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A James Ellroy Playlist: Age of Innocence (1958-1963)

July 16, 2021

James Ellroy is well-known for his dislike of Rock ‘n’ Roll and popular music in general, but when asked by Allen Bara if there was any type of popular music he enjoys, Ellroy response was both direct and intriguing, ‘I don’t mind sappy, oldie kinds of tunes – say, 1958 to 1963.’ This five year period was pivotal both in the evolution of music styles and in America’s political and social history. Ellroy was ten years old when his mother was murdered in 1958, and fifteen when JFK was assassinated in 1963. It was his age of innocence, if it can be said he ever truly enjoyed one, and also the time-frame he returned to in some of his most powerful historical fiction. The music he absorbed in this period is therefore crucial to an understanding of Ellroy as an author, and to why his affection for popular music abruptly stopped in 1963.

A Thousand Stars

Benoit Cohen directed a documentary examining Ellroy’s life and work. It aired in 2000 as part of the French television series A Century of Writers. Towards the end of the episode Ellroy describes an epiphany he had when he happened to hear a song on the radio:

I recall the evening of September 10th, 1961. I was thirteen years old. I was out on the grass and it was a very hot, early September night in LA with my buddy Randy Rice. We were both lying on the cold grass in front of his apartment building at 1st and St Andrews. Randy had a portable radio and he was playing a song by Kathy Young and the Innocents and it went ‘A thousand stars in the sky makes me realise you are the one love I’ll adore’. And I thought: Ellroy, you motherfucker. You tall skinny-ass big dick motherfucker (big dick in my dreams). You are gonna be a big dog in this life. Of course, it wasn’t always that way. And now that I’ve achieved a measure of success I don’t think that way any more, but I vividly recall that moment.

Cohen was able to get copyright clearance on the song and played it over the closing credits of the documentary. When Ellroy viewed the documentary and heard the song again he cried. It was the first time that he had heard the song in almost forty years. Kathy Young was only fifteen years old when ‘A Thousand Stars’ was a huge hit in that Summer of ’61. It made her a star, but her subsequent records were not as successful. Ellroy had to wait a long time before he achieved the fame that ‘A Thousand Stars’ made him yearn for, and there were many traumatic episodes and professional stumbling blocks along the way. Nevertheless, he is the big dog of American literature he always wanted to be.

Kathy Young is still performing and her rendition of ‘A Thousand Stars’ seems to get more beautiful with the passing of time. The original recording is below:

Chanson D’amour

On November 22, 1963, CBS had been due to run a report on the increasing popularity of The Beatles. JFK’s assassination led to the report being shelved, but it ran the following month when Walter Cronkite felt that the American public desperately needed some positive news. The Beatles made their US television performing debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 and Beatlemania and the subsequent British Invasion began sweeping across North America, pushing aside the popularity of Doo-Wop groups, which had already gone into decline.

It was around this time that Ellroy’s hatred of popular music seems to have kicked in. It was a difficult time for him personally as he was expelled from Fairfax High School, joined the army and quickly dropped out again, his father died and Ellroy had years of substance abuse, homelessness and jail time ahead of him. Truly, Ellroy’s innocent years were behind him, as they were for America. The sixties became the decade of political assassinations, deadly riots in the big cities and escalating involvement in the Vietnam War. Musical trends reflected the rebellious, anti-establishment mood of the time. Arguably, the music Ellroy enjoyed from 1958 to 63 was not strictly ‘innocent’. It dealt with themes of sexual longing and rejection. But there’s little doubt that the sexual frankness of a band such as The Rolling Stones made older star acts seem chaste and quaint.

My next musical choice comes from the 58 to 63 Golden years. Ellroy references ‘Chanson d’amour’ (love song) written by Wayne Shanklin and performed by Art and Dotty Todd in his debut novel Brown’s Requiem. Fritz Brown recalls it when he is reminiscing about songs he enjoyed listening to with his old patrol partner, ‘the songs were all there in my dreams’. He references it again in White Jazz, when Dave Klein is listening to a covert audio recording of Lucille Kafesjian and an unidentified man she is sleeping with ‘Click – figure a radio – ‘…chanson d’amour, ratta-tat-tatta, play encore.’ Blurred voices, click.’ The reference is somewhat cynical, as Lucille and the man have been playing twisted ‘father-daughter games’.

In 2010, Ellroy chose the song when he was a guest on the BBC Radio 4 show Inheritance Tracks. The format of the show is that guests pick tracks which they ‘inherited from their parents and songs they’d pass on to their children’. Ellroy’s choice is tinged with melancholy given his mother’s murder and how her unhappy marriage with Armand Ellroy had ended in divorce:

The song I inherit is Art and Dotty Todd singing ‘Chanson d’amour’ because it is closely associated with my mother’s murder. It was a big hit then. I cannot hear it without travelling back to that time, sight, sound, smell.

British readers may be more familiar with Manhattan Transfer’s cover of ‘Chanson d’amour’ which reached No.1 in the UK in the 1970s. However, the original version remains the best:

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