Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

From the Vaults: Songs that Stay with Us
Reviews by Rob Lester

Recorded decades ago, but only released this spring (following their deaths a few years ago), here are cullings of two male singers' recordings. Let's acknowledge their legacies and their renditions of songs from the middle of the 20th century.

DAVID JENNESS
FORGOTTEN GEMS FROM STAGE & SCREEN

Harbinger Records/ The Musical Theater Project
CD | mp3 | iTunes

Gems are meant to be meticulously examined and shaped by dedicated jewelers who know their worth, prized by those who are presented with them. Diamonds, they say, are forever. Metaphorically, the most treasured of songs can be sparkling gems, too—and deserve skillful settings. It can be a pleasure to observe the obvious pleasure some folks take in their presentations of classy, well-built songs. The late David Jenness sang with such care and respect for the well-crafted older melodies, his delight in lyrics' clever rhymes and intelligent vocabulary choices and rhymes so palpable, that this gentleman will strike you as a well-informed champion of the songs. To paraphrase a line from Lorenz Hart (whose work with Richard Rodgers he gets to, twice): If they asked him, he could co-write a book—and he did, an opinionated survey titled "Classic American Popular Song: The Second Half Century, 1950-2000."

Speaking of titles, we more serious, longtime mavens/students/collectors of works written for theatre and film could see the first word of Forgotten Gems from Stage & Screen, the title of this pleasing and packed (26 numbers!) collection as an overstatement (I'd have preferred the adjective "Neglected.") True, casual or newish members of the fan club of cast and/or cover versions of songs from musical scores won't be familiar with many of these fine choices, but they'll certainly recognize the names of the writers, as they are indeed major league (Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, Hugh Martin, etc.).

Selections aren't all ultra-obscure, as a few have been memorably taken on (in albums still in print) by such high-profile singers as Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Short, Peggy Lee, Liza Minnelli, Margaret Whiting, and Michael Feinstein, in addition to three soundtracks with Judy Garland, three scores by Cole Porter (including "Good-bye, Little Dream, Good-bye," interpolated into later revivals of Anything Goes), etc. Excitable scavengers for early Sondheim should note a false alarm, however: what's mistakenly listed as "It Can't Be True," while correctly indicated as being from one of the shows he wrote in his schooldays, is actually the charmingly wide-eyed "I Must Be Dreaming," which has previously seen the light of day. (Both phrases are part of the lyric.) However, there's enough here that's unusual and under the radar that you couldn't name the project after the closing track: "Something Known." It's likely to be something unknown by most, as it is was written for an unproduced musicalization of The Member of the Wedding, written once upon a time by the Once Upon a Mattress team of Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer. Its lyric is lavished with theatrically hushed awe that really suits and elevates it.

Mr. Jenness, who passed away in 2017 at age 80, had a straightforward, unpretentious approach, which fondly put the spotlight on craft and moods of the songs, not on him as a performer. While singing was not his main occupation, and he doesn't have the most dazzlingly distinctive or resonant sound, there are some appealing and endearing qualities that make the listening rewarding beyond the satisfaction of hearing so many rare and rarified pieces. There's infectious joie de vivre in numbers like "Have Feet, Will Dance" (Burton Lane/ Dorothy Fields, from the TV musical Junior Miss) and the gleefully goofy "Gus the Gopher," an independent song with music and lyric by Sheldon Harnick. Serious and sad subject matter like the lamenting "Paris Is a Lonely Town" (Harold Arlen/ E.Y. Harburg, from the feline-focused animated Gay Purr-ee) doesn't hesitate to cue earnest, melancholy approaches, but doesn't sink into mopey morass.

Accompaniment is uncluttered: the sturdy (but subtle when needed) piano work of Bert Dalton, sometimes joined by bass and percussion, never pulling focus or adding swaths of instrumental time. (Playing time is often short and sweet, but never rushed.) The singer left behind these and quite a few other studio-recorded versions of songs he liked, done in the 1990s. Wanting simply to share his enthusiasm with his friends, he would give resulting tapes as private gifts. Luckily, Harbinger Records/The Musical Theater Project has seen to it that the friendship circle can now include the wider public. The folksy, just-among-chums sharing and Music Appreciation Class aura is cemented with some included spoken introductions that alert us to attend to such things as history and credits, or composer Hugh Martin's unusual intervals in "Tiny Room." (Since these aren't separately tracked except for the agenda-setting greeting, the occasional longer commentary going on for more than a minute may be tiresome for closely-spaced /frequent listening sessions.)

If you're looking for a big portion of high-quality theatrical treats from the 1930s to the 1960s to drink in and savor, with 26 samples provided by David Jenness, your cup will runneth over.

ANDY WILLIAMS
EMPEROR OF EASY
LOST COLUMBIA MASTERS 1962-72

Real Gone Music
CD

The title takes some explaining. The monarch moniker Emperor of Easy is an intriguingly grand thing to bestow upon a singer and a collection of his previously buried treasures. Crooner Andy Williams didn't quite "rule" the radio or TV airwaves, although he was prolific and successful. His own years were filled with songs that filled many albums, but some didn't make the cut and have been locked away until this year.

These 20 (mostly) hitherto unreleased tracks impress as much more than curiosities, also serving as a reminder of the dozens of polished albums over a multi-decade career, justifying the belated earned crowning of the title. Arguably, there are other worthy wonderful warblers who could be so anointed for their part in co-dominating the referenced genre of "easy listening," meaning less dramatic, more measured "middle-of-the-road" treatments of often established material, making the sounds smoother, soothing, or sweetened—sometimes prizing prettiness over powerhouse or pizzazz.

While much will be familiar fare because it fared well in other hands, there's also the unfamiliar, such as the very appealing and artful Burt Bacharach/ Bob Hilliard collaboration, "A Question of Loving." And there are two cases of the familiar that are also foreign—in their language, anyway. They are two of the big Williams hits sung in Spanish: the uber-romantic themes from the movies Love Story and The Godfather. One doesn't need to speak Spanish to relish those glorious high head tones and the sweepingly dramatic orchestrations.

You may be taken aback to find that there's a lot that is not laidback at all. When not strictly gentle (as with the calm courtship of "This Guy's in Love with You"), things are generally genial, holding angst or jubilation at bay in, respectively, a teardrop-minimized "No One to Cry To" and a game "Proud Mary" (which ain't the best fit). There are bursts of energy on a couple of show tunes: "If I Ruled the World," a pick from Pickwick that is a briskly confident pick-me-up; and the refreshing choice of a number from the short-lived musical Foxy (a Johnny Mercer/ Robert Emmet Dolan score), the rambunctious "My Night to Howl," here sung with the title line's first word changed to "Our" to accommodate the gleeful, gung-ho guest co-howlers, the other three Williams Brothers.

Lost Columbia Tracks 1962-72 surveys the artist's tenure with that record label, coinciding almost exactly with the same period of years that his weekly television series brought him into homes. Most of the selections were initially intended for the many LPs that had the same tame agenda as many in their era: primarily, to provide "cover versions" of very recent/current proven pop radio hits, often in similar treatments and tempi. This menu for musical comfort food brought together the general public's miscellaneous current favorite ear worms and the added sheen of a long-familiar, preferred voice. Imaginative reinvention was not the M.O. For those of us who have the famous versions of what are now "oldies" as a prime reference point, but not currently ringing in our ears daily, we can belatedly experience these renditions in an appealingly time-warped way. It's nostalgia warmly welcomed, rather than warmed-over, over-exposed compositions du jour. And, of course, my fellow Andy Williams fans and I appreciate this sudden new bounty of unheard performances from the man who passed away in 2012.

Our true-blue troubadour tries on a cowboy hat for "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" and treads softly into some soft rock. Donny Osmond, who'd been a regular on the Williams TV shows with his brothers, had revived the 1951 Nat King Cole hit "Too Young" in the closing year of Emperor's time frame and while Andy was already long in the tooth to sing about being "too young to really be in love," he sings it with grace rather than awkwardness. We're reminded that the period brought us a range of styles that found favor and exposure. We get other samples here—the then-new kind of folk ("Homeward Bound," not so bittersweet here); and Brazilian exports ("Bonita," sublimely involved).

The CD's accompanying booklet features Joe Marchese's many pages of detailed liner notes chronicling the broader scope of the singer's oeuvre, album by album. He indicates which LP these mostly masterful masters were dropped from and sometimes offers reasons why, even tracking down someone then involved with the tracks, after all this time, to give a reason, quoting producer Jerry Fuller for the record. This is a mini-history lesson of the music biz "Through the Years," to invoke the title of the included title song from a Broadway musical (Vincent Youmans and Edward Heyman, 1932). Better late than never surfacing, these Lost Masters are a real find and, "smiling through the years," Andy Williams' positive persona survives to brighten the present and the future.




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