Billy Vaughn
Mexican Pearls






Even though Billy Vaughn's (1919–1991) LP Mexican Pearls, released in 1965 on Dot Records, only peaked at #45 in the US-Billboard Charts, it is a return to a form he never really had. This conductor and band leader is known for placing shedloads of trumpets on each of his releases, and while this is definitely no distinct stylistic choice in its own right, Vaughn is making a peculiarity out of a particularity: the trumpets are strangely silkened and streamlined, never do they ennoble a composition with vividness, they are all the more sugar-sweet and Country-oriented. I am definitely not fond of this kind of music. To make matters worse, Vaughn decided to present many a Hawaiian classic on his 1959 album Blue Hawaii in this style, thereby destroying every scent of the Polynesian spirits. The lack of exotic percussion was the last nail for the coffin of good style.


But enough of my rantings, for Mexican Pearls is different. It is better. Much better. Yes, it is chock-full of trumpets as expected, but otherwise paints an intriguing if stereotypical picture of the Mexican way of life. Only Slowpoke Rodriguez is missing. The instrumental pool is widened, this would have been the pitch-perfect instrumental base for Blue Hawaii: vibraphones, paradisiac flutes, claves and sun-lit acoustic guitars complete the horn-fueled soundscape, there is even a strangely whimsical choir on board. Since these horns are omnipresent, one has to look behind the curtains in order to catch a glimpse onto the shimmering and at times even exotic sections that are applied to each and every of the 12 compositions. And curiously enough, side B is much better than side A! So which songs does Billy Vaughn present? According to the album title, this work must be mostly about the works of Mexican or Latin producers, right? Not at all! Each chosen rendition was originally written by a North American composer. This should not be seen as an affront. The opposite is the case: what Billy Vaughn's trumpetscapes destroyed on Blue Hawaii and most of his other works, they build and construct perfectly on Mexican Pearls. The album truly does inject a dose of Mexican kitsch without latinizing things too much.


The one and only tune that lives up to the prospect of the album title is the opening track, fittingly called Mexican Pearls and co-written by Don Rand and Joe Mikolas. And sure enough does Billy Vaughn's horn-fueled arrangement depict a gloriously clichéd but definitely great panorama with a couple of vibraphones and glockenspiels as the base frame, followed by the sun-soaked brass chorus and an almost hidden alto flute whirring in the backdrop. The song fades out all of a sudden, but rest assured that this is seriously the only tune where Vaughn succeeds in creating a life-like, if strongly transfigured vista of Mexico. A surprisingly strong take on Hoagy Carmichael's Blue Orchids follows, with a wonderful flute melody, literally whimsical female backing chants, acoustic guitar backings and vibraphone glitz. The added violins boost the wideness, and Vaughn's trumpet is thankfully used carefully, only seldom pestering the dreamy landscape. This song is a particular surprise, and given the horrible syrup of Billy Vaughn's Blue Hawaii LP, these two interpretations are already better than that whole LP!


And blimey, Vaughn continues to walk down the better path of Easy Listening with Hoagy Carmichael's and Frank Loesser's 1938 smash hit Heart And Soul by admittedly injecting an all too saccharine lead trumpet in-between a clave-fueled acoustic guitar groove full of vibraphones and polyphonous flutes. The short segues of mellow strings transform this otherwise bland version into something slightly larger, but apart from their inclusion, this is an all too sweet version which I tend to avoid. Louis Alter's A Melody From The Sky, unfortunately, goes downhill in the hands of Billy Vaughn as well. The stupid pre-Duck Tales woo-hoo chants of the women are as whimsical as the trumpets are glaringly sugary, but as usual does the vibraphone elevate this composition quite a bit, although it cannot rescue it from being awkwardly dull.


As if Vaughn knew what he has fabricated, he is begging for Just One More Chance: Sam Coslow's and Arthur Johnston's 1931 tune is indeed one of the good ones. Sure enough does the polyphony of the trumpets go on my nerves again, but the backing acoustic guitar is surprisingly funky, the aah-aah and ooh-ooh vocals fit much better and evoke that certain Space-Age feeling which is further augmented by short string washes and an emerald-green vibe in an otherwise bright sun-lit track. Closing side A with Ralph Rainger's and Leo Robin's 1934 hit Love In Bloom, Vaughn moves into doleful territory with some vibe tones in minor, but quite mollifying flutes and a swinging rhythm. This is no crestfallen ballad, but in regard to the Easy Listening formula, this tune ventures into surprisingly grey-colored areas. Since this is already the case in Rainger's and Robin's original vision, there is not too much to complain about except for the feisty trumpets.


Side B opens with an interpretation of Dear Heart, a tune written by Henry Mancini, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. It is basically your soft romantic ballad by the number, with love-soaked trumpets, Space-Age strings of affection, the humming choir as well as a prominent addition of double bass backings. The vibraphones gleam in this ditty, but it is the purified flute which gyrates round the cozy mélange that makes Dear Heart a surprisingly great tune. I really mean it. Somehow the piles of sugar are not as nerve-racking as usual, and since the uplifting swing provides an element of movement and progression, this might well be the best tune of side B.


While Richard Rodger's and Lorenz Hart's 1935 anthem It's Easy To Remember features a magnificent Lounge atmosphere thanks to the vibraphones, melting strings in the far background and handclap-like rhythms next to the melodrama of the choir and the thankfully less often used trumpets, Love Letters by Victor Young and Edward Heyman integrates splendidly downwards spiraling vibraphone washes in the veins of Nelson Riddle's 1958 award-winning arrangement of Witchcraft with acoustic guitar-backed strings, creating a downright positive aura akin to Rex Kona & His Mandarins. It is no particularly exotic track, but said enchanting aura comes close in this regard.


The Nearness Of You, written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington in 1935, presents another lilac-tinted mirage of warm acoustic guitars, a wonderful polyphony of the flutes, clicking castanets and even the occasional marimba cascade in close proximity to the twinkling vibes. The trumpets appear relatively late so that the enchanting atmosphere is maintained long enough to make this – you've guessed it – a cozy dreamscape in pastel colors. Willow Weep For Me, written by Ann Rondel in 1932, is another clear winner, with the mixed choir finally doo-dooing in the foreground, creating a superb cocktail atmosphere in adjacency to the galloping clicks and gentle maracas, the bumblebee-like double bass melody and a jumpy sleaziness on the vibraphone. Even the trumpets don't ruin the atmosphere of this swinging ballad!


The outro consists of Victor Young's Stella By Starlight. And boy, it is undoubtedly an Exotica rendition! Merging coruscating triangles with euphonious vibraphone droplets, the Space-Age violins whirr languorously around the great choir segues. The flute is paradisiac, the mood moony and moon-lit, and the trumpet actually tasteful, making this one of the most gorgeous takes on that song. This is the one song which earned a constant place in my heart. Kudos, Mr. Vaughn!


You know what? Although I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Mexican Pearls to the Exotica connoisseur, Billy Vaughn delivered an album that has much more soul, feels definitely fresher and comprises of such a wealth of instruments that his horrific LP Blue Hawaii does not only look pale by comparison, but gets totally crushed. The overarching topic is definitely helpful in this regard, as piles of gleaming trumpets and convivial horn blasts can be linked with ease to the (Americanized) Mexican way of life. Call it a lucky coincidence if you will, but Mexico is a destination that fits well with Billy Vaughn's trumpet-focused style of arranging the album. Or to put it in a slightly more negative light, Hawaii and Billy Vaughn are not compatible with each other. I also noticed that, depending on my mood, I find the female choir tremendously hilarious or outright audacious; funnily enough did I never perceive its intended meaning, neither is the whimsical choir mollifying, nor is its use as a vocal instrument particularly vivid.


Hilarity ensues most of the time for today's listeners, mark my words. From the dreamy, distantly jungle-like Blue Orchids over the interspersed gloominess of Love In Bloom to the exotic reverie that is Stella By Starlight, Mexican Pearls is rather special in that Vaughn decides to not feature specifically Mexican material or songs written by Mexican writers, but lets the music speak. Perfectly North American classics and Jazz standards are transformed into Southern sunset dioramas. Given this special focus, I won't mock Mexican Pearls, but applaud Billy Vaughn for the successful trumpet-related morphogenesis. I for one do not like the boosted, overly sugar-sweet horns, as they do not realize gargantuan brass flourishes à la Bert Kaempfert, let alone inherit an acidified aggression found in Pérez Prado's exotic albums. But again, these instruments at least mesh well with the topos of the album, and for Exotica fans, there are magnanimous amounts of vibes, flutes and the occasional clicking clave on there. One of Billy Vaughn's best albums, if not for a North American audience, then for European fellows with a yearning for Mexico.


Exotica Review 163: Billy Vaughn – Mexican Pearls (1965). Originally published on Dec. 29, 2012 at