About the artist
David Jeffries, Rovi
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The son of a fireman, Sinatra dropped out of high school in his senior year to pursue a career in music. In September 1935, he appeared as part of the vocal group the Hoboken Four on Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour. The group won the radio show contest and toured with Bowes. Sinatra then took a job as a singing waiter and MC at the Rustic Cabin in Englewood, NJ. He was still singing there in the spring of 1939, when he was heard over the radio by trumpeter Harry James, who had recently organized his own big band after leaving Benny Goodman. James hired Sinatra, and the new singer made his first recordings on July 13, 1939. At the end of the year, Sinatra accepted an offer from the far more successful bandleader Tommy Dorsey, jumping to his new berth in January 1940. Over the next two and a half years, he was featured on 16 Top Ten hits recorded by Dorsey, among them the chart-topper "I'll Never Smile Again," later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. During this period, he also performed on various radio shows with Dorsey and appeared with the band in the films Las Vegas Nights (1941) and Ship Ahoy (1942).
In January 1942, he tested the waters for a solo career by recording a four-song session arranged and conducted by Axel Stordahl that included Cole Porter's "Night and Day," which became his first chart entry under his own name in March 1942. Soon after, he gave Dorsey notice. Sinatra left the Dorsey band in September 1942. The recording ban called by the American Federation of Musicians, which had begun the previous month, initially prevented him from making records, but he appeared on a 15-minute radio series, Songs By Sinatra, from October through the end of the year and also did a few live dates. His big breakthrough came due to his engagement as a support act to Benny Goodman at the Paramount Theatre in New York, which began on New Year's Eve. It made him a popular phenomenon, the first real teen idol, with school girls swooning in the aisles. RCA Victor, which had been doling out stockpiled Dorsey recordings during the strike, scored with "There Are Such Things," which had a Sinatra vocal; it hit number one in January 1943, as did "In the Blue of the Evening," another Dorsey record featuring Sinatra, in August, while a third Dorsey/Sinatra release, "It's Always You," hit the Top Five later in the year, and a fourth, "I'll Be Seeing You," reached the Top Ten in 1944. Columbia, which controlled the Harry James recordings, reissued the four-year-old "All or Nothing at All," re-billed as being by Frank Sinatra with Harry James & His Orchestra, and it hit number one in September. Meanwhile, the label had signed Sinatra as a solo artist, and in a temporary loophole to the recording ban, put him in the studio to record a cappella, backed only by a vocal chorus. This resulted in four Top Ten hits in 1943, among them "People Will Say We're in Love" from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's musical Oklahoma!, and a fifth in early 1944 ("I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night") before protests from the musicians union ended a cappella recording.
In February 1943, Sinatra was hired by the popular radio series Your Hit Parade, on which he performed through the end of 1944. Adding to his radio duties, he appeared from June through October on Broadway Bandbox and in the fall again took up the Songs by Sinatra show, which ran through December. In January, it was expanded to a half-hour as The Frank Sinatra Show, which ran for a year and a half. In April 1943, he made his first credited appearance in a motion picture, singing "Night and Day" in Reveille with Beverly. This was followed by Higher and Higher, released in December, in which he had a small acting role, playing himself, and by Step Lively, released in July 1944, which gave him a larger part. MGM was sufficiently impressed by these performances to put him under contract. The recording ban was lifted in November 1944, and Sinatra returned to making records, beginning with a cover of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" that was in the Top Ten before the end of the year. Among his eight recordings to peak in the Top Ten in 1945 were Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn's "Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week)," Johnny Mercer's "Dream," Styne and Cahn's "I Should Care," and "If I Loved You" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel. Sinatra insisted that Styne and Cahn be hired to write the songs for his first MGM musical, Anchors Aweigh, and over the course of his career, the singer recorded more songs by Cahn (a lyricist who worked with several composers) than by any other songwriter. Anchors Aweigh, in which Sinatra was paired with Gene Kelly, was released in July 1945 and went on to become the most successful film of the year.
Sinatra returned to radio in September with a new show bearing an old name, Songs by Sinatra. It ran weekly for the next two seasons, concluding in June 1947. Among his eight Top Ten hits in 1946 were two that hit number one ("Oh! What It Seemed to Be" and Styne and Cahn's "Five Minutes More"), as well as "They Say It's Wonderful" and "The Girl That I Marry" from Irving Berlin's musical Annie Get Your Gun, Jerome Kern's "All Through the Day," and Kurt Weill's "September Song." He also topped the album charts with the collection The Voice of Frank Sinatra. His only film appearance for the year came in Till the Clouds Roll By, a biography of the recently deceased Kern, in which he sang "Ol' Man River."
By 1947, Sinatra's early success had crested, though he continued to work steadily in several media. On radio, he returned to the cast of Your Hit Parade in September 1947, appearing on the series for the next two seasons, then had his own 15-minute show, Light-Up Time, during 1949-1950. On film, he appeared in five more movies through the end of the decade, including both big-budget MGM musicals like On the Town and minor efforts such as The Kissing Bandit. He scored eight Top Ten hits in 1947-1949, including "Mam'selle," which hit number one in May 1947, and "Some Enchanted Evening," from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific. He also hit the Top Ten of the album charts with 1947's Songs by Sinatra and 1948's Christmas Songs by Sinatra. Sinatra's career was in decline by the start of the '50s, but he was far from inactive. He entered the fall of 1950 with both a new radio show and his first venture into television. On radio, there was Meet Frank Sinatra, which found the singer acting as a disc jockey; it ran through the end of the season. On TV, there was The Frank Sinatra Show, a musical-variety series; it lasted until April 1952. His film work had nearly subsided, though in March 1952 came the drama Meet Danny Wilson, which tested his acting abilities and gave him the opportunity to sing such songs as Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "That Old Black Magic," "I've Got a Crush on You" by George and Ira Gershwin, and "How Deep Is the Ocean?" by Irving Berlin.
At Columbia Records, Sinatra came into increasing conflict with musical director Mitch Miller, who was finding success for his singers by using novelty material and gimmicky arrangements. Sinatra resisted this approach, and though he managed to score four more Top Ten hits during 1950-1951 -- among them an unlikely reading of the folk standard "Goodnight Irene" -- he and Columbia parted ways. Thus, ten years after launching his solo career, he ended 1952 without a record, film, radio, or television contract. Then he turned it all around. The first step was recording. Sinatra agreed to a long-term, boilerplate contract with Capitol Records, which had been co-founded by Johnny Mercer a decade earlier and had a roster full of faded '40s performers. In June 1953, he scored his first Top Ten hit in a year and a half with "I'm Walking Behind You." Then in August, he returned to film, playing a non-singing, featured role in the World War II drama From Here to Eternity, a performance that earned respect for his acting abilities, to the extent that he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the part on March 25, 1954. In the fall of 1953, Sinatra began two new radio series: Rocky Fortune, a drama on which he played a detective, ran from October to March 1954; and The Frank Sinatra Show was a 15-minute, twice-a-week music series that ran for two seasons, concluding in July 1955.
Meanwhile, Sinatra had begun working with arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle, a pairing that produced notable chart entries in February 1954 on both the singles and albums charts. "Young-at-Heart," which just missed hitting number one, was the singer's biggest single since 1947, and the song went on to become a standard. (The title was used for a 1955 movie in which Sinatra starred.) Then there was the 10" LP Songs for Young Lovers, the first of Sinatra's "concept" albums, on which he and Riddle revisited classic songs by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and Rodgers and Hart in contemporary arrangements with vocal interpretations that conveyed the wit and grace of the lyrics. The album lodged in the Top Five. In July, Sinatra had another Top Ten single with Styne and Cahn's "Three Coins in the Fountain," and in September Swing Easy! matched the success of its predecessor on the LP chart. By the middle of the '50s, Sinatra had reclaimed his place as a star singer and actor; in fact, he had taken a more prominent place than he had had in the heady days of the mid-'40s. In 1955, he hit number one with the single "Learnin' the Blues" and the 12" LP In the Wee Small Hours, a ballad collection later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
On September 15, 1955, he appeared in a television production of Our Town and sang "Love and Marriage" (specially written by Sammy Cahn and his new partner James Van Heusen), which became a Top Five hit. Early in 1956, he was back in the Top Ten with Cahn and Van Heusen's "(Love Is) The Tender Trap," the theme song from his new film, The Tender Trap. As part of his thematic concepts for his albums of the '50s, Sinatra alternated between records devoted to slow arrangements (In the Wee Small Hours) and those given over to dance charts (Swing Easy). By the late winter of 1956, the schedule called for another dance album, and Songs for Swingin' Lovers!, released in March, filled the bill, stopping just short of number one and going gold. The rise of rock & roll and Elvis Presley began to make the singles charts the almost-exclusive province of teen idols, but Sinatra's "Hey! Jealous Lover" (by Sammy Cahn, Kay Twomey, and Bee Walker), released in October, gave him another Top Five hit in 1957. Meanwhile, he ruled the LP charts. The Capitol singles compilation This Is Sinatra!, released in November, hit the Top Ten and went gold.
Sinatra began 1957 by releasing Close to You, a ballad album with accompaniment by a string quartet, in February. It hit the Top Five, followed in May by A Swingin' Affair!, which went to number one, and another ballad album, Where Are You?, a Top Five hit after release in September. He was also represented in the LP charts in November by the soundtrack to his film Pal Joey (based on a Rodgers & Hart musical), which hit the Top Five, and by the seasonal collection A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra, which eventually was certified platinum. The Joker Is Wild, another of his 1957 films, featured the Cahn-Van Heusen song "All the Way," which became a Top Five single. In October, he returned to prime time television with another series called The Frank Sinatra Show, but it lasted only one season, and subsequently he restricted his TV appearances largely to specials (of which he made many).
In February 1958, Sinatra reached the Top Ten with "Witchcraft," his last single to perform that well for the next eight years. That month, Capitol released Come Fly with Me, a travel-themed rhythm album, which hit number one. The year's ballad album, Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, released in September, also topped the charts, and it went gold. In between, Capitol released the compilation This Is Sinatra, Vol. 2, which hit the Top Ten. 1959 followed a similar pattern. Come Dance with Me! appeared in January and became a gold-selling Top Ten hit. It also won Sinatra Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and for vocal performance. Look to Your Heart, a compilation, was released in the spring and reached the Top Ten. And No One Cares, the year's ballad collection, appeared in the summer and just missed topping the charts.
Sinatra gradually did less singing in his movies of the '50s, but in March 1960, he appeared in a movie version of Cole Porter's musical Can-Can, and the resulting soundtrack album hit the Top Ten. Meanwhile, Sinatra was beginning to think about the approaching end of his Capitol Records contract and to enter the studio less frequently for the company. His next regular album was a year in coming, and when it did, Nice 'n' Easy was a mid-tempo collection, breaking his pattern of alternating fast and slow albums. The wait may have caused pent-up demand; the album spent many weeks at number one and went gold. Although Sinatra had not yet completed his recording commitment to Capitol, he began in December 1960 to make recordings for his own label, which he called Reprise Records. As a result, record stores were deluged with five new Sinatra albums in 1961: in January, Capitol had Sinatra's Swingin' Session!!!; in April, Reprise was launched with the release of Ring-a-Ding Ding!; in July, Reprise followed with Sinatra Swings the same week that Capitol released Come Swing with Me!; and in October, Reprise had I Remember Tommy..., an album of songs Sinatra had sung with the Tommy Dorsey band. There was also the March compilation All the Way on Capitol, making for six releases in one year. Remarkably, they all reached the Top Ten.
Meanwhile, Reprise's first single, "The Second Time Around," a song written by Cahn and Van Heusen for Bing Crosby, won Sinatra the Grammy for Record of the Year. By 1962, the market was glutted. Capitol released its last new Sinatra album, Point of No Return, as well as a compilation, and Reprise put out three new LPs, but only Reprise's Sinatra & Strings reached the Top Ten. In 1963, however, all three Reprise releases, Sinatra-Basie, The Concert Sinatra, and the gold-selling Sinatra's Sinatra, made the Top Ten. The onset of the Beatles in 1964 began to do to the LP charts what Elvis Presley had done to the singles charts in 1956, but Sinatra continued to reach the Top Ten with his albums of the mid-'60s, albeit not as consistently. Days of Wine and Roses, Moon River, and Other Academy Award Winners hit that ranking in May 1964, as did Sinatra '65 in August 1965. That same month, Sinatra mounted a commercial comeback by emphasizing his own advancing age. Nearing 50, he released September of My Years, a ballad collection keyed to the passage of time. After "It Was a Very Good Year" was drawn from the album as a single and rose into the Top 40, the LP took off for the Top Five and went gold. It was named 1965 Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, and Sinatra also picked up a trophy for best vocal performance for "It Was a Very Good Year."
In November 1965, Sinatra starred in a retrospective TV special, A Man and His Music, and released a corresponding double-LP, which reached the Top Ten and went gold. It won the 1966 Grammy for Album of the Year. Sinatra returned to number one on the singles charts for the first time in 11 years with the million-selling "Strangers in the Night" in July 1966; the song won him Grammys for Record of the Year and best vocal performance. A follow-up album named after the single topped the LP charts and went platinum. Before the end of the year, Sinatra had released two more Top Ten, gold-selling albums, Sinatra at the Sands and That's Life, the latter anchored by the title song, a Top Five single. In April 1967, Sinatra was back at number one on the singles charts with the million-selling "Somethin' Stupid," a duet with his daughter Nancy. By the late '60s, even Sinatra had trouble resisting the succeeding waves of youth-oriented rock music that topped the charts. But Frank Sinatra's Greatest Hits!, a compilation of his '60s singles successes released in August 1968, was a million-seller, and Cycles, an album of songs by contemporary writers like Joni Mitchell and Jimmy Webb, released that fall, went gold.
In March 1969, Sinatra released "My Way," with a lyric specially crafted for him by Paul Anka. It quickly became a signature song for him. The single reached the Top 40, and an album of the same name hit the Top Ten and went gold. In the spring of 1971, at the age of 55, Sinatra announced his retirement. But he remained retired only until the fall of 1973, when he returned to action with a new gold-selling album and a TV special both called Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back. In this late phase of his career, Sinatra cut back on records, movies, and television in favor of live performing, particularly in Las Vegas, but also in concert halls, arenas, and stadiums around the world. He refrained from making any new studio albums for six years, then returned in March 1980 with a three-LP set, Trilogy: Past, Present, Future. The most memorable track from the gold-selling set turned out to be "Theme From New York, New York," the title song from the 1977 movie, which Sinatra's recording belatedly turned into a standard.
By the early '90s, the CD era had inaugurated a wave of box set reissues, and the 1990 Christmas season found Capitol and Reprise marking Sinatra's 75th birthday by competing with the three-disc The Capitol Years and the four-disc The Reprise Collection. Both went gold, as did Reprise's one-disc highlights version, Sinatra Reprise -- The Very Good Years. Sinatra himself, meanwhile, while continuing to tour, had not made a new recording since his 1984 LP L.A. Is My Lady. In 1993, he re-signed to Capitol Records and recorded Duets, on which he re-recorded his old favorites, joined by other popular singers ranging from Tony Bennett to Bono of U2 (none of whom actually performed in the studio with him). It became his biggest-selling album, with sales over 3,000,000 copies, and was followed in 1994 by Duets II, which won the 1995 Grammy Award for Traditional Pop Performance.
Sinatra finally retired from performing in his 80th year in 1995, and he died of a heart attack less than three years later. Anyone will be astonished at the sheer extent of Sinatra's success as a recording artist over 50 years, due to the changes in popular taste during that period. His popularity as a singer and his productivity has resulted in an overwhelming discography. Its major portions break down into the Columbia years (1943-1952), the Capitol years (1953-1962), and the Reprise years (1960-1981), but airchecks, film and television soundtracks, and other miscellaneous recordings swell it massively. As a movie star and as a celebrity of mixed reputation, Sinatra is so much of a 20th century icon that it is easy to overlook his real musical talents, which are the actual source of his renown. As an artist, he worked to interpret America's greatest songs and to preserve them for later generations. On his recordings, his success is apparent.
In 1943, Davis joined the U.S. Army, where he endured a constant battle with racism; upon his return from duty, the group was renamed the Will Mastin Trio. Three years later they opened for Mickey Rooney, who encouraged Davis to begin including his many impersonations in the Trio's act; where previously they had exclusively performed music, the addition of comedy brought new life to the group, and by the beginning of the next decade, they were headlining venues including New York's Capitol club and Ciro's in Hollywood. In 1952, at the invitation of Sinatra, they also played the newly integrated Copacabana. In 1954, Davis signed to Decca, topping the charts with his debut LP, Starring Sammy Davis, Jr.; that same year he lost his left eye in a much-publicized auto accident, but upon returning to the stage in early 1955 was greeted with even greater enthusiasm than before on the strength of a series of hit singles including "Something's Gotta Give," "Love Me or Leave Me," and "That Old Black Magic." A year later, Davis made his Broadway debut in the musical "Mr. Wonderful", starring in the show for over 400 performances and launching a hit with the song "Too Close for Comfort."
In 1958, Davis resumed his film career after a quarter-century layoff with Anna Lucasta, followed a year later by his acclaimed turn in Porgy and Bess. Also in 1959 he became a charter member of the Rat Pack, a loose confederation of Sinatra associates (also including Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop) which began regularly performing together at the Sands casino in Las Vegas. In 1960, they made Ocean's Eleven, the first in a series of hip and highly self-referential Rat Pack films; although Davis' inclusion in the group was perceived in many quarters as an egalitarian move, many Black audiences felt he was simply a token -- the butt of subtly racist jokes -- and declared him a sell-out. His earlier conversion to Judaism had been met with considerable controversy within the African-American community as well; still, nothing compared to the public outcry over his 1960 marriage to Swedish actress May Britt, which even elicited death threats. Still, Davis remained a major star, appearing in the 1962 Rat Pack film Sergeants 3 and scoring a major hit with "What Kind of Fool Am I?" Two years later he returned to Broadway in the long-running "Golden Boy", scoring a Tony nomination for his performance.
In 1964, the third Rat Pack film, Robin and the Seven Hoods, was released; two years later, in the wake of the publication of his autobiography Yes I Can, Davis was also among a number of musical luminaries, including Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, who co-starred in the jazz drama A Man Called Adam. In 1968, he and Lawford teamed as Salt and Pepper; the picture was a hit, and a sequel, One More Time, appeared in 1970. In between the two, Davis delivered one of his most memorable screen performances in Bob Fosse's 1969 musical "Sweet Charity"; he also appeared in a number of television features, including The Pigeon, The Trackers, and Poor Devil. In 1972, Davis topped the pop charts with "The Candy Man," from the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; from 1975 to 1977, he hosted his own syndicated variety show, Sammy and Company, and in 1978, starred in the film Sammy Stops the World. However, in the late '70s and through much of the '80s, Davis' profile diminished, and he was primarily confined to the casino circuit, with a 1988 comeback tour he mounted with Sinatra and Martin largely unsuccessful. His appearance in the 1989 film Tap was much acclaimed, but it was to be his last screen performance -- a lifelong smoker, Davis died of cancer on May 16, 1990.
The two Canadians began work on a major debut album that would incorporate Bublé's aptitude for pop standards into songs that spanned several decades. His self-titled debut disc was released in early 2003 and featured jazzy takes on old standards like "Fever" and "The Way You Look Tonight," as well as newer classics like Van Morrison's "Moondance" and the Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart." Further exposure ensued with a world tour and appearances on several television programs like NBC's "Today Show", in which he sang a duet with host Katie Couric. He finished off 2003 with an EP of holiday material, Let It Snow, and began 2004 with the live CD/DVD set Come Fly with Me. In 2005, It's Time was a number one hit in Canada, Japan, Italy, and Australia, and made the Top Ten of both the U.K. and U.S. charts. Later that year he released the live album Caught in the Act.
The holiday-themed album Christmas followed in 2006, with the studio effort Call Me Irresponsible dropping in 2007. Bublé returned in 2009 with the live concert album/DVD Michael Bublé Meets Madison Square Garden, which documented the singer's first-ever performance at the storied New York City venue. The studio effort Crazy Love, featuring duets with Sharon Jones and Ron Sexsmith, followed in October 2009. In 2010, Bublé returned with the six-song EP Special Delivery, as well as the expanded Crazy Love: Hollywood Edition. The holiday album Christmas appeared in late 2011, featuring duets with Shania Twain, the Puppini Sisters, and Thalía. Within a few weeks of release, the album topped "Billboard"'s Top 200. In 2013, Bublé released the Bob Rock-produced To Be Loved featuring duets with Reese Witherspoon and Bryan Adams.
Although Coward maintained the image of an upper-class sophisticate, his origins were relatively humble. He was born Noël Peirce Coward in Teddington, Middlesex, England, on December 16, 1899, the son of Arthur Sabin Coward, a salesman for a music publisher, and Violet Agnes (Veitch) Coward. In his childhood, he began displaying the talents he would show the world later on, learning to play the piano by ear (he never learned to read music), writing plays and staging them in a toy theater, and preparing for the life of a performer by taking dancing lessons at age ten. He made his professional debut as an actor at 11, appearing in the children's musical The Goldfish at the Little Theatre in London on January 27, 1911. It was the beginning of a lengthy career acting as a juvenile over the next several years, during which his formal education lapsed. (Again, even though Coward's image might have suggested private schooling and a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, in fact he had barely a grade-school education.) Starting with his appearance in the play The Great Name in September 1911, he came under the tutelage of the great actor/manager Charles Hawtrey, a model for the all-encompassing approach he would take to his stage projects as an adult. He debuted as a director by handling a single performance of a one-act play, The Daisy Chain, on February 2, 1912. His first play as an author to be produced was the one-act effort Ida Collaborates (written with Esmé Wynne), performed at the Theatre Royal, Aldershot, on August 20, 1917. He and Wynne also co-wrote Women and Whisky, another one-act, performed at the Wimbledon Theatre in November 1917.
Coward made his film debut as an extra in D.W. Griffith's Hearts of the World, which was released in April 1918. His theatrical debut as a lyricist came with the song "Peter Pan" (aka "The Story of Peter Pan"), for which Doris Joel composed the music and co-wrote the lyrics. It was sung by Phyllis Titmuss in the musical revue Tails Up, which opened in London on June 1, 1918. The song was published, and a recording was made by Louise Leigh. I'll Leave It to You, which opened in London's West End (the British equivalent of Broadway) on July 21, 1920, for a run of 37 performances, was the first play written solely by Coward to be produced; the 20-year-old author also appeared in it. Notwithstanding this career milestone, he continued to be employed primarily as an actor for the next two years, even as he wrote more plays. His next play to be produced was a one-act comedy, The Better Half, which opened May 31, 1922, and ran 29 performances; it was followed by the full-length comedy The Young Idea, which began in London on February 1, 1923, for a run of 60 performances with the playwright in the cast.
Coward had also continued to write songs, notably contributing to the musical revue The Co-Optimists (May 1922), and London Calling! (September 4, 1923) was the first musical revue for which he was credited as the primary songwriter (he wrote half of the 26 numbers); he also co-wrote the book of the show and appeared in it. Actress/singer Gertrude Lawrence, who was in the show, recorded his "Parisian Pierrot" and "Russian Blues" from the score. Coward later recorded both those songs and "Other Girls." The revue ran 316 performances, establishing him as a writer for the musical theater. Several of the songs were performed in New York in André Charlot's London Revue of 1924 (January 9, 1924), giving Coward his Broadway debut as a songwriter. "It's the Peach," written in 1916 and featured in the musical revue Yoicks! (June 11, 1924), actually had been the first song for which he wrote both words and music. It was later known as "Forbidden Fruit." Daniel Massey, playing Coward, sang it in the 1968 film Star!, the screen biography of Lawrence, and on the soundtrack album. Coward wrote yet more songs for Charlot's Revue (September 23, 1924), the London edition of the show that had run in New York.
The play that established Coward as a playwright and a director was The Vortex (December 16, 1924), a provocative drama treating issues of sex and drugs in which he also starred. It caused a sensation in London and ran 224 performances. The twin successes of London Calling! and The Vortex essentially opened the floodgates to the writing Coward had been doing in recent years, and 1925 saw productions of three of his straight plays -- Fallen Angels (April 21, 1925), Hay Fever (September 7, 1925), and Easy Virtue (on Broadway, December 7, 1925). (A new film version of Easy Virtue appeared in 2009.) Coward did not act in any of these, although he directed Hay Fever. Nor did he perform in his musical revue for the year, On with the Dance, which opened in London on April 20, 1925, for a run of 229 performances, although he did write the book as well as the songs. The hit of the show was "Poor Little Rich Girl." After it was interpolated into the Broadway production Charlot's Revue of 1926 (November 10, 1925), it was recorded by Gertrude Lawrence, who sang it on-stage in New York, and it became a hit in the U.S. in the spring of 1926. It was later recorded by Tony Bennett, Chris Connor, Judy Garland, Mary Cleere Haran, Marian McPartland, and Gerry Mulligan, among others. It was also recorded by Coward himself at one of two recording sessions he did for HMV Records in August 1925, although the results of the sessions were rejected by the label; the singer/songwriter would not commence his formal association with HMV (which lasted more than 20 years) until 1928. He had not given up acting, either. He made his Broadway debut as a performer in the New York production of The Vortex on September 16, 1925, and returned to the London stage in a play he did not write, The Constant Nymph, a year later, on September 14, 1926. The year 1926 also saw productions of two of his early plays in London -- The Queen Was in the Parlour (August 8, 1926) and The Rat Trap (October 18, 1926) -- as well as a new play, This Was a Man (November 23, 1926) on Broadway.
Even if some of this material had come out of his trunk, Coward was producing a prodigious amount of writing in the mid-'20s, and it was not surprising that he dropped out of The Constant Nymph after three weeks, said to be suffering from "severe nervous exhaustion," and set off on a globe-trotting vacation that took him as far as Hawaii. This set a pattern for the rest of his career, as he determined never to appear in one of his plays for more than three months in London and three months in New York at a time, and to take lengthy holidays in foreign climes (often writing more plays and songs along the way). He returned to London in 1927 with the plays The Marquise (February 16, 1927) and Home Chat (October 25, 1927), plus another early, previously unproduced play, Sirocco (November 24, 1927). Of these, only The Marquise was successful, which falsely suggested to critics, not for the last time, that he was washed up after only three years in the limelight. Instead, he returned to the stage as an actor in S.N. Behrman's The Second Man (January 24, 1928), which had a healthy run of over 100 performances, and mounted his third musical revue, This Year of Grace! (March 22, 1928), again writing both the book and the music. The score contained "A Room with a View," a U.S. hit for Ben Selvin that eventually was recorded by Hildegarde, Julie London, Russ Morgan, and Artie Shaw, among others, and "Dance, Little Lady," a U.S. hit for Roger Wolfe Kahn, which attracted covers by Ambrose and Hildegarde, among others. Coward himself also recorded them on April 25, 1928, at his first session to produce releasable records for HMV. Over the course of three trips to the recording studio that spring, he also cut "Mary Make-Believe," "Try to Learn to Love," and "Lorelei," all from This Year of Grace!, establishing a pattern of doing his own versions of songs from his shows that would continue even after the trend for "original cast" albums set in 15 years later. This Year of Grace! matched the run of London Calling! at 316 performances in London, and it did another 158 on Broadway (starting on November 7, 1928), where Coward appeared in it and added new songs including "World Weary," which he went on to record.
Each of Coward's three musicals had been revues, full of comic sketches and independent songs, but without a story; for his next musical venture, he increased his ambitions again, writing a "book" musical that he set, for once, partially in the 19th century and billed as an "operette." Of course, he also wrote the music, and he added the job of director to his duties. Having enough to do, he did not also appear in Bitter Sweet, which opened in London on July 12, 1929. It was positively received, its most memorable songs being "I'll See You Again" (a U.S. hit for Leo Reisman and eventually recorded by Rosemary Clooney, Bill Evans, Eddie Fisher, Dorothy Kirsten, Mario Lanza, Guy Lombardo, Sonny Rollins, Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Welk, Art Tatum, and Phil Woods, among others); "If Love Were All" (covered by Julie Andrews, Shirley Bassey, Sarah Brightman, Barbara Cook, Judy Garland, Mabel Mercer, Helen Merrill, Pet Shop Boys, and others); and "Zigeuner" (covered by Hildegarde, Tony Martin, Artie Shaw, Art Tatum, and others). The show ran 697 performances, making it the most successful musical of Coward's career. A Broadway production that opened on November 5, 1929, added another 159 performances. Coward celebrated by taking an extended trip through Asia in 1929-1930, during which he kept a promise to Gertrude Lawrence to write a stage vehicle for the two of them, coming up with the play Private Lives. It opened in London for a run of 101 performances on September 24, 1930, and, although it was not a musical, nine days earlier Coward and Lawrence had gone into the HMV studio to record scenes from it that featured both dialogue and music, including the song "Someday I'll Find You," which went on to become another Coward standard, recorded by Doris Day, Jackie Gleason, Hildegarde, Marian McPartland, Leo Reisman, Sonny Rollins, and Mel Tormé, among others. Coward and Lawrence moved to New York, where they opened on January 27, 1931, and the play ran for 256 performances there. Over the years, it became one of Coward's most successful works, continually revived.
While Coward worked on his next major stage work, he placed a few songs in musical revues in London and New York. Charles B. Cochran's 1931 Revue (London, March 19, 1931) used "Any Little Fish" and "Half-Caste Woman," both of which Coward had recorded on January 2, 1931, as well as other songs. The Third Little Show (New York, June 1, 1931) found Beatrice Lillie introducing a tune Coward had written in the Far East, "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," a witty patter song questioning why the English, while running their many colonies in the Tropics, never took an afternoon nap as the natives did. It became Coward's signature song and was recorded not only by him (in 1931), but also by Danny Kaye and Rudy Vallée, among others. The Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 (New York, July 1, 1931), meanwhile, featured Helen Morgan singing "Half-Caste Woman."
As writer/director, Coward had another ambitious idea for the stage, Cavalcade, a lengthy and lavishly mounted panorama of 30 years of British history (starting on New Year's Eve, 1899, two weeks after his own birth). Opening in London on October 13, 1931, for a run of 405 performances, it contained music, but most of it was period music not written by Coward. He did, however, record both orchestral and vocal medleys of that music released on two special 12" discs by HMV. And he did write a few songs, notably "Twentieth Century Blues," later recorded by Karen Akers, Marianne Faithfull, and Ray Noble (with Al Bowlly on vocals), among others. With the show successfully launched, he went off on another of his lengthy trips, this one taking in South America, and when he returned to London in the spring of 1932, it was with another musical revue and another play in mind. The musical revue had the generic name Words and Music, and it opened on September 16, 1932, written and directed by (but not featuring) Coward, for a run of 134 performances, which was successful given the depths of the Depression. It marked the London premiere of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," as well as another of Coward's most valuable copyrights, "Mad About the Boy," eventually recorded by Georgia Brown, Buddy DeFranco, Helen Forrest, Jackie Gleason, Gogi Grant, Lena Horne, Julie London, Marian McPartland, Anita O'Day, Patti Page, Elaine Paige, Tom Robinson, Cybill Shepherd, Dinah Shore, Jeri Southern, Maxine Sullivan, Dinah Washington, and Phil Woods. (Ray Noble had a U.S. hit with it in 1935.) "The Younger Generation" attracted covers by Noble and Django Reinhardt. Coward himself recorded "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" as well as "Let's Say Goodbye," "The Party's Over Now," and "Something to Do with Spring" from the score.
The play Coward had been working on was, again, a promised project, this time to give his friends, the married acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, something to do with him. This was Design for Living, a provocative examination of a ménage à trois that opened on Broadway on January 24, 1933; was written and directed by and co-starred Coward; and ran for 135 performances. On April 11, he belatedly held a recording session for songs from Bitter Sweet, accompanied by Leo Reisman & His Orchestra, also throwing in "Poor Little Rich Girl." The results appeared on a special 12" single called Noël Coward Sings, issued by RCA Victor in the U.S. Another vacation, in the West Indies and Central America, followed by a London revival of Hay Fever that Coward directed in the fall of 1933, led to his next new show, Conversation Piece, "a romantic comedy with music" (actually an operetta), which he wrote, directed, and starred in, and which opened in the West End on February 16, 1934, for a run of 177 performances. Among the musical numbers was "I'll Follow My Secret Heart," later recorded by Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Frank Sinatra, Elisabeth Welch, and Lee Wiley, among others. Coward also recorded it, along with his co-star, Yvonne Printemps, and Ray Noble had a U.S. hit with it after the American version of the show opened on October 10, 1934, for a run of 55 performances. (Coward directed, but did not appear in, this staging.)
Having formed his own production company, Coward devoted much of 1934 to directing the work of others for the firm, starting with S.N. Behrman's Biography, which opened in London on April 25, 1934, and continuing with George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's Theatre Royal, which opened on October 23, 1934. Six days later, he held an unusual recording session of songs of his own that were not associated with any show and songs by others, including "I Travel Alone," one of his most personal statements, "Most of Ev'ry Day," Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger's "Love in Bloom," and Sam Coslow's "Fare Thee Well." Meanwhile, he was preparing another play for the Lunts (but not himself, except as writer/director), Point Valaine, which opened on Broadway for an unsuccessful run of 55 performances on January 16, 1935. After the opening, he returned for the first time since 1917 to film acting, taking the starring role in the movie The Scoundrel. (Although he had not been involved personally, his shows had been used as the source material for a number of films, including The Queen Was in the Parlour , The Vortex , Easy Virtue  [all silent movies], Private Lives , Tonight Is Ours [based on The Queen Was in the Parlour] , Cavalcade , Bitter Sweet , and Design for Living .) The Scoundrel was well reviewed when it opened in May 1935, but Coward opted against devoting much of his time to the screen. On August 15, 1935, he recorded another of his independent compositions, not related to any show, and it was one of his funniest novelty songs, "Mrs. Worthington" (aka "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington"), a knowing condemnation of a stage mother.
Coward's next stage project as writer/director/star was another ambitious effort, Tonight at 8:30, also featuring Gertrude Lawrence, which consisted of nine one-act plays performed in repertory over the course of three nights. It opened in London on January 9, 1936, for a run of 157 performances. Several of the plays contained music, and he and Lawrence recorded musical excerpts for HMV. They took the plays to New York for an opening on November 24, 1936, and a run of 118 performances. Then Coward began work on another full-scale book musical as writer/director (but not star this time). Having described Bitter Sweet as an "operette," he decided to actually title this one Operette. A backstage musical, it opened in London on March 16, 1938, and ran 133 performances. Coward himself recorded several of the songs from it, among them "The Stately Homes of England," "Dearest Love," and "Where Are the Songs We Sung?" He next went back to Broadway, where he wrote and directed Set to Music (January 18, 1939; 129 performances), which was actually a revised version of Words and Music, but is notable for the introduction by Beatrice Lillie of "Marvellous Party" (aka "I Went to a Marvellous Party"), a typically witty song that would become a cornerstone of Coward's nightclub act.
Although Coward couldn't have realized it at the time, Set to Music marked the end of the initial phase of his career and his last legitimate stage work for some time. During the summer of 1939, he prepared two new plays, Present Laughter and This Happy Breed, intending to bring them into London together in the fall. But the beginning of World War II on September 3, 1939, led the British government to close down the theaters temporarily, and instead of doing theater work, Coward did war work, initially going to Paris to set up an office of government propaganda. He stayed there until April 1940, when he left to travel around the U.S., gauging American sentiment about the war. In the fall, he went to Australia, and he spent the next few months performing for troops and for fundraisers there and in New Zealand, returning to London in April 1941. He then went back to creative work, but with more of a war orientation. He wrote the patriotic song "London Pride," which he recorded for HMV in July; it was later recorded by Julie Andrews and Mel Tormé, among others. (The war also inspired him to write some more comic and satiric numbers, including "Could You Please Oblige Us with a Bren Gun?" and "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans.") Blithe Spirit, a comic play about ghosts, billed as "an improbable farce," which he wrote and directed, opened in London on July 2, 1941, and ran throughout the war, giving audience members respite from their concerns for 1,997 performances, the longest run of any show Coward ever wrote.
In the summer of 1941, Coward was asked to come up with an idea for a morale-building film, finding inspiration in the heroic efforts of the crew of the HMS Kelly, sunk off Crete, and its captain, his friend Lord Louis Mountbatten. The result was In Which We Serve, for which Coward provided the screenplay and the background score, which he co-directed with David Lean, and in which he starred as the ship's captain. The film was shot during the first half of 1942 and opened on September 17, 1942, earning Coward a special Academy Award for "outstanding production achievement." On September 20, 1942, he began touring around Britain in a revolving repertoire of Present Laughter, This Happy Breed, and Blithe Spirit, which he did for the next six months, finally bringing Present Laughter and This Happy Breed into London in April 1943. In July, he embarked upon a tour of the Middle East, entertaining troops and visiting hospitals, returning to London in October. At the start of 1944, he began another arduous tour through Africa and then on to India and Burma. Later in the year, after D-Day, he performed for troops in Europe and at the Stage Door Canteen in London.
In addition to In Which We Serve, Coward was represented in cinemas by an American remake of Bitter Sweet (1941) starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy; We Were Dancing (1942), based on one of the plays in Tonight at 8:30; This Happy Breed (1944), which Coward himself produced and adapted; Blithe Spirit (1945), which he adapted; and Brief Encounter (1945), based on another of the plays from Tonight at 8:30, which he produced and adapted. This was the kind of work he could do while devoting most of his time to traveling in war zones, but with the end of the war in 1945, he was able to return to working on a full-scale stage musical, and he wrote and directed a new revue, Sigh No More, which opened in London on August 22, 1945, for a run of 213 performances. The most popular songs to emerge from the show were the humorous tango "Nina" and the touching ballad "Matelot." He recorded them, along with "I Wonder What Happened to Him," "Never Again," "Wait a Bit, Joe," and the title song, on September 14, 1945.
Although the recording of original cast albums had become commonplace for successful Broadway shows by the mid-'40s, postwar privation prevented this in Great Britain so that, for example, the stars of Sigh No More, Joyce Grenfell and Graham Payn, only recorded singles of songs from the score. (Grenfell did "The End of the News" and Payn "Matelot" and "Sigh No More," for Decca Records.) Coward's next show, however, was a sufficiently big deal to get its own original cast album, the first for one of his musicals. This was Pacific 1860, which also served to reopen the massive Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (damaged by bombing during the war) and which featured the Broadway star Mary Martin. The music for the show, which opened on December 19, 1946, was preserved on six 78-rpm discs by Decca; Coward himself cut four of the songs, including the humorous "Uncle Harry" and the ballad "Bright Was the Day," for HMV, although he had restricted himself to writing and directing the production and did not appear in it. But despite all this recording activity, Pacific 1860 was actually a commercial failure, running only 129 performances.
After World War II, Coward began to find more success in repeating himself than he did in creating new work. For example, a London revival of Present Laughter (April 16, 1947), in which he starred for the first three months, was a hit, running 528 performances, while a new play, the drama Peace in Our Time (a fantasy about what would have happened if Germany had invaded England during World War II), which opened July 22, 1947, ran only 167 performances. In 1948, there were revivals of Tonight at 8:30 and Private Lives in the U.S., while Coward went to France to appear in a production of Present Laughter performed in French. During the year, he bought land in Jamaica, where he built an estate. He also wrote the screenplay for The Astonished Heart, based on another of the short plays in Tonight at 8:30; when the film was shot in 1949, he starred in it, and he wrote the musical score. It opened in February 1950.
In 1950, Coward wrote and directed his tenth musical, Ace of Clubs, a comic mystery set in a nightclub. A modest success running 211 performances, it opened in London on July 7, 1950. Coward recorded a few of its songs, notably "Sail Away," "Why Does Love Get in the Way," and "I Like America," and the cast recorded so-called "vocal gems" from the score, i.e., medleys of the songs released on two 12" 78s on HMV's Plum label. "Chase Me, Charlie" was covered by Mel Tormé, but the hit to emerge from the show was the lilting "Sail Away," which Coward reused as the title song for his 12th musical a decade later; it was recorded by Laurie Beechman, Judy Garland, and Pet Shop Boys, among others.
After Ace of Clubs, Coward began to pursue musical activities outside of the legitimate theater. Signing to the American Columbia Records label and simultaneously to Philips Records for Europe, he recorded a recitation of Ogden Nash's verse to Saint-Saëns' Carnaval des Animaux (Carnival of the Animals), as performed by an orchestra conducted by André Kostelanetz, for a 10" LP in September 1950. Coward teamed up with Kostelanetz's wife, the opera singer Lily Pons, in January 1951 for a double-LP studio cast recording of Conversation Piece, released by Columbia. And on October 29, 1951, he took a new step in his career by beginning a monthlong engagement in a nightclub, the Café de Paris in London, performing a set of his best-known songs. He returned for another month in June 1952.
Coward's new career as a cabaret entertainer seemed to rejuvenate other areas of his activities. His next play, Relative Values, a "light comedy" he wrote and directed that opened in London on November 28, 1951, was a hit, running 477 performances. Quadrille, another comedy starring the Lunts that he wrote and directed, ran 329 performances after opening in London on September 12, 1952. (In between, he contributed a couple of songs to The Globe Revue, one of which was the comic "There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner," which he used in his act and recorded. It was his last recording for HMV. In 1992, EMI, HMV's parent company, assembled the four-CD box set The Masters' Voice -- Noel Coward: His HMV Recordings 1928 to 1953, released on the Angel subsidiary.) The year 1952 also saw the filming of Meet Me Tonight, a film drawn from three more of the Tonight at 8:30 plays, for which Coward wrote the screenplay; it opened in May 1953.
Coward spent the Coronation Year of 1953 (marking the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II to the British throne) starring in George Bernard Shaw's play The Apple Cart, which opened in May and ran through August 1, while simultaneously appearing in a late-night set at the Café de Paris. He next wrote the book and music for a new musical, After the Ball, but did not direct it or appear in it. Also, unusual for Coward, the show was not based on an original idea of his, but was a musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan. Opening on June 10, 1954, it ran a modest 188 performances. An original cast album was recorded by Philips that was curiously incomplete because, due to contractual restrictions, Shamus Locke, who played Lord Darlington, could not perform on the disc, and the songs on which he was featured were simply cut. Coward himself did not record any of the songs, but he did record his first solo LP as a singer in July 1954, making the 10" disc I'll See You Again for Philips. (It was released in the U.K. in 1955.) Intended as a companion to his nightclub work, the album consisted of new versions of some of his better-known songs. Appropriately, he was back at the Café de Paris for a month starting on October 24, 1954.
For a number of years, Coward had largely restricted his activities to England, but in 1955 he shifted his focus to the U.S., surprisingly accepting an offer to appear at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas in an engagement beginning on June 7, 1955, and running through July 5. On June 27 and 28, Columbia recorded the shows, resulting in the live LP Noel Coward at Las Vegas, which was released at the end of the year and spent one week at number 14 in the Billboard album chart in January 1956. On August 30, 1955, he filmed a cameo appearance in the star-studded film Around the World in 80 Days, which was released in 1956. It was the first of a series of brief but lucrative appearances he would make in small character parts in major motion pictures over the next several years: Our Man in Havana (1960), Surprise Package (1960), Paris When it Sizzles (1964), Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), Boom (1968), and The Italian Job (1969). Back in 1955, his next project was a series of U.S. television specials, beginning with Together with Music, a 90-minute program in which he was paired with Mary Martin, performed live on October 22, 1955. (A promotional album was made of the show. It was released commercially as a two-LP set by DRG Records in 1978 and later reissued in abridged form as a single CD.) The other two specials were versions of Coward plays that he directed and starred in, Blithe Spirit on January 14, 1956, and This Happy Breed on May 5, 1956.
During 1956, Coward abandoned Great Britain for tax reasons, becoming a permanent resident of Bermuda. He bought a chalet in Les Avants, Switzerland, in 1959, and that became his primary residence as of 1964, although he continued to live much of the time in Jamaica. Meanwhile, he returned to playwriting with two of his works, both billed as light comedies, playing in London: South Sea Bubble (April 25, 1956) and Nude with Violin (November 7, 1956). The latter also had a production on Broadway that Coward directed and starred in, his final appearance as an actor in New York. It opened November 14, 1957, and ran 80 performances, followed by a West Coast tour in 1958, during which it alternated with Present Laughter. Prior to that, however, Coward also had been "in New York," as the title for a follow-up for Noel Coward at Las Vegas put it, recording the studio LP Noel Coward in New York in the fall of 1956 for release on Columbia in 1957. The same season, he and actress Margaret Leighton made spoken word recordings for Caedmon Records of scenes from his plays, plus the second act of The Apple Cart, in which they had appeared together in London in 1953. The first result was the LP Noël Coward & Margaret Leighton in Noël Coward Duologues, and after a second recording session of Coward's poetry in January 1958 came The Apple Cart & Poems by Noël Coward. (In 2005, these recordings, along with other recordings of Coward's writings performed by Simon Jones, were gathered together by Caedmon into the five-CD set The Noel Coward Audio Collection.)
In 1959, Coward adapted Georges Feydeau's French farce Occupe-toi d'Amélie into Look After Lulu, which he co-directed with Cyril Ritchard when it opened in New York on March 3 for a run of 39 performances. Tony Richardson directed the British production that opened on July 29, 1959, and ran 155 performances. Coward, meanwhile, was busy composing the score for a ballet, London Morning, which was premiered by the London Festival Ballet Company in the city for which it was named on July 14, 1959. Shortly after, it was recorded by Decca Records, as performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Corbett. Typically, Coward was active on several fronts in 1960. His next play, Waiting in the Wings, opened in London on September 7, 1960, for a run of 191 performances; his first full-scale novel (after several collections of short stories), Pomp and Circumstance, was published in November and became a best-seller; and he composed the theme for the film The Grass Is Greener (with some of his other music used in the background score), released in December.
In 1961, Coward came up with his 12th stage musical, and the last one for which he wrote the book and the songs as well as directing, the ship-board comedy Sail Away, starring Elaine Stritch. It opened on Broadway on October 3, 1961, and ran 167 performances, closing as a commercial failure. There was an original cast album released by Capitol Records that spent 22 weeks in the charts, and Capitol also released Coward's own LP of his performances of the show's songs in early 1962. The show opened in the West End on June 21, 1962, where it ran for seven months, and there was another cast album, released in the U.K. on HMV in 1962 and in the U.S. on Stanyan Records in 1972. Coward supervised a production in Australia that opened on July 19, 1963. He next accepted an assignment to write only the songs for what turned out to be his final new musical, The Girl Who Came to Supper, an adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play The Sleeping Prince. It opened on Broadway on December 8, 1963, and ran 112 performances, with a cast album on Columbia that reached the Top 40. Coward's private demonstration recording of the show's songs was released commercially by DRG in 1977. He had greater success in the same 1963-1964 Broadway season with a musical he did not write, but that he directed and that was adapted from one of his plays. High Spirits, based on Blithe Spirit, with a book and songs by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray, opened on Broadway on April 7, 1964, and ran for 375 performances. Coward also directed a revival of his play Hay Fever that opened at the National Theatre in London on October 27, 1964, to critical approbation, and he supervised the London production of High Spirits, which opened on November 3, 1964. He made a recording of some of the songs for an EP released by Pye Records in the U.K., and the tracks were later added to a CD reissue of the London cast recording of the show released by DRG.
By the mid-'60s, Coward, the same age as the century, was slowing down creatively. The 1965 short-story collection Pretty Polly Barlow and Other Stories led to the adaptation of the title story into the 1968 film A Matter of Innocence. In May 1965, Coward recorded another spoken word album, a version of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1779 play The Critic co-starring Mel Ferrer, released as an LP by Decca in 1966. His next project was his last major theatrical effort, a trio of plays called Suite in Three Keys in which he starred in London starting on April 14, 1966; it marked his final regular stage appearance. On July 5, 1966, he recorded spoken lyrics from his songs for the album Joan Sutherland Sings Noël Coward, released by London Records. On November 15, 1967, he starred in the original television musical Androcles and the Lion, with a score by Richard Rodgers, in the U.S. The soundtrack album was released by RCA Victor Records. His final recording project also occurred in the fall of 1967, when he recited some poetry for one side of an LP with John Betjeman on the other, released under the title Back to Back. He was belatedly knighted in 1970, becoming Sir Noël Coward. He died of a heart attack at 73 in his home in Jamaica on March 26, 1973, and is buried there.
Even before his death, Coward was being celebrated by continual revivals, on stage and on television, of his most popular plays, particularly Private Lives, Design for Living, and Blithe Spirit. Like other songwriters for the musical theater of his generation, he tended to be remembered more for his individual songs from the interwar period, rather than for the shows from which they came. (But unlike such contemporaries as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, he did not manage to come up with a late masterpiece like Annie Get Your Gun or Kiss Me, Kate that carried him into the postwar period. Shows like Pacific 1860, After the Ball, and Sail Away lapsed into obscurity. There was, however, a major revival of Bitter Sweet in London in 1988 that was recorded for a cast album.) Those individual songs started turning up in newly constructed musical revues as early as the appearance of Noël Coward's Sweet Potato, which ran on Broadway in the fall of 1968; it was followed by such similar efforts as Cowardly Custard in London and Oh Coward! in New York in 1972, both of which produced cast albums. (Mr. & Mrs., an unsuccessful London musical of 1968, was based on two of the one-act plays from Tonight at 8:30, but did not use Coward's music.) Noël and Gertie, first performed in London in April 1981, was Coward biographer Sheridan Morley's theatrical treatment of the relationship between Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, drawn from Coward's words and music; a cast album appeared in 1986. Noël/Cole -- "Let's Do It!" was a 1994 British musical revue featuring the songs of Coward and Cole Porter, and it too produced a cast album.
As Coward's own recordings of his songs entered the public domain in Europe (where the copyright limit lasts only 50 years), CD reissues became confusingly repetitious in their content, but a number of them demonstrated the continuing appeal of his music, as did the many albums devoted to his music recorded by others, which include: Dominic Alldis' If Love Were All: The Songs of Noël Coward; The Noël Coward Songbook, by Ian Bostridge, Sophie Daneman, and Jeffrey Tate; Richard Conrad's Noël Coward Songs: A Room with a View; Craig Jessup Sings Noël Coward; Barbara Lea and Keith Ingham Are Mad About the Boy: The Songs of Noel Coward; Mad About the Man, by Carmen McRae; Bobby Short Is Mad About Noel Coward; The Dance Bands Play Noel Coward; The Great British Dance Bands Play the Music of Noel Coward; Noel Coward Revisited (featuring Laurence Harvey, Hermione Gingold, and Dorothy Loudon, among others); Twentieth-Century Blues: The Songs of Noël Coward (featuring Paul McCartney, Bryan Ferry, Elton John, and Sting, among others); and The Words and Music of Noël Coward.
Dino Paul Crocetti was born on June 7, 1917 in Steubenville, Ohio; the son of an immigrant barber, he spoke only Italian until the age of five, and at school was the target of much ridicule for his broken English. He ultimately quit school at the age of 16, going to work in the steel mills; as a boxer named Kid Crochet, he also fought a handful of amateur bouts, and later delivered bootleg liquor. After landing a job as a croupier in a local speakeasy, he made his first connections with the underworld, bringing him into contact with club owners all over the Midwest; initially rechristening himself Dean Martini, he had a nose job and set out to become a crooner, modeling himself after his acknowledged idol, Bing Crosby. Hired by bandleader Sammy Watkins, he dropped the second "i" from his stage name and eventually enjoyed minor success on the New York club circuit, winning over audiences with his loose, mellow vocal style.
Despite his good looks and easygoing charm, Martin's early years as an entertainer were largely unsuccessful. In 1946 -- the year he issued his first single, "Which Way Did My Heart Go?" -- he first met another struggling performer, a comic named Jerry Lewis; later that year, while Lewis was playing Atlantic City's 500 Club, another act abruptly quit the show, and the comedian suggested Martin to fill the void. Initially, the two performed separately, but one night they threw out their routines and teamed on-stage, a Mutt-and-Jeff combo whose wildly improvisational comedy quickly made them a star attraction along the Boardwalk. Within months, Martin and Lewis' salaries rocketed from $350 to $5000 a week, and by the end of the 1940s they were the most popular comedy duo in the nation. In 1949, they made their film debut in My Friend Irma, and their supporting work proved so popular with audiences that their roles were significantly expanded for the sequel, the following year's My Friend Irma Goes West.
With 1951's At War with the Army, Martin and Lewis earned their first star billing. The picture established the basic formula of all of their subsequent movie work, with Martin the suave straight man forced to suffer the bizarre antics of the manic fool Lewis. Critics often loathed the duo, but audiences couldn't get enough -- in all, they headlined 13 comedies for Paramount, among them 1952's Jumping Jacks, 1953's Scared Stiff and 1955's Artists and Models, a superior effort directed by Frank Tashlin. For 1956's Hollywood or Bust, Tashlin was again in the director's seat, but the movie was the team's last; after Martin and Lewis' relationship soured to the point where they were no longer even speaking to one another, they announced their breakup following the conclusion of their July 25, 1956 performance at the Copacabana, which celebrated to the day the tenth anniversary of their first show.
While most onlookers predicted continued superstardom for Lewis, the general consensus was that Martin would falter as a solo act; after all, outside of the 1953 smash "That's Amore," his solo singing career had never quite hit its stride, and in light of the continued ascendancy of rock & roll, his future looked dim. After suffering a failure with Ten Thousand Bedrooms, Martin's next move was to appear in the 1958 drama The Young Lions, starring alongside Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando; that same year he also hosted The Dean Martin Show, the first of his color specials for NBC television. Both projects were successful, as were his live appearances at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas; in particular, The Young Lions proved him a highly capable dramatic actor. Combined with another hit single, "Volare," Martin was everywhere that year, and with the continued success of his many TV specials, he effectively conquered movies, music, television and the stage all at the same time -- a claim no other entertainer, not even Sinatra, could make.
Even at the peak of his fame, however, Martin remained strangely contemptuous of stardom; for a man whose presence in the public eye was almost constant, he was utterly elusive, beyond the realm of mortal understanding. As his celebrity and power grew, he slipped even further away: in early 1959, his movie with Sinatra, Some Came Running, hit theaters, and with it came the dawning of the Rat Pack. Together, Sinatra and Martin -- in tandem with their acolytes Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop and Shirley MacLaine -- set new standards of celebrity hipsterdom, becoming avatars of the good life; flexing their muscle not only in show business but also in politics -- their ties to John F. Kennedy, Lawford's brother-in-law and an honorary Rat Packer code-named "Chicky Baby," are now legend -- they were the new American gods, and Las Vegas was their Mount Olympus.
Martin -- who continued to impress critics in films like the 1959 Howard Hawks classic Rio Bravo -- was Sinatra's right-hand man, the drunkest and most enigmatic member of the Rat Pack (so named in homage to the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, a bygone drinking circle that had once gathered around Humphrey Bogart); his allegiance to Sinatra was total, and Martin even left his longtime label Capitol to record for and financially back Sinatra's own Reprise imprint. In 1960, the Rat Pack starred in Ocean's Eleven, filming in Las Vegas during the day and then taking over the Sands each night; two years later, they reconvened for Sergeants 3. However, in late 1963 -- while filming the third Rat Pack opus, Robin and the Seven Hoods -- the news came that Kennedy had been assassinated; in effect, as America struggled to pick up the pieces, the Rat Pack's reign was over. With Vietnam and the civil rights movement looming on the horizon, there was no longer room for the boozy, happy-go-lucky lifestyle of before -- the fun was truly over.
Yet somehow Martin forged on; in 1964, at the peak of Beatlemania, he knocked the Fab Four out of the top spot on the charts with his single "Everybody Loves Somebody," and that same year starred in Billy Wilder's acrid Kiss Me, Stupid, a film which crystallized his persona as the lecherous but lovable lush. In 1965, after years of overtures from NBC, Martin finally agreed to host his own weekly variety series; The Dean Martin Show was an enormous hit, running for nine seasons before later spawning a number of hit Celebrity Roast specials during the 1970s. In films, he also remained successful, starring in a series of spy spoofs as secret agent Matt Helm. However, by the late '70s, Martin's health began to fail, and his career was primarily confined to casino club stages; in 1987, his son Dean Paul died in an airplane crash, a blow from which he never recovered. After bailing out of a 1988 reunion tour with Sinatra and Davis, Martin spent his final years in solitude; he died on Christmas Day, 1995.
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.
Bennett grew up in the Astoria section of the borough of Queens in New York City under the name Anthony Dominick Benedetto. His father, a grocer, died when he was about ten after a lingering illness that had forced his mother to become a seamstress to support the family of five. By then, he was already starting to attract notice as a singer, performing beside Mayor Fiorello La Guardia at the opening of the Triborough Bridge in 1936. By his teens, Bennett had set his sights on becoming a professional singer. After briefly attending the High School of Industrial Arts (now known as the High School of Art and Design), where he gained training as a painter, he dropped out of school at 16 to earn money to help support his family, meanwhile also performing at amateur shows. Upon his 18th birthday in 1944, he was drafted into the Army, and he saw combat in Europe during World War II. Mustered out in 1946, he went back to trying to make it in music, and he attended the American Theater Wing on the GI Bill. By the end of the 1940s, he had acquired a manager and was working regularly around New York. He got a break when Bob Hope saw him performing with Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village and put him into his stage show, also suggesting a name change to Tony Bennett. In 1950, Columbia Records A&R director Mitch Miller heard his demonstration recording of "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and signed him to the label.
Bennett's first hit, "Because of You," topped the charts in September 1951, succeeded at number one by his cover of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart." Following another five chart entries over the next two years, he returned to number one in November 1953 with "Rags to Riches." Its follow-up, "Stranger in Paradise" from the Broadway musical "Kismet", was another chart-topper, and in 1954 Bennett also reached the Top Ten with Williams' "There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight" and "Cinnamon Sinner." The rise of rock & roll in the mid-'50s made it more difficult for Bennett to score big hits, but he continued to place singles in the charts regularly through 1960, and even returned to the Top Ten with "In the Middle of an Island" in 1957. Meanwhile, he was developing a nightclub act that leaned more heavily on standards and was exploring album projects that allowed him to indulge his interest in jazz -- notably 1957's The Beat of My Heart, on which he was accompanied mainly by jazz percussionists, and 1959's In Person! With Count Basie and His Orchestra. By the early '60s, although he had faded as a singles artist, he had built a successful career making personal appearances and recording albums of well-known songs in the manner of Frank Sinatra.
In 1962, Bennett introduced "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," a ballad written by two unknown songwriters, George Cory and Douglass Cross, who had pitched it to his pianist, Ralph Sharon. Released as a single, the song took time to catch on, and although it peaked only in the Top 20, it remained on one or the other of the national charts for almost nine months. It became Bennett's signature song and pushed his career to a higher level. The I Left My Heart in San Francisco album reached the Top Five and went gold, and the single won Bennett Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Solo Vocal Performance, Male. Bennett's next studio album, 1963's I Wanna Be Around..., also made the Top Five, and its title track was another Top 20 hit, as was his next single, "The Good Life," also featured on the album. For the next three years, his albums consistently placed in the Top 100, along with a series of charting singles that included the Top 40 hits "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)" (from the Broadway musical "The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd") and "If I Ruled the World" (from the Broadway musical "Pickwick").
By the late '60s, Bennett's record sales had cooled off as the major record labels turned their attention to the lucrative rock market. Just as Mitch Miller had encouraged Bennett to record novelty songs over his objections in the 1950s, Clive Davis, head of Columbia parent CBS Records, encouraged him to record contemporary pop/rock material. He acquiesced on albums such as Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!, but his sales did not improve. In 1972, he left Columbia for the Verve division of MGM Records, but by the mid-'70s he was without a label affiliation, and he decided to found his own record company, Improv, to record the way he wanted to. He made several albums for Improv, including one with jazz pianist Bill Evans (following a disc they made for Fantasy Records), but the label eventually foundered. (Concord Records released the box set The Complete Improv Recordings in 2004.)
By the late '70s, however, Bennett did not need hit records to sustain his career, and he worked regularly in concert halls around the world. By the mid-'80s, there was a growing appreciation of traditional pop music, as performers such as Linda Ronstadt recorded albums of standards. In 1986, Bennett re-signed to Columbia and released The Art of Excellence, his first album to reach the pop charts in 14 years. Now managed by his son Danny, Bennett shrewdly found ways to attract the attention of the MTV generation without changing his basic style of singing songs from the Great American Songbook while wearing a tuxedo. By the early '90s, he was as popular as he had ever been. The albums Perfectly Frank (1992, a tribute to Frank Sinatra) and Steppin' Out (1993, a tribute to Fred Astaire) went gold and won Bennett back-to-back Grammys for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance. But his comeback was sealed by 1994's MTV Unplugged, featuring guest stars Elvis Costello and k.d. lang, which went platinum and won the Grammy for Album of the Year as well as another award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance.
Bennett became a Grammy perennial, also taking home Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance awards for Here's to the Ladies (1995) and On Holiday: A Tribute to Billie Holiday (1997). Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot & Cool (1999) was another Grammy winner in the retitled Best Traditional Pop Album category, as was Playin' with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues, an album of duets released in 2001. One year later, Bennett paired off with a single duet partner, recording A Wonderful World with k.d. lang. The Art of Romance followed in 2004. Both albums won the Best Traditional Pop Album Grammy for their respective years. In August 2006, Bennett reached his 80th birthday, and his record label marked the occasion with a series of reissues and compilations. The next month brought Duets: An American Classic, another collection of pairings with other singers on re-recordings of some of Bennett's best-known songs that reached number three in the Billboard chart, the highest placing for an album in Bennett's career. It also won him another Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Album. A second installment of Duets was released in 2011, and the Latin version (Viva Duets) followed in time for Christmas 2012.