Saturday, December 5, 2009

Peggy Lee, June Christy & All-Women Bands (Idem, c. 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’ve been wanting to do a comment on the two movies Charles and I watched Wednesday night. One was a fascinating release from a European company called Idem (I think they’re the ones who were responsible for a fascinating, if not always especially well documented, series of live jazz LP’s released in Italy in the 1970’s, usually with more than one artist featured on each LP) billed as by Peggy Lee and actually combining six “Snader Telescriptions” by Lee and her husband Dave Barbour’s quartet; four “Snader Telescriptions” by June Christy and a band led by jazz accordionist Ernie Felice (for some reason misspelled “Filice” on Snader’s opening credits) and some older but still quite fascinating footage (mostly from band shorts, though at least one clip is from a feature film called Accent on Girls) of all-women bands: six by Ina Ray Hutton, one by Lorraine Page and four by Rita Rio. The Snader films are billed here as “soundies” — three-minute music videos made to be played on a “panoram,” a video jukebox briefly popular in the 1940’s (Orson Welles biographer Frank Brady calls them “somewhat of an unenthusiastic fad during the war years,” but they preserve quite a few great musicians and bands that otherwise we’d have no visual record of), but I suspect from the relatively late copyright date (1950) and the title “telescriptions” that they were meant as video equivalents of radio transcription discs, playable either in sequence to make up a TV program or one song at a time to fill in gaps in the broadcast schedule.

Many of the Lee songs are pieces she recorded commercially for Capitol in the late 1940’s — including her hits “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and “I Don’t Know Enough about You” — but her performances are clearly looser here, and are yet another testament to the superb quality of the musical team of Mr. and Mrs. Barbour — they almost literally make love in sound the way Billie Holiday and Lester Young did. What’s more, the Snader people weren’t just staging these as film clips; some of the songs are done in sets and costumes that suggest a story, much in the manner of later music videos — and at least one of these productions, “I Cover the Waterfront,” tries too hard: Lee is a wharf rat and Barbour the sailor she’s waiting for in what’s depicted as a pretty loveless coupling. Neither Lee’s voice nor her acting are world-weary enough to suggest the concept the director had in mind — Billie Holiday would have been ideal on both counts — but at least it’s a nice try, and the other “staged” videos, particularly “I Only Have Eyes for You” (set atmospherically outdoors against a night sky in New York — even though it was clearly filmed inside a studio and the buildings in the background are models — it’s not as dementedly imaginative as Busby Berkeley’s staging of the same song in the 1934 Warners musical Dames, but within the budget available to Snader’s director it’s a quite marvelous and atmospheric clip that supports the song), are far superior.

The Christy tracks aren’t as interesting, less because of her — she’s in good voice and the songs (“He’s Funny That Way,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” “Imagination” — though no one who’s sung this since has recaptured the beautifully prayerful quality of Frank Sinatra’s original record with Tommy Dorsey — and “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm”) are suitable for her, but the stagings are straight performance clips and an accordion-led small ensemble just doesn’t give her the “oomph” she got from the Stan Kenton band and the small groups drawn from it with which she was making most of her records at the time. Also she’s cursed with one of the most unflattering hairdos ever inflicted on a basically attractive woman by a moviemaker.

The all-women band clips are in some ways even more fascinating than the ones with Lee and Christy. Charles pointed out that as leaders of all-women bands, Ina Ray Hutton and Rita Rio had their pick of a relatively small talent pool — there weren’t many women instrumentalists but there weren’t many opportunities for them either; Woody Herman briefly had a woman trumpeter in the early 1940’s but most of the instrumental ranks of the big bands remained all-male. In the six clips presented here, Ina Ray Hutton reminded me a great deal of Ginger Rogers: tall, leggy, blonde, a fantastic dancer and a quite serviceable singer (indeed, one could readily imagine her holding her own in a film with Fred Astaire!), and Rita Rio seemed to have copied a good deal of Hutton’s act. Though Rio was dark-haired (as befit her Latina-sounding name) she also sang, also danced, and also conducted her orchestra with a very long baton that arced and curved like a whip when she waved it.

What came through from the clips is that Hutton and Rio seemed to have quite different priorities in terms of hiring musicians and running their bands: Hutton, like Jimmie Lunceford, went for a precise instrumental ensemble and gave her bandswomen few chances to solo (only two of the six songs here include improvised-sounding solos); Rio, like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, seemed more interested in picking inspired solo voices and giving them a chance to show off. Rio also sings a vocal duet, “I Look at You,” with — of all people — Alan Ladd; anyone who’d seen the Paramount film Variety Girl, in which he sings a lovely song called “Tallahassee,” wouldn’t be surprised that he had a voice, but here he’s quite a bit better than some more highly promoted crooners and one wishes that at some point Paramount had cast Ladd in a musical. (Well, if Dick Powell could move from musicals to films noir, why couldn’t Ladd have done the reverse?)