Monday, April 20, 2015

Vintage Pop Oddities 1: George Sanders

This new series of posts in The Vintage Bandstand will feature brief articles on oddball vintage pop and jazz albums that, for one reason or another, I regard as interesting and worthy of a spin despite their undeniable strangeness. We begin, appropriately, with the only LP ever released by British film and television actor George Sanders, whose vocal performances are rather erratic but overall quite enjoyable and charming.

While he is fondly remembered by many for his roles in movie classics such as Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All about Eve, among several others, British actor George Sanders never made a name for himself as a singer. In fact, he only recorded one album under his name, The George Sanders Touch: Songs for the Lovely Lady, released by ABC-Paramount in 1958, but in spite of a few ads in Variety and other trade publications that suggest that the label may have seen some selling potential in Sanders's crooning, the album never quite got anywhere, and today it is prized only by the staunchest of Sanders fans and by the most relentless collectors of celebrity vocals.

And yet, it does not look like Sanders himself saw the LP merely as just another entry in the "celebrity record" category. He had always fancied following a singing career and had occasionally vocalized in movies such as Walter Lang's Call Me Madam (1953), with a score by none other than Irving Berlin, but it was not until five years later that he was given the chance to record a whole album showcasing his singing. According to Sam Staggs, in his book All about "All about Eve"  (St. Martin's Griffin, 2001), Sanders had been interested in music for a long time and enjoyed singing opera and had even dabbled in songwriting:

If George Samders had been more ambitious, he might have left acting for a career in opera. During an appearance in Tallulah Bankhead's radio show in the early 1950s he sang the aria "In lacerato spirito," from Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. His well-trained voice was so pleasant that many in the studio audience did not believe it belonged to George Sanders. They left convinced that he had mouthed a recording of someone else's singing. . . He did, however, record an album called The George Sanders Touch in 1958. On it he sang not arias but standards, including "September Song," "As Time Goes By," and "More Than You Know." Included on the album was a song of his own composition, "Such Is My Love." (93-94)

As Staggs notes, The George Sanders Touch is a collection of standards that presents Sanders as a balladeer, crooning a selection of well-chosen yet slightly predictable slow numbers, backed by a lush string orchestra arranged by Don Costa and Nick Perito. The opening track, "Try a Little Tenderness," sung in an appropriately tender manner, is one of the high points of the album, with Sanders relying on his well-trained baritone for romantic effect. After that, he stays in familiar territory, doing classics like "They Didn't Believe Me," "As Time Goes By," "Something to Remember You By," "The Very Thought of You" (written by another Englishman, bandleader Ray Noble) and "More Than You Know." However, the arrangements, though beautifully constructed, are invariably slow, which indicates that Sanders must not have felt entirely comfortable with uptempo numbers. This lends an air of sameness to the record, which at some points becomes inevitably monotonous because Sanders clearly lacks range and insists on singing all tracks in a way that often makes him sound rather aloof and uninvolved with the song.

Sanders does not let us forget that he is an actor, though, and he sometimes slips into recitation, as in "September Song," for instance. He reaches back to the 1930s for most of his repertoire, and Harold Adamson and Victor Young's "Around the World," from the film Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), is the only contemporary song on the album, along with Sanders's own "Such Is My Love," a pleasant ballad that blends in perfectly with the rest of the album. According to the liner notes by Natt Hale, which emphasize Sanders's many talents, from acting to singing to playing the piano and the saxophone, Sanders's self-penned tune "was considered a 'must' by Costa and Perito, after hearing it but once." The whole album, however, fell into obscurity very quickly and has never been reissued on CD, perhaps because Sanders's name is not as well known now as it was in the 1950s and '60s, but anyone who is able to find an old vinyl copy in the bargain bin of some used record store is encouraged to purchase it, if only to be able to enjoy the personal touch that Sanders brings to this handful of perennial standards.

Further reading

For more information on The George Sanders Touch, the blog Big 10-Inch Record includes a very interesting post about this album, which you can access here.

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