Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall (NBC-TV, 2/17/59)

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

I showed a recent download from of a Perry Como Kraft Music Hall program from February 17, 1959 with Nat “King” Cole and Rosemary Clooney as guest stars (a curious coincidence that all three singers featured on this show had last names beginning with “C”!) along with some weird gag sequences featuring Rin Tin Tin (or whoever the dog was in the dynastic succession — remember that all the Rin Tin Tins since the original have been his direct descendants) barking through some of the songs, while in one odd scene Rosemary Clooney and Nat “King” Cole also brought dogs (Clooney’s was a poodle and Cole’s a Yorkshire he named “Pudding” as part of the gag) and the various dogs, including a mutt identified as Como’s pets, talk in the voices of their purported owners and agree about how little respect they get from humankind. Como began the show in an absurd trick-or-treat gaucho outfit and sang “The Donkey Serenade” (a song that really requires the quasi-operatic pop voice of someone like Allan Jones or Nelson Eddy) to a human dressed in a particularly awful donkey costume (“Nat ‘King’ Cole photographed really badly,” joked Charles; “No wonder his own show didn’t last!”). 

He then sang “Autumn in New York” and his version was typical Como: he was musical, sang in tune and phrased well, but the wrenching emotion Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra put into this song was predictably absent. Then Clooney came on and did “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” from Porgy and Bess — she sang it beautifully but the mambo-lite arrangement behind her really didn’t work — and she and Como paired off for one of the endless medleys that punctuated most music shows of the period: “The Glory of Love,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Blue Moon,” “Blue Room” (at last someone paired those two songs, surprisingly different despite their similar titles and origins from the same composer-lyricist team, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart), “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (Clooney’s contribution inevitably reminding anyone who’s heard her Ellington collaboration, Blue Rose, of how superbly musical she was and how well she fitted into the Ellington soundscape even though her vocals were added later, after the Ellington band recorded the instrumentals, and Billy Strayhorn and producer George Avakian were the only other people present at both sets of sessions), “Blue Skies, “Just One of Those Things,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and for a finale, Irving Berlin’s “You’re Just in Love” — the only song in the whole medley actually intended to be sung as a duet.

Then Nat “King” Cole came out and did “The Continental” well enough one (this one, anyway) wished there’d been a “race” version of The Gay Divorcée with Cole in Fred Astaire’s role (much as I still wish for a “race” version of Romance on the High Seas with the Doris Day role taken by Sarah Vaughan, who sang the movie’s two big songs, “It’s Magic” and “It’s You or No One,” so stunningly on her Musicraft recordings she far outsang Doris Day — and I’m not a Doris Day-hater: she had a fine voice and real undeveloped potential as a jazz singer, but Sassy just demolished her on those two songs) and stayed on set for another medley, fortunately just two songs this time: “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and “Accentuate the Positive.” It was nice that whoever photographed the Como show did a better job of lighting Cole than Don Malkames had on the Harlem Variety Revue clip-fests; for once he looked like a Black person instead of a black blob (a lot of cameramen then did fine with white faces but had problems with Black ones, especially unusually dark Black ones like Cole’s; in Breakfast in Hollywood he was visibly darker than his two Black bandmates in the trio), and then Como came on solo for a medley of “It Had to Be You” and “All or Nothing at All.”

Then the four singers — including someone named Gail Davis, who was playing Annie Oakley (in what context was never explained — presumably a revival or road company of Annie Get Your Gun, though she sang nothing from Irving Berlin’s score) — assembled for yet another extended medley, this time with a country theme: “Red River Valley” (mostly a solo by Clooney until Como joined her at the end), “I’m an Old Cowhand,” “Cielito Lindo” (Charles had earlier joked that Nat “King” Cole wasn’t a world-music performer, but a good case could be made that he was: not only did he sing this in the original Spanish, he recorded an entire album called Cole Español and also sang one of his biggest hits, “Non Dimenticar,” in both Italian and English), “Lonesome Cattle Call” (a rather lame country ballad by Gail Davis), “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” by all four singers, “Buffalo Gals” by the off-screen chorus, “Twilight on the Plain” and “Yippie-Tai-Ai-Oh” or something to that effect. This wasn’t as effective as the previous mega-medley because the good songs tended to get lost in the schlock — and it didn’t help that Como and Clooney utterly failed to catch the mockery in the lyrics to “I’m an Old Cowhand” that Bing Crosby and Jack Teagarden brought to their versions (and Sonny Rollins reflected in his instrumental jazz performance of it) — but the show, which closed with Como’s typical ending theme “The End of the Day,” was a lot of fun, and even in its tackiness brought back an era of music and a time when singers this capable routinely appeared on TV and sang at least slivers of the Great American Songbook. One can’t even imagine a show like this being done today!