This week we’ve been surveying the Spaniards. But today I had an extraordinary discussion with my class at Hunter College. I teach a single class in the Theater department. It is called Singing. We sing of course, but today we had a deep discussion about race and music. In Dahomey, Shuffle Along, Porgy and Bess, Four Saints In Three Acts, Flower Drum Song, etc. and of course Hamilton. Everyone came alive. The discussion was amazing. I think the young people of NYC are wonderful and I am grateful to my students. I led off the class with this recording of Gershwin (from Porgy and Bess) by Nina Simone. Check out her Chopin/Debussy piano chops just before she lets loose with her full voice at the end.
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.”
To celebrate NYFOS’s 30th Anniversary Season, Song of the Day is featuring some selections from our commercial recordings.
Longtime friend of NYFOS Judy Kaye really shows her range on NYFOS’s album He Loves and She Loves. Here’s “My Cousin In Milwaukee” from Pardon My English by George and Ira Gershwin. From the program note for Broadway Orphans by Steven Blier:
Pardon My English was one of the Gershwin’s greatest fiascos in the theater; it went through five directors, five librettists, and three orchestrators; the play’s hero was at one time a jewel thief, and in another re-write a schizophrenic with a dual personality. Ira Gershwin was reportedly not too keen on the retrieval of the lost material from this show in the Secaucus warehouse. The show marked (and perhaps caused) the end of the producing team of Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley, who had always supported the Gershwins: the two brothers felt badly about this, and took the failure hard. Rumor has it that it’s actually quite a good score, and if today’s selections are any indication, that is certainly true.
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,
In this April 1926 recording (made in London for English Columbia), George Gershwin plays and Fred Astaire sings and taps. To paraphrase the Passover Haggadah: if George Gershwin plays and Astaire sings and taps, dayenu. It would have been enough. But this recording contains a few bonus delights, as Gershwin interpolates licks from Rhapsody in Blue (written the same year as the song) and the men call out to each other. Pure happiness.
Lady, Be Good! (1924) was the first full score siblings Ira and George Gershwin wrote together and starred siblings Adele and Fred Astaire. Another first: This song was the first in which Fred Astaire danced a solo, rather than performing only as his sister’s dance partner or leading an ensemble. The song title may have been inspired by flamboyant female impersonator Bert Savoy, whose catch phrase, “You don’t know the half of it, dearie” became very popular in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Savoy died in 1923.
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