When the Steve and Eydie show at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora (about 40 miles west of Chicago) was announced, I resisted. I said, “We saw them in 1997–how different is their act going to be now?” And, “Ten more years have passed. Time will surely have taken its toll on them.” And, last but not least, “It’s Aurora. Who wants to go to Aurora?!?“
But about two weeks ago, another voice piped in. It said, “You idiot. If you don’t see them now, you may be forfeiting your chance to see them ever again. None of us is guaranteed to be on the planet tomorrow, let alone a year or two from now. You might be gone, either of them might be gone…The only thing we know is you’re here, and they’re here.”
So I carpied the diem, and scored a good seat. I’m glad.
The show opened with a montage of TV clips of S&E separately and together from the 50s through the 70s. You came away awed at the contribution they made to the mainstream culture all those years, making popular music popular at impossible-t0-take-for granted-now levels of artistry. Not to get cosmic about it, but the montage made me deeply grateful that so much of my time on the planet has coincided with so much of theirs.
At the close of the montage, Steve and Eydie came out on stage and sang a snappy piece of special material called, I’m thinking based on the lyric, “We’re Still Here” (not based on Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here”). The very first line of the song was funny. Making reference to the video just seen on the big screen, they sang, “We don’t look like that anymore.”
It was a shrewd lyric line to open with, because it disarmed an issue that had to be dealt with. Eydie doesn’t look like that anymore. She’s a bit rounder. She still looks great, and, my God, at 76, and with her recent knee surgery, if she’s rounder, she’s entitled. But she’s looks great in a different way than you might be expecting. Steve, thanks to the miracles of modern science and/or clean living and/or genetic luck, looks pretty much the same as always!
“We’re Still Here” turned out, as it went on, to stimulate cosmic thoughts similar to those I had while watching the montage. The song wasn’t just about that they were still here. It was about that all of us, we the audience as well as they, were still here. It was a celebration of survival. Not in the Sondheimian sense of having made it through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover; rather in the sense that every day you wake up not dead yet is a gift. By virtue of the fact that they were on the stage, and we were in the audience, not one person there was dead yet! And that is something to thank the universe for. It was the unspoken theme of the entire show. Not to exaggerate, but the show was a religious experience.
And the show was a celebration of the survival of pop music excellence. It is just hanging on by a thread in this world, breathing its last breaths, but it is still here, for just a little while longer anyway. It is not dead yet. And this spirit, as beautiful as it is tragic (for we know what the future has in store), informed the entire show. When Steve and Eydie duet on Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When” (a staple for them for many years), the song is no longer about a couple who meets for the first time with a sense of deja vu–it’s about all of us who love the Great American Songbook, performers and audience, meeting over and over again to share it with each other. And it takes on new qualities of the eternal, as we allow ourselves to imagine doing so in the next world when this one is through for us.
As an experiment, I closed my eyes at times and tried to imagine a young Steve and Eydie on stage, to determine if the sounds I was hearing would make sense with that picture. My rough guess is that the answer was yes about 75% of the time–which I think is amazing, and (getting all spiritual again) inspiring. The other 25% of the time there were signs of wear. But their musical instincts are sharp and they were able to “work around it” much of the time. When Eydie sang some of her hits, she employed some sensible melodic inversions in order to stay out of difficult territory. Yet at times she went for the high notes–and nailed them.
In their patter, Steve and Eydie didn’t miss too many chances to plug their website–steveandeydie.com–and neither will I. If you click on those words in this post, you’ll be taken right there. You’ll find many of their albums, separately and together, remastered for CD. I particularly commend to you the twofer composed of Two on the Aisle and Together on Broadway. The music of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme exists at some kind of nexus of jazz and Broadway anyway, so the program of these two albums, tunes from Broadway shows of the midfifties through midsixties arranged by Don Costa and Pat Williams, is right in their wheelhouse, and they knock it out of the park.
Why post about Steve and Eydie now? Who doesn’t know about them, or, at least, of them? Well, while it’s important and exciting to talk about Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition (as Down Beat used to put it), it’s also a good thing now and then, for the sake of perspective, to reaffirm the Talent That Once Received So Much Recognition That It Now Receives None At All. To reaffirm, for the record, the phenomenality of phenomenons.
After the show, in the garage where I had parked a couple blocks from the theater, I shared an elevator with one of the musicians, a guy in his early forties. I complimented him on the show, and he said thanks. He said, “So what did you think of them?” I said, looking him straight in the eyes, “I think it’s a miracle.” He looked back at me and paused, struggling for something to say, and then replied, nodding, with awe in his voice. “I think that’s right. I think that’s the only word for it.”
Get this cockatiel make like a regular Tweets Thielemans. Or Beaks Beiderbecke.
A different kind of singer, in a different kind of televised display. Rosemary Clooney, with the Hi-Lo’s, singing what is certainly a definitive, and quite possibly the definitive, version of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Blues in the Night,” arrangement by Nelson Riddle. From her weekly TV show in the fifties. The command and control are awe-inspiring. If you’re not overwhelmed at first, keep watching. You will be.
The wonder of Clooney is the way the sound of her voice–the very sound, as if she can sing no other way–at once conveys humor and melancholy. Even in her happiest, most swinging rendition there is a slight catch in the throat that portends the possibility of sadness; even at her bitterest there is an ironic intelligence in the soundwave that bespeaks a sense of humor that will somehow get her through. Other singers might give you both sides of destiny’s coin at one time or another, but rarely at the same time, and not in each and every note. The result of this vocal bipolarity isn’t confusion, but a communication of something like the full range of life’s possibilities.
Two things, besides the superb singing, leap out at you in this medley from a 1965 Perry Como Show in which Como and Lena Horne honor the recently-departed Nat Cole.
One, the opening push-in on Perry and Lena at an unmanned piano–as we hear the sounds of a piano–is just brilliantly evocative of the loss.
Two, the way the excerpts of Cole signature songs have been selected so as to take on a whole new layer of meaning–each one feeling repurposed so as to sound addressed to Nat, and the meaning of his life and loss, without a single change in the original lyrics–is again, brilliant.
If anyone out there in cyberland knows the identity of the musical-director-slash-creator-of-special-material for the show who is responsible for this, I’d like to know, too. These eight minutes are certainly among the best eight minutes in all of television musical-variety history.
The video–kindly contributed to YouTube by “NYCguys2007″–appeared there once before, and was yanked, possibly due to copyright issues. So it may be yanked again before long. Look at it now.
The Flat Five opened a concert I attended the other night, and were far more musically rewarding than the headlining act. (I claim discovery, since, in a pretty exhaustive search, I have not found one other blog that mentions them!)
They are an anachronism—and yet not. Though young, The Flat Five is all about the “group vocal” sound. This is a sound that had many popular exponents in the pop folk country rock jazz of the 60s and 70s—The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Mamas and Papas, Spanky & Our Gang, The Free Design, Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, Asleep at the Wheel, The Manhattan Transfer, et. al. (And before them, The Pied Pipers, The Modernaires, The Mel-Tones, The Hi-Los, et. al.) But the group vocal sound hasn’t had an infusion of new young talent in quite some time. The Flat Five don’t just resurrect the genre, they make it feel of the moment. There’s proper respect for their forebears, but they don’t feel retro. There’s nothing “precious” or mummified about the music they make. They make you feel like it never went away.
The musicians who make up The Flat Five have roots in other kinds of music, mainly alt-country, country/rock, bluegrass, and jazz. They are: Kelly Hogan on vocals; Nora O’Connor on vocals and guitar; Scott Ligon on vocals, guitar and keyboards; K.C. McDonough on vocals and bass; and Gerald Dowd on vocals and drums. (The night I saw them, Dowd was out with a sprained wrist, so the harmonies I heard were four-part, not five-part—but beautiful.) They have been and are in other bands (from what I can gather, they multitask, taking gigs separately and apart in other aggregations) like The Lamentations, The Blacks, and The Wooden Leg.
From The Flat Five’s opening notes on Saturday, they made you notice that they are The Real Thing. It’s depressingly easy to imagine someone trying to sing this kind of music, but almost impossible to believe someone new these days is pulling it off. But they do. They have the chops to achieve a well-intoned and dynamically coherent blend, which is harder in some ways than singing lead, when you can take liberties. (Both women have solo recordings out on Bloodshot Records, which are available on iTunes.)
Right away I could hear in their sound the influence of two groups from the late sixties, The Free Design and Spanky & Our Gang. I was gratified to have my insight confirmed when later in the set they performed The Free Design’s “Kites Are Fun” and S&OG’s very hip version of “Without Rhyme or Reason” (written by Bob Dorough and Fran Landsman, arranged by Dorough). I don’t know for sure, but I always suspected that S&OG required several takes in the studio, and perhaps a combination of takes, to get it right, while The Flat Five nailed it live.
The band has a winning onstage persona. It’s kind of summed up in the name, which is self-deprecating (as in, “forgive us if we sing flat”—which they don’t) and proud (as in, “you know those complicated bop harmonies that have flatted fifths in them? we can sing those”). The patter, mostly delivered by Kelly Hogan, who comes across as the leader, has that same combination of self-effacing modesty and justifiable pride. She misattributed Nat Adderley’s and Jon Hendricks’ “Sermonette” to George Gershwin, and I don’t know how she could do that, but I forgive her. I also think she may have misattributed “Without Rhyme or Reason,” but I can’t be sure because as she was saying it a guy climbed into our row and distracted me for a second. But something didn’t ring true. No matter, since the music-making did.
While no blogs have mentioned The Flat Five before this one, there are two good posts about Nora O’Connor on a blog titled shake your fist. One (containing an interview with O’Connor) is here, and the other one is here.
The Flat Five is appearing at Davenport’s in Chicago this Thursday night. I hope to make it.
The world seems to have less room for humorists these days. We have comedy writers, and thank goodness for them, and we have purveyors of snark, which can be funny. But we don’t have writers on the order of a Robert Benchley or an S.J. Perelman, fundamentally humane artists whose power lies in their command of language, their ability to use style to pull off varied comic effects at will. Or rather, we do have one. Ellis Weiner.
Writers who think up funny stuff make our world more bearable, but writers who write funny make our world sublime. Whatever his subject, the sense in Weiner’s work of a wit at play in a meadow of language tickles the reader’s polymorphous-perverse pleasure-centers. A humorist has more than the ability to make his readers guffaw, snicker, ROFL, LMAO, whinny or chortle. A humorist has the ability to set the funny bones of his readers humming in sympathetic vibration with his own. Whenever I read Weiner, I get those good vibrations.
He has done a lot of writing over the years in a lot of venues. He writes novels and novelty books and short New Yorker pieces. One other place to find him these days is on his blog at The Huffington Post, where he has put his wit at the service of a wholly appropriate rage at the Bush Administration. Most famously (in the sense of, “I bet this was forwarded a whole lot”), he wrote a post on April 10, 2006 cataloging George Bush’s failures up to that date. You’d say this didn’t really need doing until you read it, at which point you realize, it did.
In 2004 he wrote a novel, Drop Dead, My Lovely, about fish-out-of-water Pete Ingalls, private eye. Pete got hit in the head by a tumbling stack of hardbacks in the rear of the bookstore in which he worked as a lowly clerk, and now imagines himself a 1940s Raymond Chandler gumshoe in a 21st century world. The thing is, Pete doesn’t realize he got hit by a stack of books (having got hit by a stack of books and all) and can’t figure out why the whole world is looking at him funny in his fedora. The feat Weiner pulls off is to narrate the book in the first person, in Pete’s voice. We have a narrator who just doesn’t get it, so making us get it when all we’ve got to go on is the viewpoint of this utterly clueless dick is a pretty neat trick. More than a neat trick, actually; it’s the wellspring of the book’s humor. DD, ML was followed by another entry in the Pete Ingalls, P.I. series, The Big Boat to Bye-Bye, set in the tawdry, lurid, violent world of children’s television, a milieu Weiner knows well, having worked in it himself.
Also recently, Weiner has a pair of short, funny books he wrote with his wife Barbara Davilman, Yiddish with Dick and Jane and Yiddish with George and Laura. And that’s not, as they say, all. Go to his website to find out more about him. (Typical of Weiner’s inexhaustible but never exhausting playfulness, his Official Website is subtitled The Unofficial Website of Ellis Weiner, because it purports to have been put together not by Weiner but by academe’s jaundiced Weinerologist Dr. Renee Willis. Do the anagram.)
Today’s masterpiece-level television series (The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Rome) are created by a phalanx of writers, with one general at the helm. While it’s understood that nothing gets on The Sopranos without David Chase’s imprimatur, and that he is the creative force, the names of other writers frequently show up on the “written by” opening credit instead of or in addition to his. But when you watch the opening credits of I, Claudius, the 1976 BBC series based on Robert Graves based on Suetonius, you see that every word of all 13 episodes was written by Jack Pulman. Considering that I, Claudius may have the smartest dialogue ever written for television (Deadwood notwithstanding), I think that’s amazing.
You can say that Pulman’s feat was less awesome since he was adapting good source material, rather than baking from scratch, but the sensibility of the show seems more of our own time than 1934 (the year of Graves’ novel), so I give Pulman full credit. And I, Claudius may be the best television ever done. Certainly it’s hard to have any other opinion after watching the complete DVD set. When you compare it to Rome (which I adored), you notice there’s not a single genuine exterior—it’s all done on a soundstage. Yet the quality of Pulman’s writing and of the actors delivering that writing is of such a standard that one doesn’t miss spectacle in the least. Here’s a web page that gives a good account by Tise Vahimagi of Pulman’s career. Vahimagi writes, “As…told in flashback by Derek Jacobi’s wily old Claudius, Pulman’s scripts were noteworthy for their irreverent wit and sophistication (as well as a clever combination of modern idiom and period expression).”
Almost all Jack Pulman’s credits were in British television. Sadly, he died in 1979 at the age of fifty or not much older (different internet sources give his birth date as 1929 and 1925).
To help bring back a memory of the show, here’s the opening title music, by Wilfrid Josephs.
Lee times three. A great performance of “Is That All There Is,” from an appearance on “The Kraft Music Hall” in 1969. Peggy co-hosted with Johnny Cash (who can be heard introducing her).
Here’s a terrific website for more about Peggy Lee.
Stephen Sondheim turns 77 on March 22. When he turned 75, Symphony Space in NY staged a free all-day Sondheim concert called “Wall to Wall Sondheim.” It’s being rebroadcast in its entirety on XM Radio 28 on Saturday, March 24th (correction: I originally had it as the 17th) starting at noon Central time and ending ten hours later.
One of the best songs Sondheim has ever written is also one of the most recent: “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” from “Bounce” (2003). It’s a ballad as gorgeous and deceptively simple as anything Irving Berlin ever wrote, and deserves to become a standard, though it hasn’t yet. (Singers may be thrown by the revised lyrics for the Washington, D.C. production, which don’t lend themselves to out-of-show performance; while the lyrics as performed in the previous Chicago production do make sense outside the show, the only preservation of the song on CD is on a Nonesuch cast album of the Washington version. The show never made it to New York.) The Symphony Space program listing in 2005 shows the song as among those to be performed that day, but if it was, it didn’t make it onto the highlights CD that Symphony Space later issued. XM subscribers can listen in on 3/17 and find out for themselves.