Tag Archives: E.Y. Harburg

GENTLY, THERE: TWO RHYTHM BALLADS BY MAX KEENLYSIDE (Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, May 31-June 2, 2018)

I don’t know what you were doing in 1991, but the young man pictured above — Canadian pianist / composer Max Keenlyside — was busy being born, which makes his remarkable talent even more remarkable.  I had the good fortune and immense pleasure of meeting and hearing Max for the first time at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, just a few days ago, and you’ll hear why I am impressed.  Here you can learn more about Max.

What struck me immediately about Max was his gracious balance of technique and taste.  He can play with incredible dexterity and skill — as fast as you could want, never faltering — but he has something much rarer, which is the understanding that quiet music, sweet sounds usually reach far deeper into our souls than do pyrotechnics.  So I bring Max to you as a subtle wooer, a creator of inviting worlds of sound — specifically, his performances of two “rhythm ballads.” That’s an archaic term, and I don’t know who coined it, but it comes from the Thirties, where musicians played a tender song and made sure to send the emotions to the listeners, but kept a danceable pulse going all the time.

A few words about the music.  IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, is one of my favorite songs, and I wrote about it here.  I invite you to read that post — skip my prose if you’re in a hurry — but listen to Cliff Edwards and Dick McDonough, performing not only the chorus but the verse. But for now, Max, gently proceeding through the song, with a few nods to T. Waller, honoring the melody with delight and amusement:

I’LL FOLLOW YOU, by Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert, might be known to piano scholars and Commodore Records devotees through the 1939 recording by Willie “the Lion” Smith, but I first fell in love with the song through Bing Crosby’s version when it was a new pop hit.

Here’s Max. What could be nicer than the affectionate words about his mother?

The artist Aubrey Beardsley is supposed to have told the young W.B. Yeats, “Beauty is so very difficult,” and we must imagine all the possible tones of voice those words could have been said in — but young Max already knows a great deal about making beauty alive and accessible to anyone with ears and emotions.

May your happiness increase!

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MUSIC WITH FRIENDS (Part Two): MICHAEL KANAN, GREG RUGGIERO, NEAL MINER (The Drawing Room, January 8, 2018)

Michael Kanan

This is the first part of a sextet of delicious performances by Michael Kanan, piano; Greg Ruggiero, guitar; Neal Miner, string bass, recorded on January 8, 2018, at the Drawing Room in Brooklyn.

Neal Miner

In that first segment of this impromptu session, these three lyrical friends performed  YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME, TAKE THE “A” TRAIN (which is how one gets to Jay Street-MetroTech, among other possibilities), and I’M JUST A LUCKY SO-AND-SO.  Now, for the patient faithful, this intuitive, subtle trio plays Neal Miner’s BLUES OKURA, IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, and LULLABY OF THE LEAVES.

Greg Ruggiero

Neal’s BLUES OKURA.  Make sure your seat belt is low and tight across your hips:

And an exceedingly tender IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, honoring Arlen’s intent — and I hear Harburg’s lyrics all the way through:

then the classic LULLABY OF THE LEAVES:

Wonderful reassuring music to be sure.  Thank you so much, gentlemen, for this casual affecting interlude.

May your happiness increase!

ARTIFICE TRANSFORMED: CLIFF EDWARDS and DICK McDONOUGH, 1933

I spent some time yesterday morning trying to find in tangible shape what I could hear in my mind’s ear — a complete recording of what was a new song in 1933 — lyrics by E.Y. Harburg and perhaps Billy Rose, music by Harold Arlen — IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, sung and played by Cliff Edwards with accompaniment by Dick McDonough, guitar. Yes, it’s on YouTube, but because reissues removed the verse, those video postings are unsatisfying.


Since the Forties, the song has been performed without the verse, as above, and in the most famous recordings by Sinatra / Nat Cole / Ella / Goodman, at a swinging medium-up tempo, which to me undermines its sweet flavor.  The version I present here is a tender love ballad, hopeful rather than swaggering.

The Wikipedia entry notes, “It was written originally for an unsuccessful Broadway play called The Great Magoo, set in Coney Island. It was subsequently used in the movie Take a Chance in 1933.”  Wikipedia doesn’t add that there seem to have been two films released that year with that title; the other one with James Dunn and Buddy Rogers, the one song in the film by Vincent Youmans.  In his book AMERICAN POPULAR SONG, Alec Wilder notes that in its first incarnation it was called IF YOU BELIEVE IN ME, a much less lively title than the one we know.

The composer credits intrigue me: Arlen’s melody, of course, souunds so simple but that simplicity has made it memorable (thus the appeal of the song to instrumentalists).  He didn’t write dull songs.

As to the lyrics, I wonder what, if anything, Billy Rose contributed to the song. Did he say to a stagehand, “Don’t drop that!  Yeah, it’s only a paper moon, but it costs more than your salary!”  Or is it a quiet reference to the wonderful prop in photo studios of the preceding century, where couples could snuggle in the crescent curve, pretending to be miles aloft because of love?

Yip Harburg’s lyrics are a marvel, bridging contemporary and eternal in the most moving yet casual way.  Leave aside “bubble” and “rainbow,” which were cliches even then, but savor “a temporary parking place,” “a canvas sky,” — and the entire bridge, which is beautiful, affecting and sharp, ” “Without your love, it’s a honky-tonk parade.  Without your love, it’s a melody played in a penny arcade.” Urban folk poetry at the highest level.  (Wilder calls the lyrics “innocent,” which is puzzling, but he admires Arlen’s bridge . . . .)  In Harburg, I hear his sense of a whole world no more grounded than a series of stage props, created to fool an audience but clearly unreal.  His words are Manhattan-tough but the toughness is there only to convey great wistful feeling.  You’d have to live in the city to understand the resonance of a temporary parking place; not only might it disappear, but you might be punished by the authorities.

A few sentences about Cliff Edwards, who seems a sculpture with so many surprising facets that when he is looked at from different angles, he is unrecognizable each time.

There’s Jiminy Cricket. There’s the goofily appealing Twenties vocalist, ukulele player, and scat singer — “eefin'” his way through one “novelty” chorus after another, often on dim-sounding Pathe 78s.  (I suspect that if Edwards had come to prominence ten years later and had had no ukulele, he would be much better known and regarded today.)  A comic film actor. There are the party records: I LOVE MOUNTAIN WOMEN comes to mind, and, yes, you can imagine the lyrics.  Later, there’s the unstable older man capering around with the Mouseketeers, and what we know of as the terrible husband and self-destructive alcoholic who dies in poverty.

But what I’ve consciously left off of that ungenerous list is Edwards the truly convincing ballad singer, someone whose wistful voice and sweet delivery stays in my ear.  He never got the attention or opportunities to woo audiences, perhaps because he had natural comic talents, but more, I think, because he wasn’t perceived as sufficiently handsome.  He could not rival Bing or Russ in erotic power, so in films and on records he was rather a light-hearted comic foil instead of the leading man.  Alas, audiences in the  Twenties and Thirties — as they do today — tend to listen to singers with their eyes rather than their ears.  I suppose that becoming Jiminy Cricket was a great thing for Edwards’ career, but being invisible and an animated insect did not help him as a romantic singing star.

But back to IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON.

Thanks to the generosity of Laurie Kanner and Jonathan Alexiuk, I can offer both takes, complete, to be accessed at https://archive.org/details/CliffEdwardsCollection1927-1933/ItsOnlyAPaperMoon1933CliffEdwards-Take1.mp3 — a collection of mp3’s of his complete 1927-1935 recordings.

I’ve left the whole ungainly web address visible so that if the link doesn’t work for you, I encourage you to go to the archive.org site for Edwards and hear IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON and more.

I think this performance is a model of the most endearing singing — he means every word, and it’s not by rote. It’s also the gentle tempo that I hear PAPER MOON at.  I haven’t analyzed these records nuance by nuance because they work their way into the heart instantly.  Or, if they don’t for you, listen intently, without distractions or preconceptions, from the rubato verse to the hip little ending.

In preparing this post, I shared these two sides with the fine guitarist and scholar Nick Rossi, a solid sender from San Francisco, who admires Dick McDonough as I do, and he wrote, “What a masterclass it is in sensitive guitar accompaniment to a vocal.”  And — we might add — in McDonough’s staying out of the way yet never upstaging Cliff’s ukulele.

But I keep coming back to the affectionate hopeful totality of Edwards, Arlen, Harburg, and even Billy Rose, who in these recordings say — no, sing — to us, “Love miraculously transfigures artifice,” which is a wondrous thought.  Cherish its power to create new realities.

May your happiness increase!

LEE WILEY and JESS STACY ON FILM, 1943

Lee Wiley continues to fascinate us.  Her husky voice, her physical beauty, the legends of her personality, her sexuality.  But she now exists purely as a disembodied sound, a beautifully posed still picture.  How many people saw and heard her in her prime, or at the 1972 Newport concert that was her last public appearance?

HERE is an astonishing rarity — not known to exist before now — a minute of Lee Wiley and Jess Stacy on film.  In high definition, no less:

This brief collection of film clips (originally silent) is given to all of us through the immense generosity of Josh Rushton, son of bass saxophonist, clarinetist, and motorcyclist Joe Rushton.

The film was taken in California in 1943 — before Lee and Jess embarked on their unhappy marriage and brief musical partnership.  The other couple is Joe and Priscilla Rushton.  Josh told me, “The bookend shots of just Wiley and Stacy are probably from around June 1943 in San Francisco, and the ones with my mom and dad are probably from October 1943 on the roof of a Hollywood hotel near the penthouse exit.”

This is the only film footage discovered so far of Lee — who looks lovely and slightly plump, her hair dark, resembling the actress Patricia Clarkson.  If there are skilled lip-readers in the JAZZ LIVES audience, they can decipher the dialogue for us.  And if there are readers skilled in couples counseling, they can certainly say something about the Wiley – Stacy union through the couple’s gestures and body language.  Jess looks and acts like a man smitten; Lee seems much more intrigued by the camera, although if they had been happily married for decades, we would interpret this film more optimistically.  (The parking sign needs no explication but makes me nostalgic for 1943.)

For the camera, Lee and Jess enact flirtation, playful happiness, and romance, although the enactment soured quickly.  But I would be thrilled to see that couple coming down the sidewalk to me.  Jess remained a handsome fellow but never looked better than he does here.  And Lee, simply walking or swaying back and forth, shows why she captured hearts without singing a syllable of Gershwin or Robison.

We have still got a crush on her!

(Note: the sardonic soundtrack, Lee singing the E.Y. Harburg – Harold Arlen DOWN WITH LOVE, is a contemporary addition to the silent home movie.  The rueful comment at the end comes from Deane Kincaide, who knew the couple well.)