Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Session Man in New York: Dick Robertson's Hot Vocal Jazz Recordings of the 1930s

Dick Robertson is one of a group of singers that are often overlooked in most critical discussions of the history of vocal jazz and that, when mentioned at all, are usually dismissed as second-rate practitioners of the art. And yet, a great deal of the numerous records that Dick Robertson made between the mid-1920s and the early 1940s belie such a quick dismissal. Will Friedwald briefly mentions Robertson in his excellent book Jazz Singing in the same breath with Smith Ballew, Scrappy Lambert, and Chick Bullock, stating that he “was the most vaudevillian of this group, and often alternated between different voices . . . to suit the material” (52-53). It is true that some of Robertson’s recordings are novelty numbers that remind us of vaudeville, but Friedwald’s description of Robertson fails to capture the essence of his art, which rests on his ability to front small groups made up of excellent jazz musicians who shine in their own right besides providing support for his versatile voice. This is precisely what we find in the only compilation of Dick Robertson’s recordings, entitled The New York Session Man (Timeless Records, 1992), which concentrates on sessions that the singer led between March 1937 and September 1939.

The title of this anthology is very appropriate. Dick Robertson was, indeed, a “session man,” a singer who gave up live performance for strictly studio work. Born in Canada, he had been singing professionally since the 1920s, mostly providing vocal refrains for various dance bands, when in 1935, Decca Records brought him into the studio to make a series of small-group jazz records. The company obviously trusted Robertson’s ear for choosing the best accompanists because they allowed him to handpick the lineup of his bands, and of course, his choices of sidemen do not disappoint, and his studio bands include some of the greatest jazz players of the 1920s and 1930s. On the twenty-four selections included in this compilation, we can hear the fabulous interplay between such illustrious names as cornetist Bobby Hackett, pianist Frank Signorelli (below, left), trombonist Al Philburn, guitarist Dave Barbour, drummer Stan King, and clarinetist Don Watt. Four sides waxed in February 1938 welcome the great Jack Teagarden on trombone into the studio group, and his hot playing enhances outstanding readings of tunes such as “Goodnight Angel” and “Let’s Sail to Dreamland.”

In accordance with the practice of the times, all of these sides range between a mid-tempo and an uptempo pace, and may be classified as primarily dance records. This is evident even in the case of numbers like “Gone with the Wind,” “Blossoms on Broadway,” and “I Only Want a Buddy, Not a Sweetheart,” which are usually treated as ballads but which are taken at a faster tempo by Robertson. The strong Dixieland feel of these discs must have sounded a little dated even when they were first released if we bear in mind that these platters hit the record stores coinciding with the advent of the Swing Era. However, they are recordings that have stood the test of time and that sound just as fresh now as when they were first made. And this is so not only because of Robertson’s knack for picking out magnificent sidemen but also because of his exciting vocal treatment of the lyrics. While it is true that novelty titles such as “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” and George Formby’s “Chinese Laundry Blues,” as Friedwald suggests, bring out the vaudevillian in Robertson, he manages to sound convincing when delivering more serious lyrics, as in the case of “It Looks Like Rain on Cherry Blossom Lane” and “Gone with the Wind,” to mention but two examples.

Another reason why a modern-day ear should still be interested in listening to these late-1930s recordings lies in the very engaging structure of the arrangements. Though Robertson is credited as the leader of the session, his voice is only another instrument and the vocal chorus that he performs is treated merely as yet another solo, which allows plenty of room for the sidemen to show off their talents. In this respect, Robertson’s Decca recordings are very similar to Billie Holiday’s classic Columbia sides with jazz greats like Lester Young and Teddy Wilson. Robertson’s studio bands sound relaxed and tightly knit, and the overall product leaves no doubt that the participants are having a good time trading inventive solos throughout.

A case in point is the lovely rendition of “Getting Some Fun out of Life,” a much-recorded number from the pen of Edgar Leslie and Joseph Burke. Frank Signorelli’s piano starts off the record with a few brief introductory bars, and then the whole ensemble states the melody, leaving a few more bars for Signorelli to put his signature on the tune before Robertson comes in with a very inspired vocal performance that swings easily while never straying a single note from the melody. After Robertson gets through singing the witty, well-constructed lyric, the remainder of the record is a pleasure to hear as Bobby Hackett (right), Johnny Carlson, and Don Watt trade hot solos, and, paraphrasing the lyric, the listener can bet they are getting some fun out of playing together.

As discographer Brian Rust observes in the liner notes to this compilation, Dick Robertson’s career as a recording artist came to an end following the infamous recording ban imposed by the American Musicians’ Union in 1942. By the time the ban ended, more than two years later, popular taste had shifted so much that there seemed to be no room for unabashedly hot jazz sides like these in the market, and as a result, Robertson did not make any more records. But fortunately, by the time he was forced into retirement, Robertson had already left behind an impressive body of work that shows that he deserves more credit than he receives these days. The twenty-four tracks on this Dutch compilation are ample proof of that and invariably leave the listener craving for more.

The great Jack Teagarden, whose hot trombone playing embellishes some of Dick Robertson's 1930s sides.

Works Cited

Friedwald, Will. Jazz Singing: America’s Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.

Rust, Brian. “Liner Notes to The New York Session Man 1937-1939.” Timeless Records, 1992.


WITHOUT THAT GAL (Posted on YouTube by edmundusrex)

NEVERTHELESS (Posted on YouTube by Bigband78)

IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN (Posted on YouTube by Bigband78)

I GOT RHYTHM (posted on YouTube by tmmvds)

HEY, YOUNG FELLA (Posted on YouTube by edmundusrex)

TWO CIGARETTES IN THE DARK (Posted on YouTube by MusicProf78)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Buddy Clark: The Untimely Death of an Overlooked Crooner

After a ten-month hiatus, The Vintage Bandstand returns with a long-overdue article on Buddy Clark, one of my favorite singers of the 1940s, whose untimely death in a plane crash in 1949 cut short a career that was then at the peak of its commercial success.

On October 1, 1949, a plane crashed on Beverly Boulevard. It had been chartered by Buddy Clark so that he and some of his friends could attend a Stanford vs. Michigan college football game and be back in Los Angeles in time for Clark to host a radio show. The tragedy ended the career of one of the most popular singers of the 1940s at a point in time when his popularity was reaching its peak. Although lately Buddy Clark has not received as much critical recognition as some of his contemporaries, like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Dick Haymes, he was one of the most successful vocalists of his time.

Born Samuel Goldberg in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1912, Clark was first drawn to sports but would soon take up music as a profession, singing on popular radio shows such as Your Hit Parade and Let’s Dance, the latter starring Benny Goodman and his orchestra. Like many other singers of the era, Clark was primarily influenced by the warm sound of Bing Crosby, which can be heard particularly in his early, lesser-known sides for Vocalion. Crosby’s influence aside, in time Clark would develop into a very recognizable singer, with a distinctly smooth and romantic approach to the vocal art that earned him quite a following. As Roy Hemming and David Hajdu noted, in the years when younger listeners favored Frank Sinatra’s intensely intimate style, Clark’s rich baritone appealed to “the middle-of-the-road listener who favored a more straightforward style of pop singing” (104). This style can be heard at its best in some of Clark’s recordings of the 1940s, particularly when he decided to revive older songs such as “That Old Gang of Mine,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and “I’ll Get By,” the latter recorded by Bing Crosby as early as 1928.

Though Clark was constantly heard singing live on radio and making radio transcriptions in the late 1930s and early 1940s, his career as a recording artist would not come into its own until 1946, when he was the featured vocalist with the Ray Noble orchestra on “Linda,” a Columbia recording that became an instant success and marked the beginning of a series of hits that was only cut short by his death a couple of years later. “Linda” is more of a skit than a song and includes some spoken sections: the lyrics present Clark’s character trying to talk a girl, Linda, on whom he has been keeping an eye for days, into accepting to go out on a date with him. The first three lines are memorable in their depiction of Clark’s light-hearted obsession with Linda:

When I go to sleep
I never count sheep
I count all the charms about Linda

Of course, as the song advances, Clark’s smooth crooning succeeds in breaking down the girl’s reticence and securing the date for Saturday night: “Boy, that’s a date!” says a delighted Clark toward the end of the song. With its very catchy tune, “Linda” topped the Billboard charts in 1947 and was so successful that about a year later Clark and Noble came up with a follow-up entitled “I’ll Dance at Your Wedding,” which did not achieve the same kind of success as its predecessor but which is also a very enjoyable recording.

Promotional movie short starring Buddy Clark that dramatizes the story told in the lyrics to "Linda" (posted on YouTube by neverknewtillnow)

After “Linda” hit the charts, Clark’s days as a vocalist on radio transcriptions that mostly used stock arrangements and on which he was often uncredited and backed by bands led by Freddy Martin, Eddy Duchin, and Benny Goodman, among others, were over. Hit recordings started pouring in, great sides like “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?,” Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to,” and his revival of “Peg o’My Heart,” which have not received as much critical attention as their musical quality should have warranted. The last two years of Buddy Clark’s life were also filled with healthy record sales and chart hits, including a duet with Doris Day on “My Darling, My Darling” and another with Dinah Shore on the classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Shortly before his tragic death in the fall of 1949, Clark had taken to the stage in a production of the George and Ira Gershwin musical Girl Crazy, which could have in time opened the doors to Broadway. However, he would not have the opportunity to make it big on the stage, and the plane crash that claimed his life thwarted the wonderful career of a man who had certainly worked hard to achieve the success that he was finally enjoying.

Buddy Clark with arranger/conductor Mitchell Ayres

Unfortunately, not a lot Buddy Clark’s recorded output is readily available on CD, which could very well explain the neglect into which he has fallen as of late. Many fine compilations, such as Here’s to Romance (ASV Living Era) and Remembering Buddy Clark (Collector’s Choice), are out of print, and reissues of his 1930s recordings (Take Two’s Band Vocals from the Thirties, for instance) have also been discontinued. Therefore, the best and most affordable option available is the aptly entitled Linda, a collection released by Collectables Records featuring twenty-four of his recordings made between 1942 and 1949, ranging from a version of the novelty tune “K-K-K-Katy” with organ accompaniment to the delightful “A Dreamer’s Holiday,” his last chart entry, recorded in September of 1949. In between, there are a host of magnificent recordings that showcase Clark’s polished singing style, as well as his collaborations with arranger/conductor Mitchell Ayres, who directs the orchestra on Clark’s renditions of “It’s a Big, Wide, Wonderful World,” Bing Crosby’s perennial “Just One More Chance,” “If This Isn’t Love,” and “An Apple Blossom Wedding,” to name but a few.

The compilation also includes Clark’s very enjoyable take on Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” with an English lyric by Mack David entitled “You’re Too Dangerous Cherie,” as well as three Latin-flavored sides from 1946-1947 (“South America, Take It Away!,” “Chiquita Banana,” and “You Don’t Have to Know the Language”) on which he is accompanied by the great Xavier Cugat orchestra, proving his undeniable versatility and ease with novelty songs. The overall sound of the compilation is good, and the liner notes by Mark Marymont, albeit rather short, are quite informative. However, Buddy Clark’s recorded legacy deserves a more thorough CD reissue encompassing both the 1930s and 1940s that may help put his career into perspective and contribute to granting him the recognition that he deserves.

Works Cited

Roy Hemming and David Hajdu. Discovering Great Singers of Classic Pop. New York: New Market Press, 1991.

Mark Marymont. "Liner Notes to Linda." Collectables Records, 1999.


TEN O'CLOCK JUMP - with Eddy Duchin (posted on YouTube by knarf826)

POWDER YOUR FACE WITH SUNSHINE - with Doris Day (posted on YouTube by Dayniac4324)

PEG O'MY HEART (posted on YouTube by rhymebaron)

GIRL OF MY DREAMS (posted on YouTube by terracite)

A DREAMER'S HOLIDAY (posted on YouTube by philsmusic1000)