Friday, August 20, 2010
The Song Is Ended
My heart is heavy right now. I've just finished Haunted Heart, a biography of singer Susannah McCorkle. In it author Linda Dahl lays bare how McCorkle struggled with mental illness. I never appreciated how deep was the emotional hole she lived in.
I fell in love with her singing in the late 1970s, around the time my consciousness of what constitutes great lyric writing was raised by the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks. At that time Susannah McCorkle had released several of her own songbooks (of the songs of Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren, and Yip Harburg) that introduced her to American audiences.
I was delighted by her work. These albums became a prized part of my collection, held in equal esteem with Bobby Short's songbooks and the Revisited series produced by the "incurable insane" Ben Bagley.
What I admire about these works is the light they shed on terrific songs by great composers that didn't make posterity's final cut. They gave me an avenue to pursue in my listening after I'd fully digested the "standards".
Many of these obscure songs were pickled in humor and vibrant wordplay. How easily my spirits were raised when I sang along with Susannah to Harry Warren's "I Take to You" (like a duck takes to water/like the Irish to a stew/like a lover to a night of dreaming/I take to you) or Yip Harburg's "Thrill Me" (let your kiss delicious/have a tinge of vicious/though it's all fictitious).
Susannah McCorkle was one of those special singers who made me remember a lyric upon first listen. I later learned that she was a fiction writer as well as a singer. No surprise there: she really "told the story" in a song, choosing to focus exclusively on the lyric.
It's amazing how many singers disregard this concept. Instead of communicating the lyric straight, many of them attend to the musicality of vowels and consonants, either bending or stretching them in order to contribute their voice as an "instrument" to the overall sound. You'll find this approach from many singers who, unlike Susannah McCorkle, studied jazz in college.
Susannah's inspiration was Billie Holiday. That's both a blessing and a curse. Early in McCorkle's career, her vocal similarity to Holiday undoubtedly brought her attention, much like it has for Madeline Peyroux today. Additionally, McCorkle's mining of lost gems from the great songwriters distinguished her, especially when you consider her work was in an era (the '70s) when jazz singing was at a nadir.
Im my memory Holiday rarely, if ever, scatted or had long instrumental solos in her songs. They're all very tight, running 2 to 4 minutes. It is all about story-telling with her: you are gripped by her words because she seems to be baring her soul, as if the song was written for and about her. This is the trick of the great singers.
In Haunted Heart, Linda Dahl explains that McCorkle was often criticized for the constraints she put upon the musicians who played behind her. Considering that she was paying for their time, I have little sympathy for them, and I regret the hard time that they gave her. I know it led to a less than enjoyable creative experience, but respect must be paid for what McCorkle was trying to achieve: unrelenting focus on the words and emotion of a song.
The Songbook series gained Susannah McCorkle notice with mainly the cognescenti in Manhattan. Her 1982 album The People That You Never Get to Love showed her moving a new direction. Linda Dahl notes:
(The People That You Never Get to Love was) a new departure for her, an album she hoped would take her career to a younger audience...(it) stressed contemporary material...Susannah set herself against the trend of that time. While pop singers were "crossing over" (here Dahl cites Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt), Susannah was going in the opposite direction, from standards to pop.
To characterize the music on this album as pop is a real stretch. The title track, written by Rupert Holmes (of "The Pina Colada Song" fame) is the only number that might appeal to a non-jazz audience.
No, the only change here is that McCorkle is widening her net. She chooses individual songs by jazz songsmiths--once again, as with the songwriting masters, she selects obscure songs that deserve revival. What impeccable taste McCorkle displays!
But that's not the major reason why these songs were selected. Songs like "I'm Pullin' Through" were chosen because they directly reflect a painfully familiar emotional state for Susannah. I can only imagine how difficult this song (about thanking people who have lifted you out of a depression) is to hear for anyone who knew her well.
I'm pullin' through
and it's all because of you
If your turn came
I hope it never will
'Cause I've been through the mill
I won't forget this debt
I'm pullin' through
In a way, the only audience McCorkle sought to satisfy was herself. Singing was a release for her, one of the few ways she found happiness. She chose songs that told her story, undoubtedly believing that they would be the best songs to sing because her heart would be fully into the lyric.
I completely understand this point of view. I heartily recommend this album as the one Susannah McCorkle release to own. The emotional pallette presented is complex.
There's the wistful regret (a signature emotion for Susannah) in the title song and in her rendering of Blossom Dearie's "Bye Bye Country Boy". There's nostalgia expressed in Neil Sedaka's "The Hungry Years" and "I Have the Feeling I've Been Here Before". There's aching desire in "Alone Too Long" (written by Arthur Schwartz/Dorothy Fields). There's acceptance of sorrow in "Rain Sometimes", an outstanding song written by Arthur Hamilton of "Cry Me a River" fame.
Still evident is Susannah McCorkle's sprightly side in Dave Frishberg's "Foodophobia" and Burton Lane and Frank Loesser's "The Lady's in Love with You". As a listener, I found these upbeat songs a welcome relief from the ponderousness of most of the album.
As I write, I'm looking at Susannah's signature on my album. I heard her live for the first time at Rick's Cafe in Chicago. I recall her sitting for a while at my table. My friend and I found her very sweet and engaging. I hope she took some encouragment from the fact that a young guy like me dug her music.
The next time that I saw her was in a 1983 show called "Songbirds of Jazz" with Maxine Sullivan and Carol Sloane. I enjoyed my exposure to Maxine Sullivan, who had a sweet, swinging style (minus Susannah's intense emotional engagement). Sullivan was straight-ahead in her delivery, much like Susannah, and unlike Carol Sloane, who scatted much more like traditional jazz vocalists will do.
I still followed Susannah as time went on, but I became gradually disenchanted with her work. I loved the appearance of one more Songbook (Thanks for the Memory: Songs of Leo Robin), but that was the last truly energetic release. From then on her releases were too heavily weighted with sad, slow numbers.
Take 1985's How Do You Keep the Music Playing? as an example. She slows down what should be a stirring anthem ("There's No Business Like Show Business") and remakes it almost into a dirge. (Dahl reveals this is due to McCorkle learning that Irving Berlin, like her, possessed a "dark edge of depression".) I found it practically unlistenable. I was also displeased to see old familiar standards like "A Fine Romance" and "Check to Cheek" on the album. "Been there, done that," I thought as I listened and heard nothing new being brought to their interpretation. (Although, thankfully, they weren't slowed down!)
Still, McCorkle was worth listening to for me because of finds like "While the City Sleeps" and her deft handling of Brazilian songs like "Outra Vez". (A fluent speaker of Portuguese, she was soon to release Sabia, a wonderful collection of bossa nova numbers in both English and Portuguese.)
I found 1986's Dream, worth skipping, save for her rendition of Paul Simon's "Train in the Distance". This album starts to show record label pressure being applied to her selection. (How else to account for old familiars like "Bewitched" and "All of Me"?) Great photos of Susannah as a child on the back cover, however.
I still collected her music, although with less eagerness than before. I was glad that I could always count on a discovery, some song I'd never heard before. But these numbers were always sandwiched between the old familiars.
I continued to hear Susannah McCorkle live when I had a chance. I know I saw her twice at Scullers in Boston--once by herself, and the other time on a program with Mark Murphy. I still enjoyed her. I had no idea of the turmoil she was experiencing, including the fact that she was insecure about her appearance.
The last time I saw her is when she made an appearance at a local Borders. It was a program expressly intended for children. Susannah's idea seemed to be that the standards had the ability to appeal to their born musicality. Anyway, I talked to her a bit then. She did strike me as being kind of low at the time.
I was devastated when I heard about her suicide a few years later. To me, the musical world really lost a singer of significance. Who has taken her place? I continue to search for other jazz singers that have a similar appeal, to no avail. The closest I've come is either Carol Fredette (who is quoted several times in Dahl's biography) or Mary Cleere Haran (whose eridition reminds me of McCorkle).
After reading Haunted Heart, I was so moved by her struggle, and her courage on a professional level. I find myself continually thinking of the deeper meaning of her art. Her complete dedication to the lyric left her vulnerable. Most listeners are not like me; they don't remember the words of a song most of the time. Most jazz listeners expect an interplay between singer and supporting players.
Susannah McCorkle always stood apart. A decade after her death, her work continues to raise the question: What constitutes jazz singing? pop singing? She was a hybrid and suffered enormously from not neatly fitting into either category.
I miss her so much.
Click here to see the only video I could find on-line of Susannah McCorkle. It's part of an interview with Charlie Rose.
Click here to listen to "Fresh Air" program that aired a week after Susannah McCorkle's death. Terry Gross was a passionate promoter of her work.
I also recommend David Hajdu's essay on Susannah McCorkle from his collection Heroes and Villains: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture.