Harvey Pekar Digs Eydie Gorme.Posted: October 22, 2009
When comic book writer Harvey Pekar stayed with us for a few days over the summer, we listened to some CDs together, and I decided to lay on him some of my favorite discs by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. This was a risk. Steve and Eydie are widely understood (by those who misunderstand them) to be far from hip, while Harvey’s hipster credentials are impeccable — DownBeat record reviewer in the 1960s, advocate for jazz’s avant-garde in numerous articles and reviews, author of a libretto for a jazz avant-garde opera (Leave Me Alone, premiered at Oberlin College earlier this year) the subject of which was the avant-garde itself. So I was delighted to discover that Harvey is an Eydie Gorme fan, with an appreciation for Lawrence as well.
“She’s got great time, man…Her breath control is really amazing…I’ve always liked her.” I’m paraphrasing a bit, because it’s been about four months since our listening session, but that was the gist of it.
This gratified me immensely. It’s hard to make a case that someone as well-known as Eydie Gorme can be called underrated — it makes no sense, on the face of it — but I think the word applies, because, famous and successful as she is, her name seldom comes up when people make their lists of the great female singers of the American Songbook. Other deserving names always come up: Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, Barbra Streisand. Never Eydie Gorme. But listen to the body of work which Eydie recorded alone or with Lawrence in the fifties through seventies, and you hear a singer of astonishing gifts. Her intonation, range and control are second to none. She swings. She has humor. Her interpretations can be warm-and-gentle, or broad-and-brassy. (She’s more often remembered for the latter style, since she made something of a shtick of it in the sixties, but there’s plenty of recorded evidence of her lovelier and more restrained singing as well as singing from her that is pure, exhilarating excitement.)
To some extent Steve and Eydie brought their undervalued status upon themselves, by making self-parody and self-deprecation (and deprecation of each other) a part of their act — they actually seem to relish their Vegassy reputation, which does them a partial disservice — but their recorded legacy on ABC-Paramount, United Artists, Columbia and RCA in the fifties, sixties and seventies stands as testament to their true artistic contribution to classic pop. Their singing in those years, together and apart, with the arrangements of giants like Don Costa, Marion Evans and Pat Williams, was simply superb. If Ella and Peggy were jazz, and Sinatra was jazz-pop, Steve and Eydie are pop inflected by jazz with several teaspoons of musical-comedy theatricality thrown in. Which makes their recipe uniquely treasurable. I do feel slightly defensive about my appreciation of them sometimes, because it’s not the most popular opinion or the conventional wisdom even among fanciers of The Great American Songbook — so discovering that I have company in Harvey Pekar made me feel pretty good. I always knew they were hip.