Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Last Dance Never Ends...

When asked about the potentially limiting moniker of "Queen of Disco," the late Donna Summer shrugged and quipped, "It's nice to be the queen of something!"

And while Summer -- who won four Grammys in the R&B, Rock and Gospel categories before her fifth and final win for Dance -- undoubtedly felt that her creativity was sometimes stifled by the public's refusal to let her put her boogie woogie dancing shoes to bed, her undisputed reign over an entire genre of music must have been as gratifying as it was frustrating.

Stretching out from the disco to the speakeasy: Donna Summer's famous "My Man Medley"

Even distilling Summer's catalog to only her five year disco heyday of 1975 to 1980 reveals a surprising depth and versatility: the chocolate box sex-and-soul epic, "Love to Love You Baby"; the still-stunning, revolutionary, mother of all house, techno and electronica to follow, "I Feel Love"; the Broadway-esque sweep of "Last Dance"; the ingenious expansion of "MacArthur Park" from baroque pop to disco suite; the strutting funk of "Bad Girls"; the groundbreaking rock-disco mashup that is still "Hot Stuff"; the pop perfection of "On the Radio"; the New Wave-meets-rockabilly slickness of "The Wanderer."

When disco imploded overnight, Summer was one of the few artists inextricably tied to it who escaped relatively unscathed, at least initially. However, the next decade was dodgier in terms of commercial success, partially due to, and partially resulting in, Summer's startling left turns and defiance of expectations. The biggest hits -- "She Works Hard for the Money" (1983) and "This Time I Know it's for Real" (1989) -- both recalled her glory days under the disco ball, but Summer's more interesting experiments encompassed everything from world music influences (a stirring cover of Vangelis' "State of Independence") and Caribbean rhythms ("Unconditional Love") to full-on, Springsteen-endorsed rock and roll ("Protection"), slick electro-funk ("Eyes"), and Quiet Storm balladry ("Fascination"). She also revealed her Broadway bent with the inclusion of such material as "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," "Send in the Clowns" and "The Impossible Dream" in her live act; and in 1984, Summer even made a bow at the Oscars at Barbra Streisand's behest, singing her former duet partner's nominated song from Yentl, "Papa, Can You Hear Me."

By the dawn of the 1990's, Donna Summer was still a familiar name, but not necessarily a viable chart contender. But a funny thing happened on the way to the nostalgia circuit: disco, long declared dead, suddenly became hip. And if Summer never quite regained her status as a bona fide hitmaker, she earned something even more important: respect. It became okay to like -- heck, love -- Donna Summer, and not as a guilty pleasure, either; but to actually appreciate the power and elasticity of her voice (which, astonishingly, grew instead of diminishing with age), her unheralded songwriting abilities (including many of her biggest hits, as well as Dolly Parton's #1 country hit, "Starting Over Again"), and the genius of her very best recordings.

She writes the (country) songs: "Dim All the Lights" and "Starting Over Again"

For a few golden moments, Donna Summer was the biggest female pop star on the planet, and she rode the inevitable ebb and flow which followed with admirable grace. We saw Summer in concert a half-dozen times during the 1990's and early 00's, and we were continually impressed by her absolutely pitch-perfect vocals, her surprisingly dry and quirky humor, and her appreciation for her fans. She provided the soundtrack for an entire generation, and then some -- a regal legacy, indeed.

January 31, 1948 - May 17, 2012

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Get Happy

du·ra·ble: adj. able to exist for a long time without significant deterioration; also: Marilyn Maye.

Perhaps it's unflattering, at first glance, to use an adjective more commonly applied to equipment (tires, say) when describing a woman of great talent, beauty and charm. But how else can you describe a phenomenal performer who, near the middle of her eighth decade, still can hit and sustain notes that would give most singers half her age, or younger, stomach cramps? Instead of steel-belted radials, Marilyn Maye has steel-belted vocal cords. We're secretly convinced that, tucked away in a box in her attic, Dorian Gray-style, there is Marilyn Maye's alternate, shriveled larynx.

Marilyn Maye spreading happiness on her opening night at Feinstein's at Loew's Regency, April 24, 2012

But what's on public display at Feinstein's at Loew's Regency, through May 5, is an astonishing display of artistry and, yes, durability. When Maye takes the stage to a frantic arrangement of "Make Your Own Kind of Music" -- yes, that "Make Your Own Kind of Music"! -- she somehow turns a bubblegum teenybopper tune into a jazz barnstormer (ingeniously coupled with Vincent Youman's "Without a Song" -- as Charles Busch once remarked to Maye, "You sure love a good medley!") that sizzles and pops with her rafter-shaking vocals, Billy Stritch's dextrous piano accompaniment, Tom Hubbard's nimble bass, and most especially, Jim Eckloff's firecracker drumming. Incidentally, Maye first recorded "Make Your Own Kind of Music" for her modestly-titled 1970 RCA album, Girl Singer, in a more-or-less straightforward arrangement that closely mirrored the Mama Cass hit. It would have been fairly easy and less taxing for Maye to simply trot out her old charts and do the song "straight." It's a credit to her always-forward thinking mind and ethos that she can take material she's been doing for years, and still find new ways to interpret and arrange it.

Billed as "The Happiest Sound in Town" (after the title track to another RCA album -- one with the succinct, now-famous liner blurb by Johnny Carson: "Let's call her Super Singer!"), Maye's current repertoire is understandably heavy on the "up" tunes. From the beginning of her recording career, Maye's warmth, good humor and powerful pipes made her the natural choice to debut such flag-waving fare as "Cabaret" (the first ever recording of that song, released before the show's Broadway opening, and certainly long before the movie version; "And she knows it, too," Marilyn will quip wryly) and "Step to the Rear" (from How Now, Dow Jones, and then later turned into a lucrative jingle for Lincoln-Mercury). At Feinstein's, Maye includes some fan favorites from those glory days of Broadway and film themes, such as "You're Gonna Hear from Me" from the Natalie Wood/Robert Redford film, Inside Daisy Clover (1965); and "Golden Rainbow," from Steve and Eydie's Broadway vehicle of the same name. The only unfortunate casualty of all of this hale and hearty happiness are the blues and ballads that Maye can make such a meal of. Anyone who has heard Maye vamp her way through "Just for a Thrill" or "Blues in the Night," or turn "Something Cool" and "Guess Who I Saw Today" into harrowing, one-woman mini-dramas, can't help but wish that she could have included more of that type of material in the current show.

So when Maye's creamy tones envelop one of the few ballads in the program, Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner's magnificently romantic "Too Late Now" (her 1966 recording of which is ensconced at the Smithsonian in their collection of definitive recordings of the Great American Songbook), it's like milk and honey bathing your ears. And when she flips the coin on that relationship, with the quintessential late 1950's cabaret downer, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," Maye practically gives a master class in the art of torch singing.

Marilyn Maye, circa late 1960's

But at this stage in the game, one can't blame Marilyn Maye for being, well, happy. She looks and sounds magnificent, with little sign of slowing down, let alone stopping. And when the marvelous Marilyn Maye executes her awe-inspiring high kicks during her signature finale, Jerry Herman's "It's Today" from Mame, it's difficult to argue with the notion that you are, indeed, part of the happiest sound in town.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

No, Darlings, it's Not Another Hiatus...

...we're just utterly swamped at work, and loathe as we are to admit it, we are no longer young enough to multi-task!

We'll be back shortly with reportage on Marilyn Maye's upcoming run at Feinstein's, as well as some thoughts on the current Broadway show about Judy Garland, End of the Rainbow. (Hmmm.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Maye Day

The Marvelous MARILYN MAYE
April 10, 1928

Today is a special day, for someone very special to us. Our dear friend Drew threw a lovely, intimate birthday party for the marvelous Marilyn Maye, and we were very honored to attend, and even more honored to sit by her side. We love this lady so much, we don't even mind being photographed from our bad side! It was a charming evening, filled with laughter and good cheer, and we were thrilled to spend time with one of our true heroines. Thank you, Drew! Thank you, Marilyn! Long may you wave!

Jerry's Girls

Doing their trade in stock.

Higher and Higher

Nearer my God to thee.