ken Nordine remembers from all his years in the entertainment field, is the time he appeared on Fred Astaire's TV Spectacular in 1958. He read one of his word jazz poems while Astaire and Barrie Chase performed an interpretive dance.
What then, is this creative process? How does it relate to the field of advertising and recording? As Nordine explains, "the creative process is a studied disection of the senses. It is channeling your stream of consciousness into readily understandable means of communication.
"In the jingle business, it is a controlled stream of consciousness. I draw my ideas from everything that has happened to me, but there are varying degrees of creative involvement."
"But as far as the actual process goes with me, well, I'll get a good first line that I'll like, and then try to think of another good line that will go with it that won't bore me," until all the lines fit without being boring.
Woke up the ceiling
Cracked above my head
Traced a snaking river
In my inner head.
Herein lies part of the answer to the whys and wherefores of the creative process--Ken Nordine's ablilty to express thoughts and ideas that are so timeless and universal that they become relevant and personal. And he is able to express these sometimes complicated ideas in such a manner that anyone can understand.
"I think that everybody is much more complicated than he thinks he is," ponders Nordine. "But, as complicated as we are, I think we have a greater need for simplicity. We're so hung up on dimensions--he's five feet tall; she's 27 years old ... We all think we're earthbound, but we know deep down that dimensions are only arbitrary shackles that bind us. We all really come from other galaxies, and the only limit placed on our freedom is the limit of our own imagination."
Nordine constantly reaches inside his imagination to pull out some startling images. For instance, there is the triple level of meaning and irony in his new song "Old Scratch and Me", a tale of Nordine taking his dog for a walk:
Scratch, you old devil,
I'd swear you could talk;
Go get your neck tie,
It's time for a walk.
Where will you take me?
Guess God only knows.
Somewhere inside of
Where yesterday goes.
We're both getting closer
The farther we go,
Deep in the shallow
Of what do we know.
This type of material defies categorization, and that is at least partially Nordine's intention in the first place. "I dislike people who want to pigeonhole everything. All that really does is to help people to relate to something that is frightening or unfamiliar to them. But they could relate to it anyway."
"I can remember a show that I did on WBBM radio some years back with another announcer and a musician. We were in three adjacent studios, with each mike connected to the master board, giving us the freedom to do whatever we wanted, and each of us did his best to throw the others a curve. "One night, I was reading from a book by St. Thomas Aquinas on the Five Proofs of the Existance of God. Meanwhile, the musicians were playing the bass flute and the other announcer was playing some chickens clucking! Gradually, we moved into a traffic control report, complete with duck calls and French madrigal singing! It was the absurd, but that was the beauty of it."
Nordine's future plans? Well, of course, I hope to continue to do commercials, and I'm really excited about the new album. Other than that, I would like to go North into the wood, sit by a stream, and study the ripples in the water. It's very relaxing. Sort of helps you get closer to the far away.
"Don't you wish that you could become something you're not? I think we all have that inner desire to live out our fantasies."
If your fantasies include being like Ken Nordine--forget it! He is one-of-a-kind, and no words can describe that!