Hard to believe, but Astaire's career had its ups and downs. Astaire recorded these songs in 1952, when his career had fallen into one of its troughs, after his latest picture, Belle of New York, had flopped into oblivion. At the same time, he was working on the classic The Band Wagon, which turned out to give him a spurt for another decade. Nevertheless, it must have seemed time to take a look back and celebrate past glories.
Glories indeed. Someone remarked to Astaire that Gershwin had written him some great songs. Astaire, probably from compulsive accuracy, replied, "Yeah, but Berlin wrote more." In fact, just about all the major American songwriters from the 20s on had written their best songs for Astaire. Astaire, in turn, gave them in many cases their best performances and in the process redefined pop singing. Almost every great male icon of the art – Crosby, Sinatra, Torme, Bennett – takes from Astaire. The male pop singer B.F. (before Fred) sounded something like an Irish tenor. If you listen to the original cast recordings of, say, Gershwin's Funny Face, someone like William Gaxton or Bernard Clifton bleats his way through one classic song after another. The limitations of Astaire's voice forced him to find another way – deceptively casual, never oversold, and at home with the American vernacular. Astaire moved the "scene" of the singer from the center of the great hall to just across the table, in effect replacing the Minstrel Boy with Ordinary Guy, U.S. version. One of the first things you notice about an Astaire song is its intimacy. Astaire didn't do all this by himself. Among other things, he benefitted hugely from the development of microphone and recording technology. Others also contributed to a new definition of vernacular music – Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Mildred Bailey, Billy Holiday, Nat Cole, to name a few – but Astaire essentially carved out his own territory: white male pop (as opposed to jazz) singing.
Astaire recorded every one of the songs on this album more than once. This is the closest he gets to jazz singing (and, for all his rhythmic and phrasing wizardry, he never crosses the line), so it's an interesting set. How he put the sessions together is itself fascinating. He seems to have run counter to his usual practice of obsessive pre-planning. The settings here are all head arrangements – that is, made up on the spot. Many of the tracks were done in one take, and none took more than four. To pull this off, he needed people so good that, in effect, they could afford to burn off some talent. He found a bonanza – Ray Brown on bass (the greatest postwar bassist after Mingus), Oscar Peterson on piano, to name just the two most famous. Furthermore, he got them before they became well known. My only reservations are for the West Coast jazz idiom they fall into (I'm East Coast and Midwest), too close to Easy Listening for comfort. Nevertheless, everyone plays incredibly tight.
The title track, Berlin's "Steppin' Out," shows at once the strengths and weaknesses of Astaire's vocal technique. On the one hand, there's no true legato. Pitch wavers or is brushed, rather than solidly there. He tends to punch certain notes in the line (the Rex Harrison trick of vocalizing one note and half-speaking the rest) and swoop to others. In fact, I haven't heard so much portamento since Phil Spitalny and his A & P gypsies. Yet, it works, mostly because of Astaire's immaculate sense of the overall shape of the phrase and razor-sharp rhythm. After all, Astaire chooses which notes to hit. The track both lies back and swings. The rhythm numbers, with one exception ("Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," marred by some lame clowning from Astaire, a rare lapse), all come off well, with the high point Berlin's "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails." Not only does Astaire nail the syncopations ("I'm stepping out, my dear" etc.), but, after their Klein-bottle convolutions, untwists the snarls with an incredibly suave "For I'll be there" that leads us magically to the opening section's reprise.
Still, the album's peaks seem to me the ballads, despite the lack of beauty in Astaire's voice. Again, Astaire turns this limitation into an asset. Now, I may be one of the few who don't find Cole Porter's stuff sophisticated. At his best (for me the "list" songs), there's a cheerful, James-Bondian consumerism, a Playboy advisor's delight in brand names, but the ballads run pure purple. Porter really does seem like a boy from Indiana dreaming about what happens in penthouses. Unfortunately, the attitudes come from bad plays. Lorenz Hart, to take an obvious counterfoil, mines deeper veins of poetry and psychology. For example, Porter's "Love for Sale" speaker is simply a Swinburnian, therefore arch-literary, femme fatale. Even the lyric's ennui comes from "The Garden of Proserpine." Hart's "Ten Cents a Dance," despite (I admit) its melodrama, shows a girl in a tough business who still holds on to feeble romantic hopes of rescue. I've never understood how singers declaim "Begin the Beguine" without giggling. What saves a Porter ballad is its melody – long, sinewy, modally ambiguous. Astaire rescues Porter's lyrics through his Ordinary Guy persona, and it should be fairly clear that this is indeed artifice. After all, how many ordinary guys can wear full evening dress and deliver lines like "Gosh!" convincingly? Fred can sail through a plummy line like "When Fortune cries, Nay! nay!' to me" to emphasize the lyrically strong "I concentrate on you." He is just about the only person I can stand to hear sing "Night and Day," precisely because he backs off from a full emotional commitment to the lyric. Astaire transforms Porter's self-consciously toney diction to the exuberance of a young man who finds himself in the unfamiliar state of love. The wide- eyed wonder in Astaire's reading makes even the incredibly silly verse believable.
Astaire and company make it all sound easy, with uncluttered lines and the modest instrumentation, designed for a living room rather than a proscenium or soundstage. The album practically invites you to kick your shoes off and take a relaxed tour of the Great American Song. Recommended.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz