Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Musicians, singing

While in childhood, perhaps my early teens, my mother introduced me to an idea which interested me, and that stayed with me.  It was the notion of the “musician’s voice”: that there were certain musicians who, while they were not singers per se, nonetheless had singing voices which were very appealing.

I remember, for example, her enjoyment of composer and pianist Burt Bacharach’s singing, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In television appearances at the time, Bacharach sometimes sang his own songs (songs he had written with the lyricist Hal David).

Bacharach’s singing (then, and remaining so today) perhaps does not have the polish of other vocalists. His singing often has a near-fragile, whispery quality; words, phrasings, are not infrequently clipped, unsustained. Sometimes he appears as if he is having difficulty reaching certain notes. Yet all of this is part of the appeal of his very beautiful, expressive vocal style. It is a style informed by great feeling.

In retrospect, I think that my mother’s appreciation for Bacharach’s singing offered me a lesson of some significance: that categories do not necessarily apply. If you were not, officially (as was she), a singer, if you did not have the familiar skills of a singer, this did not mean that your singing did not warrant attention. One could have much affection for—great admiration for—the singing of someone who was not a singer.

I think, too, of a record I learned about, years ago. In 1979, I made a trip to Nashville to interview singer Snooky Lanson, who in the 1950s starred on Your Hit Parade (it is an interview which appears in my book). During that time, he had a weekly radio show, near Nashville (co-hosted by a disc jockey at the radio station), which featured records from the band era, and I went with him to the recording of one of the shows.

During the broadcast he played a song I had not known of: “Gotta Be This or That,” a 1945 hit by Benny Goodman’s orchestra.

There is a brief part of the song during which Goodman sings. While Burt Bacharach, over time, has sung with some regularity, I do not believe that Benny Goodman sang often. I don’t think that his singing, on “Gotta Be This or That,” is necessarily flawless, yet this does not matter. What stands out (at least for me) is the charm of the singing; there is a hip and likeable quality to it.  And (as is the case when one hears Burt Bacharach sing), one feels a kind of privilege: being allowed to hear a great musician venturing into another musical realm.

Here are a few videos of Burt Bacharach, singing songs he wrote with Hal David.

First, a brief video from 2008, of Bacharach singing “This Guy’s In Love”:

And here, from 2009, Bacharach performs “Alfie,” at the 92nd Street Y in New York. At the beginning of the video, he recalls the years he grew up in, and worked in, New York, and pays tribute to his songwriting collaborators, including Hal David. The introduction to “Alfie” begins at about 2:37.

A final Bacharach video (which, in places, is a more energetic vocal performance than the performances above), is from a 1967 broadcast of the TV show The Hollywood Palace, with host Herb Alpert. (Herb Alpert, of course, sang on the original recording of “This Guy’s In Love,” which became a big hit the following year. Alpert—another musician who had not been known as a singer—gave a very lovely vocal performance on the record.)

At around 1:08, not long before Bacharach begins singing, Herb Alpert asks him: Who would you say you sing like?

BB: (pause) Beethoven.

HA: Beethoven?

BB: Beethoven.

HA: Burt, Beethoven wasn’t a singer.

BB: That’s right.

He then sings a medley of Bacharach/David songs (continuing until about 4:05). Other performers then continue the medley—including Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66 (singing “The Look of Love”—a performance which, while lip-synched, is a reminder of how beautiful their version of the song was), guitarist Wes Montgomery, and Liza Minnelli. The end of the video features commercials from the broadcast. (My apologies, for the slightly low volume on the video.)

Lastly, here is Benny Goodman, with “Gotta Be This or That.” Goodman’s singing begins approximately fifty seconds into the song.

(Photo above, of Burt Bacharach, The Hollywood Palace, 1967, via YouTube)