Ken Nordine passed away today at the age of 98.
You may not know Ken’s name, but you know his voice. Nordine has done more than a small amount of voiceover work, including this legendary Levi’s ad that might just make you OK with plaid pants. But Nordine is best known for Word Jazz, a fusion of jazz and poetry that, well, is just too damned cool for the room. If you’re not familiar with it, now‘s as good a time as any to discover it. Even now, listening to it, I’m thinking “That’s the voice I want when I grow up,” and, well, I think mine is done changing.
But of everything that Ken Nordine did, my favorite started with paint. In 1966 the Fuller Paint company came up with an idea to sell paint: short little spoken word pieces that pay homage to different colors. (They had to do something; Pittsburgh Paints had already enlisted Stan Freberg to make them cool, and the resulting spots make their way into my Introduction to Radio class every year.) The concept bloomed further, and became an entire LP, Colors, released by Philips Records in 1966. Nordine paired up with Dick Campbell, and they got to work.
I first discovered Colors in 1995. I got back from New Zealand and stumbled on two discs from Re/Search called Incredibly Strange Music. The second disc in the set went into heavy rotation in my car for a while (and may need its own post). Included on the disc were a couple of tracks from Colors: “Yellow,” “Green,” and “Flesh.” I thought “how cool is this?” and went on a quest for the whole album, which was later re-released on CD. That pointed me to the other colors, especially “Olive,” which is terrific.
Not all of the tracks are necessarily memorable, but they are at least catchy. It’s the sort of collection that you’ll either love or hate. But “Flesh” haunted me. I’m just old enough to remember that large boxes of Crayolas had a pale peachy color in it that you used for coloring white people, and it was labeled “flesh” as if that was the only color it could be. Nordine echoes this exact sentiment, which he dismisses as “color-centric thinking.” The track, over a frenzied jazz rhythm, explains that if folks of different colors don’t get along, then the color of flesh may be “black and blue… or a bloody hue.” Fifty-three years later, and it’s still pretty damned relevant.