Friday, May 15, 2015

Connie Haines, A Nightingale with a Southern Accent

A fantastic 2008 release from the British label Sepia Records works well as an excuse to take a look at the career of Connie Haines, one of the most swinging and most exciting female singers of the Swing Era, who is unfortunately not as well remembered as other contemporaries such as Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, and Helen Forrest.

If ever there was a band singer who devoted most of her life to showbusiness, that was Connie Haines. Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1921, her whole name, Yvonne Marie Antoinette JaMais, was too long and not very commercial, so when she joined the Harry James orchestra, the trumpeter asked her to change it. But Haines could be found singing over the airwaves well before that, and by the age of ten she already had her own radio show in Jacksonville, Florida, since her family had moved to the Sunshine State. At that early stage of her career she was billed as "The Little Princess of the Air," and although her charming southern accent would have certainly qualified her for performing western swing or country music, she preferred to stick with swing and pop. After moving to New York, where she was appearing at the Roxy Theater by the time she was fourteen, Haines began to make the rounds of the nightclubs there, which would ultimately lead her to join the Harry James band in 1939, at the time still a struggling outfit trying to make headway in the big band business.

Connie Haines and Frank Sinatra
It was precisely at this time that Haines first crossed paths with Frank Sinatra, who had also been discovered by James and was still beginning to develop his distinctive style. The careers of Haines and Sinatra would remain intertwined for at least a couple of years, because one year later, both singers would be hired away by Tommy Dorsey, who led one of the most successful and jazz-infused orchestras in the country. The trombonist also had one of the most inventive arrangers of the period in Sy Oliver, and realizing the selling potential of singers, he was starting to feature his vocalists more prominently on his records, giving them more than just brief refrains to sing and building whole arrangements around them. Besides Haines and Sinatra, Dorsey also employed Jo Stafford and the vocal group The Pied Pipers, and all of them appear in classic recordings such as "Snooty Little Cutie," "Oh, Look at Me Now," and "Let's Get Away from It All." On the latter we can hear Sinatra poking fun at Haines's southern accent: when the lyrics call for her to sing the line, "I'll get a real southern drawl," Sinatra jokingly replies in feigned amazement, "Another one?" In his book Sinatra: The Song Is You, Will Friedwald mentions that, according to Haines, she and Sinatra did not get along, but if that is true, it does not come across in their records together, which are always a lot of fun to listen to. Dorsey also had the good judgment to feature Haines on her own on several fine numbers, such as Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" and Matt Dennis and Tom Adair's "Will You Still Be Mine?" but by 1942 she had decided to follow the example of Young Blue Eyes and launched a solo career.

Haines always credited Dorsey with teaching her how to phrase—another thing that she and Sinatra had in common—and by the time she left the band, she had grown quite a bit as a singer and was ready to strike out on her own. Another important influence was torch singer Helen Morgan, to whom she would dedicate a whole album entitled Connie Haines Sings a Tribute to Helen Morgan in 1957. As a solo attraction, Haines performed on radio on the Abbott & Costello Show, and in the 1950s she appeared regularly on television, on such popular programs as the ones hosted by Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, and particularly on the Frankie Laine Show. She was also featured in a few now-forgotten musicals, including Robert Z. Leonard's Duchess of Idaho (1950), alongside Van Johnson and Esther Williams. Haines recorded steadily for both major and smaller labels (Capitol, Mercury, Columbia, Signature, and Coral are just a few examples) and although she became primarily known for novelty numbers, her discography includes everything from ballads to torch songs to country-tinged material, and in tandem with Jane Russell, Rhonda Fleming, and Beryl Davis, she even delved into gospel and sacred territory. What is more, though her recording activity had decreased by the 1960s, she still found time to cut a few Smokey Robinson songs for Motown, of all labels. Songs like "Midnight Johnny" and "What's Easy for Two" are a big departure from her usual style, but they are definite proof of her willingness to adapt to changing tastes in popular music. Despite having to battle cancer in her later years, Haines kept performing for live audiences off and on until the 1990s, and she died at 87 in Clearwater Beach, Florida, in 2008.

While her sides with Tommy Dorsey are fairly easy to find on CD, the Sepia release Nightingale from Savannah draws from her post-Dorsey years, featuring 27 tracks she recorded between 1946 and 1953 for Mercury, Signature, and Coral. It seems clear that these labels were trying to sell her mainly as a sprightly novelty vocalist, as titles such as the 1949 hits "You Told a Lie" and "How It Lies, How It Lies, How It Lies" suggest. Other novelty tunes she cut around this time are "Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy" (a hit for Dinah Shore), "Let's Choo Choo Choo to Idaho," and "A Bushel and a Peck," among many others. Like her hit, "How It Lies," many of her recordings have a certain country flavor to them, as is the case "Too Many Hearts" and "You Nearly Lose Your Mind," the latter a bluesy pop version of an Ernest Tubb country classic.

But Haines also felt comfortable singing ballads and torch songs—we must not forget the Helen Morgan influence—and even though she does not quite reach the depths of pathos and despair of a Billie Holiday or a Lena Horne, she turns out respectable readings of "My Man" and "Stormy Weather," sounds really believable on the old chestnut "You Made Me Love You," and on "Lover Man" and "The Man I Love" she proves that she can also handle a small-group jazz setting with ease. Her 1947 remake of her Dorsey hit "Will You Still Be Mine?" with the Ray Bloch orchestra includes updated special lyrics that mention, among other celebrities, Sinatra, FDR, Bing Crosby, Vaughn Monroe, Walter Winchell, and J. Edgar Hoover! Her version of the Teresa Brewer song, "Ol' Man Mose," prefigures her later gospel-inflected recordings, and among the highlights of the collection are her duets with Alan Dale on the Dixieland-ish "The Darktown Strutter's Ball" and her old friend Bob Crosby on "Destination Moon" and "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" Listening to this Sepia compilation, it becomes clear that Connie Haines is an unjustly overlooked figure of the Swing Era, a versatile vocalist with a subtle, charming southern drawl who deserves to be rediscovered.

Other Selected CDs by Connie Haines

In spite of its awful cover, Kiss the Boys Goodbye (Bygone Days Records) features several of Connie Haines's recordings with Tommy Dorsey (both as the single spotlighted vocalist and with Sinatra, Stafford and the Pipers), as well as a good sample of her post-Dorsey sides. The aforementioned Connie Haines Sings a Tribute to Helen Morgan (Pickwick Records) is a worthwhile addition to any serious Haines collection, while The Heart and Soul of Connie (Audiophile Records) includes sides from 1950 and 1951 on which she is backed by the Russ Case orchestra. Finally, Feel the Spirit (Jasmine Records) presents her sacred recordings with Jane Russell, Rhonda Fleming, and Beryl Davis.

Connie Haines with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra

Monday, May 11, 2015

Interview with Wig Wiggins, Co-Author of New Bing Crosby Discography: "We spent several years preparing this new edition for publication."

Not only was Bing Crosby one of the most important vocalists of the twentieth century—he was also one of the most prolific, entering the studio repeatedly pretty much every year between his first known recording session in 1926 and his last in 1977. And yet, despite the sheer amount of his output, very few of Crosby's albums and single releases remain unavailable on CD, the proliferation of all kinds of reissues causing inevitable, and often irritating, duplication of titles. This makes a CD-specific discography necessary for the dedicated and casual Crosby fan alike, a fact that Frontis B. "Wig" Wiggins, of Arlington, Virginia, and his friend Jim Reilly, of Portsmouth, England, realized many years ago, when they published their book Bing Crosby's Commercial Recordings from 78s to CDs in 2001. Now, over a decade later, they have joined forces again to revise, update, and beautify that pioneering discography. The result, The Definitive Bing Crosby Discography from 78s to CDs, is a very attractive book that contains a wealth of information about Der Bingle's recording sessions with an eye to simplifying anyone's hunting for CD reissues of Crosby material from any period of his long, successful career.

The book is very well put together, carefully researched, and generously illustrated mostly with color pictures, and its intelligent organization, with all sorts of interesting indexes, makes it a joy to browse through. This is definitely not the kind of discography that only lists titles, dates, locations, backing orchestras, and catalog numbers; it also includes brief essays that discuss various aspects of Crosby's career, thus making the book appealing also to casual fans that may be interested in learning a little about each phase of Crosby's recorded legacy in addition to perusing a complete listing of masters, alternate takes, unreleased and non-commercial recordings, and even titles that contain studio errors, like his famous fluff on a rejected take of "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams." The Vintage Bandstand has recently had the chance to interview Mr. Wiggins, who currently serves as the American and Canadian representative of the International Club Crosby, on the subject of the book, which is indispensable for both Crosby and popular music aficionados. As he mentions in the interview, a supplement to this discography, detailing all of Crosby's radio recordings that have been officially authorized for release on CD by Bing Crosby Enterprises, is in the works, and we are eagerly awaiting it. Before proceeding to the interview, we would like to express our most sincere gratitude to the authors for their wholehearted dedication to this project, which makes the lives of Crosby fans and collectors a great deal easier.

Bing Crosby with Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland in the 1940s

Anton Garcia-Fernandez (for The Vintage Bandstand): When and how did the idea occur to you to begin such a daunting project as this Bing Crosby discography?

Mr. Wiggins: When the CD era began, I started annotating my personal discography each time a song title was reissued on CD to help organize my own collection. After a while my friend Jim Reilly, of England, and I decided it would be useful to publish a first version of a CD-oriented discography for others, which was entitled Bing Crosby's Commercial Recordings—From 78s to CDs. It was issued in 2001 and was very popular but has long been out of print. About four years ago we concluded that so many additional CD reissues had appeared that a revised and updated edition was desirable. We then spent at least three years exchanging telephone calls and e-mails to prepare this new edition for publication.

TVB: What was the rationale that you and Mr. Reilly followed as you began the project?

Mr. Wiggins: As there was no other current printed discography available that indicated which of Bing's recordings had been reissued on CD, and this was the manner by which most collectors were acquiring them, we thought a new edition of our original book would be appealing and useful to Crosby fans.

TVB: What is new and different about your discography when compared to other Crosby discographies available online and in book form?

Mr. Wiggins: The main differences are the following: (1) A listing of the original commercial release of each title on 78s, 45s, LPs, or CDs; (2) a listing of a recommended CD version of each title that has been released on CD; (3) a listing of the names of composers, orchestra leaders, and vocal accompanists; (4) the addition of sixty unnumbered illustration and information pages, most of them in color; (5) an exclusive new section entitled "Unreleased Studio Recordings"; and (6) multiple indexes to facilitate identification of entries and to make use easier.

TVB: This is an invaluable reference work for serious Crosby fans, but what is the appeal of the book for the more casual fan?

Mr. Wiggins: The addition of the sixty extra pages giving information about various aspects of Bing's overall career, including his films and radio broadcasts, for example, as well as lists of his "Gold Records," "Top Hits," and "Bing's Hollywood Songs," among other general information.

TVB: What aspects of this project were the most difficult to tackle for you and Mr. Reilly?

Mr. Wiggins: The creation and verification of the original commercial release of each song, wherever in the world. This new and unique feature was completed in consultation with other leading Crosby collectors over a number of years.

TVB: As you mentioned, the book is profusely illustrated with color pictures and contains some very interesting indexes and even lists of unreleased Crosby recordings and alternate takes. How many years did you and Mr. Reilly spend working on this project?

Mr. Wiggins: Jim Reilly and I have worked together since the early 1990s on recordings by Bing. For at least a decade I was consultant to MCA / Universal Music in Los Angeles, compiling and annotating Bing Crosby collections for reissue on CD, and Jim played the same role for the same company in London. This led to our three- to four-year project to publish our first discography in 2001, and then another three-year effort to update our new version.

TVB: What, if anything, have you left intentionally out of the book?

Mr. Wiggins: We decided it was best not to include Bing's extensive number of so-called "radio recordings," as this would have made the project too large and almost unending. As stated in the "Introduction" to this edition, we plan to produce a supplement to be entitled Special Radio Recordings. This will include all radio recordings authorized for release on CD by Bing Crosby Enterprises, such as the Mosaic CD box set of Bing's many songs recorded with Buddy Cole, along with other such compilations.

Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Bing Crosby in the late 1950s

TVB: It seems that the book is selling rather well. What kind of responses have you received so far from Crosby collectors and fans?

Mr. Wiggins: Thus far, only telephone calls and brief notes of thanks praising the overall quality and content of our book have been received. Some have also expressed appreciation for the "Recommended CD" column, for helping to guide their collecting while avoiding excessive duplication. We have been disappointed, however, at the complete lack of any internet comments to date.

TVB: And finally, if you had to recommend three Bing Crosby releases to someone who is interested in getting acquainted with Crosby's phenomenal body of work, which ones would you choose? Thanks again to you and Mr. Reilly for your wonderful work on this new Crosby discography!

Mr. Wiggins: For the newer Crosby fan, or for one who is just starting out, I would recommend the following CDs: Bing's Gold Records (MCA / Universal MCAD-11719), Merry Christmas, which was retitled White Christmas (MCA / Universal MCAD-31143), and A Centennial Collection of Bing Crosby's Decca Recordings (MCA / Universal MCAD-88-113222). A single alternative to these would be the four-CD box set, Bing—His Legendary Years (MCA / Universal MCAD4-10887).

Further information

For more information about this new Bing Crosby discography (its price is US$35, postpaid via Priority Mail), as well as for ordering the book, you can contact Mr. Wiggins at the following mailing address: 5608 North 34th Street, Arlington, Virginia 22207, U.S.A. Mr. Wiggins will also take orders by phone (703-241-5608) and e-mail (wigbing2012 (at) The discography is also announced in the International Club Crosby website, where you can find information about how to order it if you live in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. If interested, please go here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Jack Diéval: Classy Jazz from the Champs Élysées

A recent post about Blossom Dearie in Marc Myers's JazzWax blog made me dig deep into my jazz collection and dust off the only CD I have by French jazz pianist Jack Diéval, who appears in this video improvising with Dearie on a blues theme. Anyone who is impressed with Diéval's piano skills in the video is encouraged to look for Diéval's Jazz in Paris: Jazz aux Champs Élysées.

Though not very well remembered these days, Jack Diéval was one of the leading figures in French jazz between the 1940s and the 1960s, not just as a pianist but also as a radio and television host. Known for his elegant piano style and for his uncanny ability to accompany just about anyone, Diéval was nicknamed "the Debussy of jazz" and throughout his career, he worked wholeheartedly to promote jazz in France in any way imaginable. Born in Douai in 1920, the young Diéval studied piano and soon became fascinated with jazz, making a name for himself at first primarily as an accompanist, working with tenor saxophonist Alix Combelle and with the vocalist Henri Salvador. In 1947 Diéval was named the best pianist in the country by the prestigious French magazine Jazz-Hot, and then his career really took off: he began to record steadily and even collaborated on some songs with the poet Boris Vian. One of the tunes they wrote together, "C'est Le Be Bop," would in time be successfully recorded by Salvador.

In 1954 he began hosting the pioneering jazz radio show Jazz aux Champs Élysées, which would remain on the air under his supervision until 1972. The roster of great jazz musicians who appeared on the show is staggering and includes, among many others, Eric Dolphy, who made his final radio appearance with Diéval, and Jean-Luc Ponty, who played over the airwaves for the first time on that show, well before he was recognized as one of the best things that happened to modern jazz violin. Around this same time Diéval was also hosting television shows regularly featuring live jazz, and although after the advent of rock'n'roll he briefly tried his hand at the new style, jazz always remained his first love, and his few rocking records are decidedly jazzy. Through the years he would make a respectable number of records for different labels, most of which are unfortunately unavailable on CD.

The one compact disc featuring Diéval's music that is currently available in the U.S. is a highly recommendable one, though. Jazz in Paris: Jazz aux Champs Élysées (Gitanes / Universal Music, 2002) includes a session recorded on June 24, 1957, at the Théâtre Pigalle in Paris, that finds Diéval on piano in the company of the J.A.C.E. (Jazz aux Champs Élysées) All Stars. This group was the house band for Diéval's radio show (hence its name) and was indeed an all-star combo of French jazz luminaries—Guy Lafitte on tenor sax, Michel de Villers on baritone sax, Sacha Distel on guitar, Paul Rovère on bass, and Christian Garros on drums. The session was designed to sound like one of Diéval's radio programs and was originally released on a Polydor LP. It is presented here in its entirety, complete with the introductions of the musicians who participate. Except for a couple of originals (Diéval's "Rif Hi-Fi" and "Blues for Polydor" and Lafitte's "Do Not Disturb") the repertoire relies on standards by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Hoagy Carmichael, and the Gershwins.

A young Sacha Distel
On their version of "Solitude," Lafitte and de Villers interact beautifully and prove how adept they are at playing ballads. The introduction to "The Man I Love" shows why Diéval was often compared to Debussy, and Distel, who would become better known as a pop singer but is an excellent jazz guitarist, shines on "In a Mellow Tone" and particularly on "The Nearness of You," where he does a fine job in support of Lafitte's statement of the haunting Carmichael melody. The CD also includes four tracks from a trio date recorded over a year before, on March 26, 1956, in Paris. The identity of the rhythm section is unknown, and Diéval enjoys ample room to showcase his elegant and effective piano style on the mid-tempo "Learnin' the Blues," the ballad "Tenderly," and two lesser-known compositions with French titles, "Pour Penser à Toi" and "Donne Ta Main et Viens." The four songs were released on a Polydor EP, and Boris Vian's review of that record in Jazz-Hot appropriately lauded "the prettiness of [Diéval's] touch, the simplicity and logic of his phrasing, and the facility with which he improvises." This CD from the Jazz in Paris series is the perfect—and for now the only—place to start enjoying Diéval's piano playing, and it proves that he deserves to be more than just a footnote in the history of European jazz.


Here is a very interesting video in French from the Institut National de l'Audiovisuel of Jack Diéval sitting at the piano and reminiscing about his life and career

Saxophonist Guy Lafitte in the early 1980s

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Vintage Records Review Desk 7: Duke Ellington Octet, Martha Tilton, Bing Crosby 1930s Radio Recordings

For this new installment in the series, we take a close look at three European imports that have landed on our Review Desk, all of them extremely recommendable and taken from radio sources. We begin with one of the few live recordings of Duke Ellington in an octet setting that are currently available. And then we spotlight two vocal releases: a fine compilation of Martha Tilton live broadcasts with the Benny Goodman orchestra, and a recently issued collection of rare Bing Crosby broadcasts from the Kraft Music Hall in the mid 1930s.

While he often led sessions with small groups, particularly in the early years of his career, unfortunately not too many recordings of Duke Ellington in an octet setting have survived. The Duke Ellington Octet at the Rainbow Grille (Gambit Records, 2006) presents one of them, a very interesting date at New York' Rainbow Grille from August 17, 1967, preserved for posterity due to the fact that it was broadcast by the CBS radio network. The first five tunes on this album are apparently rehearsals that the sound engineer caught on tape while adjusting the balances in preparation for the broadcast. The first of these finds the Duke at the piano, wistfully playing a medley of two of his lesser-known compositions, "Heaven" and "Le Sucrier Velours," and in the background we can hear people chatting and glasses clinking, which suggests that nobody seems to be paying much attention to the performance. The whole octet begins to warm up next, using for that purpose classic Ellington numbers such as "In a Sentimental Mood," "Azure," and "I'm Beginning to See the Light," as well as a rocking tune called "Rock the Clock."

Then the broadcast proper begins, after an announcer urges the crowd to applaud as the band goes on the air, and the sound improves somewhat. The octet is made up of star soloists from within the Ellington orchestra, namely Cat Anderson on trumpet, Lawrence Brown on trombone, Johnny Hodges on alto, Paul Gonsalves on tenor, and Harry Carney on baritone, supported by a rhythm section that includes the Duke himself on piano, bassist John Lamb, and drummer Steve Little. This reduced lineup called for new arrangements, which in the hands of all these giants sound rich and full of excitement, giving all the horns plenty of chances to shine. The set list features many Ellington and Billy Strayhorn standards, such as "Take the 'A' Train," "Satin Doll," "Sophisticated Lady," "Passion Flower," "Solitude," and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," as well as Juan Tizol's "Perdido," which is ably performed here by Cat Anderson. Ellington himself, of course, is heavily spotlighted on piano, and his playing, as usual, is never less than superb. This is definitely a very welcome release, with personnel information and well-written liner notes that could, however, be a little more detailed. It appears that several other performances from this Ellington octet engagement exist, and judging by the quality of the music we can hear on this CD, they all deserve the be issued commercially.

It is well known that Benny Goodman disliked to work with vocalists, and he only featured them with his legendary big band because of their selling potential. Thus, when he first played Carnegie Hall in January 1938 (a landmark concert that was to swing what the famous Paul Whiteman appearance at Aeolian Hall about a decade earlier had been to Whiteman's brand of symphonic jazz) he only allowed his female vocalist at the time, Martha Tilton, to sing two songs. Yet the physically and vocally attractive Liltin' Miss Tilton, as she was often billed, was always a crowd pleaser, and the roaring approval of the Carnegie Hall audience to her rendition of "Loch Lomond" prompted Goodman to step up to the microphone and clarify that, even though no encores had been prepared, Tilton would reappear later on in the show to sing another number. The audience's response to that second song, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," was just as noisy proving that the public at large did not share the bespectacled bandleader's contempt for vocalists, who, in fact, would in time end up becoming one of the many reasons for the ultimate demise of the big band business.

Culled from live broadcasts made by the Goodman orchestra between 1937 and 1939, the generous two-CD set Liltin' (Jasmine Records, 2007) showcases Tilton's powerful yet unassuming vocals on 49 tracks that should be of interest to anyone who enjoys her Carnegie Hall performances. The sources of these recordings are broadcasts from the Camel Caravan radio show (1937-39) and airchecks that originated from the Madhattan Room in New York's Hotel Pennsylvania in 1937, all of them with very good sound considering the circumstances in which they were preserved. The quality of the songs varies, since Goodman featured on this broadcasts many throwaway pop hits of the day that have not stood the test of time, but the orchestra always sounds exciting because includes great names such as Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Jess Stacy, Bud Freeman, Hymie Schertzer, and Dave Tough, among many others. Moreover, when Tilton is given the right song (Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" or Johnny Mercer's "And the Angels Sing," for instance) she always delivers, and the well-oiled sound of the orchestra never fails to get a enthusiastic responses from both the dancers and the listeners in the audience. Tilton would leave the Goodman organization in 1939 to launch a solo career, concentrating on radio work and making some fine records for Capitol, a label that was never sure whether to present her as a balladeer or a novelty performer. Offering several tracks that she never recorded commercially with Goodman and even a couple of excellent duets with Johnny Mercer, this collection serves as a fantastic introduction to the lilting voice of Martha Tilton directly from the bandstand.

And, finally, Kraft Music Hall: Selected Performances 1935-1936 (JSP Records, 2015) is an unexpected but wonderful surprise for all Bing Crosby fans and collectors, which we have just received from the International Club Crosby. Although the medium of radio was of paramount importance in Crosby's meteoric rise as a multimedia star in the 1930s, unfortunately not too many broadcasts from this early period of his career have survived. As the subtitle of this disc ("Lost radio recordings rediscovered and released here for the first time") suggests, this compilation attempts to fill that void by presenting material from early Kraft Music Hall programs that have not been heard since they first aired in 1935 and 1936. At that particular point in time, December of 1935, Crosby's old boss, Paul Whiteman, was still the host of KMH, and the singer was simply a guest on the program. While the show was broadcast from New York, Bing's segments were relayed from Hollywood, as we can hear on the first track of this album, which has Whiteman introducing Crosby, who was not backed by Whiteman's outfit but by the excellent, swinging Jimmy Dorsey orchestra. It appears that it was common practice for Crosby during his guest spots to sing a medley of songs associated with him or taken from one of his then-current movies, as well as a few tunes that he had introduced or helped make popular, such as "On Treasure Island," "Red Sails in the Sunset," "Dinah" (unfortunately sans the Mills Brothers here), and "After You've Gone." As John Newton observes in the liner notes, Bing sings the romantic ballad "I'm Yours," which "fits neither category, but is nevertheless a welcome addition" and would later be beautifully recorded by Dean Martin.

These performances are not interesting merely because of their rarity, but rather because they prove that Crosby was a master interpreter of popular song who was even more exciting, jazzy, and improvisatory when he was singing to a radio audience in front of a microphone and supported by a bandleader of the caliber of Jimmy Dorsey. On the December 26, 1935, broadcast, which includes a rather sleepy version of "I Get a Kick Out of You" by Kay Weber that sounds as though she were not getting any kicks out of singing the song, it becomes clear that Crosby is acquiring more protagonism, since he sings more numbers than on previous programs. In fact, come January 1936, Crosby began to host the KMH himself, quickly turning it into one of the most popular radio shows in the country, with a weekly listenership estimated at dozens of millions. From the first two shows hosted by Crosby we get some fantastic performances of songs like "Eeny-Meeny-Miney-Mo," "I'll See You in My Dreams," "A Little Bit Independent," and "Some of These Days," still backed by Dorsey, who would remain on the show until July 1937. This new release complements JSP's very recommendable 2007 four-CD set, The Vintage Years, which included broadcasts made between 1932 and 1950, featuring some interesting duets with Judy Garland and Jimmy Durante, and will delight Crosby fans for the scarcity of this type of material and also for the fact that it is up to the usual audio restoration standards of the fine British reissue label.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Vintage Pop Oddities 1: George Sanders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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