I once said that one of my favorite singers was Fred Astaire. Steve Blier muttered, “that explains a lot”. You’ll have to ask him what it explained, but it might have been that I like things simple, unaffected, and with good diction. In the 1936 film Swing Time, Fred pretends that he can’t dance, so Ginger will spend time with him in a lesson. He learns real fast. Jerome Kern’s song from the movie comes down to us as an inspiration to not give up after something makes us fall — like two left feet, or a global pandemic. There have been many standout recordings of this classic, from the likes of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Diana Krall… the list goes on. I’ll offer Ella Fitzgerald (in Nelson Riddle’s arrangement).
For a chaser, watch Fred and Ginger from the film, after Fred gets the hang of dancing.
Nothing’s impossible I have found,
For when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off,
And start all over again.
Don’t lose your confidence if you slip,
Be grateful for a pleasant trip,
And pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
And start all over again.
Work like a soul inspired,
Till the battle of the day is won.
You may be sick and tired,
But you’ll be a man, my son!
Will you remember the famous men,
Who had to fall, to rise again?
So take a deep breath,
Pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
And start right over again!
Thinking back on my years living in New York City, I remember how sweltering the summers could be. I’ll try to send NYFOS and NYC a Mediterranean breeze from my home in Barcelona, but in the meantime, here is Ms. Fitzgerald once again, telling us that it’s “Too Darn Hot.”
I’m honored to be invited to contribute to NYFOS’s Song of the Day for a second time. As summer gets into full swing, this week I wanted to feature a few songs that celebrate the season. Here to start us off are the incomparable Louis and Ella with “Summertime.”
Ella Fitzgerald sang the way the rest of us breathe. Her vocal production, phrasing, diction and interpretive choices were so natural and effortless that it’s easy to take her work for granted. A natural talent who had little if any formal musical training, she was blessed with a seamless voice of great beauty, and an instinctive ability to get to the core of both the music and the lyrics of every song she sang. She had collaborators—mostly jazz legends like Chuck Webb, Dizzie Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington—but I suspect that her interpretations were all hers. (And while she didn’t invent scat-singing, she brought it to an entirely higher plane.) Her composer-by-composer albums , most of which were recorded by Verve Records from 1956 to 1964, established the concept of the American Songbook, while celebrating the treasures of Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Berlin, Kern, Arlen, Mercer and Ellington. Over a sixty-year career, her singing retained its girlishness and its joy.
“Boy Wanted” was a George and Ira Gershwin song from their 1924 London show, Primrose. It was a revised version of a song they’d written a few years earlier for A Dangerous Mind, 1921, which had closed out of town. The ease and good nature with which Fitzgerald lands every musical and lyrical point—even the rhyming of “advertisement” with “flirt is meant”—takes one’s breath away.
Who doesn’t love the famous Liszt song about the Lorelei? There she is, that infamous temptress, combing her flaxen hair, singing her siren song to lure hapless sailors to their deaths upon the rocks…
Well, long before I sang that great work (with Steve Blier at a 1990 NYFOS concert of ballads), I knew a different Lorelei song by Gershwin, as sung by the great Ella Fitzgerald in her 1960 live album Ella in Berlin. Not only was it unusual to hear the verse of any pop standard in the 1960’s, but listen to how Ella’s pianist (Paul Smith) spices it up by adding clever musical commentary. Heaven.
If you don’t know this album, download it immediately, or listen to it all on YouTube. Every song is a winner, especially the hilarious version of Mack the Knife where she forgets the words, and makes up some unbelievable lyrics of her own. (And of course, don’t miss her legendary five-and-a-half minute scat. It is one of the most spectacular in all of jazz.)
Back in the days of knights in armor,
There once lived a lovely charmer,
Swimming in the Rhine,
Her figure was divine.
She had a yen for all the sailors,
Fishermen, and gobs and whalers.
She had a most immoral eye.
They called her Lorelei.
She created quite a stir
And I want to be like her.
I want to be like that gal on the river,
Who sang her song to the ships passing by,
She had the goods and how she could deliver,
She used to love in a strange kind of fashion,
With lots of heigh, ho-de-ho, hi-de-hi
And I can guarantee I’m full of passion,
Like the Lorelei.
I’m treacherous, ja, ja,
Oh, I just can’t hold myself in check.
I’m lecherous, ja ja.
I want to bite my initials on a sailor’s neck
Each affair has a kick and a wallop,
For what they crave I can always supply.
I want to be just like that other trollop,
James and I are thrilled to be hosting #SongoftheDay this week. Music is what brought us together. We met singing in church, while he was music director at St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square, and I was a last-minute soprano sub for an Evensong service (quartet!) in May 2010. The rest is history, as they say. We celebrated our wedding in July 2016 in the Berkshires, with an additional blessing ceremony in the UK at Jesus College, Cambridge (James’ alma mater) in August. I had toyed with the idea of singing this song at our wedding in July, but in the end we were happy not to be performing on our memorable day!
Growing up, this tune was one of my absolute favorites. Jay Lichtmann, one of our dear family friends (and principal trumpet for many years with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, where my mom is still a violist) made me a mix tape in 1986 with jazz standards sung by Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. Needless to say, I fell hard and fast for these amazing ladies. I sang all the time: in choir, around the house, while I was practicing the violin. I am happy to share this song on our first day hosting #SongoftheDay for NYFOS. I love the history of this song, and the lyricist shares the name of my paternal grandfather, who was Dr. Jacob Werne (of Russian Jewish origin). Fun fact: both of my paternal grandparents were pathologists, who lived in Jamaica, Queens; they were avid classical music fans and devoted patrons of Carnegie Hall. The Andrews Sisters made this song quite famous (it became their first major hit, earning them a gold record, the first ever to a female vocal group), though Ella’s rendition is my favorite. The orchestration reminds me of some fabulous evenings spent at Henry’s listening to the Goyishe Christmas program. Since it was recently the 100th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth, I wanted to recognize her centennial with our first post of the week. This is also a fitting tune to dedicate to my dear, darling husband on the week of his birthday (May 5th)!
History courtesy of Wikipedia:
“Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (Yiddish: בײַ מיר ביסטו שיין, “To Me You’re Beautiful”) is a popular Yiddish song composed by Jacob Jacobs (lyricist) and Sholom Secunda (composer) for a 1932 Yiddish comedy musical, I Would If I Could (in Yiddish, Men Ken Lebn Nor Men Lost Nisht, “You could live, but they don’t let you”), which closed after one season (at the Parkway Theatre in Brooklyn, New York City). The score for the song transcribed the Yiddish title as “Bay mir bistu sheyn”. The original Yiddish version of the song (in C minor) is a dialogue between two lovers.
As I deal with the current dystopia I encounter every morning on NPR, I keep thinking about the song “Slap That Bass” by the Gershwin brothers. “Dictators would be better off if they zoom-zoomed now and then,” they write. I couldn’t agree more. “Zoom zoom, zoom zoom, the world is in a mess”—but for a few minutes George and Ira make the world safe again. After all, I need to think straight if I am going to help put things right.
I offer it in three formats:
FRED ASTAIRE, with the original dance break from “Shall We Dance”
ELLA FITZGERALD from her Gershwin Songbook, buttery and smooth, if a bit bland
And a special treat: Susan Stroman’s staging in Crazy for You, taken from the São Paulo production and sung, of course, in Portuguese. American swing-time meets Brazilian pelvises. Just watched it twice…
And now we come to Manhattan Transfer, or what we later came to refer to as just “the Transfer”. What an amazing run they had—35 years of great tight harmony, jazz, standards and brilliant singing and smart, urbane musicianship. Just four singers, sometimes a piano or a small band. They didn’t need much accompaniment. If they are new to you, get their albums. They will be great company for the next 35 years. Our pal Janis Siegal is still an active and amazing vocalist, spending more time now as a solo singer. Her latest album is with her Brazilian-inspired Requinte Trio and it too is a beauty. She can seemingly do anything with her voice. But let’s look at hey day of the Transfer when they were the hot kids in between the Supremes and Destiny’s Child. This is from the Grammy Awards in 1983, and they are singing with Ella Fitzgerald- still amazing as she approaches 70 yrs. old. Janis is the 2nd from the right. The song is “How High the Moon”.
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