Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reaching Back

What would a popular singer perform today if he or she were hewing to how Peggy Lee and other performers chose their material in the late 1950s and early 1960s?

This question came to mind as I enjoyed two 1958 sets by Lee: Things Are Swingin' and Jump for Joy. As I listened, I considered how songs on the albums were at least a quarter of a century old at the time she was recording them: "Alone Together" (1932); "Back in Your Own Backyard" (1927); "The Glory of Love" (1936); "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street" (1924): "Four or Five Times" (1927); "Cheek to Cheek" (1935); "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me" (1932); and "Ain't We Got Fun" (1921).

What singer today executes a program with hit songs from the mid-1980s? Hey, what would you choose anyway? What are the "standards" from that time?

This CD is just a marvel. I've been singing along in my car for days now. Mixed in with the previously mentioned gems are songs that were merely a decade or so old, like "Old Devil Moon" (1946); "It's Been a Long, Long Time" (1945); and "I Hear Music" (1940).

I think as contemporary as Peggy gets on these sets in when she sings "Alright, Okay, You Win", a hit for Joe Williams and Count Basie in 1955 and "Music! Music! Music!", a big seller for Teresa Brewer in 1949.

So again, I'm wondering: what singer today reaches that far back? Seems to me that it just isn't done that often, at least by anyone considered a popular singer. It's a shame because great songs remain frozen the past now, no longer informed by a contemporary sensibility.

Anyway, take a trip back to popular song of yore with the sublime Peggy Lee!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

If Love Were All

Oh, my thoughts are with the songwriters presently, given the recent obituaries for Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford. (The latter who with his wife Valerie Simpson wrote such classics as "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", "Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing", and so many more).

I reflect upon their impact in my life and how their words stay with me. I wonder about the permanence of a great song. I also shake my head at how indifferent I am to whatever passes for popular music today. Is it as good as the music I enjoyed growing up? Perhaps my silence is judgment enough. Or perhaps I think it best to not speak about something I know little about.

I'm happy to see that Barbara Streisand pays tribute to Alan and Marilyn Bergman on her latest release What Matters Most. I'm thrilled to see the title track revived. (I first heard Kenny Rankin perform it on his wonderful album After the Roses.) I look forward to hearing Barbra's version of "What Matters Most" along with other songs in the Bergman canon.

I caught Streisand on PBS last night performing at the Village Vanguard in 2009. This was a highly exclusive show that was chock full of celebrities like Bill Clinton and Sarah Jessica Parker among the 132 witnesses. I enjoyed it deeply. I am a sucker for nightclub performances, and this one had all the trappings: a tightly assembled audience, a rich red velvet curtain as backdrop, a trio that caressed every melody, and a singer who brought the lyrics to life.

What makes me sad was how dismissive I felt that New York Times critic Stephen Holden seemed in his review of Streisand's What Matters Most. Here's what he wrote. (Italics mine.)

...Barbra Streisand yearns, sighs, and cries through lyrics by her longtime friends and muses, Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Beyond the therapy-enlightened depictions of relationships at various stages is an unquestioned faith that the traditional happily-ever-after fade-out at the end of a romantic melodrama is an ideal worth pursuing...

"What Matters Most" epitomizes a venerable but failing genre that I like to call the Big Swoon.

All right. I know it's bad out there. But are you telling me that true love is passé? Or that I should rethink my definition of what constitutes true love?

Here's to any songwriter and singer willing to keep this "failing genre" alive!

Lordy, there's only so much change a fella like me can take!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jerry Leiber

Jerry Leiber died recently. Together with Mike Stoller, he crafted a slew of early rock-and-roll classics. ("Hound Dog", "Stand By Me", "Jailhouse Rock", and "Yakety Yak" to name a few.) Then, after Peggy Lee made a hit of their song "Is That All There Is?" in 1969, the duo decided to write exclusively for adults.

"The earlier market of swing and Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and Duke Ellington was pretty much gone," Leiber told The New York Times in 1995. "We liked that kind of sound and wanted to imitate it." He added: "In a way, we had helped kill it with what we had done."

I'd really like to recommend their work in the more adult, "artsy" vernacular, specifically two albums: Peggy Lee's Mirrors (1975) and Other Songs by Leiber & Stoller (1978) sung by Joan Morris.

It is on these albums that you can bathe in Leiber's poetry. Take the opening track on Peggy Lee's album, "Ready to Begin Again". In this song an old woman is dressing in front of a mirror.

When my teeth are at rest in the glass by my bed
And my hair lies somewhere in a drawer
Then the world doesn't seem like a very nice place
Not a very nice place anymore

Wow! What striking images! The song continues with a gradual build.

But I take out my teeth from the glass by my bed
And my hair from a drawer in the hall
Still the world doesn't seem like a very nice place
Not a very nice place at all

Well, at least you're moving, right? Teeth and hair in hand! We continue.

But I put in my teeth and I put on my hair
And a strange thing occurs when I do
For my teeth start to feel like my very own teeth
And my hair like my very own too

That is strange. Yet, as fellow human beings, we can understand. Now we proceed to the song's bridge.

And I'm ready to begin again
Ready to begin again
I'm reaching for the soap
My heart is full of hope
Again, again

I'm ready to begin again
Feeling like I've just begun
Now I'm not afraid
To raise the window shade
And face the sun

The song is heading into high gear now as we return for the last verse.

I put on my bracelets and brooches,
My rings and my pearls and my pins
And as the new day approaches
As the new day begins

Then back to the bridge and the final killer line.

I'm ready to begin again
Looking fresh and bright I trust
Ready to begin again
As everybody must

Peggy Lee is just perfect for this material. Nearly a decade earlier she'd scored a hit with Leiber & Stoller's "I'm a Woman" and their sassy number "Some Cats Know" had been a part of her repertoire too.

This album is gorgeous. Leiber's lyrics are transcendent. Take the words that Lee recites at the start of "Tango".

Oh, the Tango is done with a thin black mustache
A wide scarlet sash, black boots, and whip
Oh, the Tango is done with Seafarin' trash
Reelin' from hash, fresh off true ship
Oh, the Tango is done it's a dangerous dance
A treacherous step and if one should trip
The frail body breaks with a snap and a twist
And a gold watch slips onto a thick tattooed wrist
And a gray merchant ship turns black in the sun
As it heaves to the east when the Tango is done

Whew! A long way from "Yakety Yak /don't come back", wouldn't you say?

Joan Morris, recording three years later, offers her own take on many of the songs, but adds some terrific new numbers. (My personal favorite is "Humphrey Bogart" which was also sung memorably later by Jackie and Roy on Bogie, a desert-island disc for this listener!).

I'm going to keep the soundtrack to Smokey Joe's Cafe on my shelf and instead turn to the comfort of listening to Lee and Morris. I am so glad that in his 40s Jerry Leiber turned to serious songwriting. It's durable music that will always stand the test of time!