Saturday, March 28, 2020

Canta Maya: Roulette Records' odd venture into German cabaret (1958)

How did a German cabaret artist end up on Roulette Records, a label mostly known for teen-oriented pop hits by Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen, Jimmie Rodgers, The Playmates, and Frankie Lymon? Today on the Music Weird, we look at Canta Maya, one of Roulette's most unusual signings of the 1950s.

La Scala de Berlin in 1936
Canta Maya was the stage name of Elizabeth Sofia Mohl de Gimbel, a cabaret singer who performed at Berlin's Scala de Berlin in the late 1930s and starred in a Mexican movie musical in the mid 1940s. She also recorded a single album—the only album of her entire career—for the American label Roulette Records in 1958.

Maya was born on January 28, 1922, in either Dresden, Germany, or Alsace-Lorraine, a Germanic area of France. Different sources report different birthplaces.

After gaining some fame as a cabaret singer known for her flamboyant costumes, Maya appeared in the 1945* Mexican movie musical Bailando en las Nubes ("Dancing in the Clouds"). A 1947 review in Box Office Barometer summarized the plot:
An ambitious stenographer realizes her dream of becoming a famous dancer and singer, but heartaches beset her career. A romance that turns into real love brings a happy ending.
Canta Maya
According to Mexican Movies in the United States, Bailando en las Nubes screened at three cinemas in Los Angeles and contained content that was considered risqué for the time:
The musical melodrama featured the slender Canta Maya, a dancer with a heavy French accent. A newspaper review of the film warned: 'Señorita Maya appears in one barbaric number which our censors would probably blue-pencil pronto.' Although the musical sequence in question had Miss Maya embracing with an imposing half-naked black man, it apparently went unnoticed by the local censorship viewers.
Fast forward 13 years into the future, and Maya inexplicably ended up on Roulette Records thanks to producers and songwriters Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore (Hugo & Luigi), who signed her to what would be a short-lived contract. 

Maya's brief stint with the label resulted in one album—A Long, Long Kiss—and one single, which contained two songs from the album. 

On the single's A side, "I'm a Kitten," Maya sounded exotic, a bit like Eartha Kitt. The song was written by the album's orchestral leader, Bernie Landes, who also wrote the album track "A Kiss Will Tell You" and cowrote "There's No Sun in the Sky."

Landes had enjoyed some previous success, most notably as the composer of "Elephants Tango," a precursor to Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk" that was recorded internationally by a number of artists, including The Commanders, Cyril Stapleton, Lawrence Welk, Ray Martin, and later Si Zentner

In the early 1950s, Landes and his orchestra backed artists such as Anne Shelton and Sandy Solo, and in 1957 he wrote both sides of a split single by The Bell Trio and The Majors for Felsted Records. His heavy involvement in Canta Maya's album makes me suspect that he played a role in bringing Maya to Hugo and Luigi's attention.

The remaining songs on the album were written by other songwriters, some of whom contributed multiple compositions. The title track, "A Long, Long Kiss," was written by Gladys Shelley and jazz pianist Larry Fotine, the latter of whom worked as an arranger for Lawrence Welk for a time. The song presumably is based on the line from Lord Byron's Don Juan ("A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth and love"). Shelley, the most heavily featured songwriter on the LP, also cowrote the album tracks "Sooner or Later," "Please Don't Go," and "Night Bird."

Other album tracks include "Answer Me, My Love," a German song with English lyrics by Carl Sigman that became a hit for Nat King Cole in 1954. Actress and singer Shannon Bolin cowrote two of the album's songs: "Hold Me Tight" and "Tomorrow May Be One Day Late." The album's closer, "Goodnight Sweetheart," was a popular song in the early 1930s, first recorded by Ray Noble (who cowrote it) and then Wayne King, Bing Crosby, and others.

A Long, Long Kiss was reviewed in the December 8, 1958, edition of Billboard, where it received two stars and faint praise:
Miss Maya has a whispery, husky quality which might be called a blend of Marlene Dietrich, Eva Gabor and other sirens of that ilk. Some of the material, such as "I'm a Kitten," in which the gal literally essays a cat's purr, will appeal to males looking for recorded kicks and atmosphere. Beyond that, appeal would be fairly slim.
Billboard doesn't seem to have reviewed the "I'm a Kitten" single but forecast its release in the October 1958 issue when it mentioned that Maya and future television star Jim Nabors were Roulette's two new signings. (Jim Nabors, then billed as Jimmy Nabors, recorded one rock 'n' roll single for Roulette that was his only disking until the mid '60s, when he recorded an album in his Gomer Pyle persona.)

Both Maya's album and single flopped. Neither one charted nationally or even appeared on any radio station surveys that I could find. Nevertheless, Apex Records picked up "I'm a Kitten" for release in Canada, and Roulette released the single in New Zealand, according to 45cat

Having copies of the album to spare, Roulette included A Long, Long Kiss in a Christmastime promotion that year for record dealers and distributors. It was called the "Christmas Stocking Plan" and offered two free stereo albums for every 18 purchased, and one free monaural album for every seven purchased. A Long, Long Kiss was one of the seven monaural albums included in the list of freebies from which buyers could choose.

That was both the beginning and the end of Maya's recording career, but an unusual sidebar in her biography is that her name appeared in an FBI memorandum in the John F. Kennedy assassination papers! 
Mexico City files ... reported information from a usually reliable source 8/10/53 stating that ELIZABETH SOFIA MOHL was alleged to have permitted American Communists to use her mailing address in Mexico.
It appears that she applied for a visa 1/10/64 using the name CANTA MAYA.
While she was in Mexico, in addition to allegedly aiding communists, Maya also befriended Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, who lived in that country for a time. What Maya did career-wise in the years immediately preceding and following her Roulette album is unknown to me, but it sounds like she was quite the bohemian.

Although Maya's single was unusual among Roulette's offerings on 45, her album didn't come entirely out of left field if you look at the label's album releases. Early Roulette albums included such international titles as Italy by the DiMara Sisters (1957), Jamaica by the Lennie Hayton Orchestra (1958), and Oriental Delight by the Hank Mardigian Sextet (1958). Some of Roulette's "international" offerings had an ersatz quality, but Canta Maya was the real deal.

Here are the anonymously penned, grammatically challenged liner notes of A Long, Long Kiss:
Few things in life quite compare to the thrill of discovery, and this album for music devotees is "the discovery"! Within the covers of this album is a new personality, a warm, caressing, seductive and, at the same time, provocative and exciting new voice. It is, in fact... A new sound...
"A Long, Long Kiss" brings to needle point for the delight of the listener the thrilling new voice of Canta Maya. This album marks the debut in America of this renowned continental chanteuse. Born in Alsace, this exotic beauty has enthralled audiences in the chic boites and music halls of France, Germany, Mexico and South America. What is this all-encompassing spell which Canta Maya casts over her audiences? What is this quality she possesses that has made her the toast of so many countries? 
Some of the answers can be found in this her first album. Her cat-like grace and enticing sensuousness personifies the songs she sings. Her voice sings out like the voice of wordliness and experience. The answer too lies in the intimate devotion to the lyrics of the songs she presents here. It is this devotion of every word she caresses that has not only endeared her to a legion of fans, but to the composers of many lands who have tailored creations especially for her style. 
Throughout the pleasurable moments of this album, Canta Maya creates and maintains a mood which completely charms and disarms the listener. It is a mood that is warm, tender, languorous and puts you completely at ease. From the very first few notes, her voice becomes a vehicle of escape from the harsh realities of everyday life. It is an escape from boredom, from the ordinary, mundane routine of existence to the thrill of perhaps a clandestine romance. Canta Maya sings as though the listener was the only person in the world and because of this the listener's world becomes a new and exciting place unlike any other place he has ever known.
Listen now as Canta Maya purrs "I'm A Kitten" or when she sings "Ask Me." Her arrangements and accompaniment by Bernie Landes and his orchestra fits the setting beautifully; the violins in unison enhance the mood every note of the way.
The voice of Canta Maya is a voice you will not forget. Her delivery is smooth, dramatic and always oh, so inviting. The "invitation" is worth taking up, it is a musical experience you won't want to miss. Here, then, is Canta Maya as she offers you "A Long, Long Kiss."
Side A

Side B

*Most sources say that this movie was released in 1946, but the 1982 book Cartelera Cinematográfica 1940-1949 (PDF) says that it debuted at Teatro Iris in Mexico City on April 8, 1945, where it ran for three days.