As Irving Berlin wrote, "The song is ended, but the melody lingers on." Old songs
never die if they are passed on to the next generation. Vintage recordings are a
big help in allowing them to linger on, and state-of-the-art technology cleans them so they
sound almost new. Sure, revisiting old recordings is fine, but hearing the songs in
performance and recorded by today's artists is crucial. This week, let's look at four
ladies singing songs of yesterday. One CD is a career retrospective of a long-gone old
pro from vaudeville. The others involve old tunes brought back in brand new recordings
by one of cabaret's major stars and her two protégées.
Four score and seven years ago, Fred Astaire was in his first Broadway show. Conceived and dedicated to the proposition that all performers are not created equal, Andrea Marcovicci's CD tribute to the icon is a real love letter. In her liner notes, she says she always was "in love" with the man and his talents. Like Astaire, she has a warm, knowing way with a song despite not having a resounding voice with a wide range. Both radiate grace, charm and elegance. This makes Andrea Sings Astaire an appropriate and rewarding match-up.
With pianist-arranger Shelly Markham leading the way, the accompaniment sparkles and glides, often evoking that light-as-air feeling associated with Astaire. The other instruments are clarinet, sax, vibes, bass, and drums. Most of the numbers are kept pretty short, under three minutes in length, which adds a sense of moving along. The exceptions are the appropriately slow barroom ballad "One For My Baby (And One More For the Road") and four the-whole-becomes-more-than-the-sum-of-the-parts medleys.
An experienced actress, Andrea in the past has often brought high drama to sagas of lost love, but she's mostly on holiday here. Sad songs were not Astaire's main stock in trade, so she and the band concentrate on happier and breezier tempi. And of course there are songs of romance, but with few tears. "The Continental" and "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man" are a couple of songs celebrating the joys of dancing. Shelly Markham is a musical partner who works well with Andrea, and they seem simpatico in person and here on disc. It's been said that because of the above-mentioned vocal realities, and because of her skills at audience interaction and theatricality, Andrea is best experienced in person. True, but she comes off well on this new CD. Some voice troubles which limited her live performances a couple of years ago seem to be gone.
Astaire introduced many standards in the glory days of movie musicals, so there is plenty of great material. Collections have been recorded in the past by Mel Torme, Tony Bennett and British singer Lionel Blair, but hearing the songs in a woman's voice is a nice change. Andrea relishes words: hear her enjoy pronouncing Ira Gershwin's choices "tingle-ish" and "'s wonderful, 's marvelous." There are seven songs from the Gershwin brothers and a couple from Cole Porter. Some of the strongest moments on the album are the Irving Berlin songs. Two, about romantic dancing, are "Change Partners" and "Cheek To Cheek"; the album has many sweet moments, but you can't beat Marcovicci loving Astaire loving that dreamy dance across the floor with Ginger Rogers.
Early Irving Berlin songs are Maude Maggart's newest focus. They make the set list for her show opening next week at The Algonquin in New York and her brand new CD. A protégée of Andrea Marcovicci, she is very much at home with Berlin's lovely ballads. With her pure soprano tones, the sentimental numbers like "Always" are heartwarming while "When I Lost You" is truly heartbreaking. Half the songs are also on her mentor's all-Berlin album from 1995, but Maude has come up with some surprises, too.
Maude has been celebrated for recreating the sound and manner of early twentieth century ingenues. Here she shows more than ever that she is no one-trick pony. Although the CD is heavy on the breathtakingly beautiful turns, she shows a lot of zing and sass in "Slumming on Park Avenue," "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and best of all, a medley of "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil" with "Everybody Step." She belts and brays and turns up the heat several notches. It's clear that her versatility is something to be reckoned with - this young artist continues to stretch. Her previous albums were standouts and this one solidifies things.
Although most of the numbers are familiar Berlin songs, "Yiddisha Nightingale" is a rare bird indeed. If you're guessing it's done as a schticky comedy number, you're wrong. It's a graceful, flowing melody sung with unusual tenderness. Confident and communicative, the songbird has moved well beyond the mentoree stage. It has never been on her list of options to consider winking at the material or being at all coy. For this, one must applaud Maude. But save a few cheers for the musicians. They are excellent: Lanny Myers on piano, Jim Sitterly playing violins and viola and Kenton Youngstrom on guitar. This is a tight-knit group and all sound very in synch with the period. When the album ends with "The Song Is Ended (But The Melody Lingers On)," the cumulative effect really does stay with you. (Samples of this and Maude Maggart's previous two albums can be heard at cdbaby.com.)
Going from the sublime to "the last of the red hot mamas," let's turn our attention to Sophie Tucker (1884-1966). Famous for being brash and earthy, she's quite the opposite of a woman with the idealized romance and lady-like qualities discussed elsewhere in this column. Sepia's new collection gathers together many of her specialty numbers. The recordings date from the 1950s, celebrating and recreating her trademarks. Although portrayed in two biographical stage musicals, her bombastic personality is tough to recreate. (Cabaret singer Sharon McNight did an admirable job in a recent show and CD of Tucker tunes.)
The album begins with spoken congratulations on the brassy "broad"'s 50th anniversary in show business as performers pay their respects in scripted dialogue and then sing a Sophie standard. We get Georgia Gibbs having a go at Tucker's signature song, "Some Of These Days," and Patti Page (of all people!) singing the change-of-pace tearjerker "My Yiddisha Mama." (Sophie versions of both are heard later.) Other special guests are Eddie Cantor, Vic Damone and Rusty Draper and, in a short comedy bit, Jack Benny.
The main items on the menu are the comedy numbers written to showcase the performer's persona as an unabashed and bawdy (but with a heart of gold) dame. Among these are "The Middle Age Mambo" and "It's Never Too Late To Have A Little Fun" (songs resisting growing old were a specialty). She also bulldozes her way through "Sophie Tucker for President" and other Sophie-centric eccentricities. Master songwriter Sammy Fain is represented by "Never Let the Same Dog Bite You Twice" (there's a lesson in that!). And - surprise! - among the sly and the silly are two classics from the musical Show Boat: "Bill" and "Life Upon The Wicked Stage."
Once again, Irving Berlin comes up. The early dance craze number "The Grizzly Bear" is a romp when Sophie gets her claws into it. In an introduction to a tailor-made risque piece, she mocks Berlin's famous contention that "there's no business like show business" as she sings of something more widely popular - namely lust. The tune is "There's No Business Like That Certain Business."
With orchestras directed most often by Richard Hayman or Harry Geller with her longtime pianist Ted Shapiro on hand, the accompaniments have brio and old-time show bizzy flavor. The spoken comments by the star are G-rated - you won't hear the patter and jokes sometimes borrowed by Bette Midler in performance. If you're not familiar with this major figure from the past, the generous-length CD (78 minutes) awaits. It's a tasty show business menu, equal parts corn and ham.
UNDER THE RADAR
Getting back to the pretty place, open your ears to the first recording of Jennifer Sheehan, who sings song hits spanning the years 1850-1920 in a crystalline soprano with elegance and grace. Perhaps it won't surprise you that Jennifer is another protégée of cabaret nurturer Andrea Marcovicci. Jennifer has already appeared as Andrea's guest in concerts and this Sunday performs at Danny's Skylight Room in an act based on this CD. Not bad for someone who's been out of her teens for one whole year. A vocal arts student at Juilliard, golden-throated Jennifer has made an impressive debut.
Curious about the first female "superstars," Jennifer researched women singers who made names for themselves way back when. Unfortunately, the liner notes only drop a few names and don't detail who was associated with which song; more information would have been appropriate and added to the historical context. Leaving one mostly to memory, reference books or Googling, there are interesting stories to be told. The singing, however, is executed with great care and skill. Not surprising on a first album, occasionally the singer sounds a bit cautious (not nervous) but is mostly relaxed, always sounding lovely.
In a couple of very isolated moments, the sound doesn't seem quite right, as if the miking were too close and what's otherwise smooth hits the tiniest bump. The accompaniment is just piano (with Peter Hesed, also credited as arranger), occassionally sounding tentative or without sufficient grace; there is too much of a "recital" feel, with the accompaniment lacking the singer's flow. At other times, it's quite charming and polished.
Beginning with "Love's Old Sweet Song" and taking in a couple of classical pieces through a couple of change-of-pace comedy numbers and folk songs, there is variety. I especially like her way with "The Last Rose of Summer" and the two Stephen Foster classics, "I Dream of Jeanie" and "Beautiful Dreamer." Anna Held's trademark "I Just Can't Make My Eyes Behave" shows a flair for stylized humor, complete with foreign accent.
Jerome Kern's first musical theater success, "They Didn't Believe Me" (lyric by Herbert Reynolds), is paired with the 1910 hit "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and both drip with sincerity. "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" is one of the more familiar survivors and "You Made Me Love You" ends the album in strong style. Its passion hints at what Jennifer might do with less corseted material. However, for the time being it is enough to have one's CD player serve as a time machine to go back to quaint songs like "She Borrowed My Only Husband" (about a neighbor who didn't just ask for a cup of sugar). Young Miss Sheehan even gets to a tune associated with Sophie Tucker, "After You've Gone."
An interesting idea and pleasurable page from musical history, this is good news, especially for anyone seeking a trained and pure sound. Beautiful Dreamers is certainly beautiful and even dreamy. Miss Sheehan, welcome to the (night) club. For more information, visit JenniferSheehan.com.
I'll be listening for you as a new group of cast albums and vocal CDs comes along, writing more prose on more pros (and perhaps some pros and cons).