The Voice of Christmas: Karen Carpenter

Karen Carpenter was the Great American Songbook singer who wasn’t. On most Carpenters albums, her material, with some exceptions – I Can Dream, Can’t I?; When I Fall in Love; Little Girl Blue – while superior, was of the 1970s and not the Golden Age. There is, however, an album containing many examples of Karen Carpenter assaying the Great American Songbook; it is the Christmas LP the Carpenters released on A&M in 1978, Christmas Portrait.

That record, along with the follow-up An Old Fashioned Christmas issued a year after Karen Carpenter’s 1983 death, are contained on the 2-CD set Christmas Collection. They prove her death was more than privately tragic. She had the talent, the affinity for the material, and the wide contemporary appeal to have kept the Great American Songbook flame burning into our present time and beyond. But we do have this.

Richard Carpenter here surrounds his sister with orchestral and choral-group arrangements comparable to those one might hear in the glory days of MGM musicals, when Conrad Salinger, Hugh Martin and Kay Thompson worked in that studio’s music department. The material demonstrates how Christmas brought out the best in our songwriters. Fourteen songs on this set are Great American Songbook entries, several of them uncommon (e.g. The First Snowfall, by Sonny Burke and Paul Francis Webster, Sleep Well Little Children, by Leon Klatzkin and Alan Bergman, and It’s Christmas Time by Victor Young and Al Stillman). Various instrumental medleys feature Richard at the piano. As for the vocals, the spotlight is Karen’s. With her dark, melancholy alto, the way she subtly scoops up to her notes, the texture in her voice as it ever-so-softly cracks, and her empathic understanding of lyrics, she fashions a style that feels less like a style than the sound of a human heart breaking.

Take I’ll Be Home for Christmas. The song is a story with a killer twist of a last line, one that reveals the singer’s promises of returning home for Christmas are lies, mere fantasy – that the only way the singer is going anywhere, alas, is in her dreams. The pain in that line is nowhere to be found in most renditions. When Karen sings “if only in my dreams,” the pain is more than palpable, it’s exquisite.

If it’s a truism that only one who knows despair can know joy, Karen proves it on the happier material. You can feel the winter air on her Sleigh Ride, you can breathe in the roasting chestnuts in her Christmas Song. She takes songs you thought you never needed to hear again and makes you hear the greatness in them.

An example of the care lavished on this work is that Carpenter sings the little known verses to the songs. Let me spit it out: This is the best Christmas album ever made. For those who have it, it wouldn’t be Christmas without it.

By the way, the album owes a debt to an earlier one, by Spike Jones. It was called Xmas Spectacular, and came out on Verve in 1956. It’s an album in which Jones strayed from his comedic style to play the material (mostly) straight, and it had a large influence on Richard and Karen Carpenter. In the CD reissue of the Jones album (titled Let’s Sing a Song of Christmas), Richard Carpenter had this to say in the liner notes:

In December 1956, my father I visited The Music Corner, one of several record shops in my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut. To my delight he purchased Spike Jones’s newly released Verve LP Xmas Spectacular. Upon my first hearing, the realization came to us that the album was ‘straight,’ with only a modicum of glugs and whistles employed.

…The album was played innumerable times every Christmas in our home and had quite an impact on Karen and me. When we recorded our Christmas Portrait album (1978) I patterned it after the Jones LP, not only in the use of certain medleys, but also including some of the melodic but lesser known titles Spike had used, such as ‘It’s Christmas Time’ and ‘The First Snowfall.’ Xmas Spectacular is a timeless album; our children faithfully play it every Christmas season. I am delighted to see it released yet again and honored to have been asked to write these notes.

It may be a little late for you to pick up these albums in time for Christmas, but if you can, do. And if you can’t, pick them up for next Christmas.


Carole King, James Taylor, and The Great American Songbook.

We saw Carole King and James Taylor in concert last night, at the Allstate Arena outside Chicago. One thing that occurred to me during the great evening is how each one, in his/her body of work, synthesized the entirety of twentieth century music — including jazz and the Great American Songbook of theater, film and popular music advanced by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and others, along with what came before, and what came later. (Joni Mitchell, while great, is too idiosyncratic, and too much in the worlds of folk and jazz as a songwriter to the exclusion of other forms, to quite fit the picture.) The harmonic language of the Great American Songbook is in their music, and since nearly everything else American is in it, too, that means just about everything. The GAS element is simplified a tad, and used as a color, rather than the color, because of their distilling it through the filters of gospel, sixties pop, R&B, folk, rock, and blues, but it’s there. Listening to their songs again (the two artists alternated in the spotlight through the evening, providing backup for the other when not in it), I was awestruck by the enormity of their accomplishment.

Put it this way: If you decided that it was important that somebody take on the impossible task of summarizing the entire history of twentieth century popular music and blending it into a coherent personal style, you’d find that two songwriters, improbably, had actually done it. Each artist is appreciated by his/her millions of fans, but I’m not sure that each one’s achievement, when viewed from the perspective of the twenty-first century looking back on the twentieth, has ever been given full measure. It began to dawn on me last night.

Lena Horne Crosses the River.

Watch and listen to this rendition of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River,” from a Bell Telephone Hour broadcast of 1965. It’s similar to, but somewhat slower than, the version Lena recorded around the same time for United Artists Records.

When I hear this performance, I hear something I’ve never picked up in any other singer’s version — something hiding in plain sight in the song all along, because it’s in the very first line. “Wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style some day.” When Lena sings these words so introspectively and yearningly, yet proudly, I hear her memory of a young black woman looking across an expanse separating her from a white world of freedom, equality and privilege, and wanting to be a part of it, determined to be a part of it, someday.

All the thousands of times I’ve heard the Mercer lyric before, I’ve thought of the river only in terms of flow, of movement with the current, along the river’s lengthwise dimension. (For that is where most of the song lives: “two drifters off to see the world.”) But that very first line, the one that’s always been there but which it took Lena’s version to make me hear, describes an action perpendicular to flow — crossing the river. And doing it by an act of will. Not transcending the divide as if it weren’t there, but consciously crossing it, getting to the other side of it, where the good things in life are; and doing it with dignity intact despite the formidable problem that it is “wider than a mile.” (Doing it “in style.”) No other singer brings that out, even though by Mercer’s putting it right up front you’d have thought he made it impossible to miss.

I don’t know if the divide Mercer had somewhere in the back of his mind, when he imagined meanings the song might have, was a racial one. But I do know now, as I never did before hearing Lena’s TV version, that Mercer is yearning for something he doesn’t have on that opposite river bank. If Lena used her own history to find a meaning in that divide, then she did what all singers should do — bringing her full humanity to the song, and by so doing, illuminating it.

Harvey Pekar Digs Eydie Gorme.

harvey pekar 2

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, LeaveMeAloneauthor 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. sound of musicShe 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 together on broadway two on the aisleinflected 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.

The Book on Johnny Mercer.

Skylark Johnny Mercer Philip Furia

The biography of lyricist Johnny Mercer by Philip Furia was recenty recommended on the Songbirds list by eminent jazz critic/historian Dan Morgenstern, and that recommendation alone necessitated my reading it.

My take: I can see why Dan liked the book, while I found some things about it ridiculous or aggravating.

First, the good news. Much of the book’s value is due to Furia’s having had access to an unpublished autobiography by Mercer, which resides with the Johnny Mercer Papers at Georgia State. I never knew the Savannah-born lyricist, supreme commander of the American vernacular — collaborator with Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, Richard Whiting, Arthur Schwartz, Hoagy Carmichael, Henry Mancini and many other composers (Mercer would write with anyone he respected, becoming the most promiscuous of the great lyricists) — had written the story of his own life. This is colossal news, and reason enough for the Furia book’s existence. I would love to see Mercer’s tome published someday, even if it is in an unfinished state. It may be the new Holy Grail for us who are into that sort of thing. In the meantime, Furia relies on it heavily and quotes liberally from it, which will do.

He relies as well on interviews and articles contained in the Johnny Mercer Papers, and on an archival interview with Mercer housed atJohnny Mercer Capitol LP Georgia State. And, in the later chapters covering the fifties, sixties, and seventies, decades that yield people still living who knew the pantheon-level lyricist, Furia has collected good material from his own interviews.

But the book suffers a flaw. It has a “thesis.” And Furia, like a caricature of a university academic (he is, in fact, a real one), won’t let go of it: Mercer’s life and work post-1940 were completely shaped by his affair with Judy Garland.

Over and over we read that this or that deeply-felt Mercer lyric owed its existence to his lifelong frustrated love for Garland. That when Mercer wrote (X) in song (Y), he was writing “about” this love. Furia wants us to believe Mercer’s love for Garland informed every yearning lyric he ever wrote and every melancholic bender he ever went on.

It’s reductionist hogwash. Let’s stipulate that Mercer did have an affair with Garland and that he never got over it. (I don’t know that this is so, but let’s stipulate it.) Is there no other way to understand the life and work of Johnny Mercer than through this prism? Could any of Mercer’s love lyrics have been about, say, another woman that he had feelings for along the way, or a yearning for something else entirely? Could any of Mercer’s lyrics rise to the level of poetry, such that they transcend simple decoding? Not according to Furia, who insists on making the Garland affair Mercer’s Rosebud. You sense that Furia feels he has made a major discovery, and his unwillingness to let you forget his triumph is palpable. Over and over he forces everything through his funnel, to a point of such ludicrousness that the reader would laugh if it weren’t such a sin to have an otherwise worthy book marred this way.judy garland sheet music

Furia also cares inordinately about when Mercer and his wife-to-be Ginger first had “sexual intercourse,” as he puts it. I don’t know why, but he insists on reading Mercer’s letters to Ginger with the help of some sort of “sexual intercourse” Ovaltine decoder ring, as if determining the moment Mercer lost his virginity (and yes, Furia has a point to prove about this) matters. Furia teases out the meaning of every word in these letters, barely containing his excitement that he has discovered the occasion of Mercer’s deflowering. Suffice it to say he is unconvincing. The passages that Furia cites can be read in other ways, to mean other things. But let an academic latch onto a thesis and he’s like a dog with a bone…

At any rate, the book is more than worth reading, infuriating flaws and all (hey, I just realized Furia is infuriating’s middle name), and is available from many book dealers in new and used form, both hardcover and paperback, at a wide range of prices including the eminently reasonable and downright cheap, here and here and here.

Cover Versions.

Speaking of Sinatra-Basie (and I just was), here are shots of the original LP front and back cover.

These are from John Brown’s website Sinatra Album Covers, a treasure trove of high-res, larger-than-life (meaning, larger than CD—you know, like records used to be) scans. Fun to browse through.

Edited much later to add: The Sinatra Album Covers website no longer exists.

Check, Please.

One form of autograph collecting is the acquisition of cancelled checks, which somehow make their way into the hands of collectables-dealers. For those who, like me, are interested in collectables to do with the Great American Songbook, here are two bank checks written by titans of the art. They were purchased on eBay by my wife as a gift for me.

The first was written by lyricist Sammy Cahn on the joint account he shared with his wife Tita, on July 1, 1972. It is written to Cafe “72” in the amount of $30.00 and contains, on the memo line, the words “Book Pub.” Perhaps this dinner was connected to the enjoyable autobiography he was to publish in 1974, I Should Care: The Sammy Cahn Story . A stamp on the back of the check indicates that Cafe “72”was a New York establishment, but a quick Googling doesn’t produce any businesses by that name still in existence there. I like the size of Cahn’s signature on the check. Cahn (at least in his public persona) was not known for excessive modesty–nor should he have suffered from this, given his resumé. (Four Oscar wins, thirty nominations, Frank Sinatra’s “house lyricist” in the fifties and sixties, etc.) The signature is congruent with the persona.

The second is a check written by singer Mel Torme on the Mel Torme Productions, Inc. account, for $64.15, to the Curious Book Shop in Los Gatos, CA on September 5, 1989. Torme was known to be an avid reader. As recently as 1998, the Curious Book Shop was listed as one of the three best places for used books in the Santa Clara Valley, but it exists no longer.