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Pasadena in Song

Dec 1, 2014

Jan & Dean

“Fair Pasadena, Crown of the Valley,
Diadem set on the brow of the hills,
Bright was the promise thy christening gave thee,
And Fate, thy handmaiden, fulfills.”   

– William Andrew Spalding, Snatches of Song: With Verses of Lighter and More Sober Moods, 1907

Pasadena town is where I’m goin’,
There ain’t no other town that I call home.”

– John Paul Young, “Pasadena,” 1972

 

The Beatles had their Strawberry Fields, Robert Johnson crooned about his “sweet home Chicago,” and Chuck Berry yearned for his Marie in Memphis, Tennessee.

Places—whether whole towns or city blocks, have always provided rich material for songwriters, from the traveling minstrels of medieval Europe to the top 40 hit-makers of today.

Pasadena is no exception. From Arthur Chester Adams’ “In Dear Old Pasadena” (1910) to the Dead Kennedys’ “Buzzbomb from Pasadena” (1987), the Rose City has inspired countless songwriters and composers from the city’s founding to the present.

In his 1985 book, The Golden Ear: a Treasury of Songs to Pasadena, author Carter Barber identifies no less than 51 songs that have been composed about Pasadena—and he probably underestimates the number.Home_in_Pasadena_(SHEET_MUSIC-00058)

As early as 1876, songwriters were penning ditties and musical numbers to the Rose City and its environs—according to Barber, a former Pasadena Star-News journalist.

By all accounts, the earliest surviving Pasadena song is “Echo Mountain Schottische,” composed in 1893 by Burdette Wood to celebrate the engineer behind Thaddeus Lowe’s Mount Lowe Railway, which opened that year. Other composers followed suit: in 1898, Marie Truan composed the “Mount Lowe March and Two-Step,” and in 1907, William Andrew Spalding rhapsodized about Pasadena in his book Snatches of Song: With Verses of Lighter and More Sober Moods.

In 1923, at the height of the Roaring Twenties, three composers sat down and penned what would become the best-known Pasadena song for decades: “Home in Pasadena.” Written by Grant Clarke, Edgar Leslie, and Harry Warren, it became a hit for singer Al Jolson the following year, and was covered by dozens of different artists for decades to come. While neither Clarke nor Leslie are well-known today, Warren (born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna) went on to write such classics as “Jeepers Creepers, “The Gold Diggers’ Song (We’re in the Money),” and “I Only Have Eyes for You”—made famous by doo-wop group The Flamingoes in 1959. “Home in Pasadena” became one of the best-known songs about the city, and even inspired a jazz and swing revival group in Britain to adopt the name “The Pasadena Roof Orchestra” in tribute.

It took four decades for “Home in Pasadena” to be supplanted by another, even more successful song about the city. In 1964, USC medical student Don Altfeld was driving home from a party in Pasadena, when the idea for a song came to him. It involved an elderly woman and… a hot rod.

Altfeld continued scribbling lyrics in his bacteriology class the following day, and with the help of songwriter and KFWB disc jockey Roger Christian, the song eventually became “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” a hit for surf-rockers Jan & Dean.Buzzbomb from Pasadena

A staple on oldies radio stations for decades, the song describes a Pasadena woman of advanced years and her “brand new shiny red super stocked Dodge” which becomes “the terror of Colorado Boulevard” for its feats of speed.

It did little to dispel the myth of Pasadena as a stuffy town of the elderly. As music critic Richie Unterberger writes in a review of the song for AllMusic.com, “the little old lady wasn’t even from the glamorous areas of Los Angeles, like Hollywood or Santa Monica or Beverly Hills or Malibu, but from the large, not especially glamorous, suburb of Pasadena.” 

Still, it was an undeniably catchy song with clever rhymes, fun satire, and excellent back-up vocals from 1960s girl-group The Honeys. It was released as a single with the even more ludicrous b-side, “Anaheim, Azusa, & Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review & Timing Association,” and reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in June 1964.

Altfeld, sadly, went on to become a practicing physician but lost his medical license in 2012 after prescribing himself painkillers and anti-depressants.

What was already a parody song became fodder for San Francisco punk band Dead Kennedys in 1987. Their song “Buzzbomb From Pasadena” took the idea of the drag-racing granny and turned her into a blood-crazed thrill-killer who runs over a “lonely salesman” at a rest stop, tears across a golf course, and is finally shot by the cops outside a 7-11.

Strangely, many of the musicians inspired by Pasadena—like Dead Kennedys—were not actually from Pasadena. In 1972, Harry Vanda and George Young, both former members of Australian band The Easybeats, penned “Pasadena,” which became a hit for Scottish-Australian singer John Paul Young.

51YAh1DBWpLSimilarly, in 1981, Dutch pop group Maywood recorded a song called “Pasadena,” complete with the inane lyrics: “Come with me to Pasadena if you want to have some fun / Watch the dancing señoritas / In the heat of the sun.”

Athens, Georgia-based indie rock band Modern Skirts also recorded a song called “Pasadena” in 2005.

Of course, one current group of musicians has a rightful claim to the city. Ozma, formed in Pasadena in 1995, have cited the city as a consistent inspiration, and even featured the Colorado Street Bridge on the cover of their 2007 album—appropriately titled Pasadena.

 

A sampling of Pasadena-inspired songs from years past:

“Pasadena Day March” – Marco Vessella, 1912

“Home in Pasadena” – Al Jolson, 1924

“Pasadena” – John Paul Young, 1972

“The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” – Jan & Dean, 1964

“Buzzbomb From Pasadena” – Dead Kennedys, 1987

“Pasadena” – Modern Skirts, 2005

 




4 Responses for “Pasadena in Song”

  1. Laura V says:

    Great article Matt!
    Pasadena Museum of History has a terrific collection of early sheet music written about the city. Visitors are welcome to come see it in the archives, Thursdays through Sundays from 1-4pm.

  2. Matt Hormann says:

    Thanks, Laura! I’ll definitely come by and check it out sometime.

  3. Nick says:

    Wait a minute: “Diadem…on the brow of the hills.” Didn’t Reagan use that line?

  4. Lorraine says:

    Little old Lady from Pasadena – ring memories

Discussion



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