Saturday, November 10, 2012

Basin Street Revue (Studio Films, 1952)

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

The Basin Street Revue showed at least one indication of how tacky these productions were — Count Basie was advertised in the opening credits but he was not to be seen in the show (he is in the Rhythm and Blues Revue, performing with a small band featuring Wardell Gray on tenor sax and white clarinetist Buddy de Franco), but the people who were visible were quite good enough. The show opened with Lionel Hampton doing a stomping number on the cusp between jazz and R&B, “Ding Dong Baby,” after which Sarah Vaughan came out and did “You’re Not the Kind” at a faster tempo than the one she’d recorded with Musicraft with George Treadwell (her trumpet-playing husband) and Bud Powell in 1946 (and though we saw only the bell of a trumpet — not its player — I assume it was Treadwell because he was still her musical director as well as her husband in 1952). After that we had one of the horn players from the Paul Williams band, Jimmy Brown (absolutely not to be confused with the later R&B/soul superstar James Brown — Jimmy had a perfectly nice urban-blues voice but he was never going to rock down the Apollo with it), doing a song called “My Love Is True.” After that the next act was a heavy-set Black woman singer/pianist named Martha Davis — “the female Fats Waller!” I joked, and while she didn’t have Fats’s puckish sense of humor she did play a good deal like him and she dared a song, “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye,” on which she was competing with the Boswell Sisters and Frank Sinatra, and she held her own. After that was a comedy routine between Mantan Moreland and Nipsey Russell which featured one of those double-talk routines Moreland did a lot of in the later Monogram Charlie Chan movies, and after that Amos Milburn came out, not for one of his rockin’ boogie specialties but for a ballad called “Bewildered” at which he was quite good (and no, it wasn’t the Rodgers and Hart “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” but a different song — though good enough it would deserve revival).

Next up was Faye Adams, the Black contralto whose star-making hit “Shake a Hand” was eventually covered by Paul McCartney (in close to her original key!) doing a song called “Somebody Somewhere” — as a song it’s hardly in the same league as “Shake a Hand” but it’s nonetheless worth hearing and she’s marvelous (she was stuck on the uncertainly distributed Herald label during her peak years and therefore didn’t get the chance at mega-stardom Dinah Washington, LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown did). After that the Clovers returned for one of their biggest Atlantic hits, “Lovey Dovey” (though the performance here was pretty weak and the studio recording was actually more exciting), and then Sarah Vaughan came out again and applied her awesome vocal skills and chops to a pretty mediocre song, “For a Lifetime.” Then Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins came out and did a song about bebop — for once they sang as well as danced — and afterwards Herb Jeffries did a song called “A Woman Is a Worrisome Thing,” actually one of the better pieces of material he got after he left Duke Ellington and no longer had access to the great Ellington and Strayhorn songs he’d sung with the Duke’s band (though its debt to the similarly titled “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing” from the George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess is pretty obvious), and the show came to a rockin’ conclusion with Cab Calloway, 20 years after his emergence but still surprisingly lithe and in control of his body, rockin’ out with “The Calloway Boogie.” These shows, directed by Joseph Kohn and shot by Don Malkames (who seemed to be the go-to guy for just about all independent producers shooting in New York then), are tackily produced in the extreme (they’re faked to look like live performances but every time Kohn supposedly cuts to the audience it’s the same stock shot of an audience as spotlights sweep over it!) and shot with almost no imagination, but they’re welcome glimpses of performers who either weren’t otherwise filmed at all or whose other film appearances (like Ellington’s and Calloway’s) were in the contexts of big, lumbering white musicals in which they were nothing but guest artists.