It can be a dangerous game, this idea of one singer taking on the legacy of a beloved entertainer. Stay too close to the original and risk being accused of being a copycat who is a pale imitation. Go the route of reinventing and rethinking the material and one may be accused of blasphemy. Nevertheless, sometimes it works, and the affection one singer has for an idol really comes through.
Rosemary Clooney and Mel Torme each recorded a loving tribute to Bing Crosby. Torme also saluted Fred Astaire, as did Andrea Marcovicci (just this season) and Tony Bennett. Bennett also has his tributes to Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong (with k. d. lang) and was himself saluted by Jack Jones. In a special class are such albums by family members carrying on the legacy - like Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Heather MacRae. Judy Garland's daughter, Lorna Luft, has been touring with a show called Songs My Mother Taught Me which should be out as a CD soon. Which brings us to our first album. Make that our first two albums.
Yes, I know. There was only one Judy Garland. We all agree. Now, if we can step back from the shrine and consider Linda Eder who next week will step onto the stage of Carnegie Hall where Judy Garland had her most triumphant concert. Many of the songs on By Myself were heard on that night. (The major concert staple that's absent is "The Man That Got Away," which can be found on one of Linda's earlier CDs.)
Those who know the Garland recordings well will note the musical equivalent of a Xerox machine on parts of this CD. In some cases, Linda adopts Judy's specific tempi and phrasing; some arrangements use ideas originated for Judy's charts. The arrangement of "I'd Like to Hate Myself in the Morning" is indeed duly credited to Garland's longtime musical director, Mort Lindsey. Embellishments unique to Garland's renditions are taken on, such as the special ending for the title song and the medley of "Almost Like Being in Love" and "This Can't Be Love." Elsewhere, there are fresher ideas. For me, it all works, coming off more as a respectful tribute than a rip-off. A lesser singer than the powerful Miss Eder would be in trouble, but fear not. When new ideas are lacking, there are musical fireworks that compensate. With her big, big voice and the veteran producer Ettore Stratta in charge, it's kind of smashing. And having The London Symphony Orchestra as the house band doesn't hurt. There are many new musical touches, large and small.
If powerhouse singing makes your pulse quicken, there's plenty to get things going here. It's not just about big and loud - it's full-bodied and rich with vibrato and real heart. Linda has never sounded as emotionally connected to her material. On the ballads, she is real and warm. She doesn't come close to Garland's vulnerability, but "It Never Was You" and "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" do find her at her most tender and pensive. (The latter song is mistakenly credited to the wrong writer - it's the old song based on Chopin by Joseph McCarthy and Harry Carroll.) "The Boy Next Door" and the obligatory "Over the Rainbow" remind me more of Barbra Streisand's quieter, reflective versions in tempo and phrasing.
Jack Murphy wrote a new song for the project: "The Rainbow's End." Filled with references to (you guessed it!) The Wizard of Oz, it comments on the story and Judy and is a highlight. It also is an ideal showcase, tailor-made for Linda's strengths. She soars and roars.
There are other nice touches throughout, such as the orchestra playing "Swanee" during "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody" and the unsung introductory verse to "Over the Rainbow." The sound is excellent; the orchestra never sounds muddy. The writing for strings is especially well done, and the brass sounds bright and exciting. Bravo to arranger-orchestrators Kim Scharnberg (who did about half the charts), Byron Olson and Jeremy Roberts.
This album scores a victory. Linda Eder is a volcano.
Judy Butterfield admits she'd only seen two Judy Garland movies before undertaking her cabaret show honoring the legend. Her song selections and narrative on this live recording of her night club act Judy Sings Judy proves that she did her homework. And Judy Butterfield is used to homework: she's a 15-year-old high school student.
The name rang a bell for me. I'd seen her as a guest on a program at The Town Hall in New York last year, presented by her mentor, cabaret diva extraordinaire, Andrea Marcovicci. In past columns, I've praised Andrea's protegees Maude Maggart and Jennifer Sheehan; I now have nice things to say about Miss Butterfield who has some of the same sweet soprano qualities and old-fashioned charm in her song presentation. This Judy singing Judy has a lovely voice, most impressive when she is using the most voice on the more serious material. On the lighter tunes, she's game but doesn't sound quite as comfortable and she does not seem to be a natural comedienne. She gets some nice laughs from the audience, though. Let's give her a break - she's 15 and just starting out. In the same vein, I don't expect a lot of insight from her interpretation of the torch song "Stormy Weather," the least successful track. Wisely, the act focuses on Garland's early years, providing suitable material. There's an unaffected quality in Judy Butterfield that comes through along with a sound that's pretty without sounding overly trained or formal.
The set list shares some tunes heard on Linda Eder's Garland CD reviewed above. They are "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," "You Made Me Love You," "The Trolley Song," and "The Boy Next Door," in addition to "Over the Rainbow." It's quite refreshing to hear these early Garland hits in a young person's voice. Judy includes the Clark Gable fan letter section added to "You Made Me Love You," although she chooses to wink at it a bit rather than do it fully in character as the star-struck movie fan. Concentrating on the early Garland years gives her the opportunity to do "Hang On to a Rainbow," "Swing, Mr. Charlie," and other numbers that would probably be overlooked in a full-career retrospective. It's fun to hear these and two songs specifically written for a teen-aged girl ("In Between" and "Sweet Sixteen").
Midway through the act, Judy introduces a schoolmate, Sam Reider, who joins her for a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland segment, including some cute banter. They are a delight singing together, and Sam is a junior jazz man, a hip guy who also impresses with his piano solo on "Fascinating Rhythm." Brad Ellis's arrangement of "I Got Rhythm" gives the two a chance to take on a jazz challenge that's quite enjoyable. Otherwise, the pianist/musical director is Ken Muir.
Judy does not exhibit a blindly devoted attitude towards her subject. She lightly mocks some of the cornier cliches of the early films, calling one "really, really bad," sounding very much the modern teenaged girl. Her chatty introductions to the songs (virtually each and every one gets a set-up, some lengthy) qualify as Intro To Garland 101. Those who have read any of the biographies or even liner notes will know a lot of the basic information; unfortunately, they are indexed as the beginnings of the tracks, making it hard to skip over on repeated listenings.
This set of mostly the teen years is a nice complement to Linda Eder's set, along with an album reviewed here some weeks ago, Made in America: Vaudeville Songs, which surveyed material performed by the tiny tot Garland and her family. Although it will be some time before Judy Butterfield can order a drink in a night club (this act was done at The Plush Room in San Francisco), it will be interesting to see what major steps this minor takes in her career. She does some fine work here, including the song "Judy," which, legend has it, was the inspiration for the budding singer's name change. Good luck to this budding singer, too.
This album is a dream come true. Before you accuse me of hyperbole, allow me to explain. Bette Midler got a phone call from the man who was her pianist, musical director and opening act in the beginning of her career. He said he'd had a dream that Bette recorded (with him) the songs of the great singer, Rosemary Clooney. They went ahead and did it. A success and strong seller! Lucky for us all, he had another dream about recording a Peggy Lee tribute album. It's another reunion and another prize.
With the odd credit of "all song layouts created by Barry Manilow" and produced by him (other arrangers are credited on individual songs), this album is filled with musical merriment and class. The sound is bright and the band goes to town. This is a barrel of fun with a couple of ballads to add variety to the mainly upbeat, rhythmic feel-good festival ("Alright, Okay, You Win" is a prime, good-time example). Less restrained than Peggy Lee, Bette is loose on the uptempo numbers. However, she shows little hint of her outrageous or bawdy side.
The Broadway songs include the wide-eyed lovestruck title tune from 1956's Mr. Wonderful and a perky "Big Spender" from Sweet Charity which, frankly, I wish had a bit of the brassier Bette. The final theater number, "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" from Cabin in the Sky, is a revelation. Warmly arranged and conducted by Bill Ross, it's one of the best versions of the standard I've heard. Bette really finds a homespun authenticity in her reading of the lyric of contentment and commitment: "Sometimes the cabin's gloomy and the table's bare./ But then he'll kiss me and it's Christmas everywhere." It's like a warm, cozy blanket wrapped around the listener. The movie song, "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," is one of the most idyllic tales ever. It finds Bette in another Bill Ross dream, at her storytelling emotive best with Jerome Kern's majestic melody and Oscar Hammerstein's story of a devoted couple living happily ever after in their own kind of cabin (not in the sky).
Two pop hits for Peggy Lee written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are as different as can be. "I'm a Woman (W-O-M-A-N)" is a confident and brash smash. (It was also used in the songwriters' Broadway revue, Smokey Joe's Cafe.) The signature tune, "Is That All There Is?" takes full advantage of Bette's acting skills with its spoken sections between choruses. Don Sebesky's arrangement is credited as being based on the original by Randy Newman, but Bette's speeches have all her own acting choices, emphasizing different words and creating her own character. The mini-tales of disillusionment are taken seriously and she really breathes new life into the song, in the end making it less devastating and more the story of a survivor.
More fun is had with two songs Peggy Lee co-wrote. One is "He's a Tramp" from the Disney film Lady and the Tramp and here Bette comes closest to a Peggy Lee sound and style. The other is the happy "I Love Being Here with You," a duet with Manilow that has some cute banter. There's one song I haven't commented on because I haven't heard it: My preview copy is the standard issue, but there's an extra track on a version of this album sold exclusively at Barnes & Noble. That song is "He Needs Me," a fine song Peggy Lee performed in the film Pete Kelly's Blues. If you have a computer or DVD player, you may be able to access the visual component of the album showing videos of the same material. I'm a longtime Bette Midler fan, but I have found some of her albums to be wildly uneven. This one is even - and even better than most.
Noble/Coward might sound like a couple of contrasting adjectives, but it's a pairing of singers from two old records that the import label Must Close Saturday recently released on one CD. Celebrated British songwriter Noel Coward is responsible for all the words and music. The 1954 album titled World Weary: The Songs of Noel Coward presents Harry Noble as vocalist (the notes say he recorded very little) with piano accompaniment by Stuart Ross. Noble had a high baritone bordering on tenor and a pleasant, if not terribly distinctive, sound. Fitting into the style usually adopted with Coward material, his affect is somewhat detached and worldly. He sings simply, without punching the comedy lines, letting the listener "discover" them instead. He's likewise reserved on a love song, such as "I'll Follow My Secret Heart," formal to the point of rolling his "r"s. The comic tale of "Nina" who refuses to begin the beguine is more laidback and doesn't have the changes in tempo that other have used to make it frenzied. Noble is a gentler spirit, avoiding the sometimes brittle stylings taken on by some Coward interpreters. The numbers originated from operettas are a bit more relaxed than you might expect. The piano playing is competent but unremarkable. I especially enjoyed hearing a couple of numbers I hadn't found on most other Coward cornucopian collections, such as "Where Are the Songs We Sung?"
Inviting easy comparison, the other half of the CD is another 1954 recording: I'll See You Again: Noel Coward himself singing some of his hits. Two titles appeared on both original albums so you get to hear each singer have a go at "A Room with a View" and "World Weary." My vote would have to go to the songwriter, who always strikes me as wickedly charming and/or sincere, despite his small voice. Some of his famous comedy numbers are here, including "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," and "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington." Coward fans may have other versions of Coward singing these songs (I think the two live albums with Peter Matz's arrangements, also available on CD, have more energy than these). Coward's accompanist here is Norman Hackforth and the orchestra is led by Wally Stott. In any case, it's always nice to be showered with Coward and this double dose is one I've enjoyed hearing.
UNDER THE RADAR
Our weekly look at a lesser-known album is a tribute to one of jazz's great ladies, Sarah Vaughan.
Of all the albums discussed in the column, it is this one which makes the strongest attempt to emulate the style of the singer saluted. Sarah Vaughan had a wide range and great control and could swing like nobody's business, scat and do all kinds of vocal gymnastics. She was also very mannered in some recordings and performances. Donna Accorso is a devotee and gets into the Sarah stylings, bending notes and twisting melody lines around, and using some of her odd pronunciation. In some selections it works better than others, but I find this album growing on me more and more. I admire what she is doing, and love a lot of it, even when the effort "shows" a little. Donna's voice is brassier and more nasal than her idol's, and some songs seem to be better fits than others. In a couple of instances, such as part of "A Foggy Day," things sound kind of harsh or forced and "Lush Life" has some rough going. (It's a particularly challenging and ambitious song for anyone.) When she sings in the higher part of her voice and doesn't push, it's a lovely sound.
The tracks are all on the long side, over four minutes each, about half are over five minutes. A couple more brighter, brisker, briefer tracks might have given some needed variety. Two Cole Porter songs are the lively ones: "What Is This Thing Called Love?" states the musical question simply and then lets the each of the musicians really shine. The track "Easy to Love" is indeed easy to love with Donna's treatment, and the CD opens with a great Broadway song, words and music by Richard Rodgers: "The Sweetest Sounds," which is my favorite track.
"Tenderly" is a song closely associated with the jazz diva, and it gets the full Sarah treatment with her stylization tricks and is presented very much in her musical blueprint. Frank Loesser's "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year," on the other hand, doesn't sound very Vaughany at all. "The More I See You" is very cool, with a great instrumental break. Donna's band is terrific, especially pianist/arranger Johannes Wallman who takes some marvelous solos.
Donna is not the first to record a musical tip of the hat to the singer nicknamed "Sassy" and "The Divine One." Her colleague Carmen McRae did one, and there's also a singer named Lola Haag. Each has a very different kind of voice. This is not Donna's first album; unfortunately, her other CD is out of print. She has recently returned to performing more, and had an engagement at Helen's in New York to celebrate the release of this new CD.
I especially enjoyed this week's listening assignments with some fine work saluting singers who are all among my favorites. It brought back memories of some things I haven't heard for a long time, which I plan to dig out and dig again. I'll be listening to Judy, Peggy, Noel and Sarah - and next week I'll be listening for you.