10 Kind of Blue Facts About Miles Davis

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Dewey Davis III was not what you would call a humble man. At the very least, the multi-talented musician made it a little bit easier to describe his career when he himself said that he "changed music five or six times." Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, 15 years after his passing, for being "one of the key figures in the history of jazz." It was an understatement, since Davis was responsible for popularizing the cool, modal, and fusion forms of jazz, and has influenced musicians in every genre; Davis collaborated with Jimi Hendrix and Prince. Had Hendrix not died, Davis and the guitar legend would have recorded together. Here are some facts about Miles Davis, who was born on May 26, 1926.

1. HE WAS FIRST TAUGHT THE TRUMPET, TO HIS MOTHER'S DISAPPROVAL.

Elwood Buchanan was one of Miles Davis's father's dental patients—and drinking buddies—and became Davis's trumpet teacher. On Davis' 13th birthday, his father bought him a new trumpet. His mother, Cleota, wanted him to have a violin; it caused a great argument between the couple but, as Davis wrote, "she soon got over it." In high school, Davis began studying with a German trumpeter named Gustav who played first trumpet with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Buchanan was still Davis' high school music teacher, and one day in a formative moment of Miles' life, Buchanan stopped the band to admonish young Davis on his use of vibrato, saying he had "enough talent" to use a style all his own.

2. HE PLAYED WITH CHARLIE PARKER, WHO WAS ALSO HIS ROOMMATE.

When the Billy Eckstine band visited St. Louis in 1944, Dizzy Gillespie and Parker were members, and they invited Davis to replace Buddy Anderson as third trumpet (Anderson came down with tuberculosis, went back home to Oklahoma, and became a jazz pianist). After the experience, Davis was determined to move to New York City and get in touch with Parker again. After spending his first month's allowance in one week in New York, Davis went on his search. Despite saxophonist Coleman Hawkins' warnings to steer clear of Parker because of his heroin problem, Davis and "Bird" were roommates for a year.

3. HE ATTENDED JUILLIARD.

"Up at Juilliard," Davis said, "I played in the symphony, two notes, 'bop-bop,' every 90 bars, so I said, 'Let me out of here,' and then I left." In his autobiography, he recalled that along with just being bored with school—Davis was, after all, by this time playing in jazz clubs and with the likes of Charlie Parker every night—he found Juilliard to be "white-oriented" and "racist." One example was when a white female teacher told his class the reason black people played the blues was because they were poor and had to pick cotton. Davis wrote that he raised his hand, stood up, and said, "I'm from East St. Louis and my father is rich, he's a dentist, and I play the blues. My father didn’t never pick no cotton and I didn’t wake up this morning sad and start playing the blues. There's more to it than that." The teacher said nothing more on the subject.

4. HE TURNED DOWN WORKING WITH DUKE ELLINGTON IN ORDER TO FINISH BIRTH OF THE COOL.

Davis credited composer/pianist/bandleader Ellington as the root source for his landmark 1957 album Birth of the Cool, which made it all the more interesting when Davis had to turn him down.

Ellington—whom Davis had never met—sent for the young musician. Hearing that Ellington liked his style was a big deal to the young musician; Davis wrote that it "sent my ego climbing to the sky." When Davis went to meet his hero, Ellington was dressed in shorts with a woman sitting on his lap. Ellington invited him to join his band that fall, but Davis turned him down because he was working on Birth of the Cool. While his excuse was genuine, Davis also didn't want to play the same music night after night, which is something he feared would happen if he accepted Ellington's offer. He never spoke to Ellington again and sometimes wondered what would have happened if he had said "yes."

5. HE KICKED HEROIN COLD TURKEY.

In 1949, Davis became addicted to heroin. He would often say that it was because “I got bored and was around cats that were hung,” but in his autobiography he says that it was because of his depression at the time. He managed to quit in 1954, after growing sick and tired of it. "You know you can get tired of anything," Davis told Rolling Stone in 1969. "You can even get tired of being scared. I laid down and stared at the ceiling for 12 days, and I cursed everybody I didn't like. I was kicking it the hard way. It was like having a bad case of flu, only worse. I threw up everything I tried to eat. My pores opened up and I smelled like chicken soup. Then it was over."

6. HIS VOICE BECAME PERMANENTLY RASPY AFTER NOT FOLLOWING HIS DOCTOR'S ORDERS.

Davis had a throat operation in 1957 to remove nodes from his vocal cords. He was told not to raise his voice for 10 days. Two days after he was told this, he shouted at someone—either a record company owner or a booking agent—who, according to Davis, "tried to convince me to go into a deal I didn't want," permanently damaging his voice and giving it a rasp.

7. AMONG HIS PRE-SHOW RITUALS WERE AVOIDING FOOD (AND SEX).

He said that like fighters Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, he avoided shaking hands before performances (he supposedly didn’t want the oil from other people’s hands to mess up how his hands felt). Also like a boxer, he tied his shoelaces as tightly as possible, on shoes that were one size too small. Davis also declined food and sex before playing, purposely making himself hungry and unsatisfied.

8. HE HAD ISSUES WITH THELONIOUS MONK.

As Charles Mingus revealed in "An Open Letter to Miles Davis," printed November 30, 1955 in Down Beat magazine, Davis kept railing on Monk to "lay out" during a gig because he got the chords wrong. Later, during a recording session, he "cursed, laid out, argued, and threatened" the pianist/composer, and asked producer Bob Weinstock why he hired Monk, a "non-musician," in the first place.

9. HE DISAPPEARED FOR YEARS.

Davis stopped performing in the spring of 1976, and disappeared from the public eye. He hid away in his Manhattan brownstone until 1981. Fans of his hung out on his New York City block and went through his garbage. Rumors of a series of operations led people to believe he was dying. It turned out that beginning in 1975 he had an artificial hip implant, more throat polyp surgery, a painful leg infection, gallbladder issues, a bleeding ulcer, pneumonia, and chronic insomnia, and was too drugged up to perform.

10. HE HAD A LONG TALK WITH A YOUNG PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN.

When he was in his early 20s, the late Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman worked was a lifeguard at New York City's Metropolitan Towers, where Davis lived. One day, Davis came to the pool. "I didn't want to make him feel uncomfortable, so I pretended I didn't know him," Hoffman said. "He was wearing a Speedo with sunglasses and he had a towel and he got in the pool with his sunglasses and doggie-paddled about five laps, got out, took his sunglasses off and started talking to me because I don't think that he knew that I knew who he was." Davis then sat with Hoffman and talked for half an hour while looking at the city, talking about buildings he owned, accidents he got into, and girlfriends. "Everything except music," Hoffman said. "At the end of it he said, 'I'm Miles...' and he walked away."

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 10 Most Annoying Holiday Songs Ever

Alvin, Simon, and Theodore in Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007).
Alvin, Simon, and Theodore in Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Christmas is a time for joy, thankfulness, love … and, when it comes to Christmas carols, the occasional bout of cringe. There are songs that are perfect, classic, and timeless—like Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" or Mariah Carey's “All I Want for Christmas Is You”—and then there are these 10 holiday horrors.

1. "Dominick the Donkey" // Lou Monte

Reindeer aren't the only animals on Santa's payroll. "When Santa visits his paisans," Italian-American songster Lou Monte tells us, he takes his donkey Dominick along, "because the reindeer cannot climb the hills of Italy." The song was considered a novelty track when it was released in 1960, but the Italian communities of New Jersey (where Monte grew up) loved it. The constant braying throughout the song is grating, though we're sure children find it hilarious.

2. "The Christmas Shoes" // NewSong

"The Christmas Shoes" is more depressing than annoying, which is in itself obnoxious when you're trying to get into the joyfulness and cheer of the holiday season. A mawkish Christmas song about a poor boy who wants to buy a pair of shoes for his sick mother so she'll "look beautiful if [she] meets Jesus tonight"? No thanks. And then there was a made-for-TV movie based on said song? We'd prefer coal in our stockings.

3. "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" // Spike Jones & His City Slickers

Its insta-earworm hook is enough to make this 1940s song a base level of annoying, but its cloying, cutesy lyrics and the lisp that's often incorporated into recordings take "All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" to the next level. Your baby teeth will be replaced! That's what teeth do! Ask Santa for a PlayStation!

4. "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" // The Chipmunks

"Christmas Don't Be Late" needs no additional explanation as to why it's annoying other than "the Chipmunks sang it." Ross Bagdasarian Sr. wrote the song, which was released in 1958, and it was enormously successful—reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100 Pop Singles chart and netting three wins at the first annual Grammy Awards. For those keeping score, that's three more Grammys than Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" received.

5. "Wiggly Wiggly Christmas" // The Wiggles

It feels weird to pick on The Wiggles, an Aussie children's group who are supposed to be high-energy and wacky. But if the repeated refrain of "wiggly wiggly Christmas" doesn't make you want to tell your kids that Santa has the flu and cancel the holiday altogether, we're not sure what will.

6. "Do They Know It's Christmas" // Band-Aid

"Do They Know It's Christmas" was written as a response to the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s. Singer Bob Geldof, determined to funnel money to a higher cause by way of a charity song, enlisted Bono, Boy George, George Michael, Phil Collins, Sting, and many others to form a supergroup known as Band Aid that would record the vocal track for the song in one marathon 24-hour session. The song was out days later, and—heavily publicized—proceeded to raise tens of millions of dollars for Ethiopian famine relief. Which is all very noble and great. But the song itself is condescending, patronizing, and imperialistic, on top just plain being awful. Geldof himself admitted that he was "responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' and the other one is 'We Are the World.'"

7. "Gott nytt jul" // Sean Banan

Even if you don't speak Swedish, the obnoxiousness of 2013 Eurovision contestant Sean Banan's "Gott nytt jul" comes through at the seven-second mark with its fart sound effect. If you do speak Swedish, you get the added benefit of Sean telling Santa to "come and bring your ho ho hoes." As for the music video … well, a man in a Santa fat suit twerking is the universal language.

8. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" // William Hung

Failed American Idol wannabe William Hung, who quickly became famous for his tone-deaf rendition of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs," managed to put out a holiday album. It was called Hung for the Holidays. Even in 2004, the world was a cruel and unusual place.

9. "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" // Gayla Peevey

Long before the Cincinnati Zoo's Fiona the hippo became an internet celebrity, 10-year-old Gayla Peevey sang a novelty song about wanting a hippopotamus for Christmas. It was an instant hit in 1953, and Peevey even performed it on The Ed Sullivan Show. A promoter decided to do a fundraiser to buy Peevey a hippo (which was promptly donated to her hometown's Oklahoma City Zoo), and Matilda the hippo became a popular OKC resident until she died in 1998. But the song? It's not even accurate. To dissuade her delusional daughter, Peevey sings that her mom said a hippo would eat her up, but then "teacher says the hippo is a vegetarian." Hippos are generally omnivorous, but they do have carnivorous tendencies. We can abide the fantasy of a pet hippo, but not disinformation! 

10. "Shake Up Christmas" // Train

The "Drops of Jupiter" rockers tried to get into the holiday spirit in 2010, but with lyrics that rhyme "smile" with, er, "smile," and "Before I get too old and don't remember it, so let's December it and reassemble it," we want to hide behind the Christmas tree, not rock around it.

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