Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Vintage Records Review Desk 1: Frank Sinatra, Matt Dennis, June Christy & Stan Kenton, Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards

This section will feature brief critical appraisals of recently acquired CDs that have somehow caught my attention. Some of them will be new reissues of old recordings, while some others may have been re-released several years ago but only lately added to my collection. I hope readers will find the reviews helpful when looking to augment their own CD collections.

In late 1949, Frank Sinatra struck up a deal with the Lucky Strike cigarette company to start a daily fifteen-minute radio series to be called Lite-Up Time, which would remain on the air until June 1950. The eighteen tracks included in On the Radio: The Lucky Strike Lite-Up Time Shows 1949-1950 (Acrobat Records, 2008) come from shows recorded between September 1949 and March 1950, a time when Sinatra was said to be experiencing trouble with his voice, a fact which really is not apparent in these broadcasts. Backed by orchestras conducted by Jeff Alexander, Skitch Henderson, and Ziggy Elman, Sinatra shines on renditions of standards like "You Do Something to Me," "All of Me," and "I Only Have Eyes for You." Though some of the songs may not be up to Sinatra's high standards of excellence ("There's Yes Yes in Your Eyes," for all of its cuteness, is an example of this) the short Lite-Up Time broadcasts offered him a chance to duet with the sweet-voiced Dorothy Kirsten, as well as allowing for excellent solos from Elman and Bobby Hackett on "I've Got a Crush on You" and "Body and Soul" respectively. Complete with introductions and banter before and after some of the songs, this CD should be a welcome addition to any Sinatra collection.

The author of several great songs that, like "Everything Happens to Me" and "Let's Get Away from It All," Sinatra cut as early as his tenure with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Matt Dennis enjoyed a very respectable recording career in his own right. Born in Seattle into a family of musicians, Dennis not only had a gift for crafting beautiful tunes, but he also was an adept pianist with a pleasant voice, as we can hear in Welcome Matt (Jasmine Records, 2012), a recently released two-CD set that presents four complete albums that Dennis made in the 1950s. He was undoubtedly at his best in a nightclub setting, accompanied by his own piano and a small jazz combo. Two of the albums included here, Plays and Sings and Dennis, Anyone?, feature him in such a setting, performing his self-penned songs before a small live audience. The tunes range from intimate ballads ("Angel Eyes," "Violets for Your Furs," both of them recorded more than once by Ol' Blue Eyes) to witty uptempo list songs ("Will You Still Be Mine?," "We Belong Together"). Dennis excels at both types of material, and on a couple of the tracks, he is ably joined by his wife, Ginny Maxey, who had once been a member of The Modernaires.

The other two LPs included in the set move away from the intimate nightclub setting and present Dennis backed by full orchestras. The Songs of Rodgers and Hart (1955) is an interesting songbook-style album that finds the singer delving into the rich repertoire of the famous songwriting team and creating convincing readings of classic tunes such as "Dancing on the Ceiling," a bouncy "Mountain Greenery," and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." Closing the set, we find a charming concept album constructed around the motif of home and entitled Welcome Matt Dennis (1959). With classy charts by Dorsey arranger Sy Oliver, the LP mixes well-known standards with three songs written by Dennis, offering nice surprises like a beautiful version of "By the Fireside," a song associated with Al Bowlly. Given the scarcity of Matt Dennis releases on compact disc, this Jasmine set comes to fill an important void and hopefully will help stir some newfound interest in this unjustly overlooked singer who was, first and foremost, a fine songwriter.

One song written by Matt Dennis (the classic "Angel Eyes," with lyrics by Tom Adair) is precisely one of nine included in Duet (Capitol, 1993), a CD reissue of an album that pairs up Stan Kenton on piano with vocalist June Christy. Arguably one of the most unique female singers to come out of the big band era, Christy reunited with former boss Kenton, in whose band she had replaced Anita O'Day as the featured vocalist in the mid-1940s, for an LP that stands as one of the most challenging in the careers of both participants. The project, recorded over the course of four sessions in May 1955, presents Miss Christy's divinely husky voice, with its astounding ability to narrate stories in song so convincingly, sharing the spotlight with Kenton's forceful piano accompaniment, which is afforded plenty of space to shine on his own throughout the album. The result is a classic, though often neglected, record that combines standards (Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," George and Ira Gershwin's "How Long Has This Been Going On") with under-recorded gems (Joe Greene's "Come to the Party," Bobby Troup's "Just the Way I Am") that really sound special in the hands—and pipes—of the duo of Kenton and Christy. Benny Carter's "Lonely Woman," with its powerfully dramatic undertones, and "Baby, Baby All the Time," a song that came to Miss Christy's attention via her much-admired Nat King Cole, are among the many high spots of the album, the latter even prompting the singer to do her share of scatting. In his Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, critic Will Friedwald notes that the album could well have been inspired by similar collaborations between Ella Fitzgerald and Ellis Larkins, before going on to suggest that "[t]he starkness of the accompaniment and the exposed, vulnerable nature of Christy's singing effectively foreshadow Tony Bennett and Bill Evans twenty years later" (87). Though sadly out of print, this is a highly recommendable album, and its CD reissue boasts not only fine liner notes by Mr. Friedwald himself, but also two tracks ("Prelude to a Kiss" and the lovely "Thanks for You") that were left out of the original LP release.

And last but not least, a compilation that, in my opinion, is long overdue. Although most certainly unbeknownst to them, Retrieval Records answered one of my requests on this website with their latest Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards release, Fascinating Rhythm 1922-1935. Covering a period of exactly thirteen years, from February 1922 to February 1935, this excellent two-CD set includes Ukulele Ike's series of Hot Combination sessions, on which he is accompanied by the cream of jazz musicians of the 1920s and 30s, legends such as Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Fred Morrow, Dick McDonough, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, and Jimmy Dorsey, among others. The result of such combinations, which began to be recorded regularly in 1925, is a slew of pioneering jazz recordings full of hot solos and plenty of the kind of seminal scat singing, called "eefin'," for which Edwards was renowned. The booklet, with liner notes penned by Chris Ellis, features extensive information both on the sessions and Ukulele Ike's phenomenal career, and the set is undoubtedly a must for any serious vintage jazz aficionado.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

An Interview with David Bret, Author of George Formby: A Troubled Genius

Though largely unknown in the United States, even in his heyday of the 1930s and 1940s, George Formby was one of the biggest stars in the history of British entertainment. Born George Hoy Booth in the Northern English town of Wigan in 1904, Formby was the heir of a rich music-hall tradition that harks back to Victorian England. His was a very personal take on the kind of music that can be heard in the wonderful Alberto Cavalcanti movie, Champagne Charlie (1944), which spotlights the sounds of the late nineteenth-century British music-hall. In fact, before Formby himself, his father, George Formby, Sr., enjoyed a very successful career as one of the best-loved music-hall acts of his time, a career which was only cut short by his failing health. George Formby would go on to surpass his father's popularity with British audiences, and in a span of forty years, he was a favorite on the stage, on radio, and in movies. Many of his hit songs, like "When I'm Cleaning Windows," "With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock," and "With My Little Ukelele in My Hand," thrive on a kind of humor that is rife with double entendres, which often got George in trouble with the official BBC censors, who did not think that such songs were fit to be broadcast. In any case, audiences in Britain and abroad loved them and heartily welcomed Formby wherever he appeared, accompanied by his inseparable banjo-uke.

Biographer David Bret
Back in 1999, biographer David Bret published the first comprehensive book on George Formby's life and career, detailing not only his very interesting life but also his experiences in showbusiness. The book, entitled George Formby: A Troubled Genius (Robson Books), is currently out of print in the United States, but I was fortunate enough to obtain a copy, and after reading it, decided to contact Mr. Bret and ask for an interview so as to discuss the book and Formby's career. The author readily agreed to give freely of his time to answer the many questions that the reading of his work suggested. Born in France though brought up in England, Mr. Bret began writing biographies in 1987, as he tells us, "encouraged by my friend, the French chanteuse Barbara." Since then, he has presented to the reading public the life stories of legends such as Clark Gable, Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, and Doris Day, to name but a few. Being a lesser-known name when compared to these big stars, then, one might wonder what it was about George Formby that spurred the author on to write his biography. "He still has a big following in the United Kingdom," Mr. Bret replies. "And I had also previously written a biography of Gracie Fields." Doing the research for the book took the biographer several years, during which he collected a great deal of material for future use in the work. "As a biographer, I don't omit anything unless it's libelous, and as most of my subjects are dead..."

Mr. Bret's biography of George Formby is certainly a page-turner, written in a very dynamic style and full of interesting details that help us understand Formby's development both as an artist and as a person. The book also explores the singer's unusual relationship with his wife, Beryl, which sometimes looked more like a business partnership than a marital affair, and it sheds interesting light on their fundraising activities and efforts to entertain the British troops during World War II. The biography discusses at length Mr. and Mrs. Formby's open rejection of apartheid during two 1950s tours of South Africa, where they insisted, against the wishes of the authorities, on playing in front of black audiences. Their very forward stance opposing any kind of racism would, of course, cause them difficulties with the segregationist South African government, resulting in their being forced to cut short their first tour of that country and promptly return to England. I chatted about these and other aspects of George Formby's life and artistry with Mr. Bret, and now I offer the readers of The Vintage Bandstand the full contents of our conversation:

The Vintage Bandstand: Let us talk a little about Mr. Formby's career. Before George's rise to prominence, his father, George Formby, Sr., had been one of the foremost stars in British vaudeville. What role did Formby, Sr., play in his son's future vocation and subsequent career?

Mr. Bret: His father was his greatest inspiration, but the younger George superseded him, and now Formby, Sr., is almost forgotten.

TVB: George Formby's success was phenomenal in Great Britain, his native country, as well as in other places such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. In your opinion, why did he not achieve a similar stature in the United States?

A studio photograph of George Formby, Sr.
Mr. Bret: Americans have a different style of humor, and most of his songs were about the North of England, which Americans wouldn't have understood or worked out. Also, his peak was his films in wartime Britain; he only came to the United States afterwards, when it was all over.

TVB: Your book shows that many London critics were extremely harsh on Mr. Formby mainly because of his northern English upbringing. Why was there at the time such an animosity against performers from the North of England?

Mr. Bret: There always has been, and to a certain extent there still is, a North/South divide, almost like your Civil War at times. For a time it was impossible to be popular in both. The South had the likes of Max Miller. Gracie Fields was the only one to bridge the gap.

TVB: We read in the book, also, that Mr. Formby was not satisfied with his movies, many of which he wished he could redo. How can you explain their enormous popularity with the viewing public of the 1930s and 1940s?

Mr. Bret: George Formby identified with ordinary people. The plots were sillyish, and he always got the girl—conquering the North/South divide. Because he was so unattractive, the ladies were snooty and posh. It wouldn't have happened in real life. Then, after the war, with the likes of James Mason and Margaret Lockwood, this type of film became outdated. People wanted romance and adventure.

TVB: Mr. Formby was a very unique stylish, a man fully capable of carrying a whole show on his shoulders. What do you thin were the secrets of his success?

Mr. Bret: The fact that what you saw was what you got—no airs or graces!

TVB: From reading your book, we get the distinct impression that Mr. Formby's marriage to his wife, Beryl, was more a business partnership than a conjugal relationship. Could you comment briefly on this?

George and Beryl Formby in 1950
Mr. Bret: This was northern England at the time—you made your bed and you had to lie on it. Few Northerners got divorced. She had her young men; he had his leading ladies. With her it was because she was attractive and a power in a man's world, where show business was concerned. He had the money! They argued a lot and were typical of their breed, but they could never have coped without each other—it was Beryl who made him.

TVB: For an artist who was so immensely popular and whose recording career lasted for about 36 years, George Formby entered the studio in comparatively few occasions. Why didn't he get around to making more commercial recordings in his lifetime?

Mr. Bret: As it happens today, he preferred to stick with the chosen formula. I would have liked him to have sung a few more serious songs, as Gracie Fields did, because he could put these over very well.

TVB: The flap of the book mentions that you are "Britain's foremost authority on the French music-hall." As an enthusiast of the French chanson myself, I have to ask you how this passion began for you...

Mr. Bret: I was brought up with it, weaned on Edith Piaf, coming from France and speaking the language. The only singers America had in that vein, in my opinion, were names like Jane Froman and Billie Holiday.

TVB: In what ways does Mr. Formby's music resemble the French music-hall? And what divergences, if any, would you point out?

Mr. Bret: His songs are in the same vein as Mayol and early Chevalier—they look at life as it really is, and they make fun of the more tragic aspects.

TVB: There are many compilations of George Formby's music available on CD, including two monumental boxsets released by JSP Records. In your opinion, what is the future of Mr. Formby's recorded legacy? Will future generations still be interested in his music?

Mr. Bret: I think his legacy is secure. He has a cult following which I feel will always be there.

TVB: And, finally, could you share with our readers any projects in which you are currently involved? Perhaps a biography of one of my favorite French crooners, Jean Sablon?

Mr. Bret: I covered Jean Sablon, to a certain extent, in my biography of Mistinguett. My next book, coming out next month, is about Greta Garbo, whom I met by way of Barbara at one of her shows.


If you would like further information about the works of David Bret, you can visit his personal website.

For more information on George Formby, please visit the website of the George Formby Society.

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