Let’s dip for a minute into the work of master bebop vocalist Anita O’Day. When she began her career during the big band era of the 1940’s, she presented herself as the ‘cool chick’ of her time, performing in casual attire instead of in evening dress. Her signature vocal style, so suited to syncopated music, was the result of a botched tonsillectomy that left her unable to sustain long notes. She earned her stripes as a hard-living jazz musician with a series of arrests for possession of heroin and marijuana and did a few short stretches of jail time in the early 50’s – before becoming widely well-known for her Verve recordings in the late 50’s and early 60’s. In the 1970’s, after a career disruption caused by drug abuse, she founded her own record label, which she named after her dog Emily, and resumed touring (she was very big in Japan.) She was an artist of unconventional style, who led a suitably unconventional life.
Researching a jazz standard is always a challenge; it’s hard to find out exactly when a song was recorded, when it was released, and where it can be found. This one was written by Kurt Weill in 1943, and like any good standard, has passed through the hands of dozens of singers. Like any good standard, it’s been interpreted in many ways, and as often happens, most of those versions were forgettable. When the years have peeled away the passing fads who or what might be popular, it turns out that the Great American Songbook mostly rests with only two vocalists. Between the two of them Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald have sung every song that mattered in the first half of the 20th century. While other singers may have distinguished themselves, it’s the recordings of Holiday and Fitzgerald that have formed a definitive archive covering decades of popular music. It’s a matter of taste whose version of any given song you favor, and sometimes you may swing wide and favor Sarah Vaughn or Anita O’Day. In this case, I think anyone can agree, that it’s the woozy groove of Billie Holiday’s recording, from her 1958 album All or Nothing At All, that wins out over all the others.
Your grandmother probably slow danced to this song at her cotillion, if you’re from a certain type of background. The Platters’ version of this Jerome Kern tune was a number one hit in 1958, making millions of nice white debutantes swoon chastely to the vocal stylings of Tony Williams, who was neither white nor a debutante. In other words, it was exactly the kind of sexless, corny-as-Iowa romantic treacle that rock’n’roll set out to obliterate from the cultural landscape. By the 70’s being a fan of vocal groups like The Platters was crippingly uncool. Enter Bryan Ferry, with a well-honed sense of irony and an understanding that yesterday’s uncool is tomorrow’s cool again. Ferry was, of course, one of the first rock singers to cherry pick the corny golden oldies of yesteryear for gems ripe for reinvention. He was not above being utterly campy in his choices, but in this case, he picked something he could sing with a straight face. It’s a love ballad that just needed to be stripped of its pop-hit-of-58 arrangement for its emotional depth to shine through. (A sappy male chorus was very much the trendy production gimmick of the late 50’s.) And honestly, without the cultural context of segregated cotillions and the no-sex-no-fun social mores of 1958, The Platters’ song is not bad. In fact, The Platters were actually one of the best vocal groups of their time and among the first all-black groups to gain mainstream popularity.
One of my favorite contemporary trends is remixes of old-timey music. Yes, bring all that old jazz into the modern age. It sounds so good. There’s new jazz being made by living people, in this day and age, of course, but it’s not the art form swaying popular consciousness anymore. As for swing of the kind Anita O’Day used to make, that’s not what the kids are dancing to. Remixes help me pretend that it still is. On the other hand, though, hearing how dynamic the original is, one wonders why exactly we stopped dancing to swing music in the first place.
I wasn’t alive to be a teenager in the 1950’s, for which I mostly thank god. I don’t think I would have done well growing up in the 50’s. But if I had, in some alternate narrative dimension, been an American teenager in the 1950’s, I would have gone to all the sock hops. Buddy Holly would have been my ray of sunshine, just as he was for a whole generation. He turned so many people’s heads in so short a time. I’m shocked and impressed by how fresh those records still sound. Imagine what a bolt of lighting it was the stodgy old ‘hops. Also – and I never tire of saying this – give Buddy Holly credit as being one of the all time fashion icons. Honest-to-God, there are porn stars who’ve built careers emulating his look. That’s not a thing young sockhoppers in the 50’s got to enjoy!