PLAYING HARD TO GET

Over the years, on public radio, public television and sundry online locales, I heard great singers singing songs which surprised me and lingered in my memory. Too often, I went looking for sheet music only to find it unavailable; my favorites were inevitably out of print. Having accumulated a list of orphan songs, I decided to take them down from the recordings and arrange them -- getting help early and often from friends and, after the charts were made, turning to the band for advice and expertise. In many cases, significant reductions were needed; many of the songs had to be entirely re-conceived. But after a yeoman's work, we had a set of the unknown jewels and neglected gems of Jo Stafford, Julia Lee, Billy Holiday and Betty Hutton, all arranged for single voice and trio. Hence the name of the set -- Playing Hard to Get --  a sheet music joke.

BILLIE HOLIDAY'S...

Billie & Mister Downbeat, 1946 (William Gottlieb)

career and discography has been examined exhaustively, and it’s also true that the two songs I came to love because of her performances were recorded by a number of other singers (including those great artists Carmen McRae and Anita O’Day). But the songs I admire most have, evidently, fallen out of fashion; I haven’t heard a young --or even a current-- singer, do the songs, which is unfortunate. The Moon Looks Down and Laughs is a gorgeous Bert Kalmar song, and If the Moon Turns Green a lovely example of the great bandleader and composer Paul Whiteman’s style. The songs are emotional, evocative, graceful, and wide open to interpretation. Billie’s 1938 recording of The Moon Turns Green is the bar to meet for this song; as great as Carmen McRae is, and she is, Billie's version towers.  For my part, in the shadow of a titan, I required an expert, and left it to Frank to take on the arranging job for these songs.  He found something that is our own, and suitable for a trio.

JO STAFFORD...

dominates the evening, as she does my pondering of how to sing this repertoire; she is a voice teacher by example, and altogether impeccable. She was so popular during WWII, the story goes that the Japanese played her records over loudspeakers, hoping that the US soldiers would become so homesick hearing her, that they'd pack up and go home. The Tale of the Loudspeakers is anecdotal, floating in the ephemera surrounding her career, but I like to believe it's true. She offers five out-of-print jewels for this set: a couple of great swing numbers she did with husband Paul Weston,  one pretty waltz-- Indiscretion, a cover of Patti Page's song from the soundtrack of Indiscretions of an American Wife -- from her collaboration with Liberace (which pair is an interesting image indeed),  and a perfect little blues song, recorded for the Victory Disc Program in 1943.

Regarding Indiscretion, I originally surmised that Jo and Liberace must have done the song on one of their respective variety shows, which they had the same year, 1953. It turns out my assumption was wrong. With thanks to Jerry Osterberg who asked the question for me, Jim Mars, an expert on the Jo Stafford discography explained that Indiscretion was studio recording made in 1953, along with a pair of duets.

The two duets with Liberace were recorded in the studio on December 18th 1953. One other song was recorded at this session – “The Miracle Of The Juggler”. This was never issued and it’s not clear whether this was a Jo solo or a duet. If it is a duet with Liberace, it’s doubtful if it was included in the masters Jo acquired when she quit Columbia, as she apparently only got the solo tracks. However, if “The Miracle Of The Juggler” was a solo by Jo it may be lurking somewhere in the Stafford/Weston archives.

I am now, of course, curious about The Miracle of the Juggler. Sadly, Tim Weston, Jo and Paul's son, doesn't believe that title is in his library. So one question answered, and another one asked.  Will no one find me this troublesome song?  In any event, whether it's Indiscretion, that great swing Black Out the Moon, the charming ou Got Me This Way, or any of the rarities on the list, the songs are quality, and should not be left out of a celebration of her career.

JULIA LEE...

has been my mother's earworm my whole life, mom singing under her breath, “I didn’t like it the first tiiiime, but Oooooooh, how it grew on ME!”  Periodically, she’d nudge, “You should do the Spinach Song!”  The tune was a favorite of her parents; my grandparents were known to roll up the rug in the living room and dance the night away. I gave in, took a look and called home. “Sooo, the song about the spinach....I don’t think it's about spinach..."

The Spinach Song, or “I Didn’t Like it the First Time” turns out to be an example of a whole sub-genre of Blues: There were dozens and of these “Dirty Blues”, mostly sung by regional artists like Julia Lee (who came to be my favorite), Lucille Bogan, Blind Boy Fuller, Lil Johnson, Irene Scruggs, Bo Carter, and others.  With titles like Come On Over To My House (But Please Don't Come To Soon), My Pencil Won't Write No More and Big Long Slidin' Thing, the songs are overwhelmingly the musical equivalent of the bathroom wall, and a very good time. It’s mystifying that more of them aren’t a) in print and b) sung often.  For my part, I had to consider which of these songs I had the intestinal fortitude to sing, and the sad answer is: Not so many. But in the interest of intellectual curiosity, I invite singers (and other lovers of musical oddities) to take a look here and here. My set includes three charming, if unsubtle, Julia Lee tunes.

Fun Fact: Julia Lee played Harry Truman’s White House Correspondents Dinner in 1949. I want to believe she sang her 1948 hit King Size Papa, but I have not been able to unearth the program from that evening.  “I’m looking over a four leaf clover” charted at #8 on the charts in ’48, and would have been a safer choice. But if anyone can prove to me that Julia Lee sang King Size Papa for Truman (or even just provide the musical program from that dinner), he or she gets a cookie.

BETTY HUTTON...

presented one of the more daunting jobs in the necessary re-conceiving of four numbers from that tremendous dancing, singing comedienne. Many of Betty’s songs are quite well known: Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry, Square in a Social Circle and It’s Quiet are well treated by time, but I was attracted to “This Must Be the Place”, a 1954 duet for Betty and Tennessee Ernie Ford, of all people. That song has a proto-rock’n’roll sound going on, and I have not yet found the right treatment for my purposes.

I had more success, I think, with three lesser-known production numbers from the movies, “Duffy’s Tavern”, Red Hot and Blue" and “Star Spangled Rhythm”. The songs are vast; Hamlet, in particular, has been an exercise in reduction and a huge undertaking: The song came fully loaded with a full orchestra, trumpet choir, men’s chorus and all sorts of extraneous outbursts and expostulations from Betty. My version has gone through a series of metamorphoses, to be made over for single voice and trio. Hamlet is a work in progress, and the most difficult Musical Archaeology I have attempted. 

Doing it for Defense is interesting. It’s deceptively simple, but proved difficult to execute with a small band. The Star Spangled Rhythm version contains a wonderfully rousing big-band instrumental break. In addition to not having a big band, I also didn’t prefer to mimic its use of Dixie. Without an extended instrumental break, though, the song feels monochromatic, and I went around some, finally choosing for the soli Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree and the deliberately anachronistic Tie a Yellow Ribbon, with a small nod to Over There.  This song has more room to grow, but after each performance, it has had its proponents in the audience. I will have my opportunity to grow the song; it has become the eponymous song for another project, titled V is for Victory Disc: Doing it for Defense.

The Songs

You’ve Got Me This Way (Pied Pipers; 1940)
Black out the Moon (Adler; 1956)
Bakery Blues (Simon; 1943)
Indiscretion: Indiscretions of an American Wife (Cicognini & Weston; 1952)
Smoking My Sad Cigarette (Evans; 1952)
Gypsy in My Soul (Boland & Jaffe; 1937)
The Spinach Song(Gordon & Gomez; 1949)
Decent Woman’s Blues (Unknown, Capitol. 1956)
Don’t Save it too Long (Elliot; 1950)
If the Moon Turns Green (Whiteman; 1944)
The Moon Looks Down and Laughs (Kalmar & Silvers; 1933) 
This Must be the Place (Pola & Copeland; 1954)
Hamlet: Red, Hot and Blue (Loesser; 1949)
Do It the Hard Way: Duffy’s Tavern (Van Heusen & Burke; 1945)
Doing It for Defense: Star Spangled Rhythm (Arlen & Mercer; 1942)