Monday, November 16, 2015

Interview with Singer Nancy Harrow on New CD Reissue: "The Beatles' songs should be considered part of the standard jazz songbook."

Though, of course, whole albums of compositions by the Beatles had been recorded before by the likes of Count Basie (Basie's Beatle Bag, 1966) and Sarah Vaughan (Songs of the Beatles, 1981), to name but two, Nancy Harrow's The Beatles and Other Standards is one of the few records that offer a mixture of songs by the Liverpool lads along with standards written by some of the foremost tunesmiths who created what we now know as the Great American Songbook. This is, perhaps, the only album that includes both Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" and Otto Harbach and Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," in an attempt to show that the jazz world can benefit as much from Tin Pan Alley as from the British Invasion. And, in a way, Harrow also helps prove something of which there is really very little doubt: that the songs the Beatles wrote and made popular in the 1960s are as timeless as those that Ned Washington, Victor Young, Johnny Mercer, and Vincent Youmans composed just a few decades before.

Harrow's collection of Songbook and Beatles standards was recorded in New York City in 1989 and originally released in Japan the following year. On the two sessions that were needed to complete the album, the vocalist was accompanied by a group of fine musicians led by pianist Sir Roland Hanna and including Bill Easley (saxophone, flute, and clarinet), George Mraz (bass), Grady Tate (drums), and Turkish-American percussionist Arto Tunçboyaciyan. Produced by John Snyder, this project evolved out of a close collaboration between Harrow and Hanna, who encouraged the singer every step of the way and acted as musical director. Harrow is obviously on her home turf with the standards, some of which ("My Foolish Heart," "More Than You Know") are beautiful vocal-piano duets with Hanna. The usually haunting "Nature Boy" benefits from a great flute introduction by Easley, and Harrow's cabaret-like approach to "When the World Was Young" is very appropriate and turns that track into one of the most memorable on the set.

Drummer Grady Tate
Adapting tunes by the Beatles to the jazz idiom is always a challenge, but Harrow more than rises to it throughout the album. Her version of "Drive My Car" is infectiously swinging (Easley and Hanna shine on saxophone and piano, respectively), and "Got to Get You Into My Life" is stripped of all its Motown overtones and turned into a ballad. Harrow reinvents "Yesterday" and "Something," emphasizing their torch-like qualities. They are both punctuated by Tate's drumming, and Tunçboyaciyan's persussion stands out on the former. "Blackbird" and "Because" are two of the most intimate performances on the album, and "Here Comes the Sun" is given a very appealing smooth-jazz treatment. Overall, this is a very artistically successful album that proves that a good song is good no matter who wrote it or when, as well as showing that a good jazz treatment of a Beatles song can be as satisfying as any tried-and-true jazz standard.

As soon as I heard of the reissue of The Beatles and Other Standards, I dropped Nancy Harrow a line, and she promptly and graciously responded, agreeing to an interview for The Vintage Bandstand. The following interview originated as part of our correspondence, and in it Harrow offers some interesting insights into the concept and the recording of this album.

Anton Garcia-Fernandez (for The Vintage Bandstand): How did you come up with the concept of a jazz album of Beatles songs and classic standards? What does the music of the Beatles have in common with the music of Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, and Vincent Youmans?

Nancy Harrow: I had recorded one Beatles tune before this album was done. It was on my Street of Dreams album that I did with Bob Brookmeyer, and the tune was "Fixing A Hole." It came out very well, and in fact that tune became part of my working repertoire.  So I began to listen to more of the Beatles tunes which I knew from my sons' record collection.  I liked their lyrics and the humor in a lot of the songs, and it occurred to me to pair the tunes with known standards to show that they should be considered part of the standard songbook that jazz musicians draw on.  At that time many jazz musicians were openly hostile to the Beatles' music, I think because they were putting them out of business. In any case, it was difficult to persuade musicians I knew to do an album like the one I envisioned.  But Roland Hanna was not judgmental about anything in music, and he agreed to do the album with me.

TVB: How did you select the songs for the album? Was it a difficult process?

Ms. Harrow: I selected the songs in the same way I always select songs.  I look for lyrics that are meaningful to me and for melodies that linger in the mind.

TVB: What aspects did you find challenging as you adapted these songs by Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison? Did you approach the standards and the Beatles tunes differently?

Ms. Harrow: The standards came more naturally to me, but the Beatles tunes were a challenge to sing in my own style rather than in theirs.  And this was made much easier for me because Roland was playing them.  The way we did them evolved during our rehearsal sessions.

Pianist Sir Roland Hanna
TVB: The album was cut in New York City in two sessions in May 1989. Jazz greats such as pianist Sir Roland Hanna, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Grady Tate were on hand for the date. What memories do you have of those sessions?

Ms. Harrow: I remember our rehearsal sessions even more than the recording session.  Roland was in a Broadway musical at the time, and we were rehearsing somewhere near the theatre because his time was limited.  I particularly remember his influence when we were rehearsing "Drive My Car," because we were both amused by the humor of this tune, and Roland suggested I say "and maybe I'll luhve you" -- not sure you can get this from my spelling, but you can hear it on the CD.  At the session, I remember Grady's suggestions about improvising on the lyric, which were helpful to me.  This was the first of many albums I did with both Roland and Grady together.  I also worked with Bill Easley and George Mraz on other projects, and did a club date with Arto Tunçboyacian afterwards. They are all great musicians, and I'm so glad this CD is now reaching audiences outside of Japan.

Bassist George Mraz
TVB: The album was originally released in 1990 by Emarcy for the Japanese market, where your work has always been very well received...

Ms. Harrow: John Snyder was the producer of this album, but it proved to be a difficult sell to record companies in the U.S.  I sent it to a record company in Japan who had released other CDs of mine, and they took it right away.  It turned out to be quite successful in Japan, and actually has had two releases there.  But no one until now has reissued it and distributed it worldwide.  I am so glad that Jordi Pujol [owner of Fresh Sound Records] has done that, because there are several songs on the CD that are among my favorite recordings.  I like the duets with Roland on "My Foolish Heart" and "More Than You Know" (Roland has a great solo on that tune), and I like "Drive My Car" and "When the World Was Young."  Roland's arrangement of "Yesterday" I think is terrific.  So I am very pleased it is finding a wider audience at last.

TVB: In your opinion, what is appealing to Japanese audiences about jazz? What is special to you about performing in Japan?

Ms. Harrow: The Japanese audiences are amazing.  I didn't actually perform there when this CD came out.  But in 2006, 2007, and 2008 I had club dates and a concert in Japan, and they did a Japanese version of my puppet show, Maya the Bee, which toured for two years in Japan.  The audiences there are so warm and welcoming -- it was a unique and wonderful experience to be there.

TVB: The European label Fresh Sound Records, of Barcelona, Spain, has shown interest in reissuing your work. A few years ago they released two of your 1960s albums, the excellent Wild Women Don't Have the Blues and You Never Know. Are there any plans for further releases in the near future?

Ms. Harrow: It was a surprise when Fresh Sound in Barcelona reissued my first two albums in one CD.  I didn't realize that in Europe the CDs become public domain after fifty years.  But it was such a pleasant surprise, because they did such a beautiful job on the CDs.  I just met Jordi Pujol a few weeks ago when I was in Barcelona.  We had only corresponded before that.  I am so happy to have found a new home for my early CDs, and now this Beatles album.  The next one they will release is The John Lewis Album for Nancy Harrow, which will be done very soon.  And there are plans ahead to do my Street of Dreams album as well, which has gone out of print.  So this is a very happy new relationship.

Further information

To read more about the reissue of The Beatles and Other Standards, you can go here. If you would like to purchase the CD, you will find it here. Fresh Sound Records also released two of Nancy Harrow's 1960s albums not long ago, and you can access my review of that reissue here. Finally, more information about Nancy Harrow is available on her homepage.

Nancy Harrow in the studio in the 1960s with John Lewis amd Jim Hall (photo originally published in JazzWax)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Vintage Records Review Desk 8: Roy Eldridge; Louis Smith; Tal Farlow; Sammy Davis, Jr.

My wife, Erin, and I recently spent a few days in Nashville with our two-year-old daughter, Libby, because we were participating in the annual conference of the South Central Modern Language Association. As usual when I am in the Music City, I had the chance to visit two very recommendable used record stores and add a few new titles to my jazz collection. In this installment of the Vintage Records Review Desk, I briefly review four of my findings.

We begin with two trumpeters. Pittsburgh native Roy Eldridge is one of the greatest swing trumpeters of all time, having graced countless records by McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Teddy Hill, Fletcher Henderson, and Gene Krupa, among many others. The Dutch import, Live at the Three Deuces Club (Archives of Jazz), captures Eldridge at his peak in the winter and spring of 1937 via some fairly good-sounding material taken from transcriptions and airchecks cut at New York's Three Deuces Club. Eldridge sounds as exciting and swinging as ever in an octet setting alongside saxophonists Dave Young, Joe Eldridge, and Scoops Carey (who doubles on clarinet), pianist Teddy Cole, guitarist John Collins, bassist Truck Parham, and drummer Zutty Singleton. The song selection, as would be expected from performances of this period, leans heavily on uptempo numbers and includes standards such as "After You've Gone," "Basin Street Blues," "I Never Knew," "Exactly Like You," and "Chinatown, My Chinatown," as well as such Eldridge-associated tunes as "Little Jazz" and "Minor Jive." One of the tracks, presented as "Deuces Medley," pieces together several incomplete airchecks that are notable both for their rarity and for their musical quality, although the sound inevitably falters here and there. This is a very interesting find, a collection of energetic live cuts that deserve a listen.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, about six years before the Eldridge recordings were made, Louis Smith may not be as well known as Eldridge, but he is definitely a very exciting trumpeter as well. He only cut two sessions as a leader in the 1950s, both of them for Blue Note, and although he recorded sporadically in the 1970s, he spent most of his life as a public school teacher, not taking his career as a recording artist too seriously until the 1990s. Here Comes Louis Smith (Blue Note) is his marvelous debut album, cut in two sessions held in February 1958 in New York City. On these sessions he was accompanied by Tommy Flanagan or Duke Jordan on piano (they sit in on three tracks each), Doug Watkins on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. Cannonball Adderley appears on some of the tracks, adding a little bluesy flavor to the tunes, which are mostly compositions by Smith, who is amply showcased throughout. "Brill's Blues" is a very engaging blues tune that makes reference to the Brill Building, where the sessions were cut, and Smith proves himself at a breakneck tempo as a worthy Dizzy Gillespie-influenced trumpeter on "Ande." The album opens with Duke Pearson's "Tribute to Brownie," which alludes to another one of Smith's models, Clifford Brown, and the only standard included, Hoagy Carmichael's "Star Dust," is a perfect vehicle to illustrate Smith's highly lyrical approach to ballads. In the liner notes, written by Leonard Feather, Smith cites Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker as major influences, and on the strength of this album alone, it is really too bad that he did not get to lead many more dates in the '50s and '60s. The public school system's gain was, in this particular case, the jazz world's loss!

Guitarist Tal Farlow was another jazzman who, like Smith, followed some outstanding recordings with long periods of silence, during which he refused to cut any sessions at all. Born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1921, Farlow apparently did not begin to play guitar until he was in his early twenties and first became famous through his collaborations with vibist Red Norvo in the 1950s, which led to some fine sessions as a leader for Norgran and Verve, namely Tal (1956) and The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow (1957). In spite of the success of these and other albums, he spent most of the 1960s out of the recording studio, which is why a session that he recorded on September 23, 1969, in New York City was released as The Return of Tal Farlow/1969 (Original Jazz Classics). The date was produced by Don Schlitten and finds Farlow leading a quartet alongside John Scully on piano, Jack Six on bass, and Alan Dawson on drums. This proves to be the perfect setting for Farlow, as the band goes through seven standards—some better known than others—that spur the guitarist on to attempt the kind of imaginative, speedy improvisation for which he was known. The album kicks off with a swinging reading of Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser," followed by a lovely ballad version of "Darn That Dream." Ably supported by Scully's piano, Farlow takes George Gershwin's "Summertime" at a quick pace, which does not waver on "I'll Remember April" either. The ballad treatment of Rodgers and Hart's "My Romance," introduced by Farlow's solo guitar, is one of the highlights of an album that also provides some Latin flavor on "Sometime Ago" and closes on a high note with "Crazy, She Calls Me." Despite his long '60s recording hiatus, Farlow was clearly still in top form in 1969.

The fact that his name was often spoken in the same breath with that of his Rat Pack buddies, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, both helped and hurt the career of Sammy Davis, Jr. His association with Dino and Ol' Blue Eyes definitely helped him on his way to stardom, but at the same time, it affected his legacy negatively because it is always too tempting to establish comparisons between the three. And this is rather unfair, because in essence the three were quite different artists, and Davis's enormous talent should not be downplayed when compared to that of his confrères. As good as many of Davis's studio albums are, he was at his best when captured live on stage and backed by a solid band that puts the main emphasis on rhythm. This is the case on The Sounds of '66 (Reprise), which is arguably one of the best records of his career. It includes a 1966 live show recorded at the Copa Room of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in the wee small hours of the morning and finds Davis accompanied by the Buddy Rich Orchestra.

The album starts with Davis inviting the audience, comprised mostly of other performers that have come to see him, to "relax, sit down, and swing with us, if you will" and emphasizes that the noises coming from the audience "are not canned; they are live." Davis clearly thrives in such a context and, inspired by Rich's relentless tempo, does make his audience swing throughout ten well-chosen numbers that reminds us of what an exhilarating performer he was. The repertoire ranges from standards like "If It's the Last Thing I Do" and "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" to surprising choices like "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" to more contemporary songs like "I Know a Place," "What the World Needs Now Is Love," "What Now My Love," and "What Kind of Fool Am I?" Davis taps the Alan Jay Lerner songbook with "Come Back to Me" and "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" and does a fantastic swinging version of Frank Loesser's "Once in Love with Amy." There is no doubt that Sammy Davis, Jr. and Buddy Rich are a match made in heaven, and they definitely do not disappoint on this record, to such an extent that one wishes that this had been planned as a double-album set.

Ace drummer Buddy Rich

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Crazy Rhythm: Mark Murphy's Early Decca Recordings 1956-57

Barely a week ago, on October 22, the great singer Mark Murphy passed away in New Jersey at 83. Throughout his long career, which was characterized by a tireless effort to promote jazz and educate listeners about it, Murphy never got the kind of recognition that the high quality of his work should have warranted. Noted critic Will Friedwald states in his Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers that Murphy and Betty Carter were "major influences on virtually all the well-regarded singers of the current generation" (348). Friedwald is not exaggerating in the least, for Murphy was an outstanding singer who was deeply dedicated to his craft and who was often more appreciated by other singers and musicians than by the public at large. And that is too bad, because pretty much everything he recorded—including singles and albums for major labels like Capitol and Decca—is worth a listen. His very personal style was rooted on his unique sense of rhythm, as well as on his knack for experimenting with melodies and lyrics, often singing as though he were playing an instrument. There is always an element of surprise and excitement to Murphy's recorded work, as he is constantly willing to improvise and to take the listener to unexpected places in the process.

Although it is always a good idea to check out Murphy's albums such as Meet Mark Murphy (Decca), This Could Be the Start of Something (Capitol), and the essential Rah! (Riverside), listening to his mid-'50s sides for Decca is quite a revealing experience. A good sample of his Decca work is available on Crazy Rhythm: His Debut Recordings (GRP Records, 1999), a collection of twenty tracks cut in 1956 and 1957, all of them masterfully arranged by Ralph Burns, who proves to be a worthy associate, understanding and complementing Murphy perfectly. Even at this early stage of his career, it seems obvious that there is something special to Murphy's voice, and all the defining features of his style—daring improvisation, unique sense of rhythm and timing, eclecticism—are already apparent, and not precisely in embryonic form, as one would expect. As Doug Ramsey rightly observes in the liner notes, by the mid-'50s, Murphy "had polished his gifts in harmony, shaped his vocal line and assumed command of phrasing and time to a degree that few singers attain." Ramsey is also correct in his description of Murphy's agenda as a youthful jazz singer: "He was a vocal artist in the service of a song, not a pop singer driven by visions of the Top 40." And, sadly for his pocketbook but happily for jazz fans, this may well be one of the reasons why his records were never as commercially successful as they should have been.

Murphy in the 1970s
This attitude of being in the service of a song somewhat likens him to Frank Sinatra, who, around the same time that Murphy was recording for Decca, was in the midst of creating the most artistically valuable albums of his career for Capitol, often reviving songs that had been long forgotten. Murphy's work for Decca reveals two clearly defined sides to his artistry: the fearless rhythm improviser and the sensitive ballad singer. The former is well represented in Crazy Rhythm by the title track, as well as "Fascinating Rhythm," "I Got Rhythm," and "Ridin' High," among others. There is such a feeling of enjoyment in Murphy's singing that it is no wonder that so many songs have the word rhythm in their titles! The latter is best appreciated on "Takin' a Chance on Love" (which includes the verse), "A Nightingale Sang on Berkeley Square," and, particularly, on Murphy's masterful rendition of "I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry." But that is not all: Murphy can also be soulful and bluesy when he feels like it, as on "If I Could Be with You (One Hour Tonight)." He gives "Limehouse Blues" a very appropriate Asian flavor, and he already shows a penchant for choosing unusual and lesser-known songs, such as "Elmer's Tune," "The Lady in Red," and "Little Jazz Bird." Murphy will be greatly missed by vocal jazz aficionados, but luckily we still have his wonderful albums. These early recordings are definitely a good place to start listening to Mark Murphy, and they are essential to a proper understanding of his later work.

Other Albums by Mark Murphy

Fortunately, a good number of Murphy's albums are back in print on CD thanks to the European label Fresh Sound Records, who has recently reissued quite a bit of his work. His complete Decca recordings are available on The Singing M: The Complete Decca Recordings, and two double CDs entitled Mark Murphy Sings and Orchestra Conducted by Bill Holman feature albums he cut for Capitol and Riverside. A further CD from Fresh Sound includes the Riverside album Rah! and the Capitol outing Mark Murphy's Hip Parade. Other CDs by Mark Murphy that are well worth seeking out, although they may not always be easy to find are A Swingin' Singin' Affair (Fontana), Midnight Mood (MPS Records), Sings Mostly Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman (Audiophile), and Stolen Moments (Muse Records).

Murphy's complete Decca recordings on one Fresh Sound CD

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lesser-Known Bandleaders in Brief: Willie Bryant

Once known as "the Unofficial Mayor of Harlem," in the mid-1930s Willie Bryant led a fantastic band whose recorded output was unfortunately too small—a mere 26 sides for Victor, Brunswick, and Decca (you can find a complete discography of the band's 1930s recordings here). Critic George T. Simon does not tell us much about Bryant in his book The Big Bands, simply characterizing him as "a sleek, suave gent who . . . led a swinging band at the Savoy, featuring some great young musicians" (504). The lineup of his orchestra included, at one time or another, Teddy Wilson, Ben Webster, Eddie Durham, Benny Carter, Taft Jordan, and Cozy Cole, to name but a few, and the recordings they made together still sound swinging and exciting about eighty years later. However, Bryant was not much of a musician himself, having attempted unsuccessfully to learn to play the trumpet, but his knack for business and for surrounding himself with talented sidemen should not be overlooked. True, he may have just been waving the baton in front of the band and singing occasionally, but he definitely had an ear for recognizing talent, and if the records he made with his orchestra are still worth listening to today, it is because of the very inspired contributions of his soloists.

Cozy Cole played drums in Bryant's band in the mid '30s
Born in New Orleans in August 1908, Bryant kicked off his career as a dancer in the vaudeville circuits with an act called the Whitman Sisters and at some point even performed with Bessie Smith. His days as a bandleader began in earnest in 1934, when he put together his first orchestra, entering the studio for the first time one year later. The band made the bulk of their recorded work for Victor and Bluebird, and in 1938 also cut some sides for Decca which are rather hard to find. Drummer Panama Francis, who played in the Bryant outfit for about nine months in the '30s, observes in his autobiography that, albeit charismatic, Bryant did not become a bandleader strictly for musical reasons:

Willie Bryant was all right, a lot of fun, but he was no band leader. He didn't even know who was the conductor, they put him out front 'cause he looked like a white man. Basically they took a light skinned character and put a band around him. Bill Dogget was the straw boy for Willie. (50)

Bryant with singer Gladys Bentley
Whatever the case, Bryant must have been aware of his limitations, because even though he sings on many of the band's records, in a style heavily influenced by Fats Waller though never a match for Waller's inimitable charisma, he always made sure to leave plenty of room for his musicians to solo. When his orchestra disbanded, Bryant became a popular disc jockey and even hosted a television show for a while in the late 1940s. In 1945 he tried his hand at rhythm and blues, cutting only two songs for the Apollo label, "Blues Around the Clock" and "Amateur Night in Harlem," which are available on the Delmark CD Blues Around the Clock. The latter track finds him mimicking what he did best throughout the 1950s: emceeing shows at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where he remained popular until his death from a heart attack in February 1964 in Los Angeles. The February 27, 1964 issue of Jet magazine reports that "his body was discovered by veteran entertainer Leonard Reed, who called at Bryant's apartment when the latter failed to keep an appointment. Although no one answered the door, Reed became suspicious that Bryant was inside because his car was parked outside and summoned the apartment manager to gain entrance. Bryant's age was placed at 56 by a long-time associate, Max Acosta" (61).

About eight decades after they were made, Willie Bryant's records are not easy to come by and are available on CD only on European imports that usually command rather hefty prices. Willie Bryant and His Orchestra 1935-36 (Classics, 1994) and Jazz Archives # 53: Willie Bryant & His Orchestra (Auvidis, 1992) feature exactly the same twenty-two tracks—the five dates for Victor and Bluebird that the band cut in New York City in the mid 1930s, but the Decca session from 1938 is unfortunately not included. These are wonderful recordings full of zest and Bryant's contagious sense of excitement, which is evident on cuts such as "Throwin' Stones at the Sun," "A Viper's Moan," "Rigamarole," "Steak and Potatoes," and "Long Gone (from Bowling Green)," among others. The band's theme song, the haunting ballad "It's Over Because We're Through" (co-written by Bryant himself), is also here, and most of the tracks are interesting and highly listenable because of their engaging solos. That is the case of the growling trombone on Ted Snyder's "The Sheik" and of "The Right Somebody to Love," the latter featuring a flute played by Charles Frazier. Trumpeter Taft Jordan delivers a fine vocal on "All My Life," a danceable ballad that shows that these great musicians were very adept at performing more mainstream pop material as well. The consistently high quality of all these recordings definitely calls for a domestic reissue—perhaps including the 1938 Decca session, too—that would make these great sides more readily available, thus enabling listeners to rediscover them.

Willie Bryant and his orchestra in the 1930s

Thursday, October 15, 2015

"Y'a de la Joie": Charles Trenet, or The Singing Madman

A few days ago I was talking to my father about the great French singer-songwriter, Georges Brassens, whom we both admire, and that conversation brought to mind the undeniable influence of Charles Trenet on the songwriting style of Brassens. Therefore, I decided to dust off my Trenet records, which in turn led to writing this brief overview of his amazing career.

Few French singers enjoyed a career as long and productive as Charles Trenet, who, in a span of about sixty years, wrote and recorded countless songs, toured tirelessly, and even published several novels and books of poetry. Some of the best songs he introduced achieved international popularity through English versions performed by the likes of Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra. That is the case of "La Mer," which became a big hit for Darin as "Beyond the Sea," and the beautiful ballad "Que Reste-t-Il de Nos Amours?" which was covered in English by many artists under the title of "I Wish You Love." Trenet's ebullient stage persona, his theatrics, and his jazz-tinged singing style influenced a whole generation of French singers, including Jean Sablon, Yves Montand, Georges Brassens, Léo Ferré, and Jacques Brel, so his importance in the universe of the French chanson should not be underestimated.

Maurice Chevalier, Trenet's early singing influence
Born in Narbonne in May 1913, as a young man Trenet was inspired by the music and stage demeanor of Maurice Chevalier, one of the most popular French all-around entertainers of all time. Due to the divorce of his parents, his childhood was not the happiest, and not being a very good student, Trenet found solace in art, particularly in painting and music. By the 1930s he was working as part of a duo with panist Johnny Hess, and the Chevalier influence was already clearly showing, not only in his explosive singing style, but also in his penchant for launching into actual impersonations of Chevalier himself. The influence of jazz is also evident in the early recordings that the duo of Charles and Johnny made in the mid-30s and that include mostly songs that they wrote themselves, together with French versions of American tunes by Cole Porter. Despite their popularity in Paris music halls, Charles and Johnny broke up their act in 1936 because of mandatory military service, and it was around this time that Trenet's solo career began in earnest, both as a songwriter and as a vocalist. In the former capacity, he penned songs for Jean Sablon ("Vous Qui Passez Sans Me Voir"), his idol Chevalier ("Y'a de la Joie") and Yves Montand ("C'est la Vie Qui Va"), and his first hit as a singer was the catchy tune, "Boum," which he cut in 1939, and whose lyric mentions the Bing Crosby tune, "Love in Bloom."

Trenet's bombastic stage persona earned him the nickname of "Le Fou Chantant," or "The Singing Madman," but he was as adept at doing jazzy uptempo numbers as he was at singing more serious sentimental ballads like "Ménilmontant," "Retour à Paris," "Douce France," and "Que Reste-t-Il de Nos Amours." Sometimes he even sang texts by famous poets set to music, as in the case of the lovely "Verlaine," which he recorded with Alix Combelle's Jazz de Paris combo in 1941. This recording brought about criticism from collaborationist journalists who believed that jazz (a style of music which, we must not forget, was labeled "undesirable music" by the Nazis) should not be mixed with the work of a serious poet like Paul Verlaine, whose "Chanson d'Automne" is the basis for this song. Trenet's star rose particularly after the war, and by the 1950s he was an internationally known artist who was touring widely and whose songs were recorded by singers in several languages other than French, and in 1951 he even appeared on television in the United States for the first time. Throughout his career, he got to visit the U.S. and Canada several times, and in fact, his popularity in Canada was one of the main reasons that persuaded him not to retire from recording and performing live in the 1970s.

The arrival of rock'n'roll and changing musical tastes in the 1960s inevitably hurt Trenet's career; as a result, he made very few personal appearances  and released hardly any albums at all in that decade. He kept writing songs and fiction, though, and by the late '70s and early '80s, renewed interest in the music of his era brought him back to French and Canadian stages. Some of these live appearances were recorded, and by the 1990s, Trenet was still making new albums (1995's Fais Ta Vie, with several new songs, is a good example) and different record labels were reissuing his old recordings on CD. Charles Trenet passed away in Créteil in February 2001, about two years after cutting a live album at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. He was one of several singers who contributed to bringing jazz into the French chanson, thereby enriching it and making it more complex and more engaging. He will always be remembered for his dapper stage persona and for the many wonderful songs that he wrote and that could be at the same time joyful, nostalgic, and downright funny.

For those who may wish to get acquainted with his vast recorded legacy, there are many compilations currently available in the U.S., but a proper place to start is Swing Troubadour 1937-1947 (Saga Records, 2008) because it features most of his best-known numbers, including "Boum," "La Mer," "Je Chante," "Verlaine," "Ménilmontant," and "Que Reste-t-Il de Nos Amours," among several others. The musicianship of the backing bands is outstanding here, as Trénet joins forces with Alix Combelle, Wal-Berg, Bernard Hilda, and even dazzling swing guitarist Django Reinhardt on "La Cigale et La Fourmi." A more comprehensive collection is the two-CD import Chanson 1937-1960 (BD Music, 2011), which contains 48 tracks, very detailed liner notes in French, and even an account of parts of Trenet's life in the form of a full-color comic book. Another interesting French import is 100 Chansons (EMI France, 2007), a five-disc set that offers, well, one hundred tracks by Trenet, and finally, Definitive Collection (Not Now Records, 2010) is a fairly inexpensive way to get introduced to seventy-five of his best songs, with good sound quality but, alas, no notes or personnel information.