Tuesday, October 22, 2019


The Great American songbook is something that has me normally running for the hills, especially when utilised as a vehicle for ageing rockers who have overdrawn on their inspirations. Most such vanity projects have given such a bad name to the originals that one could be fooled too that the originals are cheesy and cheap.  And sometimes they are, but there are a bevy of writers of such reliability that any such fear is misplaced. These would include Cole Porter, the Gershwins  and Richard Rodgers, cited mainly as three who transcend the celluloid vintage of their origin and can hold their heads up against often the most lumpen of current interpreters. My title song, above, as played out by Ella (do I really have to add) Fitzgerald, was written by Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyrics). Although Ella was not the first, and, as someone I totally didn't "get" until maybe a decade ago, arguably she provides the definitive  version. Quite how I couldn't see past the elderly and bespectacled, grandmarmy-like woman she had become, now defies me, it taking my Uncle George, a jazz lover who instilled in me the love of music if not, initially or necessarily, his tastes, to get me to see with my ears open, hear with my eyes open. He played me some Aretha Franklin, shocking me with his eclecticism, seamlessly then comparing and contrasting with Ella, getting me to allow both in my appreciation.

It's a great song, though, isn't it? From a 1940 musical, Pal Joey, it was originally sung by a Vivienne Segal on Broadway, reprised in a revival, 14 years later, with an ongoing life of it's own since then, with perhaps the most bizarre appearance coming in the UK royalty biopic, The Crown, as possibly sung by King George V and his daughter, Princess Margaret.
Here are three of the better contemporary versions. (With apologies to those who would say otherwise, Frank doesn't count as sufficiently contemporary.)

Boz Scaggs has one of those voices that hinges on the cusp of being just, and only just, right, fitting no definition of being good in any accepted classical sense. But, on the right material, perfect. Personally I am no lover of peak Boz, his disco years, Lido Shuffle and all that, much preferring his earlier and later more blues based work. But here, the juxtaposition of his strained holler alongside the consummate lounge jazz setting, is a glorious peanut butter/jelly combination. It comes from a 2003 release, But Beautiful: Standards, Volume 1. Strangely, no second volume has yet appeared.

Rufus Wainwright adores this stuff and it adores him. Many say he sings like a corncrake; I have to say I differ, finding his high camp self-belief so intoxicating as to have me forget the sentimentality of (some of) his material and the archness of his presentation. This version shouldn't really do it, as he milks the saccharine and cloys it to near curdle. But I love it. Just don't tell anyone. This comes from the film of Alan Bennett's The History Boys, my imagination that Bennett himself would be not amiss to crooning along with it.

Yes, that Jeff Lynne, Mr E.L.O. Astonishing, as I really cannot abide most of his output, in particular some of his trademark mannerisms, the echolalia backing vocals, for one, which threaten to appear here, retreating, thankfully,  just as swiftly. This avoids the tweeness he often can bring to material, his voice managing to sound warm and genuine. It doesn't even make me think, that much, of the Beatles. Like the Boz Scaggs above, this comes from an oft overlooked record in his canon, Long Wave, in 2012, a album entirely of covers from the 40s and into the 50s.

Of course, there are some other crackers, Linda Ronstadt and Sinead O'Connor, as two women who have the pipes to nail it, each capable of singing the phone book and still sounding sweet. And clunkers aplenty, mentioning no names.

Bewitched? Boz, Rufus, Jeff. Or just Ella.

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