Monday, June 11, 2012

Big Band Vocalists (PBS, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I had watched a PBS pledge-break special called Big Band Vocalists, a follow-up to another big-band show they did a year or two ago (which I’ve got in the backlog but haven’t actually watched yet) with some fairly familiar clips, hosted by Peter Marshall (the host of Hollywood Squares in its heyday) and Nick Clooney (who’s lived his entire life in the uncomfortable position of basking in reflected fame: first everyone thought of him as Rosemary Clooney’s brother and now everyone thinks of him as George Clooney’s father), many of them coming from two movies Columbia released in the early- to mid-1940’s, Reveille with Beverly (1943) and Jam Session (1944). The film opened with a clip that seemed just to drip with ironies: “I Had the Craziest Dream,” sung by Helen Forrest and played by her then-boyfriend (as well as then-employer) Harry James from the 1942 film Springtime in the Rockies, in color and (supposedly) taking place outdoors with a deep blue three-strip Technicolor backdrop to represent sky. The irony comes from the fact that this film was the occasion on which Harry James met the woman he’d jilt Helen Forrest for, Betty Grable.

Next was the familiar clip from Stage Door Canteen of Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman’s orchestra singing “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” one of the few white covers of a Black song that was better than the Black hit: it was written by Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie’s first husband, and recorded by Black singer Lil Green as a rather dull blues dirge — a far cry from the brassy sassiness Lee brought to it. Ironically, when this clip was shot the emphasis was on Benny Goodman — Allen Jenkins’ introduction hails him and doesn’t mention her — but within a decade she’d be a bigger star than he was, as the big bands faded and solo singers became the new music stars. Then there was the famous Reveille with Beverly clip of Frank Sinatra singing “Night and Day” with six women piano players and what looked to be like an all-woman string section — of which I wrote when Charles and I screened Reveille with Beverly “complete,” “Though he was already 27 when he made this film, Sinatra looks about 19, dressed in a slovenly bow tie (this was when his first wife Nancy was still making them for him herself) and a black suit that looks like he wore it to his high-school prom. The arrangement of the song is gimmicky (powered by six female pianists and an all-woman string section — well, that was one way to ensure your musicians wouldn’t get drafted!) and gets in the way of Sinatra’s phrasing (especially as compared to the prayer-like record of it he’d made with Axel Stordahl for Victor in 1942), but he already had the magic that would make and (except for that bad patch in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s) keep him a superstar. When Sinatra became the teen-idol sensation of the early 1940’s, Columbia advertised this film as if he were the star — probably pissing off audiences who paid their money and then got to see him just as a guest artist singing one song.”

The next song was the Andrews Sisters singing “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” from the 1942 “B” Private Buckaroo (a far less prestigious vehicle for Harry James than Springtime in the Rockies, though nothing of James was included in this program) — the giveaway was that the great comedian Shemp Howard was shown in the clip —and after that there was a quirky, possibly postwar, clip of Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers singing “It Started All Over Again.” It was a lovely song and well sung, but somehow one (this one, anyway) missed the extra suavity and elegance Frank Sinatra had brought to his record of the song with Tommy Dorsey, on which Stafford and the Pipers were his backup singers. Afterwards they showed a clip from one of Martin Block’s late-1940’s shorts with Buddy Clark singing “I’ll Dance at Your Wedding” with Ray Noble’s band (Noble looked considerably more than 10 years older than the youngish man who’d played the foofy suitor of Joan Fontaine in the Fred Astaire musical A Damsel in Distress, and Clark looked like a used-car salesman, but there was nothing wrong with his voice), and afterwards they showed an unidentified clip of Jimmy Dorsey’s band with Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell doing their famous tag-team vocals (he’d sing the song “straight,” Dorsey would play a jazz solo, and then O’Connell would come in and sing the song in jazz style and tempo), and after that they showed a quite impressive clip of Dick Haymes doing a song called “You Send Me (Right Out of This World).” This was actually the best Haymes I’ve heard; for once in his life he actually seemed to give a damn about phrasing and soul.

Then they showed Alice Faye singing “You’ll Never Know” from the 1943 period musical Hello, Frisco, Hello (the song was written for the film and was one of Harry Warren’s three Academy Award winners, along with “Lullaby of Broadway” and “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”), and afterwards they showed Perry Como with his original employer and mentor, Ted Weems, doing “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” — obviously a later 1950’s clip from Como’s TV show rather than one featuring the then-unknown Como with Weems in the 1930’s. The next segment (the pledge breaks were distributed in the show at five-song intervals) opened with Doris Day singing “It’s Magic” from her first film, Romance on the High Seas — a glorious performance, but Sarah Vaughan did the song even better on her Musicraft recording, and it’s a real pity no one at Warners thought to hire Sarah Vaughan and an all-Black supporting cast and shoot a “race version” of the movie right after La Doris and the white cast finished. Then came the other clip from Reveille with Beverly, Ella Mae Morse with Freddie Slack doing “Cow Cow Boogie,” a song which holds up beautifully (it’s one of the legitimate claimants as the first-ever rock ’n’ roll song) despite Morse’s idiotic costuming: as I wrote when I saw this last, “Though stuck with a silly-looking dress that attempts to be creating bull’s-eyes on her nipples, she still comes through and is one of the legitimate claimants for the title of first white rock ’n’ roll singer.” Then they showed a clip of Tex Beneke’s band (post-war, after the death of Glenn Miller and Beneke’s attempt to continue not only the band itself but its trademark “sound” of a clarinet doubling the sax line an octave higher — Duke Ellington was known for this in the early 1930’s but for some reason Miller got the credit for thinking up this bit of orchestral color) and a 1960’s TV appearance of Dinah Shore with the Duke Ellington band doing “Blues in the Night.”

The segment ended with a Jam Session clip of the Bob Crosby band, complete with Crosby and a vocal group, expanding the marvelous novelty “Big Noise from Winnetka” (originally a record featuring just Bob Haggart on bass and Ray Bauduc on drums — including a bit in which Bauduc “plays” Haggart’s bass strings by hitting them with his drumsticks — I’ve liked to cite this to “dance music” fans as the first “drum-and-bass” record in history, since that’s all it is) into a full-fledged song, though the additions really don’t add that much to the marvels of the original. The next and final segment began with a late-1940’s color clip of unknown provenance of Rosemary Clooney doing “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” (beautifully, but Billie Holiday’s 1937 record was even more beautiful). The next two were “mystery clips” of Nat “King” Cole and Tony Martin from Cole’s 1950’s TV show duetting on “On the Sunny Side of the Street” (Martin would have sounded just fine if he’d been alone, but Cole so totally out-phrased, out-swung and out-sang him the clip was a bit pathetic) and June Christy with Stan Kenton doing the great novelty song “Tampico” (one actually written for Christy’s predecessor with Kenton, Anita O’Day, but by the time Kenton was ready to record it O’Day had quit over the Kenton’s band chronic rhythmic stiffness). The segment continued with the other Jam Session clip, Louis Armstrong wandering through a nightclub in which the entire clientele seemed to be part of his band or his dance troup while performing “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” in a version that showed off just how much more self-assured as a performer he was than when he first recorded the song in 1929 even though, as I wrote when Charles and I first saw Jam Session, “The staging is silly: Armstrong is a singing, trumpet-playing bartender whose musicians are lounging around the interior of the bar while a long line of African-American chorines sit at the bar and gape at him in wordless admiration.”

After that almost nothing could have followed, but the makers of this special plugged in Kate Smith’s performance of “God Bless America” from the 1943 Warners color musical This Is the Army — and Smith became so totally identified with this song it was a surprise when a few of her other records trickled out and it turned out she’d actually sung other things in her life. I remember getting the Columbia Legacy two-CD set From Gershwin’s Time, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of George Gershwin’s birth by collecting contemporaneous recordings of his songs — and “I Got Rhythm,” introduced by Ethel Merman on stage in the original production of the 1930 musical Girl Crazy, was sung there by Kate Smith, whose voice was just as big as Merman’s and whose musicianship (especially her intonation) was far superior. The “God Bless America” clip featured some proto-music video effects, including a shot of Mount Rushmore, footage of President Franklin Roosevelt and black-and-white newsreel clips of America’s WW2 military in action, and it ended with a priceless shot of future president Ronald Reagan (who had a featured role in the complete film) with that same clueless deer-in-the-headlights look he had when he was president. Big Band Vocalists was oddly lacking in African-American talent — just Armstrong, Cole and Ellington (the last atypically represented by a TV clip from well past the heyday of the big bands — if I were doing a show about great big-band vocalists I would surely have included the Soundie of Ivie Anderson singing “I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” with the Ellington band in 1940, but this show completely avoided Soundies altogether, perhaps because very few of them survive in good condition): no Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan (maybe PBS was saving them for another pledge-break show, Jazz Icons, in which Ella and Sarah do indeed appear) — but aside from that lapse it was a fun show and a worthy tribute to the era even if the gabbing of Messrs. Marshall and Clooney did get oppressive at times.