j. poet, Rovi
The daughter of a preacher, Bailey began singing at the age of three (her brother, Bill Bailey, also taught her a few dance steps). She was performing professionally by her early teenage years and after touring as a dancer for several years, she featured both as a singer and dancer with jazz bands led by Noble Sissle, Cootie Williams, and Edgar Hayes. She began performing as a solo act in 1944, and wooed night club audiences with her relaxed stage presence and humorous asides. After briefly replacing Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Cab Calloway's Orchestra during the mid-'40s, she debuted on Broadway during 1946 in the musical "St. Louis Woman". Bailey earned an award for most promising newcomer, and made her first film, Variety Girl, in 1947.
Though it wasn't a hit, her version of "Tired" (from Variety Girl) increased her standing in the jazz community. She recorded for several different labels, including Columbia, during the '40s and finally found a hit in 1952 after signing to Coral. Her version of "Takes Two to Tango," backed by Don Redman's Orchestra, hit the Top Ten. That same year, she married drummer Louie Bellson, and he left his position with Duke Ellington to become her musical director. Bailey recorded several albums for Coral during the early '50s, and starred as a fortune teller in the 1954 film Carmen Jones. More starring roles followed, in the W.C. Handy biopic St. Louis Blues as well as the first filmed version of Gershwin's classic operetta Porgy and Bess.
In 1959, a new recording contract (with Roulette) resulted in a change of direction. After her double-entendre LP For Adults Only was banned from radio play, it became a big seller and occasioned a string of similar albums during the early '60s. She continued to perform on Broadway, and won a Tony award in 1970 for her title role in "Hello, Dolly!". She led her own television variety show in 1971, but retired from active performance several years later. Pearl Bailey was named to the American delegation to the United Nations in 1976, and awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1988.
John Bush, Rovi
The Elgart brothers reunited in 1952, with arranger Charles Albertine in tow. Taking advantage of new recording technology, they crafted a more nuanced, subtle sound that was lighter in tone and rhythm; it relied on tight brass and saxophone sections, and eliminated the piano and nearly all soloing. The 1953 LP Sophisticated Swing established this new blueprint, and a subsequent series of albums on Columbia over the next few years proved quite successful. Their biggest sellers were 1956's The Elgart Touch and the following year's For Dancers Also, both of which reached the Top 15 on the LP charts; they weren't as successful on the singles side, although they did have a minor hit with their theme to "The Man With the Golden Arm," and their original "Bandstand Boogie" was adopted by Dick Clark as the theme song for American Bandstand. Nominal co-leader Les spent more and more time handling the business side of things, and eventually stopped performing altogether in the late '50s; he left the band and moved to California, and Larry officially took over the musical direction (he'd pretty much taken charge already).
Les reunited with Larry once again in 1963, by which time Larry had moved into more of a contemporary easy listening sound, blending rock, pop, swing, exotica, lounge, and space age bachelor pad music. Charles Albertine returned as arranger early on, but soon left to work in the TV/film industry, and was replaced by Bobby Scott. Released in 1964, Command Performance! was their last charting album, but a number of other albums from this era later became popular with lounge collectors, particularly 1967's Girl Watchers. That was one of the brothers' final recordings together, as Les retired to Texas and performed only occasionally. (Larry, meanwhile, found commercial success in the early '80s as mastermind of the popular Hooked on Swing medley albums.) Les Elgart passed away in Dallas on July 29, 1995, of heart failure.
Steve Huey, Rovi
Kelly was initially cast alongside Garland in For Me and My Gal, a safe, period musical coming out of a vaudeville setting and tradition, and in his next screen appearance, starring in Thousands Cheer (1943), he carried the movie, an adult version of the Garland/Rooney-style "hey kids, let's put on a show" vehicle. But by the mid-'40s, MGM was starting to do somewhat more diverse musicals, which were mounted on an ever-grander scale and used much larger budgets; not all of these were successful, including those in which Kelly worked -- their version of Cole Porter's Du Barry Was a Lady was hopelessly compromised by the studio's dampening down of most of the stage original's more daring elements. But in the midst of all of this activity (which included a loan-out to Columbia Pictures for Cover Girl, a musical that was more ambitious than any of his MGM films to date), Kelly revealed himself to be a quintuple threat: dancer, actor, singer, choreographer, and director. Anchors Aweigh put Kelly alongside a young Frank Sinatra but it also gave him a bravura dance segment involving live action and animation mixed together, all in Technicolor, in which his dancing partner was Jerry the Mouse from the Tom & Jerry cartoons.
As Kelly's popularity and box office grosses grew, so did his influence at the studio, and he began proposing more ambitious projects as a director as well as a choreographer and performer. And there were other activities taking place at MGM in the post-World War II era that utilized additional aspects of his talent -- when MGM started its record label in 1948, there was a Gene Kelly album, Song & Dance Man, included among its earliest releases. And he did, in those days in his movies, share some vocals with the likes of a young Frank Sinatra -- and acquitted himself decently -- but it was the dancing and choreography that were the real focus of his work. It was in the big musicals conceived near the end of the '40s -- starting with On the Town, adapted from the hit stage musical by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein -- and his later, more personalized vehicles, An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain, that gave Kelly his greatest influence over music. By that time, his vocal range had narrowed somewhat from the pleasing light tenor he'd revealed in For Me and My Gal a decade earlier, but his onscreen geniality and overall popularity allowed him to effectively re-popularize many songs by George and Ira Gershwin, and Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. His most popular and influential work as a singer can also be found on the soundtracks for those films -- although it was the films themselves, and the arrangements and visual set pieces (which Kelly had a lot to do with shaping, even when he didn't have co-directing credit, as on An American in Paris), that did more for the songs than his vocalizing. One can also add to that list the soundtracks to Brigadoon, Summer Stock, and the compilation soundtrack That's Entertainment! The Best of the M-G-M Musicals. Rather ironically, his singing on Brigadoon wasn't all that good -- and dangerously close to ragged at times -- but the soundtrack was around for years and it was through the movie that most people came to know the score after the show's original Broadway run.
Alas, Kelly's time in the limelight was relatively brief, not quite 20 years in terms of his actual output. He'd come along on the eve of the studio's ascent to its peak of production in his particular area of expertise (and, in many ways, helped make the achievement of that peak possible); but it was a short time, only a decade, before the arrival of television began reducing movie audiences, and the rise of the teenage filmgoer fundamentally changed the nature of who went to movies, and all production at MGM began getting scaled back. By 1955, the film musical -- especially as it was done at MGM -- was a dying art form commercially, and Kelly turned increasingly toward directing, but those assignments were relatively few and far between, and he allowed his dramatic acting -- which he had never entirely forsaken, but had never built into great prominence before the public either -- to become the focus of his film work in movies such as Marjorie Morningstar and Inherit the Wind. He proved to be as adept at drama as he had been at dance; and in the '70s, spurred on by the growing interest in America's cinematic past that coalesced around MGM's compilation feature That's Entertainment!, Kelly directed the equally fine follow-up, That's Entertainment, Part 2. But for all of his aspirations as a director, his best movie work of the post- MGM era was probably in the Jacques Demy-directed Young Girls of Rochefort; although Demy's focus was song and melody rather than dance, he succeeded in creating a popular new musical idiom for the '60s outside of Hollywood, where Kelly never really had the proper chance to try, and invested himself instead in gargantuan productions such as Hello, Dolly. Instead, as on That's Entertainment, Part 2, he had to content himself with preserving and working within the context of his own past.
Bruce Eder, Rovi
Ron Wynn, Rovi
Still, star Gene Kelly initally opposed her casting in his 1952 musical Singin' in the Rain; Reynolds acquitted herself more than admirably alongside the likes of Donald O'Connor and Jean Hagen, however, and the film remains one of the greatest Hollywood musicals ever produced. A series of less distinguished musicals followed, among them 1953's I Love Melvin, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis and Give a Girl a Break; on loan to RKO, she scored a major success in 1954's Susan Slept Here, and upon returning to MGM was awarded with a new and improved seven-year contract. However, the studio continued to insert Reynolds into lackluster projects like the health-fad satire Athena and the musical Hit the Deck; finally, in 1955 she appeared opposite Frank Sinatra in the hit The Tender Trap, followed by a well-regarded turn as a blushing bride in The Catered Affair a year later.
Additionally, Reynolds teamed with real-life husband Eddie Fisher in the musical Bundle of Joy; the couple's children also went on to showbiz success -- daughter Carrie became a popular actress, novelist and screenwriter, while son Todd became a director. In 1957 Reynolds starred in Tammy and the Bachelor, the first in a series of popular teen films which also included 1961's Tammy Tell Me True, 1963's Tammy and the Doctor and 1967's Tammy and the Millionaire; her other well-received films of the period included 1959's It Started with a Kiss, 1961's The Pleasure of His Company and 1964's The Unsinkable Molly Brown, for which she earned an Academy Award nomination. In 1959 Reynolds' marriage to Fisher ended in divorce when he left her for Elizabeth Taylor; the effect was an outpouring of public sympathy which only further increased her growing popularity, and it was rumored that by the early 1960s she was earning millions per picture.
By the middle of the decade, however, Reynolds' star was waning. While described by the actress herself as her favorite film, 1966's The Singing Nun was not the hit MGM anticipated; its failure finally convinced the studio to offer her characters closer to her own age, but neither 1967's Divorce American Style nor the next year's How Sweet It Is performed well, and Reynolds disappeared from the screen to mount her own television series, the short-lived Debbie Reynolds Show. In 1971 she appeared against type in the campy horror picture What's the Matter with Helen?, but when it too failed she essentially retired from movie making, accepting voiceover work as the title character in the animated children's film Charlotte's Web but otherwise remaining away from Hollywood for over a decade.
Reynolds then hit the nightclub circuit, additionally appearing on Broadway in 1973's Irene. In 1977, she also starred in Annie Get Your Gun. By the 1980s, Reynolds had become a fixture in Las Vegas, where she ultimately opened her own hotel and casino, regularly performing live in the venue's nightclub and even opening her own museum of Hollywood memorabilia. In 1987, she reappeared in front of the camera for the first time in years in the TV movie Sadie and Son, followed in 1989 by Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder. In 1992 Reynolds appeared briefly as herself in the hit film The Bodyguard, and a small role in Oliver Stone's 1993 Vietnam tale Heaven and Earth marked her second tentative step towards returning to Hollywood on a regular basis; finally, in 1996 she accepted the title role in the acclaimed Albert Brooks comedy Mother, delivering what many critics declared the best performance of her career. The comedies Wedding Bell Blues and In and Out followed.
Jason Ankeny, Rovi
Scott Yanow, Rovi
Woody Herman began performing as a child, singing in vaudeville. He started playing saxophone when he was 11, and four years later he was a professional musician. He picked up early experience playing with the big bands of Tom Gerun, Harry Sosnik, and Gus Arnheim, and then in 1934, he joined the Isham Jones orchestra. He recorded often with Jones, and when the veteran bandleader decided to break up his orchestra in 1936, Herman formed one of his own out of the remaining nucleus. The great majority of the early Herman recordings feature the bandleader as a ballad vocalist, but it was the instrumentals that caught on, leading to his group being known as "the Band That Plays the Blues." Woody Herman's theme "At the Woodchopper's Ball" became his first hit (1939). Herman's early group was actually a minor outfit with a Dixieland feel to many of the looser pieces and fine vocals contributed by Mary Ann McCall, in addition to Herman. They recorded very frequently for Decca, and for a period had the female trumpeter/singer Billie Rogers as one of its main attractions.
By 1943, the Woody Herman Orchestra was beginning to take its first steps into becoming the Herd (later renamed the First Herd). Herman had recorded an advanced Dizzy Gillespie arrangement ("Down Under") the year before, and during 1943, Herman's band became influenced by Duke Ellington; in fact, Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster made guest appearances on some recordings. It was a gradual process, but by the end of 1944, Woody Herman had what was essentially a brand new orchestra. It was a wild, good-time band with screaming ensembles (propelled by first trumpeter Pete Candoli), major soloists in trombonist Bill Harris and tenorman Flip Phillips, and a rhythm section pushed by bassist/cheerleader Chubby Jackson and drummer Dave Tough. In 1945 (with new trumpeters in Sonny Berman and Conte Candoli), the First Herd was considered the most exciting new big band in jazz. Several of the arrangements of Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti are considered classics, and such Herman favorites entered the book as "Apple Honey," "Caldonia," "Northwest Passage," "Bijou" (Harris' memorable if eccentric feature), and the nutty "Your Father's Mustache." Even Igor Stravinsky was impressed, and he wrote "Ebony Concerto" for the orchestra to perform in 1946. Unfortunately, family troubles caused Woody Herman to break up the big band at the height of its success in late 1946; it was the only one of his orchestras to really make much money. Herman recorded a bit in the interim, and then, by mid-1947, had a new orchestra, the Second Herd, which was also soon known as the Four Brothers band. With the three cool-toned tenors of Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Herbie Steward (who a year later was replaced by Al Cohn) and baritonist Serge Chaloff forming the nucleus, this orchestra had a different sound than its more extroverted predecessor, but it could also generate excitement of its own. Trumpeter/arranger Shorty Rogers and eventually Bill Harris returned from the earlier outfit, and with Mary Ann McCall back as a vocalist, the group had a great deal of potential. But, despite such popular numbers as Jimmy Giuffre's "Four Brothers," "The Goof and I," and "Early Autumn" (the latter ballad made Getz into a star), the band struggled financially. Before its collapse in 1949, such other musicians as Gene Ammons, Lou Levy, Oscar Pettiford, Terry Gibbs, and Shelly Manne made important contributions.
Next up for Woody Herman was the Third Herd, which was similar to the Second except that it generally played at danceable tempos and was a bit more conservative. Herman kept that band together during much of 1950-1956, even having his own Mars label for a period; Conte Candoli, Al Cohn, Dave McKenna, Phil Urso, Don Fagerquist, Carl Fontana, Dick Hafer, Bill Perkins, Nat Pierce, Dick Collins, and Richie Kamuca were among the many sidemen. After some short-lived small groups (including a sextet with Nat Adderley and Charlie Byrd), Herman's New Thundering Herd was a hit at the 1959 Monterey Jazz Festival. He was able to lead a big band successfully throughout the 1960s, featuring such soloists as high-note trumpeter Bill Chase, trombonist Phil Wilson, the reliable Nat Pierce, and the exciting tenor of Sal Nistico. Always open to newer styles, Woody Herman's bop-ish unit gradually became more rock-oriented as he utilized his young sidemen's arrangements, often of current pop tunes (starting in 1968 with an album titled Light My Fire). Not all of his albums from this era worked, but one always admired Herman's open-minded attitude. As one of only four surviving jazz-oriented bandleaders from the swing era (along with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Stan Kenton) who was still touring the world with a big band, Herman welcomed such new talent in the 1970s as Greg Herbert, Andy Laverne, Joe Beck, Alan Broadbent, and Frank Tiberi. He also recorded with Chick Corea, had a reunion with Flip Phillips, and celebrated his 40th anniversary as a leader with a notable 1976 Carnegie Hall concert.
Woody Herman returned to emphasizing straight-ahead jazz by the late '70s. By then, he was being hounded by the IRS due to an incompetent manager from the 1960s not paying thousands of dollars of taxes out of the sidemen's salaries. Herman, who might very well have taken it easy, was forced to keep on touring and working constantly into his old age. He managed to put on a cheerful face to the public, celebrating his 50th anniversary as a bandleader in 1986. However, his health was starting to fail, and he gradually delegated most of his duties to Frank Tiberi before his death in 1987. Tiberi continued to lead a Woody Herman Orchestra on a part-time basis but it never had the opportunity to record. Fortunately, Herman was well documented throughout all phases of his career, and his major contributions are still greatly appreciated.
Scott Yanow, Rovi
Astaire's long career breaks down neatly into four major phases. From 1905 to 1917, he and his sister Adele Astaire (b. Sep 10, 1897; d. Jan 25, 1981) danced and sang as the team of Fred and Adele Astaire in vaudeville. From 1917 to 1933, Astaire worked in the legitimate theater in 11 stage musicals, ten of them with his sister. From 1933 to 1957, he appeared in 30 movie musicals, ten of them teaming him with Ginger Rogers. From 1957 to 1981, he worked mostly as a character actor in films and on television. Although Fred and Adele Astaire garnered considerable critical attention and achieved stardom on Broadway and in the West End, no documentation beyond their reviews and a handful of recordings exists to preserve their legacy. On the other hand, Astaire's partnership with Rogers, immortalized on film, continued to fascinate viewers of succeeding decades much as it did those who attended the movies initially in the '30s. In those days, Astaire, gliding across polished dancefloors in his trademark "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" (as Berlin put it in a song written for him), with Rogers beside him in a spectacular gown, served as an antidote for the Depression that gripped the country and reassured millions of filmgoers that elegance and gentility could overcome economic turmoil. This was Astaire's popular peak, when he and Rogers were among the country's biggest box-office stars, when his records topped the charts, and his radio show was listened to by millions every week. But his lengthy career was marked by a series of triumphs that made him one of the best-loved entertainers of the century.
Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, NE, on May 10, 1899. His father, Frederic (no "k") Austerlitz, was an Austrian immigrant who worked as a salesman for the Storz Brewing Company but was also a pianist with a strong interest in the performing arts. His mother, Johanna (Gelius) Austerlitz, shared this interest, and when his sister Adele Marie Austerlitz, who was 20 months his senior, showed a talent for dancing as a small child, she was enrolled at Chambers' Dancing Academy. The family faced a financial crisis in 1904 when a temperance movement led to the closing of the brewery, and they met it in surprising fashion by deciding that mother, daughter, and son would move to New York where Adele could be enrolled in the dancing school run by Claude Alvienne with an eye toward a professional career. Johanna, Adele, and Fred Austerlitz (soon renamed Ann, Adele, and Fred Astaire) arrived in New York in January 1905, and, shortly after Adele began studying with Alvienne, Fred joined her, creating the dance team of Fred and Adele Astaire, which made its professional debut in a vaudeville act created by Alvienne in Keyport, NJ, in November 1905. Astaire was six-years-old; his sister was eight.
The Astaires toured in vaudeville until 1909, by which time they had outgrown their act and a disparity in their heights made dancing together difficult. They retired temporarily, settling in Highwood Park, NJ, where Astaire attended grammar school . But after two years off, he and his sister were enrolled in Ned Wayburn's dancing school in New York in the summer of 1911, intending to return to vaudeville, which they did with a Wayburn-written act that December. From then on, they toured with gradually increasing success to the point in June 1917 that they were signed by the Shubert Organization to make the leap to the legitimate stage. This occurred with the musical revue Over the Top, which opened on Broadway on November 28, 1917, and ran 78 performances before going on a national tour that continued into the spring of 1918. The Astaires had seventh billing in the show, and they danced in three numbers, also singing in two of them. The Shubert quickly cast them in another revue, The Passing Show of 1918, which opened on July 25, 1918, and ran 142 performances, followed by a tour that ran through June 1919. The Astaires had eighth billing in this show. In addition to appearing together in three numbers, each also had a solo, Astaire's being "Squab Farm" (music by Sigmund Romberg, lyrics by Jean Schwartz). After the tour, they went into rehearsals for an operetta, Apple Blossoms, which opened on October 7, 1919, and ran 256 performances, until April 24, 1920, followed by a tour that ran from August to April 1921. Fourth-billed in this show, they danced in three numbers, but did not have speaking parts. They had two dances and were billed separately fifth and sixth in the cast for a second operetta, The Love Letter. It was a failure, opening October 4, 1921, and closing 25 days and 31 performances later on October 29, followed by a tour that ran only until December. But that gave them the opportunity to have their first speaking roles in a second show in the same season, For Goodness Sake, which opened on February 20, 1922, for a run of 103 performances through May 20, followed by a brief tour. This show allowed them to perform the music of Astaire's friend George Gershwin, one of several songwriters who contributed to the score.
The Astaires had received increasing critical support, which resulted in their receiving top billing in their sixth stage work, The Bunch and Judy, boasting a score by Jerome Kern and Anne Caldwell. Unfortunately, the show was a flop with a run of only 63 performances between November 28, 1922, and January 20, 1923. This failure again resulted in an opportunity, however, as the Astaires were invited to England to star in a re-tooled version of For Goodness Sake, re-christened Stop Flirting, which opened in the West End on May 30 and ran 418 performances, until August 1924. Its success brought the team's first chance to record, as they were contracted by HMV Records and went into a London studio on October 18, 1923, to perform two of their songs from the show, "The Whichness of the Whatness" and "Oh Gee! Oh Gosh!" (music and lyrics for both by William Daly and Paul Lannin), soon released in the U.K. only on either side of the 78 rpm (HMV B-1719), Astaire's first record release.
The Astaires returned to New York to appear in a new musical written for them with songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Lady, Be Good! It opened December 1, 1924, and became an enormous hit, running 330 performances, until September 12, 1925, followed by a two-month tour. Returning to England, the Astaires opened the show in the West End on April 14, 1926, resulting in a 326-performance run that lasted until January 22, 1927. Shortly after the London opening, they recorded songs from the show for the English Columbia Records label (an imprint of EMI and no relation to the American Columbia label) in what amounted to an original cast album, albeit spread across three separately released 78s. Accompanied by George Gershwin on piano, they performed "Fascinating Rhythm," "Hang on to Me," and "I'd Rather Charleston" (lyrics by Desmond Carter), and Astaire gave made his first solo recording on "The Half of It, Dearie, Blues" on April 19, 1926. At a later session, they were accompanied by an orchestra for "Swiss Miss," and Adele and cast member George Vollaire sang "So Am I."
After a British tour, the Astaires returned to the U.S. in June 1927 to prepare for another Gershwin show, Funny Face, which opened on Broadway on November 22, 1927, and ran 250 performances until June 23, 1928. Shortly before the opening, The Jazz Singer, the first sound film, had opened successfully, featuring Broadway star Al Jolson, and the Hollywood movie studios became interested in other stage stars. The Astaires did a screen test for Paramount Pictures for a proposed movie version of Funny Face, but nothing came of it. Instead, the Astaires took Funny Face to London, where it opened November 8, 1928, for a run of 263 performances, which, with a tour to follow, kept them in Great Britain until April 1930. Again, shortly after the opening, they recorded some of the songs for English Columbia, performing "The Babbitt and the Bromide" and the title song together, while Astaire recorded "High Hat" and "My One and Only" solo. Subsequently, he also cut a couple of singles not associated with the show, "Not My Girl"/"Louisiana," accompanied by Al Starita and His Boyfriends in April 1929 and "Puttin' on the Ritz" (music and lyrics by Irving Berlin)/"Crazy Feet" in March 1930.
The Astaires next appeared in producer Florenz Ziegfeld's Smiles, a flop that opened on November 18, 1930, and played only 63 performances through January 10, 1931. They quickly rebounded with The Band Wagon, a revue with songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, which opened June 3, 1931, and ran 260 performances, until January 16, 1932, followed by a tour that ran through May. Bandleader Leo Reisman recorded a collection of the show's songs for Victor Records, and he engaged the Astaires to sing them. As a duo, they recorded "Hoops" and a two-part medley of "Gems from the Band Wagon," while Astaire sang "I Love Louisa," "New Sun in the Sky," and "White Heat" solo. In addition to releasing 78s of the material, Victor also pressed up an experimental 33 1/3 rpm containing the medley, but the format did not catch on. (Seventeen years later, Columbia Records employed the same disc speed when it unveiled its new "LP" -- long-playing -- records.) Researchers Joel Whitburn (Pop Memories) and Edward Foote Gardner (Popular Songs of the Twentieth Century), who have estimated chart performance for this pre-chart era, both cite "I Love Louisa" as a Top Ten hit and also award chart showings to "New Sun in the Sky."
Adele Astaire gave her final performance in The Band Wagon in Chicago on March 15, 1932. On May 9, she married Charles Cavendish, the son of the Duke of Devonshire, and went to live with him in Ireland, retiring from her performing career. Astaire carried on without her, planning his next theatrical venture, the musical Gay Divorce, with songs by Cole Porter, for the fall. On November 22, the day after the show opened a tryout run in New Haven, CT, and a week before it opened on Broadway, he joined Reisman to record two songs from the score, "Night and Day" and "I've Got You on My Mind," for a Victor single. Emphasizing the score, and in particular "Night and Day," turned out to be a good idea. Gay Divorce earned only modest reviews from critics who had often favored Astaire's sister over him and missed her, and it did only modest business at first. But it caught on along with "Night and Day," cited by both Whitburn and Gardner as a number one hit in early 1933. As a result, the show ultimately ran 248 performances on Broadway, until July 1, 1933. Astaire's growing success as a solo stage and recording artist again attracted the interest of Hollywood, and in January 1933 David O. Selznick, in charge of production for RKO Pictures, had him do another screen test. Selznick called the test "wretched," referring to Astaire's "enormous ears and bad chin line," but suggested that the performer's "charm is so tremendous" that it came through even so. He circulated the test among other executives at the company, resulting in a legend that attached itself to Astaire forever afterward. Supposedly, one person responded, "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little." In her autobiography, Debbie, My Life, Debbie Reynolds finally named this studio official as Burt Grady, and Astaire, speaking to his biographer Bob Thomas (Astaire: The Man, the Dancer) clarified the remark. "It has been repeated many times, usually incorrectly," he recalled. "What the man said was: 'Can't act. Slightly bald. Also dances.'" Notwithstanding this assessment, Astaire was signed to a contract by RKO on May 27, 1933, for one film, with options for more. Meanwhile, he recorded a few additional sessions with Reisman for Victor, including a version of "The Gold Diggers' Song (We're in the Money)" (music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin), which had been introduced by Ginger Rogers in the film Gold Diggers of 1933.
On July 12, 1933, Astaire married socialite Phyllis Livingston Baker Potter. They would have two children and remain married until her death from cancer on September 13, 1954. Within days of his wedding, Astaire flew to Los Angeles to begin work on his first film. But since RKO was not yet ready to begin filming, he was loaned to MGM for a featured part in Dancing Lady, starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, which became his movie debut when it opened in November. Then he took on a featured role in his first RKO picture, Flying Down to Rio, in which he was billed fifth behind Ginger Rogers, with whom he danced onscreen for the first time. After he finished filming, he left for England to open a British production of Gay Divorce on November 2, 1933, with a limited engagement of 108 performances running through April 7, 1934. This would be his final work as a stage performer. While in London, he recorded two songs from Flying Down to Rio, the title song and "Music Makes Me" (which Rogers sang in the picture). Both songs are credited as chart hits by Whitburn and Gardner. Flying Down to Rio opened in the U.S. in December 1933 and was a hit, too, particularly because of audience reaction to Astaire and Rogers' dance of "The Carioca" (which became the first song to win an Academy Award). As a result, RKO quickly bought rights to both Gay Divorce and a concurrent Broadway hit, Roberta, as screen vehicles for the two. The former was retitled The Gay Divorcee, and all of Cole Porter's songs except "Night and Day" were replaced, along with much of the plot. Nevertheless, Astaire (who took on the uncredited role of choreographer, which he would maintain throughout his film career) and Rogers were a hit with audiences when the film opened in October 1934. Roberta retained more of Jerome Kern's original score for the show, and the composer was even brought in to write new numbers. The result, released in February 1935, was Astaire and Rogers' third hit film.
For their fourth screen pairing, Top Hat, RKO brought in Irving Berlin to write an original song score, and Astaire prepared for the release by signing to Brunswick Records and making studio recordings of all five of the songs: "Cheek to Cheek," "No Strings," "Isn't This a Lovely Day?," "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," and "The Piccolino." The records were released simultaneously with the film's premiere in August 1935, and Astaire appeared several times on the popular radio show Your Hit Parade to promote both, with explosive results. "Cheek to Cheek," "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," "Isn't This a Lovely Day?," and "No Strings" all made the Top Ten of the hit parade, with "Cheek to Cheek" spending five weeks at number one. The film, meanwhile, was the most successful Astaire/Rogers movie ever, registering a profit of over one million dollars according to RKO's accountants. Naturally, the two were re-teamed with Berlin for their next film, Follow the Fleet, for which the songwriter provided another seven songs. Astaire recorded five of them, also sneaking into the session a composition of his own, "I'm Building Up to an Awful Let-Down" (lyrics by Johnny Mercer). That song and three entries from the film, "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "Let Yourself Go," and "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," all reached the Top Five of the hit parade concurrent with the film's release in February 1936. Follow the Fleet showed a slight downtick in profitability, but still poured nearly one million into RKO's coffers. Those profits declined consistently for subsequent Astaire/Rogers films, but biographer Edward Gallafent (Astaire and Rogers) has demonstrated that this was because of rising production costs for the series, not diminishing revenues at the box office.
RKO commissioned a sixth Astaire/Rogers film, this time bringing back Jerome Kern, who wrote an original score with lyricist Dorothy Fields for Swing Time. Astaire recorded five of the songs for Brunswick, and from that batch "The Way You Look Tonight" spent six weeks at number one in the hit parade and "A Fine Romance" peaked at number three upon the film's release in August 1936. Another drop in profits caused RKO to decide to break up the team temporarily after their upcoming seventh picture. Meanwhile, on September 15, Astaire began hosting his own weekly radio program, The Fred Astaire Show (aka The Packard Hour) on the NBC network. He found himself stretched to handle both the series and his extensive preparations for the dances in his films, however, and despite its popularity he gave up the show after one season. Meanwhile, George and Ira Gershwin were brought in to write songs for the next Astaire/Rogers film, Shall We Dance, and Astaire recorded all six of their contributions for Brunswick, resulting in three singles and another Top Ten entry in the hit parade, "They Can't Take That Away from Me," following the film's release in April 1937. Shall We Dance was only half as profitable as Swing Time, as production costs neared one million dollars. Astaire's next film, A Damsel in Distress (released in November 1937), his first not to feature Rogers since Dancing Lady, actually lost money, due to a production cost that topped one million. He recorded four of its Gershwin songs and scored another Top Ten hit with "Nice Work if You Can Get It." The release of the ninth AstaireRogers film, Carefree, in September 1938, was accompanied by the announcement that the team would be dissolved permanently after their next outing. The film featured a score by Irving Berlin, and it gave Astaire another number one hit with "Change Partners," even though the picture itself lost money for RKO. Nevertheless, the studio pressed ahead with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, an uncharacteristic film biography of the popular dance team of the '10s that appeared in the spring of 1939 and again cost more money than it made by company estimates.
Astaire ended his relationship with RKO after The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Over the next several years, he accepted one-off offers from different studios, making Broadway Melody of 1940 (February 1940); Second Chorus (January 1941), and Holiday Inn (June 1942), the latter with Bing Crosby, for Paramount; You'll Never Get Rich (September 1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (October 1942), both with Rita Hayworth, for Columbia Pictures; and The Sky's the Limit (July 1943) back at RKO before signing a long-term contract with MGM in 1944. Meanwhile, he made recordings of some of his movie songs and other material for Columbia Records in 1940 and for Decca Records from 1941 to 1946. In 1942, Decca accompanied the release of You Were Never Lovelier, which featured a score written by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, with Astaire's first album of three 78s.
Astaire made the long-in-gestation ensemble film Ziegfeld Follies (not in general release until 1946) at MGM and then the unsuccessful Yolanda and the Thief (October 1945) before being loaned to Paramount for Blue Skies, another film with Bing Crosby and the songs of Irving Berlin. As he had with Holiday Inn, he also joined Crosby for a Decca album of songs from Blue Skies, duetting on "A Couple of Song and Dance Men" and contributing a solo re-recording of "Puttin' on the Ritz," and the disc peaked at number two in the Billboard album chart in the fall of 1946. The film also was a big hit, and the 47-year-old Astaire decided the time had come to hang up his dancing shoes. He announced his retirement to spend more time on two other activities, owning and breeding racehorses, and launching a chain of dancing schools. He did not become completely inactive as an entertainer, for example acting in the radio play The Animal Kingdom on ABC's Theatre Guild on the Air on May 4, 1947, but he kept to his decision to retire from films until the fall of 1947, when Gene Kelly broke his ankle just prior to production on MGM's Easter Parade, a musical with Judy Garland featuring Berlin songs, and he agreed to go back to step in as a replacement. The film was released in June 1948, and after its success nothing more was heard publicly of Astaire's retirement. During his absence from the studio, MGM had started its own record label, and it began releasing soundtrack albums from its movie musicals. These became the chief outlet for Astaire's commercial recordings over the next several years, with MGM soundtracks for Easter Parade; The Barkleys of Broadway (March 1949), which marked a reunion with Ginger Rogers; Three Little Words (1950), a film biography of songwriters Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar, which spent 11 weeks at number one in the Billboard chart; Royal Wedding (February 1951), with a score by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane, which reached number three and spawned the gold-selling novelty single "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life? (The Liar Song)," a duet with Jane Powell; The Belle of New York (February 1952); and The Band Wagon (July 1953), much altered from the 1931 stage version. (Let's Dance [August 1950], a loan-out to Paramount, did not result in a soundtrack album initially, although, as with all Astaire's musical films, its songs eventually turned up on an unlicensed disc.)
At the 1949 Academy Awards ceremony, Astaire, whose work as a singing and dancing star of movie musicals did not fit into any Oscar category, was presented with a special award "for his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures." In 1952, he was approached by Norman Granz, a record producer and the impresario of the successful "Jazz at the Philharmonic" concert series, to re-record his catalog of standards backed by a small jazz group. Granz engaged Oscar Peterson (piano), Alvin Stoller (drums), Flip Phillips (tenor saxophone), Charlie Shavers (trumpet), Barney Kessel (guitar), and Ray Brown (bass), and took Astaire into a recording studio in December 1952 for marathon sessions that resulted in the 38-track, four-LP box set The Astaire Story, released by Granz's Clef label through Mercury Records in 1953.
With the completion of his MGM contract in 1953, Astaire again thought of retiring, but he kept accepting offers for films on an ad hoc basis, making Daddy Long Legs (May 1955), accompanied by an RCA Victor single of its song "Something's Gotta Give" (music and lyrics by Johnny Mercer), and an adaptation of his old stage hit Funny Face (March 1957), with a soundtrack album on Granz's Verve Records label, both for Paramount, then Cole Porter's Silk Stockings (May 1957) for MGM, with an MGM Records soundtrack LP. With that, he turned away from movie musicals and focused his attention primarily to television, starting with an acting role in a half-hour comic film, Imp on a Cobweb Leash, broadcast live on the General Electric Theatre program on December 1, 1957. Far more ambitious was the one-hour An Evening with Fred Astaire, broadcast on October 17, 1958, which found him dancing with new partner Barrie Chase. The special won nine Emmy Awards including Outstanding Single Program of the Year and Astaire's award for Best Single Performance by an Actor. He followed with two more similar shows, Another Evening with Fred Astaire (November 4, 1959) and Astaire Time (September 28, 1960), which earned him a second Emmy Award for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Music Program or Series. Meanwhile, he took occasional acting roles in non-musical films: On the Beach (December 1959), The Pleasure of His Company (May 1961), and The Notorious Landlady (June 1962). He also made an album, Now (1959) for Kapp Records, which consisted largely of re-recordings of his old favorites. Also, he issued a combined television soundtrack album, Three Evenings with Fred Astaire (1960) on his own Ava Records label, named after his daughter, as well as a few singles. But most of his work in the '60s continued to be done for television. Starting in 1961, he hosted Alcoa Premiere, an anthology series of one-hour teleplays, and he acted in several of them in 1962. On October 2, 1964, he and Chase danced and acted in Think Pretty, a teleplay that was part of the series Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater. In November 1965, he appeared in several episodes of the medical series Dr. Kildare. He and Chase made a series of appearances on The Hollywood Palace, a variety series, in 1966. The Fred Astaire Show, his fourth TV special, aired on February 7, 1968. And in 1970, he had a continuing role on the series It Takes a Thief. His first feature film appearance in six years was also his first appearance in a movie musical in 11 years, and his last, a belated screen adaptation of the 1947 Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow released in August 1968 and accompanied by a soundtrack LP on Warner Bros. Records that spent six months in the Billboard chart. Less than a year later, he was back onscreen starring in the crime picture Midas Run, released in May 1969.
By 1970, the 70-year-old Astaire was semi-retired, but he continued to work periodically. He co-starred in a Western TV movie, The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again, broadcast on ABC on November 17, 1970, and less than a month later, on December 13, served as a voice for the animated TV film Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, which was accompanied by a soundtrack LP released by MGM. In 1972, he appeared in two television specials, the first a Gershwin tribute, 'S Wonderful, 'S Marvelous, 'S Gershwin, broadcast on NBC on January 17, which also had a soundtrack LP released on Daybreak Records, and the second a patriotic program, Make Mine Red, White and Blue, broadcast on NBC on September 9, for which he served as host. In May 1974, he was one of the hosts of the anthology film That's Entertainment!, consisting of clips from MGM musicals. The film was an enormous hit, with a double-LP soundtrack album that reached the charts, and was followed two years later by That's Entertainment, Part II, for which Astaire and Gene Kelly served as hosts, and for which they did a little modest singing and dancing. Of course, it too was accompanied by a soundtrack album. In between, Astaire took a role in the disaster film The Towering Inferno, released in December 1974. It became the biggest box-office hit of the year, and he earned his only Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.
In 1975, Astaire accepted an offer from record producer Ken Barnes to go to England and record a series of albums for United Artists Records. He cut three LPs: A Couple of Song and Dance Men, a duet collection with Bing Crosby; They Can't Take These Away from Me, yet another set of re-recordings of his old favorites; and Attitude Dancing, containing recordings of some new songs and some of his own compositions. In 1976, he returned to filmmaking in the detective film The Amazing Dobermans, released in November, and he followed it with Un Taxi Mauve (The Purple Taxi), an international production released outside the U.S. in May 1977 that failed to find an American distributor. The Easter Bunny Is Coming to Town, broadcast on ABC April 6, 1977, was something of a sequel to Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, with Astaire again providing a voice for an animated character. A Family Upside Down was a made-for-TV movie broadcast on NBC April 9, 1978, in which he co-starred with Helen Hayes; his performance won him his third Emmy Award for Outstanding Actor in a Special. On December 3, 1978, he was one of the recipients of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors, presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and broadcast on CBS two nights later. The following month, he appeared in an episode of the science-fiction series Battlestar Galactica, and he starred in the TV movie The Man in the Santa Claus Suit, broadcast on NBC December 23, 1979, a performance that allowed him the opportunity to make his final recording, of the song "Once a Year Night" (music by Peter Matz, lyrics by Norman Gimbel), issued as a promotional single by Dick Clark Productions. On June 24, 1980, Astaire married for the second time, to jockey Robyn Smith. The bride was 35-years-old, the groom 81. He made his final film appearance in the thriller Ghost Story, released in December 1981. He died of pneumonia at 88 on June 22, 1987.
Astaire's film work is, of course, available extensively on video. The story is somewhat more problematic with regard to his recordings, although there is no dearth of Astaire discs in release at any given moment. European copyright law, which allows recordings to fall into the public domain after 50 years, has led to an unending series of unlicensed compilation albums on which Astaire's performances are remastered from old 78s; they vary wildly in quality. There are also numerous unlicensed compilations of film soundtrack material, also of dubious value. The major American record labels, which claim ownership of the studio recordings for the U.S. market, own different pieces of Astaire's catalog. Sony BMG controls the Victor, Brunswick, and Columbia recordings; Universal has the Decca, Mercury, Verve, and Kapp material. EMI has the early English Columbia tracks and the United Artists recordings. Periodically, these labels repackage their holdings, with notable collections including Starring Fred Astaire (Columbia, 1989), Rarities (RCA, 1990), Top Hat: Hits from Hollywood (Columbia/Legacy, 1994), The Complete London Sessions (EMI, 1999), and DRG's' reissue of The Astaire Story with bonus tracks. Astaire's soundtrack recordings have been compiled by Rhino in the excellent collections Fred Astaire at MGM (1997) and Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers at RKO (1998). DRG has reissued the soundtracks from the TV specials. That such collections continue to appear, both from reputable and questionable sources, testifies to the ongoing appeal of Astaire as a singer of timeless American popular music.
William Ruhlmann, Rovi
Born in Buenos Aires in 1918, Haymes was the son of British parents, who at the time were living on the cattle ranch they owned in Argentina. After they separated, he was reared by his mother in Paris before the Depression crippled their finances. He spent the rest of his formative years in the United States, where his mother performed as a singer. Haymes made his own professional debut at the age of 15, singing with a hotel band in New Jersey while on summer vacation. He left school in 1933 to move to Hollywood, and worked as a stuntman or extra on several films during the mid-'30s. After writing a few songs in 1939, he approached Harry James with hopes the bandleader would buy them; though James wasn't very impressed with his songwriting skills, he hired Haymes one year later, to replace Frank Sinatra as his leading male singer.
During 1941-1942, Dick Haymes recorded a few hits with James, including "A Sinner Kissed an Angel" and "The Devil Sat Down and Cried." (His biggest hit with James, "I'll Get By (As Long as I Have You)," hit number one in 1944, three years after its recording.) Haymes also sang with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey before signing to Decca in 1943. One of his first singles, "You'll Never Know," hit number one in July 1943. Another, "It Can't Be Wrong," was also a substantial hit at the same time. He moved from extra to starring roles in Hollywood, most notably appearing in 1945's State Fair, and scored a Top Five hit with the Oscar-winning "It Might as Well Be Spring" from the film. Though he never again scored another number one hit, Haymes spent much of the mid-'40s near the top of the charts with the songs "Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey," "Laura," "Till the End of Time," and "That's for Me." He also hosted a radio show with Helen Forrest, and starred in several more films after the success of State Fair.
Though the hits continued until the end of the decade, both Haymes' professional and personal life began to decline. He divorced his wife, actress Joanne Dru, began drinking heavily, and mishandled his finances. Many of his film appearances were panned and he was eventually dropped from his movie and recording contracts. A whirlwind romance and two-year marriage to Rita Hayworth hardly settled things down; when added to immigration and tax troubles, it made for a very obvious low point in the singer's life.
He began a professional comeback in 1955, thanks to a contract with Capitol Records, the foremost label for adult pop. Haymes recorded two LPs for Capitol, Rain or Shine and Moondreams, but continued to be plagued by alcoholism. After moving to Ireland in the early '60s, Haymes finally kicked his drinking habit and returned to recording with 1969's Now and Then, which alternated Haymes classics with more contemporary material. He moved back to America in the '70s, performing numerous club dates and recording a live album at Cocoanut Grove. He last recorded in 1978, and lost his long bout with cancer two years later.
John Bush, Rovi
After a period in the miliary (1942-1945), Thornhill put together a new orchestra, retaining the services of Gil Evans (and sometimes using Gerry Mulligan charts as well) and featuring such soloists as altoist Lee Konitz, clarinetist Danny Polo, and trumpeter Red Rodney. Some of Evans' bop-ish arrangements for the group were classic, and the Miles Davis Nonet of 1948 was based on many of the cool-toned principles of the Thornhill big band. However, by then the pianist's glory days were over. He continued leading bands on a part-time basis up until his death, but Claude Thornhill was largely neglected and forgotten during his final 15 years.
Scott Yanow, Rovi
Powell made his film debut in 1932's Blessed Event, but he shot to stardom a year later alongside another Hollywood newcomer, Ruby Keeler, in the classic Lloyd Bacon/Busby Berkeley backstage musical 42nd Street, which included such classic Harry Warren and Al Dubin compositions as "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me," and the title song. The picture established Powell as a leading musical star, and in the years to follow, he starred in such smashes as Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, and On the Avenue, often appearing in the company of Keeler and wife Joan Blondell; among the songs his movies popularized were "We're in the Money," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "Lullaby of Broadway," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," and "Jeepers Creepers."
At the same time, Powell was very active in radio, regularly appearing on programs including "Hollywood Hotel", "Old Gold" (with the Ted Fio Rito Band), and "Hollywood Party"; from 1942 to 1943, he also hosted his own broadcast, "Dick Powell Serenade". During the early '40s, he turned more toward comedy and dramas, and in 1944 switched gears entirely to successfully portray world-weary gumshoe Philip Marlowe in the Raymond Chandler adaptation Murder, My Sweet. From that point on, Powell was firmly established as a tough guy, and he was as popular in these roles as he had been in musicals; by the early '50s, he was also directing and producing pictures. Powell also served as founder and president of Four Star Television, a pioneering TV production company, and from 1959 to 1961 he presented the popular series Dick Powell Theater. He continued working regularly until his death from cancer on January 3, 1963.
Jason Ankeny, Rovi
Nevertheless, Tormé remains best-known as a singer, and as a singer his career was one of considerable artistic achievement and frequent commercial frustration, particularly on records. That 1925 birth date, despite his precocity, meant that, like such contemporaries as Tony Bennett, he grew up with a love for swing music and jazz in general, only to find that, as he became an adult, that music was pushed to the margins commercially and that as a performer he was faced with a choice between singing what he liked to a limited audience or compromising to appeal to a wider one, a choice that became even starker with the onset of the "rock era" in the mid-'50s. And like Bennett and only a few others, he succeeded largely through persistence, bending to the extent he had to, but weathering many lean years until the '80s, when he found a sympathetic record company and renewed popular interest in the kind of music he wanted to perform. Unlike Bennett, he persevered despite very limited commercial impact as a record seller. But he made up for that by being more appealing to the jazz audience, which responded to his obvious affection for the style and his talent for jazz singing (he was bested only by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald in his ability to scat). Describing a low point in his life in his autobiography, he wrote that he came to feel he didn't have a career, only a series of jobs. If so, his singing and the wide variety of other talents he exhibited assured that he was never out of work.
Tormé was the descendant of Russian Jews who settled in Chicago. His mother, the former Sarah "Betty" Sopkin, was born in the U.S., but his father was born William Torma in Russia. When the Torma family immigrated to America, an official on Ellis Island spelled the name Torme, and it was pronounced with a long "e" at the end until Tormé (or his mother, he wasn't sure) added an acute accent and began pronouncing it with a long "a". When he was born, his father owned a dry goods store, but both parents were musical: his father sang, and his mother played the piano. Tormé himself revealed his musical talent at an amazingly young age. According to his mother, he sang his first complete song at ten months. By the age of four, he would sing along with music on the radio, showing enough interest in the Coon-Sanders Orchestra on their remote broadcast from the Blackhawk Hotel in Chicago that his parents took him to see the band one Monday night. That was the beginning of his career. Bandleaders Joe Sanders and Carlton Coon took notice of him and had him sing with the band as a novelty for nearly six months, followed by engagements with other bands. (Tormé remembered singing "You're Driving Me Crazy! [What Did I Do?]" with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra. If so, his debut must have occurred when he was five, because the song was not introduced until the fall of 1930.)
As a child, Tormé performed in local vaudeville troupes. He also took up the drums. In 1934, he won a competition at the Chicago World's Fair for potential child radio performers, and that led to a series of roles on radio dramas broadcast out of Chicago that lasted until his voice changed in his early teens. Meanwhile, he continued to sing and began writing his own songs. While attending Hyde Park High School, he played in bands with other students. In 1940, at the age of 15, he auditioned a song he had written, "Lament to Love," for bandleader Harry James, also playing drums at the audition. James initially invited him to join his band, but later decided he was too young. James did, however, record "Lament to Love" for Columbia Records, and it spent a week at number ten in the charts in August 1941. The success of the song led to a contact with bandleader Ben Pollack who, in 1942, was putting together a band to be fronted by comedian Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers at a time when many musicians were being drafted into the military to fight in World War II. Now, Tormé's age worked to his advantage. At 16, he was old enough to drop out of high school, but too young for military service, and in August 1942 he joined the band, leading its vocal group and later substituting as its drummer. (He went on to earn his diploma from Los Angeles High School in 1944, then spent a brief spell in the army before being discharged due to flat feet.) Two airchecks by this band, recorded December 20, 1942, constitute the earliest Tormé recordings. As issued initially on the four-LP box set The Marx Brothers (Murray Hill Records) and later reissued on the CD Big Bands of Hollywood: Desi Arnaz and Chico Marx (LaserLight Records), Tormé is heard singing the Irving Berlin song "Abraham" from the then-current movie Holiday Inn and playing a drum solo on "Pagliacci (Vesti la Giubba)."
While appearing with Chico Marx in New York, Tormé was auditioned by a movie scout for RKO Pictures, and when the band broke up in July 1943, he was cast in the movie musical Higher and Higher, which began shooting in August. Based on a Rodgers & Hart musical, but substituting a score by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson, the film is remembered as Frank Sinatra's first featured appearance on screen. The 17-year-old Tormé's role was much smaller, but he was heard singing on four songs when it opened in December. Meanwhile, on Pollack's advice, he had begun working with a vocal group out of Los Angeles City College called the Schoolkids. He became the featured singer and arranger for the group, which was renamed Mel Tormé & His Mel-Tones. He also got his only starring role in a feature film with the B-picture Pardon My Rhythm, released by Universal in May 1944, which featured his compositions "Munchies" (co-written by Irving Bibo) and "Drummer Boy." (The same month he had a small part in the film Ghost Catchers.)
Mel Tormé & His Mel-Tones made their recording debut with the single "White Christmas"/"Where or When" cut for tiny Jewel Records in 1944. They also began appearing on the radio, notably on the comedy series Niles and Prindle, which ran from January to June 1945. And they appeared in the Columbia film Let's Go Steady in March 1945, singing several of Tormé's compositions. (Tormé continued to work without them as well, appearing in the B-picture Junior Miss in June.) Contracted to major-label Decca Records, the group sang background vocals on two singles, Eugenie Baird's "I Fall in Love Too Easily," which charted in October, and Bing Crosby's "Day by Day," in the charts in March 1946. They then moved to the newly formed Musicraft label, and their featured vocals on the Irving Berlin song "I Got the Sun in the Morning" from the new musical Annie Get Your Gun, as recorded by Artie Shaw & His Orchestra, gave them a chart entry in July. In the meantime, Tormé continued to make small or even cameo appearances in films, turning up in Warner Bros.' Janie Gets Married in June and the Cole Porter bio-pic Night and Day in July.
Tormé & the Mel-Tones released more records on Musicraft, including "It's Dreamtime," which became their only chart entry in May 1947, but by November 1946, Tormé had acceded to his manager Carlos Gastel's plan to launch a solo career. (He continued to do occasional work with the Mel-Tones for many years, however.) Gastel also managed Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole. It was Cole's group, the King Cole Trio, that made the first recording of "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)," which Tormé had written with his songwriting partner Robert Wells. Usually identified by its opening line, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," "The Christmas Song" peaked at number three for the trio in late December 1946, which was only the beginning of its success. Half a century later, Tormé estimated that there had been 1,700 recordings of it.
The solo career of the 21-year-old Mel Tormé was launched formally with his first nightclub engagement at the Bocage in Los Angeles in early 1947, the start of nearly 50 years of regular work for him. Gastel arranged a movie contract with MGM, and in February, Tormé began shooting a supporting role in Good News, based on the 1930 Henderson-DeSylva-Brown musical. He left before filming was completed to accept an offer to make his New York club debut at the Copacabana in May, then stayed on the East Coast when he was offered a 15-minute radio series, The Mel Tormé Show, on NBC. Back in Los Angeles later in 1947, he composed the title song for the RKO film Magic Town, released in August, and cut a series of sessions as radio transcriptions for the MacGregor company later released on two LPs in the late '70s by Glendale Records (Mel Tormé and Easy to Remember). He also continued to record for Musicraft through November.
Good News opened in December 1947, and Tormé was next given a part in the Rodgers & Hart bio-pic Words and Music, singing "Blue Moon." In the summer of 1948, NBC revived The Mel Tormé Show as a half-hour situation comedy with music originating out of Los Angeles. (Recordings from this show, featuring the Mel-Tones and made between July and October, were issued later on LP on Sounds Great Records in the '80s as Mel Tormé Live, Vol. 1 and Mel Tormé Live, Vol. 2.) Tormé also got another movie songwriting assignment; he and Wells wrote "The County Fair," for the Walt Disney Pictures animated film So Dear to My Heart, which, like Words and Music, was released in December 1948. (As Tormé began to tour more in the late '40s, his partnership with Wells was amicably dissolved.) Gastel arranged for Tormé to be signed to Capitol Records, the home of his clients Cole and Lee, and Tormé's second session for the label in January 1949 included "Careless Hands," which became a number one hit in April. He followed it with a double-sided hit, "Again," which reached number three, and "Blue Moon," which got to number 20. "The Four Winds and the Seven Seas," cut in May, peaked at number ten in July; "The Old Master Painter," a duet with Peggy Lee, got to number nine in January 1950; and the Rodgers & Hart song "Bewitched" (aka "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered") hit number eight in July 1950. But while Tormé's work as a recording artist was at its commercial apex, his film career slipped away. Cast in MGM's The Duchess of Idaho with Esther Williams, he found when it was released in June 1950 that his role had been trimmed to a handful of lines of dialogue, his one song left on the cutting-room floor. (It later turned up on the Rhino album At the Movies.)
In addition to his successful singles, Tormé conceived an ambitious musical work that was his answer to Gordon Jenkins' tone poem Manhattan Tower Suite. California Suite, with the Mel-Tones and an orchestra conducted by Jud Conlon (plus Peggy Lee performing under a pseudonym), was recorded in November 1949 and issued as Tormé's (and Capitol's) first LP in 1950. In the summer of 1951, Tormé was hired along with Peggy Lee as a host of the 15-minute, three-times-a-week CBS television series TV's Top Tunes, a summer replacement for The Perry Como Show. That fall, CBS launched The Mel Tormé Show, a half-hour weekday afternoon talk show that ran through the summer of 1952. He returned to prime-time TV in the summer of 1953 as co-host of another music series, Summertime U.S.A., with Teresa Brewer.
Tormé had scored his last chart entry for ten years with "Anywhere I Wander" in November 1952. It came from his final session for Capitol, after which he was without a label affiliation for a year before signing to the Coral Records subsidiary of Decca Records, for which he began to record in October 1953. Several singles sessions followed over the next year, and on December 15, 1954, Coral recorded a performance at the Crescendo Club in Los Angeles that resulted in the 1955 LP Gene Norman Presents Mel Tormé "Live" at the Crescendo, the first of many Tormé live albums. The release came close to the end of Tormé's association with Coral; the label later gathered together some of his singles and other stray tracks for the 1956 collection Musical Sounds Are the Best Songs. The singer, meanwhile, moved to the small jazz label Bethlehem Records, starting with a ballad LP, It's a Blue World, recorded in August 1955. This was followed by the first of many recordings made in association with pianist/arranger Marty Paich, Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-Tette, recorded in January 1956, and by a studio-cast recording of Porgy and Bess in which Tormé sang the part of Porgy to Frances Faye's Bess, recorded in May.
Tormé had begun to expand his touring territory overseas, appearing in Australia in the fall of 1955, and in the spring of 1956, the Rodgers & Hart song "Mountain Greenery," excerpted from the Coral live album, was released as a single in the U.K., reaching the Top Ten in July, in time for the singer's first visit to Europe. Back in Los Angeles in November, he cut the LP Mel Tormé Sings Fred Astaire with Marty Paich and, on February 22, 1957, returned to the Crescendo Club for another live album, confusingly titled Gene Norman Presents Mel Tormé at the Crescendo. The following month, Bethlehem added to the confusion in the record racks by having Tormé recut California Suite. In its defense, the label was in trouble financially; after one more Tormé LP, Songs for Any Taste (actually consisting of leftover tracks from the Crescendo date), Bethlehem went out of business. Back in the U.K. in the summer of 1957, Tormé cut an album on Philips Records for his English fans, Tormé Meets the British. In the U.S. in November, he contracted to the tiny Tops label for Prelude to a Kiss, an album subsequently reissued over and over under various titles.
On February 14, 1957, Tormé had taken a non-singing acting role in the television drama The Comedian, broadcast live on the prestigious Playhouse 90 series. The appearance reawakened his film career, and he made a series of appearances as a straight actor in usually low-budget films: The Fearmakers (1958), The Big Operator (1959), Girls Town (1959), Walk Like a Dragon (1960) (for which he wrote the title song), and The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1961). His recording career picked up in 1958, when he was signed to impresario Norman Granz's jazz-oriented Verve Records, the same label on which such peers as Ella Fitzgerald recorded. The result was eight albums over the next four years: Tormé; Olé Tormé: Mel Tormé Goes South of the Border With Billy May; Back in Town (with the Mel-Tones); Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley; Swingin' on the Moon; Broadway, Right Now! (with Margaret Whiting); I Dig the Duke! I Dig the Count!; and My Kind of Music. The albums were well received, especially by the jazz community, without being big sellers. But by the early '60s, Verve was the subsidiary of a large record company, no longer an independent jazz label, and Tormé accepted an offer from what he thought would be the more sympathetic Ertegun brothers, Ahmet and Nesuhi, and their Atlantic Records label.
Unfortunately, Atlantic wanted Tormé to make more pop-oriented music. His initial effort for them, the live album Mel Tormé at the Red Hill, cut in March 1962, was what he had in mind, but Atlantic got what it wanted with the bluesy single "Comin' Home Baby," cut in September 1962, which gave Tormé a Top 40 hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and earned him his first two Grammy nominations (Best Solo Performance, Male, and Best Rhythm & Blues Recording), but which he did not care for. Atlantic rushed out a Comin' Home Baby! LP, but it did not chart.
In the spring of 1963, Tormé accepted an offer to serve as musical advisor for the upcoming television series The Judy Garland Show. He wrote arrangements and special material for the musical variety program, which broadcast 26 hour-long episodes beginning on Sunday night, September 29, 1963, and ending on March 29, 1964, when it was canceled. He later recounted his experiences on the show in his first book, The Other Side of the Rainbow, published in 1970. He took time out from the job in November 1963 to record the title song for the film Sunday in New York, which played under the credits when the picture was released the following month. Also in December he recorded an accompanying Atlantic LP, Mel Tormé Sings Sunday in New York & Other Songs About New York, marking the end of his association with the label.
Finished with The Judy Garland Show in the winter of 1964, Tormé returned to his main occupation, live performing. He signed to Columbia Records, for which he made a few singles during the year. And he took time out to play himself in the film The Patsy, released during the summer. He cut his first Columbia LP, That's All, in sessions conducted in December 1964 and March 1965. Unfortunately, he enjoyed his stay at Columbia even less than he had his time on Atlantic, especially as the label began pressuring him to record contemporary pop/rock songs. His 1966 sessions for the LP Right Now! included recent hits like "Homeward Bound," "Red Rubber Ball," and "Secret Agent Man," not his sort of thing at all. "Lover's Roulette" gave him a Top Ten hit on the Easy Listening chart in the summer of 1967, but it came from his next-to-last session for Columbia; by the end of the year he was off the label.
Tormé had appeared in another film, A Man Called Adam, in the summer of 1966, again playing himself, and cut the song "All That Jazz" (not to be confused with the song of the same title from the 1975 musical Chicago) for the soundtrack LP released on Reprise Records. He next began creating television roles for himself, writing an episode of the series Run for Your Life and guest-starring in it, then adapting Dollarhide, a Western novel he had written under a pseudonym in the '50s, into an episode of The Virginian and appearing on the show. He had, however, largely given up on his recordings, at least as a venue for work he liked, agreeing to record contracts as a necessary evil to help promote his live performances. Moving to Liberty Records in early 1968, he cut the LP A Day in the Life of Bonnie and Clyde, having composed the title song, the rest of the selections dating from the 1920s and '30s. In 1969, he was surprised to find himself back on Capitol Records, but dutifully cut what he called two "wonderfully forgettable" albums for the label, A Time for Us and Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head. After this he disappeared from the record shelves for several years, while continuing to perform regularly.
In May 1971, Tormé served as the host for an ABC documentary TV series, It Was a Very Good Year, each episode chronicling a year between 1919 and 1964. The series ran through the end of August. He returned to television in an acting role with his starring performance in the TV movie Snowman in 1974. He would continue to make occasional appearances in acting and singing roles on TV for the rest of his career. In September 1974, while appearing at the Maisonette Room in the St. Regis Hotel in New York with Al Porcino & His Orchestra, Tormé recorded a live album that was picked up by Atlantic Records and released as Live at the Maisonette in 1975. He claimed never to have seen any money from the LP, but it brought him his third Grammy nomination, not as a singer, but for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) for his "Gershwin Medley." In 1976, he finally signed a new record contract with Gryphon Records, recording the LP Tormé! A New Album in London in June 1977. It was followed by the January 1978 sessions for Together Again: For the First Time, on which he was co-billed with his longtime friend, drummer and bandleader Buddy Rich, actually released prior to Tormé! A New Album. The Rich LP earned Tormé his fourth Grammy nomination, in the Best Jazz Vocal Performance category in 1978 (the category had been created only two years earlier), while Tormé! A New Album brought him his fifth in the same category in 1979. Tormé took a breather from singing to finish writing and publish his second novel (this time under his real name), Wynner, in 1979. There was a sixth Grammy nomination, again for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, for his next LP, Mel Tormé and Friends Recorded Live at Marty's New York City, which was released on Finesse Records in 1981 and reached number 44 in the Billboard jazz chart. Encore at Marty's followed in 1982 on Flair Records.
By the early '80s, with traditional pop music beginning to come back into vogue, Tormé had weathered a long drought and was becoming appreciated as a jazz singer, performing regularly at jazz festivals, in prestigious concert halls, and with symphony orchestras, along with yearly engagements at top clubs in major cities around the world. In April 1982, he appeared with jazz pianist George Shearing at the Peacock Court of the Hotel Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, their show recorded for the album An Evening With George Shearing & Mel Tormé, released by the jazz-oriented West Coast label Concord Records. Reaching number 34 in the jazz chart, it marked the beginning of felicitous and prolific associations with both Shearing and Concord. Tormé was nominated for his seventh Grammy, as usual for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, for 1982, and though he protested that Shearing deserved equal recognition, he won his first Grammy at the ceremony held in February 1983. The following month, he re-teamed with Shearing for the studio album Top Drawer, the title track of which won him a second Grammy Award in February 1984. Another live album with Shearing, An Evening at Charlie's, cut in Washington, D.C., in October 1983 and released in 1984, produced his ninth Grammy nomination, and another studio set with Shearing, An Elegant Evening, recorded in May 1985, brought a tenth nomination for 1986.
In May 1986, Tormé interrupted his string of duet albums with Shearing but maintained his association with Concord, recording Mel Tormé With Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass; it hit number 11 in the jazz chart. The Shearing pairing was resumed in August 1987 with a session for the album A Vintage Year, which earned Tormé his 11th Grammy nomination for 1988 and reached number 13 in the jazz chart. He renewed an older association in August 1988, cutting the LP Reunion with Marty Paich and a reconstituted Dek-tette. The reunion continued in Japan in December, producing the 1989 album In Concert Tokyo. Also in 1988, Tormé published his autobiography, It Wasn't All Velvet. A Tormé performance at the Concord Jazz Festival in August 1990 resulted in his next album, Night at the Concord Pavilion, and the following month the singer and Shearing got back together in the studio for a collection of 1940s songs, Mel and George "Do" World War II, that led to Tormé's 12th Grammy nomination. Two months after that, he was captured live in Japan for the album Fujitsu-Concord Jazz Festival '90. He continued his busy recording schedule in March 1991, cutting a duet album with Cleo Laine, Nothing Without You; it reached number eight in the jazz chart. The year also brought the publication of his long-promised biography of his friend Buddy Rich, Traps, The Drum Wonder.
In 1992, Tormé interrupted his run with Concord to cut a holiday collection, Christmas Songs, for Telarc Records. Amazingly, it brought him his first-ever chart placing in the listings for pop albums that December. Also for Telarc, he cut the live album The Great American Songbook in October 1992. But he returned to Concord only a month later for Sing Sing Sing, recorded with an all-star quintet back at the Fujitsu-Concord Jazz Festival in Tokyo. That made for enough recordings for a while, and he stuck to live performances and finishing his sixth book, My Singing Teachers (published in 1994), until May 1994, when he cut the studio album A Tribute to Bing Crosby; it hit number 18 in the jazz chart. A year later, he reunited with Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass for Velvet & Brass, which reached number eight in the jazz chart.
With Tormé's assistance, Rhino Records mounted the first comprehensive box set of his recordings, The Mel Tormé Collection 1944-1985, in 1996, and in July he recorded the live album An Evening With Mel Tormé for the A&E network; it reached number 25 in the jazz chart. The following month, on August 8, he suffered a stroke. While he had recovered sufficiently by November to be released from the hospital, he faced continuing medical challenges for the next three years and never returned to performing. A&E Biography, a compilation, was released by Capitol in June 1998 and hit number five in the jazz chart. In February 1999, Tormé was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He died at 73 on June 5, 1999.
While Tormé disavowed some of his recordings in his autobiography, particularly the ones made with pop intentions in the 1960s, his more jazz-styled sides for Musicraft in the '40s, Bethlehem in the '50s, and Concord in the '80s and '90s seem to have met his high standards, as well as those of critics and fans. Indeed, even the '60s recordings have found their adherents as they have been reissued and heard more widely. In truth, Tormé brought his considerable skills to any material he tackled, and his large body of recordings fully justifies the assessment of him as a major jazz singer of the post-World War II era.
William Ruhlmann, Rovi