Thursday, December 23, 2010

Steve & Eydie

They first met on The Tonight Show when it was hosted by Steve Allen. (His composition "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" would forever after be a staple of their concert performances.) He had already made a name for himself with the 1953 single "Party Doll".

His original name was Sidney Leibowitz. He was the son of a cantor and house painter. She was born Edith Gormezano, the daughter of a Sephardic Jewish immigrant parents, her father from Sicily and her mother from Turkey. Both Spanish and English were spoken at home.

Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme were married on almost the last day of 1957. At the start of their marriage Steve's music continued to chart well in the United States: "Pretty Blue Eyes" (#9 in 1959), "Footsteps" (#7 in 1960),"Portrait of My Love" (#9 in 1961) and--his biggest hit of all--"Go Away, Little Girl" (#1 in 1962). Eydie hit the pinnacle of her solo success the same year with her song "Blame It on the Bossa Nova".

They first appeared on stage as Steve & Eydie in October of 1960. The country was about to change in deeply significant ways soon afterwards, and the music industry too. Already they must have felt the shift with the emergence of rock and roll years earlier. (Steve made a stab at appealing to the younger set in 1958 with "Uh-Huh, Oh Yeah".) They set their course and never wavered: Steve & Eydie were traditional pop entertainers, singing standards and guaranteeing a husband-wife shtick wherever they performed.

Throughout the 1960s they recorded together and separately in prodigious fashion. Their albums were well-loved but didn't sell well. Eydie had some success with her Spanish-language albums. She even hit the mark with singles like "If He Walked into My Life" (Grammy for Best Female Vocal Performance in 1967) and "What Did I Have That I Don't Have". They had success on Broadway in 1968 in a show called Golden Rainbow (which spawned the hit "I've Gotta Be Me" for Sammy Davis, Jr.)

They made regular appearances on TV variety shows during this period. But at the end of the decade this format was drying up. The 1970s found them, like most of their peers, struggling to reach an audience.

It was during this period that they reached their greatest artistic achievement with TV specials and albums dedicated to great pop songwriters like George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Our Love Is Here to Stay: The Gershwin Years

In terms of radio play, they had long been blackballed by virtue of being associated with a dead style. In fact, they had to change their names to Parker and Penny to get airplay and chart with their last "hit", a song called "Hallelujah" in 1979.

They met with tragedy in 1986 when their 23-year old son died unexpectedly from a heart condition. (They were performing in Atlanta when it happened, and Frank Sinatra sent his private jet there to take them to New York to meet their other son.) After a year's hiatus they were back performing and reached their last peak of high visibility when they joined Frank Sinatra on his Diamond Jubilee World tour in 1990. Of them Sinatra once said, "Steve and Eydie represent all that is good about performers and the interpretation of a song."

I grew up listening to these two. I once saw them perform in the late 1980s at the Chicago Theater. Eydie had an incredible voice; Steve was more of standard-issue crooner, but he was funny. They're both still around, although Eydie no longer appears in public. Watching them on YouTube for this blog entry has been a deep pleasure.

Check out this 1967 TV appearance on the Hollywood Palace.

Also don't miss their tribute to the Gershwins.

Songwriter Bob Merrill

Among Merrill's credits: the score to Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol

When I first began developing my taste in music, I gravitated to the singer-songwriters and then simply songwriters (once I began my exploration of the Great American Songbook). It's an endlessly fascinating topic to me: the life and craft of a songwriter.

I'm a lifelong ardent reader of liner notes and song credits. Recently I was safely nestled in the dark morning with my newspapers (yep, old school, baby!) listening to a jazz vocal collection I'd recently purchased. Great music for those minutes before dawn. Anyway, a song called "Make Yourself Comfortable" had me running to the liner notes because I found it so catchy and amusing.

It was written by Bob Merrill, a prolific hit songwriter who at the time of this song (1954) was already known for Patti Page's"How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?"(1952) and "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd've a Baked a Cake"(1950).

1954 was a very good year for Merrill: that year he also penned Rosemary Clooney's "Mambo Italiano".

The other big year in Merrill's songwriting career was 1961. That's when he wrote the music for the stage version of Funny Girl. Yep, he's the guy who wrote songs like "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "People".

Back to "Make Yourself Comfortable". It's a novelty tune much like "How Much Is That Doggie" or "Baked a Cake", but it fits into a niche I've always loved--let's call it the "Why don't ya come up and see me sometime" Mae West niche. Here's some verses.

I've got some records here
to put you in the mood.
The phone is off the hook
so no one can intrude.
I feel romantic
and the record changes automatic, baby.

Sweetheart, we hurried through our dinner
hurried through the dance.
Left before the picture show was through.
Why did we hurry through the dinner
and hurry through the dance?
To leave some time for this.
To hug a hug and kiss a kiss now.

Take off your shoesies, dear,
And loosen up your tie.
I've got some records here.
Let's try one on for size.
I'll turn the lights low
While you make yourself comfortable, baby.

The most famous song in this niche has to be "Baby, It's Cold Outside". I was also remembering a song by Steve & Eydie called "Cozy".

'Spose he wants to get cozy
'Spose he says put your head on my shoulder
and starts to get bolder
and my resistance is low?

My research on "Make Yourself Comfortable" led me to Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gormie and a flood of memories on You Tube. So let's end with my original inspiration. Check out these links pertaining to "Comfortable".

Bette Midler's doo-wop flavored rendition

Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme version

Andy Griffith parody

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Helen Forrest

I've been enjoying a 2-record set on Columbia featuring Helen Forrest and her recordings with Benny Goodman in the 1940s. Out of curiosity I read her biography of Wikipedia, then I clicked on a reference to an article about her in 1972 in the Oakland Tribune. The reviewer was discussing a radio show called "40s Sounds Return to the Radio" and his dismissal of this music was abrupt and so emblematic of the time. Here's how it went.

This...visit to the 1940s might interest almost anyone. If you're of the rock generation you might want to hear the music of your parents--if nothing else for how they became the obsolete sentimentalists they are.

Yep, this attitude is what my father's generation had to endure. He would have been around my age now when he was hearing it.

Fortunately my father lived long enough to observe me fully appreciating this "sentimental" music. He'd be pleased today to learn how well it has endured.

Back to Helen Forrest. Irving Townsend in his liner notes to the album pays her a tremendous tribute.

The dream of every young singer in the late thrities and early forties was to sing with a name band...For one girl, Helen Forrest, the dream came true three times. She sang first with Shaw, then with Goodman, later with James. She must have been the luckiest girl in the world.
And yet, Helen Forrest was not the luckiest of singers after all, because it was her misfortune to make her mark as a singer before singers were in fashion. She was up there, the professional who had arrived while Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee were still dreaming the dream. She was the singer in a musicians' era, the only girl on the bus, the girl every girl envied while it seemed that Helen Forest had gone as far as a singer could hope to go. Her timing was unfortunate, for Helen Forrest, the madonna of the middle chorus, was and is one of the finest singers ever to sing a popular song. that is why she got there. But the first chorus still belonged to Benny...
These, then, are the songs and the sounds of the precarious period when the beat, the brass, and the bravura of the thirties was giving way to a time when words were to catch up with the music, when the singer took over the band.

She's completely deserving of these words. I cherish this album as much as I do my 2-record set of the recordings of Ivie Anderson and Duke Ellington.

Give Helen Forrest a listen! Here she is singing "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" with Benny Goodman and "I Only Have Eyes for You."