Saturday, December 14, 2013

Bandstand Christmas Essentials 2: Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas

The second installment in our series of Bandstand Christmas Essentials takes a look at one of the most swinging seasonal albums ever recorded—Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, produced by Norman Granz and arranged and conducted by Frank DeVol. Ella is in top form, the studio orchestra provides some very inspired backing, and the song choices offer a few surprises. The result is a holiday album that oozes with jazz and sounds extremely fun.

Throughout her long and prolific career, Ella Fitzgerald recorded comparatively few Christmas songs. A quick look at her vast discography reveals that Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, a full-length album that she cut for Verve in 1960, is her most satisfying seasonal offering. Like Dean Martin's A Winter Romance, this is not exactly a traditional Yuletide record, although the song selection definitely includes more straight-ahead Christmas songs than Dino's Capitol classic. The anonymous original liner notes of the album actually underscore this fact:

Mindful that Christmas albums normally emphasize the religious and the solemn, Ella chose in this to stress the festive aspect of the season; hence the latitude employed in the selection of material. As if to ask: Why not the peace and good will of Christmas the year 'round?

And, as the title of the collection suggests, Ella's Christmas is not only merry and cheerful but also swinging. This is so, in part, because of Frank DeVol's hip yet unobtrusive arrangements, which help Ella sound as cool as it is possible in this type of album. But it is also due to Fitzgerald's love for this kind of material: she is obviously having a good time with these tunes, often improvising on the melodies, which results in a much more enjoyable finished product. The best example of this is, in fact, the most surprising choice, Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing's "Good Morning Blues," a song that one usually does not find in a seasonal album but that somehow seems tailor-made for Ella's swinging Christmas theme. The rest of the repertoire is much more predictable, including evergreens such as "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!," and of course, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." But DeVol's jazzy charts are a breath of fresh air, and they certainly bring out the best in Ella, whose voice is in the finest of forms. Even the vocal group used on some of the tracks does not sound stale and annoying but is a welcome addition to the arrangement.

Arranger Frank DeVol
DeVol also leaves room for some interesting solos, such as the trumpet on "White Christmas" and the piano on "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The latter even has Ella quoting from The Kingston Trio's folk hit "Tom Dooley," and on "Jingle Bells," when she sings about those jingle bells jingling all the way, she does not only make the bells jingle, but swing all the way. A couple of slower ballads, Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" and Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?," are good for a slight change of pace and rank among the highlights of a very recommendable LP. The twelve tracks on the original album were reissued on CD in 1988 featuring only the brief 1960 liner notes and no information regarding the personnel of the sessions, but in 2002 it was repackaged and reissued with a few bonus tracks and detailed notes written by Will Friedwald. While it is too bad that Ella did not record much more Christmas music (her Capitol Christmas album finds her backed by a string orchestra, but it would have been nice if she had done something in a small-group jazz setting, for instance) this album is top-notch Yuletide fare and definitely does deliver on its promise of wishing the listener a swinging Christmas.

Cover of the 2002 second CD reissue

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bandstand Christmas Essentials 1: Dean Martin's A Winter Romance

The holiday season is upon us again, and if last year we published an article on the Christmas recordings of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Dick Haymes, three voices that are essential when it comes to providing melodies for this "most wonderful time of the year," we are now beginning a new series of posts that will hopefully become a Vintage Bandstand tradition. Entitled Bandstand Christmas Essentials, these brief reviews of holiday albums will only be published every month of December. And the first installment spotlights one of my favorite seasonal albums—Dean Martin's A Winter Romance.

Although Dean Martin recorded several Christmas songs throughout his long and successful career (as evidenced by the many anthologies of that type of material currently on the market), as well as a fine full-fledged holiday album for Reprise in 1966, it is his seasonal offering, A Winter Romance, that I would like to spotlight this year. And this is, indeed, a "seasonal" LP in the full sense of the word, for as its very title suggests, this 1959 Capitol gem is a collection of winter-themed tunes that inevitably includes a few Christmas songs, although Martin wisely stays away from traditional carols, which would not have suited the general atmosphere of the disc. Just looking briefly at the cover, it seems rather obvious that it was never anyone's intention to create a Christmas album here. The setting is a mountain ski resort, with lots of snow, a stylish cabin in the background, and people getting ready to go skiing down some slope, and everything has a definite Rockwellian feeling. But on the far left Dino is reluctantly hugging a very willing girlfriend while looking at another woman on the far right who is also suggestively smiling back at him. Not much to indicate Christmas here, unless it is that the character portrayed by Dino hopes to get to be someone's Santa sometime soon...

But as classic Dean Martin as the cover is (it somehow has always reminded me of the one from Pretty Baby, another one of his Capitol outings), we should not get too caught up in it, since the music is the important thing here. The album is bookended by two special-material tunes from the pen of Sammy Cahn and Ken Lane, the one that opens and lends its title to the LP and "It Won't Cool Off," placed as the closing track. The former is the most interesting, a beautiful melody with a lyric that appropriately sets the scene for the rest of the selections but that is somewhat misleading regarding the organization of the album. While "A Winter Romance" introduces the theme of a love story that begins during the winter, the album does not explore such a story, which is just an excuse to string together songs about snow, cold weather, winter wonderlands, and, as already noted, the holiday season.

Dino getting ready for the holidays
In between the two Cahn-Lane compositions, we find some fast-paced tracks about the joys of love during the cold season ("Winter Wonderland," "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm"), as well as some beautiful ballads like the pensive "The Things We Did Last Summer" (which Frank Sinatra had recorded superbly for Columbia in the 1940s) and the Bing Crosby evergreen "June in January." Two standouts from the album are Dino's lovely mid-tempo reading of "Canadian Sunset" and the often overlooked "Out in the Cold Again," an older song also cut by Johnnie Ray around the same time and handled by Dean with gusto and ease here. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is undeniably the perfect vehicle for Dino's charming, happy-go-lucky persona, and instead of doing it as a duet with another singer, as is usually the case, he chooses to sing it with a female chorus, which does not work badly either. The two selections most commonly associated with the holiday season are "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," complete with Martin's ad-libbed impersonation of Santa Claus speaking with what sounds like a fake German accent and an enjoyable rendition of "White Christmas" that never strays too far away from Crosby's classic Decca recording. The orchestra and chorus are directed by the lesser-known Gus Levene, and the arrangements are always tasteful and never get in the way of Martin's singing. Finally, the CD reissue adds a bonus track to the twelve on the 1959 LP, "The Christmas Blues," another song written by Cahn but recorded six years earlier which perfectly fits the theme and mood of the album and is most welcome. The original liner notes conclude that "the music, combined with Dean's vocal artistry, succeeds in producing just the kind of lover's glow to stir everyone to humming, dancing, and romancing—whether it's hot or cold outside," and even though Dino recorded more straight-ahead Christmas offerings that are also worth owning, A Winter Romance is an album that never stops spinning on my record player every year come December.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 2: Charlie Palloy

Another fine CD released by the California-based company The Old Masters gives us the perfect excuse to discuss the recordings of Charlie Palloy, a very obscure artist who made a handful of recordings in the early 1930s and subsequently vanished from sight. His small recorded legacy, though, reveals a very interesting singer and jazzy guitar player who was influenced by Bing Crosby, Eddie Lang, and Nick Lucas.

Very seldom do we find an artist about whom information is so scarce that it is absolutely impossible to determine even an approximate place and date of birth and death, not to mention other specifics about his personal life and career. This is precisely the case of Charlie Palloy, a singer-guitarist whose life story, like the budget label for which he made most of his recordings, Crown Records, is shrouded in such mystery that we simply have to rely on the aural evidence of his recorded work (which is just as scarce as the sources to reconstruct his chronology) in order to try to understand where his artistic ideas and inclinations came from. And the few sides he left us indeed show that, as a vocalist, he was heavily influenced by Bing Crosby, although his baritone was not as rich and deep as Der Bingle's, and as a guitarist he owed a great deal to Eddie Lang (not coincidentally, Crosby's accompanist of choice) and Nick Lucas. Researcher Allan Dodge, who wrote the liner notes for the only CD compilation of Palloy's music currently available, notes that his last name "is taken from the Greek word meaning 'of the common man' and exists as a common name today."

Palloy is uncredited on this 1932 Crown side
Whether this was his real name or not, the Greek meaning is fitting in his case, since he not only remains a very unknown figure today, but even in his day, he was simply a studio-bound singer who recorded exclusively with Crown's house bands and who would have been virtually indistinguishable from many other similar studio vocalists by the buying public, often more interested in the hit song than in the performer. This was, indeed, a common practice at the time (Dick Robertson and Chick Bullock are just two other examples that come readily to mind) and, like many of this type of artists, Palloy does not seem to have made any radio broadcasts or personal appearances. Unfortunately, Crown's session logs are not specific regarding the personnel of the bands backing Palloy, which often identified themselves with different names, although most of his sides were issued as by "Charlie Palloy and His Orchestra," without any information about the identity of the musicians who graced many of the recordings with some undeniably hot solos. As was the common practice then, these house bands also used stock arrangements, though in the case of Palloy's discs, he is allotted plenty of room for both his vocals and guitar playing. This is actually rather unusual in that other musicians, like Lucas and Lang, who were definitely more popular than Palloy, often did not get as much solo space on vocal records as Palloy. However, this is to the benefit of the listener, as he really was quite an accomplished crooner and guitar player.

The only CD completely devoted to Palloy that can be purchased at the time of this writing is Vocals & Guitar (The Old Masters), a very recommendable release that includes 22 sides that he cut for Crown in 1932 and 1933, as well as his only appearance on the Columbia label, providing the vocals for the 1933 version of "On a Steamer Coming Over" by the Meyer Davis Orchestra. The song selection makes it clear that Crown, a budget label distributed through Woolworth's, was attempting to market Palloy as a Crosby soundalike, having him record numbers associated with Bing ("Try a Little Tenderness," "Learn to Croon," "Just an Echo in the Valley," and particularly "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime") to be sold at a much lower price than Crosby's originals. That is precisely the kind of market niche for which budget operations such as Crown were aiming during the depths of the Great Depression, and Palloy handles this material with ease, usually managing not to sound exactly like a carbon copy of Crosby.

The Meyer Davis Orchestra, with whom Palloy recorded one side for Columbia in 1933

One of the most interesting tracks in the collection is the reading of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" complete with some scatting from Palloy and some jazzy muted trumpet and saxophone. His scatting abilities are also on further display on "Forty Second Street," which features a rather lengthy scat chorus that suggests that he enjoyed wordless singing. Palloy's guitar shines on some quite extended solos, particularly on "The Gold Diggers Song (We're in the Money)" and "I've Got to Sing a Torch Song," and he also shows his talent for singing at slower, though still danceable tempos on "Stormy Weather" and "Say It Isn't So." Palloy proves to be very versatile throughout, both as a singer and as a rhythm and lead guitarist, making us wish that he had enjoyed a longer, more successful career. As it was, however, his recordings span less than two years, and after 1933, he disappeared into total obscurity never to surface again. The rarity and quality of these sides, together with Dodge's very informative liner notes (which, when writing about Palloy, is itself quite a remarkable accomplishment), definitely make this Old Masters CD an essential purchase. As for the mystery surrounding Palloy, hopefully one day some lucky researcher will come upon some time-worn documents in some forgotten basement that will shed some light on his obscure figure. Until then, though, Palloy's few recordings are a real pleasure to enjoy.


Note on Charlie Palloy's Vocals & Guitar CD

This fine Charlie Palloy compilation can be obtained from major online retailers such as Amazon. It can also be purchased by writing to The Old Masters. P.O. Box 25358. San Mateo, CA 94402. USA.

Palloy's version of "Try a Little Tenderness" is also available on the compilation The First Crooners Vol. 2: 1930-1934 (Take Two), which includes tracks by other neglected crooners of the era, such as Sam Coslow, Chick Bullock, Art Gillham, Little Jack Little, Jack Miller, Smith Ballew, Carl Brisson, and Conrad Thibault, to name but a few.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Vintage Records Review Desk 5: Dick Todd, Nat King Cole, Buddy Greco, Ronnie Deauville, Herb Jeffries

In addition to Nat King Cole's excellent After Midnight, one of my favorites among his always remarkable Capitol albums, this new post in the Vintage Records Review Desk series features four male vocalists that are now forgotten or that, in my opinion at least, do not currently enjoy the recognition that they deserve. In fact, in the case of three of them (Dick Todd, Ronnie Deauville, and Herb Jeffries) compact-disc releases are actually rather scarce, yet all the choices presented here are highly recommendable. Incidentally, the singers that are spotlighted today have taken many a tip from Cole, from Bing Crosby, or from both of them.

In my recent article about Jean Sablon, I mentioned the name of Dick Todd, one of the many singers of the 1930s and 1940s who were influenced by the sound of Bing Crosby, so I thought it would be a good idea to begin this new installment of the Vintage Records Review Desk by spotlighting one of the precious few CDs currently available by this crooner once hailed as the "Canadian Crosby." The moniker was not without justification, since Todd often reminds us of Bing's husky voice from the 1930s, but it certainly has had a damaging effect on his legacy, as Todd has gone down in the history of pop music—when his name is brought up at all, that is—merely as one of several Crosby imitators. In his early years as a solo act, Frank Sinatra recorded a parody of "Sunday, Monday, or Always" for a V-Disc which went, "I'll soon become a wreck / They're breathing down my neck / Dick Haymes, Dick Todd, and Como." If anything, this is ample proof of Todd's popularity at the time (he had actually begun his recording career slightly earlier than Young Blue Eyes) yet unfortunately, his popularity began to dwindle in the late 1940s, and by the 1950s, he was a relic of the past, forgotten and unable to make any sort of comeback. However, even a superficial listen to the two-CD set Orchids for Remembrance (Jasmine, 2003), containing 52 sides cut for Bluebird during Todd's heyday, between 1938 and 1942,  reveals how unfair his fate was.

For starters, even though his phrasing and intonation were shaped by Crosby, it is very clear that he was not just a Bing soundalike; rather, he did have a style of his own and possessed a rich voice that, like Crosby's, went over well on radio. Moreover, his confidence in his abilities as a singer seems to increase with the passing of time, aided by the polished playing of the studio orchestra under the direction of Leonard Joy. One of the main differences with Crosby is that Todd was no jazz singer; he was at his best as a balladeer, and on this Jasmine compilation there are plenty of examples of his mastery of slow numbers, including a beautiful version of "Moonlight Serenade," one of the highlights of a set that also features Todd's takes on some oft-recorded tunes, such as "I'll Be Seeing You," "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," "How About You?" and "Say It Isn't So," to name but four. After several years of inactivity and personal problems, Todd was almost penniless when he passed away in 1973. Mr. David Lobosco remembers Todd in a rather detailed article published in his blog, A Trip Down Memory Lane, which you can read here.

By the mid-1950s, Nat King Cole had gradually concentrated on singing and had become a pop star thanks to a slew of commercially and artistically successful concept albums for Capitol. Not that he had totally forgotten his past as the founder and leader of the trailblazing King Cole trio, which paved the way for so many similarly styled combos, but there was undeniably more money in pop singing, and he was gifted with a unique voice that captivated the public's imagination. And then, in 1956, Cole stepped back into jazz territory by revisiting his trio sound on an album entitled After Midnight (Capitol, 1956 / 1999). Cut over four sessions, the LP finds Cole playing piano and singing in the company of John Collins on guitar, Charlie Harris on bass, and Lee Young (Lester Young's brother) on drums.  Each session features a guest star, which is a fine idea because it adds depth to the sound of the trio-turned-quartet, particularly if we bear in mind that the guests are musicians of the caliber of trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, altoist Willie Smith, violinist Stuff Smith, and valve trombonist Juan Tizol. As the title seems to imply, this is a very relaxed album, with everyone involved interacting seamlessly as Cole revisits classics such as "Sweet Lorraine," "Just You, Just Me," "Caravan" (with the benefit of composer Tizol's trombone), and "I Know That You Know." The ballads ("Blame It On My Youth," "You're Looking at Me") are moody, and there are also some nice surprises in a lovely, violin-laden reading of "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" and the lesser-known "Don't Let It Go to Your Head." This is essential listening for any jazz aficionado, and the 1999 CD reissue adds six more tracks to the twelve on the original LP. The most interesting of these are a pensive ballad treatment of "You Can Depend on Me," usually associated with blues shouter and big band singer Jimmy Rushing, and a swinging take on Johnny Mercer's "Candy."

One of several vocalists who have recognized their debt to Nat King Cole is Buddy Greco, a prolific singer and pianist whose playing is heavily influenced by Cole and whose long career yielded notable albums such as Buddy Greco at Mister Kelly's and Songs for Swinging Losers. Some critics have noted that Greco is best experienced in a nightclub setting because of his engaging stage persona and his penchant for improvisation. If that is true, though, the two-fer My Buddy / On Stage! (Collectables, 1999) is not the best place to hear Greco live, since, as Will Friedwald has noted, these seem to be studio albums with added sound effects to make them appear to be live recordings. On aural evidence, it is hard to disagree with Mr. Friedwald, but it does not matter, because these are two of the best releases of Greco's career, recorded for Epic in 1959 and 1964 respectively. I have never understood the appeal of contrived live albums, particularly when the technology did exist to record actual live performances, but Tony Bennett's fine sessions with the Count Basie orchestra, made around the time that My Buddy was cut, were also issued that way. Both LPs presented here are equally interesting, though, and they are full of very inspired moments, such as, for instance, the sparse, swinging versions of "Like Young" and "Just in Time," the introspective treatment of Erroll Garner's "Misty" that features a celesta, the appealing Italian tune "(I Don't Care) Only Love Me," and the lyrically updated readings of "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "How About You" on My Buddy. Cut five years later, On Stage! seems to leave more room for Greco's piano playing ("Get Me to the Church on Time," for instance, includes a very engaging solo from him, while "It's Such a Happy Day" is an instrumental version of a rather lackluster tune written by Jackie Gleason) and also has its highlights, among them "The Best Man," "Dreamy," a magnificent extended reading of "I Can't Get Started," and the bluesy "The Best Is Yet to Come" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." This Collectables CD reissue also includes Greco's minor hit "Mr. Lonely," and even though the sound is good, the notes by Mark Marymont, while briefly outlining Greco's career, do not offer any information about the two albums contained herein, which is strange to say the least.

Florida-born Ronnie Deauville began his career as a big band vocalist during the twilight of the great band era, and before trying his luck on his own, he was featured with Glen Gray, Ray Anthony, and former Glenn Miller sideman Tex Beneke. However, his best effort was an album that he cut in 1956 (the same year as Cole's After Midnight) with a quintet led by Lloyd Shaffer. Titled Smoke Dreams, it is a collection of subdued, intimate arrangements that are perfect for Deauville's thin, though hauntingly expressive voice. The quintet provides a relaxed setting for Deauville to shine on very slow numbers such as "I Kiss Your Hand, Madame," "Love Is Here to Stay," "Say It Isn't So," "Something to Remember You By," and "I Had the Craziest Dream." Unfortunately, Deauville was involved in a car accident, following which his life depended on an iron lung for more than a year. This, together with his problems with polio and the fact that he was wheelchair-bound from then on, was a blow from which his career, sadly, never recovered. But Smoke Dreams remains a truly forgotten gem of 1950s classy pop singing that it is high time to rediscover. Fortunately, this is now possible thanks to The Vocal Touch of Ronnie Deauville (Sounds of Yesteryear, 2012), a very welcome British CD reissue that includes Deauville's wonderful 1956 LP, augmented by tracks from his 1948 radio broadcasts with Beneke and 1950 studio recordings with Anthony. The liner notes by Michael Highton are a little short but offer an overview of Deauville's tragically brief career, and if anyone is interested in reading some more about his life, there is a neatly written article on him here.

And finally, an artist with a long career who is vastly underrated these days is the multifaceted Herb Jeffries, a one-time featured vocalist with the Duke Ellington orchestra (with whom he scored a big hit with "Flamingo") who also cultivated a career as an actor, starring in a series of all-black B-western movies as a singing cowboy named the Bronze Buckaroo. In his approach to the vocal art we can find traces of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, so it is no wonder that he paid tribute to both of them on two of his albums from the 1970s, If I Were King and I Remember the Bing, with the Lou Levy Trio and Quartet respectively. Gary Crosby wrote the liner notes for the latter, and the two of them are gathered together on a very recommendable 2003 Audiophile reissue. As in the case of Dick Todd, there is precious little available by Jeffries on CD, but fortunately, Say It Isn't So (Bethlehem, 1957), is an exception to this, at least at the time of this writing. By the late 1950s, Jeffries was no longer singing with Ellington and had been touring Europe for a while before he entered the recording studio to cut this LP. As the original liner notes describe it, "this is truly a Torch album," a set of twelve intimate ballads thoughtfully arranged and conducted by Russ Garcia that allows Jeffries ample freedom of expression as his rich, warm, always perfectly modulated voice sings of the heartache caused by lost love. The song selection is outstanding, including classic tunes like the title track (coincidentally, one of the songs on Ronnie Deauville's Smoke Dreams), "When Your Lover Has Gone," "It's the Talk of the Town," "Angel Eyes," "Glad to Be Unhappy," "The End of a Love Affair," and the somewhat under-recorded "Dinner for One, Please James." There is also a sort of tribute to Crosby with the inclusion of "Easy to Remember" and "(I Don't Stand) A Ghost of a Chance," and overall this is an excellent, well-rounded album that, albeit often overlooked, is one of the high points of Jeffries's career. And yes, that beautiful lady in a nightgown on the cover is, indeed, a young Barbara Eden, about eight years away from becoming the star of the NBC sitcom I Dream of Jeannie! Who knew???

The original cover of Ronnie Deauville's 1956 album Smoke Dreams

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Je Suis Sex-Appeal": Jean Sablon and the Art of Crooning in French

In the early 1930s, after Bing Crosby rose to prominence with a vocal style that was a noticeable modernization of the sound of 1920s crooners such as Gene Austin, Nick Lucas, Johnny Marvin, and Rudy Vallee, many other vocalists followed in his wake. Far from the high-pitched sound of his predecessors, Crosby's style of crooning was richer and much more appealing and exciting because it oozed with elements taken from the jazz idiom by way of Louis Armstrong and his contemporaries. This was the kind of music that shaped many of Der Bingle's best records throughout his career, his love of jazz always evident in his phrasing and sense of rhythm. The list of artists that were influenced by Crosby would be too long, so suffice it to say that it includes the likes of Buddy Clark, Perry Como, Dick Haymes, and a young Frank Sinatra, among countless others. Canada had its own "Canadian Crosby" in the often underrated Dick Todd, and across the pond, British singers such as Sam Browne, Denny Dennis, and later Michael Holliday (whose admiration for Bing was such that he strove to sound like Bing) were inspired by Crosby's hugely influential records to find their own style. And then, across the Channel, in France, there was Jean Sablon.

Grappelli & Reinhardt
Sablon, born in Nogent-sur-Marne, not too far from Paris, in 1906, actually had quite a few things in common with Bing. Both of them grew up fascinated by the strains of early jazz, and if Crosby was one of the first vocalists to understand the expressive possibilities of the microphone and to use it as an actual instrument, Sablon was reportedly the first French performer to appear on stage with a microphone, something that did not happen until 1935 or 1936. Crosby recorded all kinds of songs, from jazz numbers to Hawaiian ballads to country-and-western tunes, while Sablon seemed to be always in the avant-garde, bringing popular new rhythms into the French musical mainstream. Also, while Bing relished the company of jazz musicians such as Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, Sablon was among the first to record with French jazz legends like Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. More than any other of his contemporaries, Sablon was responsible for introducing jazz into French popular music, and in fact, the very first time that Reinhardt ever soloed on wax was on Sablon's 1934 record of "Le Jour Où Je Te Vis," which was, not coincidentally, a French version of Bing Crosby's "The Day You Came Along." Michael Dregni describes the solo in his interesting biography of Reinhardt, Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend (Oxford UP, 2004):

While it was a simple chorus, it enhanced the aura of the song with sympathetic obbligatos and graceful ornamentation. Django inserted artful arpeggios into the arrangement, bridging verses as well as offering harmonic counterpoints to Sablon' vocal melody. The solo was not the audacious Django of his musette or jazz playing but rather was restrained and stylish, the perfect complement to Sablon's music. (67-68)

This is not to say that Sablon's voice is always "restrained and stylish"; on the contrary, he demonstrates an excellent sense of swing, which is evident, for example, in his jazzy version of the traditional song "Sur Le Pont d'Avignon," as well as on many of his other tracks with Reinhardt, such as "Je Suis Sex-Appeal" and "Par Correspondance," and in his French reading of "The Continental," recorded as "Rythme du Bal Continental" with Django on guitar and the excellent American pianist Garland Wilson in 1935. All of these tracks can be found on The Great French Stars: J'Attendrai (ASV/Living Era), a currently out-of-print collection of Sablon's 1930s recordings, many of which feature Reinhardt and Grappelli.

Sablon hosted hie own NBC radio show
But Sablon was equally at home as a balladeer, performing slow numbers with ease and gusto in a style that is often reminiscent of Crosby. On these, he is usually accompanied by the highly accomplished orchestras of André Ekyan and Wal-Berg, and they include classics such as "J'Attendrai," "Je Sais Que Vous Etes Jolie," "Un Amour Comme Le Notre" (sung as a duet with his sister Germaine) and "Vous Qui Passez Sans Me Voir," this last one written by the great Charles Trenet. His popularity throughout Europe led to a trip to the United States in 1937, where he met Cole Porter and George Gershwin, hosting his own NBC coast-to-coast radio show and guesting on several other programs alongside, among others, Frances Langford and Eddie Cantor. While in the United States, Sablon cut several sides in English, yet somehow he does not sound as convincing on "Stardust," "Two Sleepy People," and "Can I Forget You?" as he does on his French hits. Unlike Maurice Chevalier, whose French accent when singing and speaking in English actually advanced his career as an actor and a vocalist in the United States, Sablon never actually achieved major star status stateside (at least not to the extent that Chevalier or Charles Aznavour did) although he toured North and South America more than once throughout his long career. His English recordings are nonetheless polished and charming, but he is definitely at his best when he adapts American songs into French, as he does in his excellent 1939 rendition of (yet again) Crosby's "I've Got a Pocketful of Dreams" as "J'Suis Pas Millionaire."

Always a globetrotter, Sablon toured internationally, bringing his career as a live performer to an end in the 1980s with farewell stage appearances in Paris, New York, and Rio de Janeiro. He passed away in 1994, and his recorded oeuvre is vast and rich, although unfortunately many of his recordings are yet to be reissued on CD. For those interested in delving into his music, the best choice as of this writing is the indispensable (though recently deleted) four-CD set 100 Chansons (EMI France, 2008), which, though not arranged chronologically, presents one hundred sides from different periods of his career, making it the most complete Sablon collection to date. Jean Sablon became the prototype of the French jazz-tinged crooner in a country that for decades was fascinated by jazz. Though he was originally inspired by Crosby, Sablon in turn influenced several other singers that followed him, among them legendary names such as Charles Trenet, Yves Montand, Georges Brassens (his duets with Sablon on television are delightful to watch), and Jacques Brel. Suave, elegant, and always projecting an irresistibly classy nonchalance on stage, Sablon is an icon of the French chanson, and his importance was once very accurately (and poetically) summed up by his friend, the writer and all-around intellectual Jean Cocteau: "The waves, the sounds of the streets, the records, the refrains whistled by cyclists out on the street turned Jean Sablon into a great, vague face beloved of one and all, but without a clear shape, like memory." And, indeed, his voice is like a memory that is always a pleasure to rediscover.

Jean Sablon and Duke Ellington

In this excellent video, Sablon leans over the piano and softy croons Duke Ellington's "Solitude" while Ellington himself tickles the ivories.

More information on Jean Sablon

If you are interested in finding out more about Jean Sablon, visit the Official Jean Sablon Website, where you will find more information both in English and in French.

Sablon was the first French singer to employ a microphone

Update on October 30, 2013

One of the users of the Crosby Fan World forum, Jeremyrose, posted a message after reading this article on Jean Sablon (who is, he says, one of his favorite crooners) to recommend further releases to those wishing to explore Sablon's recorded output. Here are his recommendations, transcribed directly from his post on the Crosby Fan World forum:

The French company Fremeaux et Associés has two double CD sets of Sablon tracks, the best of which is the set covering 1933-1946. Bing gets a mention in the French translation of the lyric of "These Foolish Things"—"Ces Petites Choses." There is also a release available as a download from an English company called Pristine Classical, who specialize in downloads of historic classical recordings. They have got a jazz section, however, and there is a Jean Sablon release called Songs of a Boulevardier. It's a "three-albums-on-one" release, and included are the eight tracks of a 10-inch LP (Songs of a Boulevardier) which Sablon recorded in America in the early 50s. There is a nice Crosby connection in that the musical director on that album is the Philco Radio Time stalwart, Skitch Henderson.

Thanks for the information, Jeremyrose! It is also nice to know that the French translator of "These Foolish Things" kept the allusion to Bing Crosby that the original text of the song already has. Indeed, one of the things that the beautiful original lyric by Eric Maschwitz lists is "the song that Crosby sings."

Monday, September 2, 2013

Vintage Records Review Desk 4: Ziggy Elman, Bob Manning, Johnny Desmond, Benny Goodman & Anita O'Day, Dorothy Carless

Following a couple of trips to Nashville and Memphis, this new installment in our Vintage Records Review Desk series features recent purchases that I have been playing quite a bit in the past few weeks. Though some of these recordings are rather obscure, all of them are highly recommendable additions to anyone's collection. A compilation of sides by the orchestra led by trumpeter Ziggy Elman, a live recording of Benny Goodman with Anita O'Day, and CDs by vocalists Bob Manning, Johnny Desmond, and Dorothy Carless will be under critical scrutiny this time.

We begin with Philadelphia-born trumpeter Ziggy Elman, one of the best and most popular star soloists of the Swing Era, a multi-instrumentalist who was also proficient on alto sax and trombone. Elman became known primarily through his association with Benny Goodman (he appeared at Goodman's landmark concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938) and Tommy Dorsey, with whom he worked off and on in the 1940s. After World War II, and just as the heyday of the big bands was coming to an end, he formed his own orchestra and made some outstanding recordings for MGM in New York and Los Angeles. All the sides that are known to have been released are compiled on The Issued Recordings 1947 & 1949 (Jazz Band, 2000). Though not commercially successful at the time, these are very appealing recordings superbly played by a band that at different times included great musicians such as Charlie Shavers, Babe Russin, Heinie Beau, Buddy DeFranco, Louis Bellson, Buddy Cole, and Perry Botkin, among others. Most of the charts were thoughtfully arranged by Sid Cooper, with highlights including "How High the Moon," "Body and Soul," and "I'll Get By," as well as tunes usually associated with Elman, such as "Zaggin' with Zig" and his own classic composition "And the Angels Sing." Vocals were provided by two fine, though now mostly forgotten singers: Virginia Maxey and Bob Manning. For more information on Ziggy Elman, you can find a very interesting article here.

Speaking of Bob Manning, he may very well be one of the most under-recorded vocalists in the history of popular music, which certainly is a pity, because his voice was fantastic and had a romantic, soothing tone that should have turned him into a major star. But perhaps he arrived on the scene a little too late, making most of his best solo recordings in the 1950s, when the popularity of many former band vocalists like himself was in steady decline. As a result, the only CD compilation of his Capitol output currently available is the eighteen-song Spotlight on Bob Manning (Capitol, 1994), which leaves us yearning for more. All the tracks were recorded between 1953 and 1955 and find Manning backed by various studio orchestras conducted by Monty Kelly, although there are some titles made with Sid Feller, Nelson Riddle, and surprisingly, Bobby Hackett. Obviously influenced by Dick Haymes, Manning's warm baritone was at his best on ballads, which is what he mostly sings here, taking well-known standards such as "I Had the Craziest Dream," "These Foolish Things," "That Old Feeling," "You've Changed," and many others at very slow tempi that underscore the intimate nature of each song. Listening to these beautiful recordings, one cannot help but wish that some label would decide to release a more comprehensive collection of Manning's rather obscure body of work.

Another vocalist who began his career as a big band singer and later struck out on his own was Johnny Desmond. Not as well remembered today as other singers of the period, Desmond, unlike Manning, made his most enduring recordings in the 1940s, at a time when his popularity among World War II servicemen earned him the nickname of "the G.I. Sinatra." Indeed, throughout the forties, he was a featured vocalist with Bob Crosby, Gene Krupa, and Glenn Miller, making a series of radio broadcasts with Miller in Europe that even called for him to sing in German! Desmond was a constant presence in the charts until the early 1950s, and in January 1958, he recorded his best album, simply titled Johnny Desmond Swings (Pickwick, 1997) and produced by Dave Pell for the Tops label. The album was one of John Williams' early arranging assignments, and it is very clear that he had been listening closely to Frank Sinatra's classic Capitol LPs arranged by Nelson Riddle and Billy May. Some of Williams' arrangements work really well ("There's a Small Hotel," "All of You," "This Can't Be Love"), while some others are a little overdone ("I Got Plenty of Nuttin'," "It Ain't Necessarily So"). Even some of the song choices point toward Sinatra here, and in my opinion, the most satisfying track on the album is the very pensive reading of "It's the Talk of the Town." Again, it really is too bad that Desmond did not get a chance to make more albums like this.

From Germany comes a very interesting release, which is a part of an ongoing series of live big band recordings and bears the title of Benny Goodman Orchestra Feat. Anita O'Day (Jazzhaus, 2011). The concert, recorded in Freiburg in October 1959, is notable because it marks one of the few instances when Benny Goodman and Anita O'Day performed together. Goodman always showed a keen ear for talent, and his band on this date includes Russ Freeman (piano), Red Norvo (vibraphone), Jack Sheldon (trumpet), Flip Phillips (tenor sax), Bill Harris (trombone), Jerry Dodgion (flute), Jimmy Wyble (guitar), Red Wootton (bass), and John Markham (drums) and is one of the best outfits that he put together in the 1950s and '60s. Yet the performance becomes truly electrifying when O'Day walks onstage to sing classics such as "Honeysuckle Rose," "Gotta Be This or That" (whose lyrics Goodman suddenly forgets!) or a bluesy medley that comes halfway through the concert and is one of the highlights of the CD. The sound is excellent, and although the liner notes in English and German are a little sparse, this is a very valuable addition to any Goodman or O'Day collection.

Very popular with audiences in her native Great Britain in the 1930s and '40s as a featured vocalist with great dance bands such as that of Ray Noble (very briefly at the beginning of her career), Bert Ambrose, and most of all, Geraldo, the name of Dorothy Carless remains largely obscure in the United States, even though she actually spent an important part of her life and made some fine recordings over here. Her two best albums, both recorded in New York in 1957 for the small Hi-Fi label, are gathered in one fantastic CD titled Here Lies Love (Flare, 2009), augmented by two unrelated tracks cut in 1949. On the first of these two LPs, The Carless Torch, she is backed by a trio led by guitarist Barney Kessel as she tackles twelve torch songs including standards like "It's Easy to Remember," "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," "My Old Flame," and "I'll Never Be the Same," as well as lesser-known gems such as "Baby, Baby, You're the One" and "Too Late Now." The drumless trio of guitar, vibraphone, and bass suits Carless' voice perfectly well, and as we listen we discover echoes of June Christy here and Julie London there. But Carless was also adept at playing piano, as she shows on the second LP, Mixed Emotions, as she sits at the keyboard and accompanies her own singing. The material here is not all that different from that on the album with Kessel, mixing well-known tunes ("Little Girl Blue," "I Get Along without You Very Well," "One for My Baby") with rarely heard ones (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Fancy Free," Cole Porter's "Were Thine That Special Face"), and Carless' piano playing is often sparse and intimate. One wishes that the liner notes of the CD edition were a little more detailed and informative, but the two albums definitely fall under the category of hidden treasures that need to be rediscovered, and hopefully this British release will do its part to bring Dorothy Carless the recognition that she deserves.

Glenn Miller and Dorothy Carless during a BBC radio broadcast

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 1: Seger Ellis

We begin a new series of articles, spotlighting singers whose popularity has faded over the years and who, for different reasons, have unjustly fallen into obscurity. With the help of a very interesting CD released by The Old Masters and entitled Jazz in a Sentimental Mood, the first entry in the series is devoted to the lesser-known but great Houston-born vocalist/songwriter/pianist Seger Ellis.

At the outset of his career, Seger Ellis did not really want to be a singer. Rather, his main interest lay in writing songs and playing the piano, and it was indeed as a pianist with the now forgotten Lloyd Finlay Orchestra that he made his first recordings in 1925 in his native Houston for Victor. In addition to the sides he cut as part of the Finlay band, Ellis was asked to make some piano solo recordings, which were never issued due to technical difficulties during the recording process. However, Ellis would soon be summoned to Camden, New Jersey, by the label to wax his piano solos again, this time using the then newly introduced electrical recording method, and upon their release, these records were sufficiently well received by the public to persuade Ellis to launch a professional career as a recording artist in New York City. Incidentally, these early piano solos, most of which were written by Ellis himself, can be found in the excellent CD Black and White Piano, Volume 1 (Document Records, 1998), a highly recommendable collection that also includes cuts by Clarence M. James, Sidney Williams, and Lovin' Sam Theard, among other obscure 1920s pianists.

It should be noted that Ellis' intention at this stage was still to sell himself as a pianist, not as a singer. This would soon change, though, when he was encouraged by the small radio station on which he was appearing to sing as well as playing piano over the air. Thus, after his move to New York, when he made his first recordings for Columbia, the company decided to promote him as a crooner, marketing his records to rival those of Gene Austin, who was one of the foremost vocalists of the late 1920s, with smash hits such as "My Blue Heaven," "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," and "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue." Columbia's marketing efforts most likely explain why Ellis' voice sounds so high-pitched on his Columbia and Okeh records: this was a conscious attempt to make Ellis sound like other popular crooners of the era, such as Austin, Nick Lucas, Johnny Marvin, and Little Jack Little. In his excellent liner notes for the CD Jazz in a Sentimental Mood, Allan Dodge hints at the fact that Ellis was not thrilled by the sound of his voice on these sides, but he kept cultivating that style in view of the success of the records.

One of the attractions of Ellis' recorded output for Columbia and Okeh lies in the amazing personnel that accompanied him on most of the sessions, featuring some of New York's most prominent jazz musicians of the time. It appears that Ellis was granted the power to choose the members of the studio band for his recordings, and if that is the case, he certainly had a keen ear for good jazz, since he was often backed by highly accomplished musicians like Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Rube Bloom, Manny Klein, Hoagy Carmichael, and Muggsy Spanier, many of whom would go on to greater things during the Swing Era and beyond. Ellis himself played piano on some of the dates, and Eddie Lang's guitar is heavily featured on most of these very inspired arrangements, which are often quite adventurous, as in the case of Ellis' 1928 version of "Where the Shy Little Violets Grow," with an interesting steel guitar solo by Andy Sannella. In August of 1929, Ellis' studio band even included Louis Armstrong, who was then making his legendary series of hot five and seven recordings, on trumpet, and their reading of "Ain't Misbehavin'" remains one of Ellis' most enduring recordings.

At the time of this writing, there is only one full-length CD devoted to the music of Seger Ellis: Jazz in a Sentimental Mood, produced by the reissue label The Old Masters. Its title accurately encapsulates the defining elements of Ellis' style: his recordings are often sentimental, characterized by his high-pitched voice and relaxed singing style, but there is an undeniable hotness to them, and they are full of jazzy solos by some of the most important jazz instrumentalists of the period. In my opinion, the jazzy quality of the arrangements is precisely what differentiates Ellis' recordings from those of Gene Austin, whose accompaniments were not always comparatively as jazz-oriented. Ellis' repertoire consists of some of the best pop songs written in the 1920s and '30s, and all of them are so enjoyable that it becomes rather hard to name any favorites. The collection includes sides cut over a four-year period, between 1928 and 1931, featuring gems such as "If I Can't Have You, " "Cheerful Little Earful," "I Wonder How It Feels?" and Ellis' beautiful, pensive version of "It's a Lonesome Old Town." The remastering of these old 78s is excellent, and so are Allan Dodge's informative liner notes, which provide some interesting background for the recordings.

Ellis' recording career came to an end during the early years of the Great Depression, although he did assemble a big band in the late 1930s, bearing the odd name of the Choir of Brass Orchestra and featuring his wife, Irene Taylor, as the vocalist. Interestingly, though he did not record his own songs for Columbia and Okeh, he remained active as a songwriter, composing popular songs like "Little Jack Frost Get Lost" and "You're All I Want for Christmas." He passed away in relative obscurity in Houston in 1995, but as the twenty-six songs included in Jazz in a Sentimental Mood clearly show, his very appealing, jazz-influenced singing deserves higher recognition that it has received.


There are several videos with Seger Ellis recordings available on YouTube, among which we recommend the piano solo "Shivery Stomp," "Here Am I (Broken Hearted)" (a tune also recorded by Johnnie Ray in the 1950s), "Should I?" and "Without You Sweetheart." There is even an interesting, though undated, radio interview with Seger Ellis and Smith Ballew recorded late in their careers.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Vintage Records Review Desk 3: Tony Martin, Dickie Valentine, Chris Connor, Count Basie, Harry James

Now that our first baby daughter, Lillian Sabela Garcia-Fernandez, "Libby," has arrived and filled our lives with joy, I understandably have less free time to devote to writing articles for The Vintage Bandstand. However, a recent trip to Nashville's best used record store, The Great Escape, yielded some interesting finds, five of which are briefly under scrutiny here. None of them are new releases, but in my opinion, they are all worth your time and your money for different reasons.

We begin with three vocal records—two interesting compilations and an all-time classic album. The first of them, The Best of Tony Martin: The Mercury Years (Mercury, 1996), brings together the twenty-five tracks that Tony Martin laid down for Mercury over a two-year period, in 1946 and 1947. By this time, Martin was an established star thanks to several hit recordings made for Brunswick and Decca before World War II. These post-war Mercury sides represent a sort of transition for Martin, who would make his most enduring contributions to American popular music after leaving the label and signing with RCA. The six sessions that Martin cut for Mercury find him covering other artists' hits, such as Eddy Howard's "To Each His Own" and Johnny Mercer's "A Gal in Calico," but also attempting older songs like "Guilty", "I'll See You in My Dreams," and "I Kiss Your Hand, Madame," as well as standards such as "Stardust," "Body and Soul," and "Tea for Two." Martin's rich, powerful voice is in perfect form here, accompanied by accomplished studio orchestras conducted by Al Sack and with occasional backing from vocal groups The Starlighters and The Lyttle Sisters.

Though totally unknown in the United States and endowed with a vocal instrument that was not as powerful as Martin's, British crooner Dickie Valentine quickly built a loyal following in the United Kingdom throughout the 1950s, scoring big hits like "Mr. Sandman" and "The Finger of Suspicion." His fifties singles are compiled in the three-CD set The Complete 50s Singles (Acrobat, 2010), which even unearths his rare early recordings with the Ted Heath Orchestra. These were the days before the advent of rock'n'roll, before Elvis and Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard, and Valentine's soft, caressing voice was tailor-made for sweet, romantic ballads. Like most vocalists of the period, Valentine came out of the very active British dance band scene, graduating to a very successful solo career after a brief stint with Heath, whose band would back him on some of his solo recordings. His voice was better suited to ballads than to rhythm numbers, which is perhaps why he waxed several waltzes and covered quite a few Nat King Cole numbers for the British market. By the late 1950s his record sales were deeply affected by the growing popularity of skiffle and rock'n'roll, to such an extent that he virtually quit making records in the 1960s. His life came to a tragic closing in 1971, following a car crash, but the songs featured in this compilation are among the best British pop produced in the 1950s.

In 1954, around the same time that Valentine was hitting his stride in the British Isles, Chris Connor put an end to her long tenure with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and kicked off her solo career with a 10-inch LP cut for Bethlehem Records. Its contents, along with material culled from further sessions made around the same time, were reissued on Chris Connor Sings Lullabys of Birdland (Avenue Jazz, 2000). The CD opens with five songs on which Connor is beautifully accompanied by a trio led by the often-underrated Ellis Larkins, whose backing shows a perfect understanding of Connor's wistful vocal style. As the title of the album suggests, Connor does treat classics such as "What Is There to Say," "Try a Little Tenderness," and "Spring Is Here" as lullabies sung in a subdued, relaxed way, sometimes vaguely reminiscent of Lee Wiley's fifties recordings. These five opening tunes are followed by three sides from a session with a full orchestra arranged and conducted by Sy Oliver, which are not as satisfying despite Connor's fine vocals and Oliver's tasteful arrangements. Among these, the ballad "Blue Silhouette" is decidedly the winner. Connor returns to a small-group setting for the last session that makes up the CD, for which the Vinnie Burke Quintet provides some elegant backing that is very well suited to Connor's voice. Together, they turn in some great renditions of standards like "A Cottage for Sale," "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "Gone with the Wind," closing the session with an interesting reading of Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye." Overall, this is one of the best albums in the discography of Chris Connor and proves that, at least in the early years of her solo career, she felt much more comfortable singing with a jazz-oriented small group than with a larger orchestra.

The most pleasant surprises of my record-buying trip to Nashville, though, were two compilations that I was certainly not expecting to find. One of them, The Complete Decca Recordings (MCA, 1992) of Count Basie, is a three-CD set that no serious jazz record collection should be without. Cut between 1937 and 1939, these are the sides that cemented the reputation of one of the most swinging of all big bands, whose ranks were graced during this period by so much talent that it would be unfair not to mention each and every one of the participants. In any case, Basie's sidemen on his Decca recordings include, among others, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans, Claude Williams, Freddie Green, Chu Berry, Dicky Wells, Walter Page, Jo Jones, and Harry "Sweets" Edison, all of them at or near the peak of their powers. Vocal duties were handled by Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes, both of whom cut some of their career-defining sides for Basie, and with musicians of such stature, it is no wonder that even the weaker numbers that Decca made the band record make for a thrilling listening experience. The set, complete with photos, personnel information, and comprehensive liner notes by Steven Lasker, constitutes, in the words of critics Richard Cook and Brian Morton, "desert-island music and . . . a priority for collectors." Unfortunately, it is currently out of print, but anyone lucky enough, as I was, to find a copy, needn't have any second thoughts about adding it to their collection.

Also out of print is the final disc under review today, a lovely collection of live cuts by Harry James and His Music Makers made during an engagement at the Hollywood Palladium in March and April of 1955 and issued on CD simply as Trumpet Blues (Drive Entertainment, 1995). There is at least a two-fold reason why this release is highly recommendable: for one thing, there is a dearth of live recordings of the James band from the 1950s; moreover, these are excellent recordings made using a pioneering stereo tape recorder developed by the sound engineer Gerry Macdonald. Then, of course, there is the music itself: it is, indeed, a joy to listen to the James orchestra in such high fidelity going through an appealing mixture of old hits ("You Made Me Love You"), throwbacks to James' tenure with Benny Goodman ("Roll 'Em," "Don't Be That Way," "Stealin' Apples"), and some Basie-influenced numbers ("Two O'Clock Jump," "Back Beat Boogie"). The CD opens with James' own hard-swinging "Trumpet Blues" and features a beautiful reading of "Serenade in Blue" and a Latin-flavored take on "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White." The Harry James band that appeared at the Hollywood Palladium in 1955 boasted a group of outstanding musicians, including such legends as Juan Tizol (valve trombone), Willie Smith (alto sax), Corky Corcoran (tenor sax), and Larry Kinnamon (piano). Unreleased for almost forty years, these recordings attest to the amazing musicianship of the post-Big Band Era James orchestra, and the good news is that Macdonald also captured the bands of Les Brown and Les & Larry Elgart on the same stage and using the same recording equipment.

Friday, June 14, 2013

More Than a Song-and-Dance Man: Three Little Words and The Astaire Story

My wife, Erin, and I recently watched Three Little Words, a Fred Astaire movie that is actually a biopic of the songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. This prompted me to do some research into the lives and careers of Kalmar and Ruby, as well as dusting off my copy of Fred Astaire's great 1952 meeting with the Oscar Peterson Trio, The Astaire Story, where Astaire shows, as if proof were really needed, what a fantastic jazz singer he was.

The 1940s saw a proliferation of biopics of songwriters from the Great American Songbook, names by then already legendary like Jerome Kern (Till the Clouds Roll By) and George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue). This was also the decade in which Al Jolson's career was revived thanks to two movies that dramatized his life and career, The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again, which were box-office hits (particularly the former) and would bring about similar films in the 1950s devoted to other stars such as Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Eddy Duchin, Eddie Cantor, Ruth Etting (the superb Love Me or Leave Me, starring Doris Day and James Cagney), and others.

Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar
In 1950, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer decided to produce a movie about the popular Tin Pan Alley songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Its title was Three Little Words, and though it is not as well known as the films about Kern, Gershwin, or Jolson, it does feature an extraordinary cast: Fred Astaire and Red Skelton star as Kalmar and Ruby respectively, supported by Vera-Ellen and Arlene Dahl. The result is a hidden gem, an atypical Astaire movie in that his dancing sort of takes a backseat to the music, and also an atypical Red Skelton vehicle in which the comic appears rather subdued and shows that he did have a talent for more dramatic roles. The prominence of the music may well have been one of the reasons that attracted Astaire to the project, since songwriting was one of his unfulfilled passions, and this film offered him the chance to play a professional songwriter. As a matter of fact, in his 1959 autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire only has positive things to say about Vera-Ellen and the rest of the cast, and notes that he "enjoyed singing the old Kalmar and Ruby hits with Red." Overall, Astaire remembers Three Little Words as "an outstanding film and one of my top favorites. I'd like to be doing it all over again" (296).

It certainly is a delightful little movie, showcasing the great compositions of two talented men who are unfairly overlooked these days and strangely omitted in several book-length studies on Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook. For instance, Alec Wilder does not even mention Kalmar and Ruby in his classic study American Popular Song, and they are not included among the large group of songwriters profiled by William Zinsser in Easy to Remember and by Wilfrid Sheed in The House that George Built. Philip Furia, in his Poets of Tin Pan Alley, briefly discusses the lyrics of their composition "Three Little Words," noting that its melody sets it apart from other Hollywood songs of the period: "Since it consisted of a four-note phrase, it was too long for the three-syllable standard 'I love you'" (236). This critical silence on the work of Kalmar and Ruby seems unwarranted to me, since their partnership produced some of the most popular songs of the 1920s and '30s, simple but very catchy tunes such as "I Wanna Be Loved by You," the moody "Nevertheless (I'm in Love with You)," and "A Kiss to Build a Dream on." Moreover, one of their most successful compositions, the irresistible "Who's Sorry Now," has been recorded by artists as disparate as Connie Francis, Marie Osmond, and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name but three.

As for the movie, one of the main problems that screenwriter George Wells faced was the fact that the lives of Kalmar and Ruby, as well as their songwriting partnership, had been fairly uneventful and badly needed some dressing up. Therefore, even though Kalmar's interest in magic early in life and Ruby's obsession with baseball are reflected in the film, many of the events that make up the plot come courtesy of the typical Hollywood poetic license of the time, that is, they are mere inventions meant to drive the storyline forward. Thus, Kalmar never wrote a serious play whose success on Broadway was thwarted by Ruby's schemes, Kalmar did not begin his songwriting career because of a dancing injury, and Kalmar and Ruby's long partnership never suffered any sort of breakup. More importantly, the song that lends its title to the movie, "Three Little Words," did not lay dormant and unfinished for years but was published as early as 1930 and cut by Frank Crumit and Nick Lucas, among others.

"I Wanna Be Loved by You": Debbie Reynolds as Helen Kane

Despite Astaire's fondness for Three Little Words, it is not one of the best-remembered titles of his long filmography, and in my opinion, that is a real shame. Though Astaire does not dance quite as much as usual, his portrayal of Kalmar is charming and convincing, and the cast interacts seamlessly, making it a very entertaining movie. The finished product, by the way, profited from Harry Ruby's input (Kalmar had passed away in 1947, three years before the making of the project) and is a thoughtful tribute to the two men. Gloria DeHaven appears as her mother, Flora, singing "Who's Sorry Now," and Ruby himself is seen briefly playing baseball with Red Skelton. Even a young Debbie Reynolds makes her debut appearance as Helen Kane, lip-synching to Kane's boop-boop-a-dooping her smash hit "I Wanna Be Loved by You." The main protagonist is, indeed, the musical output of Kalmar and Ruby, all those vintage hit songs that shine throughout the film.

The Astaire Story (Verve, 1952)

Fred Astaire considered himself, as did most of his audiences, primarily a dancer and often derided his own abilities as a vocalist. Songwriters knew better, though, and recognized in his voice the perfect vehicle for their compositions. To be sure, his range was limited, but what he lacked in voice quality he more than made up for in phrasing and style. His singing is characterized by a rare elegance that is perfectly suited for the urbane melodies and witty lyrics of the songs of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George and Ira Gershwin, among others. No wonder, then, that he introduced a large amount of tunes by these composers that have become standards, titles such as "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "Night and Day," and "Fascinatin' Rhythm," to name but a few.

Although he claimed not to take himself seriously as a vocalist, Astaire loved jazz and jazz musicians (which is not surprising, since there is quite a bit of a jazz element in his tap dancing) and had a particularly soft spot for a record project that he did for Verve Records, at the request of label owner Norman Granz, entitled The Astaire Story. Let us quote again from Astaire's biography:

"I found this [album] a most interesting and enjoyable job as Oscar Peterson, Alvin Stoller, Flip Phillips, Charles Shavers, Barney Kessel, Ray Brown and I cut these discs spontaneously on the spot without any prearranged orchestrations. This album, called The Astaire Story, with limited printings, became prominent in the collectors' item category" (301).

Oscar Peterson
Yet, much more than a mere collector's item, The Astaire Story is a very revealing portrait of Astaire the jazz singer, a relaxed crooner who instinctively plays with the beat and whose phrasing is so casual that at times it almost sounds as though he were reciting the lyrics. The program is made up almost entirely of songs associated with Astaire, and the LP format allows for lengthier arrangements of the tunes, punctuated by lovely solos from Peterson on piano, Shavers on trumpet, Phillips on tenor sax, and Kessel on guitar. Astaire is clearly enjoying himself on these dates, and he sounds as much at ease with Peterson's group as Bing Crosby does on Bing with a Beat accompanied by Bob Scobey (by the way, it is really too bad that nobody ever thought to pair up Der Bingle with Peterson). The result of the Astaire-Peterson sessions is what Will Friedwald has called the climax of Astaire's recorded legacy, among the most spontaneous music that either man ever committed to wax, a classic set that offers a definitive glimpse of Astaire having fun and singing jazz.

Astaire is heard dancing and even playing piano on The Astaire Story

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Clora Bryant, the Singing Gal with a Horn

Rarely, if ever, mentioned in histories of jazz, Clora Bryant is one of the few women trumpeters who also sang, although if she were reading this, she would instantly frown at any mention of the question of her gender. As she told Linda Dahl in a 1981 interview that the critic uses as the basis for a profile on Bryant included in her book Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen, "Frankly, I'll be glad when it's just a fact instead of such a novelty that we do have women players. Because it is just a fact, you know. Ever since I started playing, it was treated as a novelty—it's always been that way. I think we do need to really get inside the women's playing, because I am sick of hearing that I 'play good for a woman'." In her playing we can hear hints of some of the influences that she mentions in that interview, including Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers, Harry James, and particularly Dizzy Gillespie, for whom she professed a lifelong admiration. When she sings, her voice can sound pungent and swinging on uptempo numbers and sweet and restrained on ballads, but always with a natural sense of rhythm and improvisation. In that respect, at least to my ears, her singing is noticeably akin to her playing.

Born in Denison, Texas, Bryant showed an interest in music from a very early age, soon learning to play trumpet by borrowing the instrument of an older brother. After playing in her high school marching band, she quickly graduated to touring with all-girl bands like the Sweethearts of Rhythm, among others. Moving to California in 1945 after dropping out of college to pursue a career in jazz, Bryant rubbed elbows with great jazz musicians such as Dexter Gordon, Sonny Criss, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, and even Charlie Parker. Bryant also became a part of the music scene in Las Vegas, where she remembers playing opposite Harry James ("who I idolized") around the time when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and company were shooting the movie Ocean's Eleven there. Throughout her career, she has graced the trumpet sections of many big bands, like those of Billy Williams, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, and Lionel Hampton. "Being a woman," she reflects during her interview with Dahl, "and being a black woman, and playing trumpet—that's three things I consider against me. Now, if I played piano, I don't think sex or race would enter into it. With the wind instruments, though, there's competition, period. No matter what color or what sex, there's a lot of competition in the trumpet section!"

Strangely, in Dahl's interesting profile of Clora Bryant, one of the few sources of information on the singer/trumpeter currently available, no mention is made of Gal with a Horn (VSOP Records, 1995), a 1957 LP that Bryant cut for Mode Records and that constitutes the only entry in her CD discography to date. With a beautiful cover featuring a portrait of Bryant in black and blue, the album is a little too short at only eight tracks, "calculated to present Clora with tunes and setting that approximate her club performance," according to the original liner notes by Joe Quinn. Bryant sings and plays trumpet accompanied by Roger Fleming (piano), Ben Tucker (bass), and Bruz Freeman (drums), this quarter occasionally augmented by Walter Benton (tenor sax) and Normie Faye (trumpet). The program alternates between fast and slow numbers, all of them standards, showcasing the full range of Bryant's singing and playing and leaving ample room for solos.

The album kicks off with a swinging treatment of "Gypsy in My Soul" that allows her to play around with the melody for two full vocal choruses before closing her performance with an inventive, Gillespie-influenced solo. Her trumpet shines on a very relaxed reading of "Makin' Whoopee" graced by a very elegant piano solo by Fleming. This is followed by a lovely rendition of "Man with a Horn"("a natural for any trumpet playing entertainer," says Quinn) that Bryant makes entirely her own both vocally and instrumentally in one of the moodiest performances on the album. "Sweet Georgia Brown" is taken at a bouncy medium tempo that allows time for Bryant's trumpet plus a solo apiece from Benton and Fleming. The most unusual track on the LP is the Latin-flavored arrangement of Vincent Youmans's "Tea for Two" complete with a cha-cha-cha beat; it works because Bryant and everyone else involved are having a good time with it. Two tunes by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart follow: Bryant reimagines the melody of "This Can't Be Love" ably aided by a lengthy piano solo by Fleming and then slows down the tempo for a wistful reading of "Little Girl Blue" that underscores the melancholy of the lyric and is embellished by a very soulful trumpet solo. Bryant again carries the weight of the group on the evergreen "S'posin'," which closes an excellent album that deserves to be better known from a very talented performer who deserves to be more than just a footnote in the history of jazz.

Clora Bryant and her trumpet